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Haruno Sakura and the Heuristic Method

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The Butterfly Effect: the sensitive dependence of the initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

 

And so it begins...

 

Sakura has little doubt that she will pass her graduation exam. Transformation techniques are a simple matter of correct hand seals and having a decent mental image of the desired form, and Sakura had spent enough hours boredly staring at Iruka-sensei as he expounded upon the advantages of manji shuriken versus happoken shuriken that she could probably recreate him perfectly down to the exact number of baby hairs on his chin.

As it were, when Sakura’s name is called, a brief flair of anxiety flickers in her chest but is quickly squashed down. She wouldn’t mess this up. In front of Sasuke-kun, no less!

When she’s finished, Iruka-sensei marks something down on his chart and hands Sakura her forehead protector, gleaming with nary a scratch on it. The fabric feels cool in her hand, and despite her previous confidence, Sakura feels a giddy, relieved grin curl her lips.

She’s a real shinobi now! 

Sakura turns, hoping to find Sasuke-kun awed by her talent, but he’s busily glowering at the desk in front of him. Sakura sighs. Damn it.

The newly-minted nin returns to her seat, content to watch her classmates complete the task one by one. Everyone passes—some more proficiently than others—except for Uzumaki Naruto, that blond weirdo. Sakura stays quiet as her classmates snicker and jeer. She might not be willing to stick her neck out for the kid, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to join in on the heckling. If there’s one thing Sakura hates, it’s bullies. 

(and spicy food.)

Sakura watches as Naruto slips out of the room via the window, uncharacteristically silent, and feels a pang in her chest. She could hear her mother’s berating words now: “A lonely boy like that, and you didn’t stand up for him? I thought I raised you better!” followed by the thwap of the rice spatula against the back of Sakura’s head.

But then Sasuke-kun’s name is called, and all thoughts of Naruto and his loneliness disappear from her head.

 

--0--

 

Not much later, when everyone is finished and packing up their bags, Iruka-sensei calls once more for their attention. He’d been eyeing the window Naruto escaped from with a rather desperate intensity since the boy had left, and Sakura wonders vaguely if her sensei will go after him. It seems kind of ironic, considering how Iruka-sensei was the one who had insisted on his failure. 

“Tomorrow, arrive here at seven-thirty as usual, and I will assign you your teams and your sensei,” Iruka-sensei tells them, eyes flicking distractedly from his clipboard to the window and back. “After that, your training is up to them. Congrats on graduating, all of you. Good luck, and don’t die!”

The sentiment is received with enthusiasm, whoops and hollers echoing throughout the classroom. From blackboards and chalk to bloodshed and kunai, Sakura muses as she collects her own belongings. Her forehead protector seems to weigh heavier than it had before as she tucks it into her pack.

“Hey, Sakura!” 

Sakura turns to face the familiar voice, a happy grin already dimpling her cheeks. “Hey, Ino! Can you believe it? We’re real shinobi now!”

“Kunoichi,” the blonde corrects with a wink, and Sakura rolls her eyes halfheartedly at the semantics. “Whatever,” Ino waves the topic away. “Let’s get anmitsu to celebrate!”

Sakura blinks, pausing. A half-formed thought tugs at her mind, an image of Sasuke-kun flickering past her eyes, the word rivals forming at her lips. That’s right, she had been planning on declaring herself and Ino rivals after they both successfully graduated. Suddenly, the thought of Naruto and his downcast eyes comes unbidden to her, taunts following him as he slipped out the window. She thinks of Ino, scaring off bullies twice her size for a lonely pink-haired girl.

Sakura swallows. “That sounds great.”

They can become rivals tomorrow, perhaps.

Anmitsu is, as always, perfectly sweet and refreshing on any given day in Konoha, and it tastes especially delicious when flavored with success. Sakura allows her spoon to clatter into her empty bowl as she pats her stomach contentedly. “Gochisousama,” she murmurs, clapping her hands together in thanks.

Ino does the same just a moment later. “Anmitsu really is the best,” the blonde declares, and Sakura nods in solemn agreement. They take a moment to appreciate its existence.

“Ne, ne, Sasuke-kun’s henge really was the best, wasn’t it?” Ino says a beat later, admiration in her eyes. “I couldn’t tell him and Iruka-sensei apart!” 

Sakura nods eagerly. “Definitely,” she agrees, though a traitorous part of her mind snorts in disagreement. To be brutally honest, Sasuke-kun’s transformation had been passable at best—he got Iruka-sensei’s nose scar wonky, for starters. Really, she expected better of her Sasuke-kun.

“I wonder who our teams and teachers will be,” Sakura ponders as they toss some money onto the counter of the dessert shop.

Ino rolls her eyes. “Pff, as if mine is a mystery. I’ll be stuck with that lazy-ass Shikamaru and that fat-ass Chouji,” she grumbles, pushing open the shop door.

Sakura laughs, following her friend. “Ne, Shikamaru is a genius and Chouji-san is nice, you know? It could be worse,” she consoles. “Besides, your sensei is still up in the air. Maybe you’ll end up with a super strong kunoichi!”

Ino shrugs. “Yeah, I guess so.” She pauses. “You know…”

Sakura side-eyes her friend. “I don’t like that tone of voice,” she remarks warily.

Ino suddenly grabs Sakura’s hand, a devious grin on her lips. “We could snoop! Our assignments have gotta be in Iruka’s desk somewhere. Let’s go find out!”

Sakura pauses, though admittedly she’s very intrigued. “I don’t know, Ino, we could get in trouble…”

Ino rolls her eyes. “Oh come on, we’ve already graduated. Besides, we’re ninjas now. Breaking and entering is like, the second line in the job description.”

Sakura mulls that over for a moment.

“Oh, what the hell,” she decides at last. “Let’s do it!”

 

--0--

 

Breaking into the academy is absurdly, disturbingly easy. There are no traps, seals, or alarms to speak of, not even shitty ones. Sakura and Ino had taken precautions too; they waited until every staff and faculty member had left; and Ino went so far as to possess a mouse and send it running around, purposefully bumping into things.

“How lame,” Ino huffs. “I was kind of hoping to have to use some of my actual skills.”

To be honest, Sakura felt the same. Breaking and entering wasn’t much fun when you could just…waltz in.

“C’mon, I want to get home in time for dinner,” Sakura nudges Ino, and despite the apparent lack of security, they silently slip down the familiar halls and into Iruka-sensei’s classroom.

Ino stands at the front of the dark classroom, arms akimbo. “Ah,” she sighs dramatically, “So nostalgic…feels like only yesterday we were academy students.”

Sakura huffs out a laugh, and begins rooting through the documents in Iruka-sensei’s desk. “Ino, we were still academy students this morning,” she responds, fingers flipping quickly through files and papers. The bolded words Class 1-B Assignments catch her eye.

“Whatever,” Ino shrugs, bumping her shoulder good-naturedly into Sakura’s as she begins to reposition the files Sakura had picked through into their original spots. “Find anything?”

“Jackpot,” Sakura grins, holding up the paper. Ino squeals quietly in excitement and they both quickly hunch over the document, leaning close to read it in the low light.

“Haruno, Haruno, Haru—ah! There it is!” Sakura points to her name, finger skimming over the characters. “Team seven with…a blank spot, weird…and Uchiha Sasuke!”

Ino gasps. “You bitch!” she cries, sounding only like she’s half-joking. “You get Sasuke-kun?! No fair!”

Sakura sticks her tongue out at her best friend, throwing up the “V” symbol for victory. “Sucks for you, Ino-chan!” she drawls, winking.

Ino huffs, resuming the search for her own name. “Whatever. At least I don’t have some blank spot. Watch out, you’re gonna end up with some weirdo from another class, probably.”

Sakura couldn’t care less. Sasuke-kun is on her team! At least now she has a chance at befriending him, she thinks excitedly. Feeling elated, Sakura hastily searches for her teacher’s name. Maybe her good luck will keep up and she’ll have an amazing sensei!

“Hatake…Kakashi?” Sakura murmurs aloud. The name doesn’t ring a single bell, but it does sound masculine. No super awesome kunoichi sensei for her.

Beside her, Ino sighs. “Sarutobi Asuma? Sounds boring.”

Sakura perks up at the name. “Boring?” Sakura gapes. “He’s the son of the Hokage! Ino, that’s amazing!”

Ino scratches her nose. “Eh, I guess so. I hope he’s not some stick in the mud.”

Sakura sighs, feeling slightly envious (though the thought of being on Sasuke-kun’s team just about takes care of that) and finishes straightening up the desk.

Ino gives it one last look-over. “Not a paperclip out of place. Alright, let’s bounce.”

 

--0--  

 

Ino and Sakura part ways in front of the academy. “Headed home? I bet your mom made something nice for dinner to celebrate. I think my dad bought barbeque for us,” Ino says, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

Sakura shakes her head, struck with a sudden urge. “Nah, we’re just doing leftovers tonight since my dad is out of town. We’re going to celebrate this weekend. I think I’m going to stop by the library, I want to see if I can learn more about this Kakashi guy,” Sakura decides at once. She already had an unknown variable in her team (and of course Iruka-sensei stuck her with some mystery person), gathering data on Hatake would better allow her to assess her immediate future as a shinobi. For all she knew, the guy was a total deadbeat and she'd have to be her own sensei.

Ino’s brows shoot up. “Now? It’s already after six. Your mom might get worried. How is she, anyway? She had pneumonia, right?”

Sakura quirks a rueful smile. “She's almost fully healed, but it took a lot out of her," she answers, before waving a hand dismissively. "And it’ll be fine, I’m a fast reader.”

“Sakura, legendary ninja of dusty bookjackets,” Ino snickers.

Sakura swats at her. “Scram, Ino-pig,” she bids, affection in her voice.

Ino winks. “See ya, forehead.”

Sakura watches Ino vanish around the corner before heading towards the Konoha library.

The aforementioned building is old and semi-decrepit looking (but what isn’t, in this town) but it’s Sakura’s secret paradise. Books and scrolls as far as the eye can see, and frankly—poorly organized, and even more poorly restricted. While Sakura suspects that truly sensitive documents and forbidden jutsu scrolls are more protected, she’s found a couple of gems here and there. Interesting jutsu, clan secrets, random tidbits—apparently, the second Hokage had a fondness for raising geese. Who knew.

Sakura, if nothing else, is a vacuum for information. Her father had always been a bit of a scholar, and that hunger for knowledge had been passed onto Sakura. She just also happened to have inherited her mother’s violent streak.

Typically, Sakura would head towards either the chakra and/or jutsu theory or medical “section” (the term is used loosely, here) but today, she beelines for village records.

The current registry for jounin would yield basic information, like birthdate and notable achievements, perhaps, and from there she could probably sniff out a dossier, maybe even mission reports. Sakura has decent faith in her sleuthing abilities and reckons she can have this Kakashi fellow all figured out in less than two hours.

She is, by all accounts, wrong.

Beyond the registry, which contains his birthdate only (he’s twenty-six, which seems rather young), there’s almost nothing on him, and what exists is practically useless given how much has been blacked out.

“Redacted, redacted, graduated academy at age five, what the hell, redacted,” Sakura mutters to herself. Her search continues, mostly fruitless, for another fifteen minutes before the librarian finally comes around to kick her out around 9:30.

“Sakura-san, you know I love you, but you’ve gotta go,” says Sawako-san, who is a tiny, 80-year-old woman and Sakura’s favorite librarian. Sawako-san is always pointing her towards interesting scrolls, regardless of restriction level, so she’s very high up in Sakura’s regard. “What are you puzzling over so intently, anyway?”

Sakura stands, feeling blood rush back into her legs, and stretches. “Just trying to gather some intel on my new sensei,” she responds with a yawn. “All I could find out is that he’s some sort of super genius and he maybe uses ninja dogs, sometimes, even though he’s not an Inuzuka.” Which was odd, to say the least. The Inuzukas weren't the only clan in the world to use ninken, but they were certainly the only one in Konoha. Then again, perhaps summons were more common than Sakura was familiar with--after all, it was a rather advanced skill. Sakura makes a mental note to further research the geographical distribution of animal-nin usage, and to check out the Inuzuka family records. Maybe he was a second cousin of some sort?

Sawako-san blinks, pushing up her glasses. “Could it be…your sensei is Hatake Kakashi-san?”

Sakura gapes. “You know him?!” An unexpected boon! Truly, Sawako-san was a resource. How lucky that she would know something about Sakura's mysterious sensei!

Sawako-san appears very confused.

“Don’t most people?” Sawako-san asks slowly, which really doesn’t clarify anything for Sakura. It didn't add up. This man appeared to be largely undocumented and yet somehow famous--or perhaps infamous, considering Sawako-san's tone. This newfound information, combined with his early graduation and heavily redacted records moves Hatake Kakashi from Sakura's mental categorization of mildly interesting; a no-name with potential to person of very high interest; more intel needed immediately; ANBU?? which went to show that Sakura's method of record keeping was no more organized that this damn library's.

Sakura is about to demand more information when a sudden chill races down her spine, leaving ice its wake and dread pooling in her belly. The hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, and Sakura knows at once that something is deeply, horribly wrong.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 

Intertemporal choice: the study of how individuals make decisions about what and how much to do at various points in time, when choices at that particular time influence the possibilities available at other points in time.

 

--

 

Sakura is a believer in the good care and keeping of paper documents. She treats each book and scroll she touches like it is a delicate piece of jewelry, and takes it upon herself to glare openly at people who dog-ear books or, heaven forbid, leave them open face-down on a table. Sawako-san has a supply of latex gloves stashed behind the checkout counter, and Sakura never touches a tome more than fifty years old without them. After all, who is she to deprive future students of these archives with her greasy, bacteria-laden fingers?

Today, however, is an exception. Today, Sakura dashes out of the library like hell is on her heels, leaving a pile of scrolls and open binders at the feet of a very confused Sawako-san, her pack bumping against her legs with every stride. She trips over the lip of the library door, too distracted to remember to step over it, and slams nose-first into the concrete sidewalk. The pain blooms hot and fierce, burning all the way up to Sakura’s hairline as she pushes herself to her feet with scuffed palms. She takes off again, feeling the uncomfortable, warm wetness of blood dribble over her lips and down her chin.

A blow like that would, on any other day, stun Sakura. It would have left her sniffling, red-faced with shame and horrified at the carnage of her face.

Today, Sakura ignores it.

The pain has transformed from bladed sharpness to a fiery throb; it pulses with every rabbit-quick beat of Sakura’s heart as she dashes down the street, skidding around corners and leaping over fences. It is nothing compared to the arctic tightness in her chest, a fist clamped mercilessly around her lungs.

Wrong wrong wong it tells her, echoing in the back of her brain, blotting out all other thoughts. Something is wrong.

Rational thought informs Sakura that her feeling is likely paranoia, brought upon by leftover adrenaline from her exam earlier. Stress hormones could wreak all sorts of bizarre havoc on the body, her books have told her. Rational thought informs Sakura that if she really does perceive a threat, the most logical method would be to contact the appropriate authorities. Rational thought informs Sakura that at the very least, she should behave like a shinobi and approach her family home quietly, observe, evaluate, construct a plan, and then enter.

As it were, rational thought has all but evacuated Sakura’s frontal cortex, and she doesn’t so much open her front door as she does blast through it, nearly destroying two of its hinges. The ever-logical, ever-insistent corner of Sakura’s conscious admits she may have to reevaluate her previous dismissal of the effects of epinephrine.

Sakura freezes.

The genkan appears normal, save for the set of wet, somewhat-muddy footprints that lead into their small living room. Sakura’s heart skips an actual beat and she almost coughs, but swallows the sound. There’s an intruder in her home.

What do I do what do I do what do I do

Seconds crawl by, then a minute, and once the rush of blood in Sakura’s ears has quieted enough, she is treated to the noise of a soft, female cry of pain and the distinct noise of fist meeting flesh; a body meeting a hard surface. Her mother.

Sakura moves without thinking. There is no choice. Her legs simply begin to shift forward, and her hand plunges into the holster on her thigh. Her pack slips to the ground with a quiet thump. Time seems to stretch out infinitely long; Sakura cannot move fast enough, she feels helplessly slow, her limbs trapped in an invisible quagmire.

Her brain feeds her information as she moves, and it is registered but scarcely processed. One set of footprints, large, probably male. The living room is a mess; a struggle was likely. Drawers have been opened and overturned. A robbery. Father is on a mission. Mother is recovering from pneumonia; weakened; vulnerable. The sounds are coming from the bedroom. He thought the house was empty. She surprised him. He is hurting her. Hurting her. Hurting her.

Hurting her.

Sakura bursts into the bedroom, kunai in hand. She locates the man; brown hair; large build; civilian clothes. Blood on his hands. Sakura’s mother is collapsed against the bookshelf, her hair is in disarray and there is blood leaking from her nose and mouth. Contusions to the head and neck; possible broken jaw.

Sakura leaps forward with a feral scream, slamming into his back.

The man shouts, caught off guard. Sakura’s kunai disappears into the fabric on his shoulder and meets flesh; she pushes with all her might until she feels the grind of bone

But Sakura’s advantage doesn’t last long, and immediately the man shakes her off like a dog ridding itself of a flea. Sakura’s kunai, lodged deep, slips from her grasp as she hits the floor. Before she can re-arm herself, the stranger grabs a fistful of Sakura’s beloved hair, yanking ferociously. “You runt,” he spits, lifting her by the handful of locks. It feels like Sakura’s scalp is going to be ripped off. She screams again, this time in pain.

She can see now that his face is mottled with cuts and bruises, his nose obviously very broken and he’s missing a few teeth. Pneumonia or not, Haruno Mebuki did not go down without a fight.

And neither will Sakura.

The man lifts her higher, and Sakura scrabbles at his arm, but her hands are slick with blood and slide uselessly over his skin.

“I’ll split your head open,” the man snarls, hauling her up so high her feet don’t touch the ground and she’s almost eye level with him. Her feet kick out in a panic—and finally, finally some part of Sakura’s lizard brain notices the opportunity—and she clamps both hands unsteadily on his wrist before swinging up both legs and smashing the heel of her sandal into his ugly face.

He reels back, dropping Sakura and clutching at his now doubly-broken nose, shouting curses. Sakura lands on her tailbone, hard, and feels the force of the fall rattle her whole body. Swallowing a yelp of pain, Sakura glances over at her unconscious mother. Sakura desperately wants to check on her, but she can’t while this monster is still in her home.

Only once you have eliminated the threat can you check on fallen teammates,” Iruka-sensei would tell them. “What good are you to them if turning your back to the enemy gets you killed?”

Sakura scrambles into a crouch and arms herself with two more kunai, one in each hand. Terror and pain make her hands tremble. Eliminate the threat. Just moments before, the blade had slid so easily into his flesh, far more effortlessly than she had anticipated. Sakura had never stabbed a real person before. It hadn’t felt good.

The stranger suddenly charges at Sakura, bloody spittle flying from his mouth as he roars unintelligibly. Without pausing to allow second-guessing, Sakura ducks between his legs, slashing behind herself blindly as she slips through and tumbles forward. Blade meets flesh a second time, and the man screams as one of his legs buckles.

Sakura had accidentally hamstringed him.

He hits the hardwood with a whine. Sakura waits for a heartbeat, two heartbeats, four heartbeats, but the stranger only moans from his position on the floor, hands clutching at the back of his knee. Sakura gets to her feet shakily, keeping her eyes and her blade trained on the man as she carves a wide berth around him. Finally, she’s at her mother’s side. Shallow breathing; pale skin; swelling around the eyes, nose, and jaw.

“Mama?” Sakura tries, reaching over to gently shake her mother’s shoulder. The only result is that her mother’s head slumps lower as her body slides further down the bookshelf.

“Mama, wake up,” Sakura pleads, bringing a shaky hand to her mother’s cheek. She recoils before making contact, too fearful of worsening her mother’s injuries, and repulsed by the blood already drying on her fingers. Haruno Mebuki remains unresponsive.

Sudden movement in Sakura’s peripheral has her shooting up to stand, kunai once more at the ready. The man staggers to his feet, and Sakura feels her stomach drop to the floor. She doesn’t want to fight him again. She can’t—

He lunges.

Sakura flinches, frozen by pain and fear, but before the man can strike her, something grips the back of her dress and yanks, sending her toppling backwards. Sakura’s vision is at once filled with her mother’s back, the Haruno clan symbol staring down at Sakura like some vengeful, all-seeing eye.

Judgment day.

Her mother takes the blow, a backhanded strike to her face that knocks her sideways—but not before she sinks four senbon into the meat of his shoulders and arms, which fall to his sides, useless. Even in her sickened, beaten state, Sakura’s mother hit his pressure points with unfailing accuracy.

Confused, furious, and partially-paralyzed, the stranger reels away from them, his shoulders knocking into the wall as he backs up. “I’ll fucking get you for this, you little shit,” he promises, looking Sakura dead in the eye. Sakura can’t move.

He lurches out the door, and Sakura watches him limp away, leaving a trail of blood in their house.

Silence follows.

 

--0--

 

Stabilize the neck to minimize potential cervical trauma.

Numbly, Sakura grabs a neck-pillow from her father’s side of the bed, fingers leaving coppery smears on the soft, patterned fabric. She and mother had always made fun of him for using it as he read in bed, his huge reading glasses propped on the end of his nose and the pillow encircling his neck. “It’s to keep my neck from cramping!” he would adamantly claim as Sakura snickered at him. “You look like a scholarly clown,” she would say. She stares at it blankly. It really was ridiculous looking.

Today, it is useful.

As gently as possible, Sakura fits the pillow around her mother’s neck, and secures it with a scarf she finds in her parents’ closet, wrapping it around Mebuki’s head a few times for good measure. As far as neck braces go it’s shaky at best, but currently it’s Sakura’s only option. After checking the makeshift splint one last time, Sakura hoists her mother’s limp form onto her back, taking care to jostle her at little as she can.

Quickly but carefully, Sakura picks her way through their house, averting her eyes from the overturned living. With her eyes on the floor Sakura can make out the muddy set of footprints that lead into the house and the bloody ones that lead back out of it. Before stepping out, she peers around the front door, eyes adjusting quickly to the darkness.

The footprints lead out of the house and down the street with no sign of a return trip; the threat has evacuated the premises. The coast is clear.

Sakura launches herself down the street and takes off at a dead sprint. Suddenly, whatever deadened calmness had settled over her vanishes, and the panic sets in anew, sending Sakura’s heartbeat racing. She must reach Konoha General as quickly as possible. Minutes can mean life or death when it comes to brain damage.

Sakura wishes at once she had the abilities of a jounin, or at least a chūnin—they could move by rooftop, drastically reducing travel time. Running all of the way to the hospital, even at Sakura’s top speed, will take ten minutes at least. Sakura chokes on a sob, feeling helplessly, hopelessly weak. She couldn’t save her mother from the intruder and now she was too slow to get her to the damn hospital.

Useless useless useless!

After just a few minutes of running in the dim streets, Sakura’s legs feel like they’re made of stone and her lungs are on fire. Her mother feels heavier by the second, though Sakura doesn’t dare to loosen her grip or slow down. She’s still several minutes away from the hospital and pushes on, but her right leg buckles slightly on the next stride, causing her to stumble.

Damn it!” she curses with a sob, staggering to regain her balance. Frustrated and frightened to the point of hysteria, Sakura glares down at her trembling, coltish legs. “Fucking help me,” she snarls at herself, reaching into that little glowing, warm ball that sits in her chest—the one she calls upon to do her ninjutsu—and sloppily pushes it down into her legs, feeling her skin tingle with the newfound energy.

Sakura shoves off, hoping to at least run a bit more quickly, if not more smoothly—and nearly brains herself on the streetlamp that had been ten feet away a second ago. Sakura reels backward, shocked at the sheer momentum of her own body. She hadn’t expected it to be so…efficient.

I need to control it better.

But control could wait. For now, getting to the hospital as fast as possible was the priority. Steeling herself, Sakura takes off once more.

 

--0--

 

The hospital is fairly quiet on Thursday nights, apparently, because when Sakura bursts into the lobby at 10:17PM, all eyes are on her. “Please, take care of her,” she pleads to the nurses who quickly relieve Sakura of her mother, strapping her to a gurney. “She was attacked. He hit her in the head. It was bad.” Exhaustion and fear have stolen Sakura’s vocabulary, apparently, but the nurses nod solemnly anyway.

“We will do everything we can for Haruno-san,” one of them swears, and Sakura blinks. Ah, right—her mother performs acupuncture at the hospital on weekends. She’s known around here. As the nurses hurriedly wheel her mother away, Sakura wonders if they’re friends.

Sakura pauses. What now?

That man is still out there, Sakura remembers with a sickening jolt. He might be injured, but he’s clearly inured to a pretty significant amount of pain. What if he’s out there waiting for her? What if he attacks someone else…a civilian, this time?

Sakura makes a decision. She has to find him—before he can erase the evidence of his crimes, and before he can attack another person. But where to start? Sakura fixes her gaze blankly on the peeling linoleum under her sandals as she wracks her brain for a plan. She could try to get the authorities involved—but that almost ensures a mountain of paperwork, and home invasions to fall pretty low on the priority list. Technically, nothing had even been stolen (except for Sakura’s ability to sleep peacefully in her own home, but she doesn’t think she can write that down on an insurance claim). He could be in the wind by then, and that is unacceptable.

So she has to find him on her own.

Tracking has never been Sakura’s strong suit, but he had left a literal (blood) trail behind him. But if he has a home, it's probably in one of the seedier districts of Konoha, and Sakura is fairly certain that wandering alone in the middle of the night in a shady part of town was a pretty good way to get yourself killed, or worse. Perhaps there's a way she can flush him out? He had, after all, left her with some threatening words as a parting gift. Sakura mulls that thought over for a moment, before shaking her head. She still needs to locate the bastard, and her throbbing nose is making it hard to think. Damn it, if only she had a ninken like Akamaru. Who else did she know that had tracking capabilities?

Ah. A lightbulb goes off.

Before Sakura can formulate more than half a thought on that subject, however, the doors to the hospital lobby crash open once again. Sakura spins, wondering wildly if the man is idiotic enough to go the hospital after committing such a crime—but instead of the stranger, Sakura finds herself looking at Uzumaki Naruto, who has a heavily bleeding Iruka-sensei slumped over his shoulders.

Naruto doesn’t even notice her, too busy shouting for help. “Please, he’s badly hurt! I need help here!” he bellows, and a few nurses rush over to assist. Then to Sakura’s immense surprise, another two Narutos walk into the hospital, dragging an unconscious Mizuki-sensei behind them. After Iruka-sensei has been carted off, Naruto scratches his nose and gestures vaguely to Mizuki-sensei. “Yeah, whatever, I guess he needs help too.”

Sakura gapes.

Naruto notices her then. “Ah?! Sakura-chan?!” he cries, pointing a finger at her. “What are you doing here? What happened to your nose?” his voice escalates in volume as the question pile up, but Sakura only has eyes for Mizuki-sensei. He’s a chūnin, and part of the academy system—he might very well just have the information Sakura needs.

“Mizuki-sensei?” she calls quietly, striding over. The chakra coils in her legs are still tingling.

When she’s close enough to see it, Mizuki-sensei’s face appears swollen and bruised, like it had been pummeled by a thousand small fists. Sakura whips around to face Naruto. “What happened?” she demands. Mizuki-sensei has no particular place in her heart, but if he’s well and truly unconscious then he’s useless to her.

Naruto immediately looks defensive, and to her surprise a dark cloud rolls over his face. She’d never seen him with such an expression before. “It’s a long story,” he hedges, looking away. “But he’s the one who did that to Iruka-sensei.”

Sakura blinks. “Ah,” she murmurs, far too overwhelmed by today’s events to unearth much of a reaction. “Well, then he deserved it,” she decides promptly. Who is she to judge, really, when she’s about to engage in a vengeful man-hunt of her own? Naruto gawps at her, openly shocked.

Sakura hums, very aware of the minutes ticking by. Every second is one the man could use to disguise himself or escape. “I need him awake. Can you do that for me, Naruto?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, Sakura-chan,” he agrees, before quickly crouching down to slap Mizuki-sensei soundly across the face. “Oi, teme! Wake up!”

Mizuki-sensei groans, and what’s visible of his eyes blink open. Sakura immediately leans down close to his face. “Mizuki-sensei,” she says, carefully controlling her voice to be nothing but emotionless serenity, “I need to know where Hatake Kakashi lives. Can you tell me?”

Mizuki-sensei’s eyes slide over to meet Sakura’s. They look haunted and guilty. “Why do you want to know?” he slurs, words heavily obscured by his swollen jaw.

Sakura doesn’t allow herself to blink, her gaze burning into his. “That doesn’t matter. I already know he’s my team leader, Mizuki-sensei,” she says softly. “I just need to ask him a favor.”

Naruto frets at her side. “What’s going on? Who is Kakashi? Sakura-chan?”

Sakura ignores him, continuing to stare down her former sensei. Finally, his eyes slip away from hers and he lets out a gurgly sigh. “I guess I can tell you. It doesn’t really matter now, does it?” he mutters, though Sakura suspects the question is rhetorical and not really aimed at her.

“Sensei?” she prompts. Mizuki-sensei releases another wet-sounding exhalation, then he mumbles something that resembles an address. Sakura nods, filing away the information under very important; do not forget and stands up. She calls upon her mental grid of the village, and after a few solid moments of orienting herself and juxtaposing the location of Kakashi-sensei’s apartment, Sakura nods once and begins heading towards the door.

“W-wait! Sakura-chan!” Naruto calls, trailing after her. “Where are you going? What about your nose? Are you okay?”

Sakura turns to him. “Naruto, less than twenty minutes ago I watched a man beat my mother unconscious and then I carried her to this hospital,” Sakura says flatly, opting for brutal honesty. “I was very scared, and now I am beginning to get very angry.” She doesn’t realize how true the words are until they leave her mouth. The rage prickles hot on her skin, and suddenly it’s all she can think about.

Naruto looks utterly lost and concerned, and Sakura exhales impatiently. “The man got away. Kakashi-sensei is going to help me find him.” I hope.

“…and my nose isn’t broken, so it’s okay. Thank you for asking,” Sakura adds belatedly, a polite creature out of habit.

Naruto still doesn’t look convinced, so Sakura offers him a smile. It’s not as forced as she anticipated. “Naruto, I’ll be fine. You should go check on Iruka-sensei. See you around, ne?”

Before he can respond, Sakura pushes out the hospital doors and walks out into the cool night. She waits a moment, but he doesn’t follow, pulling a relieved sigh out of Sakura. One less thing to think about.

Just for a few moments, Sakura allows herself to simply feel. Not act. Just listen to the sounds of her body.

Her muscles feel as though they’ve been wrung dry of any strength. Where adrenaline once flowed, supplying her with energy, is now hollowed out. Her legs are jelly and she is at once overcome with the inalienable conviction that they will be very, very sore tomorrow. One does not simply play around with chakra enhancement and get away unscathed.

Her nose hurts, and a lot too. But she hadn’t been lying when she told Naruto it wasn’t broken—it wasn’t swollen much at all. If anything, she’d be sporting two shiners tomorrow and a wicked headache, but that would likely be the extent of it.

But now, more than anything, what Sakura feels is fury.

Her chest seizes with it, stealing her breath. All Sakura can see is her mother’s slack face and the man’s cruel, glittering eyes. The threat must be eliminated.

Shinobi are taught to think with their brains, not their hearts. Sakura and her agemates had even received special kunoichi lessons about maintaining proper poise and a cool head. “The ninja world is a boy’s club,” Suzume-sensei informed a riveted audience of twenty-five young girls. “You have to work twice as hard for the same recognition, and the second you shed a tear, they’ll write you off.”

Well, that ship had clearly long since sailed for Sakura, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t get a grip on herself now. Though curiously, Sakura did not feel an urge to cry. Knowing herself, anger was typically accompanied by tears, so it was odd.

“If I used up any more energy to cry I’d probably pass out,” Sakura mutters to herself, staring at the abraded skin on her palm, the man’s blood that has turned a coppery brown. She curls her fingers into a fist. There was no more time to waste.

 

--0--

 

When Sakura finally reaches the (alleged) dwelling place of Hatake Kakashi, she’s dizzy with exhaustion and sporting even more bruises and scrapes. Not because Kakashi’s apartment was particularly difficult to locate or reach, but simply because Sakura continued to fool around with enhancing her limbs with chakra and more often then not found herself running into solid objects that had not been that close two seconds ago, she swears.

Nevertheless, she walks straight up to his apartment door and knocks, several times, very forcefully. It was very impolite, but Sakura couldn’t bring herself to care. The night’s events had caused Sakura to bypass nervousness, sail all the way past fear, and land squarely amongst catatonic with stress. In her exhaustion she had transcended one of the most basic driving emotions for humans, and Sakura felt like patting herself on the back. What was that thing her book had said about delirium? And why was the door in front of her wobbling like jelly?

Woozily, Sakura decides to investigate, but passes out instead.

The wave of unconsciousness is very brief, however. Sakura gets all of ten seconds of sweet, restful nothingness when the door she had been slumped against opens and she falls forward onto her face for the second time this evening.

“Maa,” a deep voice says above her. “I think you may be lost.”

Sakura looks up, and in the dim light she can make out a face obscured by a mask, one twinkling eye, and a head full of riotous grey hair. The man—Kakashi-sensei—extends a hand and Sakura takes it without thinking. His gaze grows a little sharp as it flickers down to their meeting palms

“Kunoichi-san,” he murmurs, pulling her up to stand. “What brings you here to pass out on the doorstep of my humble abode?”

“Sakura,” corrects automatically, though her eyes narrow at him. “But I bet you knew that already.”

Kakashi-sensei merely hums.

Well, evidently her sensei is neither forthcoming nor particularly bothered by his future student showing up soaked in blood. Sakura’s heart sinks. What if he won’t help her?

Sakura swallows, and decides to dive in headfirst. “I need your help. My mother is in the hospital—I mean, I took her there. Because she had been attacked, by a man, in our home. He attacked me too, but I stabbed him. Twice.” Sakura shakes her head, trying to clear it. Everything is coming out wrong, but her brain feels itchy from tiredness and she can feel herself struggling to string two sentences together. Get it together, Sakura!

Is it just her, or is the world spinning?

There’s a pause. “Sakura-san, why don’t you come inside? I am but a curmudgeonly bachelor but I can at least offer you some tea.”

Sakura tries to get her swimming vision under control. “Tea…sounds great.”

A few moments later, Sakura finds herself seated at a rather comfy kotatsu, a steaming cup of tea placed before her. Sakura moves to pick it up, but stops at the sight of her dirty hands. “Ah,” she hesitates, and pulls them back into her lap. Kakashi-sensei watches her silently from across the kotatsu. He tilts his head towards the other side of the room.

“Bathroom is that way if you want to powder your nose,” he quips, and Sakura almost gets up, but then falters.

“Evidence,” she manages, finally. “It’s his blood. To…connect him to the crime. I guess.” Criminal processing had been a neglected area of study, apparently, and that tally-keeping part of Sakura’s mind notes it down for future reflection.

Kakashi-sensei considers her.

“I suspect that if you really stabbed him twice, there will be plenty of evidence at the crime scene,” he says, completely straightforward.

The crime scene. Sakura had forgotten about that. Or had subconsciously blocked it, maybe. Her family home, the one she grew up in—splattered with a stranger’s blood and in complete disarray.

“I forgot to lock the door when I left,” she mumbles blankly.

“Sakura-chan,” Kakashi-sensei murmurs, and Sakura perks up a little at the change in honorific. He tilts his head meaningfully again.

Too tired to argue, Sakura staggers to her feet. Catching the bastard could wait until she had scrubbed his blood from her hands, she supposed. Once in the bathroom, Sakura goes through the motions of cleaning her hands mechanically, but it’s hard to get off. There’s blood sunken in around her fingernail beds, and Sakura gags. She stabbed someone, and then sliced open his hamstring. What a damn night.

Out of habit, Sakura glances up into the mirror as she dries her hands, and almost laughs out of sheer horror. She looks terrifying. There’s dried blood on her nose and chin and she’s got two black eyes coming in fast; most of her hair is stuck to her face with blood and sweat and what isn’t is a snarled, ratty mess. She’s lucky Kakashi-sensei hadn’t thrown her out for the sheer awfulness of her appearance.

Sakura hangs up the hand towel where she had found it, studiously avoiding her own reflection, and swiftly returns to the living room. She’s here on business.

Kakashi-sensei hasn’t moved, though his cup of tea is now empty, she observes. She wouldn’t get to see underneath his mask—perhaps another day, then. Sakura pushes that thought aside.

Instead of sitting down at the kotatsu, Sakura instead kneels quietly beside it, before placing her palms flat on the floor and bending into a proper dogeza.

“Please, Kakashi-sensei,” she pleads, though her voice is even. “Help me find the man who hurt my mother.”

She can hear Kakashi-sensei sigh. “Sakura-chan, please sit up. You don’t need to do that,” his voice is gentle but firm, and Sakura straightens. “Now come and drink the tea sensei so thoughtfully made for you.”

Sakura feels a smile tug at her lips, and accepts the offer. The tea isn’t particularly flavorful, with some hints of herbs and citrus, but it’s warm and it makes her feel safer than she has since this whole debacle began. Something tight in her chest begins to uncoil, just a tiny bit.

Kakashi-sensei’s voice breaks Sakura out of her trance. “What do you want to do with the man, after you’ve found him?” he asks bluntly.

Sakura flinches, and stares down into her mostly empty teacup. There are remnants of plant detritus at the bottom, indicating that he used loose-leaf rather than bagged tea. Strange, Sakura thinks. She would have assumed someone as pragmatic as him would prefer the efficiency of bags. Then again, she had only just met him, hadn’t she?

“I don’t know,” Sakura answers honestly. “I’m angry,” she admits, fingers clenching around the cup in her hands. But that fury from earlier, it had dimmed from a roaring fire to a weak ember, flickering faintly in her chest. “But I don’t think I want to hurt him. Not in an eye for an eye sort of sense.”

She glances up to find Kakashi-sensei gazing at her calmly, no judgment in his eyes. It’s more comforting than she wants to admit.

“More than anything, I…I just want to make sure he can’t hurt me, or my family…or anyone else, ever again,” Sakura says with finality.

Kakashi-sensei makes what sounds like an agreeable noise. “Then it’s decided,” he says lightly, his visible eye curving into a playful crescent. His other eye remains obscured by his unruly silver hair.

Sakura blinks as Kakashi stands from the kotatsu, feeling her confusion mount when he suddenly bites his thumb.

“Pardon the impending noise,” he apologizes with a wink before she can say anything, and slams his hand down onto the floor. Smoke erupts with a loud POP! and suddenly there are a lot more creatures in the room.

The ninken!

Sakura is accosted at once by eight curiously sniffing noses, and a surprised laugh escapes her throat as a dog wearing actual sunglasses gets right up in her face. She can’t help it—she had always loved dogs and had wanted one as a pet since she could walk. Having eight of them was apparently achieving some dormant, childhood dream.

“Sakura-chan, meet Pakkun, Urushi, Shiba, Bull, Guruko, Bisuke, Ūhei, and Akino. Everyone, meet Sakura-chan.”

“Hello,” Sakura offers timidly, and is met with a chorus of both barks and actual worded greetings, startling her. Her mind is spinning—some of these dogs can talk?

“Pakkun, Urushi, and Akino will be helping me find the culprit,” Kakashi-sensei tells her in a light voice, and she realizes with a gasp that he’d donned his forehead protector and vest at some point without her noticing. “The rest will stay here with you, Sakura-chan.”

Her mind snags on that. “Stay? No, Kakashi-sensei, I should come with you,” she argues, standing up. “It’s my responsibility.”

Kakashi-sensei shakes his head. “It’s my duty as a sensei to protect my cute little genin.” Kakashi-sensei rests his palm on Sakura’s head, ruffling her hair a bit. “I’ve arrested a felon or two in my days, so the whole process will be a bit quicker if I’m alone.”

Which Sakura translates to you are small and slow and will probably just be in the way which isn’t necessarily untrue but it still makes her sag a little with disappointment. Always useless.

The hand on her head stills. “Sakura-chan.” The uncompromising tone makes her look up, but his eye only yields kindness. “You’re injured, suffering from chakra-exhaustion, and possibly shock. Rest, and let your super cool sensei take care of this, okay?”

Sakura’s lip wobbles, and her whole body begins to tremble. When did she get so cold?

“Okay,” she agrees in a tiny voice, and his eye crinkles into a smile.

Pakkun and the other two hounds step close to Sakura, sniffing at blood spatter on her dress that she hadn't even noticed before. A sardonic smile curled Sakura's mouth; she did know how to get blood out of fabric pretty well, thanks to a certain monthly inconvenience. She wouldn't have to throw out her favorite red dress, at the very least.

"Got it," Pakkun grunts in a voice dar too deep for such a tiny body. 

Sakura is starting to shiver in earnest when suddenly there’s something warm draped over her shoulders. She clutches at it immediately, pulling the green flak vest closer around her body.

Ja ne,” Kakashi-sensei bids, before vanishing with three of the hounds. Sakura barely registers the lightning-quick open and close of the door.

Sakura stares it. “I really need to learn how to do that.”

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 Cognitive constructivism: a developmental behavior theory that states that humans cannot be given information, in which they immediately understand and use. Instead, learners must construct their own knowledge, building it through experience.

--

 

When Sakura wakes, she is very warm. 

Eight furry bodies are piled on and around her, snoozing quietly in the early morning light. Sakura sits up from Bull, who she had apparently been using like a giant pillow, carefully moving so she didn’t bump Bisuke, who is tucked up against her abdomen. Sakura looks around blearily, spotting Kakashi-sensei at the kotatsu with a book in his hand.

“Sensei!” she cries, only remembering to hush her voice after a few canine grumbles float up from around her. “What happened? Did you catch him?”

Kakashi-sensei’s visible eye curves into an amused crescent. “The man who invaded your home—otherwise known as Kimura Yuma—has been apprehended and delivered to the appropriate authorities. You won’t see him again.” There’s an edge to Kakashi-sensei’s voice that makes Sakura blink.

Then, the relief is bone-shaking. Sakura lets out a shaky breath, feeling the tightness in her chest finally release, and slumps forward to press her forehead into the soft, comforting warmth that is Bull’s fur. “Thank goodness,” she mumbles. The threat was eliminated. He couldn’t hurt anyone else.

Then Sakura remembers where she is, and where she’s supposed to be.

“The team assignments!” she yelps, leaping to her feet and dislodging some of her nap-mates. “What time is it?”

Kakashi-sensei waves the hand not holding his book dismissively. “Don’t sweat it. You already know who your teammates are, ne Sakura-chan?”

Sakura hesitates. “Only one of them, the other one was left blank on the sheet,” she answers, realizing at once how excruciatingly sore her legs are. She was lucky she managed to stand up at all.

“How did you find out I was your sensei, anyway?” Kakashi-sensei asks in a curious tone and Sakura wants to smack herself. Way to walk right into that line of questioning.

Sakura doesn’t respond immediately, but Kakashi-sensei doesn’t seem to mind. She suspects he could easily out-wait her and sighs. “I…broke in,” she admits. “To the academy. I was curious!” She feels defensive, even though he makes no move to comment or convey any form of judgment.

“The senbon,” he says in a complete non-sequitur. “Was that your handiwork?”

“Oh,” Sakura replies, still standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. She doesn’t think she could stand back up if she sat down again. “No, that was my mother. She’s an acupuncturist.”

“Ah,” he accepts, nodding.

They lapse into an uncomfortable silence.

Finally, Sakura’s brain comes fully online. “My mother! I need to go see her!” How could she have forgotten? For all she knew her mother was in a coma, or in agonizing pain, or worse…Sakura’s mind nearly short-circuits at the horrible possibilities and she stumbles to the door, her knees nearly buckling.

“Excuse me, I have to go,” she tells Kakashi-sensei, stripping off the flak vest, but suddenly he’s right there, blocking the exit with an outstretched arm.

Sakura looks up at him, glowering. She doesn’t think she could force her way past him, but she could try.

“No offense, Sakura-chan, but you still look like you’re about to faint,” Kakashi-sensei tells her in a gentle voice. “Let sensei help you out one more time, okay?”

Apparently, he hadn’t actually planned on waiting for an answer, because he sweeps her up with one arm and suddenly they’re outside, flying through the air.

Sakura squeaks and wraps her arms around Kakashi-sensei’s neck as he bounds over the rooftops, though more out of surprise than fear. The buildings and streets flash by below them, and Sakura feels an immediate stab of envy at how effortlessly Kakashi-sensei is able to navigate the village. Sakura had almost broken a leg attempting the same thing last night.

“You have to teach me this,” she tells him earnestly.

Kakashi-sensei hums, noncommittal. Sakura spits out a piece of her long, pink hair and slaps him on the chest. “I mean it! I almost got it last night, but I think I was using too much chakra,” Sakura mutters, more to herself than to her sensei.

Now that she thinks about it, she’s almost certain that was the issue. Controlling her chakra had been shockingly easy, so she accidentally used too much—like when you pick up something, expecting it to be heavy, only to almost hit yourself in the face with it because it’s so light. That would also explain the chakra exhaustion, though Sakura wonders if there’s a more efficient method she could use in order to minimize loss. She knows from theory books that chakra behaves like heat energy in that way—concentrate it somewhere and it will radiate off in order reach equilibrium with the surrounding area. A circulative approach, then, as opposed to a constant supply, could reduce emission loss. She needs to do more research…

Sakura blinks out of her thoughts when they touch down on solid ground, and looks up to find Kakashi-sensei staring at her with open curiosity.

“You’re a clever one,” he says, amusement coloring his tone, Sakura realizes she must have been voicing her thoughts aloud. The forthright compliment catches her off guard and she averts her gaze, a blush rising to her cheeks and giddy satisfaction tingling in her chest as he sets her on her own feet. Sakura had always been a teachers pet, was always striving for praise from her instructors. Somehow, even though she’d only just met him (and he was a bit of an odd duck), Sakura desperately wants Kakashi-sensei’s approval.

For now, though, Sakura shelves those thoughts and heads towards the hospital doors, pausing when Kakashi-sensei doesn’t follow.

“Sensei?” she asks hesitantly.

His eye crinkles. “I’ve got some jounin business to attend to, so I’m afraid I can’t come with you. But you should be outside the academy at eleven-hundred to meet the rest of your team. ” And with that, Kakashi-sensei is gone, nothing but a swirl of leaves in his wake.

“Flashy,” Sakura mutters, unimpressed, and continues into the hospital.

 

--0--

 

Sakura cautiously opens the door to her mother’s hospital room, terrified about what she might find. The hospital is busier on Fridays, apparently, and no one had enough time to clarify her mother’s condition. “People have more time on weekends to get their idiot selves injured,” said the woman at the front desk, after she gave Sakura a room number and no further information.

Peering around the door, Sakura finds—well, a sight to behold.

“You discharge me from this hospital right now you little punk or so help me I will turn you into a pincushion!” her mother is snarling, looking mildly bruised around the face but otherwise no worse for wear.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t, not until the doctor clears you!” the male nurse informs her in a shaky voice, hands help up in defense.

“My daughter could be injured or dead you foul little toad, now discharge me!” Haruno Mebuki stands from her hospital bed, looking far more intimidating than she should in a paper gown, and is clearly about to lay waste to the terrified nurse before she notices Sakura standing in the doorway.

“Sakura!” Mebuki cries, shoving the nurse out of the way and rushing to her daughter. The movement yanks the IV line running from her hand, but Sakura’s mother simply rips it out before sweeping her daughter into a crushing hug.

Sakura squeezes just as tightly back, feeling the horrors of the night wash over her again with a simultaneous wave of sheer relief. “Mama,” she sobs, feeling her knees go weak. “I was so scared. I glad you’re okay.”

Mebuki clutches her even tighter, and the scent of her mother fills Sakura’s nose, calming her on a deep, primal level.

“Sakura, when I woke up and no one knew where you were, I was terrified,” Mebuki murmurs into Sakura’s hair. “Thank you for protecting me. I’m so proud of you, Sakura.”

Sakura’s heart clenches, hot tears running down her cheeks and soaking the paper of her mother’s hospital gown. She never wants to let go.

Of course, the doctor shows up at that moment.

“Mebuki-chaaan, what’s this about you harassing—oh my, am I interrupting something?” comes a voice from behind Sakura as she steps back from her mother. Sakura turns, and finds a middle-aged woman sporting a white lab coat and gigantic, rounded spectacles. She has striking, mint green hair pulled into a messy half-bun and seems weirdly familiar to Sakura.

“A dramatic reunion, perhaps? Ne, ne Mebuki-chan, have you reconciled with your long lost illegitimate daughter, finally finding a common ground after meeting on the battle field?” the woman trills, her mouth curling into a gleeful grin.

Sakura blinks at the onslaught of words, and hears her mother sigh heavily beside her.

“You’ve been reading those damn books again, haven’t you?” Sakura’s mother huffs. “Chihiro-san, this is my daughter Sakura. You’ve met her before, when she was younger.”

Chihiro-san lets out a giggle, stepping close to inspect Sakura. “She was that little squirt? Sakura-chan, you’ve become so cute!” The woman grasps Sakura’s hands in her own. “Even when you’ve got two black eyes and are covered with blood!”

That comment, of course, alerts Mebuki to the current state of her daughter’s health, and Sakura is quickly bundled into a chair to be poked and prodded and generally fretted over. Chihiro-san, for all her apparent weirdness, is a very skilled medic-nin—the worst of Sakura’s injuries are healed quickly, and the more minor scratches are bandaged neatly. As she’s treated, Sakura explains everything that had happened up through that morning, to her mother’s surprise and Chihiro-san’s apparent delight.

“You sensed your mother’s danger and rushed to protect her—how positively literary! Tell me, Sakura-chan, did your heart throb?! Chihiro-san squeals, rubbing her hands together with excitement.

Beside them, Mebuki sighs, crossing her arms. “Well, Sakura, my little warrior, it sounds like you need to hustle over to the academy. It’s past ten-hundred,” her mother says, drawing Sakura into another hug. “And as much as I love you, you need to bathe.”

Sakura huffs out a laugh, before squirming out of her mother’s hold. The last twelve hours feel like a dream—but the thought of going home stops her cold. “Mama, our home, it’s…” Covered in a stranger’s blood, she can’t bring herself to say.

Mebuki frowns. “Ah. Well, I had planned to stay here and tend to some of my acupuncture patients, but it sounds like I have some cleaning to do, ne? Maa, what a pain. He couldn’t just break it into our house, the bastard had to make a mess of it too!”

Sakura laughs at her mother’s suddenly fired-up spirit, overjoyed to see her already recovered. That’s the Haruno strength for you, Sakura reminds herself. How could she have ever doubted her mother?

Eventually, after Chihiro-san discharges them both (and Mebuki terrifies the nurse into giving her one of the nice sets of scrubs) Sakura and her mother walk out of the hospital, only sporting some mild bruises and scratches. Sakura feels a little proud and giddy, walking out alongside her chūnin mother, and wonders if this is what it feels like to be a real shinobi.

“Ne, Sakura, you’re getting a bit big for this but what do you think about being carried on Mama’s back on the way home?” her mother asks, brushing a lock of hair away from Sakura’s face. “It’ll be a bit quicker, so you won’t be late meeting your team!”

Sakura’s mouth automatically opens to agree, but she pauses, considering. This wouldn’t be a bad time to test out her hypothesis about the chakra circulation. “Actually, I’d like to try and run beside you,” she informs her mother, watching her eyebrows climb in surprise. “I think I’ve almost got the technique figured out theoretically, I just need practice.”

Mebuki laughs, reaching out to ruffle Sakura’s hair. “That’s my girl! Alright then, try to keep up!”

With that, Mebuki launches onto the nearest roof, and Sakura scrambles to shove the appropriate chakra into her legs. Focus! Her minds chides her for the initial sloppiness. It’ll become muscle memory soon enough, but for now she needs to concentrate on moving the chakra in a steady stream, down through her thighs, calves, and feet and back up again. After a few seconds of breathing quietly (and garnering some weird looks from passersby) Sakura leaps into the air.

She’s flying!

The buildings beneath her shrink as she soars up higher and higher, finally landing on the very top of an electricity pole, wobbling slightly before finding balance. Sakura pauses, taking in the view. Konoha stretches before her under a blue sky, vibrant and lively against the backdrop of Hokage-iwa. The faces of the Hokage seem to cheer her on, and Sakura takes off once more.

Her second jump isn’t so perfectly timed, and Sakura ends up sailing over the roof she’d planned on landing on. Thinking fast, Sakura grabs at a telephone wire suspended between two buildings, and prays that it doesn’t electrocute her. When she doesn’t immediately burn to a crisp on impact, Sakura uses her momentum to turn the wire into a makeshift trapeze, flinging her body into the air once more. This time she’s able to land on an actual roof.

“Okay, you got this,” Sakura mutters, and concentrates on the flow of her chakra. Into the iliopsoas, the sartorius, the adductors, the femoris, the tibialus anterior, the gastrocnemius…Sakura visualizes shifting her chakra into the coils of each muscle, and is pleased at how obediently it moves. With enough practice, this could come to her quite easily, she thinks, feeling a little smug.

Her next leap is almost perfect.

 

--0--

 

After a quick shower, Sakura throws on her summer-style dress (which is honestly identical except for being sleeveless and a teensy bit shorter), straps on her holsters, and is out the door. It’s not until she’s gotten a few roofs away that she realizes she forgot her forehead protector. Dummy!

Oh well, she could start wearing it tomorrow. At this point, having stabbed someone feels more like a right of passage than a piece of fabric. Sakura makes it to the academy just barely before 11:00, and allows herself a fist pump for her success. The whole chakra-enhanced running thing was turning out to be pretty awesome.

But…there’s not a soul in sight. No Kakashi-sensei, no Sasuke-kun, no mystery person…Sakura harrumphs. Well, if everyone else was going to be late she could’ve gone back to get her forehead protector.

Sighing, Sakura glances around, her gaze drawn to the academy roof. From up there, she would have a better view, and maybe figure out where everyone was. Sakura grins, and begins to circulate her chakra, already feeling more and ease with the motions. After only a couple of heartbeats, she launches herself into the air—

—only to come face to face with Uzumaki Naruto.

“Aiyah!” he shrieks (and Sakura is pretty sure she’s screaming too) before she crashes right into him, sending them both into an ungainly sprawl.

When the dust settles, she and Naruto are both flat on their backs, gazing up at the bright blue sky. There’s a cloud that looks like a bowl of anmitsu

Sakura snaps out of her reverie and sits up, twisting around to get a better look at Naruto. He’s rubbing the back of his head, but doesn’t seem injured. “Naruto, what are you doing here?” she asks, and then notices the forehead protector he’s wearing. “Eh? I thought you had failed the graduation exam!”

Naruto keeps rubbing the back of his head, but it seems to be out of sheepishness now, and Sakura realizes she probably could have worded that more tactfully. Whatever, she’s had a long day.

“Er, it’s a long story,” Naruto hedges, and hasn’t she heard that one before. “But it’s the real deal! Iruka-sensei passed me and everything.”

Sakura blinks at him. “Iruka-sensei…huh. Is he alright?”

Naruto looks surprised, before grinning at Sakura with real happiness. “He’s much better now! The people at the hospital fixed him. We even got ramen at Ichiraku this morning!”

Naruto is literally radiating happiness and Sakura can’t help but smile back, even if Naruto is a bit of a dork. How could anyone stay mad at such a good-natured kid? Though she can’t help but be a little envious…ramen isn’t her favorite but she hadn’t eaten breakfast today, or dinner the night before. Come to think of it, she’s starving.

“What are you two idiots doing?”

Sakura whirls around. “Sasuke-kun!” she yelps, horrified. Damn it, he definitely saw her crash into Naruto like a total moron! What a terrible first impression to make on her teammate!

“Oi, Sasuke-teme, don’t you call her an idiot! I’m the only idiot!” Naruto pauses. “Wait, that didn’t come out right…”

Sasuke-kun makes a noise that oozes disdain, and Sakura can’t help but pout. She would’ve looked so cool if she hadn’t run into Naruto. Part of Sakura wants to be angry with him, and if this had happened yesterday, she might’ve been—but something about last night is making her think differently. Nothing like the terror of carrying an unconscious loved-one to the hospital to establish camaraderie, she supposes.

And to be truthful, Sasuke-kun is being awfully judgmental for someone who can’t even do what she’d almost mastered.

That thought surprises Sakura, and she frowns. It wasn’t like her to be so critical of Sasuke-kun.

“S-sorry Sakura-chan,” Naruto apologizes, interpreting her dour expression as ire with him.

Sakura meets his gaze, offering him a half-smile. “Don’t worry about it, Naruto,” she dismisses, and makes an attempt to tame the mess that is her hair. Her fingers catch in knots and snarls and suddenly Sakura is just sick of it. She’d grown it out because it was cute, and apparently Sasuke-kun likes long hair (but does he actually like anything, a crabby part of her brain sneers) but now it just feels…in the way. It gets into her eyes when she moves too quickly, it becomes a tangled mess in the wind, and that bastard had used it as a handy grip to immobilize her.

Her long pink locks, which once were so prized, are suddenly suffocating.

“Sakura-chan…?” Naruto prompts hesitantly, and Sakura realizes she’s clenching a tendril of hair in a tight fist.

“Sorry, just realized I need a haircut,” she responds. “Split ends.”

Naruto nods like he has any idea what she’s talking about. “Iruka-sensei cuts my hair for me,” he tells her. “Hey, I bet he’d do yours too if you asked!”

Sakura rolls her eyes at him and stands, dusting off her dress. “Thanks, but I prefer not looking like I just walked into a rain of shuriken.”

“Oh…” Naruto looks so put out it’s criminal, and Sakura sighs. Leaning over the blond boy, she flicks him in the nose.

“It was a joke, moron,” she informs him, allowing a tiny smidgen of affection into her voice. He was like the obnoxious little brother she never had (and never particularly wanted). Without her permission, Sakura’s mind re-files Naruto under teammate; annoying but tolerable; someone to be protected. She really needs to come up with a better categorization system.

An hour passes. Then two hours...

Sakura glances at the sky. She’s near dead with boredom and her stomach is trying to digest itself (and the boys are about two seconds from murdering one another) but she can’t help but worry. Maybe something had happened…?

Sakura glances around, searching for a higher vantage point. There are some decorative arches spanning part of the roof, and without a second thought, Sakura leaps onto one with a chakra-enhanced jump. Below her, she can hear Naruto’s shocked squawk, and even a “huh?” from Sasuke-kun. Serves them right, underestimating her!

“Maa, someone’s getting awfully confident in their chakra control.”

Sakura shrieks, and would have fallen if it weren’t for Kakashi-sensei grabbing the back of her dress like a dog grabs her pup’s scruff. Once her footing is sure, Sakura turns on him.

“Kakashi-sensei! Did something happen?” Sakura demands, concerned. She can’t think of another reason for such extreme tardiness.

Kakashi-sensei waves his hand. “No, I’m just late. You see, there was this old lady who needed help with her groceries…”

Sakura groans, smacking herself in the forehead. She should’ve expected this, considering his incredibly blasé attitude towards everything else. Of course he’s physically incapable being punctual. “Save it for someone who believes you,” she sneers, crossing her arms and turning away.

“You wound me, Sakura-chan,” Kakashi-sensei says in a flat voice, before offering his elbow like some kind of gallant hero. “Shall we?”

Sakura eyeballs his proffered arm, before taking it with rolled eyes. “Yeah, whatever,” she huffs, and they leap down as one.

Down on the roof, Naruto is almost spitting with rage and Sasuke-kun seems to have a vein throbbing in his head. He should really get that checked out, Sakura muses. Hypertension is serious business.

“You’re late!” Naruto shouts, pointing an accusatory finger at Kakashi-sensei.

“You see, I found a kitten abandoned in an alleyway…” Kakashi-sensei begins, eye curved up into an amused crescent, but Sakura smacks his arm in admonishment.

Now, confusion is warring with anger on Naruto’s face. “How do you two…know each other?”

Sakura turns to him. “He’s Kakashi-sensei,” she jabs a thumb at the instructor. “It’s a long story,” she adds, giving Naruto a meaningful look. No need to air all of that bloody laundry in front of Sasuke-kun. Not yet, anyway.

Kakashi-sensei just pats her on the head. “Let’s all sit down and introduce ourselves, ne?” he suggests, moving to lean against the railing.

Naruto’s face remains suspicious, even as he drops down to sit cross-legged. Sakura joins him, pulling her knees up to her chest, and Sasuke-kun is last, posturing moodily as usual. “What do you want to know?” Naruto demands, scratching his nose.

Kakashi-sensei hums, before shrugging. “How about…your likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams for the future…stuff like that.”

Naruto remains unconvinced, apparently. “You should go first,” he decides, pointing at Kakashi-sensei again. Hadn’t anyone taught him that was rude?

“Me?” Kakashi-sensei scratches his head. “Hmm…my name is Hatake Kakashi. I don’t really care to tell you about my likes or dislikes. Dreams for the future…?” He gazes off into space. “I do have lots of hobbies…”

Sakura stares at her sensei, confused by the sudden aloofness. Hadn’t he been teasing her earlier? After everything they’d been through, he could at least mention a hobby. Then again, Sakura already did know a lot more than her two teammates—where he lived, the names of his ninken… Sakura grins to herself. It’s kind of nice, just her knowing.

“Your turn,” Kakashi-sensei prompts, pointing to Naruto.

Sakura listens quietly as her teammates introduce themselves. Naruto’s dream is surprisingly noble, and she can’t help but smile. Of course, she’s not really confident in him achieving said dream, but it’s still nice to hear. Sasuke-kun’s goal is…less nice. A chill runs down her spine after Sasuke-kun finishes, and she can’t help but recoil mentally. Does Sasuke-kun have any idea what it feels like to really hurt someone?

“Now you, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura startles. “Oh, sorry. Um, my name is Haruno Sakura,” she says, feeling redundant. They all already know her name. “I like…anmitsu. And dogs,” she continues, just saying the first things that come to mind.

“My dislikes would be…bullies. My hobbies…reading, I guess. As for my dream,” Sakura swallows, trying to come up with something. What does she want? Yesterday she would have said something that had to do with Sasuke-kun, probably. But now…everything feels mixed up. All she can think about is her mother’s face, unresponsive and dripping with blood, and how she never wants to see anything like that again.

“My dream is…that I can protect the people I love from harm.” When the words leave her mouth, Sakura realizes how right they feel. But she can’t help the embarrassment that washes over her, and keeps her eyes trained on her sandals. How presumptuous! She’s barely graduated from the academy and here she is declaring her intent to protect people, when she can barely protect herself.

Sakura chances a look up at her sensei, and finds nothing but kindness in his gaze. It’s then that Sakura notices his forehead-protector pulled down over his left eye. So it his hair isn’t just a styling choice, she surmises—he’s hiding something. Definitely something to investigate later.

Kakashi-sensei claps his hands together. “Okay, that’s enough of that. Onto business. Tomorrow, I’ve got something special planned for the four of us…”

Sakura is immediately suspicious, and the twinkle in her sensei’s eyes does nothing to alleviate it.

“…survival training!”

Silence ensues.

“Survival training?” Naruto echoes, sounding just as confused as Sakura feels. They’d done a fair amount of field training in the academy—how to manage rations, sleeping without shelter, those sorts of things. A pit forms in Sakura’s stomach. This won’t be good.

“What do you mean, sensei?” Sakura asks, not allowing her voice to shake. She needs information, damn it!

Kakashi-sensei crosses his arms, not making eye contact with any of them. “This isn’t normal training. I’ll be your opponent,” he states, which makes Sakura’s stomach drop. They have to fight him? He’ll crush them!

“To be frank, this training is another exam. Of the twenty-seven graduates, only nine will be chosen to become genin,” Kakashi-sensei informs them, voice abruptly cold. “The rest will be sent back to the academy.”

A 66% failure rate! Sakura’s jaw drops, and she feels dizzy with the implications. Back to the academy? Sakura isn’t sure her family can afford it—the academy fees weren’t chump change. This could be the end of her career as a ninja! Well, Sakura thinks in despair, she could always become an acupuncturist…

Kakashi-sensei continues, talking over Naruto’s indignant protests. “Tomorrow, you’ll be graded on the training field. Bring all your gear, and don’t eat breakfast. You’ll just throw it up.”

Their instructor ambles over, holding out three sheets of paper. “Here’s a handout with the details. Don’t be late!”

Sakura automatically reaches out to take one, eyes scanning the words before it’s even fully in her grasp. It’s mostly a reiteration of what Kakashi-sensei had told them, explaining that the academy graduation exam had been more of a preliminary test. It’s also a liability form—basically, if Sakura is maimed, mangled, or killed tomorrow, it’s not the academy’s fault.

Great.

When she looks up, Kakashi-sensei is gone. Sighing, Sakura stands. It looks like a trip to the library is in order.

But first, Ino’s house.

  

--0--

  

“Are you sure about this, Sakura?”

Sakura nods, grinning ruefully at the doubt in Ino’s voice. “Yeah, it’s time. I think short hair suits me better, anyway.”

“If you say so,” Ino sighs, and picks up a pair of scissors, moving to stand behind Sakura. Sunlight is filtering in through the bathroom window, sending streaks of bright light onto the tile floor. Sakura watches silently as splashes of pink begin to disrupt the ivory, her head feeling lighter with each snip. She had been so obsessed with her hair for the longest time, spending her allowance on fancy conditioners and oils. It had never stood up against the blonde, silky magnificence that is Ino’s hair, but Sakura supposes that’s just fine.

“I think I’m done. Is this a good length?” Ino asks, running her hands through Sakura’s hair to loosen any clinging strands. Sakura almost purrs at the ministrations—now she can understand why the ninken had pestered her for ear-rubs the other night.

Sakura stands so she can look into the mirror over the sink. “Yeah, this is perfect,” she says, fingering the pink locks that now stop just above her shoulders. It’s weird to look at, to be honest. Her hair hasn’t been this short since she was maybe eight years old.

“Hey Ino, do you have a hair-tie I could borrow?” Sakura asks, carding her fingers through her shortened hair. The ribbon would do fine for now to keep her bangs out of her face, but Sakura wanted her hair to be cute and efficient.

Ino tosses her one, and Sakura quickly puts her hair into a ponytail. It feels nice to have cool air touching her neck, for once.

“Oi, oi, you’re stealing my look!” Ino gripes playfully, poking Sakura in the side.

Sakura snorts. “Please, Ino-pig, I’m revolutionizing it!” Now that Sakura thinks about it, using the ribbon to tie her hair back would be awfully cute…

When Ino doesn’t reply to the barb, Sakura turns to look at her. “Ino…?”

Ino lets out a shaky exhalation, crossing her arms. “I just can’t believe they’re going to send so many back to the academy,” Ino admits. “We all worked so hard. It doesn’t seem fair.”

Sakura can’t help but agree. On a purely objective level, it makes sense—each shinobi is an investment of time and resources on the part of the village, so naturally they need to prove a certain level of adequacy before consuming any of those assets. But that doesn’t make the possibility of repeating academy training any easier to swallow.

Sakura pulls her best friend into a tight hug. “We’ll pass, Ino. I know we will.”

Ino wraps her arms around Sakura, squeezing. “We’d better,” she mutters into Sakura’s shoulder. “My mom will kick my ass if I don’t.”

Sakura laughs, feeling lighter for more reasons than just a haircut.

 

--0--

 

For the second time in as many days, the library yields nothing but frustration for Sakura.

There’s very little on the specifics of this secondary exam, only that it exists. It seems that the actual logistics of the test are up to the individual jounin instructors…which could very well mean a rigged exam. Sakura didn’t want to believe that Kakashi-sensei was the type of person to flunk his students intentionally, but she didn’t actually know the man very well. Pain lances Sakura’s heart; she’d been so excited to have someone like him as his mentor.

Sakura shakes her head, frustrated. “Moping won’t help you pass,” she mumbles to herself. “But studying might.”

With that, Sakura delves deep into the books and scrolls on chakra control and theory.

Chakra is a product of two separate forms of energy: physical and spiritual. Physical energy is derived from the cells of one’s body and can therefore be enhanced by means of training, chemical stimulants, and exercise. Spiritual energy, which is derived from the user’s consciousness, may be augmented via meditation, studying, and practical experience. Chakra is molded through will alone, and is assisted with hand seals. Hand seals are affiliated with certain elements, and most users have one element affinity. This affinity does not develop until several years of chakra-based training have been completed, although individuals tend to excel at ninjutsu based on their element, even if they have not developed a true affinity. For this same reason, hand seals of a certain affinity may help an individual control their chakra, even if the intent is not to cast ninjutsu.”

Okay, Sakura knew most of that, though she hadn’t considered meditation to be a potential for increasing her chakra stores. Chakra control is influenced by capacity—that is, the less chakra one has, the more aptly they are able to control it, like how tossing one ball into the air and catching it is much easier than juggling ten. Sakura sighs, reaching into the glowing ball in her chest. Yup, it’s tiny alright. Guess she’s got some meditation to do in the future. And maybe some pushups. Ugh.

The human body has 361 tenketsu, or chakra points. These are tiny nodes located along the pathways from which chakra may be released. However, most individuals are only able to utilize the tenketsu in their arms, hands, legs, and feet, though it is feasible that with enough training, one may be able to access more. Certain bloodlines are able to expel chakra from any or all of their tenketsu, though the physiological specifics of this have yet to be investigated. Other bloodlines may have access to certain tenketsu, such as those in the nose or other sensory modalities in order to enhance sensory perception.”

Now that gave Sakura pause. Come to think of it, she’d never tried to circulate her chakra to any particular points in her body other than very recently, and only in her legs. With that in mind, Sakura puts down the book in her hands and folds herself into a cross-legged position. She summons the chakra in her core, and then begins to move it, sending a steady stream down to her hands.

The energy responds quickly and dutifully, flowing down through her fingertips and then back up her forearm, rejoining the source in her center. Next, she tries to move it upwards, towards her head and…It just won’t. The flow stalls out around her clavicle, clogging up rather uncomfortably. It’s an incredibly odd sensation, like she’s on the precipice of falling but isn’t quite there yet.

Sakura growls, bringing her right hand up in a few different elemental seals to try and focus her energy. She settles on the Earth Release seal, feeling her chakra respond to it. “Go where I tell you to go,” she mutters to herself, and feels sweating beading on her brow. The chakra roils in her chest, edging up the tiniest bit further towards her neck. It feels like…like Sakura is trying to force a huge amount of water into holes the size of pinpricks, and the only control she has is through muscles she’s never even used before.

Sweat is dripping from Sakura’s nose by the time she releases the hold, allowing her chakra to flow freely back into her core. Maybe it’s her imagination, but Sakura is almost certain she managed to push her chakra further than when she had begun. Clearly, this was going to take some work, but it was a start. Standing, Sakura stretches her arms above her head and begins the process of clearing up her research station. Sawako-san had been perfectly understanding about the previous day’s events, but that didn’t mean Sakura had a free pass to leave piles of documents laying around.

Tired, hungry, a little bit proud of herself, Sakura heads home. Tomorrow is going to take everything she’s got.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 

Game theory: the use of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation to map interactions between intelligent, rational decision-makers.

 

--

 

“Sakura, why aren’t you eating your breakfast?”

Sakura sighs, staring at the food before her. Her stomach growls, loudly, imploring her to eat. Her mother had added a few extra umeboshi on top of her rice, even…

“Kakashi-sensei said if we ate we’d just end up throwing it up,” Sakura tells her, pushing away from the table. She’d eaten a big dinner the night before; she could go a couple more hours without food, right? Another grumble from her abdomen disagrees, and Sakura wonders if she could use chakra to shut it up.

Mebuki crosses her arms. “Well, that’s just stupid. If it’s truly that difficult you’ll just end up vomiting bile, and coming from a mother who suffered from extreme morning sickness, I can tell you which is less pleasant.”

Sakura blinks. She hadn’t thought of that. Of course, increased stomach contents would amplify the likelihood of vomiting, but didn’t necessarily ensure it. Sakura weighs costs and benefits—eating would improve her stamina, and therefore increase her likelihood of succeeding. It could also increase the chance of emesis, but whatever. She could puke right on Kakashi-sensei’s sandals if he failed her.

Sakura sits back down and picks up her chopsticks.

After breakfast, Sakura returns to her room to finish getting ready. Her forehead protector gleams on her desk, still flawless and shiny. A part of Sakura wishes she hadn’t forgotten it yesterday; maybe she could have had two days of wearing it instead of just one.

Dummy! Talk like that won’t help you pass!

Sakura slaps her cheeks, trying to squash down the nervousness bubbling in her chest. “Worrying only makes you suffer twice,” she tells her reflection, whose pale face doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in that line of thought.

Sakura dons the forehead protector, using it to keep her bangs away from her face. Ino’s ribbon—her good luck charm—is instead used to tie up her hair into a ponytail. Sakura gazes at her reflection, adjusting her red dress. Kunai and shuriken holsters, check. Forehead protector, check. Confidence to succeed…getting there.

When Sakura exits her room, Mebuki is waiting for her at the front door. “Good luck, Sakura,” she bids, pulling her daughter into a hug. “Remember, no matter what happens today, I love you and I’m proud of you. Got it?”

Sakura sniffles. “Got it.”

 

--0--

 

Sakura is the first one to arrive to the training ground, but she expected that. It’s kind of nice, having the whole place to herself. Sakura hops up onto the middle of the three training posts and sits cross-legged, content to listen to the sounds of the forest and feel the sunshine on her face. She draws her right hand to her chest, forming the Earth Release seal and lets her eyes fall shut.

Rather than try to force her chakra unknown tenketsu, Sakura simply begins to manipulate the energy in her core. She first draws what chakra has been naturally distributed to her limbs into her center, forming a swirling mass. She can see it in her mind’s eye, a whirling ball of energy that makes up the very essence of her being. Sakura makes it spin faster, then slower, before allowing it to disperse. She wonders if her memories are contained in it…is that what chakra is? A soul?

She moves the stream into her hand holding the seal, then back out, then into her other hand resting calmly in her lap. If she’s precise and quick, very little chakra is allowed to radiate from her body. There must be some sort of conformational change during ninjutsu, then—an irreversible transformation step that commits the chakra summoned into an output of energy. Perhaps chakra is like gravitational potential energy that way; theoretically you can move it “laterally” (or in this case, within the confines of the body) without loss, but if you release it, it becomes kinetic energy and is spent.

However, that particular revelation is interrupted by a very loud “Good morning Sakura-chan!” and Sakura jerks, her chakra flaring in response to the surprise. Quickly, she wrangles it in—she can’t afford to waste any energy today.

Sakura cracks open one eye. “Good morning, Naruto,” she allows, and it about to resume her meditation when she realizes Sasuke-kun is there, leaning against one of the other posts. When had he—?

“Sasuke-kun! I didn’t…notice you were here,” Sakura admits awkwardly. Some shinobi she was! “Good morning,” she adds belatedly, feeling stupid.

Sasuke-kun just makes that wordless noise of acknowledgement, not looking at her. “…you seemed like you were concentrating,” he says in a very quiet, toneless voice. Sakura almost falls off the post. Sasuke-kun had noticed her! Even just a little bit…

“Ne, ne, Sakura-chan, what are you doing?” Naruto asks, jumping up to sit on the third post.

Sakura closes her eye. “Meditating,” she answers simply. She summons the chakra again, letting it flow into her limbs with each inhale, and recollect in her center as she breathes out—a flower continuously blooming and curling shut. The motion is sloppy at first, but after a few breaths Sakura is able to smoothly send it to the tips of her fingers and toes, and swiftly recall it into her core.

But Naruto is insistent. “Can I meditate too?” he asks, all genuine hopefulness, and Sakura sighs. Well, if she can get him to meditate, he won’t be able to talk…

Sakura opens her eyes. “First, sit like me,” she instructs, and he hastily moves to obey. “Now, close your eyes, and try to call on your chakra. You know, the little ball of energy in your chest?”

His expression becomes one of extreme concentration—or perhaps constipation. “Hmm,” he mumbles. “I think I got it. What next?”

Sakura isn’t sure she believes him, but whatever. “Okay, it kind of feels like it’s swirling a little bit, right?”

His face lights up at that. “Oh, oh! Yeah, it does!”

Sakura crooks a smile at his enthusiasm. “Get a feel for the direction of the flow. Now, try a few different elemental hand seals and see if it reacts.”

“Uh…”

Sakura rolls her eyes. Of course he doesn’t know those—though to his credit, they were less commonly used, especially by younger nin. “Open your eyes, I’ll show you.”

Sakura begins running through the seals. They make it through fire, water, earth, and lightning with no discernible change (and Sakura is beginning to doubt it will work for him) but when his fingers fold into the Wind Release seal, his face lights up.

“Oh man, that’s so cool! It’s like my chakra just went whoosh!”

Sakura blinks. Wind affinity, huh? Or at least something like it. Sakura allows her eyes to fall shut, filing this new information away. “Now try and make your chakra spin faster, then slower.”

“Urgh…this is hard, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura begins her breathing meditation again. “Exactly. The more you do it, the easier it gets.”

“…I guess…”

There are no words after that, and Sakura allows herself a smile. For all his obnoxiousness, Naruto is a pretty good student.

The sound of movement to Sakura’s left has her eye popping open, and to her shock, Sasuke-kun is sitting cross-legged on the post, his hand already in the Fire Release seal. “Sasuke-kun! Are you going to meditate, too?”

“Hn,” he responds, eyes closing. Sakura feels positively giddy. It takes a few moments to calm the chakra in her heart; it won’t stop wiggling like an excited puppy, but eventually Sakura manages to soothe it enough to begin her meditation once more.

After thirty minutes, Sakura’s hand drops into her lap and she relaxes, allowing her chakra flow to resume as normal. Circulation didn’t cause too much chakra to radiate out, but of course, even a small amount adds up over time. Instead, Sakura simply enjoys the breeze on her face and the sound of birds. A quick peek reveals Sasuke to be doing the same (though she suspects his enjoyment of birdsong to be minimal, if any at all), and Naruto is fast asleep, his head hanging down on his chest.

Man, Kakashi-sensei is late…maybe this is the true test, Sakura thinks sardonically. If you die from sheer boredom, you fail. Sakura sighs, and tries to empty her mind for some old-fashioned, chakra-free meditation. It lasts all of two minutes—because regular meditation is too boring, even for her—and Sakura really regrets not bringing a book from the library.

She’s about to open her eyes and look for something more entertaining when a voice right behind her nearly causes her to fall off the post. “Hey guys!” a chipper Kakashi-sensei greets. Next to her, Naruto actually does fall off.

Sakura clutches at her pounding heart, glaring at him. She really needs to work on her stealth detection—far too many people had been sneaking up on her lately. But more importantly…

“You’re late!” she and Naruto cry in unison, both pointing accusatory fingers at him. Kakashi-sensei just laughs, scratching the back of his head.

“You see, I got lost on the path of life, this morning…”

Sakura wants to punch him in his stupid eye. “Good grief,” she mutters, hopping off the post and standing with her arms akimbo. “So? The survival training?” she prompts, wanting to get on with it. If Sakura has to stress about this anymore she’s going to get ulcers.

In response, Kakashi-sensei pats her on the head before placing what appears to be an alarm clock on the post she had just vacated. “It’s set for noon,” he informs them, before pulling out two bells from his pocket, jingling on short strings.

“See these?” he asks, and Sakura nods along with her two teammates. “Your task is to take them from me before noon.” Sakura gapes—it’s already past 11:00! They have less than an hour to try and outwit a jounin!

“Those who cannot get a bell by noon get no lunch,” he continues. “And that’s not all—you get tied to the post and I’ll eat right in front of you.”

Sakura sends an internal prayer of thanks up to her mother, incredibly grateful she had eaten breakfast, even if it had been a couple hours ago. Thank you, mama! I will never doubt your wisdom again!

But…Sakura realizes there are only two bells, and swallows. What the hell is Kakashi-sensei pulling here?

His expression and tone are like concrete, unchanging and hard. “You’ve probably noticed that there are only two. So at least one of you will be tied to a stump. And…the person who doesn’t get the bell fails, and goes back to the academy. You’re on your own out there. Is that clear?”

Sakura nods silently, feeling an uneasy tension grow between her and her teammates. To turn them against one another so soon…it didn’t make sense. Even the two who succeed would be initially competing against one another…what kind of precedent did that set for future missions? Sakura is supposed to be able to trust her team with her life!

But Kakashi-sensei isn’t finished. “You should come at me with intent to kill,” he informs them. “You won’t have a chance, otherwise.”

Next to her, Naruto snorts. “Pfft, you’re gonna get destroyed, old man!”

Sakura could punch him.

Kakashi-sensei shrugs. “Those who talk the loudest tend to have no talent,” he says blandly. “So, ignore mister dead-last here and—”

The instructions are interrupted by Naruto winding up to launch a kunai at Kakashi-sensei’s face, but he doesn’t even get to release the blade before their sensei has him in a hold, pointing his own kunai at his head.

Sakura tries to calm her racing heart. I couldn’t see any of that…

“Slow down,” Kakashi-sensei chides. “I haven’t said start yet.”

At once, Sakura is seized with the conviction that there is absolutely no chance that any of them will succeed. Not by themselves.

Kakashi-sensei sighs. “Well, at least you’re prepared to take this seriously.” He releases Naruto’s head. “Okay, let’s get this going…ready, set…”

Sakura’s heart skips a beat.

Start!”

 

--0--

 

The first thing Sakura does is hide herself.

The second this Sakura does is make a plan to find her teammates. We have to work together, she decides. There’s no other feasible way to succeed. Sasuke-kun is amazing, sure, but Kakashi-sensei is a jounin who’s mentally filed under super genius; ANBU?? so it doesn’t matter how talented any of them are, they don’t have even a single hope if they don’t work together.

Sakura sighs, and tries to summon up her tracking know-how. Man, if only she had Pakkun here…

Come and fight me!”

Sakura gapes. Damn it, of course Naruto was going to pull some moronic stunt like this; why did she expect anything else? Sakura lets out an annoyed breath. At least she didn’t have to go searching for him…if he survives whatever Kakashi-sensei is about to do.

Sakura watches quietly as Kakashi-sensei pulls out his book and Naruto attempts to attack him. The blond is batted away like an annoying bug, and Sakura’s heart drops. The fight continues to escalate, but Naruto is hopeless against Kakashi-sensei’s skills. This isn’t good…should she step in?

Suddenly, Kakashi-sensei has his hands in the tiger seal formation and before she knows it, Sakura is shouting at her teammate. “Naruto! Get out of there!” she cries, forcing chakra into her legs. Damn it, they’re too far away for her to reach in time…!

“Hidden Leaf Ancient Taijutsu Supreme Technique: One Thousand Years of Pain!”

Sakura freezes. Not ninjutsu…Sakura actually feels her respect for Kakashi-sensei nosediving. What kind of weird pervert is he?!

Well, whatever—she has a teammate to collect. With a chakra-enhanced leap, Sakura snatches Naruto mid-air, grabbing the back of his bright orange jacket. She sticks her tongue out at Kakashi-sensei for good measure, catching the surprised look in his eye, before disappearing into the trees with another bound.

“Sa-sakura-chan?!” Naruto yelps after she deposits him on a branch.

“Shh!” Sakura hushes. “We need to find Sasuke-kun!” Sakura glances around, trying to dredge up a plan. They need to locate Sasuke-kun without alerting Kakashi-sensei to their whereabouts, even if it seems like he’s not on the offensive. Who knows what sorts of weird traps he’s concocted.

Naruto deflates. “Aw, why Sakura-chan? If it’s just you and me, we could get the two bells for ourselves! Leave that Sasuke-teme in the dust!”

Sakura rolls her eyes, snatching the front of Naruto’s jacket, yanking him close. “Naruto, listen to me. You and I alone don’t stand a chance against him. We need to work together. After we get the bells, we can figure out who keeps them, okay?”

“Oh-okay…Sakura-chan…” Naruto doesn’t seem wholly convinced, but Sakura couldn’t care less. Now they need to find Sasuke-kun. And to do that, they probably need to find Kakashi-sensei.

“C’mon, Sasuke-kun is definitely going to try and attack him next. If we find Kakashi-sensei, we find Sasuke-kun. Got it?” Sasuke-kun probably stood the best chance out of the three of them, but that didn’t mean he would succeed, Sakura thinks grimly as she and Naruto set off.

Naruto can’t leap through the trees quite like Sakura, so they’re forced to move by ground. Luckily, Naruto’s ability to be stealthy when he wants to isn’t actually too bad—but Sakura has a feeling that his orange jacket is a dead give-away.

Suddenly, Naruto taps Sakura on the shoulder, pointing northwest from their position. Sakura peers around the tree she’d been hiding behind and spots Kakashi-sensei, strolling lackadaisically with his nose buried in that damn book about twenty-five meters away. Sakura gives Naruto a thumbs-up for spotting their sensei. He’d been blessedly quiet about it too. Nice one!

As quietly as possible, Sakura and Naruto slip into the trees, waiting. Soon enough, a barrage of kunai and shuriken burst out of a nearby tree, whistling ferociously in the air before they all hit their target with deadly accuracy. Kakashi-sensei’s body falls limply to the ground while Naruto makes a sound of shocked disgust. Sakura swallows her revulsion, both at the scene and the action itself

“He went too far!” Naruto cries, but Sakura only has eyes for that spot in the trees. There’s no way that was the real Kakashi-sensei—and her suspicions are confirmed when it transforms into a log with a poof! Channeling chakra into her legs once more, Sakura swiftly makes her way over to where the weapons had originated from, and finds Sasuke about to flee.

Sorry about this, Sasuke-kun.

Just as the boy attempts to jump away, Sakura snags the back of his (frankly, ridiculously big) collar, causing him to release a noise along the lines of “Hrghk!”

Sakura releases the fabric, and Sasuke whirls, crouching down on the branch and preparing to counter attack. He freezes when he recognizes his attacker.

“Sakura, what the—”

Sakura clamps a hand over his mouth. “No time, we gotta go.” Sakura had read somewhere once that if you speak to someone with calm, confident urgency they’re more likely to follow your directions than if you just ask. When Sasuke actually follows her, she decides that she needs to review some of those psychology texts. They were damn useful.

Finally, Sakura manages to get Naruto and Sasuke corralled into a small ravine surrounded by trees. It’s decently well hidden, and should serve their needs well enough for now.

Sasuke-kun looks pissed. “Sakura, what the hell are you doing?”

Part of Sakura wants to cave, to let Sasuke-kun do what he wants and hope he doesn’t stay too mad at her. But a bigger part of her wants to pass this goddamn exam, and make her mother proud. While there’s only a small chance of her getting bell while working with her teammates, there’s zero chance she’ll get one without them.

“Sasuke-kun, we have to work together if we want to pass. He’s too strong to take on by ourselves,” she tells him, holding up her hands, placating.

“Che,” he spits. “I’m a Uchiha. I can beat him without your help!” Sasuke turns to go, but Sakura has one last thing up her sleeve.

“Sasuke,” Sakura says, voice hard. Sasuke pauses, but whether it’s at her tone or the drop of honorific, she doesn’t know. “Kakashi-sensei was an ANBU member. He’s some sort of shinobi-genius. We can’t beat him alone.

Sasuke whirls, glaring at her. “How do you know that?”

Sakura sighs. “I did some research at the library, looked at his registry. Everything is redacted. He graduated the academy at five years old. ”

Sasuke doesn’t move for a second, and Sakura is beginning to wonder if this was all for nothing, when he huffs and walks back over to them. “Fine,” he grinds out, kneeling down next to Sakura and Naruto. “But one of those bells is mine.”

“Oi, oi! One of them is mine, teme!” Naruto snarls, and Sakura can’t control herself anymore— she smacks them both on the head with a resounding thwap!

The response is…honestly hilarious. Naruto looks like he’s about to cry and Sasuke’s expression is just dumbfounded. She can be mortified at hitting her crush later, Sakura decides. They really need to stop underestimating me. “If we’re even able to get the bells, we can all arm-wrestle for them, okay?” Sakura snaps, and to her gratification both boys nod mutely. “Great. Now we need a plan.”

They spend a few minutes offering up their various skills in hushed voices (Naruto can apparently make kage bunshin, which is shocking but will probably be extremely useful) and Sakura realizes that she might be the weakest one out of the three. Shit. But…that could come in handy. Other than her ability to stab home-invading thugs, Kakashi-sensei probably only knows what the academy records show him—which is textbook perfection and otherwise, a very unremarkable kunoichi. They could use this to their advantage.

Sakura rubs her chin, thinking hard. They’ve got to overwhelm him, and hope that his attention is preoccupied enough, even just for a moment, for one of them to grab the bells. When Sakura glances up, both boys are looking at her expectantly—waiting for her orders, apparently.

Luckily for them, she’s got a plan. “Alright, listen closely.”

After she finishes explaining the strategy, Naruto’s expression is awed and Sasuke’s is grudgingly impressed. It’ll be tricky to pull off, but not impossible.

Then, Naruto’s face falls a little. “But…Sakura-chan, will you be okay?”

Sakura gives him the hairy eyeball. “What, you think I can’t handle a little bruising?” she demands in a whisper, more for show than anything else.

“No! I just…don’t want you to get hurt!” he answers honestly, and Sakura offers him a genuine smile.

“I’ll be fine, Naruto. But I appreciate the concern. Okay, are we ready to do this?”

Naruto starts to nod but freezes. “Wait!” he whisper-yells. “We should come up with a name for it! Something cool-sounding!”

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Che, idiot.”

Sakura’s mind is churning that idea around. “He might be onto something, actually,” she mutters, and Naruto sticks his tongue out at Sasuke.

“If we yell out nonsensical words as we attack, that’s just one more thing his brain has to process,” Sakura explains. “When it comes to someone like him, every little distraction helps.”

Naruto is nodding his head rapidly. “Yeah, yeah! What should we name it? The Super Awesome Powerful Technique of Death?” he suggests, eyes sparkling.

Sakura reaches up to tighten the bow around her ponytail, considering. “How about something more confusing? Like…our favorite foods, or something.”

“That’s a great idea, Sakura-chan! Then it’s our special team move, too!” Naruto agrees, and Sakura feels her heart get a little fuzzy and warm at his good-natured eagerness.

Sakura taps her chin, thinking. “Well, my favorite food is anmitsu…”

“Mine’s ramen!”

As one, they turn expectantly to Sasuke, who is wearing the expression of the severely put upon. After a few moments of receiving the full force of their combined puppy-eyes, he finally gives in. “…Tomatoes. I don’t…hate them,” he offers haltingly, and Sakura giggles. How endearing!

Sakura takes a deep breath, calming her nerves. “Okay, Ramen-Tomato-Anmitsu Formation is a go! You boys ready?”

“Yeah! ‘ttebayo!”

“Hn.”

Feeling a sense of pride fill her heart, Sakura grins. “Then let’s do this!”

 

--0--

 

Finding Kakashi-sensei is relatively easy. Determining if it’s the real Kakashi-sensei…well, they have a plan for that too.

Oi! Kakashi-sensei! Fight me like a man!”

Naruto is standing in a small clearing, arms crossed as he stares down his opponent.

Kakashi-sensei glances up from his book. “Maa, you really want to try this again?”

Naruto points at him. “Don’t you underestimate me!” Naruto launches himself at their sensei, drawing his hands into the kage bunshin seal. “Ramen-Tomato-Anmitsu Formation! Attaaaack!”

Sakura takes this as her cue, and dashes on the field—alongside Naruto’s clone transformed to look like her. The real Sakura, on the other hand, is transformed to look like Naruto. The first clones descend on Kakashi sensei in a maelstrom of punches and kicks, and he takes each one out with a swift, if not slightly careless blow—so it is the real thing. Perfect!

Sakura follows suit, and as they had planned, leaps at Kakashi-sensei just as Sasuke-kun erupts from the treeline and hurls a swarm of shuriken at their instructor.

Eye focused on the incoming weapons, Kakashi-sensei doesn’t spare Sakura a glance as he knocks her over his shoulder with a swift elbow to the stomach. It hurts like hell—Sakura can almost hear her ribs creaking from the blow, and the shock of it stuns Sakura out of her transformation.

But she can’t think about the pain now—she’s got milliseconds to get this right!

It’s like everything is in slow motion. As Sakura falls, twisting to right herself, the real Naruto clings to Kakashi-sensei’s arm like a crazed limpet and several clones are piled around his legs, forcing him to use a kunai to deflect the oncoming shuriken.

Almost, almost, almost—there!

The moment Sakura’s feet touch the ground she uses a burst of chakra to launch herself at Kakashi-sensei, arm outstretched. The whole world is nothing but a blur in that one second of flight, and then—

—Sakura finds herself tucked under Kakashi-sensei’s arm like a sack of rice, watching as Sasuke is sent flying by a force she couldn’t see. “Huh?” Sakura yelps, squirming in Kakashi-sensei’s hold. Their plan was going perfectly! What happened?!

Sakura looks around wildly, and sees Naruto in the same predicament as her, his expression almost comically dizzy. “Sakura-chan…the world won’t stop spinning…”

Sakura sags, feeling defeated. Even with the three of them working together it was hopeless. To make matters worse, the alarm clock chooses to go off at that exact moment, reinforcing their failure.

Sakura wasn’t a shinobi anymore.

Hot tears gather in her eyes, and a few of them fall, but if you asked her later Sakura would just blame them on having her organs slightly rearranged.

Suddenly Kakashi-sensei is moving, and Sakura squeaks as they reappear in front of the training posts. He puts Naruto down first, laying him gently against the wood, before doing the same to Sakura. She flinches as the movement jostles her bruised ribs, sucking in a pained breath. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best plan…

Kakashi-sensei vanishes again, returning not a moment later with an indignant Sasuke under his arm. The jounin deposits him at the third training post before stepping back to survey his ex-team, humming as he rubs his chin in thought. Sakura glares mulishly at her former sensei, daring him to judge them. They made a great team, no matter what this stupid pervert says!

“Well, considering that not a single one of you managed to get a bell,” Kakashi-sensei begins in a sanctimonious tone, putting his hands on his hips. “The decision here is clear. All of you…”

Sakura grits her teeth and looks away, trying to hold back her tears.

“…pass!”

What.

Sakura leaps to her feet, shocked. The pain follows a moment later and she coughs, buckling slightly, but still manages to point at Kakashi-sensei accusingly. “Why?!” she demands, sick of having her emotions yanked around. Next to her, Sasuke and Naruto express similar levels of confusion.

Kakashi-sensei gives her a pleading look, holding his palms up, mollifying. “Sakura-chan, please sit down. You might have some broken ribs.”

Sakura glowers, but complies, flopping back down with a huff and an expectant look on her face. Their sensei has some explaining to do.

“You’re the first ones to pass,” Kakashi-sensei says quietly. “All of my previous teams would just do what I told them, and immediately turned against each other. They never realized the true point of this lesson…teamwork.”

Naruto makes a confused sound. “But there were only two bells! How was that supposed to make us work together?” he demands, and Sakura nods in agreement. She had the same thought at the very beginning of the assignment.

Kakashi-sensei shrugs. “A shinobi must look underneath the underneath. This test is purposefully set up to make you fight amongst yourselves—and then to see if you can forget about your own interests in order to successfully work together as a team.”

Sakura slumps against the post. Of course it was like that. She feels stupid for not realizing at the start.

Kakashi-sensei stuffs his hands into his pockets, his gaze turning to the sky. “Those who break the rules and codes of the shinobi world are called trash...but you know what? Those who abandon their teammates are even lower than trash.”

Sakura feels her heart thump in her chest at the declaration. Sensei…he’s pretty cool…

“Alright, that concludes training.” Kakashi-sensei gives them a thumbs-up. “All of you pass! Starting tomorrow, Team Seven will begin its duties! Meet at the bridge at oh-nine-hundred. Don’t be late.”

Naruto is nearly catatonic with joy, dancing around the training ground. “I did it! I’m a ninja! Ninja ninja ninjaaa!”

“Good grief,” Sakura groans, standing stiffly. Her ribs give a nasty twinge and she yelps. “Ah! Damn, all this for nothing…”

“Sakura-chan, I’ll take you to the hospital to get that checked out,” Kakashi-sensei remarks, ambling over to her.

Sakura dismisses the offer with a wave. Despite the disaster of an exam, she still owed him for all previous kindnesses he’d showed her, and didn’t want to impose. “Oh, it’s okay Kakashi-sensei. I’m pretty sure they’re just bruised, not broken.”

His head tilts to the side. “I’m sorry, did it sound like I was asking?” Kakashi-sensei inquires in a curious tone.

Sakura doesn’t know how to respond to that. “Er…”

His eye curves up into a smile. “I’ll rephrase: little genin who purposefully put themselves in harm’s way don’t get a say in whether or not they go to the hospital.”

His voice brooks zero argument, and Sakura deflates. “Whatever you say, boss,” she grumbles. Kakashi-sensei crouches down, and Sakura climbs reluctantly onto his back, sulking. Man, her mom is going to kill her for racking up all these hospital fees…

Once they’re flying over the city (each jump eliciting a grumpy “ow,” from Sakura), a thought pops into Sakura’s head.

“Ne, sensei?”

“Mm?”

“How did you figure out what we were planning?” Sakura asks, genuinely curious. It really felt like they almost had him.

Kakashi-sensei chuckles, before tapping his nose. “You smell like strawberries, Naruto does not. I noticed the moment I hit you.”

Sakura groans. Even her shampoo is conspiring against her!

“By the way, the ninken miss you,” Kakashi-sensei says conversationally. “Apparently, your ear-rubbing capabilities are far superior to mine.”

Sakura flushes, pleased. To make a good impression on such formidable ninja-dogs, even if it was by way of cuddling…it feels good. “Maybe I could see them again? During training?” Sakura asks shyly. To be honest, she misses them too—they’d been a source of comfort and strength during the worst night of her life, and Sakura can admit that she’s quick to get attached. Also, they were all so cute!

Kakashi-sensei makes an intrigued noise. “Training with the ninken? Now there’s an idea,” he remarks, and Sakura has a bad, bad feeling about whatever idea she just put into her teacher’s head.

 

--0--

 

Sakura sighs as she settles cross-legged on her bed. What a ridiculous, horrible, amazing day. Having her ribs bruised was certainly a low point but A. she passed an exam that no one had passed before and B. seeing Chihiro-san completely unnerve Kakashi-sensei with her profound weirdness was completely worth the discomfort. Sakura won’t soon forget the way her sensei literally dove out of the hospital window to avoid any further strange questioning from the eccentric medic-nin.

When Sakura had returned home earlier, trepidation curling in her gut, she had been shocked to find her home spotless—it was as if the previous night’s events had never even happened. It was weird. She was glad for it, of course, but it only made the entire thing feel like a dream.

But whatever. It did happen, she dealt with it, and it was time to move on. Inhaling, Sakura summons her chakra and starts her breathing meditation, focusing on smooth, controlled movement. Then, she begins funneling it upwards in just a tiny stream, sweating as the effort builds. It’s definitely working, though—each new tenketsu that she unlocks feels like a tiny gate opening, the sensation not unlike a needle brief needle poke.

After an hour of alternating her breathing meditation and tenketsu seeking, Sakura manages to increase the range of her chakra circulation to…the lower half of her neck. And she has a feeling it will only get more difficult from there.

With a sigh, Sakura jumps off her bed and heads for the shower. It’s late, and tomorrow is her first day as a true shinobi of Konoha. She’s going to need all the rest she can get.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Cost-benefit analysis: the comparisons (weighing potential advantages against damages) one makes when determining whether or not to embark on a certain project or plan.

 

--

 

Sakura arrives early at the bridge—she can’t help it. Nerves over her first real day as a shinobi (not to mention seeing her crush for the first time since she whacked him on the head) had made her sleep restless, so when Sakura settles herself on the railing, it’s only just after 8:30.

It’s peaceful, by herself, and for a little while she simply daydreams the minutes away. What adventures could their first day entail? Escorting a princess back to her homeland? Bodyguard duty for a daimyo’s child? Maybe Sakura would get to show off her chakra control again…Sasuke-kun had even acknowledged it yesterday!

Sakura grins to herself, kicking her legs. Yeah, today is going to be amazing, she can already tell. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, there’s a gigantic orange blur racing down the path…

Oh, wait, that’s just Naruto.

“Good morning Sakura-chan!” he greets enthusiastically, and she offers him a small smile. He’d shown himself to be a reliable teammate the prior day, and the reservations Sakura still maintained about the kid were crumbling away. She can admit he’s growing on her. (Like a fungus.)

“Morning, Naruto.”

Naruto hops up onto the wide railing next to her, seated cross-legged. “Ne, Sakura-chan, can we meditate again today? It was so cool! At first my chakra was like bleh but then it was like whoosh and fshoooom!” He act outs the motion of his chakra, hands flapping wildly, but it looks more like a hurricane than a neatly spinning ball to Sakura.

Sakura pulls her feet up to mimic Naruto’s position, already forming the Earth Release seal. “Okay, but remember, no talking!” What a marvelously handy way of shutting up her noisy teammate. Anyone who claims Sakura isn’t a genius can suck her big toe.

Naruto starts to voice his recognition before slapping a hand over his mouth and nodding instead. He forms the Wind Release seal, his eyes falling shut and a look of deep concentration creasing his face. Sakura shakes her head at his zeal. What a dope.

Before long, Sakura finds her nerves calming, focusing too intently on the motion of her own chakra to be anxious. Mentally, Sakura sends a silent thank you to Naruto—the combination of his enthusiasm and her own breathing meditation had soothed the butterflies in her stomach, leaving nothing but mild anticipation behind.

A few minutes later, footsteps on the bridge alert the two genin to another presence.

“Sasuke-kun!” Sakura says, a happy smile curling her lips. “Good morning!” Naruto offers a polite, “Morning, teme.”

Sasuke-kun doesn’t say anything for a few moments, before seating himself on the bridge railing just like Naruto and Sakura. “…morning,” he greets eventually, voice neutral. He forms the Fire Release hand seal and Sakura watches as his eyes fall shut.

Internally, Sakura is doing back-flips. He said good morning! He’s not mad about yesterday, and he’s meditating with us! I’m two-for-two!

Sakura quickly wrestles her excited chakra into some semblance of order, not wanting to waste any of it. But if she spends the next fifteen minutes meditating with a dopey grin on her face, that’s nobody’s business but hers.

“You guys look like monkeys, sitting in a row like that.” 

Sakura’s eyes pop open. Kakashi-sensei is standing before them on the bridge, one hand stuffed into his pocket and the other holding that weird book. Damn, Sakura hadn’t heard or sensed his arrival at all—the eliteness of jounin, she muses. His visible eye curves into a smile. “Am I interrupting something?” he asks, sounding amused.

“Sakura-chan is teaching us how to meditate!” Naruto answers, and Sakura blushes immediately. She hadn’t presumed to teach them anything, considering she had only just learned how to meditate herself. Kakashi-sensei’s gaze slides over to Sakura, and she shrinks underneath it.

“Is that so?” he drawls.

Next to her, Naruto nods unreservedly. “Yeah, yeah! She showed us how to use hand seals to make our chakra spin! It’s really cool!” The blond pauses, seeming to remember something. “Sensei, you’re late!”

Kakashi-sensei nods amiably at the accusation as Sakura, mortified, dies on the inside. He must think her so arrogant—barely a genin, and here she is acting like an authority on something. Kakashi-sensei’s head tips to the side. “Shall I start calling you Sakura-sensei?” he inquires, putting away his book.

Sakura can actually feel her will to live disintegrating. Face aflame, she self-consciously adjusts the bow tying her hair back, refusing to make eye contact. “No,” she mutters. “I was just…nevermind.” Alone, it had just been an exercise, but with her teammates, it feels like…bonding, or something. A way to connect without talking. Now it just seems stupid.

She looks up at the sensation of Kakashi-sensei’s hand patting her head. “I think it’s great,” he says quietly. “Maybe I’ll even join you guys next time.”

Sakura has a feeling Kakashi-sensei’s meditation is mostly him reading that weird book, but she appreciates the thought nonetheless. Sakura offers him a grateful smile, before swatting away his hand. “So, what’s the mission today?” she asks, all business.

“Glad you asked!” Kakashi-sensei says in a cheerful voice that portends disaster. “Today, we have been granted the honor of…picking the weeds from Wada-san’s radish garden!”

Sakura’s body sags as Naruto leaps off the railing to complain animatedly. She should have known it would be something colossally lame. Ex-ANBU sensei or not, three-fourths of their team are genin fresh from the academy. Anything more advanced than weed-pulling would probably end in mangling or death, and considering the habitual animosity between the boys, it still might.

Sakura sighs, and steels herself for the most destructive day of gardening she will likely ever experience.

 

--0--

 

As Sakura had predicted, her teammates turn weeding into a competition after less than two minutes. 

“Hey, teme,” Naruto sneers, and Sakura already hates where this is going. Why couldn’t she be blessed with passive aggressive teammates instead of aggressive-aggressive? She’d much rather have them volley petty insults back and forth than actual bladed weapons.

“I bed I can pick more weeds than you in an hour!” Naruto declares. Sasuke-kun responds, “In your dreams, dead last,” starting to pick faster, and Sakura wishes that a lightning bolt might smite her dead right there. It’s their first mission and her two idiot teammates are about to send this poor old man’s radish field up in flames.

Kakashi-sensei had, of course, made himself scarce the second the actual weeding began. One day, I’ll be a jounin and I can make my stupid little subordinates pull weeds while I disappear to who knows where, Sakura thinks fervently, watching as Naruto tries to use kunai to hack away at the invasive plants.

Sakura groans. “Naruto, you can’t just cut them! You have to pull out the whole root system or it’ll just grow back!” she calls out to him chidingly. She is not about to let them get a poor review for weed-pulling. A brain-dead monkey can pull weeds correctly!

Distracted, Sakura fails to keep an eye on her own work—and just barely manages to jerk her hand back in time as a snake snaps at it, hissing loudly. With a shriek Sakura yanks out a kunai and hurls it at the creature as she scrabbles backwards, falling onto her rump. The noise alerts her teammates, and they both come rushing over.

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto shouts. “What’s wrong?!”

Sakura tries to calm her racing heart. “J-just a snake,” she admits, pushing to her feet. It’s still twitching where her kunai has it pinned, and Sasuke-kun finishes it off with one more straight through the head. She feels a little bad—the harmless little thing had been minding its own business when she came along and disturbed it. But…Sakura squints at it, before gasping. Holy shit.

Naruto’s head swivels between her and the dead reptile. “What is it?” he demands.

Sakura gulps. “It’s just…that’s a mamushi. They’re really venomous.” She could’ve died. The antidote isn’t rare per se, but the neurotoxins in mamushi venom are powerful and most victims have to spend at least a weak in the hospital after being bitten.

Naruto makes a horrified noise. “But it didn’t bite you, right? You’re okay?!”

Sakura nods slowly, deeply unnerved. “I’m fine,” she assures him, even though she honestly feels a little lightheaded. Weed-pulling might really be the death of her.

In the end, Sasuke-kun disposes of it, flinging it into a ditch alongside the radish field. All three of them resume pulling weeds, albeit much more sedately and with considerably more caution. Three hours later, when they settle down for a lunch break, Kakashi-sensei reappears. “How are my cute little genin doing? Dutifully clearing this field of weeds, I hope?”

Sakura simply nods, tucking into the obento her mother had prepared for her. “Made with love and good luck for your first mission,” Mebuki had said. Fat lot of good that did her, though it is delicious.

“Sakura-chan almost died,” Naruto deadpans while slurping down a repulsively large mouthful of cup-ramen noodles, clearly having recovered from the trauma. Where he had managed to find hot water, Sakura has no idea.

Kakashi-sensei’s head turns to her. “Aa?” he murmurs, sounding vaguely curious.

Sakura swallows her mouthful, wishing Naruto hadn’t said anything. Explaining her lack of attentiveness (and its almost-deadly consequences) to her sensei is not something she wants to do right now. She’s a shinobi—she’s supposed to be looking underneath the underneath, not getting bit by it!

“…a mamushi,” Sakura finally mutters, embarrassed. Of course she had managed to make weed-pulling into a dangerous event. “I startled it and it almost bit me.”

Kakashi-sensei blinks at her, but she can’t read his expression. “Well, I’m glad you managed to survive,” he quips.

Desperately wanting to rescue her reputation as a sensible human being, Sakura quickly adds, “We should tell Wada-san about the viper. In case it had offspring.”

Her sensei nods. “Good thinking,” he agrees, and there’s genuine approval in his voice. Sakura looks away, still ashamed, and finds her appetite gone. Well, at least she can get back to weeding sooner. Joyous is the day.

“I’m done,” she announces quietly, packing away her containers. “I’ll head back first.” Without waiting for a response, Sakura jumps to her feet and returns to the field. She resumes ripping the weeds out with new fervor, choosing to take out her frustration on the helpless plants.

Today was supposed to be great. It’s her first mission as a real shinobi, even if it’s just grunt work—and Sakura had gone and nearly ruined it by almost getting bitten by one of the most venomous snakes in Konoha.

Useless! Pathetic!

The words claws at her mind, and she yanks out the next weed with violence. Just yesterday Sakura declared her dream of protecting her loved ones, and today she nearly dies pulling weeds in the middle of a radish field. I have a long way to go, she thinks sourly. Part of Sakura’s brain registers that she’s being a bit overdramatic, but the other part is just pissed.

It’s not until Sakura’s hand blindly wraps around a particularly prickly weed that realizes what an idiotic tantrum she’s throwing.

Look at me, throwing a fit over being stupid, and then being stupid while throwing a fit. Sakura takes a second to breathe deeply, allowing the motions to forcibly relax her body and mind. In and out, in and out, in and out.

With each breath, Sakura feels the tension leaving her body, and she takes a moment to stretch her arms over her head. Even if she’s sweaty and dirty, the sun feels nice on her face. There’s a comfortable breeze too, and when she pauses to look at it, there’s a rustic beauty to the radish field. Yikes, I’m turning into dad!

Now in a calmer state of mind, Sakura is able to feel embarrassed about storming away from lunch earlier. Man, it’s just one thing after the other today.

Suddenly, a yelp from Naruto has Sakura whirling. She locates him a few meters away, flinging a volley of shuriken at something on the ground. “Die die die!” he cries, hopping away franticly from whatever it is.

Sakura dashes over to him, worry seizing her. “Naruto, what is it?” she demands.

He points to the ground. “Snake!”

Sakura looks, and sure enough, another mamushi is twitching in the throes of death, having been maimed but not killed by Naruto’s sloppy accuracy. Sakura stares at it, shocked. Pit vipers are fairly common in agricultural areas—drawn in by the rodents—but two adult mamushi in the same field? It feels odd.

“Another one over here.”

Sakura turns to see Sasuke-kun holding up a deceased viper dangling from his kunai. Okay, now this is just weird. Sakura feels uneasiness curl in her gut, and she makes a decision. “We should check the whole field,” she declares. Clearly, there’s an infestation—and Wada-san is a 60 year old man who lives alone—basically, promised certain death if bitten.

Naruto and Sasuke-kun makes noises of agreement, and Sakura wracks her brain for an efficient way to investigate the entire plot without getting bitten. “Ah!” She snaps her fingers. “We could just send Naruto’s kage bunshin running around until they get bit.” A bit slapdash, but it could work…

“Th-that’s so cold, Sakura-chan,” Naruto whimpers, shivering.

“And probably not thorough enough,” Sasuke-kun adds, strolling over. He’s most likely right, and Sakura hums, rubbing her chin.

The ninken would be extremely helpful right now, but Kakashi-sensei is nowhere to be found and they’re running out of daylight. Sakura sighs. “Any chance either of you are secretly snake charmers? Because it looks like we might have to do this the hard way.” That is, poking each radish plant with a stick and hoping it doesn’t bite.

Both of her teammates shake their heads in the negative. Okay, sticks it is.

In the end, Team Seven does manage to both finish pulling the weeds and exterminate the rest of the snakes (that they’re able to find, anyway). In total, they discover seven mamushi, all fully grown. It’s just freaky.

When they tell Wada-san, he blanches and promises to call a real exterminator, thanking them for their extra effort. He tries to offer them more money, and their refusal is both in unison and adamant. When they tell Kakashi-sensei, he just hums curiously, but doesn’t appear particularly bothered. He does, however, force all three of them to show him their bare hands and feet, inspecting for bite marks.

“Don’t you think we would have felt it, sensei?” Sakura asks as he turns over her small hands in his larger ones, spreading out her fingers to check between them.

“Maybe, maybe not,” he answers. “Snakebites have a way of staying hidden until it’s too late.” And wow that isn’t cryptic or alarming at all.

When they all check out fang-free, he declares the mission complete and sends them home. “Tomorrow is another mission, so get some rest. I promise it will contain less snakes,” Kakashi-sensei informs them in a light voice. And then, of course, “Don’t be late!”

It’s not until Sakura is home and in bed, watching the stars glitter in the night sky that the utter strangeness of the day occurs to her. Seven snakes...call her superstitious, but to Sakura it felt like a terrible omen.

 

--0--

 

To Kakashi-sensei’s credit, their next mission indeed involves less creatures of the slithery persuasion, but it does contain far more cockroaches, and Sakura honestly isn’t sure which she prefers.

Team Seven are each given gas masks, a spray bottle of insecticide, and the orders to go to town on the cockroach infestation in Kondo-san’s house. Kakashi-sensei, of course, gets to enjoy a cup of tea with Kondo-san outside, away from the harmful chemicals, and more importantly, the bugs.

Ew!” Sakura can’t contain her shiver of disgust as more cockroaches come into view the longer she looks at the interior of the house. Every time she moves, something skitters away in her peripheral vision. That innocuous little bump on the wooden shelving? Nope, definitely a huge wad of cockroaches.

Soon enough, the three of them have generously sprayed the entire premises, and the floor stops scuttling away from them every time they take a step. The issue then is to get rid of all the little cockroach corpses, which is possibly the worst thing, ever. Kondo-san had also provided them each with a broom and dustpan, which confirms Sakura’s suspicion that this is a regular occurrence. Next time this mission comes up on the roster, Sakura hopes dearly that they’re busy doing something else.

It takes three hours of spraying, sweeping, and complaining for them to clear Kondo-san’s house of insects, but she does send them off with a jar of homemade umeboshi each, which puts the day under the success category for Sakura.

“Ugh,” Naruto whines, holding his jar out at arms’ length. “Who likes pickled food, anyway?”

Sakura immediately holds her hand out for the jar. “Me,” she declares shamelessly. Sakura makes grabby fingers at the container, saying, “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” Pickled plums are delicious, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

And that’s how Sakura ends up toting three jars of beautiful, delicious umeboshi. Only Kakashi-sensei had opted to keep his, citing a mild partiality for the food. Sakura wonders vaguely what his favorite food is. Probably something boring like boiled fish, or something weird like natto.

However, even though the mission is complete, their teacher does not dismiss them immediately, instead pausing at the crossroads between the trainings grounds and the village proper. “The day is still young,” he points out. “I want to gauge your taijutsu skills, so we’ll head to training ground two for a bit.”

Sakura’s stomach drops. Taijutsu is her weakest area, even if she knows the textbook techniques forwards and backwards. She can punch a dummy like the best of them, but actually applying it in real combat…that’s another story entirely.

But do Haruno women give up? No!

Clinging to that thought, Sakura follows her teammates to the training grounds. Well, even if she ends up with two black eyes; she still has three free jars of umeboshi. It’s all about perspective, right?

“You’ll be facing me,” Kakashi-sensei instructs them. “I’ll stay mostly on the defensive, but I will throw in some counterattacks here and there to test your blocking and evasion skills. You can use chakra, but no ninjutsu allowed. Weapons are okay but keep it short-range.”

Sakura watches, knees pulled to her chest, as Sasuke-kun goes first. He’s fast and strong and ridiculously good at taijutsu—Sakura is so envious of his calm brutality that she completely forgets to be admiring. His style is rather acrobatic, too, which is somewhat surprising. Maybe I could incorporate that…she’s not inflexible, and knowing how to backflip was part of their academy training. Definitely a consideration.

Naruto is next. He’s pure energy—sending punch after kick, left and right, with no signs of stopping. Kakashi-sensei manages to block or dodge all of them, of course, but it’s still a sight to behold. It’s like seeing an unstoppable force meet an immovable object, Sakura muses.

Kakashi-sensei is clearly enjoying himself during their spar, complimenting Naruto on his power and giving him suggestions about technique. Sakura tries not to feel too jealous.

Finally, after Naruto comes shockingly close to landing a hit on their sensei, it’s her turn. Sakura gets to her feet, trying to quash down her growing nerves. Just do your best. Believe in yourself. Try not to get your teeth kicked in, that would be good too.

Kakashi-sensei waits patiently, hands in his pockets. And that’s…well, discouraging, because she couldn’t imagine a more clear dismissal of her abilities. He had the courtesy to assume a fighting stance when sparring Naruto and Sasuke-kun, and—ah. He’s trying to anger her. Perhaps hoping that if she’s pissed off enough, she won’t hold back.

Well, that won’t be a problem.

“Start!”

Sakura lunges at Kakashi-sensei, throwing a right-hook at his face. He blocks it without blinking, before sweeping a leg at her. Sakura leaps into the air to evade, using the momentum to drive a roundhouse at his neck—but Kakashi-sensei blocks that too.

“Boring, Sakura-chan,” he chides, using his blocking arm to push her away. Sakura lands lightly on her feet, inhaling—flooding her limbs with chakra—and shoves off. When her fist slams into his open palm it sounds like a thunderclap exploding in the air, and she sees his eye widen a little.

Good!

Sakura rains down chakra-enhanced blows upon her sensei, each one faster than the previous. When he counters with a swinging blow to her head Sakura drops into a crouch to evade, yanking a kunai from her pouch at the same time. She lunges at him with the blade, slashing once, twice—he knocks it from her hand but out of sheer luck Sakura manages to snag it with her opposite, slicing at him again.

After two more swipes he pulls out his own kunai, now parrying her blows. Sparks fly as the blades meet, and Sakura feels like she might actually be impressing her sensei. He dodges her next strike in a squat, countering with his own jab at her abdomen—but Sakura plants her free hand on Kakashi-sensei’s shoulder and uses it to propel herself into a one-handed cartwheel over his back.

“Not bad,” he allows, standing. “But you haven’t actually managed to hit me, yet.”

With a chakra-rich inhale, Sakura leaps at him one more time, her left hand brandishing her blade. Kakashi-sensei meets it to parry, but instead of stopping, Sakura pushes forward—right into the path of his kunai. The blade slices across her cheek, and she can see his eye widen in surprise.

She’d caught him off guard.

Lightning quick, Sakura aims a jab right for his nose, forcing every ounce of chakra into her arm.

Of course, he dodges—but not completely. Sakura’s fist glances off his jaw, knuckles catching in the fabric of his mask. The shock of it freezes her. She almost hit him.

They both come to a sudden standstill, her fist trembling against his jaw, his blade pressed against her skin. Less than a second later Kakashi-sensei pulls the kunai away, a sliver of blood gleaming on the edge of the metal. Her blood.

Sakura retracts her own hand, chancing a glance up at her sensei. His expression is less than amused.

“Running face-first into a knife in order to land a punch,” he drawls, voice dripping disdain. “I’ve got to say, that is a new one.”

Sakura’s hackles rise. “I’m sorry, it was my understanding that I was being too boring,” she snaps. “Thought I’d spice it up a little.” Sakura can feel the blood dripping down her cheek and onto her neck, but she ignores it. If he hadn’t wanted her to be reckless, then he shouldn’t have tried so hard to rile her up.

Tension crackles between them for another few seconds, before Kakashi-sensei’s shoulders suddenly sag, a deep sigh escaping him. He scrubs a hand over his face. “I don’t know when I gave you the impression that gaining my approval meant getting yourself hurt.”

Now that stung. That wasn’t even close her intention, and Sakura steps forward, trying to meet his eye. “Sensei, that wasn’t what I was trying to do, today or during the exam. I was just…I was just trying to show you that I’m serious about this. I’m willing to take calculated risks if it means helping my team.”

His gaze snaps over to hers. “Sakura, that was not a calculated risk. I could’ve blinded you. It was reckless, and I know you’re smart enough to realize that.” Kakashi-sensei’s voice is verging on true anger for the first time since Sakura has met him.

But Sakura isn’t backing down. “Then why try so hard to piss me off, then? Why make fun of me?” she demands, hands curling into shaky fists. This is it, she figures. The end of Kakashi-sensei and her tenuous friendship, mentorship, whatever it is. He’d seemed so eager to spar with the boys, and Sakura is familiar enough with playing second fiddle that she can recognize it coming a mile away.

“I knew you were nervous,” he explains, eye narrowing. “And I knew if I egged you on, you wouldn’t hold back.”

And what, making her angry was somehow supposed to make her less reckless? Sakura wants to stamp her foot like a toddler, though she manages to refrain. “But now you’re mad at me for taking risks!”

“I still want you to use your brain.” His tone is like ice.

And I just don’t want you to forget about me!”

Kakashi-sensei actually rears back a little at the exclamation, and Sakura’s hands slap over her mouth in horror. She had not meant to say that, no matter how true it is. She wants to evaporate. How fucking humiliating...in front of Naruto and Sasuke-kun too. Teacher’s pet, so loathe to let go of his attention. Idiot idiot idiot!

Sakura is already moving the chakra into her legs in order to flee when Kakashi-sensei’s hand comes down to rest on top of her head. Freezing, she looks up at him, utterly miserable and expecting the worst.

But his gaze is kind. “Sakura-chan, I’m not going to forget you.” His voice quiet, just loud enough for her to hear. “Just because you can’t hit as hard, or have a special bloodline…it doesn’t mean you aren’t my precious student.”

And that’s…exactly what she needed to hear. Sakura’s lib wobbles. “You promise not to leave me behind even if I suck at taijutsu?” Or ninjutsu, for that matter. Or anything, really.

His eye crinkles into a smile. “I promise,” he murmurs. “You should have more faith in yourself. You’re really quite adept, when you apply yourself to it.”

Sakura smiles tremulously at the compliment, suddenly feeling exhausted. What an emotional roller coaster of a day.

Her sensei makes a thoughtful noise. “Come to think of it,” he mutters, scratching his chin. “We did discuss training with the ninken, no? I think they would be quite happy to help you conquer any shortcomings in your taijutsu.”

His voice has turned positively devious, and Sakura is immediately uneasy, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Sensei?” she prompts. What has she gotten herself into now?

“That settles it. Starting tomorrow, I want you—just you—to arrive at the bridge at oh-seven-hundred. Think of it as…a morning stroll, if you will. Okay?”

“Okay,” Sakura allows, wondering what sort of hellish exercise regime she had just signed herself onto. And of course she has to get up extra early now while the boys sleep in…then again, this is what she wanted, isn’t it? Hellish or not, it’s special training just for her. The thought makes her grin, and Sakura finds herself suddenly excited. “Okay!” she repeats, with considerably more enthusiasm.

Kakashi-sensei blinks at her, before huffing out an amused chuckle. “Ah, to be young again,” he muses. Sakura smiles back, a little confused.

It couldn’t be that bad…right?

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 

Chronological synchronism: comparing and coordinating established, separate occurrences to construct a more broad understanding of chronological events.

--

Sakura was wrong. So, so wrong.

Sakura yelps as another set of sharp teeth snap at her shoulder, spinning away—only to have to duck under the path of Bull’s massive swiping paw. A shadow falling on her from above alerts Sakura to an aerial attack, and she just manages to lurch out of the way to avoid Ūhei’s claws as they descend upon her.

But let’s back up a little, shall we?

Thirty minutes earlier, at precisely 07:00…

Sakura twiddles her thumbs as she leans against the bridge railing. It’s early enough that the most of village is still quiet, though the birds have already begun dutifully filling the air with song. Their musical trilling is lost on Sakura, however. She can’t help the nerves that curl in her belly, and anxiously smoothes out her dress. She was excited when she woke this morning, but as her training time drew nearer Sakura found herself fretting. What sort of craziness is in store for her?

“Yo.”

Sakura whirls, finding Kakashi-sensei perched like one of those songbirds in a nearby tree. “Kakashi-sensei! You’re on time!” It’s surprising enough that she forgets to actually greet him.

Kakashi-sensei sighs as he jumps down. “Sakura-chan, that hurts,” he says in a tone that conveys no such thing.

Sakura watches him curiously, noting that he’s in civvies instead of his standard jounin blues and flak vest. “Ne, sensei, are you training me this morning?” She tries not to sound too hopeful.

But he shakes his head in the negative. “Nope, I’m going back to bed like a sensible person. Your teachers eagerly await your company at training field three.”

Sakura nods her head, not entirely disappointed. She gets to have the ninken all to herself! Not to mention, seeing her sensei in his civvies feels a little special too. “Should I plan to just go straight there in the morning, instead of here?”

Kakashi-sensei’s eye crinkles. “Unless you prefer the detour, yes.”

Sakura files the new instruction away. But then…why did he have her come to the bridge today? Especially if the ninken are already at the training ground.

“Sensei…” Sakura’s eyes narrow. “Are you checking up on me?

He feigns shock. “What, I can’t see my favorite student off to her first day of dog-sitting?”

Sakura lets the favorite student bit warm her cheeks with happiness. “Nobody likes a busybody, sensei,” she informs him lightly, even though she’s secretly delighted for the attention.

His shoulders sag. “I miss the days when you were still awed by my charm and skills,” he despairs.

Sakura rolls her eyes, unimpressed. But still…the thoughtfulness of his choice touches her. “…Thank you, Kakashi-sensei,” she murmurs, offering him a genuine smile.

“Aa.” His head bobs in recognition. “Now shoo. I can promise you that making the ninken wait will do you no favors.”

Well that’s comforting. Sakura wonders if she shouldn’t have filed a final will and testament before heading out this morning, and summons chakra into her legs. Well, better late than never, right?

She waves at her sensei, who appears to be falling asleep on his feet. Like a horse, her mind supplies helpfully, and she can’t help the amused snort from escaping. “Well, I’m off,” she bids, giving him a salute.

He waves lazily. “Have fun. Oh, and Sakura-chan.”

Sakura pauses, glancing back at him. He taps his cheek. “Very cute.” And with that, he’s gone in a swirl of leaves.

Sakura’s hand flies to her face, remembering the bandage she’d put on the previous night to cover the laceration. She can recall looking into the mirror and being shocked at its proximity to her eye—she really could’ve been blinded.

To make matters worse, as Sakura had predicted, Mebuki was adamant about forgoing a trip to the hospital, no matter how long and loud Sakura whined about the damage to her face. In the end, Sakura gave up, despairing over wasted moisturizer. All those years spent trying to maintain soft skin, pointless

The bandage itself is pink with little white bunnies on it, and Sakura refuses to be ashamed. If she’s going to wear a gigantic piece of gauze on her face it’s going to be cute, damn it.

Feeling energized, Sakura sets off for training ground three. I’ll show them how strong I can be! The thought powers her steps, and Sakura covers the distance between the bridge and the training grounds in record time.

When she arrives, the ninken are sprawled around in various states of dozing. There’s a sizeable snot-bubble growing and shrinking from Bull’s nose, but it pops as he jerks awake at her arrival.

“Sakura-chan, good morning,” Pakkun greets, voice as gravelly as ever.

“Good morning, er…” Sakura trails off, unsure of the etiquette when one’s sensei is a canine.

Pakkun nods, understanding her predicament. “You may call me Pakkun-sensei,” he allows.

“Please don’t,” Shiba yawns, his tremendously sharp teeth glinting in the morning sun. “His tiny body won’t be able to support his fat head.”

Pakkun spares the other ninken a disdainful glance before returning his attention to Sakura. “Pakkun-sensei or Pakkun-sama, your choice,” he states.

Sakura nods slowly. “Okay, Pakkun-sensei.” And then, finally unearthing her manners from somewhere, Sakura bends into a formal bow. “Thank you for teaching me, everyone. Starting today I am in your care.”

The gratitude is recognized with a chorus of cheery yips and barks, along with an “Aw, shucks,” from someone that sounds like Bull.

Pakkun jumps right into business once the rest of the ninken fall quiet. “Sakura-chan, we will be working with you on your taijutsu, but that doesn’t just mean practicing your strikes a thousand times,” he begins solemnly. “We will be training all of you—body and soul—in the art of hand-to-hand combat. Do you understand?”

Sakura straightens. “Yes sensei!”

“Are you prepared to give it your all, every single day?”

“Yes, sensei!”

“Do you accept the responsibility of providing ear-rubs on a semi-regular basis?”

“Uh…I guess?”

Pakkun’s grin is sharp. “Excellent. Your training starts…”

Sakura gulps.

Now!”

 

--0--

 

And that brings us back to where we were—that is, watching Sakura struggle to evade seven sets of teeth and claws.

“You have more than just eyes, Sakura-chan!” Pakkun calls out to her from the sidelines. Apparently, he’s not a combat-oriented ninken, though Sakura had surmised that from his stature. “What can you hear, what can you smell? Use your senses!” he barks.

Sakura wants to scream in frustration. How?! All she can hear is the pounding of her own blood, and there’s nothing distinct to smell except maybe her own rank. They’ve been at this for all of thirty minutes and Sakura is fairly certain she’s sweated out every ounce of water she’s ever had to drink….ever.

Guruko’s next swipe nearly takes her left ear off.

“Focus, Sakura-chan!” the pug coaches. “A single hour is not long to train, so you must concentrate if you want to improve!”

Snarling, Sakura launches herself into a back handspring to avoid the snapping jaws of three different ninken around her ankles. “Then why can’t I use my chakra?!” she demands, narrowly dodging Urushi’s pounce at her. That infuriating rule had been established at the beginning of the “Evasion Game,” as Pakkun had phrased it. Sakura feels slower than a damn turtle without her chakra-enhancement.

“We train your body first! No shortcuts in Pakkun-sensei’s dojo!”

Sakura yelps in pain as Bisuke’s claws catch her thigh, and then freezes still at the sensation of teeth resting delicately around her neck. Who…?!

Bull is on his hind-legs behind her, jaws clamped around her throat with enough pressure to send her heart racing.

“Alright, that’s enough,” Pakkun commands, jumping up from his rather cushy spot under a nearby tree.

Bull releases her neck, and she tries not to shiver at the slobber left on her skin. Gross!

Pakkun trots over, and the rest of the ninken assemble behind them. Sakura is depressed to note that not a single one of them appear out of breath, while she’s struggling to stay upright. Gritting her teeth, Sakura prepares herself for a tongue-lashing—there is no way her performance just then was satisfactory.

“Good job today, Sakura-chan,” Pakkun comments, approval in his voice. Sakura gapes. “You lasted nearly a half-hour with almost zero hits.”

Shiba yips in agreement. “Not bad at all!” he crows, tail wagging.

Ūhei nods, stately as ever. “You have a solid foundation. If we target your weak points and improve upon your skills, I think you shall make a fine member of our pack.”

All seven of the other ninken bark in support, and Sakura’s lip begins to wobble. “You guys…” She bows again, trying not to let the happy tears fall. “Thank you for your instruction! I promise to work hard!”

Sakura straightens, feeling a little proud and extremely sweaty. Now to sprint home, shower, eat (a second) breakfast, and be at the bridge again in less than thirty minutes. “I’ll be taking my leave, then,” Sakura bids, saluting her canine teachers.

Pakkun holds up a staying paw. “Before you run home, let’s go over tomorrow’s schedule. We’ll be using the full hour next time, so be prepared for that,” he warns. “We’ll also start working on striking, so you may want to invest in some hand-wraps to protect your knuckles.”

Sakura nods. How sensible! She will definitely be rubbing it into Kakashi-sensei’s face that his ninja-dog is a better teacher than him. Sakura feels at ease knowing her taijutsu training is in such capable hands—paws?—and finds herself looking forward to tomorrow in spite of the likelihood of pain and exhaustion.

Sakura is about leave when Pakkun calls out to her one last time.

“Oh, and Sakura-chan—bring a blindfold, okay?

Huh?

 

--0--

 

Despite her best efforts, Sakura is still a little late in getting to the bridge.

“Aw crap,” Sakura mutters, simultaneously pulling the knot tight around her ponytail and leaping down from her spot on a nearby building. Of course, the one day she’s late, Kakashi-sensei has to go and upset the world order by being on time not once, but twice today.

She lands rather dramatically, right in the middle of the bridge with a less-than-graceful thump! “Sorry I’m late!” she apologizes as Naruto lets out a rather unmanly shriek of surprise.

“You’re just in time, I was about to explain our mission duties today,” Kakashi-sensei informs her, clearly amused at the spectacle in front of him. Beside Sakura, Sasuke-kun is watching her warily, like he’s afraid she’s going to jump straight onto his head next time.

I should write a book, Sakura thinks morosely, on how to be super uncool in front of your crush as much as possible in the span of a single week.

Kakashi-sensei pulls out a list from somewhere, smoothing out the wrinkles in the paper as he reads. “Today, we’ll be assisting Hiwako-san with her groceries, then we’ll help Tanaka-san air out his futons, and, if we’re truly ambitious…we can help organize some old files at the Hokage tower.”

Sakura’s eyes narrow. Kakashi-sensei is using the royal we an awful lot for someone whose contribution will be sipping iced tea in the shade. And wow, talk about mundane—Sakura is pretty sure there’s more excitement to be found watching paint dry. Then again, Sakura thought that weed-pulling would be boring, and look at how that ended up. With her luck, file organization would cost Sakura a limb or something,

However, to Sakura’s honest surprise, most of the day indeed passes without much mayhem. Hiwako-san is kind, even though she's so old and hunched that Sakura can't help but wonder if the elderly woman is at risk of crumbling into dust or folding completely in half. Regardless, she does neither and tips them generously, which puts a spring in everyone’s step.

Next, Tanaka-san is a bit grumpier, and he spends most of the time criticizing her team’s futon-beating techniques (it’s all in the wrist, apparently) but in the end he gives them tea and daifuku, so there’s not much to complain about.

Now at the Hokage tower (or more accurately, in a dusty, windowless filing room somewhere deep, deep in the bowels of the Hokage tower) Sakura and her team are tasked with the thrilling responsibility of three-hole-punching various documents and putting them into the appropriate binders. Kakashi-sensei vanishes almost immediately, leaving the three under the rather scrupulous eye of one of the tower’s administrators.

The most exciting thing to occur in the first two hours of work is when Naruto inhales too much dust from a particularly old file, and sneezes so hard he actually hits his head on the bookshelf behind him. It’s less funny when said disturbance stirs up an enormous cloud of dust and sends all three of them into a sneezing fit, bad enough that the persnickety admin sends Sakura off to obtain tissues from a neighboring office.

Sakura finds herself on her hands and knees, digging through a low cabinet in what seems like a fruitless search for them. Does nobody blow their nose in the Hokage tower? Sakura wonders, pulling out another box of single-serving coffee sweeteners. Dozens upon dozens of tiny sugar packets, and not a single damn box of tissues.

Suddenly, the door opens behind Sakura, and she’s about to jump up and explain her snooping when voices freeze the words in her throat.

“The chūnin selection exams are in a few months, aren’t they?” a gruff voice asks, accompanied by the sounds of shuffling paper.

“Yeah,” a second, lighter voice agrees. They’re both male, and they sound older than Sakura. Jounin?

When they don’t immediately acknowledge Sakura’s company, she realizes that the desk right behind her must obscure their sight of her. They don’t know I’m here!

Instead of doing the truthful thing, the right thing, which would be to announce her presence…Sakura keeps her lips zipped. If they discover her, she can claim shyness or something—perhaps crippling social anxiety. A perk to having big, green eyes and pink hair is that nobody thinks her a threat. Not at first.

“Ugh, it’s gonna be a total wash. It gets more boring each year.”

“I don’t know,” the lighter voice hedges. “Otogakure is participating this year, so that should make it interesting.”

Oto? That farce of a village? Good grief, we’re going to end up with a bunch of horrible little science experiments gone wrong running around.”

Sakura’s mind is racing. Otogakure? She’d never heard of such a village in her life. And what the hell did he mean by “science experiments,” anyway?

“Personally, I can’t believe Hokage-sama is allowing it, considering…well, you know who, and all that.”

“Yeah,” the deep voice agrees, and then Sakura hears the sound of the door opening. “It’s fucked up.”

The door closes.

Sakura waits another few moments, until she’s sure the two men have left, before she leaps to her feet, trying to make sense of what she just heard. Their words rattle in her head, science experiments, Otogakure, who know who? What on earth did it all mean?

Sakura makes the decision to ask Kakashi-sensei the moment she sees him, before pausing—it might be sensitive information, such that her instructor may not be allowed to share it without reproach. Or, he could scold her for eavesdropping and command her to never broach the subject again. Clearly, this was far, far outside the purview of a genin—and Sakura is pretty sure that her team won’t be going to the chūnin selection exams this year, green as they are. For now, Sakura will table it—until she gets a chance to go to the library, of course.

Eventually, Sakura does return to the filing room, sans tissues but armed with a roll of paper towels she stole from the ladies’ room. She tosses the roll to Naruto, whose face is a little blue from sneezing so much, and sits down to resume her filing. She’ll tell the boys about what she overheard when they’re all far, far away from this tower.

Naruto blows his nose, sounding like a full brass ensemble, before handing the roll to Sasuke-kun who receives it with astounding dignity. Sakura waits with rapt fascination to see what noise he’ll make—and yes, it occurs to her how weird that is—but he simply dabs at his own nose rather daintily before discarding the paper towels. Damn.

The rest of the mission continues without incident, and eventually Team Seven is released back into the wild, blinking in the daylight like they’ve never seen the sun before. Kakashi-sensei is still rather conspicuously absent, but the tower administrator waves them on anyway. “You guys did a good job,” she allows, adjusting her glasses. “I’ll make sure your mission gets marked as complete. Your compensation will be mailed to you.”

With that, Team Seven then finds itself standing in front of the Hokage Tower, unsure of what to do next.

“I guess…we should just go home?” Sakura wonders, scanning the nearby rooftops for a sign of silver hair. Nothing. Where the hell is their sensei?

“I’m starving!” Naruto announces, already trotting off down the street. “I’m gonna go get ramen at Ichiraku!”

Sakura watches him briefly before an idea strikes. Now would be a good time to tell them about what she overheard—it’s rare that the three of them are together without Kakashi-sensei, plus eating in a public space would reduce suspicion of onlookers. To a passerby, chatting over lunch is exceptionally less shady than, say, huddling together in the forest.

“Wait, Naruto, I’ll come with you,” Sakura calls, and Naruto’s expression is positively sunny until she continues with, “Sasuke-kun, you too,” wherein it dissolves into a grimace.

“No thanks,” Sasuke-kun declines, and begins to walk away. Without thinking, Sakura shoots her arm out, snatching the back of his collar just like she had done during the bell test. He makes that hilarious choking noise again, and Sakura might laugh if his expression contained less of a I will murder you slowly sort of sentiment. 

She releases the fabric, holding up her hands defensively and internally punching herself repeatedly in the face. Idiot! Seriously, making a good impression on Sasuke-kun seems to be outside her realm of abilities.

“Sorry Sasuke-kun, habit,” she apologizes, which doesn’t seem to placate him (wow, shocker). “Look, I need to tell you both something. I overheard some weird stuff while I was out getting those paper towels, and I think you guys will want to hear it.”

That is apparently interesting enough to excuse Sakura’s audacity, and Sasuke-kun makes one of those I will not actually admit that I am interested but please, peon, do continue noises before nodding his head. Naruto, of course, is effusive with his curiosity, pelting Sakura with questions immediately, though Sakura stays him with a promise to answer everything when they get to the ramen stand. Together, the three of them head towards Ichiraku, and Sakura feels a little pang of guilt over leaving Kakashi-sensei out of their discussion, and she vows to bring up the incident with him sooner rather than later.

Once they’ve sat and ordered (miso for Naruto, shoyu for Sasuke-kun, shio for herself), Naruto and Sasuke-kun immediately turn to Sakura, who is seated between them, and fix her with expectant looks.

“Okay, here’s what happened,” Sakura begins, cradling a cup of complementary green tea. She quickly relays what she had overheard, but to her confusion, neither of her teammates look even slightly perturbed—if anything, they appear to be…excited?

“The chūnin exam! I’ll make everyone acknowledge me!” Naruto crows, cracking open a pair of chopsticks.

Sasuke-kun smirks, nodding to himself. “Hn…it would be a good opportunity to test how strong I’ve become.”

Sakura stares at them both in bewilderment and disappointment. How can they only care about some stupid test? And this is coming from Konoha Academy's own Queen of ExamsClearly something weird is going on, something that could put them and the entire village into danger! How can they be so short-sighted?!

Sighing, Sakura squashes down the frustration she feels towards her teammates, they’re just dumb boys after all…of course they’re more concerned with their own progress than the safety of others. It’s to be expected. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t hope for more.

The rest of the meal is spent in relative silence, mostly punctuated by Naruto’s zealous slurping and occasional conversation between her two teammates about the upcoming exam. Of course something like this gets them to behave civilly towards one another, even if it’s only for a few moments. Sakura quickly finishes her ramen and dumps a few ryo on the counter, for once cutting her time with Sasuke-kun short willingly.

“I’m pretty tired, so I’m going to head home,” she tells them, which isn’t even a lie—the morning’s training is finally catching up to Sakura, and her whole body feels like lead. Naruto sends her off with a hearty goodbye, and Sasuke-kun even mutters, “see you.” It’s a miracle. She wishes she could enjoy it.

 

--0--

 

Of course, Sakura isn’t actually going home—she’s headed for the library, and the historical section at that.

And there’s…nothing on this so-called Otogakure. Absolutely nothing. Zip. Zilch. No mention in any history textbooks, no location on any maps, just…nothing. Sakura can appreciate that ninja villages are supposed to be hidden and all, but there’s a difference between well concealed and literally nonexistent. Okay, so figuring out Otogakure will require actually asking someone—her mother, for example. Fine, Sakura decides, she’ll just move on to the Hokage and see where that takes her.

She’ll begin with family records. Whoever the mystery person is, he had, at some point, a close relationship with the Sandaime Hokage, so that should be a solid start. Sakura quickly locates the Sarutobi family records, and starts flipping through them. Hiruzen, Hiruzen…ah, there we go. Okay, birth date, birth mother, birth father...

There’s not much, honestly, which doesn’t surprise Sakura; families with secrets worth protecting—like bloodlines or techniques—usually have a pretty slim paper trail. So she makes a timeline, using some scrap paper and a pencil she found on the ground, marking down the most important events of Sarutobi Hiruzen’s life: graduations, promotions, births and deaths of family members, every last thing she can scrounge up. It’s a long, long list, and Sakura wonders how one man managed to fit so many accomplishments into his lifetime. It’s a little inspiring.

Once the list is detailed enough to give her a rough outline, Sakura switches over to the archives of the Konoha Gaiden, the most well-known village newspaper. She can use it to flesh out the timeline as any truly major events would likely be chronicled, and she can relate them back to the Sandaime even if he’s not mentioned directly. Grinning, Sakura begins digging through the archives, feeling rather proud of her sleuthing skills.

After several minutes of searching, something amiss gives her pause. Huh, that’s weird. There’s a bunch of issues missing. Sakura paws through the box of old newspapers again, certain she’s made a mistake, before leaning back to make sure she has the right container. Yeah, the dates are right, about fifteen years ago…so where are the documents? She can understand a few missing issues here and there, but several months worth of a weekly publication are completely gone. Uneasiness curls in Sakura’s gut, and she quickly yanks out several more boxes to check for other missing issues.

After an hour of digging through the Konoha Gaiden archives, Sakura finds another chunk of absent installments, this time from about twelve years ago. Another six months, just…gone.

Unsure of what to think and what to do, Sakura numbly returns all of the newspapers into their boxes and puts them away. It’s late. She should probably go home. Instead of heading towards the exit, however, Sakura slumps down against a bookshelf and stares at the crumpled timeline in her grasp. For the second time in her life, Sakura feels truly unsafe in her home.

Konoha is supposed to be a village of prosperity, where people protect one another and heroes are born, not a place full of dark secrets.

Sakura isn’t stupid; she’s well aware of the fact that being a shinobi means bloodshed and death, and it’s for that reason precisely that makes her so suspicious. The rest of the Konoha Gaiden archives contain plenty of bleak and brutal history—it certainly hadn’t shied away from chronicling the horrors of the war with Iwa. But this…whatever these two missing periods represent, it has implications far more sinister than just battles among warring countries.

With that in mind, Sakura packs up her belongings and begins to head home. The sun has almost set when she finally takes to the roofs, casting dark and foreboding shadows in her path, and Sakura speeds up her stride. She needs to speak with her mother about this, immediately.

Sakura has already pulled off her sandals in the genkan when she notices another pair of shoes on the floor, markedly larger than hers or her mother’s, and extremely familiar. Dad is home!

Sakura rushes into the living room, immediately spotting her father at their kotatsu and all but throwing herself at him in a gigantic hug. “Dad, you’re back!” she cries, squeezing him tight.

“There’s my little shinobi!” he crows, wrapping his arms around her. “Your mother was just telling me all about how you saved her from a thug! I’m so proud of you, Sakura.”

Sakura presses her nose into his shirt, inhaling his familiar scent and allowing the feelings of security and home to wash over her. There is no safer place in this world than in her father’s arms, she thinks—except for maybe her mother’s.

“I’m really glad you’re home, dad,” she says in response, refusing to let go for even a second. Haruno Kizashi, as a diplomatic shinobi of the agricultural department, spends many a week travelling to other villages in Fire Country and beyond, collecting research on farming conditions, techniques and products. Sakura is awfully proud—he’s the head of his department. But she damn well misses him when he’s gone.

“Me too,” her father murmurs, stroking Sakura’s hair. “Now, shall I give you your graduation present?”

Sakura pulls away, excitement shining in her eyes. “Graduation present?” she parrots, completely surprised; she hadn’t been expecting anything of the sort, besides maybe a celebratory dinner. Not to mention, her birthday is in only a few months…she’ll be spoiled rotten!

Kizashi grins down at his daughter, chuckling. “Of course!” he replies, reaching behind him to pull out a package wrapped in simple brown butcher paper with a bright pink bow on top. “My precious daughter graduated from the academy, she deserves a present. Now go on, open it!”

Sakura takes the package and wants desperately to rip it open, but she forces herself to unwrap it slowly, carefully peeling back the tape. Finally, she unfolds the final piece of parchment to reveal a blade—a gorgeous tantō, and Sakura cannot contain her gasp. The scabbard is a beautiful dark cyan, a delicately painted cherry blossom branch picked out along the wood, with a sageo made out of slate blue cord. The hilt is a simple black with tsukamaki to match the scabbard, but most curiously, there’s a small metal loop on the pommel, not unlike that of a kunai. Sakura brushes her fingers over the blade reverently, utterly transfixed by its beauty.

“That’s a hamidashi, with a shinogi style blade,” her father informs her with the tone of someone repeating what another, more knowledgeable person had told them. “You see the hilt-guard, that’s what makes it a hamidashi.”

Sakura cannot take her eyes off it. “What about this?” she asks, pointing to the loop.

“Ah, that’s a little personal touch I had the swordsmith add. I know how much you love your kunai, after all.”

Sakura’s gaze snaps up to her father’s at that. Swordsmith…? He had this custom made? That had to be extraordinarily expensive!

“Dad…this is too much,” Sakura says, even though her traitorous fingers curl around the tantō, contradicting her words.

Kizashi smiles warmly down at her, nothing but pride and love in his gaze. “Nonsense. Your mother and I are so proud of you. We want you to have this.”

Sakura’s gaze is pulled down to the blade again, drawn in by its exquisiteness. She unsheathes it a few centimeters, gasping again at the shimmering metal; it looks extraordinarily sharp and deadly in the low light.

Sakura loves it.

“But on that note, consider it your early birthday present too,” her father adds wryly, and Sakura laughs, carefully covering the blade and throwing her arms around him in another hug. Even as a combined present, it’s still beyond anything Sakura could have imagined, and she gestures for her mother to join in the embrace. She needs to smother her wonderful, kind parents with adoration right now, because the thoughtfulness and generosity of the gift is nearly overwhelming. Sakura snuggles into their mutual embrace, feeling so warm and happy she could sing.

After a few moments, Mebuki presses quick kisses into Sakura and her father’s hair, before stepping back. “I made sukiyaki for dinner. Who’s hungry?”

Sakura and Kizashi share a look before leaping to their feet in unison.

Me!”

The meal, of course is amazing—when is hot pot not amazing?—and Sakura eats so much she feels a little sick and has to lay down for a while. A few days ago she would have scoffed at such a indulgent amount of food (in consideration for maintaining her svelte figure), but training makes her hungry, damn it. Svelteness can go to hell, her muscles need fuel.

It’s not until Sakura has eaten dinner, showered, lovingly stared at her new tantō for a solid fifteen minutes, run through her breathing and her tenketsu exercises, and gotten herself tucked comfortably into bed that she realizes she forgot to ask about the mysteriously missing issues of Konoha Gaiden.

Ah, Sakura yawns, feeling sleep take an inescapable hold on the edges of her consciousness. Guess I’ll have to ask…tomorrow…

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Preconditioning: also known as adaptation, preconditioning occurs when an animal is exposed to a stressor or stimulus, and the learning that occurs shapes their responses to similar stimuli in the future.

--

 

“Sakura-chan, did you remember to bring a blindfold?”

Sakura pauses in her stretching, glancing up at Pakkun. “Ah, no. I forgot. Sorry, Pakkun-sensei.” Damn it, she’d been hoping that was a joke!

He waves a dismissive paw. “No matter. Your forehead protector will work just fine.”

Sakura’s hand drifts up to said item, fingers brushing over the cool metal. She almost hadn’t worn it. The previous morning’s training had been brutal, enough that today Sakura chose to forgo her usual red dress in favor of some very basic workout clothes, knowing how sweaty and dirty she’s going to be by the end of the hour. Using her forehead protector as a blindfold, huh…Sakura sighs, reaching up to untie it. Her bangs immediately fall into her face, obscuring her vision—but that won’t be important in a few minutes, she supposes.

Feeling uncertain, Sakura secures the forehead protector over her eyes. Super strenuous taijutsu training is one thing, but doing it blind…this is going to suck.

Also, ew, this close to her nose it smells like sweat, and Sakura makes a mental note to wash the damn thing. Ah, speaking of mental notes, she had meant to bring up her tantō! Weaponry counts as taijutsu, so Sakura had thought that perhaps her new canine senseis could teach her the ways of the sword.

Sakura is about to mention this when she is summarily kicked in the jaw, head snapping to one side so fast she sees stars against the black fabric over her eyes.

Stumbling, Sakura wipes away the blood already dribbling from her split lip. What the hell?! She thought she would get a chance to acclimate to her newly sightless condition, or at least a damn warning before the violence began. Sakura is about to rip off her blindfold and reiterate this out loud when she hears Pakkun’s gruff voice.

“You rely too heavily on your eyes. Starting today, you will spend at least half the hour blindfolded to develop your other senses.”

That gives Sakura pause. It’s not an unfair assessment, but other than hearing, what sense could help her in a close combat situation?

Sakura holds her arms up defensively, anticipating another attack. “Okay, how?” she demands. What the hell is she supposed to do, smell her opponent’s intentions?

A rustle of grass to her right has her head whipping around, even though she can’t see—but nothing happens. Sakura growls, frustrated and anxious. She’s a sitting duck!

Listen! What do you hear around you? Is your opponent large or small? Are they moving quickly or slowly? How many sets of pawsteps are there?” Pakkun fires off from somewhere to Sakura’s left. “Feel what’s under your feet! A brat with an earth affinity like yours should be able to sense plenty of things from the ground!”

While all of that advice is well and good, Sakura hangs onto only one thing. “Earth affi—”

A blow to the back of her head cuts off her question, nearly sending her to the ground.

“Pay attention!”

Sakura wants to—well, she wants to do a lot of things, none of which are particularly charitable towards a certain pug—but mostly she just wants to do something.

Sakura stills, taking a deep, slow breath.

For once, don’t think. Just listen.

Birdsong, loud and chattering. A distant water source, a stream perhaps. Leaves shivering in the breeze. The crunch of dirt underfoot.

Sakura throws up an arm, blocking the claws that would have scored her uninjured cheek, and retaliates with a blind shove. A small, furry body is knocked away from her, Bisuke maybe, but Sakura doesn’t get to celebrate her victory long—someone else is approaching. Rustling grass has her sweeping out a leg, but it meets nothing, and Sakura is rewarded with a light kick to the forehead for her efforts. Argh! There’s just not enough information to block or retaliate well—or perhaps there is, but Sakura can’t interpret it competently enough to actually utilize it.

Frustrated, Sakura tries focusing her chakra into her feet, hoping to magnify whatever Pakkun is convinced the dirt should be telling her. There has to be a way to do this.

Based on Sakura’s knowledge of physiology, mechanosensation is received through a variety of different neuronal types in the muscles and skin, but the basic premise is the same: physical stimuli causes cell membranes to depolarize, and if the depolarization reaches an electrical threshold, an action potential will fire and output will be generated. With chakra, she should theoretically be able to both lower the threshold and artificially increase the stimulus intensity.

Therefore, rather than trying to mold the energy into her muscles to strengthen them, she tries to visualize feeding her nerve endings with energy to maximize their output of sensory information. The result is…weird. Like little strings are being plucked in her joints and muscles, almost a pins and needles sensation but not quite painful. Suddenly the sensation in her left foot spikes sharply, flaring along the outer edge of her sole as the sound of grass rustling fills her ears, then another burst in her right foot, sparking in her toes. Sakura heart rate ratchets up; something big is charging from the left, someone a bit smaller from the right, so she evades in the only direction she can—up.

However, leaping ten feet straight quickly reveals itself to be a terrible idea when Sakura realizes that up here, she can’t hear very well, and she’s lost what little the ambiguous sensations from the ground could tell her.

For all Sakura knows, she could be falling straight into open jaws.

Well, I won’t go down without a fight!

Shannaro!” she bellows, bringing her foot down in a brutal axe kick as she drops. It meets nothing but hard earth, which splinters a little under the crushing force of Sakura’s heel. However, sharp pain immediately lances up her leg, causing Sakura to buckle onto one knee.

“Alright, blindfold off!”

Sakura, to her own surprise, hesitates. She just figured out how to “see” without her eyes, and Pakkun is already calling it quits because she might have bruised her foot! Everyone seriously needs to stop underestimating her. Pushing herself to her feet (and for the record, her leg already feels much better) Sakura holds up placating hands in the direction she heard the pug’s voice.

“Wait, Pakkun-sensei, I’ve almost got it,” she tells him. “I’ve figured out what I need to do, all I need is practice.” For now, interpreting the sensations from her feet feels a bit like trying to read an alphabet from a language she’s never seen, but Sakura, if absolutely nothing else, is a quick study. Give me a week and I’ll be sensing what you ate for lunch using only my feet!

“I only mean to give you a few pointers, but feel free to keep the blindfold on if it suits you,” Pakkun chuckles, and she can hear him stand and begin to approach. Sakura quickly summons her chakra into her feet, listening with her soles to the way his little paws pad in the soft grass. She can feel the others around her too, muted since they’re motionless. A whumpf and a wave of tingles informs Sakura that someone large—Bull, probably—had just sat down. Sakura’s brain is working in overdrive to process and file away all of this new sensory information, and she’s nearly dizzy with it. It’s like…someone just opened her third eye, and she’s still trying to adjust to the blazing sunlight.

Pakkun stops in front of her, and for lacking of better options, Sakura drops back down onto one knee to listen. He is her sensei, after all. It’s respectful to put herself on the same level as him.

“As you can see—or not, perhaps,” Pakkun chuckles at his own pun. “Sensing the earth’s vibrations can only work if you’re standing on it. You’re just as clever with your chakra as Kakashi said you would be, but you cannot rely solely on it either. You must train your ears and your nose to fully perceive what is around you.”

Sakura mulls that over, barely holding in a dopey grin and fistpump at Kakashi-sensei’s praise. If her sensei thinks she’s clever, then she must do everything in her power to prove him right.

“I’ve been meditating to try and increase the range of my chakra circulation,” Sakura admits. “I’ve almost gotten to my ears, but the closer I get the harder it is. I never imagined it would be so difficult to reach the tenketsu in my head.”

Pakkun snorts. “You really are a clever brat—maybe too clever. It’s difficult for a reason, kid. The tenketsu in your skull are connected to your brain and eyes, which are important organs and, for lack of better words, squishy and fragile. Messing around with chakra up there can lead to blindness and death, or worse,” Pakkun explains, and the lightbulb goes off in Sakura’s head.

“Ah,” she snaps her fingers, surprised she hadn’t realized it sooner. “It’s natural selection! Those with easier access to those tenketsu and without the proper means to control it died off and took their genes with them. Limited access to tenketsu became the common trait, but people with the right bloodlines diverged and created a stable phenotype.” Sakura can’t help but wonder what research has been done on Hyuuga and Uchiha genetics, and she makes a mental note to look into it.

And the more she thinks about it, the more intrigued Sakura becomes. Sure, the brain and eyes are important organs, but so are the liver, the kidneys, the heart—and chakra is centered in the core and circulates rather freely through those coils. What is it about thoracic and abdominal organs that make them resistant to chakra damage? Or is it the coils that are different?

Dead silence from Pakkun informs Sakura that she may have just mumbled all of that out loud. But before she can speak again, he breaks into gruff laughter. “Ha! That dope Kakashi got lucky with you. Guts, talent, and brains.”

“You’re so smart, Sakura-chan!” says Shiba from somewhere to her left, and a chorus of compliments from the other ninken follow.

Sakura preens under the praise, a feeling her cheeks warm with happiness. There are people who believe in her—really, truly believe that she can become someone worthy of the shinobi title. Someone strong. Someone who can protect the people she loves. It’s a bit of a novel feeling, really.

“As for your strikes,” Pakkun continues, back on the original subject, “they’re alright, but nothing special. After we finish this drill I’ll have you practice them on one of the posts here.”

Sakura nods. It all sounds reasonable to her, which is actually…a little suspicious, now that she thinks about it. Tabling that thought, Sakura pauses before she stands up. “Pakkun-sensei, I have a question. How did you know that I have earth affinity? I thought that took years to establish?”

“I can smell it on you. Different chakra types have different scents. You smell like dirt.”

Sakura frowns. Lovely, she smells like dirt. “Aren’t I too young to have an affinity, though?” she presses, extremely curious.

“Most kids your age would be, because chakra takes a while to settle. But you’ve got genius-level control, kid. And I don’t say stuff like that lightly,” he tells her.

Sakura feels dizzy. Genius? Her?

“Oh,” she says faintly.

Pakkun snorts again; apparently it’s a common tic of his. “Man, what the hell were they doing with you in the academy that you don’t even know that? Buncha flea-bitten amateurs.”

Still reeling, Sakura asks the first thing on her mind. “What does Kakashi-sensei smell like?”

Pakkun hums. It’s an odd, throaty noise. Sakura didn’t think dogs could hum, but then again, a few days ago she didn’t they could talk, either.

“Ozone,” he answers finally. “Hard to describe if you’ve never smelled it. Sharp.”

“Huh,” Sakura responds slowly. So he’s lightning type, then. “Wait, does that mean I could learn doton jutsu?” she asks, suddenly excited. Man, how cool would that be?

“You could,” Pakkun allows. Sakura’s heart leaps. “But your chakra reserves are so puny that moving a single pebble would knock you flat. “ Aaand back to earth it crashes. Ouch.

Sakura winces. “Tell me what you really think, sensei,” she jokes, the pride from his earlier compliments thoroughly gutted.

Sakura feels a light tap on her nose, and startles, almost falling backwards onto her rump. Pakkun must have reached up with a paw and bopped her. She hadn’t felt or seen it coming.

“Don’t mope, Kakashi does enough of that for the whole damn village,” he grumbles, voice surprisingly gentle. “That’s why we’re training you, pup, to make you stronger. I’m not going to offer you platitudes or false praise, because that’ll get you killed. I’m here to make you be better, not feel better. Got it?”

Sakura swallows, somehow feeling both chastised and uplifted. “Got it, sensei.”

“Good. Now, back to work!”

“Yes, sensei!”

 

--0--

 

“Ow, ow, ow,” Sakura mumbles to herself as she leaps from roof to roof. The rest of training had been appropriately brutal, and every inch of Sakura’s body aches. The Evasion Game: Blindfold Edition lasted another twenty minutes, after which Pakkun set her up in front of a training post and told her to go wild. Of course, that wasn’t all—Guruko and Akino had been tasked with the fun of snapping at Sakura’s ankles as she punched and kicked, forcing her into a constant, hopping dance around the post. Sakura is pretty sure her legs are about to fall right off her body.

With the speed and determination of a girl condemned, Sakura manages to shower, dress, and eat within the span of twenty-two minutes, and is left with a few moments to waffle over her new tantō. Should she bring it? Sakura has exactly zero knowledge on the proper use of blades beyond kunai, and she’s pretty sure certain that is she whipped it out in a fight right now she’d just end up losing a finger. Then again, she thinks, picking up the beautiful weapon and running her fingers over it appreciatively, the only way to get better is to practice.

Alright, then comes the issue of where to keep it. Wearing the tantō on her hip seems…too forward somehow. She’s not a swordsman, and displaying the blade so brazenly feels like an insult to kenjutsu, considering her complete lack of experience. But Sakura doesn’t own a nifty shoulder-strap gadget like the ANBU, so she can’t wear it on her back, either. Time is ticking, Sakura, figure it out!

In the end, Sakura rummages (a little guiltily) through her mother’s old gear, and finds a simple leather utility belt that fits decently around her waist, and straps it on. Most of the pouches are empty, so she strips them off, leaving only her own kunai pouch and one more that she fills with extra explosive tags, a few soldier pills, a granola bar, and tampons. A girl’s gotta be prepared!

The two pouches fit snugly on her lower back, and with a little finagling and extra buckles, Sakura is able to strap the tantō horizontally across the top of them. Drawing the blade is marginally awkward, but it’s not at risk of falling out and removing an extremity, and she doesn’t feel like a samurai wannabe, so Sakura calls it a success. With that, she throws herself out the front door, taking to the roofs. If I hurry, I’ll only be a few minutes late!

…Which, of course, doesn’t really matter because it’s a full hour and thirty-eight minutes past the scheduled meeting time and Kakashi-sensei is still nowhere to be found. The first forty-five or so minutes hadn’t been bad; Naruto oohed and awed appreciatively over her new sword (while Sasuke-kun looked on, impassive as ever) and they meditated quietly together for a solid half-hour. Unfortunately, impatience eventually got the best of her teammates, and Sakura is left watching boredly as they try their best to beat the snot out of one another. Boys.

With nothing better to do, Sakura starts channeling chakra into her feet, listening to the sounds hidden inside the bridge. She can feel the rhythmic rush of the water, the muted rumblings from where Naruto and Sasuke are brawling on the bank, and…something else. Something weird.

Wait a minute…

Sakura clambers onto the railing, hanging upside down over the frame to get a look at the underside of the bridge.

Kakashi-sensei’s smug face stares back at her, his eye crinkling into a smile. “Good morning, Sakura-chan! I see the training is already paying off!”

Agh!” Sakura startles, losing her grip on the wood and falling into the river below with a crash. Son of a…! Fuming, she struggles to her feet in the waist-high water, and levels a fierce glower at her infuriating sensei. He’s hanging from the bottom of the bridge like a goddamn bat, his feet glued to the wood by some unseen force.

Sensei! What the hell!”

“Maa, is that any way to greet your captain? I thought you had better manners, Sakura-chan,” he quips, dropping down from the bridge to land, to Sakura’s bafflement, on top of the water. She stares at his sandals, awed and so curious that her ire nearly evaporates.

“You have to teach me that,” she demands, pointing to his feet. Walking upside down, standing on top of the water…is there anything that chakra can’t do?

He nods. “In due time,” he allows, to Sakura’s disappointment. She wants to learn now. “Now come along, I think Naruto might be about to have an aneurysm.” He ambles by her, striding along the surface of the water like it’s no big deal.

“Actually, Sasuke-kun is the one with the high blood pressure,” she mutters to herself, wading after the exasperating man.

Naruto, as expected, throws a fit at Kakashi-sensei while Sasuke-kun huffs and glares. Sakura busies herself with wringing out her soaked clothes, pulling the ribbon out of her hair to give it the same treatment. Sudden silence has her glancing up, and she finds both Naruto and Sasuke-kun staring at her in complete shock (well, it’s mild on Sasuke-kun’s part).

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto points a finger at her. “You cut your hair ‘ttebayo!”

Sakura blinks. “Naruto, I cut it almost a week ago,” she tells him, deftly pulling her damp hair back into a tight ponytail. It’ll dry all crimped and stupid-looking, but oh well.

He falters, looking utterly baffled. “Oh. I didn’t notice,” he admits, scratching the back of his head. Of course he didn’t. Sakura sighs, despondent that Sasuke-kun seems to be in agreement with Naruto, for once. He hadn’t noticed at all. Boys are really unobservant, aren’t they.

“Kakashi-sensei, what’s the mission today?” Sakura asks, hoping to deflect the attention from her soaking form. Her whole team probably thinks she’s so lame. Man, why hadn’t she learned a drying jutsu or something?

“Glad you asked,” Kakashi-sensei responds, producing a small towel from literally nowhere and tossing it at Sakura’s head. “Today, we’re going to help paint Ushiwaka-san’s house.”

Sakura nods, quickly using the towel to dry off her face and her tantō before throwing it back to her instructor, who catches it without looking. Painting…that doesn’t sound too bad, if a little boring. Right?

Wrong.

Because Ushiwaka-san’s house is not a house, it is a mansion.

Sakura stands next to her teammates as they stare up dejectedly at the absolutely gargantuan building. It has to be at least four stories tall, and utterly sprawling.

“Is…is that a castle?” Naruto asks, looking faint.

Sasuke-kun is silent, but that vein in his neck is throbbing again.

“Impossible,” Sakura whispers, feeling her soul exit her earthly body. “Kakashi-sensei, this is impossible!”

“Aa?” their instructor makes an exaggeratedly shocked face. “Impossible? Surely not, for my impeccable little team.”

Sakura stabs a finger at the offending dwelling. “Sensei, that house is at least twenty meters tall! We have no ladders, no scaffolding…how are we supposed to reach all of it?” she demands, crossing her arms. If he thinks she’s going risk life and limb to string herself up by some measly ropes to paint this oversized pile of woodchips, he’s got another thing coming.

Kakashi-sensei holds up a silencing hand. “And that,” he begins rather sanctimoniously, “is where training comes in.”

At once, the three of them perk up, crowding around their sensei like dogs around a treat bag.

“What kind of training ‘ttebayo?” Naruto insists, waving excited fists. Sakura gazes expectantly up at their sensei, feeling excitement bubble in her belly. Training from Kakashi-sensei! Finally!

Kakashi-sensei waits a few moments, allowing his students to stew in their anticipation, before inhaling deeply and intoning, “Wall climbing!”

“Wall climbing?” Sakura parrots, feeling disappointment curdle her enthusiasm. How is wall climbing training? They learned how to climb in the academy!

Naruto hums, looking just as unimpressed as Sakura feels. “Sounds boring,” he declares and crosses his arms.

“Well, this is no ordinary climbing,” Kakashi-sensei replies, walking over to one impressive wall of the mansion. “You’ll be climbing without your hands. Like this.” He makes a quick hand seal, before he plants a foot on the wood and just...walks. Vertically. Straight up the wall, like he’s just taking a stroll down the street, except entirely defying gravity.

“Whoa!” Naruto cries, jumping up and down excitedly. Even Sasuke-kun makes a noise of surprise.

That must have been what he was doing under the bridge!

Sakura goggles at the complete and utter rejection of all laws of physics. Obviously chakra is at play here, but how? How exactly do you manipulate chakra in order to stick to a vertical surface?

Their instructor leaps back down, landing with barely a sound. “All of you are at least somewhat familiar with chakra, and this exercise will teach you how to control it well enough to perform any jutsu. Theoretically, anyway.”

Naruto is nodding. “I see, I see!”

“Do you?” Kakashi-sensei asks blandly, producing three large paintbrushes and holding them out for his team to take. “You’ll need to focus your chakra into the soles of your feet in order to stick. Not much is needed, but the amount must be exact. It’s not easy, and even skilled ninja struggle with it.”

He gestures to a tall pile of paint cans that Sakura had failed to notice earlier. “Using paint, you’ll be able to mark your progress as well as complete the mission. It’s important to remember that chakra manipulation also requires stamina, and you’ll be moving constantly during battle. This makes controlling it even more difficult.”

Suddenly, he turns to them, a rather evil gleam in this eye. “And we will be back at Ushiwaka-san’s house every single day, without stopping, until it is finished, and you all have the necessary stamina and control. And be forewarned: Ushiwaka-san is quite fussy. If you miss a single spot, he won’t be pleased, and you won’t be paid. Got it?”

Sakura and her two teammates gulp, gazes sliding over to the soaring mansion. Not only is it tall, it’s also just…huge. Covering the entire surface with paint will take days. Suddenly, Naruto perks up, already putting his hands into a seal as he crows, “I could use my—”

Kakashi-sensei’s hand comes down in a chop onto Naruto’s head. “No kage bunshin,” he declares. “Cheating will be punished with One Thousand Years of Pain. Is that clear?”

Naruto’s hands immediately fly to his behind, fear in his eyes. “Y-yes sensei!”

Sakura grimaces. Kakashi-sensei looked pretty cool, explaining the chakra control stuff, but now…gross. She sighs. Her mother had warned her that men are almost always disappointing.

Kakashi-sensei claps his hands. “Now, get to it!”

Naruto and Sasuke-kun immediately make a mad dash over to the paint cans, plunging their brushes in before sprinting over to the mansion wall. Sasuke makes it maybe two meters up, leaving a bright red swipe on the wall, while Naruto immediately crashes to the ground, splattering paint all over his orange jumpsuit. Sakura winces, before unbuckling her utility belt and unzipping her dress. There’s no need to get paint all over her things, and while her sleeveless undershirt isn’t fashionable by any means, it’s functional and she won’t be showing too much skin. After putting her still-damp belongings into a neat pile far from the splatter-zone of Naruto and Sasuke-kun, Sakura retrieves a can of paint, bringing it over to a section of wall a little ways away from her teammates. Sakura likes them, but she’s also smart enough to know when a wide berth is a good idea.

Rubbing her chin, Sakura gazes at the wood in front of her. Considering how Sasuke-kun is already succeeding, she could probably just push some chakra into her feet and it would work, but…Sakura wants to actually figure this out, damn it. There’s got to be a method to it beyond circulation.

Sakura allows her attention to rove over the wall, and finds herself studying the underside of a flowerbox a few meters above her. Maybe it’s about hooking your chakra into the surface, like a nail or screw? Movement catches her eye, and her gaze tracks a tiny gecko as it scrambles along the bottom of the box, before skittering up the wall and disappearing into a fissure between two boards. It’s funny, she thinks, that a little lizard can accomplish what I want to do so easily.

The realization hits Sakura like a slap to the face. Of course! She could manipulate her chakra to emulate the functionality of gecko feet! Which would be…hmm…

Sakura wracks her brain for anything on reptile anatomy. She’s read plenty of books on animals, and some on their physiology, so there’s got to be something stashed away in some dark recess of her mind. Sakura closes her eyes, trying to dredge up even the tiniest hair of a memory.

Tiny hair…tiny hairs! That’s it!

Sakura actually gasps as the extremely dusty mental file opens. It’s fuzzy, but Sakura is certain she remembers something about microscopic hairs (Cilia? Setae?) and either friction, or chemical bonds, or both…but regardless, tiny hairs. That’s the key.

“Tiny hairs,” Sakura mutters to herself, lids fluttering shut as she forms the Earth Release seal, envisioning thousands of infinitesimal projections forming on the soles of her feet. “Tiny hairs.” This time, like a prayer as she plants one foot on the wall.

It sticks.

Sakura’s eyes pop open. It worked! She allows herself a quick fist-pump in victory, before refocusing her attentions on the chakra in her feet. Okay, next step…it also sticks! Immediately, Sakura realizes the challenge will be to keep her body straight as she walks up. Holy shit! Sakura flails, trying to keep her core firm. Kakashi-sensei must have abs of steel to just walk up like that!

With that in mind, Sakura focuses chakra into the muscles of her torso, reinforcing their strength. It eases the struggle of keeping straight, but Sakura can already feel the strain on her chakra reserves. Okay, painting the higher areas of the house will have to be done very quickly, then. Sakura steps back down to earth to grab her paint can and brush, before taking off up the wall at a speedy jog, marveling a little at the obedience of her chakra. The faster they can get the top done, the quicker this mission will be over!

About halfway up the mansion wall, Sakura swings up onto a tiled awning, peering over the edge to get a look at her teammates some ten meters below her. Naruto is recovering from his latest tumble, Sasuke-kun has his hand in the Fire Release seal and appears to be concentrating, and Kakashi-sensei is, for the umpteenth time, nowhere to be found. Sakura had wanted to gloat, but as she gazes down at her hard-working teammates, it’s not so appealing anymore. Instead, she simply calls down, “You can do it!” in an encouraging voice, giving them both a thumbs up when their heads whip up in shock.

“Sakura-chan?!” Naruto cries. “How did you get so far up there?”

Sakura grins, refusing to allow Sasuke-kun’s annoyed expression rain on her parade. “I told you meditating is helpful!” she chirps, before turning back to the task at hand. How to go about this? A top-down method would be most efficient, as she doesn’t want to have to climb down on fresh paint. Nodding to herself, Sakura makes her way up to the top of the mansion, keeping the handle of the paint can in the crook of her elbow like she would a grocery basket. If she really concentrates, Sakura can simultaneously focus a bit of chakra into her left palm in the same fashion of her feet, allowing her to allowing her three anchor points to the wall while still having her right hand free to paint.

Sakura chances a glance over her shoulder, and gulps. She’s really high up…this is much higher than any roof she’s been on. If she falls…Sakura doesn’t want to imagine it. I’ll match the paint splatter, she thinks grimly, and vows to focus on nothing but the chakra in her limbs and the paintbrush in her hand.

Sakura sets a series of mini goals and rewards for herself to keep herself motivated. If I reach that window, I get to take a break. If I reach that panel, I get to buy the largest anmitsu bowl at the café! The work is slow going and arduous, but Sakura is definitely making progress, and a quick peek down at her teammates reassures her that they’re slowly but surely improving as well.

A couple hours pass, and Sakura finds her stamina waning. Sweat drips off her nose with every brushstroke, and her entire body is shaking like a leaf. But she’s loathe to quit—Sasuke-kun and Naruto are still going at it below her, and have covered a generous portion of the lower wall with paint. Sakura’s territory feels rather measly in comparison, even if it’s higher up, and she is not going to lose to her teammates!

“Just a bit more,” Sakura mutters, clamping her paintbrush between her teeth as she scuttles along the wall in a perfect imitation of that gecko earlier. Focusing chakra into more than just her feet is costly, but it makes moving much faster, and easier on her muscles. Alright, I’ll cover everything between me and that window, and then I can eat lunch!

Her vision blurs treacherously, and Sakura curses. Damn her stupidly tiny chakra reserves, damn them to hell! Sakura feels tears of exhaustion and frustration burn in her eyes, and she only paints faster in response. She is not done training yet. Against her will, her sandals start to slide, and her palm is slipping against the wood. No! I am not weak. I will not give up! Clenching her teeth, Sakura forces more chakra into her hands and feet.

But there’s no chakra left to move.

Between one breath and the next, Sakura loses her grip on the wall, and then she’s falling. Panic seizes Sakura’s chest and her arms wheel helplessly in the air as she screams. Time seems to slow as she drops, and for a wild moment Sakura is transfixed by the stunning cerulean sky that stretches above her. It’s so…blue. Then reality kicks in. I’m going to die!

Sakura-chan!”

“Sakura!”

A millisecond later, she crashes into what feels like two sets of arms, and her vision is filled with vibrant orange and midnight blue.

“Sakura-chan, are you okay?!”

Sakura blinks up at her saviors. Naruto and Sasuke-kun are cradling her from either side, red paint splattered on their cheeks and worry in their eyes. Sakura gapes, and can only comes up with one response: “You guys figured out how to wall climb!” They made it almost all of the way up the building!

This time, Naruto and Sasuke-kun are the ones to blink down at her. Unfortunately, reminding the boys of their sudden mastery seems to wipe out their focus, and at once the three of them are plummeting down the wall together.

Ahhh!” Sakura shrieks, clinging to her teammates. Oh great, now I’m really gonna die!

However, Team Seven only spends about two seconds in a caterwauling freefall before they’re once again halted—this time by something tall and green.

“Oof,” Kakashi-sensei grunts. He’s perched on the wall below them, one arm around Sasuke-kun and Naruto each, while Sakura clings like a terrified koala to his middle. “You guys really are a handful.”

Sakura yelps, having regained some of her senses, as Kakashi-sensei hops back down to earth. Forget abs of steel, his entire body must be made of the stuff if he could stand like that while holding the three of them!

Kakashi-sensei dumps all three of them rather unceremoniously on the ground—well, he drops the boys, Sakura he has to scrape off like a persistent piece of gum before he sets her down.

He levels an index finger at her teammates, who are looking rather churlish at their abrupt disembarking. “Naruto. Sasuke. Good progress so far, and good job having Sakura’s back. Nicely done.”

The finger turns to Sakura, who gulps. “Sakura-chan,” he begins flatly. “Excellent job at picking up this skill so quickly. Your chakra control is even better than I had anticipated. But we’ve already talked about your recklessness. This doesn’t happen again. Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” Sakura responds, feeling chastised and relieved. She expected a bigger chewing out than that, to be honest.

“Lovely. Now, eat your lunch and then get back to painting. Sakura-chan, your feet stay on the ground.” He pauses, stroking his chin in thought. “Okay, that’s all. Bye!” And Kakashi-sensei has vanished once more, a swirl of leaves in his wake.

“Man, what a weirdo,” Naruto mutters, and Sakura can’t help but agree. A pretty cool weirdo, though.

Sakura gets to her feet and hears her stomach growl ferociously. Okay, definitely lunch time. “C’mon, slow pokes!” she calls over her shoulder, trotting off towards their bags. “Last one there is a kage’s ass!”

The boys trip over themselves chasing after her.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 

The planning fallacy: a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.

 

--

And in thus a manner Sakura’s life continues for the next three days. She wakes, gets her ass kicked by a bunch of dogs, gets ready for the day, and then spends hour after hour crawling along the wall of a mansion, slapping red paint onto the wood.

(Naruto calls her lizard-girl when he sees her scuttle up the wall on all fours. She throws a paint can at his head with perfect accuracy.)

She’s so exhausted by the end of each long day that she ends up tumbling into bed, rice grains stuck to her face from scarfing down her dinner, still without answers about the mysterious missing issues of Koboha Gaiden every single night. Her parents are busy and she’s just…so…tired…

Sakura also wakes up each morning with increasingly more of her canine instructors snoozing in her bed, and finds herself bullied out the door with eight wagging tails trailing after her. “C’mon, Sakura-chan!” Shiba barks at her every dawn without fail, as she swats at her buzzing alarm clock. “Up and at ‘em!”

By the fourth day, both her teammates have mastered the wall climbing, and more often than not Sakura and Naruto spend the afternoon hours chasing one another over the walls, throwing bright red paint back and forth. Even Sasuke-kun gets into the game, slapping Naruto across the face with a fully loaded brush—but Sakura only gets to laugh at this for about three seconds before he appears right next to her and gives her the same treatment.

Sasuke-kun!” she shrieks, out of shock and also at the sudden cold. She gapes at him, hand on her paint-soaked cheek as he smirks, coolly striding away to tend to the last patch of unpainted wood. Ooh, Sasuke-kun, just because I think you’re cute doesn’t mean you’re gonna get away with that! Quietly, Sakura vows to get revenge. Maybe not today, but someday…

On the eighth day, Sakura wakes up to find her cut mostly healed, a thin pink scar in its place. She doesn’t know how to feel about it. It kind of seems cool; it makes her look tough, right under her eye like that. She kind of hates it, too. Mostly, Sakura just hopes it fades a little.

They also finish painting the house on the eighth day, which is a massive relief. It’s also horrible, because when Ushiwaka-san comes around to review their work, the first thing Sakura notices is his cane and dark sunglasses. “He’s blind?!” she mouths at her sensei, fury coursing through her as he blinks back at her innocently. Apparently, Ushiwaka-san wanted his house painted red so it was easier for delivery-people to find it, and gave approximately zero shits about the quality of the job. Naruto, predictably, throws a fit. Sasuke-kun’s neck vein bulges so bad Sakura fears he might drop dead from hypertension right there. And Kakashi-sensei—curse his smug, deceiving ass—disappears with a smile and a pile of leaves. Seething, Sakura plots the murder of that weird little book their sensei seems to love so much. Oh yes, it would indeed meet a most unfortunate end at her hands, if Sakura has anything to say about it.

However, to their instructor’s credit, he does give them the rest of the afternoon and the next day off. Sakura plans to do exactly three things: sleep, hang out with Ino, and finally ask her parents about Otogakure and the missing Konoha Gaiden issues.

…But of course, the best-laid plans tend to go awry, right?

Sakura does indeed acquire lunch, stealing Ino away from her post at the flower shop for some curry bread from a street kiosk, their linked hands swinging between them as they stroll amongst the villagers of Konoha.

“…and then it turns out, he’s blind!” Sakura fumes through a mouthful of dough and curry. The thought of the prank still rankles, even if Ushiwaka-san had been exceptionally generous in his payment.

Ino cackles gleefully. “Oh, that’s perfect,” she grins, sounding far too pleased at Sakura’s suffering. “You’re lucky you got a fun teacher. Asuma-sensei is such a stick in the mud!”

Sakura can’t help the doubtful face she makes. “I don’t know about fun,” she hedges. Insufferable seems more accurate. “But it was pretty cool, learning how to walk up walls. Has Asuma-sensei taught you guys that yet?”

Ino takes an aggressive bite of her curry bread. “No,” she pouts. “That’s what I mean. So far, we’ve just had a lot of stupid D-ranks and lectures on the historical importance of Ino-Shika-Chou in Konoha.”

Ino’s tone is sour enough to give Sakura pause. “You don’t like the team formation?” she hazards, finishing off her lunch.

Ino shakes her head, her expression troubled. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” she begins. “I just…I want to be my own person, you know? I don’t just want to be part of some old tradition. I’m proud of my family name, and of course I want to honor our secret techniques, but…it just sucks, having everything planned for you. I don’t even get a say.”

Sakura feels a pang in her chest. Ino had been an inspiration to her since they were little, dazzling Sakura with her shinobi skills and practical knowledge of plants, not to mention her fashion sense and general screw you attitude. To see her so defeated is heartbreaking.

Sakura tugs on their linked hands. “What do you say we have a girl’s day?” she suggests, squeezing Ino’s fingers. “I have tonight and tomorrow off. We could get some junk food, give ourselves manicures, and complain as we stuff our faces and stay up all night.”

Ino brightens, her smile only a little tremulous. “That sounds great! I’ll ask my dad for tomorrow off from work.”

Sakura grins. “It’s a date!”

And so Sakura’s illustrious plans to finally unearth whatever mysteries the Konoha Library is harboring are once again foiled, but it’s hard to complain when she gets to spend the night cuddled up with her best friend as they munch on food with no nutritional value. The ninken crash Sakura and Ino’s slumber party around midnight, but they are informed with no uncertain terms that training is canceled tomorrow. To Sakura’s delight, her canine teachers acquiesce easily and, at Ino’s shrewd insistence, even submit to having their claws painted.

“I just can’t believe you grabbed him by the shirt collar,” Ino comments with a snort as she delicately applies a bright pink shade to Guruko’s claws. Her shimmery blonde hair spills onto Sakura’s rug where she sits cross-legged, the tresses freed from her customary ponytail.

Sakura groans, capping a bottle of lilac nailpolish. “I know. So embarrassing.” She pats Bull on one of his sizeable paws. “Okay, Bull, you’re finished!”

The large bulldog inspects his newly festooned claws with a critical eye, before a happy dog-grin breaks out on his face. “Thank ya, Sakura-chan! I’ve always loved the color purple!”

“You’re very welcome, Bull,” Sakura responds with a smile. She can’t wait to see Kakashi-sensei’s reaction to his ninken sporting cheerful colors on their paws. Adorable and badass, she muses. Just like me! Well…someday, anyway.

“Personally, I think it’s hilarious,” Ino counters. “Sasuke-kun is cute, but that boy’s ego needs to be checked every now and then.”

Sakura blinks as she preps Ūhei to be properly pampered. “You don’t like him anymore?” she asks, curious.

Ino hums. “I don’t dislike him,” she finally replies, popping a pink marshmallow into her mouth. Those had been an impulse purchase at the end of their snack-run, strawberry-flavored heart-shaped marshmallows. Sakura grabs a few, chewing on them as Ino finishes her thought. “I just don’t really like like him, you know? He was so cool and untouchable in the Academy, but now that just seems…boring.”

Sakura nods slowly. “Yeah,” she murmurs, finding a surprising amount of agreement in the word. “Yeah, me too, kinda.”

Now Ino is the one to blink, staring at Sakura in open shock. “You? I thought you’d be the one to crush on him forever. You really don’t like him like that anymore?”

Sakura’s mouth twists into a grimace as she tries to sort through her feelings. Does she still like Sasuke-kun? Her stomach still flutters a little when she sees him, and he is awfully cute…but…her heart doesn’t sing the way it used to when he just looked in her direction. It’s weird. Her feelings toward him don’t seem any less strong, just…different, somehow.

“I just…” Sakura searches for the right words. “I don't really know what I feel. I just really want to be his friend. He seems like he could use one.” Yeah, that feels right. She thinks of the stormy look on his face all those days ago as he vowed to kill a man and shudders.

“So noble,” Ino remarks, now giving Guruko a luxurious ear-rub. “I think you’re right, though. He does seem kind of lonely.”

Sakura nods. “Yeah,” she murmurs. They lapse into a comfortable silence, quietly applying nailpolish to each claw of the ninken until every dog is flaunting a colorful set. Once that’s finished, and Ino is yawning so wide her jaw pops, Sakura bundles everyone into bed—including their furry companions. Sakura’s bed is meant to accommodate two adults comfortably, and somehow that translates well enough to two young girls and eight dogs of varying sizes. It’s a tight fit, but it works.

Sakura sleeps more soundly than she has in days.

 

--0--

 

The next morning is pleasantly hazy and slow; without the need to train, the ninken are happy to doze late and provide warmth and snuggles. Sakura’s mother makes everyone pancakes, and Ino makes a game out of tossing the fluffy discs like Frisbees for the dogs to catch. After sending the ninken on their way, Sakura and Ino take to the streets of Konoha, browsing the shops for clothes and trinkets.

“Ah! Sakura, this is perfect for you!”

Sakura pauses in her inspection of a cute set of teacups to glance over at Ino. Her friend is holding up what appears to be a keychain, and Sakura strolls over to investigate.

“See?” Ino says brightly, bringing it up next to Sakura’s hair. “It matches perfectly!”

The item is simple but cute: a little cherry blossom on the end of a beaded chain, and the color truly is identical to her hair. Sakura grins, already in love with the little charm.

“I could put it on my tantō scabbard,” she realizes, grabbing at the chain. “From the sageo. It would be so cute!”

Ino deftly pulls it away from her reach. “Ah, ah! I’m buying it for you,” she chides, already striding over to the counter of the shop. “I’ll take this, please!”

Sakura follows her, surprise delaying her response. “Hey! No, I’ll pay for it,” she argues, trying to snatch the trinket from Ino’s hand. Of course, Ino employs her not unexceptional shinobi skills and avoids Sakura’s grasping fingers at every turn.

“Don’t sweat it, Forehead,” the blonde grins, and Sakura is struck suddenly by just how pretty her best friend is. “You can pay for lunch.”

Sakura simply stares. “I…okay,” she concedes, a little lost for words. Have Ino’s eyes always been so…blue?

“Here you go,” Ino trills, dropping the now-packaged trinket into Sakura’s palms.

“Thank you,” Sakura replies, clutching it to her chest. She feels oddly shy. What on earth has gotten into her?

Ino frowns at her. “Is that giant brain of yours is stalling out in the face of my astonishing generosity?” she quips, raising a brow. “Don’t fry it too bad, it’s your only redeeming feature!”

That’s enough to snap Sakura out of whatever is freezing her mental capacities. “Just for that, no free lunch for you!” she retorts, spinning around to head towards the exit. Only redeeming feature, her foot. Sakura has plenty of lovely features!

Eh? Don’t be so stingy, Sakura!” Ino calls, trotting after her. “And after I gave you a gift, too! Has the harsh shinobi world already made you so cruel?”

Sakura lets out a laugh, amused at Ino’s melodramatic tone. “Indeed,” Sakura utters gravely, turning to give Ino a dead-eyed stare. “My heart, once so soft and girlish, has turned to stone.” She lifts a hand to her forehead as if to faint. “Remember me fondly…the Sakura you knew has been lost to the merciless instruments of the ninja life.”

Ino throws her arms around Sakura’s neck in response. “Say it isn’t so!” she cries, playing up the anguish in her voice. “I shall avenge you, dearest Sakura! And I shall lay a single lily on your grave every morning for the rest of my days.”

Sakura snorts. “A single lily? And I’m the stingy one?”

Ino leans away from their embrace to flick Sakura in the nose. “The flower shop would go bankrupt if I did anything fancier. In this economy, you’re lucky I’m not leaving a handful of weeds, Forehead.”

Sakura sticks out her tongue at the other girl, finally dancing away from her grip. “So revenue is more important than our friendship, I see how it is.”

“You got me,” Ino deadpans, catching up to Sakura to seize her hand and intertwine their fingers. “All those years where I called you my best friend…I was secretly thinking of piles and piles of money.

“I knew it,” Sakura scoffs, before getting distracted by a bright café sign. “Ooh, a crepe shop! Want to stop here for lunch?”

Ino is already tugging Sakura towards the café, inspecting the glossy images of delicious-looking crepes in the windows. “You read my mind. Want to split a savory and a sweet one?”

Sakura grins. “Of course.”

They end up ordering one crepe with teriyaki chicken and veggies and another filled with fruit, cream, and anko paste, passing the two rolled cones of deliciousness back and forth as they lounge under one of the café’s umbrellas.

“Why didn’t my family open a crepe shop?” Ino wonders, licking her fingers. “Forget flowers. I could spend all day just making and eating crepes.”

Sakura nods slowly, blissed out from carbs and sugar. “Let’s open one together, when we’ve retired from being kunoichi,” she proposes. “Imagine us as little old ladies, running our cute café. Doesn’t that sound amazing?”

Ino sighs longingly. “It really does. Okay, it’s a plan.” She holds out her pinky. “We might have to make it a café-flower shop combination, though.”

Sakura links her pinky through Ino’s, a happy smile dimpling her cheeks. “Deal.” Their linked hands bob as one, sealing the promise.

The rest of the afternoon is spent lackadaisically wondering around markets of Konoha, and the two genin decide to stop by a weapons shop to stock up on necessities. Ino peruses the generous selection of shuriken while the medical supplies section catches Sakura’s eye. She has room on her utility belt, and some first-aid equipment will probably be pretty handy, she muses. With that in mind, Sakura chooses a modestly sized pack containing a basic suturing kit, bandages, and a few other amenities. It’s not much, but considering how she typically carries zero tools of this nature, it’s a good start. A rather fancy-looking harness draws Sakura’s attention, and she admires the high-quality leather and workmanship. Such an item would allow the wearer to carry at least two blades on their back; along with whatever else they saw fit to attach to it. Sakura hums thoughtfully. Wearing her tantō on her back would certainly be more practical…but yikes, the price tag on the harness has Sakura wincing. Even after a fat paycheck from Ushiwaka-san, it’s far too much, especially considering how expensive her sword was in the first place. Her current method of carrying the blade will have to do.

“Ooh, Sakura I found the perfect thing to go with your new tantō!”

Sakura looks over curiously, envisioning another charm, and instead finds Ino pointing to a full set of samurai regalia, complete with a huge, elaborate helmet and a demonic-looking facemask. Sakura huffs out a laugh, walking over to admire the ornate armor.

“Oh certainly, it’s very me,” Sakura snorts, trying to imagine herself running around in the highly-structured suit, pulling weeds and painting houses. It’s a hilarious image.

“It’s a very subtle look,” Ino nods. “Perfect for the next time you need to air out someone’s futons.”

“Definitely.”

The two pay for their items (Ino ends up picking up a few kunai along with her shuriken, and Sakura grabs some exploding tags) before heading back into the streets. By now, it’s late afternoon. Sakura’s mother will likely expect her home soon to help prepare dinner. They approach a crossroads, wherein the walk home to their respective houses diverges, but Sakura hesitates in her goodbyes, not wanting the day to be over quite yet. Before she can say anything, Ino has pulled her into a tight hug.

“Thanks for today, Sakura,” she murmurs, squeezing tight. “I needed it.”

Sakura holds her back just as closely. “Of course,” she whispers back. In all honesty, Sakura needed it too. Training and missions are fun, but…it’s definitely an adjustment.

Eventually they part ways, and Sakura opts to walk home rather than leap over the rooftops, taking the opportunity to enjoy the cooling air and the purpling sky. When she finally arrives home, it’s nearly dark already. The day passed so quickly! The temperature in Konoha is a fair constant (except when it reaches hellish levels of sweltering during the summer) but winter is certainly being heralded in the shortening days, Sakura notes.

Peeling off her sandals, Sakura notices a conspicuous lack of her father’s shoes, and her mother’s as well. Has he been sent off on another mission already?

“Mama?” Sakura calls, padding into the living room. Mebuki is nowhere to be found, and Sakura’s heart rate begins to kick up. Sakura peers into her parents’ shared bedroom and the bathroom, and is about to work herself into a full tizzy when she notices a piece of paper taped to the microwave in the kitchen.

Sakura-chan,” it reads, “Papa was called out to inspect some strange fungus in Sekikawa town. I’m sorry for leaving without saying goodbye! I hope the tantō is coming in handy. Love you lots, and see you soon. –Papa”

A sticky-note is stuck to the end of the letter, this time scrawled with her mother’s loopy script. “To my darling daughter: one of my acupuncture patients has thrown out her back and needs treatment. I probably won’t home until you’re in bed (please at a reasonable hour tonight, sweetie). There’s some pork in the fridge and I started the rice maker. See you tomorrow! Love you! –Mama”

Sakura sighs, folding the notes up to toss in the recycling bin. Well, there goes yet another chance for asking about Konoha Gaiden. Sakura had considered bringing it up with Ino, but it seemed like her friend needed cheering up more than she needed to be let in on a possible conspiracy, so Sakura refrained. Then again…Ino’s father is part of the Intelligence and Interrogation squad…if anyone is going to know about these things, it might be him. Sakura makes a mental note to mention the issue the next time she sees Ino.

Yawning—who knew shopping could be so tiring—Sakura opens the fridge, pulling out a plastic container with cooked pork in it. There’s another sticky-note stuck to it, with a little cherry blossom doodled on the paper. Sakura grins. Her mother really is the best.

The sketch reminds Sakura of Ino’s gift to her, and she quickly sets to fastening the charm to the sageo on her scabbard, and then her new medical pack to her utility belt as the meat is warmed in the microwave. Sakura can’t help but admire the way her utility belt’s stark practicality clashes with the elegance of her tantō. It’s rather visually appealing, in a contradictory sort of way.

When she finally lays down to sleep that night, Sakura only has a few moments to feel bereft without the warmth of Ino cuddled into her side when Akino plops down beside her, followed by Urushi, followed then by six other furry bodies.

“How do you all get into my room every night, anyway?” Sakura yawns, curling around Bisuke’s small form.

“We’re ninja dogs,” Pakkun grumbles from somewhere around her left foot.

Sakura nods into her pillow. That makes sense.

“Also, the lock on your window is crappy,” Shiba pipes up.

Sakura snorts. “Aha.” Suddenly, a thought strikes her. “Kakashi-sensei won’t be mad that I’m…you know, hogging you guys all to myself, will he?” Sakura has only known the cozy joy of having canine bedmates for a few days, but she would already be loath to give it up. They’re just so soft and snuggly.

Bull lets out a strange noise that she assumes must be a laugh. “I don’t think Bossman cares, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura hums, feeling the pull of sleep tugging on her consciousness. “Are you,” a yawn, “sure?”

A paw on her mouth silences the genin, and she muzzily recognizes it as one belonging to Ūhei. “We will ask Kakashi-senpai when we see him next, if it will soothe your worries,” he says evenly, though with some drowsiness in his ever-dignified voice.

Another yawn. Sakura nestles down into her pillow. “I would appreciate that.”

She dreams of eating her way through a crepe the size of her house.

 

--0--

 

The following morning, Sakura rises even earlier than normal so she can whip together a quick breakfast for her mother—the lady deserves a treat every now and then, Sakura muses as she piles a healthy serving of rice into a bowl. Mebuki has traditional tastes when it comes to breakfast food, so Sakura leaves a tray of grilled fish, miso soup, and pickled veggies for her mother when she wakes. As Sakura takes to the roofs, she notes with a grin that today is looking like another beautiful day. Life is pretty good!

During ninken training, Sakura is finally able to broach the topic of her tantō after twenty minutes of the blind evasion game. Pakkun blinks at her, looking nonplussed as she peels off her blindfold. “Sure,” he agrees. “Though none of us are much of swordsmen.” He waggles a paw. His claws are still a glittery teal color. “No opposable thumbs and all that.”

Sakura nods, having expected this. “I figure I’ll pick up a technique scroll from the library and go from there,” she explains while re-tying her ponytail. “I think sparring against you all will be really helpful.”

The pug’s eyes narrow as if in thought, and he appears to come to some sort of decision before speaking again. “Kakashi…he used to wield a tantō.”

Sakura scratches her nose, not entirely surprised by this information. “In ANBU?” she guesses, and gets to her feet. If she makes Guruko and Urushi wait much longer at the training posts, her ankles will be paying for it.

Pakkun’s head bobs. “Among other times,” he allows, which does surprise Sakura. Kakashi-sensei was a swordsman? What can’t he do?

“You should ask him to teach you the basics,” Pakkun tells her. “He likes you more than those idiot teammates of yours, so he’ll probably say yes.”

Sakura grins, a little mystified but undeniably satisfied. “Will do,” she promises, feeling happiness warm her cheeks as she retrieves a pair of Muay-Thai style hand wraps out of her pocket and begins pulling them over her knuckles (a blessed addition to her training arsenal, her hands would be a bloody mess without them). It’s a little childish, she thinks, to be so pleased about being the teacher’s favorite, but old habits die hard.

“Oi! Sakura-chan! Hop to it!” That would be Urushi.

Sakura gives Pakkun a salute. “Coming!”

The rest of training passes without much incident, and Sakura dares to say that she’s actually improving at this taijutsu stuff. The strikes come more naturally to her, and her body just feels more in tune with itself. Her movements feel less like guesswork, and more like…well, educated guesswork, which isn’t perfect but it’s progress!

But naturally, this train of thought means that in the last five minutes she ends up with a scratch in the middle of her nose thanks to Bisuke—and they weren’t even been sparring! She pulled a rather persistent burr from his back leg and must have yanked on his fur a little hard, because she got kicked in the face for her troubles.

The dog’s crocodile tears and babbling apologies erase any ill will she has, of course, but Sakura does grumble a little when she has to stick a band-aid across her nose later at home. At least it’s cute: white with tiny Konoha leaf symbols printed on it. Hopefully, this one won’t scar!

Of course, such an incident (based on her past experiences) should have given Sakura an inkling as to what was scheduled today…

Team photos!?”

Naruto and Sakura parrot back at their sensei, the latter sounding much more aggrieved than the former. Of course we have team photos the day I get kicked in the nose!

Naruto crosses his arms, appearing perplexed as he levels a hairy eyeball at their instructor. “What for?”

Kakashi-sensei herds the three of them towards the Hokage tower, having arrived uncharacteristically semi-punctually today—only thirty minutes late, compared to his usual hour-plus. “It’s tradition,” he explains. “It’s for the log books, and as a keepsake.”

Naruto nods, seemingly satisfied, before he notices a stain on the front of his jacket and yelps, furiously trying to rub it out with some spit. Sakura fidgets with her forehead protector self-consciously. I barely looked in the mirror before I left this morning! Prior to starting ninken training (which now ate up most of her mornings), Sakura used to at least apply some mascara before leaving the house. Now, she barely has enough time to properly buckle her sandals before she heads for the bridge. She’s pretty sure she looks a bit like a mess, not to mention the dorky band-aid on her nose!

Glancing around, Sakura notes that Sasuke-kun seems to be making surreptitious attempts to tame his bed-hair into something presentable, and Naruto is now attacking a different stain on his sleeve. Sakura can’t help the grin that quirks her mouth—well, at least she won’t be alone looking a little bedraggled in their team photo. They’ll be unkempt together!

When they reach the tower, the four of them are instructed to go to a small park nearby, where the photographer has set up his outdoor studio—though “studio” is a bit of a stretch, what awaits them is a waif of a man who seems to be halfway to falling asleep, his camera slung around his neck.

“You’re my last appointment,” he grumbles. “I’ve been waiting for almost twenty minutes!”

Sakura nearly rolls her eyes, but refrains. Waiting twenty minutes, big whoop—four days ago, Kakashi-sensei had been a whopping three hours late to the bridge, and Sakura and her teammates ended up heading to Ushiwaka-san’s house on their own. Part of Sakura wonders if Kakashi-sensei is trying to teach them patience and independence, but mostly she’s convinced that he’s a lazy bum who doesn’t own a clock.

The photographer (Satoshi-san, Sakura later learns) gestures at the four of them vaguely until they’ve shuffled into a position he likes; Sakura standing between Naruto and Sasuke-kun while Kakashi-sensei is behind them. At one point, Naruto steps on Sasuke-kun’s foot (to which he receives a whack to the head and an “usuratonkachi!”), so the two boys are both wearing supremely sour expressions.

“Why do I have to be in the same picture as Sasuke-teme?!” Naruto grumps, crossing his arms.

“Like I want to be in the same photo as you, loser,” Sasuke snarks right back, mirroring Naruto’s pose.

“Maa, maa, boys,” Kakashi-sensei murmurs, placing firm hands on the tops of their heads and pulling them back into the frame. “It’s tradition. Behave.”

Satoshi-san raises his camera. “Okay, I’m going to take the photo. Everybody say shuriken.”

Sakura can see his finger move, about to click the capture button, and on a last-second impulse she throws both arms around her teammates’ necks, pulling them in close and holding up victory-signs beside their heads. “Shuriken!” she chirps, putting on her best smile.

The camera flashes.

Feeling triumphant, Sakura releases Naruto and Sasuke-kun, laughing openly at their bewildered expressions. Now Sakura can be certain their photo is going to look dopey as hell, but it suits them, she thinks. The team that looks stupid together, sticks together, right?

“Ahh, Sakura-chan, when I’m Hokage, people are gonna look back on this photo and think I’m a total idiot!” Naruto whines, and Sakura sticks her tongue out at him. Serves him right!

“As if they would think anything else,” Sasuke-kun sneers, but before Naruto can challenge him to (yet another) duel, Sakura steps between them, shoving them apart and looking expectantly at Kakashi-sensei.

“What’s our mission today, sensei?” she asks. Hopefully something that her teammates couldn’t turn into a competition.

“Excellent question, Sakura-chan,” he quips, pulling out that detestable book of his. For the record, Sakura hasn’t forgotten her promise to turn it into kindling. “Today, we have been bestowed a most important task.”

That, of course, captures everyone’s interest, and Sasuke-kun and Naruto quickly stand to attention.

“The Fire Daimyō’s wife, Madame Shijimi, has lost her beloved cat, Tora. It is our duty to locate him and safely return him to her.”

Sakura blinks. Ostensibly, catching somebody’s runaway cat sounds pretty lame, but…the daimyō’s wife? She would not be a good person to displease. This is a mission to be taken seriously.

“Haah?” Naruto scoffs, all interest apparently lost. “That sounds boring!”

Sakura pokes him in the side. “Hey, if you want to become Hokage, you’d better start cozying up to the council members. They’re the ones who elect that position.” Sakura figures he’s pretty much hopeless in that area, but he might as well try.

Naruto’s expression is one of complete and utter shock. “Huh?! No way! I thought the Hokage was the strongest person in the village!”

Sakura blinks at him. Did he really not know? “I mean, that’s part of it,” she allows. “But it’s not like…a trophy you can win in a competition. You have to be nominated by council members, then that has to be approved by the Daimyō and the clan leaders, and then the council votes on it.” Of course, aspects of his process are sometimes circumvented during times of war, and the Hokage is selected by the council alone (read: the Yondaime’s confirmation), but that is supposed to be the course of events. Personally, Sakura would prefer a more democratic method, but such is the way of a hidden village. At least they get to elect some of their council members!

“Sakura-chan is right,” Kakashi-sensei adds, and pulls out a set of communicators from his hip-pack to distribute. “Becoming Hokage is as much about politics as it is about strength, if not more so.”

Naruto looks like he’s about to faint, so Sakura gives him a companionable slap to the back. “Think about this as your first step in sucking up to the council,” she says cheerily, and hooks up her communicator. “Getting Madame Shijimi to like you would be a huge boost.”

The expression on Naruto’s face still conveys my soul is exiting my mortal body so Sakura takes it upon herself to set up his communicator as well. She doesn’t know a lot about Naruto, but she’s fairly certain he doesn’t have any parents. He could probably use some mothering every now and then.

The search for Tora begins in Konoha-gyoen, the nobles’ quarter of the village, and wow…Sakura had thought Ushiwaka-san’s house to be big but it pales in comparison to the ostentatious palaces of Konoha’s aristocrats. Even Sasuke-kun goggles a bit at the sprawling buildings, and Sakura guesses that the Uchiha compound is pretty ritzy in comparison to apartments in the city proper.

Madame Shijimi’s quarters have apparently been combed top to bottom by her staff (and their desperate, haggard appearance confirms this) so Team Seven takes to the lush gardens and crisply-kept white clay walls and cobblestone streets, each path decorated with well-pruned cherry blossom trees and stone lanterns. Thankfully, Tora is quickly found; Naruto, surprisingly, has the exceptionally clever idea to check any herb gardens for matatabi.

“There’s an old lady who lives near me, and she keeps matatabi on her windowsill,” he explains, sheepishly scratching the back of his head at Sakura and Sasuke-kun’s curious stares. “There are always strays hanging around, but I’ve seen some of the Nekogawa cats there too. Maybe Tora sneaks out to have a sniff?”

The latter felines are the ninja-cats that belong to the Nekogawa clan, in the same way that the Inuzuka’s raise ninja-dogs, and they elevate snootiness to an art form. If the lure of matatabi is enough to draw them away from their absurdly high metaphorical horses, it should certainly be appealing enough to entice a pampered noble cat away from his jewel-studded milk bowl. Sakura smiles, impressed at Naruto’s perceptiveness.

And sure enough, when Team Seven peers stealthily over the wall separating the Konoha-gyoen herb garden away from the main path, they find over a dozen cats lazing about in the shrubs. Tora is not among those in blissful, matatabi-induced dozing, and instead they locate him in a shady corner, exchanging tongue-baths with what appears to be an older, female copy of himself.

“Is that…his mother?” Sakura whispers wonderingly. Had Tora been a stray?

“No wonder he ran away,” Naruto says in a low voice, sympathy clear in his tone. “He wants to be with his family.”

Rather solemnly, they corner the wayward feline and Naruto snatches him up, weathering Tora’s flying claws with uncharacteristic stoicism. When they return him to Madame Shijimi, it is clear that she cares for the animal—perhaps a little too much, squeezing him tightly to her ample bosom as she sheds tears of joy—but it is hard to feel proud of pulling anyone away from their family, even a cat. Their expressions must be truly dour, because Kakashi-sensei bops them all on the head with his book and murmurs, “Cheer up. I’ll spring for lunch,” before cuffing Sakura a second time.

“Sensei! What was that one for?” she demands, rubbing the top of her head. It hadn’t hurt at all, but it’s the principle of the thing.

“That was for painting Akino’s claws that hideous chartreuse color,” he quips, already turning to head back to the Hokage tower. “When you know a royal blue would have suited him much better.”

Sakura lets out a genuine belly-laugh at that, trotting after her captain and teammates. Leave it to Kakashi-sensei to turn her little prank back onto her.

Though as it turns out, Madame Shijimi also has some business at the Hokage tower, so Team Seven escorts her over to the building while her ever-present ANBU bodyguards lurk menacingly in various nooks and crannies. Naruto takes Sakura’s earlier advice to heart and does his best to engage in pleasant conversation with the noble, describing how the stray cats flocked to the garden with matatabi and how they found Tora socializing with them.

“Oh my,” Madame Shijimi trills, bringing a heavily cloaked hand to cover her surprised gasp. “My dear Tora was a stray. I found him during a stroll through the gardens, tiny and filthy and stick-thin. I suppose I should have known he had a family.”

Naruto nods, glad at the noble’s understanding. “I was thinking, you could plant some matatabi near your house!” he suggests, scratching his nose sheepishly.

Sakura grins, having come up with the same idea. “But Naruto, Shijimi-sama’s quarters will be swarming with cats!” she counters leadingly, winking at her teammate.

Naruto blinks at her, before catching on. “Exactly!” he crows. “Then Tora will never be lonely and he’ll never run away again!”

However, Madame Shijimi does not respond immediately, and rather has the faraway expression of someone lost in a fantasy. “Swarming with cats…” she murmurs, wonder in her voice and a twinkle in her eyes. “Kiken! Come here!”

Kiken, Madame Shijimi’s bespectacled retainer, immediately rushes to her side, head bowed as he produces a scroll and brush from somewhere in the many layers of his officious robes. “Yes, Shijimi-sama!”

“Send word to my landscaper at once. I want matatabi planted immediately,” she commands. “And begin construction of a fish pond as well. I shall have the most cat-friendly quarters in all of Konoha-gyoen! No…in all of Konoha!”

Sakura grins, amused at such an animated display from the noble, though secretly she thinks that Madame Shijimi may have to contend with the Nekogawa clan for that particular title. Kiken dutifully takes all this down onto his scroll, sparing Naruto an annoyed look—probably for all of the future paperwork that her teammate had just accrued for the retainer—before he slows to once more be in stride with Kakashi-sensei.

The rest of the journey to the tower is uneventful, though Madame Shijimi surprises them when they part, as she asks for their full names (also obediently transcribed by Kiken, though his expression is one of muted disdain). “I want to remember the wonderful team who helped me find my beloved Tora,” she explains, nuzzling the aforementioned feline.

The six of them (nine, if you count the ANBU guards who appear to be making all of zero effort to remain hidden) make their way into the department where the Hokage is stationed with his administrators to dole out the missions and compensations, and where Team Seven will turn in their report. All goes perfectly according to their regular schedule, until Naruto throws a fit at the idea of digging up potatoes. Of course.

Idiot! Sakura could smack him. All that effort into impressing Madame Shijimi, down the drain because Naruto wants to play at being a hero. Sakura sighs, internally steeling herself for the tongue-lashing the Sandaime is undoubtedly about to serve them—of all of the man’s qualities, patience didn’t seem to be a particularly strong one.

However, to Sakura’s shock, he simply smirks, nodding to himself as though he expected this. Then again, their Hokage did seem to have something of a soft spot for Sakura’s blond teammate—perhaps he’s more invested in Naruto than your typical village orphan? Sakura adds this to her mental file on the Sandaime, listing it under suspicious newspaper disappearances and does his bloodline actually involve monkeys?

“Alright,” the Hokage mutters, releasing twin streams of smoke from his nostrils. For such a wise man, he did indulge in some unwise habits. “If you want it that much, I’ll give you a C-rank mission.”

Sakura’s stomach simultaneously drops in horror and leaps with excitement. C-rank? Team Seven barely graduated from weed-pulling to house painting, and now they’re about to go on a C-rank?

“It’s the protection of a certain individual,” he continues, with a smugness that has Sakura’s brows rising. What is he planning?

Next to Sakura, Naruto is (literally) bouncing with excitement. “Who is it?” he demands, hopping from foot to foot. “A daimyō? A princess?!”

The Sandaime takes another impressive drag from his pipe. “Calm down, I’m about to introduce him.”

Sakura perks up at that. About to introduce him? Has this guy just been standing around, waiting to be fobbed off onto the genin team dumb enough to demand his mission? No way. Suddenly, the Hokage’s earlier self-satisfaction makes a bit more sense: he’d predicted Naruto’s impatience and had prepared a slightly higher-ranking mission to appease him. Warning flags are now popping up everywhere in Sakura’s brain—soft spot or not, this is an awful lot of consideration to put towards a single genin…either Naruto is more important to the Sandaime than Sakura could have anticipated, or their client is really shitty. Or both.

(Later, much later, Sakura will learn it was indeed both. But for now…)

Shitty barely covers it.

Tazuna is loud, pungent, rude, and utterly disdainful of both Konoha and the shinobi profession in general. They’ve barely assembled at the gates (having split up initially to gather supplies for travel; Sakura left an explanatory note for her mother) when he begins to casually drop scornful comments about being a shinobi, and for all that Sakura finds Naruto obnoxious, listening to the bitter old man mock her teammate’s dream has her gritting her teeth. Well, if Naruto decides to throw a punch, I’ll just pretend like I was too slow to block it…

Luckily, Kakashi-sensei has both the wits and cool-headedness to anticipate any of Naruto’s less-than-protective attempts on Tazuna’s person, and keeps him at bay with a staying hand to the forehead. Swallowing her ire towards the bridge-builder, Sakura decides to intervene by way of conversation—and of course, data collection. She didn’t have a chance to research Wave country before they embarked on this mission, and she needs all the information she can get if she wants to be prepared. I need to up my geography studies, she notes. Other than the existence of Wave country, she can’t find anything in her mental files about it.

“Tazuna-san,” she begins, tacking on the honorific out of ingrained politeness alone. “You’re from Wave country, right?”

His gaze slides over to her, glassy and suspicious. “Yeah? What about it?”

Instantly on the defensive. Something to hide? Or just general irritability? Sakura’s own eyes narrow at him. “Just wanted to confirm,” she replies lightly, before turning her attention to Kakashi-sensei. “Kakashi-sensei, does Wave have a hidden village?”

Kakashi-sensei returns her stare for a moment, and she realizes that he is perfectly aware of her dislike for their client. Damn, I need to work on my poker face.

“No, not in Wave,” he finally answers, hands stuffed into his pockets. Sakura notices then that his book is absent for once, which has her senses sharpening—he wouldn’t put it away for appearance’s sake. Something is up. He continues on with some basic information about the Five Great Shinobi Countries, all of which Sakura is plenty familiar with and therefore does not pay attention to, and instead she focuses some chakra into her feet to listen to their surroundings.

Unfortunately, five sets of clomping feet make it difficult to parse out many details. (Well, Sasuke-kun’s feet don’t clomp, but Tazuna’s lumbering gait makes up for his light steps). The ground isn’t telling her much other than there are definitely four other people walking with you. Which is unhelpful. However, there’s also just something…off. Something weird. It’s similar to how the bridge felt when Kakashi-sensei had been hanging from the bottom of it like an annoying bat.

Sakura is focusing so hard on trying to locate the source of the odd feeling that she completely misses whatever Kakashi-sensei says to her next as he reaches out to pat her head. “Uh-huh,” she responds absently, swatting his hand away and pushing more chakra into the soles of her feet. A shiver runs up her spine. Whatever she’s sensing…it’s bad. Watch out, the earth whispers. Behind you!

Sakura is already whirling around when the ominous sensation flares like a firecracker going off, and comes face to face with two terrifying, masked men as they emerge from a fucking puddle of all places. They erupt from the water like demons out of hell, a lethally sharp chain whipping in the air between them. Oh, shit. Sakura can see the chain glinting, can see the way the two men are focused on one person alone, can see exactly what is about to happen next.

Sakura doesn’t think, she just acts.

Kakashi-sensei, get down!”

 

TBC