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The Beginning of the End

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If there is one thing that Sakura knows with absolute certainty, it is that Hatake Kakashi is not fit to be the leader of a genin squad. Sure, the man may be an S-Class shinobi wanted in pretty much all nations, but he has absolutely no idea how to handle children. Because despite what everyone likes to think, at the end of the day, most genin are still just kids. 

The more time that Sakura spends with the ex-ANBU (and she knows that he’s ex-ANBU because what type of Hokage would Sarutobi Hiruzen be if he didn’t assign an ANBU to teach the child of the fourth Hokage and the heir of the Uchiha clan?), the more that she’s convinced that he shouldn’t be allowed within ten feet of a genin. Hatake Kakashi should actively avoid all people under the age of sixteen and beneath the jounin level.

(Not to mention, at the end of the day, the man’s a shit sensei with an obvious bias.)

If there is anything else that Sakura knows with little doubt, it’s that she’s not a proper kunoichi. She doesn’t have the same natural talent as Sasuke or the same never-ending chakra reserves as Naruto. She didn’t start taking her training seriously when she should have; she doesn’t have any natural strength; she doesn’t have a bloodline limit or a prestigious family name to save her from her mistakes; she doesn’t have anyone truly rooting for her--anyone willing to actually teach her. Sakura’s a paper ninja with a natural talent for controlling chakra. Only, controlling chakra won’t get her anywhere by itself.

Both of these facts piss Sakura off.

She hates that Kakashi’s a useless teacher. She hates that she’s a useless teammate. She hates that Sasuke and Naruto hate each other.

She hates nearly everything about Team Seven because at the end of the day, anyone really taking a look at the four people they shoved together and set off would see that it was a mistake from the start.

Their dynamics are non-existent, their sensei doesn’t know how to handle them, they aren’t learning what they should be learning, the boys of the team are too busy trying to show each other up to actually be building the bonds a team needs to build. Team Seven is a disaster, plain and simple. Sakura feels like she’s the only one who sees it. She hates that too.

/\/\/\

The training exercise that Kakashi is having them run is helpful. He’s having them build up basic endurance by running at different speeds for different lengths of time, swimming through the river that leads to the hot springs, climbing Hokage Mountain like they would a rock wall (Sakura is sure that Lord Third would be furious if he knew), and other basic strength and conditioning exercises. Sure, the training is helpful, but it’s not what they need.

Well, for Sakura, at least. She’s sure that Sasuke is seeking out extra, specialized training from those in his clan, and Naruto has probably managed to belittle one of his ANBU guards to teach him. (Not to mention the training he receives every time Jiraiya is in the village.)

The girl startles from her thoughts when Kakashi appears in front of her.

“Sakura,” he smiles, his eyes crinkling from behind his mask, “have you finished today’s exercises? It’s okay if it was a little too much for you. We can work on building up your endurance--”

“I finished about ten minutes ago, sensei.”

Kakashi blinks. “Oh, well then you can head on home. Report back at six sharp tomorrow morning to resume.”

“See you at nine, Kakashi-sensei.”

Sakura stands, somehow resisting the urge to roll her eyes. She brushes the dirt from her shorts before making her way from the training grounds. She can feel Kakashi’s eyes on her back for a mere second before she feels the chakra in the area waver, and Sakura’s ninety percent sure he just shunshinned away. She shakes her head.

The walk home is peaceful, and Sakura finds herself enjoying it. The sun has almost set, and the sky has turned a pink-orange color that she finds beautiful, the clouds illuminated by the light and the breeze just strong enough to cool her sweaty skin. It’s perfect. Sakura draws in a deep breath, relishing in the heavy smell of the lilacs on the May air.

When Sakura arrives home, she’s disappointed but not surprised to find the apartment empty. The pinkette slips out of her mud-soaked sandals, leaving them in the rack by the door, before she makes her way to the kitchen. Sakura rushes through the motions as she makes herself a glass of water and pulls an apple and peanut butter from the their respective places in the room.

She plops herself at the table, sipping her water as she works on cutting the apple. Her hands are shaking from the exertion of the day’s exercises, and Sakura takes extra care so that she doesn’t nick herself with the blade. The action is relaxing. Without realizing it, Sakura’s breathing slows and the repetitive action lulls her into a sense of near meditation. When the apple is cut and peeled, she eats quickly before finishing off her water. Sakura drops her dishes in the sink, promising herself to watch them later. (It’s not like her parents will be home in time to see the mess anyway.)

Sakura makes her way to her bathroom and peels off her dirty clothes as she goes. She wonders how she hasn’t had to replace her entire wardrobe yet.

The shower she takes is fast. Sakura only stands under the hot water, allowing it to work miracles on her sore muscles, for a minute before she’s stepping out, drying herself off and wrapping a fluffy towel around herself. She crosses the hall to her room, crossing the threshold into the single space that is her own.

She shivers as goosebumps cover her skin while she rummages through her dresser. Sakura pulls out a new pair of clothes, slipping into the comfortable, close-fitting leggings and an oversized, faded sweater that she’s had for years. She pulls her hair into a bun at the top of her head and straps her kunai pouch to her thigh before she grabs her satchel from its place by her desk.

Sakura slides the bag over her shoulder so that it hangs around her hip, and she makes her way from the room. The girl weaves through the halls of her home, and she slips into her civilian sandals before she steps into the apartment hallway. Locking the door behind her, Sakura sets off.

By the time she makes her way onto the street, the sun has nearly set and the lanterns that light the village after dark have been lit. The streets are relatively calm as Sakura walks through the civilian district. Sometimes she thinks that it would be smart to purchase an apartment of her own in the shinobi portion of Konohagakure.

Being in the shinobi residential district would mean easier access to all of the shinobi facilities--weapons shops, training grounds, libraries. With the location of her parents apartment, it takes nearly fifteen minutes to walk to the library, even longer when she’s thoroughly exhausted from training.

Sakura is sure to stick to the shadows as she exits the district where she lives. The sun has almost fully set, and while Konoha is the more friendly of the five hidden villages, crime still exists. For a young girl--ninja or not--walking outside on her own after dark is probably not the best idea. It’s times like this when Sakura wishes she has a less conspicuous shade of hair.

Sakura arrives at the shinobi library minutes later, and looking up at the dim lights spilling out onto the street from the outside, she is suddenly thankful for the fact that the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The girl ducks inside, the air conditioning sweeping across her skin. She shivers. Sakura makes her way past the librarian desk, nodding at the older genin whose been assigned the post for the night. Sakura’s seen her before, but she doesn’t know her name. The only thing that stands out about the girl are the twin buns at the top of her head.
The pinkette weaves through the aisles of scrolls and books, expertly making her way to the section she’s looking for: chakra. From there, she can branch out to different sections of the library. Reading more about chakra just might lead her somewhere. Sakura desperately hopes that’s the case.

When Sakura arrives where she left off the night before, she plops her bag down at a nearby study alcove before she begins browsing the sections. Her fingers hover over the spines of books and occasionally skim the painted name of scrolls. Sakura plucks pieces of literature from the shelves, taking anything that she thinks has the possibility of helping her.

Five minutes later and Sakura is comfortably seated in her claimed study space, bent over one of the many books she grabbed. Sakura isn’t sure how long she’s there for, but time begins to blur after what she assumes is the two-hour mark. Her eyes are drying out an hour later, and her head is pounding what feels like an hour after that. Sakura isn’t sure what time she decides that it’s time to go home.

Her mind is swimming with different definitions and theories and pure possibilities. Sakura knows that the information will be digested and carefully filed away in her brain by morning, but that doesn’t help the fact that at the current moment, the girl feels as if she’s about to tip over and faint. Somewhere inside her head she realizes that she’s sleep deprived with low chakra. She chooses to ignore the tiny detail.

Sakura stumbles over to the checkout desk, dropping her books onto the counter. The genin from before smiles at her, checking out the readings Sakura has selected with no comment.

“Have a nice night,” the pinkette mumbles.

The genin nods. “You too, Sakura-san.”

Sakura pushes her readings into the satchel at her hip, waving at the kunoichi, not bothering to wonder when the other girl learned her name. The pinkette shudders the moment she steps outside. Despite what foreigners think, spring and early summer nights in Konoha can be rather cold. Sakura suddenly wishes that she had worn a thicker sweater.

The girl begins her trek through the shinobi district, intent on making it home and falling into bed. Hopefully she can get three or four hours of sleep out of the night before she has to report for training in the morning. Sakura tries to stay close to the alleyways, hidden in the shadow as she was before. She will be utterly screwed if she bumps into someone she shouldn’t.

Apparently she must have done something to piss Kami off, because in the moment Sakura takes to rub at her eyes, she is blind just long enough for her to barrel into another person’s chest. She yelps, her feet tangling as the soles of her sandals slide against the gravel of the road. Gravity tugs her down, and Sakura lands unceremoniously sprawled on her butt. The sudden change makes her head pound even more.

Laughter reaches her ears and Sakura freezes, fear churning in her gut. Kami, she is such an idiot. The fear fades slightly when Sakura looks up at a man dressed in typical garb of Konoha shinobi. The man offers her his hand, a smile hanging off of his lips, along with… a senbon?

“You okay, kid?” the shinobi asks.

Sakura blinks sluggishly, eyeing his hand. “I’m fine.”

She attempts to drag herself to her feet, only for the pounding in her head to intensify tenfold. Sakura groans and collapses back to the ground.

“Fine my ass,” the shinobi says. He bends down, tucking his hands under her arms and hauling her to her feet. “Come on, kid. What’s your name?”

Sakura hesitates for a moment, leaning into the man’s touch against her will. She’s just so tired. “Haruno Sakura,” she mumbles.

The shinobi’s brows furrow. He seems to search his internal database before it comes to him. “You’re Kakashi’s kid?” he asks, sounding somewhat stupefied.

“You know sensei?”

“Course, I do,” the shinobi says, rolling his eyes. “Why’s a genin like you out at two in the morning anyway?”

Sakura’s face goes blank. “I was heading home from the library. I didn’t realize how late it was.”

“Really?” The shinobi looks doubtful. “What does Kakashi have you researching that keeps you at the library for so long?”

“Sensei didn’t send me,” Sakura says, finally regaining enough sense to push herself out of the shinobi’s loose grip. Thankfully, he lets her go. “I was doing my own research, trying to find…” she trails off, searching for the right words, “something to help me with my training,” she finishes lamely.

The shinobi looks at her oddly. “Why you didn’t think to just ask your sensei?”

He startles when Sakura makes a sound somewhere between a snort and a yawn.

“Cause Kaka-sensei is a bad teacher,” she says. “He’s too busy reading porn and watching out for Sasuke and Naruto to bother with me.” She rolls her eyes, swaying slightly as she fights back a yawn. “‘A prodigy, a fool, and a clever kunoichi,’” she mimics bitterly. “Who needs to bother with the kunoichi when she can just go to the library and read about everything she needs to know?”

The shinobi frowns, tucking what the girl just said into the back of his mind. He watches as she sways tiredly, her eyes drooping. The girl stumbles, and he swoops forward, steadying her before she can fall.

“How much have you slept in the past week?” he asks dryly.

Sakura considers the question for a moment before answering. “Um… maybe two and a half hours a night? Depends--” she yawns, “--how long it takes to fall asleep or if my parents wake me when they come home.”

The shinobi shakes his head. A genin is a ninja, yes, but a genin is also a child. Children need at least seven hours of sleep a night. Genin sensei are specifically ordered to make sure that their students are sleeping right and not overwork them. The man thinks for a moment before his senses pick up the sound of sandals slipping on rock. He looks to the side to see Sakura tipping over once again. His arms shoot forward, buffering the girl’s fall and pulling her close to him.

“Okay, Sakura,” he says gently. “Where do you live?”

“Not ‘suppose to tell strangers,” she yawns again.

“I’m going to take you home, kid. I’m just your friendly neighborhood jounin looking out for my kohai,” he says.

Sakura mumbles, and he can barely hear what she’s saying.

“Why should I tell you, shinobi-san? I don’t even know your name.”

“Shiranui Genma,” he introduces. “I’ve known your sensei since I was a genin. Now, what’s your address?”

Sakura rolls her eyes as she rattles off the information he requested. Genma’s eyebrows rise.

“That’s in the civilian district.”

“Duh,” Sakura says. “Not everyone on my team is from a prestigious shinobi family.”

She’s out like a light before he can respond. It takes him a moment to gather his bearings, and when he does, Genma shakes his head and scoops the girl up, one arm underneath her knees and the other wrapped gently around her shoulders, her head coming to rest against his chest. Genma is promptly horrified by how little she weighs.

He shakes his head, taking off down the street in the direction of the civilian district. Feeling Sakura limp against him, her breathing shallow but even, he decides that he will be having a look in her file and maybe a talk with his old friend. In the back of his mind, he’s already thinking of questions he’s not sure he wants answered.

/\/\/\

When Sakura wakes up at five-thirty the next morning, she’s groggy and her brain is thudding painfully against the sides of her skull. Fractured memories of the previous night’s (that morning’s?) events come back to her slowly, and the girl groans. She ratted on Kakashi being a shitty sensei.

Great.

Sakura takes her time pulling herself from bed. The pounding in her head worsens as she moves, and Sakura feels herself get dizzy when she stands. Placing a hand on her wall to steady herself, Sakura takes deep breaths and ponders why she puts herself through her stupid routine.

Because you won’t improve otherwise, her mind offers.

It takes her longer than it should to dress in loose black capris and a sleeveless red top. She hasn’t worn the outfit ever before, but the pinkette can’t find it in herself to pull her typical dress over her head and brush the tangles from her hair. Instead, she decides on the more comfortable clothes and a thick braid that falls down her back. Sakura even forgoes her katas and skips breakfast like she used to when she was in the Academy. She doesn’t think that she can stomach any food at this point.

The trek to the training field feels like it takes longer than normal, and when she arrives, Sakura is the first one there. She rolls her eyes--typical. Sakura sinks to the ground and begins stretching. The movement helps loosen up her muscles, which alleviates her headache just a bit. It’s a little over ten minutes until Sasuke arrives. He glances at her, raising a brow when he sees her attire. For once, Sakura’s too exhausted to care. Naruto arrives over an hour later, and the first thing out of his mouth makes Sakura cringe.

“Eh, Sakura-chan,” he says, “You look horrible, dattebayo!”

“Thanks, I hadn’t noticed,” Sakura says.

“Did you not sleep well or somethin’? And what are you wearing? What happened to your dress? And why is your hair up; you never wear it up!”

The questions just don’t stop with him, do they? Sakura just sighs, shrugging instead of answering his questions. The pinkette moves into the splits, not having to worry about flashing the boys because of the slits in her dress for once. Naruto makes a noise of surprise when the girl bends her knee, bringing the back of her head to meet her toes.

“Sakura-chan… How do you do that?!”

She rolls her eyes. “Practice.”

Before she can say anything else, Kakashi arrives, his stupid orange book in his hand. He strolls up to them, tilting his head to the side and smiling from beneath his mask.

“Ah,” he sighs, “look at my adorable little students, chatting amongst themselves as they wait for their sensei. Sorry I’m late, but I got lost on the path of life.”

/\/\/\

Genma can’t help but wonder how he gets himself into this situation.

He had carried the tiny pinkette--Haruno Sakura--home the previous night, though only after finding her half-asleep outside the library, hearing her bash her sensei for apparently neglecting to truly teach her and having her pass out in his arms. When he arrived at her apartment, he found the Haruno residence locked and empty. Genma simply found her window, used his chakra to get inside, and deposited her in bed.

Now, he’s standing outside the Hokage's office, his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his typical senbon hanging from his lips. The man sighs, taking his hand from his pocket and knocking of the door to the Hokage’s office.

“Enter.”

Genma pushes inside, finding Sarutobi Hiruzen sitting at his desk, reading through a large stack of paperwork.

“Ah, Shiranui-san, how are you?”

Genma bows. “Well, Hokage-sama. Yourself?”

Hiruzen laughs. “Good, I am good. How can I help you?"

Genma pauses, drawing a breath. “I would like to request access to a file, Hokage-sama.”

“Who’s file might that be?” the Hokage asks, raising his brows.

“Haruno Sakura’s, sir.”

Hiruzen pauses, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms across his chest. “Why would a tokubetsu jounin such as yourself want access to the file of a genin student?”
Genma rubs at the back of his head. “That’s a bit of a story, Hokage-sama.”

“Well,” Hiruzen smiles, “We all know that I do love a good story. Please, do share.”

Genma sighs. “I was walking through the shinobi residential area after a late night at T&I last night when a genin bumped into me as she left the library.” He closes his eyes momentarily, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “She was half-conscious and passed out in my arms after giving me reasonable doubt that her sensei is neglecting to properly teach her.”

Hiruzen leans back in his seat, exhaling a puff of smoke from the pipe between his teeth. “Are you aware of the identity of Haruno-chan’s sensei?”
Under his Hokage’s intense gaze, Genma shifts uncomfortably. “Hatake Kakashi is her sensei, Hokage-sama.”

“Ah.”

Hiruzen leans forward, resting his chin on his hands. He studies the jounin before him, watching as the man’s usual slouch disappears slightly, his typically wandering gaze trained on the same spot on the wall behind Hiruzen’s head. Hiruzen remembers when Genma used to deliver his reports behind a porcelain mask, his voice flat and his eyes on the exact same spot. The Hokage sighs.

So, he really is serious then.

Hiruzen leans down, pulling open the drawer that has yet to be emptied of the genin files from when he assigned their teams two weeks ago. He thumbs through the stack until he reaches the ‘H’ section, and he easily plucks the thin file from right in front of the plastic divider.

“Here.” Hiruzen hands the file to Genma, who tries to hide the eagerness itching at his fingertips when he takes hold of the folder.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama,” Genma bows.

Hiruzen offers him a small nod in return, and the man turns on his heel, making his way back towards the door to the office. His fingers have barely brushed the knob when Hiruzen speaks again.

“And Genma--” The younger man pauses, glancing at his leader from over his shoulder. “--Treat it well.”

The old man smiles, and Genma knows what he means. The jounin stops suddenly, an idea popping into his mind.

“Hokage-sama, if you don’t mind…”

/\/\/\

The same genin that is always stationed at the library is frowning when Sakura arrives at the library. The pinkette raises a brow, her hand settling against the tan satchel at her hip.

“If you’re getting ready to yell at me because I’ve checked out too many things, don’t worry.” She pulls out a handful of scrolls. “I brought back like seven scrolls.”

The girl takes the scrolls Sakura hands her, shaking her head. “I don’t know how to quite approach this, Sakura-chan,” she says, stowing the pieces of literature below the counter, “but your access has been restricted by one of the higher-ups. I’m not supposed to let you check out any more books--or even come inside--for two weeks.”

Sakura can’t help but gape like a fish. “What?” she shrieks.

“I’m sorry,” the brunette shrugs. “I don’t know what to make of it either. Maybe it’s a good thing, though. You’ve been here for hours every day after your team training. A break will be good for you.”

Sakura blinks numbly. “Not like I have a choice.”

“Afraid not,” the other girl says apologetically.

Sakura makes her way back into the evening air, inwardly fuming. Deep down, though, she knows that the other kunoichi is right. A break might do some good. Sakura rubs at her eyes, already exhausted from the day’s training and Naruto’s endless chatter. She swears that boy never gets tired.

Sakura drags her feet as she begins the walk back to her apartment complex, thinking of maybe indulging in some sugary fruit and actually trying to get more than three hours of sleep for once. The idea does sound appealing… really appealing. Sakura feels her inner determination crumble. Sleep it is, then.

However, before she can even cross the invisible border that divides the shinobi and civilian districts, Sakura has to duck to the side to avoid barrelling into an older shinobi walking straight towards her. The shinobi glances down when Sakura trips over air, unable to regain her footing and subsequently plowing into the wall beside her as her headache resurfaces. Sakura places a hand to her head, stifling a groan.

“Sakura, right?”

The pinkette glances up, blanching when the face comes into focus. She’s ninety percent sure that the man before her is the same man from the previous night.

Crap. Abort mission, abort mission.

The girl forces a smile onto her face, offering a shallow bow. “Haruno Sakura, shinobi-san.”

“Shiranui Genma,” the man introduces. “Nice to properly meet you. So, no library today?”

Sakura straightens.”I was kicked out,” she grumbles.

To her surprise, Genma laughs. “Oh, kid,” he says, “That’s not a reaction I’ve before. Tell you what, let me take you out for some dango.” His eyes twinkle. “I want to hear more about this Kaka-sensei of yours.”

Sakura’s already pale skin goes white, and Genma laughs again.

/\/\/\

Genma is only slightly surprised when the girl merely picks at her dango instead of eating it. She instead focuses on her tea, flavored only with lemon and the slightest bit of honey. Genma leans back in his seat, senbon dangling from his lips as he watches her; she sits on the edge of her seat, back straight, shoulders square, and ankles crossed, her eyes angled down towards the table, and her hands wrapped gently around her teacup.

So, good upbringing, but shy enough to not want to meet a stranger’s eye.

“So,” Genma starts, “Want to tell me more about this Kaka-sensei and why he had you at a library at two in the morning?”

Sakura stiffens, and Genma doesn’t miss the way her pinky twitches. “Kakashi-sensei didn’t send me to the library. I was there on my own.”

Genma blinks. “Why?”

Sakura tries very hard not to roll her eyes at the incredulous tone of his voice. “Because,” she says, “Kakashi-sensei doesn’t…” She presses her lips together. “Kakashi-sensei isn’t really that helpful in training, and if I want to be able to do more than D-ranks for the rest of my life, I need to do some independent work.”

Genma levels her with a stare. “Hatake’s not teaching his students properly?”

“His female student,” Sakura corrects without thinking. She immediately wants to slap a hand over her mouth. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Oh?” Genma prompts. The ‘go on’ hangs in the air. There’s no reason to voice it; Sakura can see it on her own.

“He’s better suited to teach Naruto and Sasuke. They’re combat types, naturally gifted with large chakra reserves and they have--” Sakura bites her tongue before she can say it.

Genma raises a brow. “They have family connections that make them more important?” he says.

Sakura guiltily looks at her uneaten dango. “Something like that.”

The two lapse into silence. Sakura stares into her rapidly cooling tea, and Genma gnaws on the end of his senbon. It takes a few moments, but the jounin eventually leans forward, resting his elbows on the table and looking straight at the girl across from him.

“Tell me,” he says, “Why Hatake isn’t spending the time that he should be with you.”

Sakura carefully words her response in her mind before she speaks. “For one, like you said, Sasuke and Naruto come from prestigious families. Sasuke is the heir of the Uchiha clan since his elder brother defected from the village, and Naruto is the sole child of the Fourth Hokage and the last Uzumaki. They both require an ANBU-level teacher to not only train them, but protect them. Also, like I said before, they’re both similar to Kakashi-sensei in the fact that they have large chakra reserves and are naturally suited for combat.

“Me, on the other hand…” Sakura pauses and takes a breath before continuing. “I’m a civilian-born nobody whose only assets are intelligence and chakra control. I’m not a combat type, I’m not naturally talented with ninjutsu, and my chakra reserves are underdeveloped. Kakashi-sensei isn’t a sensei suited for my needs. The only reason I was selected to be part of team seven was for balance. I’m smart and relatively level-headed, while still not being an emotionless clan heir. I’m meant to balance out the boys.”

Genma blinks, and Sakura smiles sheepishly.

“Sorry,” she says. “I tend to ramble.”

“Obviously,” Genma says. “But I see where you’re coming from. The assignment doesn’t make much sense for you.” He rubbed at the back of his head. “And you’re right, Hatake really isn’t suited to teach someone like you. Though, I see what Hokage-sama was thinking putting you with him.”

“Oh?”

Genma laughs. “He was probably hoping that Hatake would teach you some genjutsu.”

“… Genjutsu?” Sakura says, dumbfounded. “Why?”

The jounin looks at her strangely and takes a moment to respond. “Because you’re pretty clearly a genjutsu type… Has no one told you that?”

“No. Should they have?”

Genma drops his head into his hands, sighing. “Kami,” he whispers, “I know that they aren’t rushing you genin because we’re not in a war, but they seriously didn’t sort you into your jutsu types?”

The brunet looks up, pressing his lips together, the steel of his senbon warm against his skin. This is bad; very, very bad. Genma can feel the wheels turning in his mind, and the direction they’re spinning in does not point to good things. He sighs.

“Tell you what, kid,” Genma says. “You have until the sun goes down to show me what you can do, and then I’ll give you some veteran tips to help you along.”

Sakura’s face falls for the half second it takes his words to sink in. When she finally seems to understand what he’s said, Genma thinks that she’s going to cry.

“Really?” Her voice cracks on the word, and her eyes are wide and, oh, yeah, definitely teary.

Genma sighs. He leans forward, resting his elbow on the table and looking at the young genin before him. “Look, kid,” he says, “I’m not going to lie to you. Your physical state is way behind where it should be.” Sakura winces, and Genma pushes forward. “Both you and your sensei are at fault for that. Right now, you’re weak. You try to go out in the real world, and you’re going to die.” Sakura is wilting, and Genma remembers why he didn’t take a job as a sensei. “Pinky, from the little while I’ve known you, I’ve already started to like you. That’s rare, okay? I don’t like kids. But I’m offering to help you. That big brain of yours is your biggest asset.” He thumps her on the forehead, looking into her eyes as sincerity drips into his words against his will. “All you gotta do is learn how to use it.”

Sakura’s eyes are wide, her jaw is dropped, and the tears are continuing to well up in her eyes. Genma wonders if he went to far, but before he can open his mouth or even think of anything to say, Sakura is launching out of her seat. Genma stiffens under her touch, and it takes him a moment to realize the girl has her arms around his torso, her head tucked against his shoulder.

“Thank you,” she whispers, her grip on him tightening as she pulls him close to her.

Genma hesitates, his hands hovering over her back, unsure of what to do. When Sakura shows no signs of letting go, he exhales, chest caving as his hands come to rest on Sakura’s upper back, gently holding onto the girl as she shakes. He can tell she’s trying not to cry. For a civvie with Hatake for a sensei, he thinks she doing a pretty good job.

Sakura clutches to him like a lifeline, and maybe to her, he is. He can only let her cry and clutch onto him like a babydoll until she’s calmed down. Genma wonders if he's made a mistake, taking her on like this and offering to help.

(He knows that he hasn't.)

Chapter Text

It’s three days later when Hatake finds him. Genma almost wishes that he was a Nara and could pull in a thick drag of smoke through his lips and disappear with some wise, smartass words. Unfortunately, Hatake finds him just as he’s leaving Hokage Tower, his hands tucked into his pockets and his eyes lazily following his movements.

“Genma,” Kakashi says.

He sighs. “Hatake, long time no see.”

Kakashi’s eye crinkles in a smile. “Been busy, but I always time find to catch up with my friends. Walk with me?”

Genma doesn’t see a way out of it, so he resists the urge to tip his head back as the metal of his senbon presses against his teeth and just says, “Sure.”

They walk away from Hokage Tower, taking one of the quieter roads that leads to the training grounds. They keep a good few feet between, and the silence settles around them, thick and heavy. Finally, Genma breaks the air.

“I know you didn’t hunt me down to catch up, Kakashi. What do you want?”

Kakashi looks at him from the corner of his eye. “I see you’re still blunt as ever.”

“Cut the shit,” Genma snarls. “Just say what you’re going to say and stop wasting my time.”

The two face each other, and Genma realizes that they’ve arrived at the training grounds. Kakashi’s typical slouch has disappeared, and his hands are curled into fists in his pockets. Genma feels something thrumming alongside his pulse inside him, low and fast, and he doesn’t know what it is or why it makes his stomach churn the way it does.

“Fine, fine,” Kakashi says. “I want to know why a little bird has told me that one of my adorable little students has been hanging around the T&I building waiting for a certain tokubetsu jounin.”

Genma tries to stop it, he really does but he can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a cruel, bitter sound. “Maybe if you actually paid attention to your students, Hatake, you would know.” He laughs again, and even Kakashi’s vicious glare isn’t enough to sober him up. Instead, he just laughs harder until his sides are aching and his hands are shaking from what he can now identify as anger.

He wants to say so many things. He wants to snap and snarl and yell at Kakashi for being a shit sensei and putting his team in danger. He wants to raise his voice and scold Kakashi like he’s a child. Genma wants to do many things, but he doesn’t want to deal with Hiruzen when he finds out, and so he instead clenches his hands and grits his teeth. He sucks a sharp breath through his teeth and glares at the man in front of him, doing his best to keep from lashing out.

“Ask Sakura if you really want to know,” he says, and then he’s gone in a swirl of leaves, leaving Kakashi standing alone.

/\/\/\

Sakura sees Genma before he sees her, but she’s sure he knows exactly where she’s at. She walks towards him, dragging her sandals through the dirt. She makes her way over towards the jounin, lowering herself to the ground so that she sits beside him, legs dangling off the bridge. His toes graze the surface of the river below them, but Sakura’s just swing through the air.

“Hey, Genma-san,” Sakura says.

“Hey, no,” Genma laughs, looking at her as though she’s crazy. “What did we say about the san?”

“Not to use it because it makes you feel old.”

“There we go,” Genma says, thumping the top of her head with his fist. “Now tell me what’s bothering you. I could see it a mile away.”

Sakura frowns. She kicks her legs back and forth, glowering as her fingers curl tightly into the wooden bridge below her. She stares at the water as if her gaze will change the direction it flows.

“Now I know something is wrong,” Genma says, looking down at her. “Seriously, kiddo, what’s up?”

Sakura is quiet for a moment longer until she mutters something Genma can’t hear under her breath.

“Kid, you gotta speak up. I can’t hear you.”

“We were assigned a C-rank mission,” Sakura says, her voice still soft.

Genma feels his stomach churn. Sure, it’s not uncommon for genin squads to get C-ranks, but never only six weeks after graduation. Team Seven should be doing D-ranks and training for the next several months. Genma feels anger simmer under his skin. He’s mad at Kakashi for not training them and neglecting his student to the point she went to the library at two in the morning then demanded to know about her, mad at Hiruzen for even allowing the team to take a C-rank mission. Genma is full of anger, but Sakura is already trembling like a leaf, so he shoves the emotion down and lays a careful hand on her shoulder.

“Do you think you can do it?” he asks.

Sakura purses her lips. She debates what to say, the words sticking in her throat. “Sasuke and Naruto will be fine, and Kakashi-sensei--”

“Hey, hey, no,” Genma interrupts. “I asked if you thought you could do it. You, not your teammates, not your sensei. You . Sakura, do you think you can go on this mission and be okay?”

Sakura pulls her legs to her chest, burying her chin in her knees. She feels the tears well up in her eyes, and she can’t stop them from falling. Her nails bite into her skin as she continues to shake, biting her lip to the point where the delicate skin breaks and blood washes over her tongue, sharp and bitter. The words won’t come and she can’t lie, so Sakura settles for shaking her head as the tears blind her.

“Oh kiddo,” Genma says. He shakes his head and pulls the girl in for a hug. She tenses beneath his touch, but Genma ignores it and settles for whispering in her hair, “Don’t worry. In the time before you leave, I’ll whip you into the best shape possible.”

Sakura laughs, and it’s a choked sort of sound that makes Genma want to wince. “Better hurry,” she says. “We leave at six tomorrow.”

Genma goes still, his hands digging into Sakura’s shoulders until she squirms. Fucking Hatake, he thinks. God damn fucking Hatake .

“Listen up, okay. You and I are going to go talk to parents and tell them that you’re going to be with me until late tonight.”

Sakura looks up and him, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She can feel the heat in her cheeks, both from the tears and the embarrassment of crying in front of a jounin. “Genma-san,” she says, “What--”

“Just trust me, alright kid?” Genma offers her a smile and ruffles her hair. “Come on.”

Genma stands, brushing the dirt from his trousers. He offers a hand to Sakura, and when she takes it, he hauls her to her feet. The usual gleam to his eyes is gone, and the dark irises are carefully guarded, the slightest wrinkle visible between Genma’s brow. Sakura doesn’t like the look on him. It makes him look older, more like the war-hardened veteran that Sakura knows he is.

Genma, as though he can see the way her thoughts are racing through her mind, squeezes her hand tight. He smiles again, and for a moment, Sakura can see his eyes fill with their usual happy mirth. Some of the tension begins to drain from her body, and Sakura returns his smile with a shaky one of her own. Her fingers curl around his, and her grasp tightens. Somewhere deep down, she hopes that she will never let go.

/\/\/\

It takes them barely fifteen minutes to convince Sakura’s parents to let her go with Genma for the night. Sakura has to explain to them no less than three times that Genma is teaching her (the shinobi arts, she stresses when her mother shoots him a dirty look) and is preparing her for her C-rank the next morning. Mebuki eventually relents, and Kazuki follows shortly after. Sakura hugs them and grabs her already-packed mission pack when Genma tells her to.

When they’re finished, Genma bows to her parents, much deeper than Sakura expected him to, thanking them for allowing him to teach and aid their daughter. The tip of Sakura’s ears go red. Genma laughs at her as soon as they’re out the door.

To Sakura’s surprise, he brings them to the playground down the street from the Academy. They sit at one of the picnic tables, and Genma folds his hands on the tabletop, leveling Sakura with a serious look that makes her feel almost uneasy.

“Show me everything you have on you,” he orders.

It takes Sakura a moment to process what he says. When the words sink in, she realizes why he’s told her they’ll be out late. Sakura unties her kunai holster from her thigh and unclips the weapons pouch from its place on her waist. She drops them on the table in front of Genma, next to where her mission pack is already sitting.

Genma’s eyes narrow. He spends the next fifteen minutes sorting through every shinobi tool that she owns. He methodically counts her weapons, sorts her gear, checks the condition of everything. His face grows more and more displeased with every moment that passes. When he’s done, Genma is practically scowling.

“What the fu--” Genma cuts himself off, gritting his teeth. Sakura’s eyes go wide. “Has Hatake,” Genma asks, voice tight and thin, “ ever gone through your gear with you?”

“Kakashi-sensei?” Sakura frowns, shaking her head. “No, he hasn’t.”

Genma’s eyes dance with something that makes a shiver run up Sakura’s spine. He grits his teeth. “Lesson number one for tonight,” he says, “come to me with any concerns you have with your gear ever again. Understood?”

Sakura swallows, bobbing her head.

Genma returns her nod. “Good,” he says. “Next: You need all new weapons. Your kunai are academy level at best, your shuriken are cheaply made and dull. You barely have any tags, explosive, smoke, or otherwise. You wouldn’t last more than five minutes in a fight with these.”

Sakura winces. “I knew that my gear wasn’t up to par but…”

“But...?”

Sakura droops. “I figured that since Kakashi-sensei never said anything, my gear was good enough until I could save up to buy more and better quality tools. I don’t… I don’t know what to look for, and there aren’t exactly any books on what beginner shinobi should start with.”

Genma’s breath catches in his lungs. Sakura’s a civilian (he forgets sometimes because she’s so damn smart and perceptive and she can usually pick up on what he shows her with minimal effort), and no one ever realized that she needed a little extra push that clan and shinobi children wouldn’t need. He feels the sudden urge to track down both her academy sensei (the Umino kid?) and Hatake and shake them until some common sense had worked its way into their brains. Genma sighs.

“Alright, Pinky, pack it up. You and I are going shopping.”

Sakura repacks her mission pack and straps her kunai holster to her thing before clipping her weapons holster in its place at her waist. She goes to sling her bag over her shoulder, but Genma stops her, taking a moment to wince at the bag itself (a flimsy thing with a shoulder strap that leaves the bag to rest around her waist) and swings it over his own shoulder. He leads her away from the park, and the Academy too, Sakura notices absentmindedly.

They stop at a weapons shop that Sakura has passed but never stopped at. She blanches.

“Genma-san,” she says, “I think you might be overestimating my budget a bit.”

“Let me worry about that.”

Genma gives her head a quick pat before he pushes inside. A small bell rings above his head, and Genma calls out, “Tsubaki-san, I’ve brought you something!”

Sakura peeks her head around Genma’s torso, hiding behind him as if he was a shield. She watches as Genma enters the shop, following him and remaining behind him as he stands perfectly at ease in the entryway, his hands in his pockets and shoulders slouched. Sakura jumps when a young woman appears before them without a sound.

She wears a feral grin, her wild brown hair tied up in an unkempt bun, her bangs stuck to her forehead and hanging in front of her shocking green eyes. She has what Sakura thinks is cleaning grease smeared across her high cheekbones, and when she sees Genma, she nearly screeches.

“Shiranui!” she cries. “It’s been too long!”

“It’s been barely two weeks,” Genma says, a small quirk to the corner of his lips.

“Bah, details.” Tsubaki waves a hand. Her eyes glint, her teeth showing in her smile. “So, what’d you bring me?”

Sakura squeaks when Genma drags her out from behind him, plopping her in front of him so that she’s standing face to face with Tsubaki. Genma’s hands are on her shoulders, as if he expects her to try and make a break for it. Sakura belatedly realizes that this Tsubaki is barely taller than she is, meaning that she reaches Genma’s shoulders and not an inch higher. The woman practically whimpers when she sees Sakura.

“You brought me a baby!”

Sakura doesn’t know how to take that.

“I did,” Genma says. “Sakura here is fresh out of the Academy and has her first C-rank tomorrow. She needs new gear.”

Tsubaki crosses her arms, her brows furrowing. “Whattya we talking here?” Her eyes scan Sakura head to foot, and she bites her lip. “Who's your sensei, pinky-chan?”

Sakura swallows. “Hatake Kakashi?”

Tsubaki glowers. She turns to face Genma. “When’d you pick her up?”

“About three weeks ago.”

“And you just brought her to me now?” Tsubaki shakes her head. “You’d think Hatake would have enough sense to make sure his students don’t get themselves killed.” She faces Sakura. “You were born a civvie, weren’t you?”

Sakura wants to hang her head. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Ha!” Tsubaki barks. “You hear that, Genma? Ma’am?” She laughs. “Call me Tsubaki, pinky-chan. And don’t look like I just insulted you. Nothin’ wrong with being born a civilian. All I’m sayin’ is that if your sensei had any sense, he’d have brought you here the day after you graduated to get you outfitted with proper gear. At least Genma has a shred of sense. Come on, girly. Let’s get you ready to kick some ass.” She looks to Genma. “What does she need?”

“Everything.”

Tsubaki scoffs. “Figures,” she says. “Freakin’ Hatake.”

Genma nods his head in agreement, and Sakura looks between the two of them as if they’re speaking another language. Before she can ask why neither of them seem to like Kakashi, Tsubaki is motioning for them to follow her.

“Budget?” she asks.

Sakura hesitates, but Genma answers for her. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Just make sure that she’s getting good gear that will last her a while.”

Tsubaki looks at him like he’s grown a second head. Sakura stares at Genma with her jaw hanging open. He merely rolls his eyes.

Tsubaki snorts and says, “Alright then.”

She leads them through the shop, talking with Genma and occasionally asking Sakura to hold out her hand or test the balance of a kunai in her grasp. They’re there for nearly an hour, and when they’re done, four dozen kunai, three dozen shuriken, and a dozen of both smoke bombs and explosive tags are piled up on the counter, as well as a bottle of soldier pills and a new, reinforced mission pack, kunai holster, and weapons pouch.

Sakura openly gapes when Genma pays for it all without batting an eye.

“Genma-san,” she whispers, but Genma doesn’t let her finish.

“Sakura,” he says, voice even and sounding slightly… pained? “I have plenty of money saved. This is nothing compared to knowing that you have the proper tools to defend yourself, okay?”

Sakura bites her lip and nods, blinking back tears for the second time that day. Tsubaki looks at her with something she can’t describe before reaching across the counter and mussing her hair.

“Keep him,” Tsubaki tells her. “He’s a good one. Now get out of here. I’m sure you have more places to be.” She looks at Genma. “Take care of her, you hear?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Tsubaki smacks him upside the head with a growl. Sakura can’t help but laugh as the small woman shouts and Genma rubs the back of his head. The two head out of the shop, Sakura’s new bags filled with her new weapons, and Tsubaki calls after them.

“You kick ass on that C-rank, you hear me, pinky-chan?! And yell at that sensei of your’s while you're at it!”

Sakura laughs again and waves goodbye.

She and Genma go to the medical store next, stocking up on new bandages, needles, and thread amongst other things until Sakura has a decent first aid pack of her own. Genma pays again, and Sakura thinks she’s going to have to yell at him if he spends another ryo on her. She’s about ready to ask if he’ll walk him home when Genma tells her they have one last stop.

“Where?” Sakura asks.

Genma looks down at her, his brow raised. “Where do you think?” he asks.

Sakura has no idea, and Genma rolls his eyes and drags her down the street. Sakura blinks when they stop outside a shinobi clothing shop.

“Look,” Genma says, “I know you love the cute red dress, but kid, it’s gotta go.”

Sakura looks down at her dress. She sighs. She hates to admit it, but she knows he’s right. The skirt is unmanageable and the spandex shorts do nothing to protect her legs. Even her sandals don’t have any actual tread on the bottom and are flimsy and would make her feet ache with the miles of walking she knows she has ahead of her.

“Okay,” she agrees.

Genma pats her head and leads her inside. To her surprise, Genma doesn’t need any help as he leads her through the store to the girl’s section. They sort through the racks of clothing, and when they walk out, Sakura has an entirely new wardrobe with her.

She has replaced her dress and spandex with reinforced black capris that reach just slightly below her knees, a short-sleeve mesh undershirt that fits snugly beneath a slim-fitting, three-quarter-sleeved light green top, and a new pair of sturdy black sandals. She uses her own money to purchase extra practice clothes that she knows will be used exclusively for training. When Genma offers to pay for those too, she levels him with a glare she hopes mimics her mother’s. Genma raises his hand in defeat and backs down.

By the time they leave the story, the sun has set and the moon is high in the sky. The summer air is humid, pressing heavy against Sakura’s skin and making her hair stick her neck. The air is thick with the smell of flowers and fresh cut grass, and Sakura can see the stars shining brightly in the sky. She and Genma walk down the nearly empty street, lanterns lighting their path.

“One more thing, pinky,” Genma says.

Sakura looks up at him, her brows furrowed. “I thought you said the clothes were the last thing.”

“I did but…” Genma rubs the back of his head before sighing. “Look, Sakura, don’t yell at me for this, but I think we should cut your hair.”

Sakura freezes. “What?” She wants to wince at how utterly weak her voice sounds, but she’s too surprised to truly recognize it.

“Look, Sakura, it’s the same thing as the dress. It’s impractical. In a fight, your opponent can grab it, cut it, whatever. You shouldn’t cut it above your shoulders, because then you can’t pull it back and it’ll just be in your face, but having it this long is a disadvantage. I’d say cut it to just below your shoulders so you can pull it back or braid it or whatever, or cut it short like a boy’s.” Genma looks down at her, frowning. “I know it sucks, but--”

“You’re right.”

Genma blinks in surprise. Sakura rolls her eyes.

“Oh don’t look at me like that. I’m smart, remember? I know that my hair is impractical, it’s just that… My mom loves it, and it’s girly, and all the civilian girls have it long, and I know I’m a shinobi now, but this is something that reminds me of who I am, you know? It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid, I do, but…” She tugs at one of the long locks. She shakes her head. “It’s whatever. I’ll cut it.”

Genma smiles. “It’s not stupid, pinky. But I promise it’ll be worth it. And imagine how much you’ll save on conditioner. That’s a thing right?”

Sakura laughs. “Yeah, I guess that’s a perk too, huh.”

Genma gives her shoulder a light shove before swinging his arm around her and bringing her into his side. They walk like that until they reach his apartment, and Sakura barely bats an eye when he unlocks the door and brings them inside.

“Take a seat in the bathroom, kid. I’ll be in in a second with the scissors.”

Sakura does as told, depositing her bags on Genma’s small table and making her way to the bathroom. She seats herself on the toilet, tapping her fingers against her knee as she waits. Sure enough, moments later, Genma comes in, scissors held lightly between his fingers.

He parts her hair and brushes it out, much more gentle than Sakura imagined he would be. His fingers are slow and careful, and Sakura closes his eyes when he tells her he’s going to make the first cut. She hears the snip of the blades, and Sakura releases the breath she’s holding. They sit in an easy silence and Genma continues cutting.

Sakura sinks into her seat, and for the first time, she realizes just how tired she is. Her eyes are drooping, her breathing slowing as Genma runs his fingers through her hair, shaking out the freshly cut strands and evening out the ends. Sakura is surprised at how light her head suddenly feels.

“How much did you take off?” she mumbles, drowsiness slurring her words.

“Probably eight inches or so,” Genma says.

Sakura hums. She’s just so tired. Without realizing it, her eyes drift shut and she’s slumping into Genma’s legs. She can hear him laugh.

Genma looks down at the girl, a fond smile on his lips. Sakura’s practically asleep against him. He shakes his head, setting the scissors down on the bathroom counter before sliding his arm under Sakura’s legs and lifting her into his arms. He’s suddenly reminded on the night he first met her as he cradles her in his arms and carries her into his guest room.

He pulls the covers back, careful not to shift her too much, before setting her in the bed and pulling the blankets up around her shoulders. Genma quickly makes a clone, telling it to alert her parents that she’s fallen asleep and will spend the night with him if they’re okay with it.

Genma leaves the room, keeping the door part way open as he makes his way back into his kitchen. He eyes the bags that sit on his table, his shoulders slumping. He makes a cup of tea, tapping his foot as he waits for the water to come to a boil. As the leaves steep, his clone disappears, the memories flooding into his head.

He’s surprised when he sees that her parents were waiting up for her at their own table, and merely slump in their seats when his clone tells them that Sakura is currently fast asleep in his guest room. They simply request that she comes by in the morning before she leaves for her mission to say goodbye.

Genma drops into his seat at the table, bringing the piping hot tea to his lips. He allows the burning drink to brush over his tongue, searing his taste buds and filling his nose with the heavy smell of peppermint. He breathes in the warm aroma of his drink, sipping at the tea until he’s drained the cup. He leaves it by his sink and heads to bed, his tired mind whirring with what-ifs and things he never thought he would have to worry about.

/\/\/\

Genma wakes to the sun and the smell of cooking fish. He stumbles out of bed, rubbing at his eyes as he makes his way to his kitchen. Genma blinks in surprise when he sees that Sakura is standing at his stove, dressed in her new clothes and her freshly cut hair pulled into a high bun at the top of her head as she cooks the salmon he remembers sitting in the back of his fridge.

“Sakura, what in Kami’s name--”

“Good morning!” Sakura cuts him off. “Go and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

“Sakura, you have a mission and you should be prepping. Why are--”

“Genma-san,” Sakura says, whirling around to face him. “I cook when I’m nervous. It calms me down. Silly, I know, but whatever works, right? We were given almost no information on our mission, so I’ve already prepped all that I can. I have fifteen minutes until I need to meet my team at the gate, which means I have an hour to eat, say goodbye to my parents and apologize for not coming home last night, and then make it to the gate with enough time to talk with my team about my new look before Kakashi-sensei even gets there. It’ll be fine, so please just let me cook you breakfast as a thank you for letting me stay the night. Please.”

Genma blinks slowly. “I thought you might have stopped rambling by now,” he says.

Sakura glares at him. “Rude,” she huffs, turning to face her fish once more. “After I made you breakfast and everything.”

Genma laughs, and he knows that she’s biting back a smile of her own as she finishes up. Sakura brings over the food a moment later, and Genma is only slightly surprised to see that she didn’t cut any corners with small bowls of rice, plates of salmon, bowls on miso soup, and platters of vegetables.

“Remind me to have you crash in my guest room more often,” he says.

Sakura laughs. They eat, chatting about Tsubaki and how Genma came to know her. Sakura thanks him for her new hair and asks where Genma learned how to cut in a straight line. He’s only slightly insulted. When they’re done twenty minutes later, Genma tells Sakura not to worry about the dishes before walking her to her parent’s house. She drops off the new clothes that she’s not bringing with her, and Genma doesn’t miss that the red dress is missing from the pile, likely tucked somewhere in her mission pack. He doesn’t mention it.

He gives Sakura and her parents their space and she says goodbye, telling them that she hopes to be back in a few weeks. Genma is proud when she pointedly avoids the words ‘I promise.’ When she leaves, she doesn’t look back, and Genma ruffles her hair and walks her to the gate.

“You’ll do great,” he assures her when they turn the corner that leads to the village’s only entrance. “Remember everything I taught you, and you’ll come home in one piece. Tsubaki will kill me if you don’t.”

Sakura laughs and elbows him in the ribs. “I will, Genma-san. Promise.”

His eyes go hard. “Sakura,” he says.

“No,” Sakura tells him. “I’m coming back. It’s a C-rank, and Kakashi-sensei may not be the best teacher, but he is a good shinobi and my team is strong. We’ll be okay, and if we’re not well… Then I guess you’ll just have to come find me, yeah?”

She looks up at him and smiles, and Genma feels something clench in his chest.

“Yeah,” he says. “Be safe, Pinky. I’ll see you soon.”

Sakura grins, and before Genma can react, she’s pulling him into a tight hug, burying her face in his flak jacket. Genma’s arms come around her without thinking, and he hugs her back, squeezing her tight. Sakura pulls back first, tucking a strand of hair that had fallen from her bun behind her ear. She’s still smiling as she begins to back away from him.

“Don’t miss me too much, Genma-san!”

“As if,” he snorts. “And drop the san already, kid! It makes me feel--”

“Old, I know!” Sakura grins, waving at him. “That’s the point!”

“We’ll talk about this when you get back,” he says.

“Sure thing. Bye, Genma-san!” Sakura yells. She turns on her heels, bounding away from him and making her way towards her team.

Genma can only watch her go, and he doesn’t know if it’s pride or something else he feels when this time, she glances back. Their eyes meet and when Genma raises his hand and gives her a two-fingered salute, Sakura absolutely beams. She disappears around the corner a moment later, and Genma’s left alone. He shakes his head, spinning around and beginning to make his way back to his apartment for his day off. Sakura will be fine. She has a point when she says her team is strong. Genma may not like Hatake Kakashi, but he knows the man will protect his team with his life, and if he doesn’t, well… Genma will make sure that Sakura makes it back to Konoha in once piece himself is he has to.

Chapter Text

“I see someone nicened up for their little mission,” the bridge builder coos when Sakura appears before her team. “Is that why you’re so late, huh? Tryin’ to look cute? Impress the boys, hmm?”

Sakura bites the inside of her cheek, giving Tazuna a thin-lipped smile. “Quite the opposite,” she says tightly. “These clothes are a bit more durable for the journey. I figured I’d don only my best to offer my services to you, Tazuna-san.”

Naruto is gaping at her like a fish and Sasuke openly snorts at her retort. Tazuna’s nostril flare and his cheeks go red, but then he slaps his knee and laughs.

“Smart girl,” he says. “I appreciate it.” His eyes shine from beneath his straw hat, and Sakura isn’t sure if it’s from amusement or the half-empty beer that’s currently clutched between his fingers. Probably both.

It’s another ten minutes until Kakashi arrives, and he eyes Sakura’s new clothes and her pulled back hair for a moment before he turns his attention to the rest of the team.

“Sorry I’m late,” he smiles. “I’m afraid a black cat crossed my path and I was forced to take the long way. Shall we go?”

Naruto shouts something unintelligible as Sasuke rolls his eyes and Tazuna raises a brow. Sakura smoothes her sweaty palms against her capris and says nothing. Kakashi merely shakes his head and leads them through the gates and out of the village.

Naruto cheers when they’re hardly a quarter of a mile away. “I’m an adventurer now, dattebayo!”

“As if,” Sasuke scoffs. “We’ve barely left the village.”

“Well I’ve never been out of the village,” Naruto retorts.

“Neither have I,” Sakura admits. She looks around her, taking in the wide, beaten road and the tall trees. “It’s not as exciting as I expected it to be.”

“Whaa?! How can you say that, Sakura-chan?!” Naruto sounds almost distraught.

Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Because it looks the same here as it does in Konoha, dobe.”

“Don’t call me dobe, teme!”

“Dobe.”

“Teme!”

Sakura huffs and keeps walking. She moves ahead so that she’s standing slightly in front of Tazuna, her eyes kept forward and constantly scanning the treelines as they walk. She can feel a gaze on her back, and whether it’s Tazuna, Kakashi, or Naruto, she doesn’t know. At least she’s pretty sure that it’s not Sasuke.

It’s nearly four miles out of the village when Sakura, busy talking with Tazuna about his village, almost steps into a puddle. She wrinkles her nose, stepping to the side.

Weird , she thinks. It hasn’t rained in Konoha in weeks… I’m surprised they got rain this close to the village.

She shakes out her foot, as well as the odd feeling, and keeps walking. It’s only when she hears the signature zing of a blade being unsheathed does she spin around, confusion weighing down her chest. Sakura’s eyes go wide when she sees two cloaked nin, Kiri nuke-nins if she’s seeing their scratched headbands correctly, emerge from the same puddle she nearly stepped in, wrapping Kakashi-sensei in chains and slicing him to pieces.

It all happens so fast.

Naruto cries out. Sasuke draws a kunai. Sakura darts in front of Tazuna and draws her own weapons, a kunai in each hand.

Horror floods Sakura’s veins when one of the nin charge Naruto. His name sticks in her throat as her feet remain firmly planted in place so that she can defend Tazuna if the need arises. The nin lashes out at Naruto, his chain cutting into the boy’s hand. Naruto tumbles with a cry of pain, and before he can get back to his feet, Sasuke has thrown himself into the fight as though he has done it a hundred times before.

Nearly as quick as they attacked, the nin are subdued. Sasuke uses their chains against them, using a shuriken to pin them to a tree and landing on their restrained arms, kicking them back with the heels of his feet and flipping over.

Naruto is still on the ground, eyes wide and frozen in some mix of fear and shock. Sasuke is glaring at the ground, though a small quirk to his lips shows his smugness well enough. Tazuna’s breath his hot on her neck, and Sakura’s grip is so tight against the handles of her kunai that her knuckles are turning white. She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath and trying to calm herself. Sasuke is berating Naruto, his words blurred to Sakura’s ears, though she knows they are anything but kind.

The air around her shifts and Sakura’s eyes snap back open in time to see the two nin break free from Sasuke’s shuriken. They charge forward, and Sakura doesn’t even think before she lets the kunai fly.

One embeds itself in the left nin’s shoulder, and the second sinks into the right nin’s chest. Sakura’s drawing two more blades when Kakashi appears, his arms wrapped around the nin’s necks, cutting off their airways as they’re knocked off balance and brought to their knees. Kakashi looks down at them, his single visible eye narrowed. He looks up, quickly taking in his three students before his gaze lands on Tazuna.

Kakashi drops the now unconscious nin to the ground. Sasuke darts forward, and he drags the two over to the tree they were pinned to before, using the rope Kakashi tosses him to tie them to the base of the tree’s trunk. As he works, Kakashi speaks.

“Naruto, I’m sorry you were hurt. That was never my intention. Those blades are poisoned, so you need to stay still to keep the poison from spreading faster than it already is. Sasuke, Sakura, good job.” He peers at Sakura specifically. “You acted quickly and precisely. That’s impressive for your first time.” He then turns his attention to Tazuna. “As for you,” he says, “we need to have a talk.”

/\/\/\

They continue on with the mission.

Sakura thinks that if Genma was in charge, they’d have gone home.

She also thinks he’d kill Kakashi with his bare hands if he knew.

/\/\/\

It starts with a cute white bunny.

Sakura doesn’t remember the exact way it happens, only that Team Seven is walking a well worn path through the woods after arriving in the Land of Waves. Naruto is attempting to show off, making up for his failure in the woods with the two nuke-nin who Kakashi identified as the Demon Brothers.

It all starts with a cute white bunny, and it goes like this:

Naruto loses a kunai into the bushes.

Sasuke growls and calls him an idiot.

Kakashi tells the boy to mind his weapons.

Sakura levels the blond with a look and says that missions are not games.

And after that, it all goes to hell.

/\/\/\

“Get down!”

At Kakashi’s shout, Sakura jumps on Tazuna, dragging him to the forest floor and throwing herself on top of him. She’s smaller than him so she splays her body across the bridge builder’s back. She ignores her utter embarrassment at the fact that Tazuna’s head is squished in her non-existent chest as her arms protect him. He can live without a toe or two, but he can’t build a bridge without his head.

She hears the thunk that signifies a blade sinking into wood. Sakura glances around her, watching Sasuke crawl to his feet as Naruto pushes himself onto his knees. Kakashi is already set in a battle stance, his hands hovering by his weapons pouch and his eyes hard. Sakura follows his gaze and gulps at what she sees.

A man stands on the hilt of the largest sword she’s ever seen. His face is wrapped in bandages, a style that she knows is common among Kiri-nin, and a scratched headband rests against his forehead. He’s tall and muscular, and the feeling of utter wrong bleeds off of him. Sakura chokes on it.

The man is looking at Kakashi, and the two are bantering back and forth. Naruto has fallen onto his butt, trembling, and Sasuke is gritting his teeth, clutching his kunai until his knuckles have gone white and sweat is beading his brow.

Sakura watches her team, sees how terrified they are; sees how even Kakashi is twitching with nerves, sending nervous glances towards his team and Tazuna, sees how the nuke-nin’s eyes gleam with something that she can only describe as bloodlust. This man enjoys fighting and she can see it a mile away. He’s strong enough to take her team down with a single flick of his blade, and Kakashi isn’t a former ANBU for nothing, but this man, this man is likely S-class and Sakura knows that even with Kakashi, they have little chance to make it out of here alive.

I’m sorry, Genma, she can’t help but think as Tazuna trembles beneath her. I don’t know if I can keep my promise or not.

The man’s eyes flick over her team, and when his eyes reach her, Sakura’s heart drops into her stomach. She freezes, her arms tightening around her charge, pressing closer to Tazuna. A laugh fills the clearing and all Sakura can think is death .

/\/\/\

Sakura is teeming with anger.

Kakashi lays unconscious on Tazuna’s back, Naruto and Sasuke flanking him on either side as Sakura follows behind them. Naruto had attempted to tell her that it would be safer for her to stay ahead of them so they could watch her back.

Sakura had actually snarled at him.

“Just because I stay back to protect the client and don’t launch myself into a fight I know I won’t win doesn’t mean I can’t bring up the rear,” she’d spat, and Naruto left her alone after that.

They make it to Tazuna’s home, and Sakura is the only one of her team not to collapse. Kakashi is dumped on the tatami mats. Naruto crumples, eyes closing as he falls forward beside their sensei. Sasuke, in all of his grace as the Uchiha heir, lowers himself to his knees, offers a shallow bow to Tazuna’s daughter and closes his eyes, leaning back against a wall and drifting off without another word.

Sakura glares at her teammates, feeling her brow pucker as she looks at her mess of a team. Sakura grinds her teeth and clenches her hands into tight fists, sucking a harsh breath through her nose. She lowers herself into a bow.

“Forgive my teammates, Tsunami-san,” she says, her fingers digging into her capris. “And please take care of us.”

The young woman blinks at the girl before her, her lips parted and eyes wide. She fumbles for what to say, gaze flickering between Sakura and her father and Kakashi. Tsunami presses her lips together and frowns.

“There’s nothing to be forgiven, shinobi-san. Thank you for bringing my father home.”

Sakura doesn’t know what to say. She’s frazzled, and her stomach is churning in a weird way that makes her nervous as her fingers fiddle with the hem of her top despite herself. She hates that habit, and Genma had tried to knock her out of it, saying that it made her look unsure and inexperienced when she needed to look the opposite. She thinks he’d be upset if he saw her slipping up. So Sakura digs her fingers into her top until the pressure bites into her skin. She schools her expression so that it is carefully blank and bows her head one more time.

“It’s no worry, Tsunami-san,” she says, her voice as blank and forced as her expression, “it’s what we’re here for.”

/\/\/\

Sasuke and Naruto sleep for thirteen hours after they arrived at Tazuna’s home, and when they wake, they practically eat everything Tsunami offers them, which happens to be much of what the family owns. Sakura has to bite her tongue to keep from lashing out.

The boys have been antsy for going on thirty-six hours and are passing time by throwing kunai at a tree in the backyard. Sakura keeps herself perched on the roof of the house, sharpening her weapons and not looking away from the distance.

The sounds of footsteps in the room below her reach Sakura before the sound of the window being opened. Tsunami sticks her head outside, the wind catching her hair as she smiles.

“Sakura-san, your sensei is awake.”

Sakura feels as if something has been lifted off her chest at the same time something heavy settles on her shoulders. It’s an odd feeling. Sakura ignores it and tucks her kunai back into her holster, her sharpening stone finding its way back to its place in the pouch on her waist. She offers a tight smile.

“Thank you, Tsunami-san.”

Tsunami smiles back and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear as she ducks back inside. Sakura stands, making her way back to the edge of the roof with two quick strides. She lowers herself down, holding onto the edge of the roof and twisting so that she can swing through the window. She lands deftly on the balls of her feet, rolling forward slightly as she finds her balance. Sakura is silent as she pads over to where the boys have clustered around Kakashi, who leans against the back wall, propped up by pillows and buried under a blanket.

Kakashi smiles when he sees her.

“Ah, Sakura-chan, there you are.” His eye crinkles at the edge, but Sakura can see the dark bags that peek out from under his mask and the tired slouch to his shoulders. “I worried that you’d run off while I was sleeping.”

Anger flares in Sakura’s veins, but she tramps it down. There’s no reason for it, and it will do her no good.

“I was on the roof, sensei.” Her voice sounds high a sharp to her own ears.

Kakashi looks at her oddly for a moment before he seemingly shrugs it off. Sakura’s sure that he’s tucked the information away in some folder labeled ‘Useless Teammate’ in that big brain of his that everyone likes to talk about. The thought makes Sakura clench her hands into fists as she sits.

“So,” Kakashi starts, “What can you guys tell me about the fight with Zabuza?”

“He’s crazy strong, dattebayo! Like, almost stronger than you, Kakashi-sensei!”

Sasuke rolls his eyes at Naruto’s exuberance. “He was strong but overconfident,” Sasuke says calmly, as though he has been thinking about it nonstop since it happened.

He probably has, Sakura thinks. I know I have.

“He wasn’t ready for the sharingan,” Sasuke’s eyes go to Kakashi’s headband. “and it cost him the fight. He was unprepared, and his cockiness made him sloppy.”

“You’re very right,” Kakashi says. He turns to face Sakura. “And what about you, Sakura?”

Sasuke scoffs. Sakura glares at him.

“The last part of the fight seemed off,” Sakura says. “You’re the best known Konoha shinobi in years, Kakashi, maybe even more known than the Yellow Flash.” She ignores the way Naruto absolutely beams, puffing out his chest. “Zabuza knew your name, knew your abilities, and yet when you copied his jutsu using the sharingan, he panicked? It makes no sense. Then a hunter-nin arrives out of nowhere? A fight between two S-class nins doesn’t just end prettily like that.”

Kakashi looks almost impressed. “Well noted, Sakura. And what do you think that could mean?”

“Honestly?” Sakura says. Her skin crawls and she can feel the tingling of nerves itching at her. She hates it. “I don’t know.”

Kakashi nods as though he was expecting it. He reaches out to pat her on the head, but winces at the movement and pulls back.

“That’s okay, Sakura-chan. I’m impressed that you picked up on the oddity of the fight.” He smiles his typically closed-eyed smile, and Sakura knows something is wrong by the way his mouth tugs up like he’s in pain. Kakashi’s eyes open, his smile gone and gaze hard. “Zabuza’s alive.”

The room goes still.

Naruto’s breath freezes in his lungs, his blue eyes wide and his sun-kissed cheeks looking pale and waxy.

Sasuke’s fingers dig into his pristine white shorts, wrinkling the expensive fabric, his expression dark, angry.

Sakura bites the inside of her cheek, wishes that everything was different, and wonders what she’d done in her past life to land her here.

Kami, she thinks, I wish Genma was here.

At least then they wouldn’t be up against an S-class rogue-nin and what she assumes is his apprentice. Sakura bites her cheek, wishes that she was better, and wonders what she can do to fix the mess that she’s gotten herself into or if she’s going to die trying. Genma would kill her if she did, so she clutches the hem of her top and promises herself that she won’t.

“So,” she asks, voice stronger than she feels, “what do we do?’

What she wants to ask is ‘why did you get us in this mess?’ and ‘why aren’t we going home?’, but she knows she won’t get an answer, so she asks what she’s expected to ask and leans on her sensei like she’s supposed to when she wants to do nothing else besides return to Konoha and put in a transfer request.

Kakashi smiles his typical closed-eye smile. “We train,” he says like it will solve all the problems in the world.

Sakura wants to punch him.

She thinks if Genma knew, he would too.

Chapter Text

Sakura wants to scream, not that that’s exactly anything new.

Kakashi spends all of two hours recovering before he props himself up on a pair of rickety crutches given to him by Tsunami and leads his team of genin through the woods, not stopping until they reach a small, secluded clearing. He goes on a spiel about chakra control (“Chakra, Naruto, not ‘Cat-ra,’" Sakura has to explain.) and how it can save their lives and make or break them as shinobi.

Sakura, of course, already knows this. It’s the first thing she learned when she started spending her free time in the library, but even then, she knew before, all the way back from her first week in the Academy.

The refresher course is as worthless as Kakashi’s demonstration of how to walk up the side of a tree.

She does it on her first try, making it past the top branch until gravity is tugging her down, only her chakra keeping her from falling as she drags her kunai across the bark. She makes it back down, then climbs back to the top when Kakashi tells her to and lands on the balls of her feet when she flips the remaining ten feet down.

Kakashi seems to think for a moment before he offers her a smile. “Wonderful, Sakura-chan!” he chirps. “Keep going!”

Sakura knows he’s keeping her doing it because it will increase her chakra capacity. She knows this because Genma made her run the same exercise for three days before he decided it was too easy and moved her to meditating on water. He said it’d help her way more than a tree.

Kakashi doesn’t seem to agree. Sakura doesn’t have it in her to argue.

She climbs her tree time after time, again and again until the bark is so scarred that there’s no way she can make another mark without taking off the top of the tree. She’s sweaty, but not nearly as much as her teammates, who have yet to make it more than ten feet up their trees.

Sakura’s surprised, if she’s honest.

She figured that Jiraiya and Sasuke’s trainers would have taught the exercise to the boys ages ago. It’s the most basic, most fundamental skill a shinobi learns. Really, it should be taught in the Academy. Apparently it used to be, but according to Genma, the Academy had gone soft after the last war and the loss of the Yondaime. She’s starting to see what he means.

Sakura looks over the treetops that surround her, the wind stinging her cheeks and drying out her eyes as she catches a glimpse of the ocean in the distance. She takes a moment to breathe in the view. It’s quiet up there, peaceful, and for a brief moment, Sakura nearly forgets the mess that she’s in. She relishes in the breeze in her hair, the salty tang to the air. Sakura wishes that it would last.

The moment breaks when she hears her name.

“Sakura-chan,” Kakashi almost sounds concerned. “You okay up there?”

Sakura sighs, the peaceful feeling that had settled over her fading as reality clicks back into place.

“Yes, sensei!”

Sakura takes one last look at the ocean, one last smell of the sea before she closes her and falls.

The wind whips loose strands of hair out of her short braid and they tingle the sensitive skin of her neck and her cheeks as she tumbles through the air. Sakura braces herself when she’s nearly twenty feet from the ground, channeling chakra into her legs, focusing on her ankles and knees. She twists in the air, flipping over so that when she hits the ground, she lands in a tight crouch, one hand buried in the dirt to balance herself. A strand of hair dangles in front of her eyes, and Sakura blows it away as she stands.

Kakashi blinks at her from where he sits on a tree stump, his stupid orange book in hand. “Maa, Sakura-chan, why would you almost give your poor sensei a heart attack? Can’t you just climb down like a normal little genin? You know, the cute ones chasing the cats back home? Less stress for your poor old sens--”

“Sensei, you’re in your twenties. You’re not old.”

Kakashi pouts. “Normally that’d be a compliment, but I feel like it’s a scolding coming from you, Sakura-chan.”

In a way, it is.

“Sorry, sensei.”

She's not sure if she is.

Kakashi waves a hand. “Tell you what, why don’t you head back to Tazuna’s house. Wash up and go into town with him tonight. Tsunami needs groceries, and I don’t want Tazuna walking around alone.” He smiles at her. “I don’t think you need to waste your energy running up trees anymore, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura doesn’t know what to say, so she doesn’t say anything at all. She nods her head and turns on her heel before walking away. As she’s about to exit the clearing, Sakura feels something wrap around her wrist. She freezes, turning to look over her shoulder.

Naruto stands behind her, sheepishly smiling and rubbing at the back of his head with one hand, his other wrapped around her wrist, warm and calloused.

“Ah, Sakura-chan.,” he says, hesitant. He releases her wrist. “Sorry to grab you like that, but um… Would you mind helping me?”

Sakura’s too surprised to say anything intelligible, only managing a short “What?”

Naruto looks vaguely terrified. His shoulders hunch for a moment before he stands taller. “It’s just that we’ve been at this for hours and I’ve hardly made it ten feet up the tree! And you… Sakura-chan, you made it all the way to the top on your first try! How did you do it? Like, what can I do to make it up higher?”

It takes a moment for Naruto’s words to sink in, and when they do, it takes all of Sakura’s willpower not to gape in surprise.

“You… You actually want my help?”

“Duh!” Naruto says. “Please, Sakura-chan! I’m so lost, dattebayo! You were always good at this cha-k-ra stuff, even in the Academy. You’re even better than teme!”

Sakura looks at her feet, shuffling as she feels her cheeks flame. She looks up, unsure of what to say, but when she sees Naruto’s pleading face, she melts.

“Okay, so first of all, you’re not channeling enough chakra. That’s why you keep slipping off the tree. If you look at Sasuke, he’s channeling too much, which is why he breaks the bark and gets pushed away. What you need to do is find your balance, your sweet spot. It’s different for everyone, so I can’t just tell you, but… Um, okay, so imagine that you have this big pool of chakra behind your belly button. Now, funnel that chakra down your legs and into your feet. When you feel like the amount is right and you’re totally focused on the tree, take a running start and climb.”

Naruto’s face screws up, and Sakura’s worried she overcomplicated everything.

“Does that make any sense?” she asks, almost scared to hear the answer.

Naruto is quiet for a moment, his face pinched and eyes narrowed in concentration. Eventually he nods slowly, almost as if confirming it to himself. “Yeah,” he says, “Big pool of chakra, focus it to feet, find the sweet spot, focus on the tree. Yeah, I think I got it.” His smile is almost blinding, and Sakura chokes in surprise when he pulls her into a tight hug. “Thanks, Sakura-chan! You’re the best!” He winks. “Definitely my favorite teammate!”

He runs off before Sakura can react. She stares, watching him go, her jaw dropped. She blinks, forces herself to close her mouth, and shakes her head before setting off back to Tazuna’s house.

/\/\/\

After her visit into town with Tazuna, Sakura’s in low spirits.

She knows the situation in Wave isn’t great. She just doesn’t know how bad ‘isn’t great’ really is until she sees it first hand. The people are starving. Children are stealing because their parents either can’t afford food or their parents aren’t around at all. Sakura’s family is by no means rich, but she’s never gone hungry either.

Seeing the children sitting huddled together on street corners, the stores with empty shelves, the little food available set at prices that would be considered high even in Konoha, Sakura realizes something: this is a fight that needs fighting, and she and her teams are the only ones to fight it.

She isn’t sure how she feels about that.

As of late, all that she’s felt as consisted of primarily two things: anger and fear.

Genma has been there to soothe both, but he’s not here now, and Sakura feels like she is crumbling. She doesn’t know how to feel about that either. She and Genma have only known each other for about a month, and she already trusts him more than she trusts Kakashi.

Kakashi is pulling his team into a fight their not likely to win, a fight that will likely get them killed, and Sakura is angry. She’s angry and she’s scared, and despite it all, all she can think is that Genma never would have allowed this to happen.

Maybe it’s just that Genma is the only mentor she’s ever really had so she’s leaning on him and idealizing everything he does.

Maybe it’s just that despite being a big brother to Naruto and a grudging asset to the Uchiha clan, Kakashi’s a horrible sensei when it comes to Sakura’s needs.

Maybe it’s just that Genma is everything Sakura hoped Kakashi would be and she associates him with safe and Kakashi with being let down, and that puts her on edge because, for the first time since that night outside the library, Sakura feels like she’s alone.

Either way, Sakura’s angry, but more than that, she’s scared.

The people of Wave need a team to protect them, and Team Seven is the worst that they could have gotten.

So yeah, Sakura’s spirits are already low by the time she pulls herself out of her bedroll to head to training. But then Kakashi steps in and puts a hand on her shoulder and holds her back as the boys run ahead.

“Sakura,” he says, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. “Since you’ve already gotten a handle on tree climbing and the boys are still struggling, I want you to head to the bridge and guard Tazuna.”

Sakura feels conflicted.

On one hand, she knows she should be happy. Kakashi trusts her. He thinks that she’s strong enough to guard Tazuna while the boys train, and if that isn’t a compliment than what is?

(Genma’s smile when she masters something he’s shown her, when he gives her dango as a ‘job well done’ treat, when he trusts her enough to let her sleep overnight and cook him breakfast, when he constantly reassures her how proud he is of her, something Kakashi has never done.)

But on the other hand, Sakura never thought that Tazuna should be without a guard to begin with, and he’s been alone for four days already, so even with Sakura there, it’s not like Kakashi thinks she’s making much of a difference. He’s just getting her out of his way. Sakura is scared that despite what she thought was proving herself during the Demon Brothers attack and her success with the tree climbing, Kakashi is going to ignore her like he did when they were back in Konoha and take away the little training he’d bothered to give, even though she already knows exactly what she’s doing.

By the time Sakura’s at the bridge and has been sitting, hidden by a raised pillar with a spectacular viewpoint, keeping watch for two and a half hours, the anger is back in full swing.

Kakashi believed Tazuna safe enough to be on his own for four days. If he thought Tazuna would be safe enough without a guard, safe enough to keep back the powerhouses of the team to train while sending Sakura to arguably waste her time when instead, he could have moved her onto more advanced training. He could at least try to teach her water walking, even if she does already know how to do it, courtesy of Genma tossing her in the river and telling her to figure it out when she had the technique mostly down.

By the time the work day is over, nearly ten hours of sitting perched an a stone beam and keeping an eye out for two nin there’s no way she could even distract, let alone hold off long enough for Kakashi to arrive, her hands are shaking and her mouth is filled with a metallic tang that makes her want to gag.

Tazuna must realize that she’s in a foul mood because when he sees her, he offers a smile and tells her “You did good today, shinobi-san.”

This just makes Sakura even angrier. Yet, she just bites her cheek and offers Tazuna a tight smile. She feels like it’s all she’s been able to do since this mission began.

“It’s no worry, Tazuna-san,” she says. “It’s what we’re here for.”

The words feel hollow, and in some ways, Sakura supposes that they are.

/\/\/\

That night Sakura helps Tsunami with dinner and the dishes, covering the two untouched bowls and setting them in the refrigerator. Neither Sasuke or Naruto return, and by the time Sakura is ready for bed, her fingers are twitching, with worry or anger, she doesn’t know. Maybe it’s both.

Kakashi finds her meditating on her bedroll. She tries to ignore his gaze, tries to focus on filtering her chakra through every single point in her body. When she realizes that she can’t focus with him staring at her, she sighs, eyes flickering open as her shoulders slump.

“Yes, sensei?”

Kakashi looks at her like he’s not really seeing her. “It’s okay to be scared, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura folds her hands in her lap, her blunt nails digging into the fleshy part of her palms. She wonders if she should say she’s not scared, say that she knows they’ll be okay and that Sasuke and Naruto will stumble back to Tazuna’s house and Kakashi will protect them. The bridge will be done in another week, and then Team Seven will be on its merry way back to Konoha, where Sakura will keep most of the details from the mission from Genma so that he doesn’t hunt down Kakashi and skin him like she knows he’s been itching to do. (He doesn’t hide it as well as he thinks he does.)

Instead, Sakura says, “Anyone in their right mind would be scared, Kakashi-sensei. I’m not stupid.”

Despite what you seem to think goes unsaid.

Kakashi smiles from beneath his mask. “Of course you’re not stupid, Sakura-chan. This is a big mission, and I’m glad you know that fear doesn’t make you weak.”

Sakura stares at him. Kakashi stares back. A heavy, awkward silence settles between them, the air thick with tension. Kakashi smooths his palms down the front of his trousers.

“Are you…” Kakashi pauses, as if rethinking what he’s saying. “You did good today, Sakura-chan. I’m proud of you.”

There’s no fuzzy feeling, no warmth spreading from her fingers to her toes, no flaming cheeks to showcase her flustered state. Instead, there’s a cold, sinking feeling in her gut and Sakura’s hands go clammy as she wonders what she could possibly say in response.

But then Kakashi’s gone, leaving Sakura alone in the dark room where she and her team have been staying, and all Sakura can think is that Kakashi is nothing like Genma and he never will be. For some reason, that thought leaves her feeling numb.

Sakura tries to mediate. When that does nothing, she cycles through the breathing exercises that Genma taught her to lower her heart rate. Within the next half hour, Sakura’s breath has slowed, the thud of her heart loud in her ears, a steady beat to lull her into sleep.

She’s not sure when or if her teammates come in that night. She wonders if that makes her a bad person.

/\/\/\

It’s day three of Sakura guarding Tazuna when it happens.

It’s ten in the morning and the sun is high in the sky when a thick fog rolls in, blanketing the area and blocking out the light. It’s hard to see, and Sakura doesn’t know if it’s the fog or fear that makes it difficult to breathe.

“Everyone clear the bridge!” she yells, one hand pulling a kunai as she digs through her weapons pouch with the other. Her fingers close around a cool rod and she yanks. Sakura drags her kunai through the top of the flare, throwing it into the air and watching as bright red smoke spills across the sky.

Sakura’s eyes search the crowd of fleeing workers, spotting Tazuna standing on the edge of the bridge, shouting orders and directing others off the bridge. Sakura scowls. She jumps from her perch on her stone pillar, tumbling through the air and taking off in a run as soon as her feet hit the ground.

“Tazuna-san,” she hisses, reaching the man in record time. “We have to get you away from here.”

Tazuna looks down at her, a hard glint to his eyes. “I’m not going anywhere until my people are safe.”

His tone of voice tells Sakura that he has no intention of listening, and dammit, Sakura is a shinobi and yet she can’t even convince her old man of a charge to flee the people he hired her to protect him from. She purses her lips, drawing a second kunai from her holster.

“I don’t know how long it will take Kakashi-sensei to get here,” she warns him.

Tazuna says nothing, and yet his eyes say it all. He’s not budging. Sakura’s stomach tightens. She takes a step forward, tucking herself in front of Tazuna and backing him into a corner.

“Stay behind me, and if I say run, you run. Your people need this bridge, and the bridge will never be finished if you’re dead.”

Her fingers tighten around the wrapped hilts of her blades, and Sakura forces the air into her lungs through sharp, controlled breaths. They’re faster than she’d like, but it’s all she can manage at the moment. The fog thickens, and although Sakura has never been religious, she takes a moment to pray to Kami that she will make it out of this alive. She can’t close her eyes with the enemy-nin so close, but she thinks that her fear of what Genma will do if she doesn’t return home makes sure her thoughts are heard loud and clear.

Sakura funnels her chakra through her system, warming up her muscles. The burn grounds her, the same as the humid press of the air against her damp skin, the sweat gathering at her hairline and sliding down to the small of her back. She hears the waves lap at the support columns of the bridge, sees the thickening of the fog, feels the heavy weight of a foreign chakra making its way towards her, suffocating her.

Fucking Kakashi-sensei, she thinks when she hears an eerily familiar laugh echo around her on all sides.

Tazuna tenses behind her and the last of the workers have cleared off the bridge. Her hands have gone numb from her tight grip around her kunai, and Sakura forces herself to loosen her grasp. She can’t handle a weapon when she can’t feel her hand.

“Would you look at what we have here.” The voice booms around her, cutting through the fog and shaking Sakura to her core. “Sharingan no Kakashi trusts his student to guard the bridge builder all by herself, hmm? Such faith he has in someone who didn’t do anything the last time we saw each other.” A laugh follows, and it takes everything Sakura has not to shiver. She can hear the grin in the words. “Is he hiding here somewhere, or is he just trying to get rid of you, little girl?”

Sakura doesn’t say anything. Blood splashes against her teeth as she bites her cheek, her legs trembling beneath her. The smoke from her flare has already started to disperse, only a faint trace of red still streaking through the sky. She hopes that Kakashi and the boys weren’t so deep in the forest that they didn’t see it. The laughter grows louder.

“A shame. You’re a cute one.”

Sakura can hear the thud of her heart in her ears, so loud that it’s dizzying. She grits her teeth and her fingers dig into the tightly wrapped bandages tied around the handle of her kunai.

“Tazuna,” her voice is barely above a whisper, shaking as she tries to calm her rapid pulse, “I’m going to throw down a flash bomb, and when I do, I want you to jump okay?”

Tazuna doesn’t say anything, choking on the words he can’t think of. He bobs his head, swallowing thickly, and Sakura exhales. She can see the faintest shadow of a man emerging through the fog, steadily inching towards her. She draws a breath, feels the wisp of her hair drag against her cheeks from where it has fallen out of her bun, and braces herself.

“Momochi Zabuza, former shinobi of Kirigakure, the bridge builder Tazuna is under the protection of the village hidden in the leaves. Should you attack him, it will be seen as an attack against Konohagakure and I will be forced to apprehend you. Stand down.”

Zabuza laughs from his spot hidden in the fog. “Little girl, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re playing a game you can’t win. Run away and maybe I’ll let you live.”

Sakura inhales, then exhales, mind whirring too fast for her to really keep up. All she can think is that she really, really hopes this works and she can piss Zabuza off long enough for her team to arrive. She can’t hold him off, can’t distract him, but Sakura has always been good of making herself an enemy of others without meaning to. If she’s actually trying, she can only imagine how annoying she can be. She only hopes that annoyance leads to anger and anger leads to sloppiness.

“This is your last warning,” she calls. “Stand down!”

Zabuza laughs like he’s just been told the funniest joke he’s ever heard. “Little kids playing adults games never gets old, does it--”

Sakura doesn’t let him finish his sentence before she lets the kunai fly. As soon as the blades have left her grasp, her hands drop into her weapons pouch and yank out three tags. She tosses them to the ground, fingers curled in the seal of the tiger.

Lights fills the bridge, reflecting off the chakra filled fog and making it even more difficult to see. White spots make it hard to move the way she wants to, but Sakura’s moving so fast it doesn’t matter. She darts forward, three shuriken in each hand. Sakura throws them with all of her strength, hoping to Kami that all of the target practice Genma made her do will pay off.

Zabuza grunts and the sounds of metal on metal fills the bridge. Sakura pushes forward. A string of wire spreads between her hands, hidden against her pale skin. Sakura makes it barely ten feet before Zabuza has his hands on her.

He hauls her up, clutching the collar of her top, making it hard to breathe.

“You little shit,” he snarls. “Thinking you’re so smart, distracting me so the bridge builder can get away. Well guess what, you’re not the only one who likes to plan ahead.” His grip tightens, and Sakura’s ears ring as she claws at his wrists, unable to breathe. “My hunter-nin is already--”

An explosion cuts him off, throwing them away from each other. Sakura’s body aches, heat blooming with pain across her entire chest and face as she’s thrown backwards. Her throat already feels bruised as her breath wheezes in her lungs, knocked out of her as she slams against the ground, rolling several feet until she skids to a stop.

By the time she pushes herself onto her hands and knees, Zabuza is already upon her once again. His hair is slightly singed, the bandages wrapped around his face stained with soot. His eyes are wide and angry as he stalks toward her.

“You really think explosive tags are enough to take me down or are you stupider than I thought?” He cocks his head to the side, watching as Sakura tries to stand, stumbling in the slightest and only making it to her knees. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing?”

Sakura can’t breathe, can’t feel anything other than hot, scorching, burning pain racing through her. She can’t see Tazuna, can’t sense the young hunter-nin who tricked her team. All she can see is Zabuza, muscles coiled tightly and eyes cold, stained with soot and looking as though he wants to take his time as he strangles her. She nearly smiles.

“Not as dumb as you think,” she wheezes.

Zabuza’s eyes narrow, but he can’t say anything else before he whips around, a kunai flashing into his hand to block a strike from Kakashi, who is surrounded by quickly dispersing smoke as he flips through the air.

Sakura falls off on her knees and onto her butt. She still can’t breathe, and she can’t think anything besides about time as she watches Zabuza snarl at her sensei.

“Where are your other two brats?” Zabuza asks. “Gonna poof out at me from a cloud of smoke like their coward of a sensei?”

Kakashi holds his position, kunai raised as he stares unblinking at his opponent. Sakura doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that he hasn’t spared her a glance.

“My adorable little students are having a nice little get together with your own,” Kakashi says easily.

Sakura doesn’t know how to feel about Sasuke and Naruto going up against Zabuza’s apprentice. The boy from the woods is talented, and while her teammates may radiate raw power, they lack the training and deadly precision that the other boy has. It’s the type of thing that can decide the ending of a fight, who lives and who dies. Sakura hates to say that she doesn’t exactly feel optimistic concerning the boys.

Her head is still spinning, the ringing in her ears feeling as though it’s going to crack her skull in two. Sakura greedily sucks air into her lungs. Her fingers dig into the stone of the bridge, her eyes trained on Kakashi and Zabuza, who are circling each other as if they are participating in an Academy spar. Except, there’s no proctor waiting to pull them apart should it escalate beyond what it should.

Sakura attempts to banish the dangerous thoughts from her mind. She instead watches as Kakashi and Zabuza clash, the ring of their blades meeting echoing throughout the air. The two nin move so fast that Sakura can’t keep up. She gives in.

Her head feels as though it is being repeatedly hit in by a war hammer, the kind that was used back during the first shinobi world war. Pain makes white spots dance in front of her eyes, and Sakura can’t find it in herself to keep her eyes open. The light, the heavy press of chakra against her skin is too much.

Sakura closes her eyes and is lost to the world.

/\/\/\

The kind of fight were two S-class nins go head to head leaves little room for distraction. A single flicker of hesitation is enough to end the battle, which means that every last bit of focus is necessary.

It is because of this that Kakashi doesn’t see Sakura go down. He can feel the faint sense of her chakra flicker at the edge of the bridge, meaning she’s alive, and that’s enough for him.

Zabuza is like a rabid dog, and that makes him unpredictable. Fighting an opponent you don’t understand is more dangerous than fighting a well oiled ANBU ever will be.

Kakashi is so lost in the fight, in the panic that floods him when he feels Sasuke’s chakra waver from where he and Naruto are fighting the hunter-nin below the bridge, that he doesn’t even notice the young Kiri nin until it’s too late.

His arm is buried through the boy’s chest, blood caking him from his fingertips to his elbows as electricity crackles through the air. Zabuza’s eyes are wide and angry from beneath the blue glow of the chidori, and the panic is steadily clawing its way up Kakashi’s throat.

Zabuza jumps back, snarling. The boy falls to the ground, body limp and the light already gone from his eyes. Kakashi can’t tell if his thoughts have come to a screeching halt or if they’re just flashing through his mind so fast that he doesn’t have time to comprehend them. Either way, he’s just killed a boy; it’s not the first time and it certainly won’t be the last. However, now Kakashi has students of his own--students the same age as the boy he just shoved his arm through. He doesn’t know whether to be horrified or grateful that he is merely numb at the thought.

That is, until, Zabuza’s eyes glint with a madness that promises revenge. A laugh rumbles through the Kiri-nin’s chest, low and guttural, a sound that Kakashi can only compare to a dying cry.

“I see how it is,” Zabuza spits. “You kill my student for protecting me. I might as well return the favor!”

Kakashi’s drained--from the fight the week before, from the recovery of his sharingan, from the chidori and the memories it brings. He’s drained, and being drained means that he lags. Kakashi is seconds too slow to stop Zabuza as he flashes past him.

Time seems to slow down.

Two chakra signatures appear on the edge of the bridge, shouts of “He’s gone, Kaka-sensei! Gone, dattebayo!” following them.

Sakura jerks to semi-awareness at the sudden movement, the electricity crackling through the air and stinging at her damp skin.

Kakashi whirls around, hands grasping to hold the crazed nin back as he runs.

Zabuza draws a kunai, bares his teeth, and runs at Sakura like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do.

Time seems to slow down, and Kakashi lunges forward, chakra burning through every muscle in his body as he strains to reach his student, too slow to do anything other than watch as Sakura’s eyes go wide when Zabuza slashes his blade across her throat.

/\/\/\

The only thing that Sakura can feel is pain.

She can’t pinpoint where it comes from, only that her entire body aches and burns and screams with utter agony. Sakura moans, but she can’t hear the sound leave her lips so she imagines she’s too out of it for her mouth to form any sounds.

It takes another moment for Sakura to gather the strength to force her eyes open. When she does, the first thing she sees is blue. The sky, she figures. The clouds must have cleared up. The sky in wave has always been pretty. It’s rarely clear, but when it is, it’s like the stars peak out even during the middle of the day. It’s weird, she thinks, for the sky to look teary.

The second thing Sakura sees is orange.

She doesn’t have time to dwell on the color when another wave of pain washes over her. It’s scorching, making her nerves absolutely buzz with a fire that she can’t even describe. She thinks she cries out. She can’t be sure. Everything around her is fuzzy, everything except the feel of lightning racing through her veins. Sakura bucks at the feeling, lashing and rolling to try and get away from the pain.

“Sas...k… hold her… still! Can’t move with… thread… shaking too…”

Something holds her down, pinning her wrists to the bridge. Sakura hisses at the sudden cold, the pressure from whatever is pinning her down lighting up her nerves through her arms and down into her belly. She screams, flailing. This only brings more sharp pain digging through her body, and this time she can tell that it comes from her throat.

A flash of gray eyes and bloodied bandages flashes in front of her eyelids.

Oh fuck.

The thought is gone an instant later when her body jerks without her permission, arms fighting to escape their hold and legs kicking out to force whoever is near her to back away. She feels although she is burning up, and with everything as fuzzy as it is, she just wants to be alone.

“...uto! Stop her… legs! Don’t care… how… do it, just… now!”

The shouts hurt her ears, though not as much as the feeling of something pricking at the surface of her skin, digging into the thin muscles that lie beneath. When she tries to kick them away, she’s confused to find that she can’t move her legs. An unfamiliar weight is keeping them down, pressing them against the cool stone of the bridge.

That’s odd. Where’d a bridge come from?

The pain increases. Sakura screams. The pressure increases as someone shouts, their voice thick and garbled.

Tazuna, Zabuza, fire, pain, Kakashi-sensei, blue, fire, Zabuza, blood, red, fire, pain, stop!

Sakura hears yet another shout, and before the pain can wash over her again, she closes her eyes and lets it take her.

/\/\/\

Sakura wakes up two days later.

Her eyes are bleary, her ears ringing, and everything hurts. The pain is sharp at the hollow of her throat, but the rest of her body throbs with a dull ache that makes it hard to draw a single breath. She turns her head to the side and sees a shock of orange nestled against a dark blue.

“Sakura-chan,” a voice greets to her side.

She turns, wincing at the pain as she does. She spots Kakashi sitting on her other side, his book in hand as he smiles at her from beneath his mask.

“Kakashi-sensei?”

Her voice is low and scratchy and it hurts to speak. Kakashi seems to realize this, as he shushes her.

“Don’t talk,” he tells her gently. “Your throat isn’t healed enough for that.”

He tells her that he killed Zabuza’s apprentice and that in a spur of anger, Zabuza charged her and tried to slit her throat. His blade was angled low, though, and he sliced across her collar bones and the hollow of her throat rather than slicing clean through her trachea. An inch higher and she would have been dead.

Kakashi tells the story like he’s reading from an old, redacted mission report.

Zabuza tried to slice her throat open. Kakashi stopped him. Her teammates lost control, Sasuke awoke his Sharingan. (Huh, the Uchiha clan will be happy with her at least. Sakura winces. She won’t be able to say the same for Genma.) Gato arrived and his mercenaries killed the weakened Zabuza, then Kakashi killed Gato. Gato’s mercenaries ran off after that.

Kakashi must see the question in her eyes.

“Tazuna’s alive. Tsunami and Inari are okay too. They didn’t even know what was happening until a group of Tazuna’s workers showed up to hide them.”

Some of the tension bleeds out of her body. Kakashi smiles at her again.

“Get some rest, Sakura-chan. I’ll let the boys know you woke up. They were up waiting for you, haven’t left your side.” His smile grows fond, his eyes going soft. “They’re a good bunch. You should be happy you have the two of them looking out for you.”

Something inside Sakura burns, and it’s not the pain.

/\/\/\

They start the journey back to Konoha three days later. It takes them nearly three times as long to get back. Sakura has trouble staying steady on her feet. A fever comes and goes, and Sakura finds herself getting sick no less than four times. It’s a slow, terrible process, and if Sakura’s teammates didn’t think highly of her before, they must think even less of her now.

When they make it back to Konoha, Sakura can’t stand without Naruto’s arm around her waist to help keep her steady. The son of the fourth surprises her by not saying anything, smiling and telling her that it’s fine when she apologizes for leaning on him.

Izumo and Kotetsu are guarding the gate when Team Seven arrives. At first, they smile. Izumo raises a hand in a wave, Kotetsu is calling out a greeting. The smiles fade, the hand falls, and the greeting trails off when the genin and Kakashi are near enough to see close up.

“Kotetsu…” Izumo swallows thickly, his eyes trained on the angry red line across the bottom of Sakura’s throat, the skin stitched together with thick, ugly black thread. “Alert the hospital that they have an incoming genin squad, one with severe injuries and two with…” He trails off, unsure what to say.

“Mild chakra exhaustion and basic field injuries,” Kakashi provides when Team Seven reaches the guard station.

Izumo nods, throat closing up. He doesn’t know what to say, and even though he can feel Sakura stiff and uncomfortable under his gaze from where she leans against the son of the Yondaime, he can’t look away. He clears his throat.

“And Kotetsu.” His words stop his partner in his tracks. He feels like he’s just swallowed glass. “Make sure that whoever’s working the desk lets Genma know.”

Chapter Text

From what she’s told him, Genma knows that Sakura’s parents are merchants. Sometimes they go out of the village on business. Before, Sakura’s stayed with family friends while they’re traveling, but Kizashi and Mebuki haven’t left Konoha since Sakura graduated and, by extent, met Genma. She’s old enough to stay on her own anyway, or so she says.

The Harunos were called out on an emergency trip to Iron three days ago. They, like Genma, had no idea that Sakura was even on her way back to Konoha. Genma has only met the Harunos once, but he can see both of them in Sakura.

Kizashi’s hair, pink and thick, and Mebuki’s pale skin and her small button nose are both present in Sakura. Genma focuses on these things, the childish roundness to Sakura’s cheeks that she has yet to lose, and the small, almost invisible freckle on the underside of her chin as he watches the steady rise and fall of her chest from where Sakura lays in her hospital room.

Genma has been sitting by her side since the small intern knocked on his apartment door, telling him that a Haruno Sakura was checked into the hospital and squeaking when Genma shunshinned away without a word. He would apologize if he ever saw her again.

Genma’s shoulders droop as he sighs, closing his eyes. He takes his hands away from where they have been supporting his chin. He takes Sakura’s hand in his own, his fingers curling tightly around her chilled skin. He watches the slight flutter of her eyes, the steady rhythm of her heartbeat on the monitor on the other side of her bed. He uses the annoying beep to ground himself, to remind himself that Sakura is alive and breathing despite the ugly black stitches that line her throat beneath the stark white bandages. The scrapes on her face and the burns on her arms and legs will heal.

Sakura will be fine. Genma can’t say the same for her sensei.

Genma doesn’t glance up when said sensei walks through the door sixteen hours after Sakura’s been admitted.

Kakashi leans against the far wall without saying anything, his arms crossed over his chest. He studies Sakura for a moment, his eye going soft, until his gaze flickers up to Genma. The other man doesn’t acknowledge him, instead running the pads of his fingers over Sakura’s knuckles, feeling the faint thrum of her pulse against his skin. The silence stretches between them until Kakashi breaks it.

Shiranui .”

Genma doesn’t look up. He counts the beats of Sakura’s pulse in his mind, feeling the hard press of the chair dig into his back and hips, the chilled, stale air stinging his nose. Kakashi sighs.

“Genma,” he tries again. “Sakura did extraordinarily well, especially considering her background. She knew the risks and she--”

“Stop.” Genma’s voice is cold, and it surprises him that it doesn’t shake. He closes his eyes before looking up at Kakashi, eyes hard. “Get out of her room.”

“Genma--”

“Hatake, I am barely keeping myself from beating you within an inch of your life. Get out of Sakura’s room before I do something we’ll both regret.”

Kakashi takes a deep breath. “Despite what you think, I care about Sakura. She’s my student--”

Genma moves before he can think. He flashes across the room in the blink of an eye, and Kakashi, in all of his glory as one of the best shinobi in the Five Great Nations, doesn’t see him coming. The man cuts off with a startled choke when he is slammed against the wall, Genma’s hands closing around his throat, fingers digging into his windpipe as he lifts Kakashi off of his feet.

“Don’t you dare,” Genma hisses, grip tightening. “You don’t get that right. Haruno Sakura may be listed as a member of Team Seven, but you haven’t taught her shit . Instead, you left her alone as you dote on Minato-sama’s kid and the Uchiha brat. You didn’t give a second thought to the genius on your team because she’s a genjutsu-type who was unlucky enough to be born as a civilian.” His grip tightens as Genma bares his teeth in a snarl. “Never, ever , use Sakura’s background as an excuse. That girl is more of a shinobi than either of her teammates will ever be.”

Genma’s breath hisses through his teeth, his eyes narrowed as he glares at the jounin before him. Kakashi finds it hard to draw a breath as Genma lifts him higher. His fingers dig into Kakashi’s throat, Kakashi’s skin gaining a bluish tint as his lungs scream for air.

“You can bet your goddamn ass that I’m submitting a report to the Hokage on why you’re not a suitable teacher and my recommendations for what he does with you. A real sensei wouldn’t bank on fucking teamwork on the most unbalanced team I’ve ever seen. A real sensei would actually bother to teach his students before throwing them at rogue-nins with no backup.”

Genma swallows thickly, purposefully digging the tips of his blunt nails into the fabric of Kakashi’s stupid, infamous mask.

“The only reason you’re not bleeding out right now is because if I’m gone, Sakura’s got no one. But so help me Kami, you pull this shit again--” He leans forward, pressing all of his weight into Kakashi’s throat, listening as the man chokes on what little air he has left. “--and I will rip you apart limb from limb, and you’d prefer having your eye ripped out all over again. Now I’m going to make myself very clear: get your shit together and be damn sure that you don’t ruin Sakura’s career before it has the chance to start. Now get out of her fucking room before I find I can’t hold myself back.”

Genma pulls back. Kakashi drops deftly onto the balls of his feet, hand going to rub gently at the ring of bruises that are already forming around the entirety of his throat. He chances a look at Genma, but the man has already returned to his seat by Sakura’s side, her hand held tightly within his own.

Genma’s words echo in his ears, and Kakashi mulls over the heavy accusations Genma laid on him, the fierce protectiveness he didn’t bother to hide when telling Kakashi to leave. He doesn’t make Genma tell him again, slipping out of the room without a word.

/\/\/\

Sakura comes to slowly. It’s eerily familiar to the time she regained consciousness for the first time after a rogue-nin tried to slit her throat, except this time, the pain doesn’t feel like lightning racing through her, but more of a dull ache that has settled in her bones and eased by what she assumes are rather strong drugs.

Her surroundings are blurry as she blinks to clear the sleep from her eyes. Everything begins to come into focus, and Sakura wishes that her mind was clearer. Her throat still aches, though not nearly as bad as before.

Kami , she thinks, what I wouldn’t give for a glass of water.

Sakura tries clearing her throat, wincing when pain laces through her. She blinks again, turning her head to the side. She finds the door to her room, and she’ll be lying if she says she isn’t disappointed that no one is there for her, especially after she woke up to Team Seven waiting for her back in Wave. Sakura brushes it off.

Genma… Genma probably doesn’t even know she’s back yet. She can’t blame him for not being there when he doesn’t know; even then, he’s a working shinobi. When he’s not on missions, he’s working in T&I and Intelligence. Kami, he’s going to kill her when he finds out what she did back in Wave.

Then there’s Naruto, who is probably sleeping, and Sasuke and his sharingan, which are likely getting checked over by his clan. Kakashi is almost definitely sitting in front of the memorial stone with his pervy book open in his lap and resting on his knee.

She’s been sleeping for who knows how long. She can’t expect them to wait for her to wake up forever.

Sakura turns her head away from the door, hoping to leave the dream of her team bursting through the door and crying her name behind her. Her eyes go wide, however, when she finds a familiar lean body leaning back in a chair next to her bed, long legs sprawled out in front of him and a mop of snarled brown hair falling across his cheeks, his bandana drooping down across his forehead. The signature senbon is absent from Genma’s lips and he’s much paler than Sakura remembers. There are bags under his eyes and his shoulders are tense even under the blanket of sleep.

Something suspiciously similar to a whimper works its way out of Sakura’s mouth as her eyes burn.

Genma jerks awake at the sound, quickly blinking to regain his bearings. His eyes flicker across the room before coming to rest on Sakura’s limp form from where it’s buried under what feels like ten pounds of blankets. Genma shoots up, startled completely awake in an instant.

“Sakura?” His voice is low and scratchy from what Sakura assumes is tiredness and disuse.

Hearing her name coming from Genma lights a fire in her chest. It’s nothing like when Kakashi calls her ‘Sakura-chan’ or when her parents call her ‘Kura’ or ‘Saku’ when she’s had a bad day. The burning in her eyes gets worse and she struggles to speak, though not because of the stitches keeping the skin of her throat from splitting apart.

“Gen...ma-san?”

Genma laughs, and if Sakura’s honest, it sounds a little wet. “Come on, pinky, what’d we say about the ‘san?’”

Sakura cracks a weak smile. To Genma, it’s the best thing he’s seen since he saw her off at the village gates nearly three weeks ago.

“Not ta’ use it cause it… makes you sound old.”

Genma takes her hand in his and grins. “Yeah, kid. We got to work on that. Sides.” He shrugs. “I think we’re close enough now that not using ‘san’ is kinda expected at this point, even for a polite little shit like you.”

Sakura laughs, but it cuts off when the lightning returns, and she winces in pain. Genma notices, and the smile is wiped from his face, though his eyes remain lighter than before.

“Hush,” he soothes her. “Let me get you some water. The nurses said you’d be thirsty.”

“Duh,” Sakura croaks. “Haven’t had water in…” She trails off. “How long have I been out?”

Genma squeezes her hand. “Too long, kid, too long.”

“Sorry.”

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about.”

Sakura frowns. “My fault,” she says around the soreness of her throat. “I engaged… Zabuza… no backup. Shoulda waited for Kaka-sensei. ‘M sorry. Was irresponsible.”

Genma’s faces screws up in an expression Sakura associates with his ‘Kakashi is a bad sensei’ moods. His voice is hard when he speaks.

“It’s not your fault, Sakura. You’re a genin. Hatake should have never left you alone with a rogue-nin on the loose. Never . That was his mistake, not your’s. You protected the client and distracted Zabuza long enough for backup to arrive. You did a phenomenal job. Hatake is at fault here, not you.”

“‘M still sorry. I know… you’re upset.”

Genma shakes his head. “Oh, I’m super pissed. I’m so angry that my hands didn’t stop shaking until a few hours ago.” He laughs, a little crazed sounding. “I wanted to strangle Hatake when I saw him. I am beyond angry, Sakura, but with Hatake, not you. Never you, okay?”

Sakura nods, her throat hurting too much to try and speak again. Genma offers her a small smile, squeezing her hand with one hand and using his other to smooth back her hair from her face and out of her eyes.

“You did good, Sakura. I’m proud of you.”

/\/\/\

Sakura is released from the hospital two days later. The stitches come out four days after that. She has ten days of mandatory rest before she can train, and it’s two weeks before she’s allowed to go on missions again. Sakura hasn’t seen her team since she arrived at the village gates six days ago.

She doesn’t know how to feel about that.

Other than the small moment of time she finds herself thinking of Team Seven when she first wakes up, Sakura doesn’t ask about them until almost eight hours after she comes out of her drug-induced, exhaustion-fueled sleep.

Genma just smoothes her hair and tells her they are fine, an odd look in his eyes.

Sakura doesn’t know how to feel concerning her team at all, anymore. Between the back and forth of their dynamics while in Wave--their clash over the fighting one second and their bonding over injuries and experience the next--she’s lost.

All Sakura knows is that she has Genma. She doesn’t know if he’ll stay or for how long, but in the moment, he’s there, and for now, that’s enough.

/\/\/\

Her parents come back from Iron six days later. Her mother cries when she sees her, bundled up in her favorite light green blanket with a cooled mug of tea sitting on the table in front of her. Her father sets a gentle hand on her head, stroking her hair and pulling her against his chest in a way he hasn’t done since Sakura was a child. He doesn’t cry, but the trembling of his body tells her he wants too.

Sakura wants to hold on. She wants to dig her fingers into the fabric of his shirt and nuzzle into her mother’s shoulders, allow their warmth to bleed into her and make her feel safe in a way she hasn’t since before she graduated. Yet, when her parents hold her close, Sakura stays limp and unmoving in their arms, neither latching on or letting go. She lets her parents hold her, feels their tears damped the skin of her cheeks, and feels numb as time drags on around her.

“We love you, Kura,” her mother whispers as she presses a kiss into Sakura’s hair.

“Forever and always,” her father says as his arms tighten around her shoulders.

Sakura says nothing.

/\/\/\

Her mother says nothing either, when blood seeps through her fingers, staining the weave of her sleeping clothes as she clutches her hand to her chest hours later, but her eyes say it all.

Sakura sits before her, back against the wall of her bedroom, kunai held out in front of her as red steadily drips onto her sheets from the sharpened blade. Her arms shake as she holds the weapon out in front of her, eyes wide and unseeing. She doesn’t even notice that it is her mother’s blood staining her fingers. Instead, she sees Zabuza and the lust for blood in his eyes, the fake hunter-nin’s cool indifference, even as an arm protruded from his chest. Sakura sees Gato and his men, Naruto and Sasuke and Inari and Tsunami and Tazuna.

Enemy and teammates and innocents and client.

The blood mars her pale skin, washing over her fingers and causing her grip on the kunai to falter, then tighten, the bottom edge of the blade digging into the skin on the inner ridge of her hand.

Sakura’s mother says nothing as Sakura stares ahead, unblinking, unseeing as time blurs and drags around her.

It might be minutes or it might be hours before the door to her bedroom bursts open and Genma stumbles towards her through the darkness. She doesn’t notice that her mother has left at all, or that her father has been running through the abandoned streets. Sakura doesn’t notice anything until Genma is kneeling down before her, his hand held out like she’s an injured animal who’s likely to lash out at any second.

“Hey Pinky,” Genma whispers, looking into her eyes. “Your tou-san said you were having some trouble.”

Sakura remains silent, but her grip on the kunai loosens until her knuckles are no longer white.

“There you go,” Genma soothes, voice soft and slow. “I promise, no one’s going to hurt you here. You’re home,  you’re safe. You have your tou-san and your kaa-san and me.”

Sakura blinks slowly, awareness beginning to seep back into her.

“That’s my Pinky. Now can you let go of the kunai for me? You don’t need it, I promise. Feel the bedspread beneath you? The plaster of the wall you’re leaning on? You wouldn’t feel those if you needed to defend yourself, would you?”

Sakura shakes her head.

“See, so you don’t need the kunai. Can you let go of it for me? No one’s gonna hurt you here, so you can let it go. I’ve got you.”

The blade slips from between her fingers, and Genma catches it before it can hit the mattress. Sakura is still shaking as she slumps against the wall of her bedroom. Her eyes begin to droop, the voice of Genma soothing her and the faint chakra of her mother and father behind the door slipping away as the darkness--the same darkness from Wave, from the hospital--creeps towards her. Sakura feels panic bubbling in her stomach, but the darkness takes her before it can become overwhelming.

The last thing she sees is Genma darting forward to catch her, eyes wide and scared as she falls into his arms.

/\/\/\

“Are they going to be able to save her pinky?” Sakura’s voice is soft, almost weak, as she speaks, refusing to look up from where her knees are pulled up to her chest.

“Yeah, kid, your kaa-san is going to be fine. Her pinky too.”

Sakura sighs in relief. Her arms tighten around her legs, pulling them closer against her chest as she closes her eyes and breathes. She can’t believe it. Her mom tries to wake her up from a nightmare about Wave ( fire, blood, Zabuza, burning, pain, fire, sky, tears, pain ), and Sakura repays her by nearly taking off her pinky with the kunai she keeps stashed under her pillow.

She’s temporarily moved into Genma’s as a result, taking over the guest room and a shelf of the medicine cabinet in the single bathroom.

(“You can have more than a shelf, Pinky. Hell if I’ll ever use all that space.”

“Genma, literally all I have is my face wash. It’s fine.”

“What about all that smelly stuff? And the eye-torture device thing?”

“Oh please, that stuff was all in the trash not even a week after I met you.”)

Genma keeps telling her not to feel guilty--she had a normal reaction after a traumatic experience. But through all the haziness of that night, Sakura remembers the look of utter terror that she put in her mother’s eyes; it’s the same look that she had when Zabuza brought his blade to her throat and slashed.

Sakura is guilty, no matter what Genma says. For Kami’s sake, the swipe from her kunai nearly took off her mom’s pinky finger. And now Genma is letting her stay with him, feeding her, and refusing to take anything in return. It’s infuriating in all ways, but Sakura finds that she appreciates it more than she can ever put into words.

“Thank you,” she whispers instead, and she hopes that Genma understands just how much weight those two words carry.

He smiles down at her and ruffles her hair. “I’m here for you, Sakura. I will be as long as I can, okay?”

“Okay.”

Genma slides next to her on the couch, sliding an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close into his side. He’s warm, and Sakura leans into him, soaking in the comfort and heat he provides. Genma just holds her close without saying anything. They sit there together and the world is silent. Sakura wishes it could stay that way.

She doesn’t know when it happens, but she begins to drift off. Her head is comfortably pillowed against Genma’s shoulder, and she’s really not surprised. She’s still sore and exhausted from the entire ordeal in Wave, and she’s taking antibiotics and occasional pain pills to dull the fire that rings her throat. The drugs make her drowsy when she already feels like she’s going to fall asleep at any moment.

Genma stiffens beside her, and Sakura barely registers the movement. Three and a half weeks ago, she probably wouldn’t have noticed at all. But after being constantly alert in enemy territory and fighting someone so much stronger than herself, she finds that she needs to pick up on these subtle quirks. They might one day just save her life.

“Genma,” she says, words slurred with tiredness. “Wha’s goin’--”

Genma shushes her, shifting away from her, leaving Sakura laying on the couch, wrapped in a blanket and half-asleep. He pushes off of the couch, but before he can make it out of the living room, the door to the apartment bursts open.

“The damn freakin nurses wouldn’t let me in and Pinky-chan isn’t at the goddamn hospital anymore, so Shiranui, you’d better tell me where she is or I swear to Kami--”

Sakura stirs from her spot on the couch, blinking to try and clear her blurry sight. She thinks she might be going crazy, or the drugs are really messing with her head.

“Tsubaki-san?” she whispers, not believing what she’s seeing.

The woman pulls short, whirling away from where she’s looking at Genma, eyes frantically scanning the room until they land on Sakura, her head barely peeking out from beneath her blanket. Some of the tension bleeds from her shoulders.

“Oh, Pinky-chan,” she whispers. “I was worried about you. The nurses--”

“Wouldn’t let you in?” Sakura cracks a sleepy smile. “They do that, it’s kinda annoying.” She yawns, stifling it against her hand. “Here I am.”

Genma sighs, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Nurses are like that. They’re just doing their jobs.” He shakes his head. “Come on, Tsubaki. You’re here now.”

Sakura grins. “Might as well join the cuddle party.”

Tsubaki returns with a grin with one of her own. She peers at Genma from the corner of her eye, and he only shrugs in return. They make their way back over to the sofa, where Genma plops down on Sakura’s right and Tsubaki on her left, the two adults caging Sakura in on their side. Genma grabs another blanket and drapes it across their laps.

The three sit together in peaceful quiet. Even Tsubaki is silent, something that Genma has never seen from her. It doesn’t take long for Sakura to drift off again, her breathing soft and even. Tsubaki finds herself slowly stroking Sakura’s hair, something that is more calming to herself than the girl who is curled between her and Genma like she was always meant to be there.

“Is she out?” Tsubaki asks later, once Sakura hasn’t stirred in more than an hour.

“As much as she will be for the night,” Genma says. He slumps into the sofa, body losing all that was holding it up as exhaustion settles in. “I would still wait until she’s in bed to discuss the more… graphic details of what happened.”

Tsubaki peers at him from under her lashes. “Do you know them? The…” The words feel stilted, acidic on her tongue. “... graphic details?”

Genma’s grip on Sakura’s tightens. “Not yet, but I will.”

“Hatake?”

Genma looks flat out murderous. “Lucky he’s not dead. And he will be if he pulls something like this again.”

Tsubaki nods. “Good,” she says. “And Genma.” The use of his actual name catches the man off guard, almost as much as the cold glint to Tsubaki’s green eyes. “If that man ever puts Sakura at risk like that again, don’t hold back. Make it hurt.”

Chapter Text

Sakura holes herself up in the apartment for the next two days. She barely sleeps, hardly talks, and actively avoids everything and everyone. It’s on the third day that Genma puts his foot down.

“Come on, Pinky,” he tells her after they’ve finished the dishes from breakfast.

Sakura looks up and blinks when her light green top is thrown at her face. Her blank capris whap her in the nose before somehow twisting around her head. She scowls as she yanks the clothing away.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Genma says. “Come on, we’re going on a trip.”

“I’m not cleared for training.”

Her voice is thick, scratchy with disuse and a lingering sense of pain. Even though the stitches have been out for nearly a week, her throat is still sore, the skin tender and pink in a scar. The healers have done their best, but between two sets of stitches (one of which had been done hurriedly in the field with an unsteady hand) and the time it took Team Seven to return to Konoha, a thin, jagged scar lays as a silent reminder of the blade that kissed her skin in Wave.

Sakura tries to avoid looking at it when she can. She’s thankful that most of the new clothes she and Genma bought have high collars.

“Obviously.” Genma rolls his eyes. “Since when do I ever just take you training? You have such little faith in me.”

Several retorts flicker across the forefront of Sakura’s mind, but none of them feel quite right. She wants to be snarky, to bite back with all of the sarcastic ferocity that has worn off on her as a result of spending so much time with Genma.

Yet, none of the quips come. She sees the twinkle in Genma's eyes, and without thinking, compares it to Kakashi's--the same aloof shine and dopey half smile--and she falters.

“I have a lot of faith in you, Genma. More than you know.”

Genma goes quiet. His smile slips and he pauses before taking a deep breath. "I'm always here for you, Sakura. I may not be the best sensei out there, but I will always be there if you need me."

Sakura offers a timid smile. "I know."

They lapse into a quick silence, though Genma breaks it fairly quickly with a grin. His teeth flash in the sunlight that billows through the open windows, catching his hair in the slight morning breeze.

“You ready to get your blood pumping again?”

Sakura raises a brow. “... You said no training?”

Genma laughs, though, to Sakura, it sounds more like a cackle. “Ye of little faith.”

An hour and a half later, Sakura is elbow deep in cleaning grease with a pile of kunai next to her. She’s sitting behind the counter of Tsubaki’s weapons shop, leaning into the cabinet behind her. The wood is hard and uncomfortable against her back, but Tsubaki’s legs are warm from where her calf brushes against Sakura’s knee.

“Not so hard,” the woman says from above her. “Glide along the edge of the blade with the cloth. If you use your fingers like that, you’re going to cut yourself.”

Sakura furrows her brows, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth as she focuses solely on the weapon before her.

“There you go,” Tsubaki says.

Sakura’s too lost on the kunai to respond, but she thinks that if she weren’t, she’d smile.

/\/\/\

Sakura is scary in her own right.

Tsubaki is even scarier.

Put them together, and they’re more terrifying than a squad of ANBU. Which is why Genma is out in the middle of Konoha during the lunch rush, going to pick up their favorite foods from two different stands, each of which are on opposite sides of the village.

Genma has only known Sakura for a few months, but he’s known Tsubaki since she was seven years old and he was a chunin. She had long hair back then and was almost as scary as she is now. And Sakura, in the short few months he’s been teaching her, has developed a backbone scarily similar to Tsubaki’s. He often wonders what would have happened if he introduced them to each other sooner. Genma finds he doesn't want to know. 

The woman at the dango stand seems to sense his troubles for she offers him a sympathetic smile and drops an extra sweet in his to-go bag. 

"You look like you need it, shinobi-san," she says. "Whoever can get you into the restaurant district during the lunch hour must be extremely important or unbelievably terrifying."

Genma offers her a tired smile, his eyes appearing almost pained. "Both," he says.

The woman pats his hand. "The best ones often are. Good luck, shinobi-san."

"Thanks."

Genma offers her a bigger smile, taking his bag and disappearing in a puff of smoke before the line behind him grows impatient with him. He reappears in the alley two streets over, three bags clutched in his hands and wallet crying from where it sits within his pocket. He shakes his head and ducking out of the alley, setting back in the direction big Tsubaki's shop.

Genma makes it all of ten feet before he hears a drop that sounds suspiciously similar to someone landing on the ground after jumping from the roof. He knows because he does it all the time. Purposefully heavy footsteps echo behind him. Genma sighs, turning away from the opening of the alley and facing the new arrival.

"Hatake," he says through gritted teeth. "I thought I made myself clear."

Kakashi blinks at him. Or, Genma assumes that he's blinking. The asshole is the type to wink at someone just to piss them off. It's hard to tell with the headband that hides his sharingan.

"You made yourself clear," Kakashi says easily. "I didn't get the chance to express my opinion before you pinned me to the wall and attempted to collapse my trachea."

Genma scoffs. "If it that was my intention, you wouldn't be speaking so much right now." He tilts his head to the side in the way he's seen Sakura do. "Or breathing, for that matter."

Kakashi narrows his eye. "The Hokage spoke with me today."

Genma raises a lazy brow. Kakashi takes it as an invitation to continue.

"He regulated my team to D-ranks and ordered team-based training for the next three months. He also ordered me to shadow other sensei to see other teaching methods."

"Are you asking to follow Sakura and I to training so you can see how a real sensei functions?"

Kakashi’s jaw ticks. “I came here to clear the air about what happened in Wave. You don’t know the whole story.”

“I know enough.”

“You think you do.”

Genma grinds his teeth together as his fingers twist into the paper of the takeout bag. “Go ahead then. Enlighten me so I can understand just what went through your head when you almost got Sakura killed.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Kakashi insists. Genma remains silent, so the man sighs and continues. “Sakura had finished her training. There was no point to her running up and down trees when she could be guarding Tazuna and gaining mission experience. There was such a small chance that Zabuza would arrive that soon after his injury, and I though Sakura could handle it.”

Genma has to hold back from rolling his eyes. “And you didn’t think to, oh I don’t know, up her training instead of sending her off?”

Kakashi looks at him like he’s insane. “Pardon?”

Genma does roll his eyes this time. “You were having them run trees. That’s an incredibly basic skill. Sakura did it on her first try.”

“How do you know—”

“Because it was the first thing I taught her,” Genma interrupts with a glare. “I’d been teaching her for weeks before Wave. You really think I wouldn’t teach my student how to channel their chakra? That’s lesson number one.”

“What would I have had her do then? Walking on water is too advanced.”

“Don’t be daft. Sakura can walk on water using her hands.”

Kakashi raised a slow, lazy brow. “Taught her that too, did you?” he asks, and it sounds like he’s frowning beneath his mask.

“No, she learned that herself after I tossed her in the deep end of the lake and told her she wasn’t allowed to swim back to shore.”

“You did what?”

“Oh, come on,” Genma scoffs. “Like you haven’t pulled stunts like that before. Sakura figured it out in three minutes flat. But that’s not the point here.”

Kakashi looks suddenly ill. “Right. I sent Sakura to the bridge with the client, and I gave her a flare. I could be there in five minutes from our spot in the forest once I saw it.”

“Like a S-class nin couldn’t kill a genin in five minutes.”

“Do you want to hear the rest or not?”

Genma purses his lips and doesn’t pursue yet another flaw in Kakashi’s critical thinking.

“I saw the flare while training with the boys. We started making our way to the bridge, but we were intercepted by Zabuza’s apprentice. The boys assured me that they could take him, so I continued on to Sakura’s location. By the time I’d arrived, she had already engaged Zabuza.” He seems thoughtful for a moment. “She was doing well, too. She pushed him back with explosive tags hidden in her clothes.” His eye turns suddenly sharp. “I had no idea you taught her that.”

Genma remains silent. Kakashi seems disappointed, but continues on anyway.

“I took over the fight with Zabuza. His apprentice intercepted a killing shot, and Zabuza decided the best way to avenge the boy was to kill one of my own students. Sakura was the closest, weakened. The boys arrived just as he…”

Kakashi swallows thickly. Genma feels his stomach churn.

Kakashi moves on, and neither of them mention it.

“Naruto developed a layer of the fox’s chakra. Sasuke unlocked the sharingan. They were fighting like jounin, and when Gato arrived, he killed Zabuza. I killed him and the boys took care of his mercenaries.”

Genma feels bile in the back of his throat. “You say it like this all ended up fine, tied with a pretty little bow, even.”

“It could have been much worse.”

“Or it could not have happened at all!”

Kakashi almost recoils at the sudden raise to Genma’s voice.

“You’re lucky you didn’t lose your team,” Genma hisses. “When I submitted my complaint to the Hokage, that was my recommendation. My follow up was suspension. You are so damn lucky that you were Minato’s student. You get away with so much shit because Hiruzen-sama as a sweet spot for you. Grow up. You trained ANBU. You should know that they’re different from children. Adapt before you get them killed.”

“I know that they’re different. Despite what you think, I’m not a fool.” Kakashi is glaring now, no longer bothering to hide it. “I’m trying to help them. The sooner they learn, the better off they’ll be. You can’t coddle them. What happens when they hit chunin? Jounin? There’s not going to be a sensei looking out for them then.”

“For a genius, you really are stupid.” Kakashi splutters. “You’re not training them. You’re wasting their time with endurance training and spars and D-ranks, then throwing them headfirst into the deep end and saying ‘figure it out.’”

“You literally threw Sakura into a lake.”

“Because I knew she could handle it! And before you say you knew they could handle themselves in Wave, there is a hell of a big difference between having faith that your student can tread water until they figure out how to stand up, while being ten yards away, and tossing them into fights with S-class nins and their apprentices.”

Kakashi is silent for several moments. “I’m sorry that Sakura was hurt.”

Genma has the urge to reach out and wrap his hands around Kakashi’s throat once again. Anger, hot and steady, coils in the pit of his stomach, and his vision flashes an alarming shade of red.

“Sakura nearly died, Hatake,” Genma spits. “If that blade was an inch higher, nothing would have saved her. Nothing. I am telling you this now, and let there be no mistakes: as soon as Sakura makes chunin, I’m taking her on as my official apprentice. She won’t continue to do missions with Team Seven, she won’t continue with your team trainings or check ins. She will be completely off your roster.”

“You don’t have that authority.”

“No, but she will have that option. And we’ve talked about it at length.” Genma doesn’t mention that he’s only brought it up in passing, but Sakura seemed enthusiastic at the idea, so he feels it won’t be an issue. “Get Sakura to chunin alive, and I’ll take it from there. You fuck up one more time, though, and you’re done. I’ll make sure of it.”

/\/\/\

By the time Genma makes it back to Tsubaki’s shop, the food is cold. Sakura looks up from her spot on the floor behind the counter, a smile on her face and grease smeared across her forehead, but she frowns as soon as she sees him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Genma says, setting the bag on the counter.

When Sakura just stares at him, his shoulders droop. “I had a run in with a colleague.”

“You saw Kakashi-sensei, didn’t you?”

Genma ruffles her hair. “Eat your dango.”

Sakura perks up. He picks the bag back up, hopping the counter and plopping down beside Sakura on the floor. He leans back, their knees brushing together as Sakura digs through her lunch, foregoing her tempura for the dango.

“Where’s Tsubaki?”

“Beating up a customer out back.”

Genma raises a brow.

Sakura shrugs. “He tried to flirt with me.”

The brow goes higher.

“I think she’s just threatening him, but I couldn’t tell.”

Genma laughs.

Tsubaki comes back ten minutes later, hair more ruffled than usual and a grin on her lips. “He won’t bother you again, pinky.”

Sakura tilts her head to the side. “He was kind of cute, though.”

Tsubaki shakes her head. “You’re way out of his league,” she says.

“You’re too young to date,” Genma counters.

Sakura sticks her tongue out. “I was going to say that he seemed like an asshole, but now I think I’ll seek him out just to spite you.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Wanna bet?”

“You’re way too young to date!”

“Bite me!”

Tsubaki pops a piece of dango in her mouth and grins as she watches them.

/\/\/\

Sakura goes to her first team training four days later.

She’s dressed in the practice clothes she purchased before Wave—loose pants that she ties at her ankles with bandages and a red tank top that hugs her chest and torso—and although the snug fit of her top makes her he slightest bit self-conscious, she’s glad that it gives her nothing to fiddle with.

Sakura’s nervous, and she’s not sure why.

Maybe, she thinks, it’s because her team didn’t bother to visit her. Sasuke, she expected to ignore her. But Naruto? She can’t wrap her head around the fact that he didn’t come to at least say hello.

Before Wave, Sakura was always the first one to arrive at the training grounds, even though Genma told her that it was fine if she was late because Kakashi-sensei was wasting her time anyway. Now, though, when Sakura arrives on the bridge where the pug told her to meet her team, even Kakashi is there before she is.

He raises a brow when she arrives. Sakura just shrugs.

“Sakura-chan!!”

Sakura finds herself pinned to the bridge, a lump of orange pinning her hips and legs to the bridge and hugging her until she can’t breathe. For a moment, Sakura can feel the needle and thread stitching her skin together, feel the humid press of the fog, hear the crash of the waves—

Naruto is on his back and Sakura has rolled to the side, kunai in her grasp.

Her team gapes at her. Sakura fumbles.

“Sorry,” she tells Naruto, who is staring at her like she’s grown a second head.

“No worries,” Naruto has the sense to say.

Sakura tucks the kunai back in her holster and makes her way to her feet, watching as Kakashi picks Naruto up from his armpits.

“Well then,” Kakashi says cheerfully, though his eyes linger on Sakura’s form, “now that the reunion is out of the way. I have some fun news!”

“What is it?!” Naruto is bouncing up and down, the encounter from moments before already pushed to the back of his mind. “Do we have another mission? Are we going to learn some super awesome new jutsu? Do we get to meet some super cool shinobi—”

“Shut up, dobe!” Sasuke elbows the blond in the ribs, knocking the breath out of him. “If you’d jus shut up, he’d tell us.”

Kakashi coos. “Not that I condone violence amongst teammates, but Sasuke does have a point, Naruto.”

The boy scowls, looking away.

“But back to my good news…” Kakashi pulls three envelops from his vest. “I have decided to recommend you for the chunin exams!”

“Recommend?”

“Yeah!! Awesome, sensei, awesome!”

“What?”

Kakashi smiles lazily from beneath his mask. “Hokage-sama took some convincing, but it will be wonderful team bonding for us, so he agreed.”

“Isn’t the point of becoming chunin to work on different teams?” Sasuke asks.

“Ah, Sasuke, so ready to get rid of us?” Kakashi shakes his head. “A lot of thought goes into forming genin squads. Although some chunin join new teams, many of them continue to work as a squad with their genin teammates.” His eye darts to Sakura. “They’ve trained together, after all, and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a shame to put that all to waste.”

Sakura’s fingers dig into the underside of her arm. She looks down and away, not meeting her teammate’s eyes. Neither of them seem to notice.

“Now,” Kakashi continues, “I’ve only recommended you for the exam. It’s up to you whether you take it or not. I won’t keep you guys so you can think over it. Bye now!”

And he’s gone, leaving the three members or team seven standing in a circle on the bridge with varying expressions of surprise.

“Now this is what I call awesome, dattebayo!”

Sakura has turned tail and fled before Naruto’s finished. She weaves in and out of the streets as quick as she can manage, thinking only of getting to Genma, whether it be at his apartment or T&I where he’s supposed to be working. She’ll go to Hayate’s or Raido’s if she needs to.

However, she barely makes it through the shopping district before someone grabs her wrist,

Sakura whirls around, panic in her throat, hand in a fist, and barely stops herself from punching Sasuke in the nose. His eyes narrow.

“What are you doing?!” Sakura hisses as Sasuke bats her fist away and drags her into a nearby alleyway.

Sasuke lets go of her wrist, which Sakura notes is red and throbbing, and glares at her, tucking his hand in his pockets.

“What’s wrong with you, running away like that?” he asks.

Sakura’s chakra flares in anger. “We’re not ready for those exams,” she says.

“I am,” Sasuke says, chin raised. “The dobe can probably get by on luck and stupidity. All I’m worried about is you.”

Sakura stiffens.

“You’ve been MIA since we got back from Wave. Naruto went to see you in the hospital, but you weren’t there and the nurses said that you left with some shinobi with a bandana. Kakashi will hardly talk about Wave or where you’ve been, and you’re fidgety and on edge all the time. You flipped Naruto and drew a kunai on him, for Kami’s sake.”

“And you do you care?” Sakura asks, voice tight.

“Because according to my clan, all three of us have to enter the chunin exam to be allowed to participate,” Sasuke says coolly. “And I need to know if you can do it without freaking out and failing us.”

Sakura laughs bitterly. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”

Sasuke glares at her. “I’m not going to be held back because my teammate is a scare little girl who can’t move on from her first C-rank.”

Sakura doesn’t think. She decks him in the mouth. “What a teammate you are,” she bites. “in case you hadn’t noticed, our mission was bumped to an A-rank, and we almost didn’t make it out of there alive.”

Sasuke glares at her, wiping the blood from his lips. “That’s the life of a shinobi.”

“Not as a genin.”

“Oh, get over yourself!” It’s the closest Sasuke has ever come to yelling. “I don’t know why you haven’t been transferred yet, but the sooner we pass the exams, the sooner Team Seven is dissolved into teams better suited to each of us. You can go be an Academy sensei or whatever, but only if you pass this exam, so are you going to enter or not?”

The two glare at each other, neither saying another word. Sakura clenches and unclenches her first, sucking in breaths through her teeth until her heart rate has receded to a semi-acceptable range.

“I’ll enter,” Sakura eventually spits. “Even if it’s just to get rid of you.”

“Good,” Sasuke says, and then he’s gone.

/\/\/\

Sakura stumbles into T&I a little more than forty-five minutes later. Her head is spinning, breaths coming in short, quick gasps that leave her dizzy and aching for air as her pulse thunders inside her ears.

The chunin at the desk stares at her in shock.

“Uh… Miss? Can I help you?”

Sakura finds that her tongue feels thick and heavy, refusing to move and make the name she wants it to make.

“Miss, I’m sorry, but unless you have business here, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Sakura feels tears poke the corners of her eyes.

“Don’t cry! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! Um… Is there… Is there, uh, someone I can call for you? A sensei or teammate?”

Sakura shrinks in on herself, looking around, and shaking as she searches for an exit. She shouldn’t have come here. Genma doesn’t need to be bothered and she’s not supposed to be there and she needs to learn how to get a grip, because Sasuke is right and if she’s so messed up after one mission gone wrong, how is she ever going to be a proper shinobi or advance so she and Genma can—

“Takashi, want to tell me why there’s a petrified genin having a panic attack in the lobby?”

“Anko-senpai! I don’t know! She just stumbled in and she’s not responding!”

“Bah, genin these days.”

Sakura looks up, the voices around her muffles, although she can still tell that a new voice has joined the mix. She’s surprised to see a woman walking towards her, hands on her hips and scowl twisting her lips.

“Look, kid, why don’t I get Takashi here to walk you to the hospital okay? You can calm down, get some help, go home…” The woman trails off when she finally gets a look at Sakura’s face. She goes slightly pale. “Oh fuck.”

Takashi—the chunin, Sakura figures—whimpers. “What’s that supposed to mean?! Is she a clan heir or something?”

The woman takes off her overcoat, lowering herself into a crouch. “Hey, there,” she says, voice suddenly soft. “My name’s Anko. You’re Sakura, right?”

Sakura nods. The woman smiles at her.

“You’re shaking pretty bad, yeah? So I’m just going to put my coat around your shoulders while Takashi over there goes and gets Genma for you. Does that sound okay?”

Sakura shakes her head. “Don’t need to bother him… I’ll… I’ll just go… go and—”

“You’re not bothering anybody,” Anko soothes. “I promise. If anything, Genma will be more upset that you were here and then left without finding him. Can I go ahead and give you my coat now?”

Sakura hesitates for a moment before nodding. Anko stands slowly, draping her coat over Sakura’s trembling, thin shoulders. She shoots a look over her shoulder.

“Takashi, go get Genma. Tell him to meet me in his office.”

“But he’s in the middle of—”

“I don’t care!” Anko snarls. “Go get him. Trust me, you don’t want to see what he’ll do if you don’t.”

Sakura loses track of everything after that. The woman named Anko puts a gentle hand on her shoulder, ignoring her jump, and leads her up the stairs and to the fourth floor, where Sakura knows Genma’s office is. Anko sets her down on the couch in the corner, sitting on the floor in front of her a rambling about a woman who she met at the dango stand the other day. Sakura isn’t sure how much time passes, only that it isn’t long, before the door to the office bursts open, slamming into the wall and leaving a large dent in the plaster.

Sakura jumps in her seat, flinching violently as Anko rushes to soothe her, though not before shooting a glare at the new arrival. Sakura glances over, tears springing to her eyes when she sees that it is Genma standing in the door, wide eyed and winded as he rushes forward.

“Sakura, what happened?”

Genma kneels down in front of her, shoulder brushing Anko’s. Sakura just shakes her head, launching off of the couch and into his arms. Genma frowns, arms circling around the girl’s shoulders, one resting on her shoulder blades and the other on the back of her head. He glances at Anko, who merely shrugs.

“I heard a commotion in the lobby. Went to investigate and found Takashi asking a panicking genin if he could call someone for her. I recognized her from that picture on your desk and sent him to go get you.”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Anko gives his shoulder a brief pat. “Take her home. I’ll deal with Ibiki.”

Genma rubs soothing circles on Sakura’s back as Anko leaves the room. He holds her close, letting her cry and gasp, wearing herself out. Her gasps begin to slow into normal breathing several minutes later, and the tears stop dampening his shoulder. Genma scoops the girl into his arms and lowers them onto the couch.

“What happened?”

Sakura’s fingers dig into his flak jacket as she speaks. Genma’s blood runs cold in his veins.

“He did what?”

“Kakashi-sensei recommended us for the chunin exams.”

Genma scoots back so that he can look at Sakura in the eye. “You don’t have to take them. Just because you were recommended doesn’t mean you’ve been entered. It’s your choice, and your’s alone.”

“It’s not though.” Sakura’s voice cracks, and Genma’s heart sinks into his stomach. “I ran off after he told us, but Sasuke followed me.” Genma frowns. “He cornered me and told me that if a team is going to compete, all three teams have to enter. I can’t… Genma, I can’t let them down like that.”

“Yes, you can,” Genma says. “Your teammates can wait another six months to take the exam if it means you have time to recover from Wave. You almost died, Sakura, and pushing you into an exam this fast is wrong. You haven’t done any training since Wave, yes, but more importantly, you need time to get better.”

“I shouldn’t be this messed up in the first place.”

“You are not messed up,” Genma promises. “You went through a traumatic experience. Not being okay for a little bit is normal. You need time to head normally, without pushing this all away. That’s how shinobi end up with mental breakdowns and retire at sixteen. There is nothing wrong with not being okay, or taking the time to heal.”

“I don’t have time,” Sakura says, and the tears are back. She sniffs, stubbornly wiping at her eyes. “And it doesn’t matter. I already said I’ll enter.”

Genma’s breath is knocked out of him. All of his fears come crashing down, and though he tries to hold them back as Sakura looks up at him, tears tracing their way down her cheeks, they consume him. He swallows, pulling Sakura into a crushing hug. He holds her there, not letting go. She clings onto him with an equal sense of urgency.

“Alright,” he whispers into her hair. “Alright. The exams start in two weeks. I’m going to whip you into shape. When we’re not training, we’re studying. When we’re not studying, we’re planning. And Sakura,” he pulls back, looking at Sakura in the eyes. “When we’re not planning, we’re working on healing.”

The girl nods. Her grip on him tightens as she dives back into his hug. “Thank you.”

“You have nothing to thank me for.”

They stay like that, folded into each other on Genma’s couch in T&I headquarters, for a long time. When they finally detangle themselves, Sakura is exhausted, a headache growing in the base of her neck, and she thinks she might sleep for the rest of the day.

“Alright,” Genma says, fully serious now. Sakura feels a sinking in her gut at his tone. “One lesson today before you’re off to bed, then we start bright and early tomorrow.” Sakura nods. “Rule number one of the chunin exams: fly under the radar for as long as possible. Understood?” Sakura nods once more. “Good.”