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The Best-Looking Truth

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She’d wanted to be a shinobi to help people.

Weak people. Lost people. She knew most of her classmates pictured wartimes and vendettas and capturing missing nin, but Sakura had always remembered the guards at the front gate when someone asked her why a little civilian girl would want to be a ninja. Those guards were the first line of defense against an enemy, staring out into the darkness for hours and prepared for anything. Sakura wanted to be brave and helpful like that.

Her first day as a shinobi, and she’s already killed people.

She stares down at her shaking, stained hands. They don’t feel like her own- it’s like she’s hovering just outside of her body and she’s looking in, but she doesn’t control it. But that’s just an excuse. I did this. I do have control over my body, and I used it to-

Her Mommy had made her work extra hard that night, because she’d seen Sakura’s shining little headband and how proud her daughter was, and it hurt her. Sakura knew it hurt her, how Mommy had tried to be a ninja too as a little one and hadn’t ever passed the tests, and she’d tried to hide it from her. Dumb. You can’t hide anything from Mommy, not forever.

She didn’t want to hurt Mommy’s feelings, but she had, so she started her punishments right away to make up for it. It’d taken hours to get the job done, all the way until three in the morning, and Sakura had tried to be quiet. She knew Daddy didn’t sleep heavy, and that he was always tired, and if she made too much noise it would upset him, so she tried very hard to be quiet, even though it made everything take even longer.

She must’ve not tried hard enough, because he came out of the bedroom yelling just when she was about to finish. She tried to tell him she was done, dumb, never talk back to him, but that just made him angrier, and then he reached to grab her and she knows what happens when he does that, but this time-

She had a frying pan in her hands that she’d been cleaning, last of the dishes, and she swings it without even thinking about it. Instinct. Hits his head, and she could only reach it because he was leaning down to grab her, wrap his hands around her throat like he sometimes did, but he didn’t because she hit him with the pan.

She hit him with the pan and she didn’t stop, until Mommy was in the kitchen and sobbing and furious and grabbing at Sakura too, and Daddy’s head looked all wrong and he stopped trying to hurt her.

She didn’t mean to, when she’d dropped the frying pan, but then Mommy looked so mad that Sakura got scared and she- she hurt Mommy too.

And now she’s here, standing in the kitchen that she just spent hours cleaning, and now it’s messy again.

The sun is out, and she has to go meet her jounin-sensei and her team, and her hands are all gross and sticky and awful. Sakura knows what she did was wrong, but-

Serves them right! Says Inner.  

What do I do? She wonders, and the answer comes so simply, because Sakura wanted to be a good shinobi and good shinobi kill. Good shinobi can hide when they do it.

Sakura goes upstairs and showers, and she leaves Mommy and Daddy in the kitchen in the mess. She eats her breakfast at the table really quickly so she doesn’t have to look at them too long, she’d eat in her room but Mommy and Daddy had always yelled at her for that because it made crumbs and crumbs brought rats and rats brought plague and are you trying to kill us, Sakura? Disease from rats, what a horrible way to die, don’t be so cruel to Mommy and Daddy you awful little girl. She hadn’t been then, but now- and then she leaves to wait for her sensei at the classroom, locking the door extra tight behind her.

She’s on edge the whole walk over, and she shrieks when she walks into the classroom and Naruto’s too loud greeting her.

“H-hey!” She replies, trying desperately to act normal and knowing she’s failing. You don’t like him, be meaner! Inner demands, and Sakura tries. “Don’t yell so much.” She tells him, as harsh as she can, and Naruto nods abashedly along. She doesn’t like him, but she likes that he listens to her, and it makes it hard to be mean to him right now when all she wants is everything to be simple.

Normally she’d try and sit near Sasuke-kun, but right now- he was the best shinobi out of all the graduating class. He’s got special eyes. What if he notices? What if she missed some blood? What if-

Sensei is late, so Sakura has a long time to stew in her worries. When he finally arrives, she’s a jittery, fidgeting mess, and can only hope that she’ll be able to play it off as nerves over her first day.

When he asks her to talk about herself, she’d normally have such an easy answer. Her dream is to marry Sasuke-kun, and be a good ninja, and protect the village. She likes school and books and dislikes chores. But something must’ve rattled her brain, because when it’s her turn to share, she only gets so far as her hobbies before she stumbles.

“I don’t know.” She says, freezing up.

“You...don’t know?” Kakashi-sensei presses, and Sasuke snorts.

“I- I-” She grasps, frantically, for the words she’s supposed to have more than anything else. How can she remember that she likes pressing flowers but she can’t remember the most important thing in her life?

“I wanna-”

She hits him so hard and she likes it, likes the way it makes the metal dent and his head dent with it.

“-be, um-”

She claws at Mommy and bites her and finally manages to get her to let go.

“-a good shinobi.”

Such big bodies, blood and pink stuff on the floor she just cleaned, and she’d done that. Why couldn’t she have just accepted getting in trouble again? Why couldn’t she just take it? She should’ve-

“SHUT UP!” Inner sakura shrieked. “THEY DESERVED IT.”

Sakura sits, hair blowing in her face and she doesn’t try and correct it, and wilts under her Sensei’s unimpressed gaze.

He reminds her of Daddy, a little bit. She hopes he doesn’t get mad like him.

When he says they’re not really Shinobi yet, not until tomorrow if they pass a special test, all she can think about is that it means she killed people before she was a genin after all. Does that make it worse? She’s only an adult once she’s a ninja, so maybe it makes it better, but she doesn’t feel any different from when she thought she was one, certainly not mature, maybe just a little more lost.

When Sakura stumbles home, adrift and out of focus, she only finds clarity after she’s walked in and locked the door behind her. It’s the middle of the day, and she’s the only kid in the neighborhood. Everyone’s away at work right now.

It feels so counterintuitive, because this should be a thing done feverishly in the night, but that’s not safe. Everyone’s home at night.

Sakura finds a big blanket and puts Daddy on it because he’s heaviest so he’ll go first. She’s not strong enough to take both at once. She drags him out to the woods behind her house, and she didn’t have enough blanket to cover him, so she just has to hope she was right and nobody was around to see. She pulls and pulls and pulls, and listens to Inner demand she work on getting stronger as soon as she can because this shouldn’t make a shinobi tired, and she finally gets to a bare spot that will work and she stops.

Then she goes and gets Mommy, and starts the process all over again. When she’s got both bodies there, she remembers exactly what they said in class: the best way to get rid of corpses is to burn them. You can’t leave until they’re all ashes, though, or else something might get left behind and the enemy nin will know you broke their comrades and go after you.

She starts the fire and watches, carefully, to make sure it doesn’t go out. It’s scary and awful and it’s starting to get late, but people have bonfires in the woods sometimes so she’s not too worried about the flames getting noticed, and the bodies didn’t have enough time to start rotting so it smells like cookout and not burnt dead flesh.

I’m alone. Sakura thinks, watching as her parents start to crumble into ash. I’m all alone, and I can’t ever trust anybody again. It’s a scary thought, but it sticks in her head in an awful way that she can’t escape because she had hoped joining a team would mean she would have people she’d be safe with, but now she just had new fears.

She stares, and she waits, and when the fire starts to give off smoke she watches it curl into the sky and-

There’s a boy in the tree. He’s pretty. Prettier than Sasuke, even, though it’s hard to tell through the haze. He’s got big eyes and short hair and a girly face, and fancy robes, and she can just barely make out a headband on him. A shinobi! I’m screwed, she thinks dispondantly, and she watches as his eyes take in the flames and the charcoal bodies consumed by them. He looks at her and gives her a small, little smile, and presses a finger to his lips.

Shh.

She can tell what he was miming even from this distance, and it startled her back. Did that mean-

He vanished into the billowing smoke, and Sakura prays he intends to keep her secret, that the fire will finish soon and she can run and never look back.

When it finally does, she goes home and feels the aches and sores of her body, but sets about getting her cleaning supplies out anyways. The kitchen is a mess, and if there’s one thing Mommy taught her, it’s that it’s very important to clean up messes.

It takes most of the night, but she makes sure to go to bed anyways to get an hour or two of sleep, and she’s so tired from all the exercise that she manages to drift off right away. She eats in the kitchen again, because she’s so hungry and tired from yesterday that she doesn’t care if she throws it up right away, she wants to eat something. She takes another shower, and puts on clean clothes, and runs all the way from her house to the meeting point.

She spends the time waiting for her sensei trying to figure out what to do about- about- about everything, really.

Daddy was a merchant. He didn’t have a boss to worry about, and he traveled a lot, so all of his friends were used to him being far away and out of touch most of the time. Mommy was a bookkeeper and helped him, traveled with him, so the same went for her. Sakura can’t afford to pay for the house in their place, but if she passes this test- and she has to pass it, or else she’s not a shinobi and she killed someone and that would make it murder which is bad- then she can take on missions and earn enough money to pay for an apartment. Not a nice one, definitely not, but something.

She wished she could sell all of her parents stuff, especially all the useless things Daddy liked to collect to show off how good he was at trading to his friends, but that would look suspicious and she can’t risk that. She’ll even leave a note behind, in case anyone goes in the house, about how she’s moved out ‘just like we talked about before you left’. Sakura knows she hasn’t thought of everything, but at least it’s a start.

She’s so nervous when Kakashi-sensei starts the test that at first she doesn’t even move. Her delayed reaction doesn’t cost her, thanks to Naruto rushing in distracting sensei, so she runs away and tries to figure out a plan. She’s struggling to come up with a single skill she has that could trick her sensei for even a second, much less long enough to grab the bells, when she notices the sound of groans of pain.

“S-sasuke-kun?” She calls out quietly, nervous. The noises seem to be getting closer. “Naruto?”

She chases the sounds cautiously, worried that Sensei might’ve gone too far and actually hurt the boys. She’s probably strong enough to carry them to the hospital if she has to, but-

Oh.

It’s Daddy and Mommy, dragging themselves closer to her making the noises. Daddy’s head still looks all wrong, like a bowl, and they both look like they’re rotting which makes no sense because she burned them and it’s only been a day, but little bits of flesh are peeling off them and Mommy’s arms are reaching up to grab at her, and Sakura is trying very hard to be quiet so nobody comes and sees and realizes what she’s done.

She’s done this before, she just has to do it again, she just has get her kunai and- and-

She passes out, and when she wakes up, she’s in a tree and her parents are gone and the pretty boy is back. He’s hard to look at for some reason, but he says,

“It was a genjutsu.”

She feels so silly. She fell for one so basic they even tell you about it in the academy, and she thinks she can make a good shinobi? Maybe Mommy was right.

“What’s your name?” Sakura asks, because she wants to thank him properly. He smiles at her and replies, “You should focus on your test, your time is almost up.”

“Shit!” Sakura says, and then she slaps a hand over her mouth because she’s not supposed to use words like those, but he just pats her on the shoulder and leaves.

By the time she stumbles down from the tree and makes her way back to where she remembers Kakashi-Sensei waiting, the time is up. She didn’t even get to try. She barely holds back her tears, because a shinobi should never cry, but it’s a close call and she hates herself for being so weak.

When he leaves Naruto tied up like that, and makes them promise not to interfere, all she can think about is when Mommy wouldn’t let her eat because she messed up in school or wasn’t polite enough with Mommy’s friends or-

“Shut up, she liked to make up reasons, it doesn’t matter now.”

Inner was right, it shouldn’t matter now, but it makes her sad. There’s no way she can beat Kakashi, and unlike Naruto, she didn’t even try, so why does she get to eat and he doesn’t? So Sakura pulls out her food and almost at the same time as Sasuke, offers it to Naruto. She startles when she sees that Sasuke is risking his much more secure future for a boy neither of them like, but who is she to tell him what to do?

They’ve only just started to feed the boy when Kakashi-Sensei returns, and it’s so scary that the tears she’d managed to fight back rush back to the surface. He’s going to be mad, and she doesn’t know what Shinobi consider punishment, but it’s probably a lot worse than what her parents do- did- and she could barely handle that.

He tells them they pass, and she nearly faints in relief. Especially since, if she’s really, really, a shinobi now, that means she can be a good one, which means it’s okay that she- that her parents are dead, because it’s something shinobi do, and it’s not bad anymore.

She can still help people. Sakura sets her shoulders, clicks her jaw into place, and walks home with a bundle of raw energy swirling around in the pit of her stomach and her firsts tight at her side.

She’s going to be the best shinobi, no matter what. She has to.

Chapter Text

 

Sakura wakes up with the uncomfortable knowledge that she’s alone in the world, and she’s not entirely upset about it.

It’s the third day since the murders, and she’s finally resettling into her skin enough to rely less on Inner’s guidance or instinct, and more on her rational side. So when she wakes up, she doesn’t cry. She doesn’t trail hands over old furniture and murmur soft apologies to the ghosts that must now haunt her home. She stands up, walks into the bathroom, and stares herself down.

Twelve years old, pink hair to her waist, big watery green eyes that people trust in easily. She’s got scarred hands and marks on her body that would draw questions, if she didn’t own a wardrobe designed specifically to hide bruises and secrets.

I can’t change anything. She realizes, even as she stares down at her family crest. People would notice. She has to wear the family colors, the family symbol. She needs to keep her hair long, even if Mother doesn’t make her, because Sakura with short hair is a Sakura worth questioning. She has to seem normal. She’s been trying  for years to pass as average, and now it’s a matter of life or death.

Still. She has to be a good shinobi, too. As little as she can remember from the past two days- and it’s very little, all things considered- she knows what she’s done is wrong for civilians, an infraction for shinobi, and nothing of consequence for a talented jounin. It’d be different if she was from a clan, but her family has had nothing to do with the ninja side of Konoha but dream and bargain, and for once that allots her some freedom.

She braids her hair back, in the end, an unsafe manner to wear it in still, but if she changes it slowly... very slowly, she can eventually style it practically and no one will care. After trying so hard to stand out in the academy as an exemplary student, potentially an exemplary girlfriend for Sasuke-kun, it feels odd to aim for ignorable, but it’s a familiar feeling in these walls. She tugs on her clothes with shaking hands and bitter resolve, forcing herself to stare down at the Haruno Circle and memorize this feeling of hatred so she can swallow it down in front of people, hidden.

Sakura eats her breakfast in the kitchen, refusing to look at that spot. It’s difficult. She’ll need to adjust faster, or find a place she can afford even sooner than she planned.

She leaves early, passing the bridge she’s meant to wait for her teammates at in three hours and making her way to the mission desk instead. It’s four am, still dark out, and she’s the only one reporting in who doesn’t look half-dead or aggravated at the time. She’s used to waking up early, and telling pleasing lies, so when she asks for a mission and the chuunin gives her a suspicious once-over, she primply shifts her weight back and turns her big, green eyes upwards.

“I’m picking it up for my teammates ‘n sensei! They’re so lazy, I wish I’d been put on a team with more girls.” She says, imitating the way Ino would talk to Chouji and Shikamarus’ parents when she thought her own parents weren’t looking. The Chuunin smiles despite himself, thankfully endeared, and discreetly slips her a D-rank.

“Don’t let those boys keeping taking advantage of you, kid.” He tells her, and she nods eagerly.

“Oh, I won’t!” She promises, fingers crossed that he won’t be surprised if she shows back up again with a similar excuse. She holds back the desire to sprint out the door and skips out instead, offering the Chuunin a final friendly wave before she makes her escape from his view.

It takes a few moments to inspect the mission request, and to her dismay it’s a simple weeding job. Well, it’s something you can definitely handle, at least. Inner points out, and Sakura can’t disagree. Besides, you don’t have to split the pay with the others! That… that is a very good point.

Sakura redoubles her efforts to get to her job. If she finishes it before training, she can take up a second job at the end of the day!

She does finish it, barely, and she shows up to the meeting spot covered in grass stains and dirt, but relatively pleased with herself. She’d made a solid profit, and the owner of the plot had said he’d ask for her again since she did such good work- another upside to having a civilian client was that he wasn’t surprised by her lack of a full team, easily buying her excuses of divvying up the work. Still, despite her success, it means she shows up to training already sore and tired, with hands just shy of bloody from tearing up prickly weeds. Gloves would be useful, Sakura considers, but shoves the thought away. She can’t afford gloves, not until she’s got herself a home- not to mention covering the cost of her food.

The boys do a double-take at her exhausted entrance, and she gives a sheepish grin before pulling out an excuse that makes her twitchy: “Mama had me take care of the garden this morning since I forgot to do the dishes yesterday.” Like she thought, the mention of parents shuts down any interest her teammates might’ve had. She wants to feel bad about it, but she can’t- she’ll use whatever it takes to keep things in order, and if that means tugging on heartstrings or jabbing at sore spots, she’ll do it. Easily. She’s used to doing difficult things to survive, after all.

It takes hours for Kakashi-sensei to arrive, and by then, she’s started to settle back into old habits- or as close to them as she can perform, anyways. It’s hard to look at Sasuke when she remembers the rumors little civilian kids would tell about Sharingan eyes, back when they made up most of the police force. They can tell when you lie! No, no, I heard it shows all the bad stuff you ever did- but she pushes those memories away and focuses instead on the calm, unaffected child he had been, and the comfort of his distant self. She threw herself at his arms to cling to him, eyes shut tight, and pretended for the few seconds she could manage to hold on that everything is okay.

When he gets sick of putting up with that, Sakura turns her attention to Naruto. He’s bright and individualistic and loud, all the things she wasn’t allowed to be, and it’s hard to think of anything else when he begs so fiercely for her attention. He’s halfway through recounting a particularly daring prank that Sakura is pretty sure he’s making up when their Sensei finally arrives, and with a very unimpressed look about him at that.

Naruto jumps up and yells at the man for being late, accuses him of being lazy, and Sakura barely manages to tug her hands away from yanking him back down beside her. She can’t protect him, and it’s better to avoid the attention of the man then ruin it in a futile act.

Kakashi does not yell or slap or seem at all put-off by Naruto’s words, and Sakura can see the slightest twitch to his mask that indicates a smile. She would let out a sigh of relief if she wasn’t so nervous. Instead, he informs them of their training for the day- endurance testing. Sakura’s decision to spend her morning exhausting herself is looking less and less practical, but there’s nothing she can do about it now.  

To her embarrassment, she’s unable to complete the second set of the exercises, dragging behind her teammates considerably- earning herself a look of pity from Naruto, and disdain from Sasuke. The pity is unusual, and she finds she does not like it- but Sasuke’s disdain is familiar and familial, biting in all the ways she’d been hoping to forget. Just as she’s about to force herself back up, and accept that she’ll just have to pass out trying if that’s what it takes to keep Sasuke-kun from looking at her like that, Kakashi speaks up.

“Ah, Sakura-chan, a word?”

She stumbles over to him, too tired to even worry about what he might want. She’s feeling more rational, now, and doubts he’d arrest her so calmly-- or maybe that’s exactly what he wants her to think, a false sense of security before-

“Shut up! Focus! This is no time to let paranoia take over!” Inner demanded, and Sakura forced herself to listen.

Kakashi led her a slight distance from the boys, just far enough that their eager ears wouldn’t be able to overhear what was said, and appears to make a distinct effort not to make eye contact with her, focusing instead on the surrounding trees with a blank sort of expression. Sakura doesn’t like that- she’s used to being able to read people, especially superiors, and Kakashi-sensei seems the type to take out his more negative emotions on subordinates. Like me, she thinks with a gulp, but contains her reaction to the smallest of steps backwards.

“I didn’t want to bring this up in front of your teammates for obvious reasons, but...it’s procedure for a Sensei to meet the parents of a genin, preferably at their home or place of work.”

But why wouldn’t he mention that in front of- oh, orphans, duh. Sakura realized, and it’s obvious the mental process plays out on her face from Kakashi-Sensei’s own facial twitches. Thank god he has them, with just a little more time I might be able to understand what they mean. It’s lucky she’s so preoccupied with the start of his sentence, because by the time her panic can register over what he’s asking, his attention has clearly already drifted.

“I- uh, sorry, Sensei! But my family’s not- I mean, my parents, they’re gone! Not, like, you know- they’re- merchants. They’re merchants, and they’ve left on a long trip, so you won’t be able to meet them...for a while.”

“Great going, moron, like that wasn’t suspicious at all!”

Sometimes Inner is not exactly the bastion of support Sakura needs. Kakashi is looking at her reproachfully, and he jabs a finger at her forehead that sends her stumbling back ever so slightly.

“Mah, Sakura, you shouldn’t hide things from your sensei.” He tells her, and she can barely breath.

She hadn’t thought of a cover story yet, hadn’t figured out how to sidestep her own stumbles, and now everything’s going to come crashing down around her and it’s all because she was too idiotic to prepare for-

His expression is visibly softening. “This is about Naruto, isn’t it.” He says, in a tone that adults always use when they’ve figured something out. Finally with her wits about her, she doesn’t press on eagerly and give her bluff away- instead, Sakura gives a hesitant nod.

“They’re not very happy about me… you know, spending so much time with him.” She replies, and it’s not a lie. Her parents had never been happy about her spending time with Naruto, given the damage it could do to their reputation, and the lack of resources he could offer them, orphan and paraiha that he was. If they’d found out she was supposed to share a team with him, they likely would’ve been furious.

Kakashi pats her on the head, more contact than she’s used to but not so extreme as to set off her alarms. It’s actually comforting, which she supposes was his intent- a surprising goal for him, but she hasn’t figured out his expressions yet, and perhaps his motivations are to disorient her.

“Well, I’m a famously lazy jounin, you know.” He tells her. She’s beginning to suspect his default state is an amused sort of teasing. “I can put off such an… inconsequential meeting for a while. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

Her parents, if they weren’t busy scattering across the winds as bits of ash, would very much have minded. They had never liked shows of disrespect to their position, after all, and this seemed very disrespectful indeed. Sakura nodded along, head practically bouncing at the words, and said, “Oh, I’m sure! They- they’ve always wanted what was best for me. I’m sure they’ll come around eventually, Sensei.”

She can hear Inner laughing for the rest of the day, and can’t find she blames her.

Chapter Text

 It’s her fifth time working at this particular shop, and it’s starting to feel like a routine. The old woman who runs the place always gives her a nice smile and a packet of bandaids whenever she works there, and Sakura’s beginning to suspect that she’s here so often on request. It’s nice. Sometimes, when she’s stocking the shelves and the early light is barely filtering through the musty windows, she likes to pretend the woman is her grandmother and she lives above the shop with her. It’s fun, making up a whole life to go along with the job- she can practically picture it, by now, how her room would look, how their meals would taste. It’s nice.

She leaves the shop with a signed sheet confirming she did the work, a pocket filled with a new roll of bandages, and a warm feeling from the top of her head where the woman had given her a firm pat. When she stops by at the desk, she’s happy to see it’s the nice chuunin who’s got a soft spot for her- he’d brightened considerably when he saw her walk in, and his hands are already stained with ink. She’s been nursing a theory he’s a desknin for his habitual clumsiness, but for all she knows it’s an act and he’s some sort of undercover ANBU. She sort of hopes he is- he’s nice, and she wants him to get the better pay of an ANBU compared to a desk nin.

“All done with Ms. Tanake?” He asks, and she nods, sliding over the paper with a flourish that he eagerly returns. “Great! I’ve been saving an assignment for you, nice and cushy for once- library needs some help sorting the genin section.”

Sakura had been prepared to shrug off the suggestion of an easier job- she wants whatever pays best, damn the details- but the mention of the library has her startling to attention. Watanabe must spot it, because he smirks a little bit. Desk nin can always spot a fellow bookworm, maybe, because he’s very self-satisfied at her cheer. “Wow, thanks!” Sakura says, happy to play up her more endearing traits if it earns her more D-ranks like this one. Watanabe teases her for a second, dangling the paper in front of her face before letting her snatch it.

“Hey, I put in a good word for you, so don’t make me look bad, yeah?” He suggests, and she nods eagerly.

“You got it, Watanabe sir!”

Sakura skips out into the brisk morning air, clutching the assignment tight and taking the moment to slide out of her little fantasy and focus on planning. Library assignments pay okay, and the bandage in her pocket is enough to finish restocking her emergency kit. She worries at her lip when she starts to consider the cost of an apartment, even in the shinobi district, but shakes it off when she catches an early-opener looking at her with some caution. Can’t look too nervous, not around here- too many people who might know her parents. Might notice they’re gone. Might wonder why she’s alone, working so much, not-

Library. She forces a big smile, lets her body go loose, and turns her thoughts forcefully to the task at hand. She’s going to the library, and she’s going to do a good job.

She does, actually, pass muster; the chuunin running the front desk gives her a dubious look, but he quickly decides she’s clever enough at the organization method that her rank doesn’t matter. He sets her to work sorting the simplest of books in the genin section, and she waits until she’s alone before tying back her hair in a more practical style. It doesn’t matter if nobody can see, right? She decides it’s fine, and focuses on the numbering system.

Most of the books remind her of the academy material, and it’s a lucky break since the idea that she already knows most of the information keeps her from trying to dig through them and slow herself down. A few of the thicker texts she makes a mental note of, names and placement on the shelves- the new ones, where she’s putting them away, and not their original haphazard location- so that she can go back later and take a closer look.

Then, she sees it. In the bottom of her pile, unassuming in color scheme and title, but it’s got a numbering that means it’s supposed to be in the chuunin section.She’s not supposed to even be seeing it, much less be able to flip through it, and the temptation itches at her fingertips to look. It’s not like it’s for jounin. She thinks, staring at it as if it’s about to bite her. It’s probably something simple, something I could learn. It’s no big deal if I just took a look, right?

She reaches out- and then, in the corner of her eye, she spots him.

The pretty boy, and now that she’s not seeing him in the middle of a panicked haze, she can make out his features better. He’s got lavender hair and a strong chin, and he shakes his head at her very slowly. It makes her think. Why would this book end up here? How could it get so missorted, to get put in her stack of of genin and misplaced civilian texts? It’s a test. It has to be.

She looks back up to smile at the boy, thank him for the hint, but he’s gone. So she just nudges the book to the side, refuses to take a look even at it’s title, and finishes out the last two books before taking the chuunin text with the tips of her fingers and bringing it to the front desk.

“It’s got the number for the chuunin section.” She informs the man at the desk, drops it carefully in front of him, and he laughs.

“Damn, kid, you just cost me a lunch. Watanabe knows how to pick ‘em. How would you feel about a part time job as a sorter, huh?”

An official job? Steady work? At a state institution, which means solid pay?

“Hell yeah!” She tells him, hands on her hips, trying hard to sell her precocious kid attitude that works so well on most of the desk nin she’s met. It must work on him too, because he laughs again, and starts digging around to give her the forms. Ten minutes later, and Sakura’s got a job, a schedule, and more pocket change than she’s used to.

It’s a good day. She decides, making her way to training with a spring in her step that’s normally left her about halfway through her third morning mission. She can practically taste the discount veggies she could buy with her new income, maybe even some sweets to celebrate. And I owe it to that boy. She thinks, the thought catching at the edges of her mind but not enough of a snag to drag her mood down. He’s proved helpful, and she’s desperate to learn more about him, but now’s not the time.

Morning missions go...as they usually do. Watanabe is smart enough to have figured out that her team doesn’t know about her extra missions, and kind enough to not to give her away, so he pretends he doesn’t know her when they come in for their D-rank assignment. She offers him up a sheepish smile from over Naruto’s shoulder every time he does that, enough for him to notice- partially because she shouldn’t be too good at hiding her activities, or he might get suspicious- but not something she can’t easily play off to sensei as a crush on handsome shinobi if he notices. She hopes he doesn’t. Kakashi-Sensei is scary, even when he doesn’t try.

She doesn’t like how he just stands there. He doesn’t say anything about her, about how she’s doing, about how to do better. The only time he talks is to tell her off for getting distracted. She knows it’s not fair, that he doesn’t anything to make her think so, but he’s big and strong and better than her, and whenever she spots his shadow gliding over her body it feels like a weight crashes onto her chest, just like whenever daddy would inspect her work.

She always tries harder when he’s look, because of that. Scrubs at the dishes, ignores how the hot water scorches her hands a nasty red. Digs her hands deeper into the earth the grasp at the weeds by their prickly roots, and ignores how it scrapes up her hands and stains them sickly yellow. It hurts like hell, but she’s got new bandaids in her pockets, and it’s better than what Daddy-Sensei-Father- He would do if he thought she wasn’t trying. She can’t afford to be lazy, can’t afford to be weak, because Daddy wasn’t even a shinobi and it would hurt when he punished her, so she’s pretty sure if Kakashi-sensei ever got mad enough to hit her she would die on the spot.

Or he’d just kick her out, make it so she’s not a nin anymore, and she’d rather be dead because then she’d be a civilian and she’d get in trouble for what happened to her parents, or she’d be okay and she’d be like Mommy and have to get married and- and-

So she ignores the pain and channels her nervous energy into the task at hand, turns her thoughts to her false-granny and the house above the shop that she pretends to live in. White walls she used to draw on as a child maybe. Parents who are busy but send nice letters every month. Don’t worry, Granny, I’ll make us a nice soup for dinner, just how you like it. The works passes by easily, when she does this.

She washes her hands off and wraps them up in the bandages, tight enough to sting. Sets her shoulders and braces for the oncoming pain, and sits down to eat with Naruto and Sasuke-kun, impatient to get to the afternoon training but knowing she’d pass out if she didn’t get something down during this lunchbreak.

“Just rice again, Sakura-chan?” Naruto asks, staring at her lunch. She huffs, hides her shame by jabbing her chopsticks at his face and saying,

“It’s a new diet, Naruto, nothing a stupid boy would understand.”

She’s pretty sure it’d be a terrible diet, if that was true, but she didn’t like bringing her protein-rich meals out where she could lose it. The fish she ate was more expensive than her breakfast and lunch put together, and even though she needed it for the muscles she wanted to build, it wasn’t easy to manage in her budget. The rice, in comparison, was cheap and easy to fit into her busy schedule- and it didn’t send her stomach rolling in fits, like most foods seemed prone to do. She’s still building up to eating so many meals in a day, and she’s not ready for anything more complex than this, just yet.

Still, it shuts him up, at least on that topic. Instead he turns his attention to making fun of Sasuke-kun’s bento, something he’d gotten from a fangirl and happy to take advantage of. Sakura doubts he’s made his own lunch in years, and it sends an envious grumble through her stomach as she watches him eat the bunny-shaped mochi without even a glance at the care put into them. God, I’d kill to eat some hare. She thinks, and the rabbit-hole of planning that sends her on- where would she be allowed to hunt? Could she use her shinobi tools to do it?- gets her through the rest of the lunch without drawing the attention of either boy.

Kakashi takes one look at her hands, and jerks his head towards the trees. “Sakura, Naruto, go watch. Sasuke, we’re going to spar so you can practice the Uchiha Fireball Jutsu safely.”

“Ah, ah, but that’s boring, sensei!” Naruto protests, and Sakura agrees mentally even if she keeps her mouth shut tight. Kakashi snorts.

“You’ll get your turn, Naruto.” he says, and Sakura assumes he means the same for her too, but all she can think is that the few times she gets to spare, she’s got nothing but academy techniques to practice. Sasuke’s got a long list of family jutsu to train up, and Naruto seems to have his methods for earning new ones like his favorite clone jutsu, but Sakura’s got no basis to build off. She knows enough to know the academy kata work okay for her, but nothing’s specialized the way it gets in clans.

I can’t make jounin like this. It’s been nagging at her, but low priority. Now that she’s got the possibility of a job to settle her worries about her house and stomach, it’s suddenly come to the forefront.

She watches dispassionately as Sasuke demonstrates a skill level that would make the average chuunin jealous. Watches as Kakashi easily avoids the boy’s attacks. She’d gotten a jounin that’s well respected, maybe even the strongest in the village who’s not Hokage or Hokage guard, and he’s not teaching her anything. He’s not going to. Who knows why- though she thinks it probably has something to do with his keen gaze, how his single eye seems able to tell just how little she’s worth no matter how hard she tries to hide it- but there’s no signs of that changing. He’s not going to teach her or Naruto anything, won’t have to teach Sasuke something new for ages if he ever does.

That can’t happen. She can’t stagnate. It’s not safe, and at this rate, she’ll never be important enough in the village to go unpunished for her- actions.

She notices, vaguely, that Naruto is chattering away next to her, complaining about being made to wait, complaining about Sasuke-kun’s ego. It’s a background drone, but it’s oddly soothing, and it makes her realize something.

The Uchiha were known for their sharingan. It had a lot of uses- almost an unfair number, really, now that she’s thinking about it. Unrivaled Genjutsu, heightened vision...and the ability to duplicate any jutsu it saw. She hasn’t got that genetic advantage, but it strikes her, that there’s no reason she can’t do the same. She’s always been a quick learner, always had to practice by herself. Why should things change now? It’s like a switch has flipped. Her attention turns, crystal-sharp, to watching Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei’s fight. She starts with Sasuke-kun, because being caught staring at him won’t make anyone suspicious, and because he’s going to be much slower and more obvious about the hand signs he has to make. Snake, Ram, Monkey, Boar, Horse, Tiger. That’s a lot of signs, a lot of chances to slip up, but she commits it to memory and watches even more closely to see how Sasuke handles the flame. His sleeves are practical, then, because she can see how some of the flames curl back and brush against them. She can’t afford that kind of protection, but if she practices near some water, maybe wears damp long sleeves… He’s careful to not using it when the wind is blowing his way, too, and she admires his careful consideration of his jutsu. He’ll probably hate her, if he catches her stealing his technique, but that’s okay if he only finds out after she’s mastered enough tricks to graduate to chuunin, even jounin if Kakashi-sensei gets lazy enough… Her eyes snap to stare at his hands as he gears up to do something, and she catches Tiger-Hare-Boar(?)-Dog, and then there’s a wall of earth lifting up to block Sasuke’s biggest fireball yet. That looks...interesting, too, and even as her nerves start to yell about not trying out untested, difficult jutsu, much less ones where she’s uncertain about the signs for it, she adds it to her plans. Digs her fingernails into the bandages wrapped on her palms and feels the break of skin, knows she’s undone whatever healing-over the skin had begun, and it doesn’t even bother her.

She’s got two new jutsu to try, a job on top of her usual missions, and a boy to figure out. Today is a good day.

She keeps that thought as long as she can, even when Kakashi-Sensei knocks her on her ass in the first seconds of their spar and doesn’t push her after that. Keeps it when Sasuke-kun snorts at her, mutters she’s pathetic, and Naruto tries to defend her, like that isn’t even more embarrassing than her failure in the first place. Keeps it, gnaws at ideas for how to find out who the Pretty Boy is, and tries to stay positive.

Naruto follows her, after training. She yells at him to go away but he doesn’t listen, so she skips her usual stop at the chuunin desk for work- and damn if she isn’t mad that Naruto is costing her a meal by doing this- and walks home as if it’s what she does every day, with a bright orange straggler hurriedly chasing after her.

He asks her about her hands, after all the weeding they’d done that day and she still hadn’t bought gloves, and then about gardening. Asks about her family and her childhood and her hobbies and ignores how terse most of her answers are.

“Today, Sakura-chan, I’m finally gonna see your house- believe it!” he declares, even as she grows more short and impatient with him. She wilts under the pressure, unsure how to send him away in a manner she hasn’t already tried and that won’t tip him off, so she lets him into her house and resolutely does not stare at the kitchen floor.

“What’s up with the sale sign, huh, Sakura-chan? You guys moving? You’re not leaving Konoha, right?!” Naruto asks, one question faster than the other, and sakura sets down a few of her things on the kitchen table with forced casualness and says,

“No, Naruto, we’re just moving to a different neighborhood.”

He lets out a sigh of relief, and if she wasn’t so nervous she might even be charmed by the concern he shows at the idea of losing her.

Eventually he starts asking about her parents, the state of the house, her room- she knows he must be picturing some pretty soft thing, filled with toys and frills and signs of love, and she doesn’t want to have to explain why his expectations aren’t met. So she says instead she’d like to do some more training, and they go to the woods behind her house because that’s where she trains and there’s an obvious path and she has to act like there’s no reason she wouldn’t want to walk in through those trees with this boy.

His questions don’t stop, turning more and more towards her family, and her hesitation to answer just makes him dig more. Maybe he thinks she’s shy, or that he just needs to learn everything about her to win her over, but she can barely contain herself as the tension shifts tighter and tighter on her throat until she feels like she could choke on it.

God, he’ll figure it out, one wrong question and she’s caught and Naruto’s big mouth will spread it all over the village and she’ll die and - Her hands jerk out without her meaning to, three swift hits to his jugular and a tap on the spot on the back of his neck, and she catches his body as he falls, knocked out so quickly he doesn’t even have time to blink.

She sets him down carefully, can feel her control shrinking and shrinking and has she killed him? Is he dead like mommy and daddy and it’s all her fault again?

He’s there, the boy, like always when she needs him lately, and he places a hand on her shoulder. It draws her back, as he rubs soft circles along her spine, and she begins to consider the situation properly.

First, she checks Naruto’s pulse- steady. He’s alive. She’s not sure if that’s a good thing.

“He’ll tell.” She says, without looking behind her. The Boy hums. “He’ll tell, definitely, no matter what I say. He’s too jealous that I had parents as it is to stop and think about it.”

Sounding board, then, from His continued silence, not an ethical guide. Fair enough.

“He’s an orphan. Annoying, too. Nobody’d miss him. Sensei- Sensei’d be glad to have one less student. He’d prefer if it was me, but still.” The more the thought takes hold, the more appeal it gains. If she has to pick between her own survival and a practical stranger, she knows which one she’ll choose. “Smaller body, easier to burn.” She mumbles to herself, already strategizing how to get away this.

It’s not that I want to, she tries to reassure herself as she pulls out a kunai from his own pouch. I have to. I have to do this. She takes a deep breath, and slams the kunai through his chest, enough to send a spasm through her teammate’s body.

She scrambles back, first in fear, then to find her pouch where she keeps her matchsticks. When she turns back around a few minutes later, matchsticks finally ready and hands only slightly shaking, the kunai is lying on the grass next to Naruto. Unconscious, breathing Naruto, with a scar where she’d shoved the blade that seems to be fading fast.

God. If he can do that, she can’t kill him.

Not just objectively, but politically. If Naruto can heal from something like that, it means he’s special, and if he’s special, he’s being groomed, and if he’s being groomed, his death would matter.

Frantically, frantically, Sakura tries desperately to find some way to buy the boy’s silence.

When Naruto wakes up, it’s with a cold cloth on his forehead and Sakura staring down on him with a look of pity. He assumes it’s a dream, until he leans forward to kiss her and she jerks back. “You, uh, took a pretty hard hit today, you know?” She says, patting him on the head instead of knocking him silly like he expects.

He pauses, trying to remember what exactly happened-

“Thanks again! For, uh, training with me. That was really nice of you, Naruto-kun.”

Naruto thinks maybe he was wrong, and this actually is a dream. It certainly feels like it, when Sakura helps him to his feet and stares at him all wide-eyed like he’s always wanted.

“Of course, Sakura-chan! Anything for you!”

They show up the next day holding hands, and Kakashi can barely contain his sigh over the mini melodrama playing out in his team. “Care to explain?” He asks, and Naruto lights up, clutching Sakura’s hand even tighter as the girl is dragged slightly closer by his grasp.

“Sakura-chan finally decided I’m way cooler than the bastard and agreed to go out with me!”

Sasuke looks… perplexed, to say the least, but Kakashi is more surprised when Sakura doesn’t speak up to disagree. She’s looking rather uneasy, but it might be from admitting affection for a social pariah instead of the local celebrity.

“Sakura, can I speak to you for a minute?”  Kakashi suggests, and she’s more than happy to pull her hand from Naruto’s grasp and follow her sensei to the side.

“Sakura, it’s not nice to use Naruto’s feelings as a way to make Sasuke jealous.”

“I promise, I’m not! I just figured-” this was the only way to survive, it would keep him distracted, I owe him this much after I k- tried to k-, I thought he’d forget all about my parents until I came up with a way out of this, it’s the only way to survive and I can’t give up now, “-It was about time. To give him a chance.”

“Ah. Well, that’s very mature of you, Sakura-chan.”

For a second, Kakashi considers that this might be an act of guilt, to make up for how her parents must talk about Naruto, but he quickly dismisses it. He’s their sensei, not a therapist, and it’s none of his business in the end so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with training. He sends her back out to her boyfriend and their teammate, taking a few minutes to consider how to approach their training for the day. He’s feeling rather tired- another D-rank mission seems like the best bet, overall. There’s no war on, after all; no need to rush them to the dangerous success that comes with a shinobi career.

 

Chapter Text

“It’s not okay to pressure girls, Naruto-kun!”

Sakura says, glaring at the boy she'd just interrupted mid-sentence. He backs off immediately, blushing a little bit and stammering out an apology. Seeing the way Sasuke and Kakashi-Sensei are looking at him, he hastily clarifies,

“Hey, no, I wasn’t trying to- like that! I just wanted us to go on a date later! No funny business, promise!”

Sakura huffs, aggravated that he’s drawn the other’s attention to it. If she doesn’t want them asking questions, she’s got to have an excuse. “I’m busy today , okay? My… my mother wants me to help with organizing a family reunion event-thing. We can go on a date tomorrow, Naruto-kun.”

He brightens up immediately at her words, and the sharp focus of their teammates has already faded halfway through her explanation. Truthfully, she’s got work this evening, and she can only hope she can convince him to keep the date short- or maybe pay for their meals, at least, to make up for the lost mission time? She hasn’t got a clue how much money Naruto’s got, though, and she’d feel bad taking advantage him after nearly k- if he couldn’t afford it. God, but she hopes she can break up with him soon.

He grabs at her hand again, which she actually doesn’t mind so much- she wishes he’d stop pulling her around by it, but it’s nice to get to hold hands again. She’s missed that sort of comfort since she and Ino split ways. “Come on, Sakura-chan, I’ll walk you home!”

He does, and she waits a full five minutes before scurrying out her window and taking a shortcut to get to the library in time. It’s a close call, but she’s got her hair up and her clothes dusted before the chuunin- Ogawa, she’s learned his name is- spots her. She’s been working to present herself as more bookish for him, more like the girl she was in the academy. It keeps him from questioning why she’s so willing to spend her evenings at a part-time job at thirteen, and to be a little selfish, it lets her seem more competent than most people perceive her as. Her lacking abilities in the field doesn’t matter so much to a bookish type, after all, and it’s….nice to get some respect for the skills she does have. He gives her a grin, and jerks his head towards the back.

“Academy kids had a field trip today.” He warns her, and she gives him the groan he’s expecting.

“Let me guess, the books are a mess and there are crumbs all over the pages?”

“Careful, kid, you’re starting to sound like an old lady.”

She slides over the desk easily, lands on the other side and brushes herself off before flicking his shoulder playfully. “Maybe I’m just a very youthful grandma.” She teases, and to her surprise he shudders. “Trust me, you ain’t seen youthful yet.”

Sakura shrugs it off, assuming it’s a chuunin thing, and starts to shift through the healthy pile of cluttered books. Dogears, crumbs, and shuffled bookcovers are the most tedious problems she finds, but it’s nothing so terrible as what happens to some of the chuunin books she sometimes sees Ogawa fixing up. Chuunins, apparently, like to bring along their source material when testing out new jutsus- which means the library is stuck trying to salvage waterlogged pages and burnt book covers more often than not.

As she sorts, she mulls over The Boy who helped her get this job in the first place. Besides Watanabe, obviously, who’d she’d already profusely thanked. (She’d kissed his cheek, playing up the fictional crush she’s almost certain he thinks she’s got, and it was fun to see him flush and stammer in surprise. She doesn’t think desknin get a lot of fangirls, not the admirer type that she sometimes spots staring at Kakashi-sensei or Asuma-san, and it’s kind of silly but she likes giving him that sort of experience anyways.) The Boy needs some research, obviously, and her job could afford her that easily- family records tend to be open to the general public, since anything more private would be stored on clan grounds anyways. If she did some digging, she could probably find what clans tend to have lavender hair, or at least a country of origin for the genetic trait. When she finishes her shift- a little later than she’s supposed to clock off, actually, but she wanted to finish the job and there was one book with sticky pages that needed extra care, and it’d made Ogawa look at her with that approving big-brother type of expression so she knew it was worth it- she heads over to do exactly that. Genetic history seemed like an easy starting point, so she starts looking for the census information- and freezes as she overhears something she’d never expected to.

Naruto.

Naruto and Sasuke, looking sullen and mid-argument, debating something or other like they’ve got any right being in a library, her library, when neither has ever shown an investment in book-learning before. Sasuke looks over first, and Naruto’s quick to follow, talking far too loud for where they are,

“Hey, bastard, I’m talking to you, why are you- Sakura-chan?”

Sakura stares back. And then, almost immediately, she smiles. Tries to merge her two personas into one in case Ogawa is watching, and says, “Oh, Naruto-kun! Sasuke-kun!”

She walks over and gives them both a hug, makes Naruto’s a few seconds longer. He’s bright red when she pulls back, but it’s not like she can distract Sasuke-kun with a little open affection, so she gestures back at the family record section she’d been in with her thumb. “Mother sent me to grab the Haruno records, we’re pretty extended and she doesn’t want to leave anybody out and get them all offended, you know?”

Saying that, she walks over to grab the Haruno book- an admittedly thick, if poorly kept, tomb. It’s seen better days, for sure, but it’s got the haruno crest right on the front and that’s more than she could ask for otherwise. “What brings you two here?”

“Oh, ah, Sensei’d told us he’d teach us a new jutsu if we could explain the theory of it right n’all, you know?”

Sakura sighed, shook her head. “You guys do know jutsus are restricted to Chuunin and above, right? He was just stalling. You’re not going to find any jutsus listed that aren’t the academy ones.”

“Oh.” Naruto says, looking absolutely crestfallen, and Sasuke looks put-off even when he’s trying to hide it.

“Told you, dumbass.” Sasuke mutters, and when Naruto sputters and replies, “No you didn’t, asshole, you said-” Sakura takes it as her cue to leave.

“Well, my mom is probably getting impatient, so I’ll see you two tomorrow! Bye!” She tells them. She checks out the book just to be safe, and Ogawa doesn’t look surprised- considering how many books she’s taken out the past few weeks since she started working there, he’s probably more surprised she isn’t taking out more.

She’d brought it as a cover, but walking home, she starts to consider the use of it. After all, it might’ve been an excuse, but her family really was rather big, if extremely disconnected. She should probably make sure there aren’t any other Haruno in the village she doesn’t know about, who might be missing her parents- see if there’s any obligations on record that her parents were supposed to pay. So when she gets home, she sets it down on the kitchen table, flips open to the last few pages, and decides to work backwards from most recent to oldest. She pauses to cook her salmon- normally she would suffer through tuna, but there’d been a deal and she was desperate for the change in taste- before sitting down with a full plate of fish and rice and discount vegetables. Normally she eats with her hands- it’s easier than cleaning silverware, it reminds her too much of that night and the soapy water can sting her fresh cuts from morning missions- but she doesn’t want to risk getting the book pages dirty, so she sacrifices a fork to the cause.

The first few entries are nothing particularly interesting- news of a baby born to third-cousins in Kiri, a marriage in Suna. Nobody that would expect to hear from her parents. But when she sees the entry just before that, she chokes. Coughing, Sakura manages to swallow the bit of fish, chugs some water to wash it down, and stares at the words that had so shocked her.

Marriage arranged between newborn Sakura Haruno (Konoha Line) and two year old Kaito Haruno (Yukigakure Line) to secure trade connection.

That’s it. No details, no specifications, no anything. But Sakura- she’s had a fiance, this whole time. Since she was born. It’s a bit much to take in, enough for her to set herself on an anxious mental journey. This record was written when she was born, and she doubts it’s been updated since then. For all she knows, the wedding was getting put together this very moment. Her husband could be on a boat to Konoha as she sat there, hyperventilating.

Or he could already be here. She thinks, and it’s a thought that won’t stop. Her father had dark purple hair, and for all she knew it was a family trait. Snow citizens were known for pale features and hair- the Konoha line of Haruno was dark-skinned in comparison, but the hair had stuck. Kaito Haruno could have light skin, a strong jaw, and lavender hair. He could very likely have all those features, and Yukigakure is a hidden village as well. In the smoke, she hadn’t been able to make out the details of his headband, had only assumed with the glint of metal that it was the only type she’d seen in person, Konoha’s, hadn’t seen him in a headband since, but- but-

She slapped herself. There was no point to this meltdown, no point at all. Maybe she’s got a husband, maybe not. Maybe The Boy is Kaito and maybe he isn’t, but either way, there’s no point panicking because he’s proven relatively trustworthy and there’s nothing she can do to change things.

First a boyfriend, now a fiance. I sure move fast, huh? She thinks with ungodly snort, and then she gets up to clean her dishes and try to figure out what the hell she’s going to do. She leaves the book on the table, open to the appropriate page, too nervous to even look at it again. 

In the end, all she can do is leave to practice. She heads out to the most disused training ground. It’s in disrepair, with shattered posts and a few tufts of weeds where there’s supposed to be nothing but packed dirt, but it makes her feel a little better about the possible destruction she tends to bring with her training attempts. The first attempt at been embarrassing, to say the least. She’d tried out the fireball jutsu and had it backfire spectacularly, rather literally- barely managed to dodge the burns and crisping up her arms when she flinched to cover her face. She’d coughed on the smoke from her burning sleeves, damp as they’d been, and realized she’d heavily underestimated the exact firepower it produced. Then she had to take a nap, because it had also used up more than half her chakra in one go.

So- she found a nice, empty place to practice, at the very edge of the village. She’s focusing on the jutsu she saw Kakashi-sensei do, and it’s trickier in a lot of ways but when it backfires it just pockmarks the earth or sends her into a dizzy spell.

The Boy- Kiato, she decides to call him, even if it’s not his name, it feels like he deserves some kind of name. It’s only fair. Kaito, he’s there, waiting for her. She has no idea how he always knows when she’s doing this, but he shows up to glare disapprovingly at her from a spot in the trees. He laughed his ass off when she messed up the fireball jutsu, had been arguing with her from the start.

“You still going to do this?” He asks her, resigned, and she nods decisively at him and then tunes him out. He rolls his eyes, kicks up his legs, and settles into his place as if to take a nap. He’s there to supervise, as far as she can tell, but he’s clear as possible that he doesn’t approve of her practicing this stuff alone. Suggested she ask Kakashi-sensei half-heartedly, then quickly changes tactics.

“If you had a good team, you wouldn’t have to do something this risky.” He informs her, and she sighs. He’s been pushing for her to- to join another team, somehow, as if that’s something she can just do. Suggests she sacrifice her pride and beg Ino to let her crash their lessons, or go try and flirt kiba into letting her join their team sessions instead. It’s not the worst idea, but Sakura just can’t buy that anyone would willingly let her onto their squad. Her team is assigned to work with her and they don’t even want to- how is she supposed to talk someone without the obligation into it.

“Busy!” She calls up to him, and he goes silent. She sucks in a deep breath, stretches her stance, and starts the push chakra out from her belly up through her arms. It took her a will to make sure she had the right signs, but now it’s just a matter of force.

The first three attempts do nothing, spluttering out before they reach her fingertips on boar. The fourth attempt, she manages to make a bump in the ground, and she refuses to feel disappointment at that. Normally it takes her a few shots before she gets it right, but she’s been progressively getting faster and faster at the process. She starts over, breathing slowly and aiming carefully for a little further away- a spot in the grass, past the training dirt, to make something of a mound that won’t need to get flattened for later use of this yard.

Suddenly, there’s a terrible crashing sound from the nearby trees, and her focus shatters. Her hands fly back, and a huge burst of her chakra surges out. She sees something fast and green burst from the woods, only to slam into- into the giant wall of earth that shoots up, god, did she do that, and then she passes out.

She wakes up to yelling. It takes a minute for it to register that the yells are profuse apologies. The green thing she’d seen was a boy, clad in dark green spandex- practical, she thinks with some disjointedness, given the time of year and state of the leaves, does he change to orange or brown in the fall? White in the winter?- and he’s wailing out apologies for distracting her and causing her to pass out.

“Um, it’s okay...sorry I, uh, the wall?”

He jerks up, and wow are his eyes dazzlingly excited, and he gives her a white-toothed grin. “Have no fear, most beautiful maiden! I have taken much harsher blows and survived! Your tenacity and skill at that jutsu is much to be admired, and I’m thankful to the wall for stopping me in my tracks during my latest lap around Konoha, if your beauty would not have done the same-”

Oh, no. Not another one.

“Ah, um, it’s- so you’re a chuunin, yeah?” She asks, eager to change the subject.

“Not yet! I am but a genin, as is the rest of my team, but I hope to one day succeed my Jounin-sensei, the most youthful and powerful Mighto-Gai!”

“Ah…” Sakura says, unable to think of anything to say to that. “He sounds very talented?”

It’s like a cloud as moved from the sun, with how cheerful and loud the boy is now, and he helps her to her feet in an instant.

“Feel free to come see for yourself-”

“Sakura.”

“- Miss Sakura! My Sensei always appreciates a most dedicated of pupil, and you seem like a lovely student of your discipline! I should hope to see you soon- we meet at 3 am every day at the outermost walls to begin our training! My name is Rock Lee, and while I would suggest you go home to rest from chakra exhaustion, I must continue my training now! I will do four...no, six! Six extra laps around our most beautiful of villages in honor of meeting a fellow genin of such dedication and extreme cuteness!”

“Um...alright, Lee-san. It was nice meeting you too.”

With that, he takes off, and Kaito drops down from his branch where she’d entirely forgotten he’d been sitting.

“Well, there you go.” He suggests, and Sakura turns to give him the full force of her confusion in one, clear expression. “He just offered to let you in on his training.”

“Him, really?” She can’t help but second-guess, because as nice as the odd boy seemed to be, she doubted Rock Lee’s team could be particularly helpful at training her. Kaito snorts.

“He’s definitely….weird. But he’s doing laps around the whole village with no problem, and he stuck around to make sure you were okay, yeah? That’s more than some of your teammates might do.”

Sakura has to concede to his point there, tipping her chin in acknowledgement, before shaking it off. “Maybe, but I don’t know him. Not publicly, like I do the other rookies. Joining a new team like that, it’s bound to draw attention. Kakashi-sensei might even try and talk to my parents about it.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t keep trying this stuff out alone , it’s not safe.” Kaito points out, sounding a little bitter, before pressing on more gently, “At least think about it?”

“Yeah.” Sakura eventually agrees, if reluctantly. “Sure, I’ll think about it.”

 

She wakes up the next day as unsure as she was the night before, except this time with the knowledge that she’ll have to go on a date with Naruto after training. It’s a definite damper on her mood, but she heads out to the front desk to say hello to Watanabe and pick up some missions regardless. Watanabe is apologetic, but hands her the Tora case regardless. It’s as good a pay as two missions, but it’ll take just as long and that damn cat drives her crazy. Still, she can see even from the other side of the desk that his stack of mission requests is particularly sparse this morning, and she shudders to think what else remains in the stack if he’s giving her some favoritism with assignment.

She comes back with the cat and a thousand new scratches, and barely has time to collect and complete the last morning mission- a simple delivery job, thank god, some tea to a cafe- before she has to head to training. To naruto. Ugh.

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto shouts when he sees her, running up to grab at her sides and lift her into a hug. It wouldn’t be so bad if Sasuke-kun wasn’t staring at them, something in his expression she doesn’t understand, and that makes her nervous on top of panicked at the clinging arms around her waist.

“Let go, Naruto-kun!” She shouts, desperately wishing she could slap him on the head but knowing it would now be out of character. He finally drops her, but takes a hold of her arm, and she begrudgingly lets him. “It’s only been a day.” She informs him, mostly managing to keep her annoyance out of her voice.

“Yeah, yeah, but that’s forever when waiting for a date, you know?” He replies, and she flushes.

“What, um, what sort of date did you want?” She asks. It’s kind of nice to hang out with him sometimes, and she’s still holding out hope she’ll get a free meal out of this- maybe after a few more dates he’ll be less...clingy, and things will settle into something more comfortable.

“Let’s go to Hokage Mountain! And get ramen! And, and- uh, we can show everybody that we’re together now, yeah!”

Sakura hears Sasuke snort from behind them both, and turns a questioning eye to the boy. Naruto is far more aggressive, finally letting go of Sakura completely and darting forward to poke at his chest. “What, jealous?”

“No, idiot. I just think it’s funny you think that counts as a date.”

That sets them off, and suddenly it’s like every other morning, with Sakura sitting aside, and Sasuk and Naruto roughhousing over some idiotic squabble. She’s relieved for the break, and sits properly as they wait for Kakashi-Sensei to arrive.

When he appears- only three hours late, as opposed to the usual four- he sets them to training immediately. She’s meant to spar with Naruto, but he’s gone from distractedly watching Sasuke-kun’s matches, to refusing to throw a real punch at her.

“Kakashi-sensei, I can’t hit my girlfriend!

Naruto yelps as Sakura swings at him anyways. “I’m a shinobi, dumbie! If you don’t punch me, other people will!” She argues, but he just scoots backward and flails his arms for balance.

It’s annoying enough in it’s own right, but when Kakashi looks over, it freezes her heart in place. He’s going to be so mad that they’re not training, and it’s going to be her fault that Naruto isn’t trying anymore, and he’ll have to punish her, and- Sakura swings again, desperate, practically ready to beg Naruto to just hit back. She doesn’t care if it lands, Naruto can hit her as hard as he wants, it doesn’t hurt half as bad as Kakashi’s accidental punches when they spar, and she doesn’t even want to consider how much it will hurt if Kakashi-Father has to punish her.

He doesn’t hit back. Kakashi gives that wilted look that means he’s disappointed.

Her stomach rolls during lunch, too messy for her to eat a bite. Nobody notices, Sasuke and Naruto too busy fighting again, and Kakashi presumably plotting her death. Sakura waits impatiently for it to end, for them to finish eating and for her punishment to start, but instead- instead when they finish lunch, Kakashi just takes them down to pick up missions.

A second chance? She thinks, hopefully, and then they open the doors and her world crashes down around her.

It’s an evening session, which means it’s not Watanabe, but Suzuki working the front desk. Suzuki, who she doesn’t know as well but who will absolutely recognize her, who knows her as the kid whos team always makes her grab the missions for them. Suzuki looks up from his stack of papers, sees their team and gives a polite smile, and then he sees Sakura and the smile turns to one of genuine recognition.

“So,” He says, and it feels like her stomach is filled with bees, “Finally got those lazybums to come pick up the mission with you, huh?”

There’s a pause as this information registers with the rest of her team, and then they all turn to look at her. Suzuki laughs. “Oh, come on, of course she’d tell me. What genin wouldn’t complain a little about always getting the short of the end of the stick, huh, Hatake? You should be a little more fair about this stuff!”

“Ah, of course.” Kakashi-sensei says, eyes gliding from Sakura’s stricken face to the chuunin at the desk. “I’ll...work on that.”

Collecting their mission is an afterthought, and as soon as they’re a little ways outside of the building, team seven practically surrounds her. Naruto’s grasping at her arm, again, and Sasuke is glaring like she’s personally ruined his entire reputation. Kakashi-Sensei...Kakashi-Sensei looks mad. Just a little, but enough, in the angle of his brow, the tilt of his head. If she thought she was in trouble before, this is much, much worse.

“Sakura-chan...care to explain?” He asks.

“I, um...I’ve been taking extra missions to get in more practice, Sensei.” She says, staring at the ground, trying to brace for the slap she’s certain will come. Instead, she sees Kakashi-Sensei’s feet shuffle back, hears him sigh in exasperation.

“Maa, Sakura-chan. That sort of behavior might earn you points in the Academy, but it’s no way to behave as a genin. It’s important to work as a team.”

He thinks she’s been trying to- to suck up, or something. It makes her feel gross, but she’s not going to correct him- not when the truth might lead him to questions she can’t have him answering. “Yes, Sensei.” She says, voice hoarse. Naruto tries petting at her hair to calm her down, and she lets him, too worried she’ll give something away if she acts too upset at getting caught.

“Go on then.” He tells her, and she finally looks up to meet his gaze. “Go home, Sakura-chan. For the next week, you won’t be doing any missions at all.”

He’s- after all that, he’s kicking her out? For this? A whole week with no training, because she pushed too hard? Who’s to say they won’t like it better without her- of course they will- and she’ll be forced out permanently? Sakura tears herself free from Naruto and storms off, barely making it around a corner before bursting into tears, ignoring the argument breaking out behind her.

“Fine!” She shouts, before rubbing furiously at her cheeks to wipe off the tears. Kaito was right! There’s no point hanging around waiting for things to change here, and it’s not they’d care if I left.  

Rock Lee, just you wait! I’ll show you a ‘determined  pupil’, damn straight!

Chapter Text

Sakura goes home and immediately sets about counting her food stores. She’s sure that Watanabe will likely slip her a job or two despite Kakashi’s rule, but she can’t rely on that- and the income from her position at the library will only cover a single meal per day and a fraction of the water bill. Just think of it as survival training. She can collect rainwater, local water sources- boil it, maybe test out one of the textbook jutsus for purifying water. She doesn’t need heat or electricity, not when she’s used to the long business trips her parents would take; she can survive this for a week, easy, even if her stomach tightens in warning at the very thought of going back to so little food per day.

Except. Except it’s probably not just a week. She’s got no guarantee, after all, and who would want her back after getting a chance to lose her?

“Stop that.”

It’s Kaito, sitting patiently at the kitchen table, fingers tapping against it lightly. “You’re going to join that boy’s team, Rock Lee, and then you’re going to kick team seven’s ass.”

Sakura snorts, blushing at the presumption she could ever be strong enough for that, before beginning to put away her rice stores and pressing her forehead against the pantry door. A small part of her whispers an agreement with Kaito’s statement, cheers at the sentiment. She clutches to that part of her heart and breathes life into it, until she finally stands up and nods at the boy. She’s got to do this. It’s the only way. Sakura struggles with selfworth in a lot of ways, but always, always, she believes she can do what it takes to survive. That’s all she does, and she’ll keep trusting in that until it fails her.

“I.” She begins, before turning on her heel sharply and beginning to march up the stairs, calling out confidently, “Am going to bed early. So that tomorrow, I will be at my best.”

She smiles when she hears a cheer from the kitchen, and falls asleep without hearing the click of a door closing or a window unlatching.

She wakes up on time because Kaito shakes at her, and as soon as her eyes snap open it’s like she’s been shot with electricity. She hasn’t been this excited since it was finals day at the academy, and she runs around her room carefully selecting her clothes for the day and putting together her gear kit. She practically flies down the steps after brushing her teeth for a full three minutes, shoves down enough rice to keep from feeling dizzy for at least a few hours, and makes her way out the door with more than enough time to spare.

When she arrives, Rock Lee is already there, with a man who looks exactly like him but bigger, stretching. He shoots up from a downward stretch when he spots her, grinning wildly and waving energetically to greet her.

“Miss Sakura! I’m so glad you could make it! I had informed the most powerful and handsome of senseis, Might-Gai, that you would be joining us, and he was most enthusiastic to meet you as well!”

“Ah….thank you, Lee-san. It’s….lovely to see you both, too?” Sakura offers, hurrying over to join their stretches. As soon as she crouches down to reach for her toes, the man- might-gai, presumably- lets out a booming laugh.

“I see! My talented pupil did not exaggerate, you truly are a dedicated student!”

“Oh, but I’m not very good!” Sakura tried to explain, nervous that he might expect skills she simply wouldn’t have. He clapped her on the back, hard enough for her to stumble forward, and says,

“No, no, we can work on that! Hardwork is all that’s necessary, and you have that in spades!”

Ah. Well, for once, she feels like she can agree with a compliment, if only because the sight of her scarred hands makes it hard to argue his point. And because I really want some of that training.

“My fellow teammates, of the most glorious and noble of sorts, will arrive shortly! We would most love for you to join us for training, but you must let us know if it would interfere with your regular training, of course! One must be diligent to all obligations!”

Sakura nodded, stretching her arms behind her back before she figured out exactly what he meant. “Oh, well, my...ah, my sensei has…” To her horror, she can feel her eyes begin to wet at the corners, so she quickly ducks down stretch into a split and hide her face. Her voice is slightly strained, but she covers as well as she can, and continues, “My sensei has decided to, uh, put me on hold. For a while.”

There’s a gasp from above her, and a deep-toned coughing fit that must be coming from Might-Gai. She sneaks a glance up and sees both of them staring at her in astonishment, Might-Gai practically choking on air.

“You’ve been- no training? AT ALL? ” Might Gai presses, as if the very idea is impossible to conceive. For him, maybe it is- his muscles don’t seem to allow for holidays or break days. Sakura shakes her head reluctantly.

“He doesn’t like me very much.” She pauses, before carefully adding, “I was actually hoping...I might be able to train with your team, instead?”

Suddenly, Rock Lee is at her side, close enough for her to feel it but not so close as to make her uncomfortable. He stares up at Might Gai, kneeling, and pleads, “We cannot let a student who desires to work go unhelped, sensei! You are much to kind and talented to let such a trespass occur, most especially when you are the most perfect sensei and could provide her with the most powerful of training regimes imaginable!”

Might-Gai laughs again, helping Rock Lee to his feet, and then a sheepish Sakura. “I can’t officially do much….But fear not, for Might-Gai is no coward to hide behind rules! I shall provide you with the most intensive of regimes, Sakura-chan, regardless of the official capacity of it!”

Oh. oh, Sakura can feel the tears truly welling up, and she lets them fall silently and prays they stop soon. Why are these two odd men so nice to her?

They’ve done the first two jogs around Konoha, and are nice enough to pause while Sakura tries to catch her breath- she’s built up something of an endurance, with all her labor at d-ranks, but slow steady work isn’t the same as an exhaustive burst of cardio. As she calms her breath and keeps up a steady walk- Rock Lee had advised her this was the best way to avoid muscles cramping- Gai-Sensei’s other two students finally arrive. Gai, never one to wait, greets the pair with a shout.

“Neji-kun! Tenten-chan! I hope you both rested well, because from today on, you will now be serving as practice-sensei!”

“...uh, Might-Gai sensei? What does that mean?” Tenten asks, and Sakura hopes she’s not mishearing the tone of general bemusement. Everyone has to be on board with this for her to get away with it, she’s almost certain, especially with the implications of Gai-sensei’s greeting to the latecomers. Might-gai gives Sakura a gentle push forward to stand in front of the pair, and declares as he places a hand on her head, “Sakura-chan here is your new challenge! Teach her, train her, and if you do well- I’ll enter you this year into the Chunin Exams!”

She does not like the look of utter disdain the boy is sending her way, but the girl… she looks excited. Like she’s evaluating Sakura too, a little calculation in that pleased gaze, and Sakura can only hope that means she’s earned herself another teacher.  Sakura snaps into a harsh bow, one that sends her stomach muscles burning, and peeks up from her hair to smile at the girl.

“Thank you, uh, Senpai Tenten! I promise I’ll do my best!”

The girl cracks her knuckles, even as Neji sighs and stands aside to begin his own, private stretches.

“You better, kid. By the time we’re through, all four of us will be entering those exams, yeah?”

Might-Gai lets out a booming laugh at the declaration, nodding encouragingly along, and Sakura allows herself to believe.

If they’re lying, it’s not like I’ll be any worse off, anyways.

That first training session proves exhaustive and nearly unending, but Sakura can’t bring herself to complain. Might-Gai would assign them exercises, Tenten would adjust them to be more reasonable for Sakura’s abilities, and Rock Lee would shout encouragements. Neji was polite enough to keep his annoyances with her to rude looks, which is far and above what she’s used to from her teammates and thus entirely ineffective.

She barely keeps up, even with most of the routines cut in half for her, but she does her best, and by the end of it she can at least say it’s unlikely they’ll kick her out anytime soon. At the very least because it’s obvious the genin all want to take the Chuunin Exam, and Sakura is apparently now their ticket to the event.

As she lay in the grass, huffing out breaths and trying to slow her racing heart, Neji-san leans forward to stare at her. His hair, she decides, is very pretty; shining in the sunlight and silky smooth in it’s low-hanging tail.  

“Your form is terrible.” He informs her. She doesn’t argue. “If you’re going to represent my name, we’re going to have to fix that.”

She smiles. He says it like a threat, but a promise is a promise. He’s a Hyuuga, and they teach with pain, but she’s used to that by now- there’s nothing he can throw at her that will change her mind about this. “I’ll do my best, Senpai.” She tells him. For his sake, she pretends she doesn’t see the brief flash of pleased surprise at her words.

She drags herself up a few minutes later and begins the slow walk to work at the library; luckily, Kakashi-Sensei’s ban wouldn’t automatically be extended to any official positions she maintains. Ogawa-san likely doesn’t even know she’s in trouble- and considering how carefully she’s currating her image, she’d like to keep it that way.

She greets him quietly at the door and sets about reorganizing the back desk- it’s piled high with paperwork and extended due sheets; she’ll have to set about delivering some of those bills to particular shinobi soon, but she doesn’t want to risk trying that today. Finding shinobi houses and leaving things on their doors is a challenge that needs all the energy and skill she’s got and then some, given the paranoia that comes with the position. Last time she’d just followed Ogawa around as he dropped off the slips, and it had still resulted in her going home with singed clothes and damp hair. Shinobi. Not that she’s one to judge people for paranoia- glass houses, she supposes.

It doesn’t take too long to finish sorting the paperwork and tools, and only a half hour to clean up the stains from a shattered ink pen one of the last shifts had left in one of the drawers. Sakura sets about double checking the family records section more carefully, and is happy to find a slightly more thorough accounting of the state of the Haruno family- in particular, a newer edition apparently started by an opposing merchant family that the Harunos had driven out of business a few years ago, at which point their careful calculations were sold along with whatever else they could manage to the state.

There, in the margins of the record, towards the end of the notes, is a death record. Not an official certificate, but- enough information. A torn out newsclipping. The signature of his parents. Kiato, the real one, died six years ago. The wedding arrangement was called off, no replacement suggested. Killed in an avalanche on a trading route, and he looked nothing like the Kiato she’s been seeing around except for the purple hair- he’d never even become a nin, was a merchant like his parents.

So- who the hell is my Kiato?

--

Kakashi lets himself into the Haruno house with a deep sigh. He’d expected better of Sakura, really, but he supposes it was rather harsh of him compared to what she might be used to; civilians seemed rather lax in their punishments, and the academy had gone soft since the war.  He’d forbidden her from missions, but apparently she’d been so upset that she’d been skipping training as well- none of them had seen her in the full week of her punishment, not even her beloved Sasuke-kun or clingy new boyfriend. He’d been willing to let her pout and hopefully learn her lesson, but this was the sort of behavior that could turn dangerous if she didn’t learn the more serious aspects of their job. So here he was, hunting down his wayward genin, and he could only hope she would prove apologetic enough to listen to his instructions in the future.

Interestingly, the house is empty; he’d assumed that her mother would be a housewife, but he supposes that might’ve been an out of date presumption. Many civilian woman had begun to work outside the home, and Sakura was old enough now that Mrs. Haruno might not feel obligated to wait around all day for her.

Kakashi makes his way into the kitchen first, for what’s supposed to be a quick inspection of their calendar- most families seemed to keep their itinerary in a family space like that- only to find a pile of books laid out across the table. They’re flipped through with notes scratched alongside them, and it feels like it’s important to see what exactly had the Haruno family’s full attention like this. (Perhaps Sakura had taken up a research project during her punishment? She had bookworm tendencies according to her academy sheets, and it might be another attempt at fixing things, if she didn’t understand her punishment.)

To his surprise, none of the books are shinobi related. Instead, it’s lists and lists on the Haruno family, the political state of The Land Of Snow, business records. There, in the middle of it all, is the certificate that was obviously the source of the mess- a marriage contract. Kakashi reads it twice, just to be sure he’s perfectly understanding it, before making his way out of the house as discreetly as possible, careful to lock the door and leave Sakura’s rudimentary attempts at traps untouched. This...was not what he was expecting. He can no longer fault her for missing out on lessons- it might not even be her own decision.

  Sakura has an arranged marriage.

 

This… is going to be a problem.

Chapter Text

Kaito- her Kaito- is proving elusive, both literally and figuratively.

 

Sakura clocks in to work, exhausted from an early morning with Gai’s team, and prepared to do just about anything that doesn’t require muscles. Tenten had led her through warmups and cooldowns, carefully directing her motions- but Lee had set the pace for the training overall, and with Neji taking over as instructor for the actual taijutsu, it’s a wonder she can stand at all. The combined effect was enough to tear her braid from it’s place and set her muscles quivering for the walk to the library- all with a self-satisified grin plastered to her face.

Ever since her mornings had taken this particular turn, with her evenings shifting to supervised chakra practice under Gai’s watchful eye, Kaito had disappeared. Sakura found herself missing the boy, but turned to research not out of loneliness, but concern. It’s a safety precaution, and one she’s a bit ashamed of at this point- she doubts he means her harm after all this time, but as mysterious as he is, she can’t risk leaving him unexplained and missing. He could be reporting her now, or plotting, or-

So she thinks, as she settles down to sort forms and waves to Ogawa. Smooths dog-eared tombs and lets her mind circle around the options. Pretends it’s just the paranoia, that she’s not also trying to avoid thinking about how it’s been two weeks since Kakashi’s deadline and none of team seven has come for her yet, that she’d been right about being undesirable and useless and probably a burden on Gai’s team. She’s not going to think about that. She’s going to think about Kaito.

Kaito, who’s not a civilian. Even if the headband had been a missight on her part, his silent comings and goings proved he had the skillset of a shinobi. A shinobi with a lot of free time, too, unless he was assigned to her specifically. That’s a bit concerning, but she’s not willing to jump to that just yet, if only because he first found her before the murders and she’s not proven worth blackmailing yet, much less earlier. So she turns her head to other clues that she might have to is identity, and more importantly, motive. Skills, knowledge- known associates? Her half-registered consideration snaps to a halt at the last idea. She’s never seen him interact with anyone else, not even as part of a cover, not even in busy streets. That’s not good behavior for a shinobi trying to blend in, and he’s proven good enough to know better than that, which makes her suspicious in a nauseating sort of way.

Sakura makes her way over to the medical texts, hides her rising pulse by making a show of putting away some of the fixed up books back, drifting her finger along the spines in search of a particular topic until she finally finds one and pauses. Instead of pulling the book out, she considers.

She’s no expert- far from it- but she was always an overachiever. She knows the basics. When she’d first found out Inner was unusual, she’d done some reading up, and the information had stuck with her to some amount. It’s rare for sight, sound, and touch to all combine in hallucinations. It was one of her main tools of differentiating inner’s influence as a child, the limitations on what her brain could alter that the world wouldn’t take. Similarly, a phantom limb sensation doesn’t come with a visual hallucination, and so on- and she had felt Kaito. Had seen him, heard him, wouldn’t be surprised if she could smell him too, as weird as that is to consider. He can’t be a trick of her mind.

Unless.

Just as quickly as she came to that conclusion she had to reconsider, because- well. It clicks, suddenly, and Sakura pulls back from the books and goes back to her desk to hide her frantic thoughts behind the repition of dull tasks. Studies are done on civilians, genin at the highest rank. Advanced shinobi are too busy, too individualized, too paranoid to be useful for that sort of thing. She knows she’s nothing special yet, but she also knows- from Kakashi and past word from the Academy teachers- that she’s a genjutsu type. A genjutsu natural.

If you can fool others with chakra manipulation, what’s to stop her from tricking her own system? Amplifying a delusion to a level of realism that otherwise would be impossible?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“Hey, Ogawa?” Sakura asks, finally shifting her attention away from the pages.

“Mhm?”

“I think I need to leave early. I don’t feel so good.”

Ogawa looks up at her, and her vision is blurring enough that she can’t make out his expression, but his voice sounds concerned when he replies, “Of course, Sakura.”

She fumbles her way out of the library, leaves her things behind because she’d probably drop them at this rate. Breathing feels difficult, heavy in her chest and pushing to escape, and she can’t imagine going home, walking into that house, that kitchen, where she-

So she goes to the woods instead, opposite side of town, and struggles to control her breathing. It was one thing to not know, another to suspect, but if her reality can be so easily warped without her being able to check- it’s horrifying to consider. She hates it, every second, and just like always, when she’s in trouble, Inner shows up. Just like Kaito. She should’ve known.

Hand on her shoulder. Warm. They smell like lavender.

“It’s okay.”

“Hey, Kaito.” She says, voice strangled as she glances up to look at the boy who isn’t real.

“And how can you tell?” He asks, in the same way academy teachers do when they know you’re so close to the answer. She pauses, finally able to focus on something besides the tight compression of her lungs and her limbs and her heart, and there it is.

“My chakra. I can feel it. If I disrupted it-”

“- I’d vanish, yes. It would just be Inner again.”

It’s okay. The world starts to come back into focus, because there are rules again, limits, she has a way to tell the difference. She doesn’t spike her chakra.

She sits, weak muscles finally giving out with no more panic to keep her standing, and Kaito kneels across from her.

“You needed somebody to be on your side.” He says, before she can ask the obvious question plaguing her. Why? The unfinished second half of the answer, of course, is that she had to make that somebody up. “And you’ve always listened to pretty boys much better than yourself.”

It’s a joke, and it manages to surprise a laugh out of her. Weird, to think that she can surprise herself. Or not. This whole thing was a surprise, after all.

“What now?”

Kaito shrugs. “I can go away, if you want. You’ve got that new team. I think you’ll be okay.”

“Could you...stick around, actually? For a while longer.” And then, because she’s Sakura, and she’s gotten used to adjusting to things quickly, she continues, “Actually, I remember reading some things about sorting input in the hindbrain a while ago, and now that you don’t have to pretend that other people can see you, I think you could be useful. You’ve clued me in to my instincts before, right? Or pulled up important memories as reminders.”

It’s Kaito’s turn to laugh, a long and delighted thing, and he says, “You’re going to be a jounin yet, kid.”

It’s nice, even if it’s a compliment from herself. Maybe especially so.

The high of a major mystery solved, and of having something she can consider akin to a personal dojutsu, lasts long enough to bring her through another week of training, of work, and of practicing with Kaito. It’s also distracting to an extent, enough so that she slips up.

Not too much, but in the moment, it felt like it. She’s in the middle of doing warm up stretches with Tenten and Lee, and she asks Neji if he can do their chakra practice later that night since she’s needed overtime at the library.

Before Neji can respond, Tenten asks, “Won’t your parents mind?”

And Sakura, without thinking, replies, “Why would they?”

For a long, terrifying moment, she thinks she’s ruined everything. But then Kaito is there, hand on her back, reminding her to breath, and she realizes that they don’t know. Nobody knows anything about Sakura, about the Haruno, and she can say whatever she wants because nobody cares about a civilian genin’s family enough to notice differences.So she adds, “They don’t live in Konoha most of the time, Haruno are traveling merchants.”

It’s like a dam bursting. Lee is horrified that Darling Sakura-chan spends so much time alone!, Tenten is apologizing for possibly being impolite, and Neji...Neji-senpai looks contemplative.

“Tenten’s been needing a roommate.” He points out, and it takes a moment to register with the rest of them what he means.

They think she’s from a well-off family, most traveling merchants in Konoha are, they don’t need to know she’s selling the house to pay for her half of an apartment. They don’t need to know anything. They think she’s just lonely. (She is.) Sakura smiles, doesn’t have to fake how bright it is, and says, “Oh, Tenten-senpai, do you really?”

She has a new key in her hand by the end of the day and a bounce in her step on her walk home.