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It was raining and Sakura was crying. Neither of these things were an unusual occurrence.

“Aw look at her! She’s at it again.”

“What’s the matter, huh crybaby? Wha’chu cryin’ for?”

“Ew! Look at all the snot on her face! How ugly.”

“Makes her look even uglier than normal-”

“-and I didn’t even know that was possible.”

The taunts and cruel, childish laughter were not unusual either. Unfortunately for one Haruno Sakura, age six, instances like this occurred only too frequently. She sniffled and tightened her grip around her legs, trying to shield her face behind her bent knees.

“Tryin’ to hide from us, huh? Not that you’ll have much luck with a forehead like that.”

“I bet they can see it all the way in Suna it’s so big!”

“It would make a great billboard though, wouldn’t it Snot-Face? Maybe you should try to rent it out to businesses an’ try to make some money-”

“Hey!”

A boy’s voice and the sound of running footsteps. Sakura whimpered and curled up even smaller. Boys had never gone out of their way to pick on her before the way Ami, Mei, and Natsuko did, but there was a first time for everything. She hoped he’d only come to take the other girls away so then maybe she could escape, instead of to join in; the other girls pulled her hair and threw sticks and rocks at her sometimes but boys hit.

“Leave her alone you big, stupid bullies!”

Sakura blinked. He was defending her? Her? That had never, ever happened before. She chanced a peek over the tops of her knees to try to locate the speaker, since he sounded much closer to them than he had when he’d first yelled. What she saw made her blink again.

A boy her age stood between her and her tormentors, feet braced, narrow shoulders back, and hands curled into small, angry fists. His back was to her as he faced down Ami and her gang, so she couldn’t see his face, but he was wearing a big white t-shirt that dwarfed his skinny frame, and he had the brightest, yellowest hair she’d ever seen. He was barely bigger then she was.

The older girls recoiled from the boy like he was infested with something much worse than cooties, pretty faces twisted in disgust. “What’s it matter to you, monster-brat?” Ami demanded, narrowed brown eyes glaring daggers into the boy. “You her friend or something? That figures, that the two biggest losers in the village would stick together like that.”

Sakura cringed at the insult but the boy didn’t move. “We ain’t friends, I don’t even know her,” Sakura’s defender shot back without a hint of embarrassment. “But I’m not gonna let you pick on her just cause a that. There’s three a you and only one a her. ‘s not fair.”

“What, and you think you’re enough to even the odds?” Ami sneered.

“That’s right,” the boy responded baldly and Sakura looked up at him with awe in her eyes. It was like he wasn’t scared of them at all! “Sos if you wanna keep pickin’ on her, yer gonna have to get through me too.”

Sakura gaped. He was going to fight them! For her, and he didn’t even know her, not even a little. Ami and her friends looked just as surprised and a good deal more wary at the prospect of an actual fight; trash talking and kicking around weaker targets was one thing, but scraped knuckles, broken nails, and muddy clothes were another. For all their bragging and posturing, they were still just seven-year old girls who barely knew which end of a kunai to hold when you threw it. Besides, this boy might be a loser but he was still a boy and boys hit hard.

Ami shook off her discomfiture (but not quite fast enough for Sakura to miss it) and tossed her glossy red hair over one shoulder. “Hmph, well whatever. We’ve got better things to do then hang around with the likes of you anyway. C’mon Mei. Natsuko.”

And with that, all three girls put their noses in the air and tried to sashay away with dignity like they’d seen older girls do, with an exaggerated swing of what little hips they had; mostly it just had the effect of making them look like waddling ducks and Sakura let out a breathless giggle in spite of herself, which made the boy turn around to look at her, letting the little girl get a good look at her savior’s face for the first time.

His skin was tan, his hair was yellow, and he had the bluest eyes in the whole world, or at least that’s how it seemed to Sakura at the time. His whiskered face was round and curious as he peered down at her still huddled on the ground. “Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you did they?”

It took a few seconds too long for her to realize that he was asking because he actually wanted an answer. “N-no,” she managed, her normally high voice scratchy and hoarse from crying. “They didn’t hit me or anything, not today anyway. They just called me names.”

The boy grinned at her, wide and fox-like, making his chubby cheeks bunch and revealing brilliant white teeth. “Thas good! I’m glad you ain’t hurt, otherwise I’d have to go after ‘em an’ beat ‘em up. Which I would! But fighting girls is hard cause they’re mean an’ they don’t fight fair an’ they bite.” Before Sakura had the chance to do little more than stare at him, he thrust one grubby hand out to her, making her flinch back at the sudden movement. “My name’s Uzumaki Naruto! Wha’s yours?”

She looked at his hand, then up at him and his expectant, friendly expression, then back at his hand before gingerly reaching out and taking it, letting him pull her roughly to her feet, making her stumble. “H-Haruno Sakura,” she answered after regaining her balance.

Standing up, she could tell he really wasn’t very big at all; they were actually the same height. This only made her respect for his bravery grow all the more. “I-I’m Haruno Sakura, and um,” she glanced shyly away from him, staring down at their sandaled feet like she’d never seen them before. “T-Thank you. For saving me.”

“No problem,” Naruto deflected cheerfully, reaching up to thread his fingers together behind his head, still grinning like there was no tomorrow. “Couldn’t just keep walkin’ right? ‘m sure lotsa people woulda stopped if they came by ‘fore I did.”

“Not really,” the girl mumbled darkly, thinking of the blonde Yamanka girl in her class who had passed by not ten minutes before Naruto had and simply kept walking, pretending she didn’t see anything. “No one ever does.”

“Well then I guess I’m just a sucker for a pretty face then, ain’t I?”

Sakura’s head snapped up, cheeks burning at the compliment. “P-p-pretty?”

“Yep,” the boy confirmed. “See a pretty girl in trouble, you can’t help but wanna stop an’ help ‘er. I’m pretty sure it’s a guy thing, so you wouldn’t understand.”

She scanned his face for guile and strained her ears to hear the mocking edge that must be in his voice, but found nothing to indicate that he believed the words he’d just spoken to be anything other than the truth. “You really think I’m…pretty?” she whispered, trying vainly to extinguish the warm glow of happiness that spread through her chest at his words, lest she be left heartbroken when he inevitably said something to take the feeling away.

“O’ course, anyone with eyes would agree with me. Although,” his smile fell and he leaned in close to her face, scrunching up his nose so his eyes almost squinted shut as he considered her from the new angle. “You’d be even prettier without your hair in your eyes like that.”

He reached up to push her fringe back up into her hairline, uncovering her astonished jade gaze fully. The fox-like grin returned in full force. “There! Much better! Your hair and your eyes go together so nice, you shouldn’t cover ‘em up if ya don’t gotta.”

“B-But,” she stammered, face still bright red. “My forehead…”

“Yeah, ya got one,” Naruto nodded. “What about it?”

“Nothing,” she said quickly, not wanting to ruin his image of her by drawing his attention to her worst feature.

But. He’d said she was pretty. He didn’t think her obnoxiously pink hair or weirdly uncommon eyes were ugly; he’d said they looked nice together, like nothing was strange or off-putting about her at all, even though her forehead was too wide and she looked like a drowned rat from sitting out in the constant rain. She glowed with happiness and couldn’t stop her own smile from spreading across her face at the unaccustomed warmth in her chest. “Never mind. T-Thank you. Again.”

“Don’t mention it,” he told her as he turned away, removing one hand from his nape to wave good-bye as he started back down the path he’d been walking previously, feet smacking loudly through puddles as he went. “See ya around.”

“Wait!” she blurted before she could stop herself, hurrying after him before he could get too far away. “W-Where were you going?”

“To the practice grounds outside the school,” he answered in obvious confusion. “Why?”

“W-Why are you going there? T-Today is an off day, there’s no class.”

“I know, but I wanted to practice my kunai throwing.” He patted the battered holster hooked into his sagging waistband proudly. “I found this out in the woods; think someone musta left it behind or dropped it coming back from a mission or somethin’. I’m way behind in class, so I figured I should get in all the practice I can so I can catch up. Cause I’m gonna be the Hokage someday ya know, sos I gotta know this sorta stuff, otherwise none a the other kages’ll take me serious ya know?”

He said it so casually, like it was a foregone conclusion, that Sakura couldn’t help but believe him just a little. “T-That makes sense,” she told him honestly; she couldn’t imagine how embarrassing it would be to be Hokage and not know how to throw a kunai properly. She wasn’t too great at it herself actually…“Would you…” she swallowed hard and forced herself to continue. “W-Would you like some, some company?” There, she said it, no turning back now.

He blinked at her, uncomprehending. “Huh?”

He was going to make her say it again. She took a deep breath and plowed on. “W-Would you…like some, some company? I’m. I’m not very good at kunai throwing either, s-s-so, m-maybe we could practice, um, together? If you want?”

He just kept staring at her. “You wanna practice with me?”

“Um, yes?” She wasn’t sure why he was looking at her like she’d just grown a second head and she started babbling, nerves getting the better of her. Maybe he just didn’t want her to come? “I would, really, because like I said, I’m not very good at it, and-and I want to do well on the test, cause it’s coming up soon, and I always pass the written tests but I’m terrible at practicals, and maybe if I practice more I’ll do better, like studying, except with kunai. E-Except I don’t have my own kunai, so-so we’d have to share yours, b-but if you don’t want to, that’s fine, I understand I’ll just go home-” She turned to run, face burning again, but with shame now, tears welling up and calling herself all sorts of names in her mind for making a fool of herself in front of this boy that had helped her in a way no one else had, who had stood up for her, who had been nice to-

He grabbed her before she could bolt, warm hand locked around one of her knobby wrists. He was still staring at her, eyes huge and very blue next to his tanned face and soaked yellow hair. “You…You wanna hang out with me?” His voice was so small, and even though she’d only known him for a handful of minutes, it already sounded wrong to her ears; Naruto should never sound so unsure. “Like. Alone? With me? On purpose?”

“Um.” Was it really such a strange request? “Yes? I-If you don’t mind.”

“‘Mind’?” he repeated incredulously, the beginnings of another blinding smile starting to split his cheeks. “Mind? Of course not! You can definitely hang out with me! We can practice for as long as you want! We can help each other out, and you can totally share my kunai if you wanna, an’-an’-an’ maybe we can talk to each other some more and learn about each other and stuff and then maybe-” he paused, as if the idea was too outrageous to contemplate. “Maybe we can do it again. Practice. Together. You an’ me, ya know?”

“S-Sure,” she assured him. “I-I’d like that.”

He beamed at her anew, and this time his smile was so wide and bright and full of joy that his eyes closed into happy crescents under the force of it, and Sakura was left helpless to do anything other than smile her very best smile back.

-

After that they met up every day after school to practice kunai throwing for the practicals test coming up in two weeks time. If they passed, they’d be allowed to go on to the next level in weapons which was shuriken. Kunai were interesting, but they were really just like multi-edged knives; shuriken were something only real ninja used and everyone in their school was excited to try them out, the both of them included.

They were in separate classes, so they only got to see each other at their daily practice sessions. Sakura was both sad and secretly a little relieved by that fact. Naruto was sweet and nice and he never, ever yelled at her or called her names, and she desperately wanted them to be real friends who did stuff together outside of school but she was also terrified of messing it up; what if he changed his mind? He was the only person her age that’d ever looked twice at her and she didn’t want him to stop liking her. She’d never had a friend before, so she had no idea how to make one. But she was determined: Naruto was going to be her first friend and she would do anything to make that happen.

Sakura had thought she was bad at kunai throwing, but Naruto was abysmal. The kunai he’d found that they used to practice with were definitely real weapons, sharp-edged and made of steel and weighted differently than the carefully dulled aluminum ones they used at the Academy which were only sharp enough to cut through wooden targets and not flesh.

They were also heavy, and when they first started it only took less than twenty minutes of repeated throwing for Sakura’s arms to get achy and tired, and at first she thought that must be the reason he was so terrible at it. However, by their third time meeting up to practice (making sure to wait until all the others kids had gone home so they’d have the field to themselves), while she was taking a break to drink some water and watch Naruto throw while she rested her arms (she’d managed a whole half hour this time!), it became obvious what the real problem was.

Sakura watched with a growing frown as kunai after kunai either barely glanced the edge of the target or bounced off the post completely. And it was no wonder; his technique was all wrong!

He was gripping the blade instead of the hilt (gingerly, so he didn’t cut himself on accident), and throwing over-handed like he was throwing a knife, a blade with one sharpened edge instead of four. Knife-throwing was the first thing all ninja-in-training were taught when they entered the Academy, which meant nearly every child in Konoha could hit the bulls-eye of a target with deadly accuracy every time they threw by the time they were six.

Sakura chewed her lower lip as she watched him miss again and again and again, debating with herself silently as she tried to figure out what she should do. She could tell him he was doing it wrong but what if he got mad? She didn’t want him to be mad at her! But he just kept getting more and more frustrated, and it hurt her to watch him keep failing, and when she saw the sheen of tears starting to gather in his blue eyes her heart lurched sickeningly and she just couldn’t take it anymore.

“N-Naruto?” she called quietly, making him stop and look at her. She focused her gaze on his nose, still not confident enough to make eye contact. “Um. Y-You’re doing it wrong. I-I mean, you’re throwing it like a knife, which is, uh, w-wrong.”

“Hah?” he down at the kunai still gripped in his hand, brow furrowing. “But it is like a knife iddinnit?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, forcing her voice not to shake as she took a tentative step toward him. “B…But not exactly. You’re supposed to grip it by the hilt and throw it side-to-side instead of end-over-end like a knife. C…Cause it’s not, um, built the same?”

“Oh.” He kept staring at the weapon, face scrunching up in confusion and eyes squinting nearly shut as he tipped his head to one side. He did that a lot. Sakura secretly thought it was kind of cute, like a curious cat. “I guess that makes sense. Never thought about it like that.”

“D…Didn’t Iruka-sensei show you how to do it?” she questioned curiously, chancing another step forward, glad he hadn’t yelled when she’d corrected him. “He made sure we all knew how to do the motions properly before he ever let us actually hold one. He must have made us do it a hundred times before he was satisfied.”

“Don’t got Iruka-sensei,” Naruto told her with a shrug. “We got this really mean old guy who looks like a ferret, Mizuki-sensei.”

“Mizuki-sensei?” She blinked at him. “I’ve seen him in the hallways sometimes. He’s not that old, not anymore than Iruka-sensei.”

“’s got white hair. Mean he’s old, like old man Hokage.” He sounded very sure about that.

Sakura decided not to push it. “Okay, well, then didn’t he show you how to do it right?”

“No,” he told her, to her obvious surprise. “He showed everybody else, but not me.”

“Why?”

“Dunno. He shows everyone lots a stuff he doesn’t show me, an’ when I ask, he pretends he can’t hear me, or he tells me to get lost, so I stopped asking.”

He said it was no big deal, so nonchalant that it made Sakura forget her manners and gape at him. “But he’s not supposed to do that! He’s a teacher; he’s supposed to teach you!”

He was staring at her now, like she was the one who’d just said something crazy. “Well…yeah I guess, but lots a grown-ups treat me like that, so I just got used to it.”

“But that’s not right!” she insisted, starting to get properly angry. “You should tell on him! Why don’t you tell your parents, I’m sure they-” But she knew right away that she’d said something wrong, because Naruto’s face immediately went shadowed and closed-off, and he turned away from her to direct his gaze to the hard-packed dirt under his ratty sandals instead.

“N-Naruto?” she prompted hesitantly, shrinking back in on herself at his uncharacteristic behavior. She’d made him mad after all! “I-I’m sorry, I-I-I didn’t mean-”

“Don’t got any,” he mumbled to his feet.

“W-What?”

“I said I don’t got any,” he repeated, louder this time, though he still didn’t look up from the ground. “Parents. I don’t have ‘em. The demon-fox killed them. I live at the orphanage down the street.”

Sakura wasn’t sure, but she thought that maybe this was what it felt like to be punched really hard in the stomach. Her tummy turned over like when she was going to be sick, and her skin flashed hot and cold one after the other really fast. It had never occurred to her that he didn’t have any parents, though lots of kids at the school didn’t, since they were usually the children of shinobi and lots of them had either been killed in battle or by the demon-fox attack. Even Iruka-sensei didn’t have parents cause of that monster. She didn’t even want to think about how terrible it would be to not have her mom and dad, the very idea made her eyes itch and her nose clog up with impending tears. She felt awful.

“Oh Naruto, I’m so sorry!” She flung her arms around his skinny shoulders before she knew what she was doing, not noticing the way he went stiff all over in shock at the action. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad! I’m so, so sorry, please don’t be mad at me, but definitely don’t be sad cause sad’s worse!”

Naruto was still busy reeling at the entirely unfamiliar feeling of someone touching him (willingly!) without the intent to hurt him and it took him a minute to unfreeze but when he did he immediately returned the favor, throwing his arms around her middle and squeezing her back twice as hard. “’s okay Sakura-chan,” he assured her, voice muffled against her shoulder. “I don’t remember ‘em, they died real soon after I was born or somethin’, so ‘s okay ya know? I ain’t sad, I just…” he hesitated, unsure, but decided it was better she knew so she didn’t think he was upset with her. “I thought maybe you’d make fun a me, ya know, cause I don’t got no parents.”

“What?!” she gasped, hurt, drawing back to look him the face but not letting go of him. “I would never!” How could he ever think she would do something so mean?

“I know you wouldn’t!” he promised her fervently, clutching fistfuls of her baggy black shirt in his hands, suddenly terrified she would leave and never come back. “I know that Sakura-chan! It’s just...the other kids do, sometimes, ya know, so I thought…I dunno what I thought, it was stupid, but I know you would never do that, not ever! I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay,” she hastened to assure him, relieved. “It’s alright. I’m just glad you’re not mad at me for saying something so dumb.”

“It wasn’t dumb!” he denied. “And I could never be mad at you Sakura-chan! Never, ever!”

“Oh…okay.” She smiled to herself a little, happy for some reason she couldn’t clearly explain. “Um,” she plucked at his sleeve bashfully. “Y-You called me Sakura-chan.” He’d never done that before, even though they’d already met to practice a few times before.

“Huh?” He thought about it for a second. “Oh, yeah I did! I guess I wasn’t thinking. Do you mind?”

“No!” She shook her head quickly, making the ends of her long hair flip around, not wanting him to take it back. “No, I-I don’t mind. I like it. Do you…Do you mind if I call you Naruto-kun?” She felt light-headed, amazed at her own daring.

His answering grin was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. “Of course not! But hey, hey, Sakura-chan, do you think you could teach me the right way to throw a kunai now? If I practice real hard, maybe I’ll be able to pass the test next week and move up with everybody else! That’d make old ferret-face real mad, ya know?”

“Yes.” She grinned back, deciding to carefully ignore the part of her that said good girls shouldn’t feel pleased at the thought of getting revenge on someone, even someone mean. It was just this once after all, she was still a good girl like her mama said; she just wouldn’t tell mama about it, that’s all. “Yes I can definitely do that Naruto-kun.”

-

They both passed, and surprisingly enough Sakura managed to come out with the third highest score out of twenty, and the only two who did better than her were the two Uchiha clan kids in the class and everybody knew that basically meant she’d sort of come in first place since the Uchiha kids were already practically perfect-ninja-robots anyway. To say she was shocked would be an understatement, but she was also pleased and maybe just a little bit proud of herself.

Out of the ten kunai she’d thrown, five had hit the bulls-eye, four had hit the center of the target, and only one had gone wild, and that had been the first one she’d thrown; in her nervousness about taking the test with everyone watching she’d forgotten the school kunai were much lighter than the ones she and Naruto used and thrown it much too hard, so that it bypassed the post completely.

She’d been embarrassed but she’d pretended very hard that Naruto was there cheering her on instead of her classmates snickering at her blunder and she’d calmed down considerably. They’d stopped laughing after her third kunai had hit dead on target.

Naruto was effusive with his praise when they met up at the training grounds after school like usual and she hid her happy flush behind her long fringe. “It wasn’t so hard,” she demurred. “Once I made myself focus the rest was easy. How did you do?”

“I passed too, but barely,” he informed her, disgust evident in his tone. “Dead-last like always, but at least all my kunai hit the target; you shoulda seen some a the others! The guy who came in just above me, this really lazy Nara kid, Shika-something, only four of his hit the post, ya know, and the rest bounced off into the dirt. He didn’t even seem to care the beady-eyed, good-for-nothin’-”

“Naruto-kun,” she interrupted with a frown. “Did you say only four of his kunai hit the target but he still came in above you, even though all of yours hit?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed easily, nonplussed. “Three hit the bulls-eye, five got real close, and the last two barely made it in.” He brightened, baring sharp teeth in his customary too-wide grin. “But man you shoulda seen Mizuki-sensei’s face when that first one hit bulls-eye! I thought he was gonna keel over right there he was so surprised!” He laughed gleefully to himself at the memory, seeming not to notice Sakura’s mounting concern.

“Yes but Naruto-kun that can’t be right,” she insisted. “If all your kunai hit you should have placed in the top five at least!”

He shrugged, not understanding why it mattered. “Well I passed, right? So who cares?”

I do, whispered a little voice in Sakura’s head, but she pushed it away firmly. If Naruto didn’t think it was a big deal, then it probably wasn’t. She was just making a big deal out of nothing; he was right, they’d both passed, so what was there to complain about?

She ignored the uneasy feeling in her tummy with the ease of long practice and grinned back at the boy. “You’re right, I guess it doesn’t matter. But this means that’s it for kunai-” Naruto abruptly went silent. “-and now we get to move on to shuriken, like real ninja!”

Naruto’s face fell, round, whiskered cheeks drooping and even his sunshiney hair seemed to lose some of its customary glow. “Yeah…no more kunai…”

She eyed him, worried. She hated it when Naruto frowned because it usually meant something was really, really wrong. “N-Naruto-kun?” she asked timidly, uncertain as to the reason behind his sudden change in mood. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’,” he lied, tracing patterns in the dirt with the edge of his sandal. “’s just…I guess, now that we don’t need to practice anymore, you won’t wanna…ya know…meet me here anymore…”

Sakura felt like she’d swallowed a rock. He was right; there was no reason for them to keep meeting up after school if it wasn’t to practice. They’d only known each other for two weeks after all, and they’d only hung out together at the training yard and they’d mostly only talked about technique or about which classes they did or didn’t like most (Sakura liked everything but taijutsu, which she was horrible at; Naruto hated everything but taijutsu for the same reason).

It didn’t really feel like they were friends yet, but…but she thought the potential was there. Like maybe they could be friends, if they only tried a little longer. She didn’t want to give up now, not when she was sure they were so close.

She worried her bottom lip between her teeth, wondering how to phrase her thoughts. “Well,” she began cautiously. “Well it’s…it’s not like we have to stop practicing kunai together just cause we won’t have tests on it anymore. We’re still gonna need to know how to do it when we get to be genin, and we don’t want our skills to get rusty…”

Naruto was staring at her, mouth open. She hurried on, “And, and, and, we’re starting shuriken soon and we’re gonna need to practice that too, maybe even more than kunai, so…so we could…keep meeting up…if you want.”

He stared at her, dumbfounded, mouth hanging open like a fish for several more very long seconds, long enough for Sakura to start to get nervous and try to hide behind her fringe again, before his sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day smile broke across his face all at once, like flipping a switch. “Yeah!” he shouted, and Sakura didn’t jump, but it was a near thing. “Yeah! We can totally do that! You’re a genius, ya know, Sakura-chan!”

She blushed, flattered. “Well, I don’t think that’s-”

“We can start now!” he carried on over her, too excited to listen, running over to plant himself in front of his usual practice post, fumbling with his kunai holster in his haste. “Don’t wanna get rusty, good idea, should a thought a that-Hey, hey! Bet I can get more kunai into the bulls-eye before I run out then you can! Loser has to run five laps around the yard!”

Sakura grinned and ran to place herself before her own post, her share of kunai already in hand, and this time it was much easier to ignore the little voice that whispered that good girls didn’t make bets, especially bets involving sharp metal weaponry and the potential to get all dirty and sweaty.

“You’re on!”

-

And so it went. Before Sakura knew it, February was bleeding into March and her birthday was coming up fast. It would be her seventh, and she was excited, though not as much as maybe she could have been.

For the last two years her mama had made a direct point of asking if she wanted to have a party so she could invite ‘all her little friends from school’ over, and so far the girl had yet to work up the courage to tell her mama that she didn’t have any school friends, or any friends at all really. Her mama would just make that face she made when she was worried, the one that made her mouth pinch and the thin lines around her honey-brown eyes deepen.

So Sakura just said no, and insisted that she’d rather spend her birthday with just family, where mama would make her favorite dinner (tuna kaisendon with anko dumplings for dessert) and she’d open the one or two presents her parents had gotten her. This always made her mama smile, hug her, and tell her how happy she was to have such ‘a good daughter who loved her mama and papa so much’. It made Sakura feel strangely guilty, but at least her mama wasn’t worried about her and that was good enough for now.

Besides, these days there really wasn’t anything for her mama to worry about; Ami and her friends still sneered at her when they saw her in the hallways and whispered and laughed behind her back, but that was okay because now she had her practice sessions with Naruto to look forward to after school every day, and while they still weren’t exactly friends yet (she didn’t think), at least they’d finally started talking about things that weren’t just school.

Now they talked about what foods they did and didn’t like (Sakura loved most rice dishes and sweet things but hated anything steamed with the exception of dumplings and Naruto loved pork ramen and not much else, though he hated vegetables with a single-minded passion), what they wanted to be when they grew up (Naruto wanted to be Hokage of course, and although Sakura had told him she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after the Academy, the truth was she really wanted to be a kunoichi, even though her mama wanted her to be anything but that), they’re favorite colors (red for Sakura, orange for Naruto), and school some too, still, since they were too young to have jobs or go on missions outside the village yet.

It was certainly friendly talk but so far they really hadn’t shared any secrets or had sleepovers or talked about their deepest, darkest fears like Sakura thought you were supposed to do with your friends. Granted most of her information on what friendship was like came from those silly romance movies her mama pretended she didn’t watch when papa wasn’t home but still. The going was slow, but she was hopeful they were moving in the right direction. She could be patient; she would not mess this up.

Everything was going fine, until the subject of birthdays came up, and then, quite suddenly, events were set in motion that would change the both of them irreparably for the rest of their lives.

“Hah?” Naruto looked up in surprise from where he’d been laboriously sharpening his kunai with a chip of whetstone he’d pocketed in class. “Your birthday is tomorrow Sakura-chan?”

“Yes, so I won’t be able to meet you after school,” Sakura reiterated. “I wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t think I just didn’t come. But I’ll be back the day after that for sure!”

“Oh, okay…” He stared up at the sky, tan face scrunched up in an expression of ferocious contemplation. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, are you having a birthday party?”

“No, not really, wh-” Understanding dawned and she hurried to explain. “-Not at all actually! I never have birthday parties, just dinner with my mama and papa. Nothing big or special, and we never invite anyone else.”

“Oh.” His expression cleared and his customary grin was back. “That’s okay then!”

He turned back to his task without further comment and Sakura breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had thought she was having a party and he wasn’t invited! And he hadn’t even looked upset, just confused, and maybe a little resigned. She wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about that, but the knowledge made something deep down in her belly get hot and start to bubble and simmer; it was the same feeling she’d gotten when she realized Mizuki-sensei was purposely giving Naruto bad grades he didn’t deserve. Sakura didn’t know it yet, but these strange bubbling feelings were actually the first warning signs of building outrage.

Her birthday dinner was fun, the food was delicious, and she loved the presents her parents had given her; a red and white cheongsam with the Haruno clan kamon on the back and shoulders from her mama and a brand new set of kunai and shuriken from her papa. Her mama seemed less that happy about this particular gift but Sakura was ecstatic, and she thanked her papa profusely. She’d made extra sure to tell him that she need the Type 3 set instead of the Type 1 which were usually assigned to Academy students, since Type 3 were the ones most often used by more advanced ninja like chuunin or even tokubetsu jounin and were thusly better quality and much heavier than the ones used in class.

If the last practicals test had shown her anything, it was that she’d gotten too used to throwing heavy weapons and the lighter ones just weren’t enough for her anymore; she’d barely been able to feel the kunai in her hand, and she hadn’t felt tired at all even after throwing ten in a row. She often wondered to herself why the Academy insisted on teaching them with non-mission-standard weaponry at all if there was such a noticeable difference between the two, but so far she hadn’t gotten up the nerve to ask. What if they wanted to know how she knew there was a difference in the first place and took Naruto’s kunai away because of it? She didn’t want that to happen! So she kept quiet.

All in all, she counted her seventh birthday an unmitigated success, even without cake and a big party, and she practically skipped to the practice field after school the next day, eager to show Naruto her new weapons set. The other girls had predictably mocked her new clothes and made disparaging comments about how the deep red color of the dress clashed with her bubblegum hair but for once she didn’t let their words get her down. She had pretty new clothes, shiny new weapons, a great almost-friend, and the best parents ever; at this exact moment in time, she was sure she could handle anything.

That confidence lasted until she got to the training yard and saw that Naruto wasn’t there waiting for her like usual. His class got out fifteen minutes before hers so he’d always made sure to get there first to save them a spot in case some of the bigger kids tried to run them off the field. But he wasn’t there, and she couldn’t find any sign that he had been there and left for some reason either.

So she waited, starting to practice the weird, loose flippy-wrist movement needed to properly hurl shuriken so their flight path arced correctly, thinking maybe he’d gotten held back to be yelled at by Mizuki-sensei (always possible) or maybe he’d forgotten his own shuriken and run home to get them (impossible, ever since he’d scavenged up enough discarded shuriken from the forest to complete his own set that holster had practically been glued to his side). She waited and waited and waited for so long that the sun started to set behind the trees and the shadows in the field slowly started to narrow and stretch out from end-to-end and still Naruto hadn’t shown up.

At first she was just confused, but as half an hour, then an hour slowly slid by she started to get a little angry, then another hour went by and she started to worry, and twilight eventually found her huddled in the lengthening shadows of the practice posts and fighting back tears, convinced she knew what happened. One day with her gone and Naruto had already figured out he was better off without her and decided he didn’t want her as a friend after all, but he was much too nice to come and say that to her face, so he’d just decided to avoid the practice field while he knew she would be there looking for him.

Part of her thought that was kind of him, to make a clean break like that, so she wouldn’t have to embarrass herself by breaking down in front of him, while another, much smaller part whispered that Naruto would never do something like that, would never throw her away like garbage without talking to her about it first, but most of her was too wrapped up in the agony of heartbreak to think about anything other than how much it hurt to know that once again she hadn’t been good enough for someone.

But then, why was she surprised? Surely someone as nice and funny and cool as Naruto had lots of friends to hang out with. She’d only ever seen him at the training ground so she’d never seen him with them, but then he’d never asked to hang out with her outside of weapons practice after all; he was probably ashamed to be seen with her, eye-searing, pink-haired loser that she was. He’d only been nice to her because he felt bad for her and she hated herself a little for being so pathetically grateful for even that much attention. Of course he didn’t like her, she didn’t even like her most of the time, so how could anyone else? It was stupid of her to believe otherwise. She should have known better.

She staggered to her feet, clutching her middle as her stomach rolled and for a moment she thought she was going to be sick right there on the grass, tasting bile in the back of her throat. She managed to swallow it down and forced herself to take a step, then another, then another, one foot in front of the other as she made her way out of the field and back towards the school and the street that ran alongside it that meandered past her house.

She wasn’t really paying attention where she was going, letting her feet carry her where they may as her mind floated off somewhere far above her shoulders, swamped in a sea of misery so thick it took her a long, long time to realize someone was calling her name.

“Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan! Oi, Sakura-chan, wait up!”

She recognized that voice. “Naruto-kun?” she breathed in amazement, whirling around to face the boy as he ran up to her and doubled over to put his hands on his knees, narrow chest heaving under his too-big shirt, gasping in huge lungfuls of air as he tried to catch his breath. “Naruto-kun, what are you-”

His bowed head shot up and he met her jade green gaze with his sky blue one, apology shining deep within them before he even opened his mouth to give voice to it. “I’m so sorry I’m late Sakura-chan! It took me forever to get here; I got super lost, ya know, and I had to keep goin’ in circles ‘fore I found something that looked familiar.”

“‘Lost’? But, Naruto-kun, weren’t you in class today?” She was trying and mostly failing to ignore the way her heart had leapt at his words, the fresh cracks running all through it repairing themselves in an instant. He still liked her; he hadn’t thrown her away after all! She was so happy she could burst.

“Uh-uh,” he shook his head vehemently, making his spiked yellow hair flop. “I skipped today so I could make sure to be at the store when they opened; I didn’t want anyone to get there and take it ‘fore I could.”

“Take what?”

“Your present!” He grinned his best fox grin at her baffled expression. “I was savin’ up to get a double portion of pork ramen at Ichiraku’s, but this ‘s way more important! I never had nobody to get a present for before so I wanted to make sure I got it right.”

“You skipped school? For me? Oh Naruto-kun!” She felt like crying again, but for entirely different reasons this time, better reasons, and she took a step forward to throw her arms around him when she noticed something odd. “But Naruto-kun why are you so dirty? You look like you rolled around in the street.”

And he did too. Naruto was normally kind of dirty, but in the same way most boys were dirty, with sweat and grass-stains and actual dirt packed into the creases of his hands and under his nails, but his hair and face and clothes were always clean, even if his shoes needed replacing and his clothes never fit. Now he looked like he’d purposefully taken a bath in filth, unidentifiable grime smeared all over his clothes in a way that would have made her mama sigh and start muttering about detergent and stain remover, with mud rubbed into his arms and face and drying in the spikes of his hair.

He looked ridiculous, and like he really needed some warm water and soap immediately if he ever expected to be clean again but his grin was as bright as ever and his eyes were triumphant. “I got it back! They tried to take it from me but I chased ‘em and beat ‘em up and got it back!”

“Got what back?” He wasn’t making much sense.

“Your present!” he said like it should have been obvious. “The lady in the store almost wouldn’t sell it to me, but my money was good so she had to ‘ventually, an’ when I left to meet you these guys grabbed me an’ said that since I had somethin’ so pretty I must a stole it, so they took it and ran but I chased ‘em an’ got it back! They ran real far though, an’ I didn’t recognize the neighborhood so it took me a real long time to find my way back, but I made it!” He sounded so proud of himself.

Sakura just stared at him, eyes big and round and hands clapped over her open mouth. Finally she found her voice and asked, “Were they older boys, like from the school? Cause if so you gotta tell Iruka-sensei on them, they can’t get away with that!”

“Nah they weren’t from the school,” Naruto waved off her suggestion easily. “They were too old; older than genin, maybe as old as Iruka-sensei. ‘sides, I don’t really remember what they look like, so ‘s no big deal.”

“‘As old as-‘! Naruto-kun are you saying grown-ups did this to you?” Sakura was aghast. Iruka-sensei was old, like over twenty old, and if they were that same age then…

“Yeah, but like I said, ‘s no big deal, they only hit me one time and didn’t even hurt that bad,” Naruto didn’t seem to comprehend the gravity of what he’d said, already distracted by rummaging around in his pockets. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, close yer eyes okay? I didn’t get to wrap it, ya know, an’ ‘s supposed to be a surprise an’-”

A grown-up hit you?!” she burst out, that uncomfortable hot feeling in her stomach starting to rumble and pop again. “On purpose?”

Naruto was staring at her like he didn’t understand what was wrong and it made her want to grab him and shake him. “Yeah, but it didn’t hurt Sakura-chan, one of ‘em just kicked me when I tried to take your present back, cause I bit him on the leg, ya know, cause he wouldn’t give it back without a fight. But they ran off after that cause grown-ups get weird when you fight dirty like that, makes ‘em think you ain’t got nothin’ to lose, so-”

Naruto-kun!” He immediately fell silent at her shout and gaped at her soundlessly. Never, in the entire month they’d known each other had Sakura ever yelled, not ever; she’d never even raised her voice.

In fact, Sakura couldn’t remember a time when she’d ever yelled before in her whole life (“-good girls never scream or shout, good girls never get angry, and good girls certainly don’t throw temper tantrums, especially not in this house, young lady-”). She grit her teeth and balled up her tiny fists, shoulders tense and shaking with rage as the burning, bubbly feeling in her tummy finally blew off its lid and boiled over. Good girls can go eat worms, she snarled and viciously stomped out the last remnants of that little voice in her head that sounded so much like her mama, grinding it into dust under her heel. If being a good girl meant standing by and doing nothing while people she cared for got hurt, then she didn’t want to be one, not now, not ever.

“Naruto-kun, grown-ups aren’t supposed to hit you! They’re not supposed to do mean things like that, an’ they’re not s’pposed to call you names or give you bad grades for no reason! They’re s’pposed to help you cause that’s what good grown-ups do!”

Naruto didn’t seem like he knew quite how to react; no one had ever been angry for him before. At him, certainly, because of him, sure, but not for him. “It’s okay Sakura-chan,” he offered tentatively, cautiously reaching out to lightly touch her shoulder. “Really, it is. I don’t mind, I’m used to it-”

“Well I’m not used to it!” She had never been so mad in her entire life, and there were angry tears flowing down her cheeks but she paid them no heed, blazing green eyes fierce and mouth twisted in a teeth-baring snarl. “I’m not used to it, I do mind, and it’s not okay! People can’t get away with treating you like this! Like you’re something gross they wanna scrape off their shoe and throw away or forget about! ‘s not fair, ‘s not right!”

He blinked at her, so heart-breakingly, honestly confused that she wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled and at the same time she also wanted to punch something very, very hard again and again until it broke. “But people ‘re mean to you too.”

“Kids are mean to me,” Sakura snapped dismissively, because that was the last thing on her mind right now. What were a few school-girl taunts when grown-ups apparently thought nothing of regularly treating this boy as something worse than trash? “Kids, girls in my class who wouldn’t know the business end of kunai even if I stuck ‘em with it. That’s what kids do, Naruto-kun, they’re mean to each other for stupid reasons that you’re s’pposed to grow out of when you get to be old like Iruka and Mizuki-sensei, not get worse, elsewise why would anyone ever bother growing up at all?”

“Oh.” Naruto considered this for a moment. “I never…I guess I never thought about it like that. People ‘re mean to me all the time, I never thought maybe something was s’pposed to be different if it was kids or grown-ups.”

“It is different, or at least it’s meant to be,” she sighed, all of the fight going out of her at once, leaving her tired and hollow and sad. “I’m sorry Naruto-kun.”

“Sorry?” He stared at her, flabbergasted. “For what?”

“Because I didn’t say anything before,” she admitted softly, glancing away from him and rubbing at the drying tear tracks on her face, too ashamed to look him in the eye. “I knew something was wrong when you said Mizuki-sensei gave you the worst grade even though everyone in the whole school knows Shikamaru never does anything in class, ever, at all, except sleep, and especially not in practical stuff. I knew something was wrong, but it was easier to believe I was overreacting instead of being brave enough to say something about it. So I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Sakura-chan,” he assured her quickly, visibly relieved that she’d stopped yelling. “You don’t gotta say anything about it, really, I don’t care if I’m dead-last, long as I keep moving up to the next class.”

“But I want to say something,” she insisted mulishly, surprised to find that it was true; where had all her shyness gone? “Maybe not to Mizuki-sensei, cause he’s a teacher an’ at least he never hit you-” she eyeballed him for a moment, but saw nothing in his face that put lie to her words so she relaxed marginally and continued on. “-but I won’t let anybody say anything bad about you ever again, kid or grown-up, not as long as I’m around to hear it, and that’s a promise.”

“Really?” he asked in the small voice that never failed to make her heart feel like it was being grabbed and squeezed really hard. “Why would you do that for me?”

“B-Because,” she faltered, and all her shyness coming rushing back right when she didn’t need it to. She looked away from him once more, cheeks burning, staring out at the purple-black horizon as the sun finally finished setting, gathering her flagging courage. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning determinedly back to face him, squaring her small shoulders like a kunoichi looking down the edge of the knife that was about to slit her throat. “Because we’re friends. A-Aren’t we?”

“‘Friends’?” Naruto whispered, eyes huge and round and reflecting the first twinkles of the stars starting to appear in the sky. “We’re friends?”

“I…I think we are,” Sakura confirmed hesitantly. “I’ve…never had one before, but…I think we’re friends. Cause, cause friends protect each other right? An’-an’-an’ get mad if people hurt their friend, an’ wanna make sure their friend is always happy, cause he-cause they deserve to be happy and smiling, always, and never frowning, an’, they know stuff about each other, like their favorite colors an’ foods, an’ they get each other presents on their birthday, an’ fight bad guys who try to run away with their friend’s presents. So. So we’re friends, right?”

“Yeah,” he breathed, starshine eyes starting to glow as though lit from within, a beautiful, blinding smile starting to slowly unfurl across his dirt-smudged face. “Yeah, that sounds right. We’re friends.” He looked a bit dazed at the revelation, staring off into space with a goofy twist to his usual smile. “I got a friend. I’ve never had one before either.”

“Well now you do,” she told him, voice quiet, not wanting to break the moment that seemed delicate and fragile in a way neither of them understood; like the universe had just realigned itself around this one moment, like a new life had just begun, and at the same time another one had just ended. It was a strange feeling, heavy, but not suffocating, and not bad either.

“And so do you,” Naruto returned just as quietly, also uncannily aware of the strange spell being woven around them.

They grinned at each other for long moments, just two kids standing alone on an empty street-corner in the dark as a streetlamp flickered to life directly above them. The sudden illumination had them both blinking, and with that the moment was broken. The world started turning again, and all the what-ifs and why-fors and could-have-beens that had briefly existed in the same space as their world held its breath, then breathed its last and died a quiet, unassuming death.

Sakura fidgeted, scuffing one sandaled foot in the dirt, arms linked behind her back and still smiling like she didn’t know how to stop. “So…What’d you get me?”

Naruto blinked. “Hah?”

“My present,” she reminded him, still grinning. His tendency to be easily distracted was endearing at times like this. “The one you valiantly fought off multiple opponents for; what is it?”

“Oh, yeah, right, I almost forgot!” he cried and resumed rifling frantically through his pockets. “I didn’t get to wrap it so you gotta close your eyes so it’ll be a surprise, but I made sure I put it somewhere it wouldn’t get dirty, so it should be-aha!” His hand balled into a fist inside one of his voluminous cargo-short pockets, fox-like smile tinged with excitement and mischief both. “Found it! Now close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

She did so at once, trusting him without a second thought. Although…he may be her friend but he was still a boy…“It’s not gonna bite me is it?” she teased.

“Wha-? No of course not! Sheesh, what do you take me for?”

But she could hear the laughter in his voice and it made her heart swell to know he wasn’t really upset with her. He reached out to cradle her cupped hands with one of his own, carefully bringing the other one up to press something into her palms. “There! You can open ‘em now.”

She obediently opened her eyes and looked down at the piece of cloth folded in her hand. “It’s-”

“A ribbon!” Naruto finished eagerly. “I noticed yer bangs are always gettin’ in your face when you try to throw, and you have to keep shakin’ yer head to keep ‘em out of yer eyes so I thought you could use this to tie ‘em back, ya know? I got a red one cause you said it was your favorite color, an’ look, it even matches your dress!” He looked so unbearably excited, eyes intent on her face, waiting for her reaction.

He was right, the thick strip of ribbon, by some strange twist of fate, was indeed the exact same dark red color as her new cheongsam, and it was even bordered by white in the same way as her dress, with red in the middle and thin strips of white running across the top and bottom of the wide band. She looked down at it without speaking for a long, long time, running her fingers over it reverently. It was soft and good quality and she knew Naruto didn’t have a papa to get allowance from like she did, and she knew how much he loved ramen, so it must have cost him a lot more than just a few hundred ryo to get this for her.

Her eyes were getting itchy again, and she slipped the ribbon under her heavy fall of hair before more tears could escape, arranging her fringe as best she could without a mirror, and tying it into a neat bow at her crown. She considered for a moment, then shifted the ribbon so the bow sat snug at the base of her skull instead of digging into the top of her head. She looked up to find Naruto staring at her and she couldn’t help the faint blush his regard brought to her pale cheeks. “Well?” she prompted nervously. “What do you think?”

The boy snapped out of his daze at the sound of her voice and smiled at her without reservation. “You look even more beautiful than usual Sakura-chan!”

She promptly went brick red at this bold assessment, and barely stopped herself from blurting ‘beautiful?’ as incredulously as she really wanted to. She’d already known he thought she was pretty, he’d said so himself after all, and if there was one thing Naruto was above all other things it was brazenly honest, but beautiful?

The happy glow she was rapidly becoming accustomed to feeling in his presence swelled in her chest at his words and she beamed at him, equal parts bashful and delighted. “Thank you, Naruto-kun!” She realized something then, something very important. “Ne, Naruto-kun, when’s your birthday?”

“Mine?” He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head, expression as serious as it ever was. “Dunno.”

“You don’t know?”

“Yeah, apparently the birthdates for a lot a the kids at the orphanage got lost in the demon-fox attack, so most of us don’t really know; I just know it was sometime in October.”

“And the demon-fox attacked on October tenth, so you must’ve been born before then…” She did some frantic math. “That’s less than eight months away! I’ll have to get started on looking for your present real soon.” She’d never picked out a present for someone else before, and certainly not a boy; maybe her mama could give her some suggestions.

“My present?”

“Of course!” She nodded once, firmly. “Friends give each other presents on their birthdays and for mid-winter and stuff; it’s the rules.”

“Really?” He’d never thought that having a friend might come with rules. “What are the other rules?”

She faltered. “Um, well, I’m not completely sure,” she hedged. “Neither of us have ever had a friend before after all, but I think it’s sorta just like…we’re always there for each other, an’ we always stand up for each other, an’ protect each other from bullies and mean grown-ups who won’t listen to us cause we’re kids, an’ we know lots a stuff about each other, an’ we always help each other when we need it, an’ keep each other from doing stuff that’ll get us in trouble.”

“Hm,” he nodded, and the expression of deep contemplation was back. “And if we do do something bad, an’ we do get in trouble?”

“Then we lie for each other,” she explained. “Unless it’s something real bad, then we might have to tell the real truth to someone else to keep each other from getting in bad-bad trouble.”

“Tell someone like who?”

“Like a grown-up we like, like Iruka-sensei or my mama.” At least, that was the impression she’d gotten from watching her mama’s rom-coms. “At least while we’re still little. I think maybe the rules change some when we get to be older, or maybe there are just more rules.”

“Blech,” he pulled a face. “Why there gotta be more rules? There ’re already too many.”

She shrugged and repeated one of her papa’s favorite things to say when she asked him questions she secretly suspected he didn’t know the answer to. “That’s just the way it’s gotta be.”

“Well…I guess more rules would be okay if we gotta,” he allowed, pushing his bottom lip out sulkily. “It would be worth it, to have a friend.”

“Yeah,” she agreed with a smile. “That’s what I think too.”

“Okay, so, friends?” He stuck out one grimy hand, pinky extended.

Sakura hooked her own pinky around it without hesitation. “Friends.”

He grinned his bright fox-grin at her. “Friends for life,” he cheered. “Believe it!”

Chapter Text

From that moment on they were practically attached at the hip, to the point where it became an exceedingly rare thing to ever see one without the other.

They met early before school to talk and hang out before the bell rang (Naruto’s attendance record, which had previously been spotty at best, became impeccable almost overnight; his teachers were amazed, and more than a little suspicious), then they had to separate for the rest of the day since they were still in different classes, but as soon as school let out, they were back at each other’s sides. And though they still made sure to go to the training fields every day to practice and keep up their skills so as to not fall behind, now they only spent a couple hours there at a time instead of hours on end, before they’d take a break to run around the middle and lower wards like what her mama would call ‘wild hooligans’.

They spent their off-days after training in the park, climbing anything that held still long enough (and some things that didn’t as more than a few disgruntled chuunin could attest), and chased each other through the unkempt grasses that bordered the park, playing super-secret-ninja games like hide-and-seek and capture-the-flag and ‘see-how-many-acorns-you-can-drop-on-the-chuunins-head-before-they-notice’. Naruto and Sakura became ‘Naruto’n’Sakura’ or sometimes ‘those damned brats’, and the village (or at least, every part of it they could reach on foot before the sun went down because Sakura had a bed time and Naruto had an ANBU-enforced curfew) became their playground.

In class, Sakura was still quiet and withdrawn, and Naruto had taken to becoming subdued and uncharacteristically compliant when forcibly separated from his partner-in-crime, but the minute the bell rang, they were both out of their seats and out of the room like a shot from a bow, calling good-natured taunts at each other as they raced to the training field.

Their teachers were baffled, their classmates were dumbfounded, and so far all Sakura’s mama knew was that at the end of every day her daughter clattered in the door sweaty and dirty and rumpled and, more often than not, with a huge, unrestrained smile splitting her small face. She could have lived without the mud tracked all over her kitchen floor, but she couldn’t remember a time when she’d ever seen her only child so happy, so for now she kept quiet about it. She didn’t know exactly what had brought the change about, and truthfully she didn’t much care if it meant her little girl didn’t come home timid and flinching at loud noises anymore, and growing paler and thinner and quieter with every passing day. Yes, all in all, Haruno Mebuki was content with the new state of affairs.

“Mama?” piped a voice from the general height of her knee as she stood at the kitchen sink cleaning up after dinner one night. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes, sweetheart?” Mebuki hummed as she finished washing a plate and set it on the rack to dry. “What is it?”

“Can we please go to the craft store tomorrow?” her little girl asked politely, leaning on her mother’s leg and looking up at her with the beseeching green eyes that she’d inherited from her father along with his hair. Sakura looked very much like her father, coloring-wise, though so far it seemed she’d also gotten her mother’s pale complexion and petite frame. “I saved up my allowance, so will you please take me? I want to get some stuff to make a birthday present for a friend.”

“A friend?” she questioned, startled at this new development. She turned away from the sink to dry her hands on a towel, giving her daughter her full attention. “What friend?”

“A friend from school!” her daughter chirped happily, that same beaming smile that had recently replaced miserably tight lips and pained frowns splitting her face once again. “He’s in Mizuki-sensei’s class, so I don’t think you’ve ever seen him, but he’s funny and nice and he’s my very best friend! He got me this for my birthday-” she tugged at the red and white ribbon she’d taken to wearing in her hair at all times, answering Mebuki’s unspoken wonderings as to its origin “-an’ I promised to get him something too cause that’s what friends do!”

“They most certainly do, baby,” she assured her little girl absently, a smile of her own starting to play around her lips. So that’s what had Sakura looking so happy lately; good, Mebuki had been worried. Her only child may be studying to be a kunoichi (a phase she prayed she would start to grow out of any day now) but she had a long way to go before she could effectively evade a mother’s intuition.

She’d seen the weight that had been pressing down her little girl’s tiny shoulders, the way she hesitated for just a split second too long whenever Mebuki asked about why she never brought friends over, or asked to go over to a friend’s house. “They most certainly do, and what a lovely gift he gave you too! I hope you remembered to thank him and his parents?”

“He doesn’t have parents mama,” Sakura informed her off-handedly, missing her mother’s concerned frown at this revelation. “He bought it for me with his ramen money, but I did thank him, lots, promise!”

“You shouldn’t ask for presents from people who can’t afford to give them, sweetie,” her mother admonished her sternly. “Good little girls like you should never be greedy.”

Sakura blinked shining verdant eyes up at her, hurt. “But I didn’t ask mama! I told him it was my birthday so he would know why I couldn’t train with him after school, and when I came back the next day he’d already got it for me, honest!”

“Well…” Mebuki hedged, seeing no lie in her daughter’s face. “That’s alright then I suppose. And you are going to get him a present in return…but be careful not to take advantage of his situation in the future. If he has money to spare he should save it for a rainy day, not spend it on hair ribbons, you tell him that for me okay?”

“Okay, mama,” she replied dutifully, though her mother could tell from her slight frown that she didn’t quite understand why it mattered how her friend chose to spend his money. “Can we go to the craft store then, please? I wann-I want to get started on his present soon, so it’ll be ready in time.”

“Did you want to make him something?”

“Uh-huh! A scarf!” Her little girl puffed up her narrow pigeon chest proudly. “I looked up some books at the library about knitting, an’ I think I can do it! I wanted to get some needles and orange yarn, cause orange is his favorite color, so I can get it ready by October, cause that’s when his birthday is.”

“Well a project like that is certainly a large undertaking for your first attempt,” Mebuki cautioned. “But you are definitely getting a jump on it if his birthday is that far away; it’s barely April now.”

“Yea-Yes! I wan…want to make sure I get it done in time, before it gets cold. I don’t think he has a lot of warm clothes,” she told her mother in a conspiratorial whisper.

Her heart softened. “That is a very practical gift baby, I’m sure he’ll love it. I will take you to the store tomorrow, as long as you promise your room will be clean when I come to tuck you into bed tonight.” It wasn’t a hard promise to make; her daughter was scrupulously clean for a seven-year old and aside from a tendency to leave her sandals in the middle of her bedroom floor instead of in the closet where they belonged, her room was hardly ever messy.

“Yay!” Sakura cheered, reaching up as high as she could to throw her arms around her mother’s hips in a hug. “Thank you mama!”

As she watched her race off up the stairs, Mebuki let her smile slip a little now that her daughter was no longer in the room, pressing the knuckles of her right hand to her mouth, considering. She was happy her little girl had finally found a friend who could bring out the playful, childish spirit she had feared that life had already all but stamped out of her, but still, she worried. Little boys were notoriously rowdy and they played rough; hardly the kind of playmates she wanted for her delicate flower of an only daughter.

She had taken great pains to raise her child right, the way all civilian girls should be raised; to be quiet and demure and beautiful, and to leave the big decisions to other, more capable people, such as her parents or, in the future, her husband. And aside from this ridiculous ninja business, Sakura was everything a mother could ask for in a daughter: polite, obedient, and conscientious to a fault.

It wasn’t that she wanted Sakura to be weak, oh no, never that, but she wanted her to understand that a woman’s strengths lay not on the battlefield, but in everyday household matters. A woman’s greatest weapon was meant to be her words, her intellect, her ability to hold it together while everything around her was falling apart, not fists and kunai. Men were different, boys were different, they put emphasis on physical prowess, and she wasn’t sure she wanted her daughter exposed to that kind of attitude, especially not so early in life when there was more potential for her priorities to become skewed. But one thing she was sure of was that she did not ever, for any reason, want to be the reason her daughter stopped smiling again.

So for now, she would wait. She would wait and watch and keep her eye out for any unsavory habits her daughter may or may not pick up from this friend of hers. She resolved to only step in if she felt the situation really called for it.

Her little girl was young, and she didn’t know what she really wanted out of life yet, but that was okay, because Mebuki had made a promise on the day that Sakura was born to always be there to help guide her down the correct path to lifelong success. And no matter what may come, she planned to keep that promise.

-

It’s not that Sakura meant to lie to her mama, not really. And it wasn’t like it was really a lie either; more like a fib. A small one. Her mama would call it a lie of omiss…omish…she would say that a lie was a lie, no matter what (‘and good little girls don’t tell lies’) and that there was never a good excuse to tell a lie, or a fib, not ever. But then that was a lie too, wasn’t it? Grown-ups lied to kids all the time; they just never got in trouble for doing it.

Besides, it wasn’t like she was fibbing (lying), for herself anyway, so that at least made it a little better, she reasoned, and tried very hard not to feel guilty. And ninjas tell lies all the time, don’t they? They have to, big ones and small ones, for the good of the mission. Thinking of it in those terms helped tamp out the last flickering embers of guilt and harden her resolve. She hadn’t told her mama Naruto-kun’s name for a good reason, and that was that, she told herself firmly, and carefully ignored, for the time being, that she wasn’t entirely sure what that reason actually was yet.

The rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk of metal hitting wood drew her out of her silent musings and she looked up to watch her best friend methodically send shuriken after shuriken sailing across the training yard to find their mark deep in the practice posts. The practicals test for shuriken had already come and gone nearly a month earlier (they had both passed; her with flying colors, him only barely, and Sakura had bitten her tongue, clenched her tiny fists until her knuckles turned white, and counted to twenty very slowly in her head to keep from storming into the school and kicking Mizuki-sensei somewhere it would really hurt when Naruto told her, and only the excited pride in his voice had kept her from actually doing it), and there was only one more written test to take before the school year let out for a month of summer vacation.

Naruto was ecstatic but Sakura was worried; if they didn’t do well, they wouldn’t move up with the rest of the kids in their class and they’d have to repeat the year, something she definitely did not want to happen. She’d taken to hauling her big binder of class notes, her math textbook, and her copy of the Standard Shinobi Handbook (Konoha edition) with her everywhere in order to cram in every extra second of studying she could. Naruto on the other hand…

“Naruto-kun,” she called when he paused to go retrieve his weapons from the post. “Maybe you should take a break and come study with me. I’ll let you look over my notes and everything.”

“Don’t wanna,” the boy grunted, tongue between his teeth as he worked to extract a particularly embedded shuriken. “It won’t help anyway.”

She blinked at him, confusion clear on her features though he couldn’t see it since he was turned away from her. “What do you mean? Don’t you want to get a good grade? This test is really important, and if we don’t pass, we can’t move on.”

“I already told you, it doesn’t matter,” he repeated, apparently unconcerned, as he returned to his mark and wound up to throw again. “I’ll just get a bad grade anyway; I always do, no matter how hard I study.”

That was true enough. Despite Naruto’s natural proficiency in pretty much anything physical, his written test scores were always the lowest of the low. Privately, Sakura suspected it had to do with her friend’s admittedly pronounced tendency to let his mind wander wherever it liked if he wasn’t interested enough in the topic being discussed.

She’d seen him do it whenever teachers yelled at him for not paying attention in class, when civilians and shinobi alike yelled at them for getting into some manner of trouble or another during their twilight romps through the village, and sometimes even when she herself was trying to talk to him (usually when she talked about school, and not so much anymore, since she started tugging sharply on his nearest earlobe every time she felt his focus wasn’t entirely on what she was saying; he yelped and whined and carried on but she didn’t pull that hard and they both knew he was only faking, so she kept doing it, and so far, it had always worked). And if there was one thing her friend hated even more than baths, vegetables, and curfews combined, it was sitting still and doing nothing. Or sitting still and reading. He got bored too easily.

She’d also seen him ‘study’ in the past, if it could even rightfully be called that, since it mostly seemed to involve flipping a few pages in a textbook without looking at it and staring longingly out the window, or trying to sit still and be quiet only to end up fidgeting so much she’d eventually give up and let herself be dragged from the library and back out into the bright sunlight. And it wasn’t like she didn’t understand his desire to be outside and moving, since she had the same problems sometimes, those days where no matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t focus at all and had to stop before she’d even really gotten started.

The only problem was her ‘sometimes’ was the same as Naruto’s ‘always’, and so far she hadn’t been able to figure out a solution; she knew her friend was smart, but the boy in question didn’t seem to agree and neither did any of his teachers. It was frustrating to say the least, but as she glanced back down at a particularly trickily worded math problem she’d been in the process of working through, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

“Ne, Naruto-kun…” she began slowly, wheels turning fast in her mind. “Can you solve this problem: ‘If Hiro has twelve kunai, and he throws four of them at a target, two of which hit, two of which do not, and then he throws all of his remaining kunai at the target, and only half of those hit, how many of Hiro’s kunai hit the target’?”

“Uh,” he scratched his blonde head with one of the pointy tips of a shuriken (something which always drove her crazy but he could never seem to remember not to do no matter how many times she reminded him), eyes squinted near shut and mouth twisted in an expression more pout than frown as he considered the question. “Can you say the first part again? And maybe the middle and end parts too?”

“It’s not so hard, here, look,” she set her book aside and climbed to her feet, dusting off the back of her dress as she crossed to where they’d laid out the contents of their weapons pouches earlier in the day. Gathering up all of her kunai and a couple of Naruto’s, she carried them over to stand in front of her own practice post so she was now facing her friend. “I have twelve kunai, right?” She held them up for his inspection, slim fingers threaded through the rings so she could hold them all at once, and waited for his nod before laying them all out carefully in the dirt before her.

“So, if I throw four kunai-” she did so, whipping them fast as thought across the field toward the practice post, two in each hand “-but only two of them hit-” she intentionally aimed too low on her second throw so that two went wild and struck the ground instead of the target “-then there are only two kunai in the target, right?”

“Right,” Naruto agreed dubiously, still not quite getting where this was going.

“Right, so how many do I have left?” She pointed to the row of weapons still lined up between them. “Twelve minus four, count them, one, two, three…”

“Eight!” he interjected before she could finish, glad he could at least do that much. “You have eight left.”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded and picked up the kunai, four in each hand, fingers gripping the hilts so they sharp ends stuck up and out between the gaps in her fingers. Excitement began to stir in her chest as she saw understanding starting to dawn in the boy’s clear blue eyes. “And half of eight is…?”

“Four!” Clarity struck like a bolt from the blue, leaving sky-bright eyes shining in the wake of realization. “Half of eight is four!”

“So if half the kunai hit the target-” again, there was a flash of sunlight on metal as she sent her handfuls slicing across the yard, one after another, making sure the first handful went off and the second handful struck true “-then that means-”

“That means there’s six kunai in the target!” Naruto finished eagerly, all but bouncing in place now. “Cause two plus four is six! I get it!”

“That’s great Naruto-kun!” Sakura cheered, clapping her hands together happily. “You did it!”

“Yeah, yeah, and it wasn’t even hard neither!” He confirmed as he joined her in helping gather the thrown kunai. “I always thought that math was way boring, but that was actually fun! Too bad old ferret-face doesn’t teach like that, otherwise I’d ace all those tests for sure!”

He turned sparkling eyes on her, fox-like smile firmly in place now. “Hey, hey, Sakura-chan, do you think you can help me study like this some more? Practicals is one thing, but if I get a good grade on a written test, Mizuki-sensei’s head ‘ll explode for sure!”

“Of course, Naruto-kun,” she confirmed easily, pleased that her plan had worked. “But it’s not just math we have to study, ya know, we gotta study the Konoha Shinobi Handbook too, and look over the notes I took on stuff Iruka-sensei said in class, otherwise we won’t pass.”

“Sure, sure,” he hummed dismissively. “Hey, hey, Sakura-chan, gimme another problem, only make it about shuriken this time okay?”

-

“I don’t get it.”

Sakura sighed and let her forehead smack into her arms where they were crossed on the table. Her words were muffled when she asked, “Don’t get what?” for what must have been the fifth time in the last few minutes.

Naruto frowned at her from his position sitting opposite her at the little round table in her bedroom. Her mama was out visiting her Auntie Mamoru and her papa was at work, so she’d felt it was safe to smuggle him up to her bedroom so they could study for a few hours before dark. The test, and consequently, the third to last day of school, was tomorrow and they’d only been studying in her room for less than an hour now and already she was ready to give up. It didn’t seemed to matter how many times she recited the rules from the Konoha Shinobi Handbook to him, his responses remained the same: “I don’t get it”, “Why does that matter?”, and her (least) favorite-

“That rule is stupid,” he told her flatly, and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s stupid and dumb and I’m not followin’ it.”

“But you have to,” she repeated for what felt like the bajillionth time. “It’s the rules, and shinobi always gotta follow the rules no matter what, so you have to.”

“Uh-uh,” he rebuked with a vehement shake of his head that made his yellow spikes flop; he’d need a haircut soon. “Not me. When I’m Hokage I’m gonna change all those dumb rules, so I don’t gotta follow ‘em if I don’t’ wanna.”

“But you’re not Hokage yet,” she reminded him with mounting frustration. “So until then you gotta follow the rules, cause that’s how it works Naruto-kun.”

Naruto didn’t respond, instead choosing to simply push his bottom lip out sulkily in something that was definitely not a pout (“It’s not Sakura-chan! Babies pout, dumb girls like Ami pout to make teachers feel bad for them, boys don’t! Its true Sakura-chan, quit laughin’!”) and stuck his nose in the air, twisting so he wasn’t facing her anymore.

Sakura sighed again and forced herself to calm down and think. Getting mad wouldn’t do anything but make Naruto mad and then they’d both end up yelling at each other; they’d never had a real fight before, and she didn’t want to have one now over something silly like this (she didn’t want him to get mad and not want to be her friend anymore), so she had to do what she did best and think of a way around this.

She knew Naruto wasn’t stupid, she knew it, which meant he understood her words fine, it was just the way she said them that he was having trouble with, like with the math problem and the kunai. She’d figured out a way around that and she could figure out a way around this too if it was the last thing she ever did. She wouldn’t give up on Naruto the way all those grown-ups had, she wouldn’t. She refused.

Why is it stupid Naruto-kun?” she asked once she was sure she had her emotions under control. “Maybe it is stupid but unless you tell me why I can’t see it for myself, so tell me.”

The boy turned back to her, surprised that she hadn’t yelled like he’d expected her too; feeling guilty now and maybe just a little bit like a brat for getting mad at her when it wasn’t her fault, he obediently leaned forward to tap the page outlining the rule in question. “‘A shinobi must never show their tears’? That’s dumb. It doesn’t even make sense. What if you’re sad? How ‘re you s’pposed to keep yerself from cryin’ if yer sad?”

“It doesn’t mean like always-always Naruto-kun,” she explained patiently, relieved he’d listened and that now they were getting somewhere. “It means like in battle, or when you’re on a mission. You’re never supposed to cry in front of an enemy, otherwise they’ll laugh at you, just like you wouldn’t cry in front of Inuzuka Kiba cause he’d laugh at you.”

“Oh.” He blinked at her. “That makes sense. So…so is that what this one means too-” he pointed to the opposite page of rules they’d already gone over “-that ‘a shinobi must never show any weakness’? Like not crying?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed with a nod. “Or like if you get wounded real bad but your enemy isn’t beaten yet. Like if you hurt yourself playing at school and it hurt really, really bad and it made you want to cry or hold yourself funny so it won’t hurt more, but you couldn’t cause then boys like Kiba would make fun of you, so you gotta pretend it doesn’t hurt as bad as it does.”

“Okay, that makes sense too,” he allowed as he flipped back through the book to one of the first pages. “But what about this one? This one is just nuts. ‘A shinobi should always put the mission first’.”

“Huh?” She stared at him, confused. “What’s wrong with that? It’s the simplest one of all.”

“It’s the stupidest one of all,” he corrected with a narrow-eyed frown. “Ninja usually go on missions in teams, ya know? So is it like tryin’ to say that your mission is more important than your team? Cause if so that’s bullshit.”

“Naruto-kun!” she cried, looking frantically around her room like she expected a grown-up to pop out of the ceiling to scold her friend for swearing. “You’re not supposed to say things like that! A good ninja is always supposed to put the mission first cause it’s their job and they get paid for it, an’ besides, it might have something to do with protecting the village from enemies! Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the good of the village.”

He stared at her incredulously, like he couldn’t believe the words that had just come out of her mouth. “Do you really believe that Sakura-chan?”

“Well…” she trailed off, suddenly uncertain. “I...I, well….Maybe we-”

“So you’re sayin’ if we were on a team together and I got hurt and couldn’t finish the mission you’d leave me behind?” He was watching her closely now, big blue eyes intent on her face. “You’d be willing to ‘sacrifice’ me? For the good of the village?”

“No!” she gasped, the very idea enough to make her eyes burn and her body grow cold, like her veins had been filled with ice water instead of blood and make her stomach swoop and roll like she was about to throw up. “No, never! I would never leave you behind, not ever!”

“See? There ya go,” he said simply, trying very hard (and mostly failing) not to show how relieved his friend’s words had made him; he wasn’t sure what he would have done if she’d agreed with him. “That rule is stupid. Yeah finishing the mission is important, and protecting the village is important, and maybe, sometimes, it’s even more important than your team, but if that’s true, then I don’t think I’m gonna make a very good ninja, ya know? I could be okay with bein’ a bad ninja, but I could never be okay with lettin’ my team get hurt and not doing anything to help them, just cause some dusty old book says I’m not s’pposed to.”

Sakura just stared at him in silent awe for a long, long moment. Her friend was loud, and silly, and maybe a little bit dumb sometimes, and she knew no one ever took him seriously, least of all himself. But there were times like these where she looked at this skinny little boy with the too long hair and the too big smile and the ratty sandals that were a size too small and saw the grown-up he would one day become. Still too loud, with a smile still too wide, and maybe still a little dumb sometimes, but also somebody people looked up to, and counted on, and trusted with their lives. Sometimes could look at her friend and swear she saw the Hokage he would be hiding inside his little boy body. Times like now.

She beamed at him, wide and bright, and he grinned his sharp-edged fox-smile right back, unsure of the cause but happy she was happy all the same. “Yeah. Yeah I think you’re right Naruto-kun. That rule is bullshit-” he gaped at her like a goldfish and she flushed but refused to be embarrassed at her own audacity “-and I don’t think it’s right. But just for right now, just for the sake of this test, we’re gonna pretend, okay? If the test asks about Rule Four, we’re just gonna pretend we agree with it, so we can pass the test, but not cause we really do agree with it.”

“We’re gonna lie?” He appeared positively gleeful at the prospect of lying to a teacher and getting away with it.

“Yeah,” she confirmed, the beginnings of a cat-like smile starting to unfurl across her cheeks. “Yeah, we’re gonna lie.”

-

The written portion of their final exam consisted of a sheet of paper with twenty open-answer questions and a time limit of one hour. It was simultaneously the most stressful and most tedious hour of Sakura’s entire, admittedly short, life.

After all the studying she and Naruto had done both on the practice field and holed up in her bedroom poring over notes and quizzing each other on the Shinobi Rules until her mama came home and she had to sneak her friend out the window and down the big oak tree outside her room, she was more than prepared for the test and finished well within the required time frame.

That left her with nothing to do except stare out the windows and idly watch the wind dance with the leaves of the huge tree that dominated the courtyard until Iruka-sensei finally called for everyone to put their pencils down so he could come collect their papers.

Then came yet another hour of waiting alone in the classroom with over a dozen other restless kids impatiently waiting to find out their scores. No one was allowed to leave until their tests had been graded by their teacher and returned, and while technically they were also supposed to wait in silence, a veritable wildfire of whispering erupted the second the door slid closed behind their teacher’s back as everyone leaned either over or around each other to consult with their friends on whether they might have passed or not.

With no friends in class to speculate with, Sakura was left to chew her lip and wring her hands in her lap quietly, all the while worrying about how Naruto might have done on his test, and analyzing every question they’d been asked with single-minded intensity, double and triple checking to make sure she’d answered them the best she could have. She was sure she’d passed, but without the results there in front of her, it became steadily harder and harder for her to convince herself that everything would be just fine as the minutes seemed to tick by at a glacial pace.

Finally, just as she was sure she would either scream or spontaneously combust into flames if she had to wait even one more second, the classroom door slid back open to emit Iruka-sensei, leaving the room ringing with an abrupt and unnatural hush that was fraught with anticipation.

Iruka-sensei calmly and methodically handed back their papers, face-down so no one else could see the grade but the intended recipient, his normally open, friendly face now wiped utterly clean of expression so as not to give anything away. No one was foolish enough to actually try to talk about their grades with others while their teacher was in the room, so everyone just waited tensely for their test to be handed back.

Sakura was practically vibrating in her seat with nerves by the time Iruka-sensei reached her row, furiously calling herself all sorts of names in her head for sitting so far from the front of the class. The chuunin instructor placed her test paper before her with the same stoicism as he’d done everyone else’s, but then hesitated instead of moving on right away which he had not done with everyone else.

He gave her a small smile and a murmured, “Good work Haruno-kun,” under his breath before moving on. The girl practically fainted right there before snatching up the paper without a second’s more hesitation, only to be left staring open-mouthed at the bright red ‘100%’ emblazoned across the top of it. She’d gotten a perfect score. She’d done it before, but never on a test this important, and the sudden release of stress left her feeling so light and bubbly that she dazedly thought she might float right up out of her seat and through the ceiling and into the clouds.

She couldn’t force the giddy smile off her face no matter how hard she tried, and as soon as Iruka-sensei said they could leave she was out the door and running for the practice field; she couldn’t remember feeling so happy ever in her whole life except for the day Naruto had finally said they were friends. She couldn’t wait to see him! She was positive he’d gotten a good grade too and she didn’t care how much her mama might frown when she found out about it, she planned to buy the both of them ramen and anko dumplings just as soon as she could get her hands on him and drag him to the nearest shopping district; they definitely deserved it!

She swung around the last of the trees that bordered the field and immediately caught sight of a head of bright yellow hair. “Naruto-kun!” she called, still smiling so wide she was almost giggling with it. “Naruto-kun c’mon! We’re goin’ to Ichiraku’s, it’s my treat…”

She trailed off as she got closer to her friend’s huddled form, smile finally slipping off her face as she took in his slumped shoulders and bowed head properly for the first time. “Naruto-kun?” she prompted, wide green eyes taking in the miserable curve of his knobby spine worriedly. “Naruto-kun what’s wrong? Did something happen?”

“N-no Sakura-chan,” the boy told her, voice wobbling in a way she’d never heard before, thin shoulders shaking and still not looking at her. “Something didn’t happen.” He sniffled wetly and his breath hitched and it was like the ground disappeared out from under her feet when she realized her best friend was crying. “D-didn’t…I d-d-didn’t p-pass the test S-Sakura-chan. I f-f-failed.”

“What?!” she cried in disbelief, throwing aside the piece of paper she had been so proud of mere seconds before in favor of spinning him around to face her. “You failed?! Naruto-kun, that can’t be right!”

“W-well it is,” he corrected her, voice small and defeated as he tried to wipe the evidence of his tears away with a swipe of one skinny arm and only succeeding in smearing saline and snot all across his droopy whiskered cheeks. “Here, see-see for yourself.”

He thrust the paper clutched in his other hand out to her and she took it with a lump in her throat, her own eyes filling with tears as she looked at the ugly red ‘0%’ scrawled cruelly, unnecessarily large over the top half of his answer sheet. “Oh Naruto-kun…” she whispered, feeling like someone had taken a dull knife and started carving up into her ribcage and around her heart with it. “I’m so sorry. I’m-”

She paused and blinked, ignoring the few tears that escaped with the motion, furrowing her brow in confusion. “Naruto-kun, this says you said the answer to question number six was ‘8’.”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, wet blue gaze still focused on the ground under his scuffed sandals. “Yeah an’ I thought I got that one right too, cause it was talking about kunai, like that problem you showed me yesterday, but I guess I did it wrong somehow, or-”

“But Naruto-kun,” she interrupted him, the beginnings of a righteous frown starting to tug down the corners of her mouth. “That’s the right answer. I know it is, cause that’s the answer I wrote too, and I got it right.”

“It is?” he questioned in amazement, scrubbing at his face again, this time doing a better job of clearing away the lingering reside from his crying jag. “Well, I guess it just got marked wrong along with everything else, but it doesn’t really matter, getting one question right isn’t enough to-”

“Naruto-kun,” she interrupted through gritted teeth, narrow-eyed gaze flying over the paper as the simmering cook-pot of anger in her belly once more started to seethe and roil. “Naruto-kun, a lot of these answers are right. Not all of ‘em, but more than enough to pass; in fact, as far as I can tell you answered all but two questions right on this test.”

“What?” Naruto gasped, leaning over her shoulder to scan the paper for himself. “Are you sure? Maybe we both got different versions a the test, an’ stuff got moved around between them so it just looks like I got it right?”

“No, look,” she snatched up her discarded test and held them up side-by-side so he could see what she meant. “See, they’re all in the exact same order. These are the same tests, only I got a hundred and you got a zero.” The red marks on their papers stared boldly back up at them, as though mocking her building outrage. “Mizuki-sensei failed you on purpose. He gave you a zero for no reason.”

“Um, Sakura-chan?” Naruto spoke up tentatively, instinctively taking a step back from his friend. “Are you okay?”

The girl was actually shaking with rage now, the papers starting to crumple and rip in her mercilessly tightening hold. “Naruto-kun,” she choked out, struggling with all her might to keep from yelling. “Do you keep all your test papers? The ones that get handed back after they’re graded?”

“Um, yeah,” he confirmed meekly, not really wanting to risk drawing the focus of her ire onto himself. “Yeah I think so; I keep ‘em in the drawer by my bed.”

“Go get them please,” she enunciated clearly, chin up and jaw clenched, steely-eyed glare fixed somewhere over his left shoulder as she spoke. “Go get them and bring them to my house as fast as you can. I think I know what’s going on.”

The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up now and he nodded fervently, already backing away toward the street. “Sure, Sakura-chan, sure. Whatever you say.”

“Good. Meet me at my house in ten minutes.”

-

All together it took less than an hour to find, match-up, and arrange all of Naruto’s tattered, torn, and dog-eared test sheets with Sakura’s corresponding (much less abused) copies. It took just over yet another hour to check the questions he’d gotten back marked wrong against the ones she’d gotten marked right, going through and underlining and circling bits and pieces with different, brightly colored pencils where needed. The conclusion they drew was nothing short of damning.

Sakura had been able to push aside her emotions for the better part of three hours now, shoving everything down deep and coiling it up into a ball that sat like a lit coal at the bottom of her ribcage and festered and stewed while she ignored it as best she could, or else using it to help give her energy during their frantic search for the missing pieces of the puzzle. But now, as she gazed blankly down at the sea of white and black and red spread out across the petal-pink carpet of her bedroom floor, she could feel that ball starting to unravel, unspooling faster and faster the longer she sat there unmoving and rendered mute.

She wasn’t sure how to describe what she was feeling at that exact moment; she didn’t have a name for it. It didn’t feel like rage or frustration or pain or heartache like she had felt before she’d had her worst fears confirmed, but at the same time it felt like a huge mish-smash of all those things and more, all at the same time. Whatever this as of yet unnamed emotion was, all she knew was it left her body cold and her eyes unusually dry. She didn’t feel like crying or screaming or throwing things; she didn’t even feel like speaking. She just felt numb.

“Why that cheating, lying, no good, scum-sucking, bastard!”

Naruto, on the other hand, had no such compunctions.

“I can’t believe this! I mean, I knew that guy hated me but I never thought he’d go this far, ya know? I knew I got some of those answers right, too! What a slimy, ferret-faced, jerkwad!”

‘Hate’? The word shook something loose inside her head. Yes…yes, that was what she was feeling. Hatred. She hated Mizuki-sensei. She wanted him to pay for what he’d done, for the undue suffering he’d caused her friend. She hated him. With this revelation came clarity, with that clarity came acceptance, and with acceptance came anger.

“Naruto-kun,” she called softly, cutting off his building tirade. “Naruto-kun he can’t get away with this. Not anymore; he can’t.” She clenched her small, shaking fists until the boney ridge of her knuckles turned white and bloodless. “This isn’t just wrong or unfair, this is illegal. He can’t do this, no matter how much he hates you. He’s going to get in real trouble for this.”

“Hah?” Naruto blinked at her, tilting his head to one side like a confused cat. “Trouble from who?”

“From Iruka-sensei!” she exploded, shooting to her feet and starting to stalk back and forth across the length of her room, careful not to disturb the delicate balance of papers with her pacing. “From Iruka-sensei an’ the other teachers an’ the Hokage an’ from his own mama for all I care, but he is definitely getting in trouble!”

“How?”

“What do you mean ‘how’?!” she yelled, rounding on him.

“I mean what I said,” the boy responded obstinately, not the least bit intimidated by her outrage since he knew it wasn’t directed at him. “How? How’s he gonna get in trouble for this?”

“What are you-Cause we’re gonna tell on ‘im, that’s how!” She couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem the least bit upset when she herself felt like a bottle of soda someone had shaken up and let the top off of. “We’re gonna go to Iruka-sensei an’ tell him all about this an’ then he’ll-”

“Then he’ll what?” he prompted, crossing his arms over his chest. “What’s he gonna do?”

“He-he’ll tell the Hokage, of course,” she faltered, leaving off her pacing to stare at him, green eyes huge and uncomprehending in her small, pale face. “He’ll tell the Hokage an’-”

“An’ old man Hokage’ll do what? Fire ‘im? Why would he?” Naruto sighed and shook his head. “Sakura-chan, you might not a noticed, but nobody in the village really likes me very much. What makes you think your Iruka-sensei ‘ll even believe us?”

“Because we have proof, Naruto-kun,” she insisted, though her voice sounded weak even to her own ears. “We got lots a evidence an’ proof that Mizuki-sensei is a mean old jerk; if we show Iruka-sensei, I’m sure he can do something about it…”

“Why?” Naruto questioned with the quiet, bone-weary resignation born of a short, hard life of continual disappointment. “I think him and Mizuki-sensei were on the same genin team as kids or somethin’. Why would he choose to believe us instead a him? We could be lyin’; we could a changed the papers ourselves. Everyone knows I’m dead-last for a reason Sakura-chan. Why should Iruka-sensei stick his neck out for me when he doesn’t even know me?”

“B-Because it’s the right thing to do,” she sobbed, helpless to stop the flood of tears that came as she registered the defeat written into every line of her best friend’s body. “B-Because Iruka-sensei is a good person, an’ cause he should. He’s gotta.”

“No, he don’t,” he corrected her, not unkindly, and mustered up a tired smile for her that looked much too old on his round face. “He don’t gotta. He’s not gonna listen to us Sakura-chan. We’re just kids.”

Sakura took in a wet, shuddering breath and opened her mouth to keep arguing despite the yawning chasm of hopelessness in her belly that told her she was arguing in vain, only to pause as his words trickled into her brain and set off a spark somewhere in the back of her mind.

“You’re right Naruto-kun,” she breathed, eyes glazing over as that spark caught fire inside her head and a plan began to take shape. “You’re right. We are just kids. But what if we weren’t just us, just kids. What if we got another grown-up to help us, to say we were right? Someone Iruka-sensei would respect and have to listen to even if he didn’t want to. What then?”

Naruto frowned dubiously at her, eyes squinting nearly shut as he considered. “Well…I guess maybe he’d have to listen at least a little, if another grown-up took our side. But what kinda grown-up would that be? Iruka-sensei is a real ninja; a chuunin. The only person higher than him that he’d have to listen to would be a-”

“A jounin,” Sakura finished for him, a sly, cat-like smile starting to curl around the corners of her mouth as the last few jigsaw pieces of her plan clicked and fell into place. “We’re gonna need a jounin.”

Chapter Text

They skipped school the next day, and Sakura absolutely refused to feel guilty about it. It was the second to last day before summer vacation and everyone knew that meant all they would be doing in class was running through practice drills in the schoolyard or sitting quietly in study hall, bored out of their minds as they ‘reviewed’ their notes. That wasn’t important, but this was. This was like a mission, an important mission, like practice. Iruka-sensei would understand and her mama would…well what her mama didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

They’d been camped out in the bushes across the street from the jounin clubhouse all morning and most of the afternoon and so far, they hadn’t had much luck.

“What about that one?”

Sakura inched forward on her belly like a caterpillar until she could peer through a gap in the leaves in the direction Naruto was pointing. She shook her head. “No, she’s too young. Iruka-sensei might not listen to someone that much younger than he is, even if she is higher ranked.”

It had been the same all day; everyone they’d seen was either too old, too young, or, more often than not, too scary to approach for what they had in mind. And what with jounin being in such high demand for missions outside of the village, they’d only seen less than two handfuls of people enter the clubhouse all day, and even fewer exit. It was disheartening to say the least, and her initial enthusiasm for her plan had long since waned.

Naruto sighed and rolled over to sprawl on his back and stare up at the cloudless sky through the gaps in the brambles. “Face it Sakura-chan, this idea is a dud.”

“Don’t say that!” she cried, stung despite the fact that she’d been thinking along those same lines for hours now. “It could still work.”

The boy scrambled to sit up so he could face her. “But there’s just not a lot a choices, ya know? There’s a lot less jounin than chuunin, an’ you already said ‘no’ to most of ‘em.”

She carefully crawled backwards until she was free to sit up and turn to him as well, bright green eyes shining with unshed tears. “I just really want this to work! We only have this one chance an’ if it doesn’t work then-” –then I’ve failed you, just like everyone else.

She bit her lip hard and fought off the urge to cry. Crying wouldn’t help; it wouldn’t stop people from being mean to her friend, and it wouldn’t solve their problems. Besides, crying was for babies. Her voice sounded very small to her ears when she repeated, “I just really want this to work.”

He softened and reached out to set one warm hand carefully on her cheek where a few tears had escaped despite her best efforts. “I know ya do Sakura-chan. An’ there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that, but maybe it’s time we think about tryin’ something else. Maybe I could just take the test again?”

“That wouldn’t help. Ferret-Face would just fail you again.” She scrubbed at her clammy cheeks, swiping the remnants of saline away determinedly, jaw set. “I know this can work, I just know it. We just gotta find someone who will help us.”

She saw movement out of the corner of her eye; a figure made up of navy and green exiting the building on the opposite side of the street. She glanced back at her friend, the play of shadow and light over her pale features making her look half-feral in the gloom beneath the bushes. “That one, we’ll ask that one. An’ no matter what, we aren’t gonna take ‘no’ for an answer, right?”

Blue eyes caught the shifting light, making them gleam unnaturally bright and throwing the stubborn cast to his features into harsh relief. In that moment, he looked much older than six. “Right.”

-

Following the jounin turned out to be both easier and harder than they first imagined. Like playing ninja-hide-and-seek only better and more fun cause this time it was for real. It was tough because they had to be quieter and sneakier than either of them had ever had cause to be in their whole lives, and they had to be careful not to follow too close while at the same time making sure their target didn’t get so far ahead that they lost sight of him. But it wasn’t like the jounin made himself hard to track.

He meandered his way through the village like he had nothing better to be doing, shoulders slouched and hands in his pockets. He gave every appearance of being the kind of person that if he had passed her mama on the street, she would have sniffed and stood up straighter just on principle.

They almost lost him once when he abruptly detoured through the bustling midday marketplace of the middle ward, but thankfully even with his terrible posture he was tall enough and his scruffy gray hair was distinctive enough that they relocated him without too much trouble. A full twenty minutes after leaving the clubhouse they finally followed him into one of the older apartment complexes that straddled the border between the middle and lower wards.

“He could a made that walk in half the time if he didn’t walk so slow,” Naruto grumbled as they crouched around the corner from the main courtyard, the shadow cast by the building in the late afternoon sun providing the perfect hiding place while they planned their next move. “An’ why did he go through the market anyway? He didn’t even buy anything; he just went in a big circle for no reason!”

“Shh!” Sakura hissed and nudged her friend in the knee with one small sandaled foot. She was busy leaning out around the corner, stretching up on her tiptoes and craning her neck to try and see where their quarry had disappeared to. “I think he went in one of the apartments on the top floor; we’ll have to knock and check. ‘sides, what makes you think a jounin wouldn’t notice two Academy students followin’ him? I think he probably cut through the market hoping to lose us-”

“You thought right,” a deep voice intoned from behind them, making both children jump and spin around guiltily.

It was the jounin they’d been following, hands still shoved carelessly in his pockets as he surveyed them with his one visible eye. His hitai-ate was pulled down at an angle to cover his left eye and most of his face was covered by a cloth mask the same navy color as his shinobi uniform. He looked a lot taller up close and a lot younger too; lanky and too-long in a way that his loose uniform couldn’t completely disguise. With his messy hair (silver up close, not gray) and ill-fitting clothes he reminded her more of a particularly disheveled scarecrow rather than what she imagined a responsible grown-up ninja to be. Her spirits plummeted anew at the thought that they might have chosen wrong after all.

The jounin looked them up and down. “Hm, I figured you two must be at least genin, to have the kind of patience and tenacity it takes to not only sit in the bushes outside the clubhouse all day-” The children tensed. Busted. “-but to also keep up with me all the way here.” His eye curved up in what might’ve been a smile or just a very good facsimile of one. “I would say I’m impressed, but mostly I’m just annoyed.” His eye narrowed, all traces of false good humor gone as quickly as they’d appeared. “You’ve had your fun. Now beat it.”

He moved past them toward the stairs that led up to the third floor and it took several moments of stunned immobility before the two of them recovered enough to scramble after him.

“But we didn’t do this for fun!” Sakura insisted as they clattered up the metal staircase, setting the structure shuddering and creaking warningly. “We did this cause we need your help.”

“Not interested,” the man (boy, her mind corrected. No way he’s anything more or less than a teenager with an attitude like that) rebuked her flatly without breaking stride.

“You don’t even know what we want yet!” the girl snapped, frustrated.

“Yeah, that’s because I’m not interested.” He stopped in front of one of the doors that lined the open-air walkway, the numbers three-six-one barely visible as faded outlines in peeling gold paint at the top. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a very important appointment with my pillow that I simply can’t be late too.”

“Wait!” Panicked desperation lent her speed she hadn’t known she possessed and she managed to squeeze between the older boy and the doorframe before he could do more than reach for the knob, effectively barring his way.

He glared down at her, irritated. “Scram.”

“We can’t,” Naruto piped up.

“Not until you hear us out,” Sakura clarified. She set her chin stubbornly and glared right back up (up and up and up) at him, unafraid. He wasn’t scary, he was just a bully, and Naruto had taught her how to deal with those just fine. The first rule was ‘show no fear’. This was their only chance, and she wasn’t about to let it go without a fight.

“What part of ‘not interested’ are you not getting?” the teen growled. “Shouldn’t you two still be in school anyway? There are teachers at the Academy, right? And aren’t they the ones who are actually supposed to help you with your problems? Go bother one of them.”

“We can’t,” Naruto repeated in a tone of deep long-suffering, as if the jounin was the one being purposefully difficult.

“One of the teachers at the Academy is the problem we need help with,” Sakura explained. Given permission, the words just flooded out of her. “He’s been cheating Naruto-kun out of his grades and making him always take last place in class even though he doesn’t deserve it. An’-an’-an’ he ignores him when he tries to ask questions an’ he bullies him even though he’s a grown-up and Naruto-kun is just a kid so it’s not fair an’ we can’t let him get away with it anymore. He failed Naruto-kun’s advancement test even though we know he really passed!”

The teen stared at her. “And how do you know that?”

“Cause I passed and we checked his answers next to mine and he got a lot of them right, so we decided to check the rest of his papers an’ tests to see if anything else was wrong and it was.” She tugged on the strap of her backpack, making it bounce and making the contents rattle. “We got proof, right here.”

“If you’ve really got that kind of proof, then what do you need me for?”

“To back us up,” Naruto put in. “We figure they won’t listen to us, so we need a grown-up to go with us an’ say we ain’t lyin’.”

The teen quirked his uncovered eyebrow at them in blatant disbelief. “Do I look like a grown-up to you?”

“No,” Sakura admitted.

“But you’re the best we got,” Naruto agreed.

“Wow, you two really know how to flatter a guy,” the teen drawled. He appraised them contemplatively for a few more long, quiet moments before letting out an explosive sigh that somehow made his shoulders slump even further. He flicked his gaze to Sakura. “This was your idea wasn’t it?”

She nodded mutely, not trusting herself to speak. Her heart was in her throat and her stomach kept swooping and rolling in a way that made her feel sick. She had no idea what they would do if he really refused them. It wasn’t like they had any way to make him help them if he actually didn’t want to.

He shrugged at them. “Okay,” he said simply and turned to amble back toward the staircase. Again, the two of them were too shocked to follow for several drawn out seconds before their limbs unlocked and they went tearing after him.

“Just ‘okay’?” Naruto demanded as they descended the stairs once more, jumping every other step and making the rusty support beams groan in protest. “That’s it? Does that mean you’ll help us?”

“Sure, why not?” The teen turned unerringly in the direction of the Academy, apparently unconcerned that his much longer stride meant the kids nearly had to run to keep up. “Not like I had anything better to do but sleep, and I probably wasn’t actually even going to do that.”

“Why?” Naruto wondered bluntly, squinting suspiciously up at the older boy as he jogged at his side. “You didn’t want to help us. What made you change your mind so fast?”

That was a good question, but… “Maybe we shouldn’t push it, Naruto-kun,” the girl cautioned. “We don’t want him to change his mind back.”

There was definitely amusement in the teen’s charcoal eye as he watched the boy process this information. “You should listen to her,” he said, unvoiced laughter tangled around the words. “She’s obviously the smart one.”

Sakura bristled at the backhanded compliment, angry words already bubbling up on her tongue ready to spill over in her friend’s defense but Naruto spoke up before she could do more than puff up like an angry cat. “I know,” he nodded without an ounce of bitterness. “That’s why she’s the leader.”

Sakura deflated with a great whoosh of air and stared at her friend as best she could around the teen’s moving legs. “‘The leader’…? Leader of what Naruto-kun?”

“Our team!” he chirped cheerfully.

“T-? But Naruto-kun we haven’t been sorted into a team yet, we’re not even genin!”

“So? We’re still a team.”

The jounin snorted. “A team of two?”

“Yep.” Naruto grinned up at him. “An’ when we do become genin an’ we do get put in teams, then Sakura-chan will really be team leader, ya know, for real.”

Sakura couldn’t help the blush that spread over her face as the implicit meaning in his words; team leaders were people who were put in charge of missions partly because of their qualifications in the field, but the high esteem of their team members were what kept them in that position nearly indefinitely. He trusts me, she thought dazedly. Trusts me so much he’d be willing to bet his life on it.

“But it’s not just your choice Naruto-kun,” she whispered, eyes on the ground and wishing that just this once her hair wasn’t tied back so her fringe would hide her face. “Genin are in teams of three, and we’ll have a jounin-sensei, and everyone has to vote on things like that. They might not choose me.”

Her friend stared at her, eyes wide and perplexed and unclouded-sky blue. “Why wouldn’t they?” As if they very idea that anyone could not believe in her as much as he did had simply never occurred to him.

Her heart swelled and she beamed at the boy, helpless to do anything else in the face of his unwavering loyalty. He smiled his too-wide fox smile back at her, happy that she was happy even if he didn’t entirely understand the cause. Neither child noticed the way the teen had observed their interactions with careful interest, nor the way he looked from Sakura to Naruto and back, assessing. This girl could be good for Naruto, was already good for him. Something to keep in mind going forward…

He filed the information away and broke his silence. “We’re here,” he pointed out lazily, in case they hadn’t noticed. “Which room are we looking for?”

Sakura looked around in surprise; they were indeed standing in the training yard just outside the entrance of the Academy. She hadn’t been paying attention. “Room two-oh-one,” she told him. “School’s been out a couple hours since it’s a half-day, but Iruka-sensei should still be here. He always stays late to grade and stuff.” (Although, school was ending tomorrow, so there weren’t any papers left to grade…She hadn’t thought about that, oh please let him still be here!)

“Umino Iruka?” the teen asked with a hint of recognition as he led them into the building and down the appropriate hallway. “He’s your sensei? Huh. Well he did always say he wanted to be a teacher…”

Sakura frowned, about to ask how the older boy knew her teacher, but they’d arrived at the right door by then and she promptly forgot everything else as she was abruptly reminded of exactly why they were there. She glanced up at the teen with a hint of pleading in her big green eyes but he just cocked an eyebrow at her (You’re the one who invited me remember? You do it.) and she scowled at him in return (Fine. Meanie.). She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders and put her chin up. She was here for Naruto. She wasn’t allowed to be nervous. She braced herself before sliding the door open, a very tiny, very shameful part of her praying that Iruka-sensei wouldn’t be there.

But he was there, sitting at his desk bent over some end-of-the-term paperwork and he looked up at the unexpected intrusion with some surprise which only intensified when he saw who was standing there. “Sakura-I mean, Haruno-kun! And Uzumaki-kun! What are you two doing here? You weren’t in class today, I thought you must be out sick-” He finally noticed the third member of their group. His eyes went wide and he yelped with shock, leaping to his feet and nearly tripping over his desk in the process. “K-Kakashi-senpai! What are you doing here?”

Naruto and Sakura both blinked-‘Senpai’?-and turned to reevaluate the shinobi standing a half-step behind them in the doorway. He certainly didn’t look like he could be anyone’s senpai, except maybe theirs, and even then only through seniority. Also, ‘Kakashi’? They looked him up and down again, and nodded to themselves. That fit.

Kakashi’s uncovered eye crinkled in another smile-not-smile and he raised a hand in greeting. “Yo. Don’t mind me, I’m just along for the ride.”

“What do you-?” Iruka’s gaze moved from the jounin to the two kids and back again and an expression of dawning horror and understanding began to spread over his tanned face. “Oh my God, did they-what did they-how bad is it that you had to get involved-what did they do?!”

“Oh no, they didn’t do anything, really,” the jounin reassured him, both hands coming up to pat the air in a ‘calm-down’ gesture. “Maa, well, it’s a bit hard to explain actually, and like I said, I’m mostly just here for moral support, so, ah, why don’t I let-Sakura-chan was it?-do the talking instead?”

Sakura glared at him over her shoulder even as she obligingly walked over to the desk, only refraining from sticking her tongue out at the older boy through extreme force of will. Bully. She turned her attention back to an obviously confused Iruka and tried very hard to pretend her palms weren’t sweating as she shrugged off her backpack.

“We wanted to talk to you Iruka-sensei, um, w-well, me an’-me and Naruto wanted to talk to you because, because uh, w-w-well,” she couldn’t keep her voice from stuttering with nerves and she bit the inside of her cheek hard as frustrated tears welled up in her eyes. No, she couldn’t give up-she wouldn’t! She could do this-for Naruto-kun!

Naruto burst in before she could gather her courage enough to attempt to stammer her way through the rest of her rehearsed explanation. “Because Mizuki-sensei is a big, fat, jerk!” He hurried across the room to plant himself firmly beside her, fists clenched at his sides and bottom lip stuck out mulishly, daring Iruka to contradict him. “He’s a bully, and a jerk, and Sakura-chan says I don’t hafta take it no more, ya know, sos I’m not!”

“Y-Yeah!” Sakura agreed, some of her nervousness abating now that her friend was there to back her up. She hadn’t realized she’d been trembling until she stopped. “That’s why! Here Iruka-sensei.”

She thumped her backpack down on the edge of the desk and the other three occupants of the room winced in concert at the sight of the blindingly pink object and the big neon butterflies emblazoned across it. It was easily one of the most horrendously ugly things any of them had ever seen and privately, Sakura thought so too, which is precisely why she only used it to carry super-secret important things like their binder full of evidence: because she knew it would never, ever get stolen. She reached in and withdrew the binder and held it out to the chuunin, eyes fierce and mouth stubborn. “Here; it’s easier if you look for yourself.”

Iruka recovered and took the binder from her, a frown of confusion making the scar across the bridge of his nose stretch. “What’s-?” He opened the binder and scanned the first few pages and the rest of the question never made it out of his mouth. He sat down hard in his chair and stared mutely down at the binder, flipping through page after page of annotated, color-coded, and paired up test copies in complete silence.

He was quiet for so long that Sakura’s nerves came back in full force and even Naruto had started fidgeting by the time he finished. He took a deep breath and carefully closed the folder, propping his elbows on the shiny lacquered cover and lacing his hands before his chin. His face was wiped completely free of emotion when he finally spoke. “What is this?” His voice was very soft. Scarily so.

“It’s proof of wrong-doing,” Kakashi spoke up and made both kids jump again. Neither had heard him move but he was standing behind them once more. “This Mizuki-sensei these two are talking about has apparently been falsifying Naruto’s test results in a blatant discriminatory campaign to get him kicked out of the Academy. Or at the very least, make it so that he’ll never be able to become a ninja.”

Sakura couldn’t help the small gasp she let out at that. She hadn’t thought about it like that, she had just assumed Mizuki was failing Naruto because he didn’t like him; she hadn’t thought far enough ahead to think that there might be an endgame reason for it. And judging from the way her friend had gone pale under his tan, he hadn’t either.

Iruka returned Kakashi’s neutral stare with an utterly bland one of his own (and the jounin wondered idly if he was the only one who noticed the storm beginning to brew behind the apparently composed schoolteacher’s eyes). “And this has been going on ever since Uzumaki-kun was placed in his class at the beginning of the year?”

Kakashi flicked a one-eyed glance at the pink-haired girl at his side and she obediently piped up. “Yes sir, as far as we can tell. We checked the dates and put them in order from newest to oldest and it looks like it goes all the way back to the very first test they took in class.” Her eyes were steely and her voice was dark with suppressed anger when she added, “He should have gotten a perfect score on that test too.”

Iruka took a deep breath and calmly reopened the binder to flip to the test in question (Kakashi was the only one who noticed his hand shook very faintly as he did so). He scanned the two answer sheets, verifying what they’d said was true, before flipping to the very first entry in the binder, showing the most recent test-the advancement exam-and stared down at the two conflicting grades (100%, 0%) scrawled across them (the hair-fine trembling spread to his shoulders). He looked back up at Kakashi. “And why did they bring you here with them? Why didn’t they just come to me by themselves?”

“We didn’t think you’d believe us unless we had a high-ranked grown-up with us,” Sakura answered quietly. “Cause we’re just kids an’ Mizuki-sensei is your friend.”

Something cracked in Iruka’s calm façade at that. “How? How could you think I wouldn’t believe you? Especially after you showed me this folder.”

“Why would you?” Naruto asked, like it was just that simple. Like he was so used to people assuming everything that came out his mouth was a lie, he couldn’t fathom how an adult could just believe him (believe in him), or any other child, at face-value.

Iruka’s calm broke completely at that and he shoved his chair back from his desk and came around to kneel on the ground in front of the boy, putting his hands on his thin shoulders and looking him dead in the eye. “Well believe me when I say that Mizuki is not going to get away with this. He won’t. I’ll run him down and tie him up and drag him to Hokage Tower myself if I have to, but Naruto-kun, I need you to look at me and understand that I never would have let him get away with this for so long if I had had even the slightest idea that he-” He exhaled roughly, training his eyes on the ceiling and mentally counting to ten in order to compose himself before continuing. “He will not get away with this.” It sounded more like a threat then a promise.

Naruto’s eyes were huge in his small face and he smiled tentatively at the chuunin. “Really?”

Iruka smiled back and nodded once, firmly, making his ponytail bob with the motion. “Really.” Now that sounded like a promise.

The boy beamed, displaying all his sharp white teeth. “Thanks a lot Iruka-sensei!” He threw his skinny arms around the man’s chest before he could respond, squeezing with all the might contained in his scrawny six-year-old body.

Iruka didn’t seem to know how to react for a prolonged moment, before he settled on patting the boy’s back a few times awkwardly. “You’re welcome.” He extracted himself from the impromptu embrace and got back to his feet. His face was serious again when he addressed Kakashi. “I’ll go to the Tower immediately and see if Sandaime-sama can speak to me right away. Either way his grade will be changed by tomorrow and he will be graduating with the rest of his class.” His expression turned thunderous. “Mark my words; Mizuki is never going to teach in this Academy, nor any other school, ever again if I have anything to say about it.”

“Good.” There was something viciously satisfied in the way the jounin nearly snarled the word, but whatever it was vanished in the next breath when he gave another fake smile to the teacher and grabbed a child each by the scruff. “Well you’re obviously very busy and we don’t want to take up any more of your time. We’ll let you get back to it now. Ja matta ne!”

And with that he steered both children out of the room by the backs of their shirts, down the hallway and out the door before they could do more than start to wiggle and squawk in protest. He dumped them unceremoniously on the sidewalk that lined the road by the school, making them stumble. His voice was flat and disinterested once more. “There. I helped you. Good deed done. That should balance my karma quota for the rest of the year and now everyone gets to go home happy.”

Once Sakura regained her balance she turned back to the jounin and bowed politely, lightly elbowing Naruto into doing the same. “Thank you very much Kakashi-san,” she told him formally. He may have been a moody jerk, but he’d still helped them and she could be grateful for that. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Yeah, thanks Kakashi-onii-san!” Naruto nodded in frantic consensus and favored him with a bright fox smile that made his whisker-markings bunch. “You’re the greatest!”

The jounin's whole body twitched. “Yeah, alright, whatever. Just don’t mention it, to anyone. Ever.” He shoved his hands back in his pockets and slouched off down the street, throwing one hand up in what might have been a parting wave as he loped away unhurriedly. “Bye.”

Sakura noticed he very specifically didn’t say ‘see you later’ like he had to Iruka-sensei but she didn’t question it. Something about the way he was walking was bothering her, or maybe it was the way he held himself. She chewed on her lip as she watched him go, trying to figure out what it was. Something off in the way he held his shoulder, or maybe his side, too stiff? Like it hurt to let his arms swing or his torso twist as he walked. She furrowed her brow. Well he had been leaving the clubhouse, and he hadn’t been one of the ones who went in. It was very possible he’d just gotten back in the village from a mission and the realization made her feel more than a little guilty that they had dragged him away from his bed if that was the case. Still, if he was wounded, surely he would go to the hospital? Any of the medics there could fix him right up…

“Hey, hey, Kakashi-onii-san wasn’t so bad, huh?” Her friend nudged her with a grin. “His attitude stinks but he wasn’t so bad, ya know? It was pretty cool of him to help, even if he did make a big deal out of it.”

She shook off her musings and smiled back at her friend. He was a jounin, he could look after himself. “Yeah and just think, this time tomorrow, we’re going to be out for a whole month! And you’re going to be moving up with everyone else!” She was so happy she could burst but she settled for pulling the boy into a tight hug. “Thank you for listening to me Naruto-kun.”

He hugged her back just as tight. “Thank you Sakura-chan! Without you, I never would a thought that Ferret-Face was failing me on purpose. I might never have become a ninja without you!”

They pulled away to grin at each other some more, the both of them so happy and thankful they didn’t have the words for it. They both just knew that they couldn’t have done any of it without each other.

-

Sakura barely slept that night, and in the morning she got dressed and scarfed her breakfast, ignoring her mama’s admonishments to slow down, and ran out the door without even bothering to brush her hair, something she’d never done before in her whole life (“-one hundred strokes every morning and every night..you have such beautiful hair sweetheart, you have to learn to take care of it-"), though her ribbon was tied faithfully in place.

She made it to the school in record time and shoved through the crush of students crowded in the lobby around the notice board without stopping to apologize or listen to the latest gossip (“Did you hear they arrested Mizuki-sensei last night? It’s true! Apparently he tried to steal some important scroll from the Hokage Tower, can you believe it? Wonder what could a made him snap like that. He was always so nice to me…”).

Her class’ rankings had been posted and she paused for only half a second to stare in surprise when she saw that she had placed third in class (below the two Uchiha clan kids) before she mentally shook herself into motion and pressed on. Naruto was small but his sunshine-yellow hair stood out and she found him without too much trouble. He was staring over the heads of the students gathered in front of him with his mouth hanging open, eyes stretched wide in amazement.

“Naruto-kun?” she prompted worriedly before following his fixed gaze to where it was fastened on his own name and gasped aloud with joy at what she saw.

Out of twenty five kids, ‘Uzumaki Naruto’ was ranked sixth in his class (‘Nara Shikamaru’ was now ranked twenty-fifth). Well above average. She jumped up and down and squealed and ignored the incredulous, contemptuous stares being thrown their way, seizing her friend’s hands and pulling him around in a circle with her. “Naruto-kun, that’s so great! Sixth in class!”

He stared at her, still too shocked for the knowledge to really sink in. “Sixth in class,” he whispered wonderingly.

“Above average!” Sakura cheered.

That seemed to jolt him back to awareness and he grinned wildly at her, laughing with breathless delight as they continued to dance faster and faster around in a circle in the middle of the hallway, scattering indignant classmates left and right. “Above average!” he cried excitedly. “Above average!”

Not Dead-Last. Not anymore.

Chapter Text

For Sakura, learning to walk up walls was mostly an accident. Two weeks into summer break found her and Naruto racing pell-mell through the overcrowded marketplace in the heart of the lower ward, dodging and weaving through the crush of people pressing in on all sides. They were being chased.

“Did ya ever think old man Miyazaki would really call the cops on us?” Naruto panted as they hung a sharp left and slid under yet another fruit stand to avoid taking out a man with a fully-loaded cart (they would have jumped the cart had it been empty).

“Never,” Sakura gasped, ignoring the loud, colorful swearing being hollered after them by the irate fruit seller. “We didn’t even do anything! All we did was stand in his store to get out of the way of that wagon; we were barely even in there for more than a second!”

“Yeah!” the boy agreed as they split apart to avoid an approaching clump of afternoon shoppers. “An’ we did not track mud all over his floor; it already looked like that when we got there, ya know?”

“Uh-huh,” she huffed as they came back together once the crowd had passed. “His place is always a mess no matter what but he always blames us! Like he don’t even notice the dirt ‘till we walk by an’ then it’s magically all because of us.”

“Yeah, like it’s somehow our fault his place is a dump.” He pulled up sharply and looked back the way they came, craning his neck and shading his eyes in a futile attempt to see through the mass of people milling around the square. “Ya think we lost ‘em?”

“Dunno,” she wheezed, grateful for the reprieve. Her chest had started aching with the strain of running almost six blocks ago. She bent over to put her hands on her knees and try to suck air back into her starved lungs. “Maybe. I sure hope so. I don’t think I can keep this up much longer.”

“Yeah me neither,” her friend agreed easily, despite the fact that he barely even looked winded. Sakura envied him his endurance; ever since she’d started running the streets after school with Naruto, her stamina had increased drastically but she still had a long way to go before she could catch up with him. He never seemed to get tired, no matter what they did. “Maybe we should-”

He was interrupted by a piercing whistle so loud it made both children clap their hands over their ears on reflex (a passing Inuzuka woman yipped in pain and dropped her groceries). A cry rang out over the crowd seconds later, taking advantage of the moment of stunned silence the sudden noise had caused. “You there, stop! Stop, thief!”

Thief?” the two gasped in appalled unison.

“We didn’t steal nothin’!” Naruto yelled back indignantly, too angry to think his actions through. He shook his small fist threateningly in the direction of the voice, though they still couldn’t see the speaker. “We didn’t steal nothin’ from nobody an’ I’ll fight anybody who says we did!”

“Naruto-kun, shh! You’ll give away our position!” Sakura hissed in warning. She noticed something out of the corner of her eye and grabbed his hand, turning and dragging him behind her back into the crowd. “ C’mon! That’s the ally with the hole in the wall; we can lose ‘em that way!”

“Well we didn’t steal nothin’,” the boy sniffed mulishly, clearly still upset but allowing himself to be led away without protest. “Can’t believe Miyazaki-jichan would tell ‘em we stole somethin’. We were only in there for like, less than a second!”

“I was wondering how he convinced the cops to come after us,” she admitted as they ducked into the ally. “It didn’t really make sense that they would chase us just cause we tracked mud in his st-”

She stopped so abruptly that Naruto bumped into her but she hardly noticed, too busy gaping in dismay at the wall in front of them-the very solid, uncompromised wall. The hole in the bottom right corner wasn’t there. “Oh no! Oh no, I got them mixed up! This must not be the right one after all!” She didn’t know what had happened. She had been so sure she had it right!

Naruto walked over to the wall and tapped it inquisitively, as though testing its solidity. He crouched on his haunches and cocked his head to one side as he considered the bottom right corner. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, ya know, I think you were right after all. Look, these bricks ‘re different colors down here then the rest a the wall. They must a filled it in in the last couple a days.”

He frowned up at the top of the structure, towering at least six feet above their heads, eyes squinted nearly shut and bottom lip pushed out irritably. “Why’d they go and do a stupid thing like that for? Don’t they know we need this hole for a quick escape route?”

“Naruto-kun I think maybe that’s exactly why they fixed it.” Another whistle sounded behind them, much closer than it had been before and they both jumped. Sakura glanced nervously back at the entrance to their hiding spot, starting to worry for real now. If the police found them she had no idea what would happen. Would they be put in jail? Or worse, would they call her mama and tell on her?

Her whole body started to tremble at the very thought; she would be in so much trouble! And her mama would never ever let her hang out with Naruto-kun again, she just knew it! Wide green eyes roamed frantically around the narrow space, trying to find some other means of escape. There was nothing around but the wall that blocked off the ally from the street beyond and the walls of the buildings on either side. The walls were much too tall for them to climb, and there were no handholds besides. There weren’t even any trash cans to hide behind.

She had just begun to despair of their chances when an idea came to her, flashing into her mind like a bolt from the blue. She eyed the brick of the wall closest to her consideringly. She’d never done it before (but then she’d never tried), but surely it could be done, right? She’d seen grown-up ninja run up walls before, lots of times. And she was a ninja (sort of) so that meant, in theory, that she should be able to do it too. She just had to figure out how to make her feet stick to the wall.

“I think this might be the end of the line for us Sakura-chan,” the boy opined, watching the mouth of the ally himself now, blue eyes focused and face unusually serious. “Iddint anybody who ever gets away from the police once they come after ‘em, ya know. They’re gonna send us over the water.”

“I think you mean ‘up the river’,” the girl corrected absently, distracted by the way her mind whirled as she tried to figure out how to put her new plan into action. She placed her palm flat to the rough brick and tipped her head back to try and see the top of the building. It was at least two stories tall, but if she could just make herself stick long enough so that they could find a place to hide on the roof…She took a step back and lifted her leg parallel to the ground, putting the sole of one small blue sandal flush to the brick. That part was easy, but how to make it stay there…She took a deep breath and focused hard.

“Whichever,” he dismissed, apparently oblivious to the spray of debris and Sakura’s yelp of surprise when she was suddenly shoved back from the wall. “You said they got those freaky cheating eye powers right? How’re we supposed to beat that?”

She crouched to rub her ankle and narrowed her eyes at the wall, mouth going firm with determination. Something had happened, she’d felt something, something strange and fuzzy and warm that she had no name for running from her belly down her leg to her foot when she’d tried to make it stick. She didn’t know what it was, but she did think she knew what she did wrong: she’d tried too hard and made ‘push’ instead of ‘pull’. She wanted the wall to pull her towards it, not push her away. She took a deep breath and put her foot back to the brick and tried to make the fuzzy, fizzy feeling happen again, only softer this time.

And again, there was that spark of something in her stomach, stirred up and waiting expectantly, like silt disturbed from a streambed when you ran your fingers through the water. But this time the feeling didn’t spread, just stayed there buzzing and warm in her belly and didn’t move and her foot slid right off the wall. She stamped that same foot in childish pique and glared at the wall, hands balling into angry fists at her sides. This had to work! It was their only chance!

Belatedly, she remembered her friend’s words and shook her head negatively as she responded. “You’re thinking of the Hyuuga family’s Byakugan. They’re the ones with the white eyes who can see through walls. The Uchiha have the Sharingan, which is sort of the same but isn’t. I could let you borrow ‘Konoha’s Founding Families Through the Ages’ if you promise to take it back to the library when you’re done.” She pressed her foot to the wall again. She had to try at least one more time. She couldn’t give up now.

“Nah,” her friend denied with a shake of his yellow head. “You know me an’ books Sakura-chan, we just don’t get-”

Once again he’s cut off by the shriek of a whistle, this time so close it sounds like it’s right on the street outside the ally and panic jolted through her. They were going to get in so much trouble! She tried to focus but fear made her sloppy and she nearly sobbed in frustration when she was pushed away again. No! This had to work, it just had to!

Even Naruto was starting to look nervous now, backing up slowly until he’s pressed against her side. He reached around without looking to pluck anxiously at the fabric of her dress. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, I think now’s prob’ly a good time to find some place to hide.” But there was no place to hide and it was far past too late to try and make a run for it, and they both knew it.

There were raised voices nearby, heading down the street toward them. “You there, check that ally!”-instinctive terror at the knowledge that they were cornered prey lanced through the both of them-“I’ll check the one on the other side! They can’t have gone too far.”

It was now or never. Sakura took a deep breath and put her foot back to the wall, grabbed her friend’s hand tightly in hers as she pushed off from the wall and ran.

She ran straight up the side of the building, ignoring Naruto’s startled squawk and not pausing to give herself time to think about it too hard. It worked, and right now that was all she cared about. She could think about the ‘how’ once they were safe. Sweat poured down her face and her leg muscles screamed with the strain of the added weight, but she didn’t stop until they were both tumbling over the lip of the roof onto the sun-baked terracotta beyond.

The girl lay there panting and shaking with exhaustion, sprawled out on her back with her best friend lying still and silent next to her, too astonished to ask questions yet. They’d made it, and just in the nick of time. They could hear voices coming from the ally below, grown-up male voices yelling back and forth to one another.

“You find anything?”

“No, no sign of them.”

“Well hurry up and get moving. Miyazaki-san said they’re only Academy students after all so they can’t have made it too far. We’ll find them.”

“Yes sir!”

And then the voices were moving away and relief made her insides turn to jelly. Of course two full-grown ninja wouldn’t think to check for two pre-genin on the rooftops. Her plan had worked, if only just. Meanwhile her friend had recovered from his surprised immobility and was practically vibrating with repressed questions, though thankfully he waited until they could no longer hear the sounds of pursuit before asking them.

He flailed up into a sitting position and stared down at her, blue eyes huge and round with shock and awe. He looked at her like he’d never seen her before and Sakura felt something weird twist in the pit of her tummy. She wasn’t sure she liked that look.

“That was amazing, ya know Sakura-chan!” he burst out, wide fox-smile stretching giddily across his face and making his whiskers scrunch. “I can’t believe you just did that! You ran right up the wall just like a real ninja, ya know? Hey, hey, how’d ya do that? It was so awesome, ya know, I can’t believe it! Can you teach me to do it Sakura-chan, huh, huh, can ya?” He was all but bouncing in place now, too excited to sit still.

She smiled bashfully, cheeks flushing with embarrassed pride now rather than as a result of overheating. She pulled herself up slowly so that she was sitting facing him, wincing when her joints groaned and her body protested the movement. She had gotten them out of danger alright, but she was so tired now she could barely sit up without falling over. Still, she couldn’t help grinning back at her friend. “I dunno how I did it, I just did. I can’t explain it. It was like something inside of me fizzed up and I used it to stick to the wall.”

“‘Fizzed’?” the boy repeated, nose wrinkling in confusion at the word, making him look so much like a bunny she couldn’t help but giggle at him. “Like a can a soda? What’s that mean?”

“No idea.” She shook her head and made the ends of her pink hair sway. “I told you, I don’t know how I did it; I just know what it felt like.” Another idea struck her and she climbed gingerly to her feet. “But I think I know where we can find out. I bet there’s some books on advanced ninja stuff like that at the library.”

Naruto sprang to his feet. “At the library? You sure?” He’d never looked more eager at the prospect of going to the library in his whole life.

“Uh-huh.” She nodded. “An’ there’s still some time before I gotta-before I need to be home for dinner. We could go right now if you want.”

“Let’s go!” the boy cheered. This time, it was his turn to seize her by the hand and drag her after him as they headed off towards their next summer adventure.

-

They don’t make it to the library that night since Sakura’s legs barely held her up long enough to make it another four blocks. Naruto helped her home and waved away her apologies no matter how many times she tried to say them. They agreed to meet bright and early at the library the next morning ‘sos long as you’re feelin’ better Sakura-chan’.

The girl had nodded as she said good-bye but she knew that even if she felt just as bad when she woke up she would find some way to make it there anyway. Naruto couldn’t check out books on his own because he had no parent to sign the library card forms (and because half the time the librarians preferred to pretend he wasn’t there in the first place) so she’d have to be the one to check the books out. She wasn’t going to let him down, not over something like this.

Thankfully after a hearty dinner and an early bedtime she felt much better. She hummed as she brushed her hair and tied her ribbon in place, happy that she wouldn’t have to fake being better so that her friend wouldn’t worry. It felt too much like lying, and she didn’t ever want to lie to Naruto (because he would believe whatever she told him without question and it made her queasy to think of exploiting that, even just a little). She fairly skipped out the door after leaving a note for her mama in case she got back before Sakura did.

The walk from her house to the library is a short one and she made it in record time. It really was still very early, only a few hours past sunrise, and most of the shops in her housing district were still in the process of setting up for the day, meaning the streets were relatively empty and the sidewalks unusually passable. Despite being nowhere near the lower ward market, she still kept a wary eye out for black uniforms baring the Uchiha clan crest emblazoned across the back and shoulder, just in case.

She entered the library and made her way toward her and Naruto’s usual table situated between the children and young adult fiction books. She had made good time and she wasn’t expecting to see her friend for several more minutes at least, the orphanage being closer to the Academy and therefore quite a bit further away, but when she rounded the corner she was surprised to find the boy already sitting at their usual spot.

He was lying half-spread out across the table’s surface, kneeling on his chair with his short arms akimbo, glaring at anyone who came too close as though daring them to try and take it from him. He needn’t have worried. What few people were actually already in the library at this time of the morning gave him a wide berth, sneering and throwing sharp glances of disgust his way as they clustered at the tables as far from him as possible.

Sakura’s eyes still narrowed angrily when she saw her friend being treated in such a way, no matter how commonplace it was. She put her shoulders back and her chin up high as she marched over to the boy, not deigning to give the suspicious looks and low-voiced whispers even a speck of her attention. Let them talk. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Naruto-kun was the nicest, funnest, bestest person ever and they didn’t deserve to have him as a friend anyways, so there.

Her posture relaxed as she approached and the boy looked up and favored her with one of his customary dazzling, sharp-toothed smiles when he spotted her. “Hiya Sakura-chan! Hey, hey look! I got us a place to work already!”

“That’s great Naruto-kun! Now we can get started right away!” She swung her backpack up onto the tables’ surface and hid her smile when her friend predictably drew back from it as if it might bite him.

His face screwed up in distaste at the sight of what he had christened the ‘Backpack of Ugly’. “Maa, Sakura-chan what did you bring that thing for? I thought that was only for super secret important stuff like that time we got Ferret-Face busted.”

“It is,” she confirmed as she climbed into the seat across from him. The public library didn’t have a ‘kids’ section, not really, so all the furniture was grown-up sized and hard to navigate with short limbs and a severe lack of height. “But we don’t really know what we’re looking for, so we might have to be here a while, and we might have to check some books out that are ‘beyond our reading level’, which means we’re really not supposed to have them. I don’t want my mama to ask why I got ‘em, so if I hide them in here, she’ll never think to look for ‘em. She thinks this backpack is just a spare, so if I put it back in my closet where it goes, it’ll be like it never left.”

She was more than a little proud and at the same time kind of guilty of her newfound talent for sneakiness. (‘Good girls don’t tell lies, good girls don’t sneak around behind their parents’ backs, good girls are always honest and sweet and kind-‘). She shook her head hard to rid herself of the little voice in her head. She’d already made the decision not to stand by and be a good girl anymore after all, and she didn’t regret it, not a bit. Now if only her subconscious would just shut up and agree with her already.

Naruto stared at her with his mouth hanging open as if she’d just said something wonderfully clever and smart. He shook his head too, in order to snap himself out of it. “That’s a great idea Sakura-chan!” He slid off his chair and came around to her side of the table to grin up at her. “Where should we start? You think we’ll be able to find some stuff about that sticky-fizzy-thing on the kids’ shelf?”

“No,” she said, hopping down to join him. She’d given this a lot of thought last night while trying not to fall asleep in her yakisoba at the dinner table. “Iruka-sensei’s never said anything about something like this before, which means it must be an upper level technique that first and second year Academy students aren’t supposed to know about yet. I think we’re going to have to look around in the pre-genin books instead, like the ones you study before you take the test to graduate. Maybe they’ll have some stuff in there we can use.”

Her friend crossed his arms over his chest and squinted his eyes almost shut as he thought about that, lower lip jutting out as he concentrated ferociously. “An’ what if we can’t find anything in the pre-genin section? If they don’t teach it ‘till real late in the Academy, there may not be anything worth lookin’ for there, ya know?”

That was a good point and she told him so. He preened under her praise as she considered his words carefully. “Well, if there’s not anything in the pre-genin books, then there’s prob’ly something about it in the genin sections.”

“Yeah but you need a hitae-ate to check stuff out from those shelves.”

She shrugged. “Then we won’t check ‘em out.” She dragged her backpack closer and unzipped it to show him the notebooks, pencils, and colored markers rolling around inside. “We’ll make notes and try and figure the rest out by ourselves.”

Smart as he may really be, planning ahead was still not one of Naruto’s strong suits, and so he was suitably impressed at her level of forethought. Not that he was surprised; there was a very good reason Sakura-chan was the leader of their team of two ya know. “You’re awesome Sakura-chan! Let’s get started!”

-

They end up spending the whole day and most of the next on research and information gathering. Once they figured out the name for the subject they're actually looking for (apparently the bubbly fizzy feeling in her belly was caused by something called ‘chakra’), it was easy to track down book after book after book on the subject using the catalog database on the library’s ancient computer terminal.

Unfortunately, most of the books that came up had little red flags next to their titles which signify they can only be checked out by someone who has achieved at least chuunin rank, along with a little circle with a diagonal bar through it that means no one without a hitae-ate could even look at the books without special written permission, let alone take them off the shelf and read them. So for the moment, the two children are stuck going over the pre-genin section with a fine-toothed comb, hoping to find what they need. The hunt is slow going and they go home disappointed the first day, but the next morning they’re back bright and early again, determined not to leave until they’d found what they needed.

Luck was on their side. Barely an hour after stepping through the doors that second morning and they’d already managed to track down what they had been searching for.

“Hey, hey Sakura-chan, lookit this!” Naruto called eagerly without looking up from the book he held open in his hands. “I think I found it!”

She hurried over from where she’d been investigating the rows a few shelves over; he handed the book to her and crowded up against her back to read over her shoulder.

The book was open to an article entitled ‘Tree Walking: A Study In Chakra Control and Endurance’ and on the very first page there was a full-color diagram of a shinobi walking up the side of a tree. There were arrows pointing to the shinobi’s feet, which were colored in light blue, which described how the ninja was directing a steady flow of chakra to the bottom of his feet in order to keep himself attached to the tree.

There were further explanations and illustrations on the next few pages that went into further detail on how exactly the technique used a person’s chakra to not only adhere to stationary objects but also negate the force of gravity acting on their body by creating an isolated chakra field around themselves so they didn’t accidentally snap their own legs in half by trying to walk against the natural pull of the earth. There was even a step-by-step guide telling the reader exactly how the technique was to be applied practically (although there was also a little asterisk with a note that warned against attempting this technique until the reader had mastered at least genin level chakra control skills).

Excitement bubbled up in Sakura as she skimmed the veritable wealth of information outlined in the chapter. “This is it Naruto-kun; you did it! It even tells you how to do all of it, how to feel for your chakra and how to mani…man..i..pu..late-manipulate the chakra once you have it!” She flipped the book over and her giddy smile fell slightly when she saw the little red sticker on the spine that meant it couldn’t be checked out by someone without a forehead protector, but she wasn’t too disheartened. They’d finally found something they could really use! “We can’t take it with us, but we can write out the steps in my notebook so we’ll have them to practice with.”

“Alright!” Naruto pumped his fist into the air, glad that this meant they could finally get out of the library and back out into the bright June sunshine. “Let’s go and try it out right now!”

Sakura could understand his enthusiasm. Her normally hyperactive friend had been remarkably patient over the last few days, but even she was starting to feel the withdrawal that came along with the knowledge that they were wasting away their precious few weeks of summer break staying cooped up indoors. “We have to copy down the instructions first, but after that sure, we can definitely go try it out a little today before our curfews!”

The boy whooped and turned to race back toward their table, ignoring the hissed admonishments from the librarians that there was no running in the library. “Well then what are we waitin’ for? C’mon Sakura-chan! Let’s blow this popsicle stand!”

-

Two hours later found them hidden in a grove of trees at the edge of the park near the border of the middle ward. They still weren’t entirely sure if they would get in trouble if they were discovered trying out a technique above their skill level, so they were taking care to be extra cautious.

Sakura spread out her notebook pages of neatly handwritten notes on the grass so that they could both see them. “Okay, so it says the first thing we need to do is try to feel for our ‘chakra well’.” She furrowed light pink brows in thought. “It’s says it’s somewhere in the bottom of your tummy, which is where I felt it before, so that’s good. I should be able to find it again if I try.”

“But how do you do it?” Naruto questioned, tilting his head to one side as his blue eyes roved over the papers like a searchlight, as if hoping for a clue to jump out at him. “How do you feel it? Is it just there or what?”

She chewed on her lip, trying to decide how best to explain it. “Well, I just closed my eyes and um, tried really hard? I don’t know how to explain it; it was like, I closed my eyes and felt down inside myself and there was just something there, something warm and kind of buzzing like-” she gestured vaguely with her hands. “Like when a cat is purring and you put your hands on its sides and you can feel it buzz against your hands? It’s kind of like that.”

The boy frowned and picked at a clump of grass near his knee despondently. “Cats don’t like me,” he admitted quietly. “They always run away when they see me, or they hiss and scratch me. Dogs too. They bark a lot when I go by them, even if I’m not doin’ nothing to ‘em.”

That…was the saddest thing she’d ever heard. She’d never had a pet because her dad was allergic to all kinds of animals, but Konoha was rife with strays of all creeds and shapes, cats and dogs alike. Dogs scared her a little, especially big ones, but she fed the stray cats bits of her lunch sometimes, and they would wind around her legs and purr happily at her, and let her pet them and even pick them up sometimes if they were feeling extra friendly. The thought of not ever being able to know what it was like to cuddle something soft and warm when you felt sad or scared or alone was…was…

She scrubbed her hands over her face and flopped onto her back with an explosive sigh. She let her arms fall to her sides and glared up at the cloudless summer sky, hating the universe just a tiny bit more than she did before, for being so very unfair yet again to the greatest person in the whole world for no good reason.

She sighed again, softer this time. “I’m not sure how else to explain it. It’s not like kunai throwing, I can’t just show-” She sat up so fast her head spun and Naruto jumped in surprise. “Kunai throwing! That’s it!”

She gesticulated wildly with her hands, sending them flapping through the air like small ivory hummingbirds. “You know how when you throw kunai over and over for a really, really long time until you’re so tired your arms can’t stop shaking and you don’t ever wanna pick up another kunai again?”

She waited for his cautious nod before continuing. “Well it’s like that! It feels like when you’re arms are so tired that they get really warm and start twitching a whole bunch so it feels like your arm is gonna asplode! Just like that, except deep down in your tummy, right here.” She poked at the spot just below her bellybutton to demonstrate.

It didn’t really make much sense when she said it like that, not at all, but that didn’t matter because Naruto got it anyway, she could tell by the way his eyes lit up all at once like a light bulb turning on. “Oh, I get it! Yeah, yeah I see! Okay, so I just need to close my eyes and try to feel it right?”

“Right,” she confirmed, scooting closer so they were sitting knee-to-knee and facing each other. “Let’s do it together. First we have to close our eyes-” they did so. “-then we just take a deep breath-” they each took in a deep breath in and then let it out in tandem. “-and focus.”

She reached deep down inside herself and felt around, expecting to have to try really hard to find her chakra well again, since truth be told she still wasn’t really sure how she had found it in the first place. But it responded much more readily this time, sparking up immediately and crackling around her reaching mental fingers like bottled electricity. She grinned to herself as she prodded at the little ball of energy in her core, feeling inexplicably cheered just by its mere existence (the book had said civilian-born shinobi tended to have a much more tenuous grasp on how to shape chakra, especially in the beginning stages. Well. They didn’t know everything then did they?)

She had just begun to withdraw her inner awareness and open her eyes when her friend’s delighted voice, very loud and very near her ear, cut through her concentration and jolted her back to the physical world all at once. “I did it! Sakura-chan I did it!”

He looked so proud of himself she couldn’t find it in herself to be mad, even though her ears were still ringing from the volume of his shout. “That’s great Naruto-kun! What did it feel like?”

“Like-” His face twisted all up in on itself as he tried to find the right words to describe it. “Like when you stick your hand in the Nakano river when the sun’s out and the water‘s warm. Like water running over your hands; not fast, but not slow either.”

That wasn’t anything like what she’d felt at all, but for the moment that didn’t matter. They were still new at this, and it wasn’t as though she expected him to have any more answers than she did, so for now her questions could wait until she had someone on hand who could actually answer them. “Do you want to try sticking to a tree now? I might be able to show you that easier than trying to tell you how to feel for your chakra well.”

“Sure!” He got to his feet without further prompting and offered her a hand to pull her up as well. “This is gonna be so great Sakura-chan, ya know? Can you imagine going back to school and being the only two second-year students who know how to walk up trees? Everyone ‘ll flip!”

Sakura winced. She hadn’t thought about that. Of course it would be nice to be able to do something no one else could, to have a secret talent that would put you just that one itty-bitty step ahead of your peers but…but she didn’t really want anyone else to know about it. She had assumed that this would stay their secret, and the request for it to be so was already halfway formed on her tongue before she thought better of it and swallowed it down. No. No it wouldn’t be fair to Naruto for him to have to hide something like this. If it turned out he could walk up trees too, then it was his choice who he told or when or if he told them. She wouldn’t take away his chance to show their classmates how special he really was, not when she knew how much he craved their recognition. She could never do that to him.

So she forced herself to smile and nod at him as he pulled her to her feet and started to lead her over to suitable tree. “Yeah! I-I’m sure it’ll be great! W-When everyone finds out.”

She knew she hadn’t done a good enough job of hiding the tremor in her voice when her friend suddenly stopped and frowned at her. He peered into her face intently for a few long, silent seconds, and she knew he read the truth in her eyes as easy as if she’d just said the words out loud. “Hey, Sakura-chan,” he began slowly. “You know…you know we don’t have to tell anybody right? If you don’t want to. If you think it’ll make that Ami girl and her flunkies come after you again, we don’t gottta.”

“N-No,” she denied, hating herself for the nervous stutter she couldn’t suppress. “It’s fine Naruto-kun really. I don’t want you to hide the things you’re good at from people just for me.”

His frown deepened. “Yeah but. But I don’t want you to feel bad just cause a me. It’s like you said, they’re just kids. What they think doesn’t really matter.”

“Yes but…it does matter to you.”

“No, you matter to me.” He stepped forward to put his hand on her cheek and held her gaze seriously. “You matter. Way more than any of those others. I care about what you think more ‘n anything stupid Kiba or lazy Shikamaru or that fatty Chouji might think or say. An’ I already know you like me an’ stuff so why should I care what anyone else in class thinks a me, ya know?” He shrugged his narrow shoulders as if it was no big deal. “They could go eat worms for all I care, and good rid’ance too.”

Sakura’s vision had gone blurry with tears, but her smile, when it came, though a bit wobbly around the edges was totally genuine. The warm, contented glow in her chest she had always associated with Naruto had spread all through her until she felt like she was lit up from the inside like a firefly. She threw her skinny arms around his neck and hugged him as hard as she could. “Thanks Naruto-kun,” she sniffled wetly. “You’re the bestest friend anybody could ever have ever.”

He squeezed her back just as tightly. “Good to know somebody thinks so,” he mumbled into her shoulder before releasing her and grinning his customary too wide fox-smile, full of mischief and far too many teeth. “Now are you gonna show me how to do this thing before we get old like Iruka-sensei or what?”

She grinned back and shoved him away playfully. “I will if you’ll get out of my way first.”

She looked over the tree Naruto had led her to, sizing it up. It was definitely shorter than the building she’d climbed before so that was good. She didn’t think she’d be feeling quite that brave or that desperate again anytime soon. She stepped up to the base of the tree and ran her hand over the bark, wondering if the difference in materials would matter in how well she could stick to it. She didn’t think so, but then how would she know? It wasn’t like they had a teacher they could ask questions and get answers from. She glanced at her friend and he gave her a supportive double thumbs-up.

She sucked in a deep breath and held it, tentatively lifting her right foot to press it firmly to the trunk of the oak. She reached for her chakra and felt it respond immediately, popping and fritzing from her belly all down her leg to pool in her foot. She gave a light tug on her leg without letting go of her chakra and her sole remained stubbornly in place. So far so good.

She carefully raised her left foot and set it against the bark just a bit in front of her right, able to feel it this time when the chakra caught and held, sucking the bottom of her sandal to the tree like a vacuum. Slowly, slowly, afraid to move too fast lest she break the spell, she unbent her knees and straightened her spine so she was standing completely parallel to the earth, hair dangling backwards and downwards due to the change in angle. She was concentrating fiercely, making sure to keep the flow of chakra as even as she could, all down through her legs and back up through her body in order to maintain the localized gravity field needed to keep her weight from disrupting the technique.

Warily she lifted her back foot and took a step, waiting until she was absolutely certain it had stuck properly before taking another one, then another, then another, then another. Before she knew it she was walking straight up the tree simple as you please, like it was something she did every day. Delight made her heart light and her cheeks ache with the force of her smile, but her steady chakra flow never once faltered. She was doing it, she was really doing it!

“You’re doing great Sakura-chan! Keep it up!”

She jerked in surprise, Naruto’s sudden shout so unexpected that it caused her to lose focus for a fraction of a second. Her feet started to slide and for one frozen, heart-stopping moment she was sure she was going to fall. But then her feet reattached and her heart began to beat again, only this time pounding so hard and quick against her ribs she half wondered if they may soon shatter under the force of it.

She leaned her forehead against the rough bark and just breathed for a minute, each exhalation shaky and weak. She had been so scared. But she was okay now, she was fine, no harm done, and what’s better, her friend didn’t seem to have noticed a thing. That was good, because she planned to never, ever tell him how close he came to almost making her fall out of the-

It happened so fast. A bird erupted from a dense clump of leaves on the branch closest to her head, screaming a high-pitched alarm call at her proximity. She instinctively flinched back, arms coming up to shield her face and the next thing she knew she was falling, plummeting through the air with nothing to slow her descent but the indifference of gravity and the waiting ground.

Sakura heard Naruto yell something, but she couldn’t decipher it over the roar of blood in her ears. She didn’t even have time to scream.

She hit the ground with bone-breaking force, her right arm buckling underneath her. And then all she knew was pain.

Chapter Text

Naruto had never run so fast in his whole life. He was little more than a small yellow and green blur as he shot straight through the heart of the middle ward dodging wagons, carts, and people alike with almost preternatural agility. He ducked under vendors carrying loaded crates, wove in and around obstacles both stationary and not, and barely even paused to avoid the occasional irritated swat or kick aimed his way. He was a boy on a mission and he wasn't about to let anything distract him from his goal; Sakura-chan was counting on him.

The reminder lent him an extra burst of desperate speed as he swerved around one last corner and leapt up half the rickety metal staircase in one enormous bound. If the circumstances had been different, he would have stopped to admire that particular feat (that was at least five stairs at once!), but as it was he kept going and didn't stop until he finally skid to a halt in front of the right door. The sight of the faded, paint-chipped numbers above the doorframe that confirmed he'd reached his destination (three, like the number of genin on a team; six, like his age; one, alone like he never had to be again now that he had Sakura-chan) had never looked so amazing.

Panting hard in an effort to breathe past the aching, shooting pain in sides from running so fast for so long, the boy wasted no time in raising both of his fists and pounding on the door as hard as he could. “Kakashi-niisan! 'Nii-san open up! I need your help; it's an emergency!”

He paused to wait for an answer for several long, torturous seconds, but when nothing happen he immediately started again, yelling as loud as he could just in case he hadn't been heard the first time. “Kakashi-niisan! Please, you have to be home! If you can hear me please, please, please open up! It's important!”

He forced himself to stop and wait again but when he still received no response after a full minute of waiting (he counted down in his head as slow as he could) he whaled on the door yet again, kicking and hitting with all the strength he had in his body, frustrated tears born of fear and helplessness starting to roll down his face unheeded. “Please 'nii-san, open the door!”

He gave the unrelenting door one final kick that made the whole jamb rattle and leaned his sweaty forehead against the sun-warmed wood, gritting his teeth against the strain of his pounding heartbeat and the inescapable feeling of failure that was threatening to swallow him whole. “Please,” he sobbed, the tears flowing thick and fast now. “Ya gotta open up. Sakura-chan needs our help. She's counting on me, ya know.”

There was the sound of warped wood being wrenched forcefully out of place and he looked around in surprise to see an old man standing in the now open doorway directly to his left, glaring down at him with a fierce scowl and a battered broom clenched in one hand like a weapon (Naruto was instantly wary; he's been whacked by broom handles in passing before and those things hurt).

“What in the hell do you think you're doin' kid?” the old man snarled, shaking the broom at the boy. “Coming up here in the middle of the day making trouble and all kinds of noise! I've had it up to here with young punks like you not respecting their elders and disturbing my rest with your tomfoolery, so you'd best clear out a here right now if you know what's good for you!”

Naruto just stared blankly at the man for a long, silent moment. The angry words sounded muffled, like they were coming from far away, drowned out by the loud roaring in his ears. He just kept hearing the horrible cracking noise his friend's arm had made when she hit the ground. She hadn't moved at all afterward, hadn't made a sound, and he had been so, so, so afraid. He'd run to her side to find her green eyes wide open and staring glassily up at the sky, too stunned to register his frantic yelling of her name.

It had almost been worse when she had finally responded; she'd sucked in a sudden deep breath and immediately started to cry. Tears streaming down her face like she didn't even realize she was crying, making no noise other than the tightly controlled breaths she hissed through her gritted teeth in an effort to breathe past the pain. He'd helped her sit up to lean against the tree trunk and the wet, choked-off scream that had been torn out of her when she'd moved and jostled her right side had cracked his heart in two.

He'd had to leave her there, had to go get help because he didn't know where the hospital was and he couldn't get her there by himself besides. The guilt had threatened to consume him then and there when all she could do was nod in understanding and force herself to smile at him through bloodless, trembling lips, trying even then to reassure him without words that everything would be okay when it wasn't, not at all, not even a little.

All his fault. His friend had gotten hurt because he was selfish and petty and too stupid to know to quit when he was ahead. Because he'd wanted so badly to impress the other kids at school, had wanted to prove his worth to the people of the village (people who sneered at him when they passed him on the street or ignored him completely, people who hit him and spit at him or pretended he wasn't there; people who didn't matter, not in the way Sakura did) so much his heart ached with it.

His selfishness had gotten his friend hurt, had broken her bones and paled her skin and made her body shake with cold in the middle of a hot summer's day, had made her cry even though she was trying so hard to be brave. And he would never, ever, ever forgive himself for that, not as long as he lived.

Too busy drowning in the clinging mire of self-recrimination, Naruto didn't notice the way the old man's discomfort grew with each additional second he spent trapped under the boy's unconscious, unwavering blue laser stare. He wasn't paying attention to the warning signs so when the man, spooked, finally took matters into his own hands and swung the bristled end of the broom straight into the boy's stomach, sending him flying backwards into the rusty metal railing that lined the walkway, it took him totally by surprise.

Naruto's breath left him in a whoosh as he bounced off the railing, making it shudder and screech in protest, and then lay still on the heated concrete, temporarily too disoriented to move. He'd been hit worse, but the unexpectedness of it had shocked him into momentary immobility. He could still hear the old man yelling somewhere over his head, but the words were too distorted for him to process. He regained his bearings and lifted his head just in time for the door of apartment three-sixty-one to be yanked violently open to emit the very person he'd run all this way to get.

Kakashi surveyed the old man idly, visible eye dark and flat as the underside of a rumbling stormcloud. “Is there a problem here Miyagi-san?” he asked with apparent calm, though the retired shinobi could clearly see the warning that flashed quick as lightning through the younger man's eye.

Sweat beaded on the man's forehead and it took every ounce of courage he possessed to keep from taking a step back. A veteran of two wars, Miyagi Sato had more then enough experience with losing battles to recognize one when it stared him dead in the face. He straightened his shoulders and raised his chin and forced himself to hold Kakashi's stare despite the nervous trembling of his hands around the suddenly slippery broom handle. “You just make sure to answer your door promptly the next time this brat comes to call, eh? That way we won't have any problems in the first place!”

With that the old man quickly retreated back into his apartment and slammed his door shut with reverberating finality. Kakashi sighed as the tension that always came with the anticipation of a fight slowly bled out of his tense muscles. He glared down at the kid still laying sprawled out on the ground and currently looking back up at him with his mouth hanging open and awe in his eyes, like making a cantankerous sixty-five year old man with arthritis back down from an unwanted brawl was some sort of grand accomplishment.

“Kid whatever you want this time the answer is 'no'. I helped you once and once was more then enough. The Hatake Kakashi help desk is officially closed for business. Good-bye.”

He turned to reenter his apartment, fully intent on leaving the boy to his own devices and ignoring any further knocking no matter how loud or annoying it got. Naruto's brain finally finished rebooting when he realized that the older boy really was about to leave him there and panic lanced through him anew. No! He needed his help or else Sakura-chan was done for!

He scrambled to his feet and lunged after the teen's retreating back, grabbing onto his arm with both hands and digging in his heels to keep him from moving any further away. “No! No you gotta help me! It's really important!”

Kakashi narrowed his eye at the small, dirt-smudged hands locked around his forearm before redirecting his glare to the boy, beginning to get properly irritated now. “First of all, I don't 'gotta' do anything. Secondly, what could possibly be so damn important that-”

“Sakura-chan fell out a the tree!”

The teen's eye widened and all his ire left him in a rush to be replaced with icy shock. Whatever he had been expecting, that hadn't been it. “What?”

“She fell out a the tree!” Desperation made him babble and talk as fast as he could in an effort to make the older boy stop and listen. His face was a mess of snot and his hair was dripping with sweat and he was still crying like he couldn't stop but none of that mattered right then as long as Kakashi didn't leave. “She's hurt real bad and her lips were turning blue and I don't know where the hospital is and your house was closest and I don't even know what Sakura-chan's mama looks like-!”

“Was she conscious?”

Naruto blinked, thrown completely off his train of thought by the question. “Huh?”

“Was she awake?” The teen demanded. “When you left her, was she awake?”

“Oh. Yeah.” The boy nodded and retracted one hand from it's death-grip on the older boy's arm to scrub at the snot dripping steadily from his nose, unintentionally smearing mucus all across his whiskered cheeks. “Yeah she was awake and sitting up and stuff. She fell on her arm, she didn't her head or nothin' ya know.”

“Good, that's good.” He shook his arm free of the boy's grasp and reached back to pull his apartment door shut, mind already whirling through all the possible contingencies and liabilities associated with leaving an injured little girl alone for too long with probable broken bones and without medical care. “Where?”

“Huh?” Relief made his head feel dizzy and his brain feel stupid. He wasn't going to abandon them after all! He knew he could count on Kakashi-nissan, he just knew it!

“Where did you leave her?” The teen repeated patiently.

“Middle-ward park. In the clearing by those big oak trees.”

“I know where it is.” Kakashi picked up the boy without preamble and swung him onto his back before Naruto could think to ask questions, making sure he was properly situated and that he had a firm hold on the kid's knees to keep him from sliding off. “Hold on tight. It'll be faster this way.”

He waited until Naruto had obediently wrapped his skinny arms around the teen's neck before leaping up onto the railing and then into the trees that lined the courtyard below, racing through the treetops at close to top speed, reducing the world around them to nothing more then insignificant smears of color in his peripheral. If what the kid said was accurate, they didn't have any time to waste.

Naruto unconsciously tightened his grip on the older boy, eyes frozen wide and amazed as he watched the world fly by them, marveling at the speed real ninjas could accomplish with such ease. His sense of wonder didn't last long though, his worry for Sakura quickly superseding any enjoyment he might have usually gained from the experience.

Conviction welled up inside him and he made a silent promise to his friend, even though the girl it was intended for wasn't there to hear him say it out loud. Don't worry Sakura-chan; everything is going to be okay! Kakashi-niisan is on his way and he's going to make everything all better! Believe it!

-

The girl's right shoulder was dislocated and her collarbone was broken; that was obvious from the minute they arrived in the clearing. What was also obvious, at least to Kakashi, was that in order to move her safely he would need to immobilize her arm. And in order to do that, he would first need to pop the joint back into its socket.

And when he did, Sakura was more than likely going to scream because he knew all too well what that felt like and no matter how many times it happened it always hurt like a son of a bitch. And if (when) she screamed, Naruto's wire-taunt nerves were going to snap like dry kindling and then the kid was definitely going to attempt to do some sort of damage to Kakashi's person, which the teen was really not looking forward too. He would bet money the kid was a biter.

Still, none of that changed the fact that it had to be done. To try and move her with her shoulder out of place would not only be sheer agony for the girl, but it was also likely to do more harm then good if left in that state much longer. Sakura already looked like death warmed over, white as a sheet with deep, bruised purple bags under her eyes like it was taking all the strength she had just to remain sitting upright. She was in shock and it would only get worse the longer they waited, so it was time to bite the proverbial kunai and-

Actually, that wasn't a bad idea. He fished a kunai out of the holster at his side and a roll of extra bandages from the pouch at his back, and wound the gauze an inch thick around the hilt of the blade.

He offered it to her once he was done. “Here. Bite down on this.” He turned to Naruto and motioned him towards her left side. “You, hold her hand. This is going to really hurt.”

The boy paled under his tan but his eyes were bright with determination as he obeyed, falling to his knees at his friend's side and grasping her limp hand tightly in both of his. The girl wore a similar expression of steely resolve as she took the proffered hilt between her teeth without a word of dissent (he couldn't help but be a little impressed; he'd seen grown men wail like infants at the prospect of realigning a dislocated shoulder, though perhaps her courage was simply born of ignorance. She really had no idea how badly this was going to hurt).

He wrapped one hand around her upper arm just under the spot where her skin bulged outward slightly from the press of loose bone underneath it and placed the other lightly on her back just above the dislocated joint. “You ready?” He waited for her hesitant nod before continuing. “Count of five, ready? One, two-”

Quickly, before she had time to tense up, he pressed and pulled the bone back into place in one smooth motion, hearing the satisfyingly loud click-click-popping noise that meant he'd done it right.

Any blood that had been left in her face drained in an instant, and rather then clenching her jaw shut against the pain like he'd expected her too, her mouth fell open instead, sending the kunai tumbling into her lap (or it would have landed in her lap if the teen hadn't snatched it out of the air before it could get there). She hadn't made a sound.

The same could not be said for her loudmouth friend, and years later Kakashi would remain convinced that the only thing that kept Naruto from lunging for his throat right there was the white-knuckled grip the girl had on his hand. As it was, all the kid could do was sit and seethe with impotent, indignant rage and attempt to gouge holes in the side of the teen's head with his eyes alone.

“You said five ya know,” the boy growled through bared teeth. “I heard you. You said.”

“I lied,” he said bluntly as he rotated Sakura's shoulder gently to make sure everything was back where it was supposed to be. Her lips thinned and she twitched with pain when the movement jarred her collarbone, but otherwise she didn't outwardly react. That was a good sign. “People lie all the time; get used to it. If I had waited until five she would have braced herself for it and the muscles in her arm would have tensed up and then it would have hurt at least ten times worse. Be thankful it was only as bad as it was.”

Naruto looked far from appeased but said nothing further, which was a small blessing in and of itself. With no other options, Kakashi removed his hitae-ate (keeping his left eye firmly closed) to create a makeshift sling to keep the girl's arm from moving around too much on their way to the hospital. He then picked her up (one arm behind her back, the other under her knees) and made sure he had her settled as securely as he could before shifting his focus back to the boy.

He indicated with a tip of his head for the kid to reattach himself to Kakashi's back. “I can carry both of you and we'll get there faster, but I won't be able to keep you from falling off on the way there this time around so you'll have to do that yourself. Just hold on tight and try not to strangle me okay?”

He was treated to another round of the Uzumaki-Stinkeye but the kid climbed on without voicing any protest so he decided to count it as a win. He stood carefully, rechecking to make sure the two of them were arranged as best as they could be before jumping into the trees and turning their course unerringly toward the hospital.

-

Manami Misaki had been Head Nurse in charge of Konoha Medical for the last ten years, and she'd served as a senior nurse on staff for at least ten years before that. And before that she'd been an active duty medic-nin operating on the front lines of the Second Shinobi World War.

She'd seen a lot in her time on this earth, and done things most people couldn't even dream of. She'd held more people's hearts in the palms of her hands then she could count and she'd saved more lives then she could remember (not to mention all the others she hadn't been able to save). Not much surprised her anymore, not after the life she'd lived, but every great once in a while, something occurred within her hospital that still had the power to make her stop and stare for a minute, not quite able to believe her eyes.

The sight of Hatake Kakashi, one of the village's most elite (and therefore most dangerous) shinobi and self-proclaimed Hater of Hospitals, willingly sitting on one of the padded examination tables in the hospitals' clinic with a pink-haired little girl in his lap and a woebegone expression on his masked face, was definitely one of those rare occurrences. The fact that Uzumaki Naruto, Konoha's number one pariah was also there and had somehow managed to squish himself onto the narrow table on the girl's other side only added to the surreality of the moment.

Still. Manami was a professional, and as such she didn't let the oddness of the picture they made affect her over much. She had a job to do after all.

Thankfully the girl's injuries, while obviously quite painful, were fairly routine and minor in scale. It helped that the girl, (Haruno Sakura-chan, and wasn't that just the most fitting name she'd ever heard?) was a model patient from the get-go and didn't try to fight or cringe away from Manami's probing fingers at all, an uncommon but very welcome change from most children her age (and more than a few adults she'd treated over the years as well). She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a patient so well-behaved.

The way the children watched on, fascinated, as she healed the greenstick fracture to young Sakura-chan's collarbone and repaired the minor tissue damage around her shoulder was enough to warm her heart and bring a pleased flush to her wrinkled cheeks. She always did like showing off a bit, and it was nice to be reminded of how miraculous healing chakra really was, especially to those who had never experienced it before (she pointedly ignored the way Kakashi trained his eye on the ceiling and leaned as far away from the green glow of her hands as he could without tipping backwards off the table; the boy had always been jumpy around medics, ever since way back when he'd stood no higher than Manami's hip. She'd long since stopped questioning it).

When she was done she patted the girl kindly on her repaired arm and assured her that her mother had already been informed and would be there to take her home soon. She pretended not to notice the children exchanging identical looks of wide-eyed panic at the news and left the room to return to the receptionists' desk to finish her weeks worth of paperwork without further prying. A medics' (and subsequently a nurses') job was to heal, not to ask questions. She'd gotten used to pretending to be less observant then she really was. As far as she was concerned, after they left her hospital, her patients' affairs were their own.

So if she happened to notice the distinct 'pop' and familiar rush of steam common among all D-rank disguise jutsus coming from behind the door to the room she'd so recently vacated just before a much too-casual Kakashi came strolling out of it, hands in his pockets as he slunk his way out the front doors seconds before a frazzled Haruno Mebuki rushed through them, she was sure that it wasn't anything she needed to concern herself with.

And if she happened to notice that when she'd left the exam room, it had definitely been occupied by one little pink-haired girl, and one little blonde-haired boy, but when Mebuki-san approached the front desk to ask Manami some follow up questions, it was with two little girls in tow, one with straight pink hair tied back with a red ribbon, and one with long yellow pigtails and very familiar whisker markings on her cheeks, she told herself very sternly that it had absolutely nothing to do with her and that it was best she forget it and move on.

And if she just so happened to notice that the mysterious little blonde girl's name happened to be 'Naruko' by some strange and remarkable coincidence, well...

Well that really wasn't any of her business either now was it?

-

Two days after her trip to the hospital found Sakura walking all alone toward the border between the middle and lower wards on a path that was rapidly starting to become familiar. She skipped along in the bright June sunshine, happily humming a made up song under her breath, glad to be allowed outside again.

Her mama had insisted on keeping her in bed all day the day before, even though the nurses had assured her at least seven times while they were still at the hospital that her collarbone and shoulder had already been fully healed and she was in no danger of relapsing (something about little girls having bones like sponges, an image which had made her and 'Naruko' giggle under their breath until her mama had glared at them). Her mama had said that was all well and good but that there was no harm in being cautious.

Privately, even though her mama had said she wasn't in any trouble for getting hurt since it hadn't been anyone's fault, Sakura thought maybe that day spent cooped up inside was a sort of punishment, even if it wasn't one meant for her specifically. Her mama had hovered over her bed all day and kept making excuses to touch her daughter, like fluffing her pillows and smoothing her wayward fringe, hanging loose without the aide of her trusty ribbon, out of her face. The girl didn't blame her mama though; she knew if it had been Naruto who had fallen out of that tree and gotten hurt, she wouldn't have wanted to let him out of her sight either!

Still, it hadn't been all bad. Her mama had let her get up partway through the afternoon to help her in the kitchen baking cookies. Mebuki always baked when she was stressed, something her husband loved to tease her about, and had he been home he doubtless would have been trying to sneak bites of batter and swiping cooling cookies off their racks before they were ready and generally getting underfoot, but he had to work and so their afternoon of baking went off without a hitch. Which was why Sakura was now winding through the maze of old buildings and crooked sidestreets leading towards Kakashi's apartment, covered tupperware of fresh chocolate-chip cookies in hand.

She had a separate bag of extra thank-you cookies in her school backpack (a plain shade of green nowhere near as eye-watering as the super-secret Backpack of Ugly) for 'that sweet Naruko-chan' that her mama had instructed she take to 'her' after she was done dropping off the cookies for Kakashi-niisan.

Sakura smiled to herself as she hopped up the noisy stairs to the second floor of the older boy's complex; Naruto would be so excited! She'd bet he'd never had homemade cookies before and she knew her friend had a huge sweet tooth. She couldn't wait to see the look on his face! She would meet up with him at the training field over by the still deserted school as soon as she was done here.

Planting herself in front of apartment three-sixty-one (after pausing to stick her tongue out at the closed door of apartment three-sixty where Naruto-kun said that mean old Miyagi-san lived of course), she reached out to knock on the door, her greeting already halfway out of her mouth before her knuckles had even made contact with the scarred wood. “Kakashi-niisan! It's Sakura! My mama wanted me to come by and give you these-!”

Electricity sparked where her hand met the wood and a sudden shock of not-quite-pain had the girl sitting down hard on her rump and staring up at the door with her mouth hanging open in shock. It was as though the door had suddenly grown a mind of it's own and decided to reprimand her for trying to touch it by giving her a sharp rap across the knuckles like Iruka-sensei did to the rowdier boys in class sometimes to make them sit up and pay attention. Not too hard, but enough to make it sting, just enough to make you feel it. It felt like a warning.

Climbing gingerly back to her feet, Sakura hugged the plastic container of sweets close to her middle as she carefully put her hand out to poke at the door again, moving slowly like she thought it might spontaneously grow teeth to bite her fingers off with at any second. The moment her skin made contact with the wooden surface the same thing happened again; a sharp sting that had her yanking her hand back on reflex. The girl looked from her unmarked hand to the door and back again, utterly dumbfounded. Then the pieces clicked together in her mind.

A barrier jutsu! She'd glanced over a few books on them back when she and Naruto had been hunting through the library for a way to walk up walls. They'd sounded interesting and she'd made a mental note to ask Iruka-sensei about them as soon as classes started up again.

She glared at the door and stamped one small sandaled foot in a fit of childish pique. He'd put up a barrier jutsu to keep them out! How mean! And after all the trouble she'd gone through to help her mama bake him cookies!

Well if he thought he could make her go away just by giving her a slap on the wrist he had another thing coming. If he wasn't planning to answer the door anymore, she'd just find some other way to get his attention.

She chewed her lower lip and tugged a lock of pink hair contemplatively, trying to think of another way into his apartment that wasn't the front door. A flash of inspiration had her running back down the stairs and around to the backside of the building, mentally counting off each window she saw as she went past them. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, aha! Success! His was one of the apartments that did have an outside window, which meant there was another way into his apartment!

The only problem was that his window didn't have a big, helpful oak tree growing right outside it like hers did, and his apartment was on the second floor. There was no ladder to climb and no handholds to cling to on the smooth plaster facade of the old building. She gnawed her bottom lip some more as she craned her neck to stare up, up, up at the window far above her head. He didn't even have a balcony to jump onto, so the only way anyone was getting to that window was if they walked up the side of the-

A sudden bout of vertigo made her knees wobble and her head spin as she remembered what exactly had happened the last time she had tried to use her chakra to help her climb something that high. Even the memory of the searing pain that had followed her impact with the ground made her chest and shoulder throb in sympathetic concert with her heartbeat and caused sweat to break out at the nape of her neck.

Fear wrapped tight around her throat and made it hard to swallow and she had to crouch down on her heels and rest her forehead on the hot, sticky plastic of the tupperware container and make herself take deep, even breaths in and out through her mouth to make sure the nasty feeling in her tummy didn't mean she was about to see her breakfast again.

In a weird way, the very fact that she was afraid at all made her mad. So what if she messed up? So what if she got hurt? Had she really expected to get it right the very first time she tried it?

It had taken her weeks and weeks of practice both in class and with Naruto-kun afterward for her to be able to hit the target with her kunai at all, let alone make a bulls-eye every time she threw like she could now. And it had taken her at least five tries, with her mama's help, and almost setting the kitchen on fire twice for her to learn to make an edible batch of cookies, let alone perfectly delicious ones that came out right every time like she could now. Nobody ever got it right on the first try! If they did, then there would be no point in trying at all! Why, there was no way Naruto-kun would ever let something like this-

Her eyes widened. Naruto-kun! He was waiting for her and she was going to be late if she kept sitting out here too scared to move like a great big baby. It was that thought, the thought of keeping her friend waiting all day that finally made her stand up again, even if her legs still shook slightly when she did. It was the memory of her friend's voice cheering her on as she nearly reached the top of the tree that made her cross to stand at the foot of the wall directly beneath the window.

And it was the memory of her friend, bruised, scratched, sweaty and covered head to toe in dried mud and slime, exhausted but triumphant, beaming at her with his outstretched hand hiding her birthday present inside that made her summon her chakra and put her foot flat to the wall.

She kept him in the forefront of her mind, him and his too-blue eyes and his too-wide fox smile, the one that made his eyes squint shut and his whiskers bunch, the one that made her chest feel warm and made her want to smile back at him just as wide.

She held on to that image with all of her might and didn't let herself think about anything else as she doggedly kept lifting her feet and putting one in front of the other, in front of the other, in front of the other. And before she knew it she was crouched on the tiny ledge outside Kakashi's window, sweaty and shaky and so very proud of herself. She hadn't even remembered to be scared at all!

Grinning to herself, mindful of her chakra flow that kept her balance steady on the window ledge, she knocked on the glass sharply and waited excitedly to see the look on Kakashi-niisan's face (well, the part of it she could see anyway) when he opened it and found her sitting there.

Only he didn't open it, not even when she knocked again and again, louder and harder each time, and waited and waited for him to answer. Finally, she lost patience and (after carefully tucking her knees up and making sure the tupperware was held snug in the space between her knees and her chest) grabbed the bottom of the windowpane and heaved.

Imagine her surprise when it slid open completely without resistance, banging off the top of the frame because she'd pulled much too hard and making the whole wall shake, startling the girl into losing her footing and tumbling headfirst into the room beyond. She landed belly down on the container of cookies with a meaty twack-ing sound. Thankfully the plastic was sturdier then she was and didn't give under her admittedly unimpressive weight, instead forcing the air out of her lungs with a whoosh.

She lay there stunned and mortified and wishing with all her might that Kakashi-niisan did not see that. Once she'd laid there for a full minute and a half and still didn't hear any laughter, she peaked an eye open and looked around. The room was empty of anyone but herself, though it appeared she'd landed in an itty-bitty bedroom barely big enough for the bed squished into it and the thin strip of walking room by the window she'd splattered onto.

From where she lay she could see clear under the bed out the open door into the living room on the other side of it and she didn't see any movement. She held her breath and strained her ears to listen as hard as she could, but she didn't hear anyone moving around either, not that that necessarily meant anything. Although, why would a jounin bother being ninja-quiet alone in their own house?

Sakura rolled into a crouch, picking the container up and sneaking as quietly as she could around the edge of the bed. Sticking her head out the door and peering cautiously around confirmed her suspicions that no one was home and she let out a sigh of relief that the teen hadn't been home to witness her incredibly embarrassing blunder. It also made her feel guilty about thinking bad things about him before; if he wasn't home, of course he had sealed his door! That was just common sense (although it didn't explain why he hadn't done the same to the window; maybe he just wasn't expecting any intruders to come in that way?).

She hurried into the tiny kitchen next to the living room and clambered her way up onto one of the stools standing next to the counter (he didn't have a table and chairs like she did at her house) and knelt on it as she positioned the cookie container just so on the counter. She fished the thank-you note her mama had helped her write out of her backpack and set it on top of the container and with that her job was done.

She didn't want to hang around in Kakashi-niisan's house uninvited while he wasn't there (it seemed rude, like she was a stranger where she didn't belong) and quickly made her way back to and back out of the window. She closed the window again (much more gently this time) and raced down the side of the building with a huge, giddy smile on her face and without an ounce of remembered terror in her heart.

She did it! She got into and out of someone elses' house without them knowing about it! And she'd even left something behind, all without getting caught! Just like a real ninja!

Granted, the circumstances that had all conspired in her favor had mostly been out of her control and that hadn't been her intention when she first started toward this part of town, but as far as the girl was concerned that was all secondary; she'd still done it, and most importantly she'd done it all by herself. She'd also walked up and down a wall (successfully) without fear! She couldn't wait to tell Naruto-kun!

Chapter Text

Two weeks later classes had started up again and thoughts of broken bones and thank-you cookies were the last things on Sakura's mind. She woke up one bright Tuesday morning to discover that overnight her village (her home) had been altered forever. The Uchiha clan had been massacred. One of the founding clans of Konoha, wiped out in the span of a single night. No lives had been spared, save for one; the clan head's second son, Sasuke, was the only surviving member of the once powerful clan. He alone was left alive.

Despite the fact that students had only returned to the Academy from summer break a little over seven days prior to the massacre, school was canceled for the rest of the week in order to allow the citizens to recover from the shock brought on by the unprecedented tragedy in their own time.

Sakura felt sad, and guilty that she didn't feel sadder. She hadn't really known any of the Uchiha kids in her class (they had kept to themselves, seemingly too far above their classmates to deign to interact with them more than they absolutely had to), but she was still sad that they were dead.

Even more so then that however, she felt the most terrible whenever she thought of the boy left behind, alone and grieving over a loss of life so huge the girl couldn't really imagine it without feeling like she was going to be sick. She did know Sasuke-kun a little better then the others, since he'd been placed in Iruka-sensei's second-year class along with her and Naruto at the beginning of July, and even then she'd never spoken to him before. Still, she wanted to do something, felt like she had to do something to help him, but she had no idea where to begin. So she asked her mama for help, because mamas knew everything (didn't they?), and of course her mama had a solution.

Which was why Sakura was at that moment slowly making her way towards her and Naruto's usual meet-up spot at the Academy training grounds, a heavy red-lacquered cookpot balanced gingerly in her arms. Her mama had wanted to make the trip to the Uchiha clan ghetto with her, but the girl had begged and pleaded to be allowed to go by herself until Mebuki had finally relented. Sakura didn't know exactly why she felt like she needed to do this by herself, just that it was incredibly important that she do so.

And she didn't plan to do it completely alone. She was going to ask Naruto to come with her just as soon as she met up with him at the fields, but the cookpot was filled to the brim with meat and potatoes and so the going was slow. She was nearly twenty minutes late by the time she actually got there, and her friend was already there waiting for her.

He jumped up from the tree-stump he'd been sitting on and hurried to help her when he saw her struggling with the pot, and together they managed to lower it carefully to the grass without dropping it. “Wow Sakura-chan, this thing ways a ton ya know! What's in it?”

Nikujaga,” she wheezed once she'd gotten her breath back. She'd never noticed how long the walk from her house to the Academy was before! “My mama and I made it last night for Sasuke-kun.”

The boy frowned at her, eyes narrowing and mouth twisting to one side as he tried to remember who she was talking about. “Sasuke? Uchiha Sasuke? That weird guy who sits in the back row of our class?”

“Uh-huh,” she confirmed with a nod, letting the comment on Sasuke's supposed 'weirdness' pass without comment. In Naruto's mind, anyone who didn't chatter and raise a ruckus at every given opportunity was 'weird' (although to be fair he always tried to be on his best behavior in Iruka-sensei's class, to sit quietly and listen attentively, a sign of respect he reserved solely for Iruka and Sakura). “My mama said that when people are sad because someone they love has died, you're supposed to give them food so they don't have to make it themselves. So they don't have to worry about cooking while they're in mourning.”

The boy was staring down at the cookpot like he'd never seen anything like it before. “You went through all that trouble just for him Sakura-chan?” His normally boisterous voice was strangely subdued.

Wondering at her friend's mood, she nodded again even though he wasn't looking at her. “Yes, although it really wasn't that much trouble. Mama let me peel the potatoes and add the spices and stir the soup, but she was the one that chopped everything and poured it in the dish since I'm still not big enough to use the stove or reach the counter.”

She dusted off her hands and crouched down to grab hold of the pot's handles, preparing to lift it up once more. “I'm on my way to the Uchiha district now, so we won't be able to train today. Do you want to come with me? I'm sure Sasuke-kun would feel better knowing two people in his class were worried about him.”

She had grown spoiled; complacent in the knowledge that her friend would always agree to any idea she suggested simply because she'd been the one to suggest it. It never occurred to her that he might say no.

The boy crossed his arms over his chest and looked away from her, bottom lip sticking out just slightly in a petulant pout. “No, I don't wanna go, an' I don't think you should either Sakura-chan.”

The girl blinked at her friend, dumfounded. She slowly stood up straight so that they were on eye-level again. “What? Why not?”

“Cause-Cause,” he floundered for a reasonable excuse. “Cause you don't even know this guy! He's weird and a big jerk and you ain't never even talked to him before, ya know? Why should you care about his feelings anyway?”

“Wh-Why should I care?” she repeated dumbly, struggling to understand what was going on. She'd never heard Naruto-kun say something so mean and thoughtless before! “B-Because he's all alone now! All alone in that big place all by himself! His family is gone, Naruto-kun! Not just his parents or his big brother, but all of them, his whole family; his parents and his brother an' his aunts an' uncles an' cousins an' whatever! Everybody in his whole life is gone-poof!-” She threw her arms up in the air to demonstrate. “Just like that! Aren't you sad? Don't you care?”

“Why should I?” he muttered, still stubbornly refusing to look at her. “I didn't know any a those people. Why should I care if they're dead?”

Sakura reeled back like he'd slapped her and stared at him in uncomprehending shock. “You don't mean that,” she whispered. “You don't mean that. You couldn't. You gotta care, at least a little.”

“Why?” he asked her bluntly, finally turning back to face her dead-on. There wasn't a trace of pity in his hard blue eyes. “Why do I gotta care? It's not like I know what it's like. I don't got anyone to lose.”

“You have me,” her voice wavered with the beginning of the tears she could feel burning behind her eyes. She wanted to be angry, she wanted to be furious with him for acting this way, but all she could feel was scared and confused and very much like her heart was breaking into itty-bitty pieces. Did he really feel that way? Did he really think he'd feel nothing if he was in Sasuke's place? “Naruto-kun you have me. Are you saying you wouldn't be sad if I died?” She could barely get the words out.

Something cracked in his expression at that, and his arms fell limply to his sides as he stared at her, eyes wide and round and glassy, reflecting the clear summer sky over their heads. “How could you say something like that?” he whispered, blank horror in his voice. “How could you ever say that? How could you?”

“Because I don't know Naruto-kun!” she yelled, taking a step toward him without even thinking about doing it, small hands clenched into tight fists at her sides. She wasn't angry, she wasn't, but she wanted to hit him anyway, wanted to grab him and shake him and shake him and shake him until he stopped looking at her like that, until he took back all the terrible things he'd said, until he started acting like her best friend again (until he stopped acting like a stranger she didn't recognize; a stranger with her friend's face). “I don't know how you would feel! You just said you couldn't imagine being in Sasuke-kun's place! Does that mean you wouldn't care if I died and went away forever and ever? That you wouldn't even notice or care?!”

“Of course I would!” The boy snapped, taking his own step forward so that they were nose-to-nose glaring right back into her blazing jade eyes without fear. “Of course I would care! I would care a lot ya know! You're my most important person Sakura-chan! If you were gone I wouldn't know what to do! If you died I would be all alone again and I don't want that, not ever!”

Her heart had skipped a beat at his admission that she was the most important person in the world to him, but she didn't back down. She still didn't know why he was acting to strange, but she wanted him to understand, had to make him see. “If that's true then wouldn't you want somebody to look out for you too? To make you hotpots and come check on you and let you know that you weren't alone? Wouldn't you want that? Cause I know I would, and I'm sure Sasuke-kun does!”

“But that's just it ya know! If you were gone no one would care how I felt!” he exploded, throwing his arms in the air and leaning even further into her space, trying to make her understand. “If you died then there would be nobody left in the whole village, in the whole world, who would give a damn about me! You're the only person who cares about me in the whole world Sakura-chan, and if you stopped being my friend-” he voice broke on a sob he didn't smother in time. “-if you stopped caring, if you left me all alone, that would be it, ya know! No one else-No one else would-would care! I'd be all alone again and I-”

He started to cry for real then, thin shoulders heaving under his over-sized green shirt, tears running down his cheeks and making his breathing labored and thick. He staggered back away from her, fisting his hands in his shirt and sobbing openly, not even trying to make it stop, and turning his face to the ground so that fat teardrops dripped off his chin and pattered to the dry earth like rain. “You can't leave me Sakura-chan, you just can't! Please don't leave me, I don't-I can't-not by myself-I can't-” He gave up and just let the tears come, too upset to choke the words out.

“Naruto-kun.” She approached him carefully, making extra sure to telegraph her moves as obviously as she could so he wouldn't startle and bolt when she reached out to put a hand on one shaking shoulder. “Is that what this is about? Because you're afraid that if I'm nice to Sasuke-kun he'll want to be friends with me and then I won't be able to be friends with you anymore? Is that why you're so upset?”

He nodded frantically, still too overwhelmed to speak but needing her to understand despite that. Of course Sasuke would want to be friends with her; Sakura-chan was awesome. Of course she must want better friends then stupid old him, who wouldn't? He didn't deserve a friend like her but he wanted her anyway, wanted her to stay by his side and get into and out of trouble with him, to train with him and get stronger with him and someday go on missions outside the village with him when they got to be real ninja. He was selfish and petty and mean and-and-and please don't leave me Sakura-chan, please please please please please!

“Oh Naruto-kun!” She yanked her friend into a fierce hug (startling the boy into wrapping his arms around her on reflex) and not caring even a little if he got tears and snot all over her baggy black training clothes (her mama had stopped letting her wear her cheongsam when she was 'playing outside' after the fourth time her daughter had come home with a giant, ragged tear in the dress' long hem).

The boy's skinny frame shivered against her as he buried his face in her shoulder and she tightened her grip around him on instinct, a bubbling, hot surge of protectiveness swirling around in her belly in reaction to his obvious distress. “Naruto-kun you must know that could never, ever happen! I would never stop being friends with you, I wouldn't-I won't, not ever! Not even if I live to be as old as Sandaime-sama will I ever wanna stop being friends with you, an-an-an' no one could make me stop neither, not even Hokage-sama, or even my mama! So please don't cry Naruto-kun; you're my best friend, and I promise I won't ever leave you! I promise!”

Naruto sniffled wetly and drew back from her slightly, but not far enough away to break out of the girl's hold. “R-really Sakura-chan? Ya mean it?”

She nodded once, firmly, expression set and green eyes determined. “I do mean it. I won't stop being friends with you, never ever, not even if I make new friends or if you make new friends. If Sasuke-kun does want to be my friend, he'll just have to understand that me and you are a two-for-one special. If he wants to be my friend, he has to be yours too.”

He made a face at that. “What if I don't wanna be friends with him?”

“Then you don't gotta,” she told him with a giggle at his moue of disgust that made his nose wrinkle like a bunny. “That's your choice. But I still think you should give him a chance. He might be nice! And if he is, or even if he isn't, you'll never know if you could have been friends with him if you don't try.”

“I guess,” the boy conceded begrudgingly. He squeezed his arms where they were still wrapped around his friends' middle. “But no matter what we'll always be friends first right? Ya promise?”

“Promise.” Sakura held out her pinky solemnly and Naruto didn't hesitate in wrapping his own little finger around hers to complete the single seal required to form the most binding contract either of them knew, sacred to all schoolchildren across the nations (the sanctity of the Pinky Swear was unshakable, and universal).

“It's the promise of a lifetime!” he cheered, pumping his free fist in the air in victory. “Believe it!”

-

Naruto agreed to walk with her out to the deserted Uchiha district on the edge of the village, but stopped to wait beneath the arch painted with the customary red-and-white fan at the entrance to the ghetto, letting her continue the rest of the journey on her own. She'd asked him to do it, and at first he'd protested (loudly and vehemently) but eventually he'd subsided at her continued insistence.

She didn't want to overwhelm Sasuke with too many visitors at once, and had decided to just drop off the cookpot on his front porch and leave it there for him to find with a note explaining it's reason for being there. She wanted him to know someone cared, but she didn't want him to feel like he had to interact with them if he really didn't want to. The pot and the note themselves would have to be enough to get her message across ('You're not alone. Someone's here, someone cares. I'm here. I care.')

And so she set out alone through the eery, silent streets of the ghetto. White, plaster-facade buildings loomed high on either side of the street and gleamed like bone in the late afternoon sun. The small district seemed entirely bleached of color but for the lurid splash of blood-red that made the Uchiha fan, painted big and noble as life on every building she passed, and hanging low from the banners strung high overhead between each rooftop.

She wondered at the overstated visibility of the traditional clan kamon; this was the Uchiha clan compound after all, and surely the people who had lived here were never in danger of forgetting to which family they belonged, were they?

The entire place was quiet as a graveyard and the air sat as still and heavy as if a thunderstorm was about to break at any moment. To say Sakura was uncomfortable would be a vast understatement, and try as she might to stay calm, she couldn't keep herself from quickening her pace just a little as she hurried down the main street that ran through the center of the town. She didn't know where Sasuke-kun's house was, but she knew he was the son of a clan head, which meant his house had to be the biggest and most centrally located of them all. She wasn't wrong.

Barely five minutes of walking later and the dirt and gravel road spat her out at the other end right in front of an enormous, traditional-style wooden mansion with a highly-polished wraparound porch and paper sliding-doors already boarded up for the night.

Nothing about the Uchiha district was what the girl would have called 'welcoming', but the stately, stuffy house (mansion) was the easily the least hospitable of them all. Even standing on the farthest end of the cobblestone walkway that wound in a serpentine path up to the three low steps that led to the front door of the mansion, she felt very, very much like she didn't belong here, not one bit.

She quickly crossed the path and padded up the steps to the door, setting the little red cookpot down in front of it (there was no welcome mat to cushion it with) and spared a half-second of fussing to make sure it was positioned just so before reaching into her pocket to retrieve her note. She would leave it on the lid of the dish and beat a hasty retreat before-

“What do you think you're doing here?”

The voice was totally unexpected and it made the girl jump and gasp as she whirled around to face the black-eyed boy standing just behind her. She hadn't even heard the floorboards creak! “Oh! Oh, um, Sasuke-kun, you startled me. I wasn't sure if you were ho-”

“I said,” the boy interrupted her, face blank and eyes flinty with suspicion. “What do you think you're doing here? No one is supposed to be here. By order of the Third Hokage, this place has been declared off limits to all members of the village civilians and-” his eyes flicked momentarily to the kunai holster she wore threaded through her beltloop. “-shinobi alike.” There was no mockery in his voice. She was armed, therefore she was a possible threat, and he would treat her like one.

“Oh, u-um, really? I-I d-didn't know that.” He was making her nervous with his unwavering, bottomless obsidian stare. He was also standing very close to her. “I-I-I'm s-sorry if I-I-I-”

She forced herself to stop and take a deep breath in and out through her nose, closing her eyes briefly to gather her courage before opening them again to return his gaze without flinching. She bowed shallowly, dipping her head and inclining her spine just enough to convey apology (she didn't take her eyes off of him; a breach of etiquette that would have made her mama scold her, but one her budding shinobi instincts demanded she make. She didn't want to leave the back of her neck unprotected).

“I'm sorry if I've offended you in some way Sasuke-kun, please believe me when I say any offense given was on accident. I just wanted to drop this off, and now I will be on my way.” She edged past him without waiting for a response, outwardly calm though her heart was pounding in her chest. She didn't know why she was scared of him, but she was and she wanted to leave as soon as possible.

“What is that?”

The sudden question caused her to pause with her foot on the bottom stair. She turned back to him in confusion to see him pointing at the cookpot. “That? It's a hotpot.”

The boy's mouth twisted into something like a sneer (awkward and placed wrong on his too-young face; a child trying to mimic a grown-up expression and mostly failing) and though she could tell he wanted to roll his eyes at her, he didn't. “I can see that. I mean what's in it? Why did you bring it here?”

“It's just nikujaga, beef and potatoes.” She peered up at him, green eyes wide and worried as a thought occurred to her. “Do you not like nikujaga? I picked it 'cause it looked easiest, and it sounded like it would fill you up fast. I could bring you something else instead. Do you like-”

Why did you bring me nikujaga?” he cut her off again, irritation beginning to color the previously flat tone of his voice. He was forgetting himself in the moment, relaxing his guard; just a little boy annoyed by a little girl and wanting her to explain herself so he could dismiss her and move on. Just like the boys in her class (because he was just a boy in her class. She'd forgotten that for a second).

The tense set of her shoulders eased at the realization that he wasn't anything to be afraid of and any traces of fear left her in the wake of her own budding pique. He was being awfully rude to someone who was just trying to do something nice for him! She planted her hands on her hips and glared up at him, not the least bit intimidated now.

Because its what you do when there's a-” she hesitated, and she saw him tense, the shield of icy indifference slamming back up into place once more. “-a death. In the family. I know it's not much but...well...”

She looked down, scuffing one sandal across the wood beneath her feet. She wasn't scared anymore, but she still didn't know what to say. She hadn't planned to actually talk to him after all. “I thought maybe you might not want to worry about making dinner for a while after-after everything that's happened. There should be enough in there for a few days but...you don't have to eat it. If you don't want to.”

“If you don't think I'll eat it, why are you bringing it to me?”

“Because...” she looked at him again, searching his face for any hint of what he was feeling. And the hints were there, little micro-cracks in the smooth uncompromised marble of his face. As if he were trying to be brave, but didn't quite know how to do it right. Her heart twisted at the sight, and she wanted to hug him, but couldn't because he wasn't Naruto and he wouldn't understand.

“Because I hoped you would. Because I wanted you to know someone was thinking about you, and wanted you to be okay. I know this won't make it okay, and maybe nothing ever will. But if you ever needed anything Sasuke-kun, I just wanted you to know I would be here to help. That's all.”

He stared at her silently for a while longer, and she let him, standing still and letting him look without fidgeting or looking away. Whatever he was expecting to find, whatever trick he might think she was trying to pull, he wouldn't find any sign of it on her face or in her stance (you couldn't find what wasn't there).

Something in him shifted, and though he didn't exactly relax, there was a slight loosening in the lines around his eyes and in the set of his jaw that suggested he had decided to believe her. For now. “You're from a civilian family aren't you?”

Sakura bristled, remembered taunts and childish jeering from the other students at the Academy, insulting her lack of shinobi bloodline, her lack of connections to the ninja world instantly putting her on the defensive. She raised her chin defiantly and returned his stare evenly, a challenge burning like flame behind her green eyes. “Yes. I'm Haruno Sakura. Why do you ask?”

“Because only someone from a civilian background would think to do something like this,” he answered calmly. “Someone from a ninja clan would never have done this, their parents wouldn't have let them. They would think it was an insult, like they were saying I can't handle things on my own, that I need coddling.” He shrugged. “I've never even heard of this custom, but you talk about it like it's common practice.”

She blinked at him, all the fight leaving her in a rush to be replaced by astonishment. “But that's dumb! Sadness isn't just a civilian thing, it's an everyone thing! How is it an insult to offer someone help when they need it?” She'd never heard of anything so silly in her whole life!

He cocked his head at her, like an inquisitive bird, considering her, measuring her worth (and surprisingly enough, not finding her lacking). “I don't know. I just know it's what my dad would have-” He broke off abruptly, eyes widening and skin going winter-snow pale at the reminder of the parents he had so recently lost. Any openness he had displayed before that moment disappeared in an instant, his stance going closed off and his expression shuttering once more.

Sakura knew it was time for her to go. She bowed again, dipping her head a little lower in respect this time; she knew her manners, even if certain clan heirs did not. “I don't want to overstay my welcome. Thank you for your time Sasuke-kun.”

He nodded back at her, gaze cool and countenance as unruffled as he could pretend it to be. He did not thank her, but then, she hadn't expected him to. She left without another word, and did not look back until she was crossing the border that separated the secluded compound from the forest beyond.

When classes started back up again the Monday after her trip into the Uchiha ghetto, she walked into Iruka-sensei's classroom to find Sasuke still absent from the back row. But there, placed (just so) on the table in front of where she usually sat next to Naruto on the third row, was the little red cookpot, empty of food and washed scrupulously clean.

Sakura smiled. It still wasn't a thank-you, but there was something that implied it in the fact that he had made the trip to the Academy to return the pot at all. It wasn't much. But it was a start.

-

After that, Sakura made it a point to make a solo pilgrimage into the shadowed heart of the Uchiha district every Sunday evening to drop off another full pot of food on Sasuke's doorstep, though she did not meet him there again after their first encounter. And every Thursday morning, without fail, the pot would be placed meticulously back in front of her assigned place in the third row, scrubbed completely clean, even though Sasuke had still not returned to school. It was progress, of a sort, and Sakura was content.

It was one such night, very near the end of July, when she was on her way back from dropping off her latest dish (plain old stewpot oden this time; her mama hadn't gone to the store yet that week), when a hand suddenly grabbed her by the loose scruff of her black t-shirt and hauled her feet clear off the ground with ease.

The girl began to struggle at once, kicking and thrashing and shrieking curses she'd learned from running the streets with Naruto that would have gotten her mouth washed out with soap if her mama and papa had ever found about it, fighting tooth-and-nail with every scrap of strength she possessed in her tiny body. But her captor simply held her far enough away to prevent her wild swings from hitting their target and let her dangle far enough from his wrist that she couldn't reach up and claw or sink her teeth into his arm (though she did give it her very best try).

“Easy kid, it's just me.”

The drawling voice was familiar and Sakura went limp in surprise when she recognized it, twisting against the grip on her shirt to look up at the teen. “Kakashi-niisan! What 're you doin' here?” And then she remembered her predicament and renewed her struggles with fresh vigor. “And what are you doing?! Put me down right now!”

“In a minute,” he said vaguely, ignoring her incredulous screech of outrage at his casual dismissal. “First I have a few questions that need answering, and something tells me you're just the person I should ask.”

“Yeah?” she huffed, wriggling halfheartedly in his grip, feeling very much like a hooked fish that had resigned itself to being the catch of the day. “What questions are those?”

“Oh you know, nothing too complicated,” he responded blandly, exaggerating his usual drawl around the vowels in a way that made her grit her teeth and take another ineffectual swipe at him, just for spite. “Why is the sky blue, why is the grass green?” His voice abruptly sharpened and went hard and cold as steel. “How in the holy hell you got into my apartment with a barrier jutsu in place?”

She blinked at him. “Huh?” She frowned up at him, wide brow furrowed and perplexed. “You mean when I dropped off your thank-you cookies? That was almost a month ago.”

“Right,” he confirmed. “During which time I was out of the village on a mission, which means when I got back into town today, I found your..gift, on my kitchen counter. Care to explain how it got there?”

Sakura gaped at him. “You were gone this whole time? Oh no, the cookies must be so stale by now!” She hung her head and drooped in his hold, looking miserable. “I'm sorry Kaka-niisan. I just wanted to thank you for taking me to the hospital when I fell out of that tree. I didn't know you'd left on a mission or else I would have waited 'til you got back.”

“One, please for the love of everything sacred, don't ever call me that again, especially not where people can hear you. Two, your apology is unnecessary considering there was a fairly strong freshness seal inscribed on the inside of the container you left in my apartment (standard practice for most higher end retail brands, your parents have good taste). And three, I think you're purposefully missing the point of this whole conversation.”

She turned big, appropriately innocent jade eyes up at him, apparently mystified as to what he was talking about. “What point is that?”

A vein throbbed in the older boy's temple and he barely resisted the urge to shake her like a disobedient puppy. He forced his visible eye to curve up into an impressive facsimile of a genial smile. “How. did you. get into. my apartment?”

“Oh that.” She shrugged as best she could while hanging three feet above the ground. “Through the window.”

Kakashi took a very deep breath and let it out very slowly and very definitively did not punt the vexing little twerp into the next ward, no matter how appealing the idea sounded. “How did you reach the window? There's no ladder. Did you have someone carry you or ask someone to go in through the window for you?” Gai was always a sucker for little kids; he'd bet Gai would do anything this particular kid asked him if she turned those big sad eyes on him. The older jounin was a soft touch like that.

“Nuh-uh,” she shook her head. “I walked up the wall and went in through the window.”

When the teen did nothing but stare at her in shock for several long heartbeats she squirmed uncomfortably, not sure why he was looking at her like she'd said something crazy. “It wasn't locked,” she clarified, as if maybe that was the problem.

“It wasn't-? Of course it wasn't locked! The whole reason I put a barrier jutsu on the door was to keep out sticky-fingered ankle-biters like you and your little friend! Why the hell would I bother locking the window?”

Sakura gasped. “So you were trying to keep us out! I knew it, you big bully!” She flailed wildly in his grip, anger lending her strength and making his hold on her shirt slip the slightest amount, he having loosened his grasp some when it first became apparent she wasn't going to make another bid for freedom. “How could you be so mean?! I just wanted to thank you for being nice but now I know I shouldn't have bothered because you're just a big dumb jerk after all!”

“Quit it,” he growled when she continued to fight against his hold (the kid was annoying as all hell but he didn't want to accidentally drop her). “Sakura I said cut it out! Just sit still and listen to me for a second! What do you mean you walked up the wall? How?”

“What do you mean how?” she sneered. “I walked with my feet stupid. Duh.”

He bared his teeth at her behind his mask and very distinctly did not snarl at her because he was the (semi-)adult here dammit, and he was not about to lose his temper at a little kid, no matter how much of a monumental brat she was being. “How did you stick to the wall then? You're only a second-year Academy student and wall-walking is a genin-level technique!”

“I used my chakra!” she snapped, glaring right back at him. “I got a book from the library and looked up how to do it an' then I just used my chakra to stick to the wall! It wasn't like it was hard."

He stared at her. “You're trying to tell me you taught yourself to wall-walk? From a book?” He sounded insultingly skeptical in a way that made Sakura bristle with indignation. “You? A five-year old kid?”

“I'm seven!” the girl erupted. “And yes I did teach myself! All by myself! An' I didn't even need a jerky grown-up like you to help me so there!”

The older boy hauled the girl up even higher off the ground so that they were eye-to-eye. “Prove it.”

Sakura scowled at him and swung herself in his grip and kicked out one leg, stretching it as far as she could so that it connected with his padded jounin vest. The instant the sole of her sandal came in contact with the fabric, she flared her chakra and instantaneously latched onto it to keep her from swinging back away from his torso.

Kakashi jumped and instinctively gave a sharp tug on the back of her shirt, trying to pry her off with force. All that did was make him stumble half-a-step forward as he was pulled right along with her, making him teeter almost dangerously off-balance before righting himself in the next second. He goggled at the place where her foot was attached to his vest, then up at her, then back down at her foot, then up at her again, utterly flummoxed. Whatever he had been expecting, it hadn't been that.

The girl detached her foot and crossed her arms over her chest smugly, tipping her chin up and peering down at him with all the imperiousness she could muster (which was a not inconsiderable amount for a seven-year old girl). “See?” she crowed triumphantly. “Told ya I could do it.”

The teen stared at her a few moments longer before his eye narrowed and he snorted. “Big deal.” And with that he dropped her into an unceremonious heap on the sidewalk and turned to slouch away without another word, long legs rapidly eating up the distance between the girl and the street corner.

Sakura scrambled to her feet. “That's it?” she yelled after him, nearly apoplectic at his easy disregard for her accomplishment (she'd wanted him to be impressed). “After all that you're just gonna say 'big deal' and walk away?! You didn't even thank me for those cookies you huge jerkface!”

Kakashi didn't bother to turn around, just raised his voice loud enough for her to hear. “I don't like sweets! Next time, don't bother!”

Her high-pitched scream of pure, unadulterated frustration echoed down the street and followed him long after he'd turned the corner. He smirked. Mission accomplished.

Hopefully that would be last he would be seeing of those two for a good long while. He wasn't cut out to be a babysitter, and he had no intention of being one if he wasn't specifically ordered to do so. Let those two hellions go find someone else to bother (let them go find someone else to look up too; someone else, anyone else would be better than him. Better they learned that now, rather than after it was already too late).

Chapter Text

Taijutsu classes began in earnest at the beginning of August and Sakura was miserable. She hated taijutsu; it was the only class she'd ever made less than perfect grades in the year before. It seemed as if no matter how hard or how long she practiced, she just never got any better.

She could do the katas fine, and more than once she'd been complimented on her textbook perfect form. She had no trouble remembering the steps and could quickly settle into a routine without having to be reminded. She even found it relaxing at times, the slow, steady, purposeful movement of a kata, the pull-push-burn of her muscles and inner silence so complete she could hear her heartbeat buzzing in her ears. It was a thousand times better than meditation in her book (she was seven years old and sitting still and being quiet was boring, on this, she and Naruto were in complete agreement). But the katas weren't the problem. It was in the hand-to-hand sparring lessons that her troubles truly began.

Sakura wasn't just bad at sparring, she was terrible at it. It was if every time their teacher yelled “Begin!”, everything she'd ever learned about taijutsu took flight and flew out of her head all at once. Her stance was shaky, she couldn't remember how to block, her strikes had no power behind them, and worst of all she flinched and shied away whenever her opponent moved towards her (sometimes she skittered right out of the ring entirely, an automatic fail). The reason was as simple as it was shameful: she didn't want to get hurt (and she didn't want to have to hurt anyone else).

The year before, her fear had been abstract and baseless, an instinctive, ingrained desire to avoid pain, but after the previous summer, wherein she'd actually experienced first-hand the white-hot, searing pain of a broken bone, she was twice as scared as she had been before. She didn't want to feel that kind of agony ever again, and she didn't want to inflict it on anyone else either, not even stupid bullies who maybe deserved it like Ami and her gang.

Even Iruka-sensei taking her aside and explaining that by dropping her guard and refusing to defend herself she was actually making herself more vulnerable to an attack didn't help. She just couldn't get past the mental block that told her hurting people was wrong (“Good girls don't hit or kick or scream or fight like boys do sweetheart, there's never any good reason to hit someone.”) and that being hurt in return was something to be avoided at all costs (“What if you fall and hurt yourself? You bruise so easily baby, are you sure you wouldn't rather go study your books some more instead?.”).

In short, Sakura was miserable, and nothing anyone said could cheer her up. Except for maybe-

“C'mon Sakura-chan, you can't give up yet, we just started ya know!”

“It's no use Naruto-kun,” the girl sighed, picking idly at the sun-browned grass under her fingers to avoid looking her friend in the eye. “I just can't do it. Maybe we should practice something else for a while.”

The boy crossed his arms and shook his head negatively. “No! We need to practice this! There's a huge test on taijutsu at the end of the year ya know, and if we don't pass we can't move up, and we need all the practice we can get. We both stink.”

“You're not that bad,” she denied reflexively, the way she always did whenever Naruto said something that sounded as if he was putting himself down. “You sometimes forget the kicks and stuff, but at least you can actually fight back when your enemy attacks you...” She nearly mumbled the last part, tearing up fistfuls of grass now and still studiously suppressing the urge to look up at her friend (she didn't want to see how disappointed he was in her). She knew he was right, she knew it, they really did need to train if they wanted even a hope of passing the taijutsu exam in May, but…

Naruto sighed explosively and flopped down to sit in the dirt across from her, kicking his feet out and letting their legs tangle together companionably despite the oppressive summer heat and the sweat that made their skin stick together. “What is it Sakura-chan, huh?” He nudged one of her sandaled feet with his own. “Why does this freak you out so much?”

“It doesn't freak me out!” She refuted immediately, but without real conviction. The boy remained silent, watching her patiently through clear blue eyes as she fidgeted. “I just-” she twisted a long blade of grass around her fingers nervously. “I just don't wanna hurt you, not even on accident.”

Naruto grinned, relieved the problem was something so relatively simple. “Well I don't wanna hurt you neither ya know Sakura-chan, but we gotta practice on somebody. Otherwise how 're we ever gonna figure out how to hurt other people on purpose when we gotta?”

“That's just it!” she burst out, unable to stem the flow of truth once she'd started. She needed someone to understand. “I don't want to have to hurt anybody, not even bad people! An' I don't wanna get hurt either, it-” Hurts. “-isn't fun and it makes you cry, and then you have to go to the hospital and stuff. It's bad. I don't wanna get hurt and I don't wanna have to hurt anybody so that they don't hurt me.”

Her friend stared at her, baffled. “Well…” he began haltingly. “Well, see, the thing is Sakura-chan, I-I think bein' a ninja-a real ninja-involves kinda a lot of fighting, ya know? Not all the time! But, ya know, enough, so, um, I think maybe getting hurt, and hurting people who try to hurt you, is kinda a big part a the job description, ya know?”

He said it so carefully, so tentatively, watching her face closely with wide, worried eyes for her reaction to this possibly devastating news, as if she would be upset at this apparently unrealized truth (as if she hadn't known it all along).

The warm, floaty feeling she expected she would never get completely used to feeling around her best friend expanded in her chest like a balloon, making it hard to breathe and squeezing her heart tight. She loved him so much in that moment for this simple kindness, for his obvious, overwhelming desire not to upset her further, not to hurt her feelings, that her body struggled to contain all of it.

Their legs were too closely intertwined for her to hug him without toppling them both to the ground so she settled for beaming at him instead. “I know, Naruto-kun, I know.”

And she did know. She didn't like it (didn't think she ever would), didn't revel in the knowledge that one day, sometime in the near or distant future, she would have to hurt people on a semi-regular basis in order to keep herself and her teammates alive. She didn't like it, not one bit. But she understood it.

Looking at the boy across from her (who had automatically smiled back at her, confused but delighted by the fact that he hadn't been the cause of more distress, baring all his teeth and scrunching his eyes closed in his too-wide fox smile), something very, very deep down inside of her (in her belly, or in her chest, she wasn't sure which), told her very, very quietly that in order to keep this boy safe, she would gladly hurt a hundred people, a thousand, without remorse, and accept the wounds that came in retaliation without complaint. She would do anything to keep Naruto safe (knew he would do the same for her if she let him). Anything.

Determination sparked to life inside her and she unwound herself from around her friend and climbed to her feet, beckoning for him to do the same. “C'mon, you're right. If we want to have any chance at all of passing the Big Test at the end of the year we're gonna need to get started.”

She considered it for a moment, head tipped back and bright green eyes trained thoughtfully on the cloudless August sky. “We might even have to stay late after class and see if Iruka-sensei will go over forms with us again, just to be sure.”

“Yeah!” Naruto sprang to his feet, nearly bouncing in place with fresh enthusiasm. “That's a great idea Sakura-chan, an' I'm sure Iruka-sensei won't mind helpin' us! Let's go see if he's still at the 'cadamy. Maybe he can give us a few pointers right now and we can practice some more before curfew if we hurry! Let's go!”

Sakura grinned wide and raced after her friend, the two of them kicking up great clouds of dust behind them as they ran, laughing, back down the road that led into the heart of the middle ward.

-

Iruka had been surprised at their request (they'd caught him just as he was locking up the doors to the school and preparing to head home), but agreed to give them extra tutoring after classes. He seemed pleased at their initiative, but he warned them that he was often busy grading papers after school on weekdays and that on weekends he was on rotation to man the missions desk at the Hokage Tower, so he wouldn't be on hand to help them every day of the week.

After some discussion, they decided that Naruto and Sakura would stay behind after class for two hours on Monday and Friday afternoons, during which time the chunin would supervise their sparring and correct any obvious mistakes that he could find, with the understanding that they would continue practicing what they'd learned on the days he couldn't meet them. And slowly, very slowly, over the next two weeks, their taijutsu skills improved.

They still practiced kunai and shuriken throwing after school, but instead of practicing for hours at a time, they barely spent half an hour on keeping their skills sharp instead. After all, why bother doing any more than that when they both always hit the bulls-eye of the target every time they threw now? (Even moving the targets around at random and learning to throw while they were running past at full speed hadn't presented more than a few days challenge, although it had been more fun that way. Their aim remained true no matter what they did).

And they still practiced wall-walking and tree-walking whenever they got the chance. Sakura had improved by leaps and bounds and could now stroll leisurely up and down (and around) vertical objects for at least an hour at a time without having to worry even a little bit about slipping. Naruto's progress had been much, much slower, but after a few more trips to the library and some more frantic scouring of the higher-level shelves, they had finally found a book that explained chakra theory in more detail.

Sakura had been fascinated and Naruto had been bored to tears, but they finally found an annotation in one of the chapters that explained that beginners to wall-walking were usually advised to try running up walls first, since it meant they could cover more distance in the relatively short amount of time they had before their gathered store of focused chakra ran out.

After Naruto had started doing what the book had described as 'sprints', racing full speed at a vertical object while concentrating chakra in his feet and attempting to run as far up the incline as he could while maintaining his focus, he had also begun to improve steadily. Not as well or as fast as Sakura, but it worked, and after two months of hard, grueling training and more than a few bumps and cuts and bruises, one day near the beginning of August Naruto was finally able to make it far enough up the trunk of their practice tree to sit on one of the bottom-most branches, sweaty, dirty, shaking, and exhausted, but grinning wide enough to split his face in two as Sakura clapped and cheered from the base of the tree. To anyone else it would have been a small thing, hardly worth mentioning (he hadn't even come close to reaching the top of the tree after all), but to him, it was the greatest thing in the whole world, and Sakura couldn't have been prouder of him.

Despite their various improvements and the much appreciated help from Iruka-sensei, the girl couldn't help thinking that they would improve even faster if they had a more regular after-school tutor. Someone to watch their practices on the days their teacher couldn't, to not only tell them what they were doing wrong, but also better ways to fix it then the school-approved curriculum Iruka-sensei refused point-blank to deviate from (“It wouldn't be fair to the other kids in your class. I'm your instructor, not your personal tutor.”).

What they really needed was another grown-up ninja's help. The only problem was that the only grown-up ninja either of them were on even sort-of speaking terms with was-

“No.”

Sakura scowled and stamped her foot, tiny fists clenched at her sides. “What do you mean 'no'? I didn't even say anything yet!”

“Because the only reason you brats ever come looking for me is when you want something,” Kakashi pointed out (not untruthfully). “So whatever you want the answer is no. Good-bye.”

He tried to edge past her to get to his apartment door but the girl merely scowled and widened her stance, arms akimbo, blocking his way and glaring up at him with a challenge in her eyes, as if daring him to try and move her by force. He had the sneaking suspicion she would bite him if he tried (he wasn't wrong).

The teen sighed and shifted the over-stuffed paper bag he was holding to balance more securely on his hipbone. “How is it you always seem to know when I'm not going to be home so you can wait here to ambush me?”

“I saw you in the grocery store on my way to my house,” she admitted without dropping her guard; she remembered all too well how easy it had been for him to pick her up off the ground one-handed last time, and she didn't trust him not to just pluck her up and toss her over the railing if she gave him the slightest opening. “I wasn't even gonna come talk to you today, but then I saw you weren't home so I ran all the way here so I could wait for you cause I saw you bought milk an' I knew you'd have to listen to me if you wanted to get inside to put it up before it got bad.”

Kakashi quirked an eyebrow at her logic. She wasn't necessarily wrong, but it was certainly a round-about way of thinking about things. Still… “So you don't deny that this was an ambush then?”

The girl opened her mouth furiously, about to loudly deny such an accusation, but paused before the words could come out. She thought about it for a second and then closed her mouth, pressing her lips tight together and glaring up at him defiantly. He wasn't wrong.

The older boy snorted. “That's what I thought.” He nudged her gently on the hip with one foot, like he was trying to shoo away a cat that had gotten underfoot. “Go away now, whatever you want I'm not going to give you, and whatever help you need can be given by someone else who isn't me. Move aside strawberry short-stack.”

Sakura bristled at the nickname but grit her teeth and held her ground. She could admit to herself if not to him that her plan (such as it was), had been impulsive, and that she wasn't entirely sure what argument she could use to convince him to stop being a jerk for five seconds and listen to her. But she was here now, and she wasn't about to leave without at least trying. “I'll move if you'll listen to me. It'll only take a second.”

The teen raised a skeptical silver brow. “Just a second?”

“Okay, more like a minute,” she corrected quickly, knowing a dodge when she heard one. “Just listen to me for a minute and then if you still don't wanna help I'll go away and won't ever bother you about it again.”

Somehow I seriously doubt that, he thought but didn't say. He sighed and leaned back against the rickety metal railing in such a way that it didn't even creak in protest and nodded at her, gesturing for her to get on with it.

Hardly daring to believe her good luck and knowing that he was probably already counting down her allotted minute in his head, she quickly explained the situation; about how her and Naruto's taijutsu was so bad they were both failing that class spectacularly, about the extra lessons they were doing with Iruka-sensei, and about her idea that what they really needed was a proper tutor to show them the ropes and answer any questions they had about technique and form that they couldn't always remember to ask by the time they got to class the next day. She talked as fast and as concisely as possible, taking extra care not to slur her words together or let the pressure make her start to babble.

She heaved a deep breath of air into her starved lungs as soon as she was finished (she hadn't had time to stop to breathe) and stood there panting while Kakashi finished mentally counting off the three seconds she'd had to spare. He made a show of nodding seriously and pretending to deeply consider all that she'd said.

Just as a flicker of hope startled to kindle behind the girl's eyes he straightened up again and offered her one of his signature eye-crinkling smiles. “Nope, sorry, still not interested.” He took advantage of her drop-jawed shock to scoot her away from his apartment door. “Scram.”

Sakura stumbled a few feet (he hadn't pushed her that hard, but she hadn't been expecting it), before recovering herself enough to whirl around, incensed by his continued rudeness. Why oh why had she thought this time would be different? “I can't believe you! You are such a-such a-such a-”

Words failed her. She could think of plenty indelicate and creative things to call him (the fruit-sellers in the lower ward were definitely inventive when it came to insults, that was one thing for sure), but some how none of them seemed able to even come close to describing what a monumental butt-face he was.

“Jerk?” he offered as he attempted to wrestle his keyring from the depths of his pocket without dropping his groceries. “Despicable cretin? Asshole? Lily-livered, yellow-belled, dog-face son-of-a-two-timing-whore?”

She liked that last one. She was pretty sure she'd heard it on one of the action movies her papa liked to watch when he thought she was already in bed (and which she secretly snuck down to watch bits-and-pieces of through the slats of the stairway banister late at night when she was supposed to be sleeping). The fact that he apparently liked the same kind of terribly-acted, violent action movies as her papa should not have made her want to smile, but it did and she forced herself not to show it on her face. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing she found him even a little bit funny.

“Yeah, that last one, that's the one,” she confirmed coolly, crossing her arms over her chest and sticking her nose in the air imperiously. “You don't wanna help us? Fine. We'll figure it out ourselves, like we always do.” She made sure to put particular emphasis on the last words, twisting them so that they were almost a sneer as she turned on her heel and made to flounce away (she may not like Ami, Mei, and Natsuko, but no one ever said they didn't have a flair for dramatic exits).

Kakashi's voice stopped her before she'd gotten halfway towards the stairs. “Hey, you mind if I ask you something for a change?”

She paused and pivoted slowly back around to face him. She did not say 'you just did ask me something', but only through extreme force of will. “Yeah?” she said suspiciously. “Ask me what?”

“How come you never bring your little friend with you when you come to demand something from me these days?” Sakura blinked in apparent confusion and he elaborated, “I've seen you two a couple times running around the village. You always look attached at the hip, but it seems like you don't want him to come with you when you come to ask me for something, and you didn't say anything about him being here when you broke into my apartment. Why is that?”

Oh, was that all? Sakura relaxed shoulders she hadn't realized were tense and shrugged. That answer was simple. “Naruto-kun thinks you're a nice person.”

It was the teen's turn to blink in apparent bewilderment. “I'm not.”

“I know that,” she assured him bluntly, without a trace of sarcasm or malice. “But Naruto-kun doesn't. You, you helped us, you helped him, not only once, but twice, even when you didn't have to or really want to, and nobody does that, ya know? Nobody helps Naruto-kun when he asks for it, so he learned to stop asking. But then he asked you for help twice, and you just-” she swallowed, momentarily overcome with emotion. “-you just helped him without question. You were a jerk about it the first time, but the second time...you just believed him. You believed him when he said I was hurt and needed help, and then you helped. You didn't call him a liar or hit him or tell him to get lost and-and...”

She steadied herself and finished quietly. “Besides you and me and Iruka-sensei, no one has ever done that for him before. You were nice to him, which means he thinks you're a nice person. I know you're a big meanie jerk with a bad attitude, but he doesn't and I want it to stay that way for as long as I can.”

He watched her silently, masked face inscrutable and visible gray eye giving nothing away. “Why?”

She looked up at him, tilting her head to the side and scrunching up her face in confusion. “Huh?”

“Why do you care whether Naruto cares if I'm a nice person or not?” He said it softly, and although there was no obvious emotion in his voice or in his words, she realized with surprise that it was the first time she could remember him referring to Naruto by name. She wasn't sure why that made her feel as though maybe he deserved an honest answer.

“Because people aren't nice,” she told him firmly, with iron-clad conviction. It was a harsh lesson but one she couldn't help but learn when she saw how people treated her best friend on a daily basis. “People just aren't. If more people were just nice without being told they had to be, there would be less bad stuff in the world, and Naruto-kun deserves to believe that not everyone is bad and that there are nice people in the world. So I don't want him to know that you aren't really all that nice most of the time, because I think it would make him sad, and I don't want him to be sad. Ever. So that's why.”

Kakashi held her gaze without speaking for a few moments longer, looking at this little pink-haired civilian girl with her too-big clothes and her too-bright hair and her too-soft heart and thinking, for the first time, that maybe he was looking at someone who would go on to do great things some day. He inclined his head without comment and turned away from her, entering his apartment and closing the door behind him without another word to her.

Knowing she'd lost this battle, there was nothing left for Sakura to do but turn and walk away as well.

-

It was nearing the end of August when it happened. Naruto and Sakura were sparring in their usual meeting spot in the empty training fields behind the Academy. Naruto had accompanied her earlier that morning as she made her weekly sojourn out to the Uchiha ghetto to drop off the red cookpot for Sasuke. She'd stopped making him meals, partly because her mama had gently suggested maybe it was time that she should and partly because she'd taken the words he'd said to her all the way back in July to heart; she didn't want him to think that she thought he couldn't take care of himself.

But she also didn't want him to think they'd forgotten about him. He still hadn't returned to school, and Sakura had decided that until he did, she would continue leaving things for him in the pot on his porch, even if those things weren't always food. Sometimes they were, sometimes they were sweets she'd made with her mama that weekend and wanted to share with him, sometimes a few sticky skewers of dango like the ones she and Naruto had had with lunch and she'd bought a couple extra for him so he didn't feel left out. But mostly, the thing she commonly left was flowers.

Her mama had a big book about flowers that she kept on a small bookshelf with the cookbooks in the living room, which is where Sakura had first gotten the idea. After flipping carefully through the pretty pictures in the book and memorizing some of the things written next to certain flowers, the girl had enlisted Naruto's help in picking wildflowers with her during their break between school and training.

The boy hadn't minded, he liked getting dirty and he was surprisingly interested and engaged when his friend explained about the different meanings behind each flower type and it's corresponding color, and sometimes even offering suggestions of which ones they should choose next. Over the past few months, his attitude towards Sasuke had thawed considerably. It was almost as if the elusive Uchiha heir was already their friend, just a silent, invisible one.

The were fun, fruitful summer afternoons, full of laughter and silliness, and they never left the fields with less than two handfuls each of wildflowers, though the flowers they picked were different each time.

Little pink geraniums for comfort, great big bushels of pretty blue hyacinths for sincerity, golden black-eyed susans for encouragement, blood-red poppies for consolation, bright yellow roses for friendship, and many, many others. Flowers of all shapes and kinds grew wild on the hillsides bordering the East Gate, or else bloomed regally on low bushes in the shade of the forests for which their village was named. The two of them would sometimes spend an hour at a time picking carefully through their days harvest, checking that each and every bud that ended up the pot was as perfect as it could be (it was important that he see for himself how much time and effort they'd put in, that he knew how much they cared).

Sakura always left a note with the flowers explaining their meanings and why she and Naruto had picked those ones in particular. She told him about the Academy and what they'd learned in class that day, and wished him well on completing the tests and assignments she knew were being delivered each week for him to do at home so he wouldn't fall behind even if he didn't actually attend school.

She left him notes with the food too, but these notes tended to be more like letters, being several pages long and full of her chattering on about anything and everything. She was sure he didn't care in the least what her favorite color was, or her favorite food, or her favorite flavor of ramen, but she told him all about those things anyway and asked him honestly curious questions about his favorite this or that in return. She wrote about Naruto and hers adventures running the village as dusk, and about the new insults the fruit-sellers had hollered at them as they dodged under and around their stalls.

It was a bit like writing in a diary more than it was like writing to pen-pal, considering no one ever wrote back, but Sakura remained hopeful that someday her letters to no one would be answered.

She was distracted during their spar that day, thinking about the pot they'd dropped off earlier, wondering what Sasuke-kun would think of the vibrant orange zinnias they'd chosen for him today, wondering if he ever kept the flowers or if he just threw them away whenever they appeared (it would make her sad if he did, but she would understand. Still, she hoped he kept them, if only to add color to that huge empty mansion).

So distracted was she that when Naruto aimed a kick at her midsection she was a second too late in responding, and though she managed to block the strike, the jarring force of it sent her off balance, a fact that did not escape her opponent. He immediately lunged forward to finish her off, to knock her into the dirt and be declared the winner of their mock-battle and when she saw the flash of yellow and green coming towards her, she responded without thinking.

She curved her spine into a back-bend, planted her left hand under her for balance and bent her left knee, twisting it to point at the ground as she brought her right leg up and in and over, pointing it in a straight horizontal line across her body before arcing it back in a perfect sweeping heel kick that caught a startled Naruto square on the jaw before he had time to counter. The force of it lifted him completely off his feet and sent him flying across the clearing where he hit the ground at least ten feet away an a miniature explosion of dirt and grass.

Sakura sat crouched there, frozen, icy shock freezing the blood in her veins and making her lungs feel too tight to draw breath. Wide jade eyes watched the place where her friend had collapsed in mute horror for several long, drawn-out seconds. It was as if someone had hit a 'pause' button on the whole world. Nothing moved and she could hear no sound other than her own frantic heartbeat pumping blood loud in her ears. Naruto did not get up.

Panic lanced through her like a knife and the bubble that had existed around her for a few scant seconds popped and the world came rushing back in with a blur of light and color and sound.

“Naruto-kun!” she screamed, scrambling to her feet and racing to his side, moving so fast the world was a green-brown-blue smear in her periphery and it felt as though she'd left her stomach on the ground behind her.

She dropped to her knees at his side, terrified of what she would see, but he was okay, he'd merely been stunned by the suddenness of the blow, hadn't been braced for it. He was sitting up and groaning, rubbing gingerly at the magnificent bruise that had already started to discolor his jaw.

Tears were flowing down her cheeks and she hadn't even realized she'd started crying until she tasted the salt in her mouth and felt the shivers that wracked her body, making the jumbled up, broken glass that had replaced her insides rattle around and slice her heart to ribbons. “Oh Naruto-kun I'm so sorry! I-I-I don't know what-It was an accident, I-I didn't m-m-m-mean too, oh, p-p-please don't be mad at me, I'm sorry!”

She threw her face into her hands and sobbed openly, her mind flashing white and red with a firestorm of emotion that overloaded her senses. She couldn't believe she'd done something so terrible, couldn't believe she'd actually hit her friend, really hit him, enough to put a mark on his skin. She'd always been extra sure to pull her punches, to make sure she never swung to hit with her full strength during their sparring matches before this but today she'd forgotten, just for a split second, forgotten and made a mistake and made her friend pay the price.

This was it, she'd ruined it for good this time for sure, ruined everything, everything. Surely her friend hated her now, never wanted to talk to her again, or worse, was afraid of her now, would want to end their friendship for fear that she would forget herself and hurt him again. It had been an accident but that was no excuse and she knew it and she couldn't breathe past the pain, her chest heaving and her heart fighting to keep beating despite the all-encompassing despair that was intent on crushing it to pulp.

Warm hands pulled gently at her wrists, trying to uncover her face and she jumped, startled, unable to understand how anyone could bear to touch a monster like her with such kindness. “Ne, Sakura-chan, hey, lookit me okay?” the voice was soft and so familiar, and there was an ocean of understanding in the cadence of the words. “Lookit me, it's alright. I'm okay, ya know, I'm fine. You didn't hurt me that bad, I should a been payin' more attention, it's both our faults okay, lookit me.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, hardly daring to believe the words she was hearing, the girl looked up at her friend, at his clear blue eyes and tanned, whiskered face, at the bright smile he was giving her in reward for listening to him. It was a smile she'd never seen on him before, one that made him look much older than he was, a smile brighter and warmer then she deserved, but at the same time it was much more restrained than his usual cheek-bunching, eye-squinting smiles.

“It's okay Sakura-chan,” he repeated in that same steady, calm voice, the one she'd never heard him use before that moment. “It's alright, I'm alright. 's nothin' worth cryin' like that about.”

“Not worth it?” she croaked, throat constricted and burning with tears and repressed screams. “Not worth it? Naruto-kun, I, I hit you, I gave you a bruise. I was supposed to be blocking you, not-not-” she swallowed hard. “I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking I...That was a move from one of my papa's movies, not something we learned in class. I-I thought it looked so cool when I saw it on TV, I-I taught myself how to do it, just for fun. I didn't think I'd ever actually use it...”

The boy grinned at her, and it was an expression much closer to the ones she was used to usually seeing on his face, the strange, aged wisdom that had come over him already fading from sight. “I was gonna ask, cause I didn't think that was one a the moves Iruka-sensei taught us, not unless he's been teaching us different stuff, which I didn't figure he had but, ya know, I thought I'd check. Still, it was really awesome, wasn't it?” Excitement sparked in his bright blues eyes and made them shine, any pain he might have felt already long forgotten. “Do you think you could teach me to do that Sakura-chan, huh, do ya?”

Sakura stared at him in wonder, at this amazing, wonderful boy who was her friend, who offered up forgiveness so easily, and pushed aside physical wounds in order to offer comfort to others. She had no idea what she had done to earn a friend like him, but she knew whatever it was, she probably hadn't done enough of it.

Her eyes dropped unwillingly to the bruise already starting to show through his tan, and it was like a lightening bolt ran through her with the overwhelming force of her desire to take that bruise away, to undo what she had done. For the span of a single breath, she would have given anything, anything in the world to be able to make her hands glow green like the nice lady at the hospital who had fixed her when she fell out of the tree. Would have given anything to be able to sooth away the pain she had caused, to make the bruise fade away into nothing, to fix what she'd accidentally broken in her carelessness.

The moment passed and she could breathe again and she found the strength to smile a genuine, if mildly wobbly, smile back at her friend. “Sure I can teach you Naruto-kun. But, but not today okay? I think I'd rather just sit here for a while if you don't mind. We can restart our training tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure Sakura-chan,” the boy agreed cheerfully, so glad that she had stopped crying that he would have said yes to anything she suggested. “Whatever you wanna do.”

-

They spent the rest of the afternoon sitting propped against the practice tree with their sides pressed close together, talking about nothing and dozing off leaning against each other in the lazy warmth of the day more than a couple of times. The sky had just started to turn hazy purple with the oncoming night when they finally said farewell and parted ways. Naruto had wanted to walk her home, to make sure she was okay after her prior emotional turmoil but she had assured him she would be fine and that she would see him the next morning before class. He had conceded without too much of a fight and left her to make the walk home alone.

But when she came to the fork in the road that led back to her house, she turned left instead of right, taking the path that led up into the outer reaches of the upper ward instead of deeper into the middle ward where her family's house stood. She walked with single-minded purpose, sparing no thought to the rapidly approaching darkness, nor bothering to stop and consider how much trouble she might be in later when she wasn't home on time. She was a girl on a mission, and she would not be deterred.

She followed the signs that pointed her in the right direction and made sure to keep to the well-lit sidewalks and never stray too close to the gaping, hungry mouths of shadowed alleyways. It was full dark by the time she reached her destination, but the florescent lights of Konoha Medical's lobby were still blazing bright, like a beacon against the night.

The older woman manning the reception desk looked up as she entered, blinking in surprise behind half-moon reading glasses to see a little girl entering unaccompanied. Sakura recognized her as the lady who had healed her collarbone and the hard knot of anxiety in her tummy she had been pretending wasn't there loosened, just a little. It wasn't a stranger; she could do this.

Head Nurse Manami leaned over the edge of the desk slightly, the better to see the pink-haired child who had just come to a stop at the foot of it. “May I help you dear?” she asked kindly, thinking maybe she had come to visit a relative or perhaps to seek medical aide of her own.

“Yes,” Sakura confirmed. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her voice was steady and did not waver at all when she said, “I was wondering if you could help me, actually.”

She looked up and met Manami's curious brown eyes with her own bright green ones, blazing as they were with an inner fire born of pure determination.

“I want to become a medic.”

Chapter Text

September was a very busy month for Sakura. Extra taijutsu training with Iruka-sensei on Mondays and Fridays, the beginning of her medical studies after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and a brand-new round of classes all second year girls were required to take in addition to their regular Academy classes called Kunoichi Lessons.

At first Sakura had been as excited as the rest of the girls in her year at the prospect of finally getting to learn what it meant to be 'a real kunoichi'. That lasted until the first day of her new lessons when she waved good-bye to a dejected Naruto (who'd thrown a fit when he found out he would not be allowed to follow his friend to her new classes; it had taken three skewers of dango and a lot of ramen before he'd calmed down enough to listen to reason) and followed the rest of the second-year girls and their new teacher Kanami-sensei as she led them deep into one of the flowering fields that bordered the school.

As soon as Kanami-sensei had decided they were far enough away from the school she instructed them all to sit down facing her, which they did eagerly. Once they were all settled the aging kunoichi smiled at them and clapped her hands together. “Alright girls, today will be the first in a series of important lessons you will all need to learn in order to become the very best female ninja you can be! I know you've all been wondering what we'll be doing and so I won't leave you in suspense any longer. Today, you girls will begin learning the art of ikebana!”

Most of the girls immediately erupted into a flurry of delighted squeals and excited chattering but Sakura only frowned, confused and more than a little disappointed. Flower arranging? What use could that possibly have in-?

Realization came as her mind raced through all the various flower names and meanings she and Naruto had taught themselves over the summer and the girl couldn't help the relieved smile that tugged at her mouth even as she shot her hand up in the air. Of course! That would make sense! She should have realized right away that the Academy wouldn't waste their time instructing them in something as silly and frivolous as actual flower arrange-

Kanami-sensei saw her hand and called out, “Yes? You in the back, with the pink hair, did you have a question?”

“Yes ma'am,” Sakura answered politely as she got to her feet. “I was going to ask why we needed to learn ikebana in order to be good ninja, but I think I figured out the reason.”

The woman smiled indulgently. “And what reason is that?”

“It's for secret messages,” the girl responded confidently. “Each flower has a different meaning, and each color of each flower also has its own meaning, so if you wanted to get a message to-to someone-” She hesitated; the girls around her had started giggling. She grit her teeth and made herself go on. “-in-inside a building, s-someone undercover, or-or-or-”

The majority of the other girls were outright laughing at her now (“Whoever heard of sending a message with flowers?” cackled a mean, nasally voice. Ami. “I mean, how dumb can you be?”), and she couldn't bring herself to go on, breaking off to stare down at the grass under her sandals, cheeks aflame. She didn't understand; had her reasoning been wrong? But she had thought that it made so much sense...

“Stop.”

Kanami-sensei's voice was like ice, sharp and cold, and everyone fell silent at once, but still Sakura couldn't make herself look up, too embarrassed to face her teacher after she'd apparently made such a blunder. She flinched when she felt grown-up hands set themselves lightly on her rounded shoulders.

“Sweetheart, look at me please.”

She couldn't disobey a direct order from a grown-up, not even one that had been phrased so gently. She raised her head and blinked in surprise to find Kanami-sensei crouched down to sit on her heels in front of her. The older kunoichi smiled encouragingly, and there wasn't a hint of mockery anywhere in her face or tone. “You are exactly right. I wasn't planning to go into the particulars today; I was going to wait a few days until you all had the hang of it before I started explaining about flower meanings and messages, but you're right, that is exactly the reason. And do you know, this is the first time anyone in one of my classes has guessed that before being told?”

Sakura smiled tentatively. “Really?”

Kanami-sensei beamed back and nodded. “Aa. Really.” The woman's face abruptly darkened and the girl almost shrank back, afraid she'd done something wrong after all, but her teacher was already getting to her feet and turning to face the rest of the class at large. “And let that be a lesson to all of you.” Her voice had gone flat and hard again, the voice of a battle-hardened kunoichi who expected to be listened to. “Just because you think you have all the answers, doesn't mean you can just dismiss anyone whose ideas don't line up with your own. Never assume you have the right answer without ever asking a question. Assumptions, incorrect or otherwise will get you killed one day, am I clear?”

Her tone made it apparent that it was a question with only one right answer and so the class chorused back obediently, “Yes Kanami-sensei.”

“Good!” The woman clapped once and suddenly the tension was gone and she was all smiles again, once more slipping on the guise of carefree schoolteacher as easily as slipping on a jacket. “Now I want all of you to split up into pairs or groups of no more than three, if you please, and then we can get started.”

The girls all relaxed as one and hurried to do as she said, suitably wary now of the consequences of disobedience but all Sakura could do was gape at her teachers retreating back as the older kunoichi walked away. I wanna be her when I grow up, part of her mind whispered, awestruck. Or if I can't be her, I wanna be someone very much like her. Someone people listen to without question, and jump when she tells them too.

With that thought in mind, Sakura finally turned to look out across the field, both surprised and already wearily resigned to find that almost everyone was already paired up or in a group with their friends, and that the few who weren't wouldn't meet her eye. She was used to that already from before she'd been in a class with Naruto (used to not belonging); no one would ever willingly partner up with a civilian ninja girl with pink hair, even if she was one of the smartest kids in school. The feeling of being an outsider wasn't new but it was a feeling she'd almost forgotten in the months since she'd become friends with Naruto, and the reminder of her outcast status hurt dully, like a loose baby tooth.

Still. She'd changed much since the beginning of the year and so she was able to face down the old pain with her chin up and her jaw set. She pretended not to notice everyone pretending not to notice her and went looking for someone to partner with. A group was too much to ask for, but there had to be at least one person who was desperate enough to partner with her right? Eventually, she'd have to be the only other person left, and then someone would have to partner with her, even if they didn't want to. Hopefully she'd be able to find someone before that happened. She hated being anyone's last choice.

She marched confidently past girls already whispering to each other in groups and loftily ignored the way they stared and sneered at her as she went by (“Uppity know-it-all!”, “Teachers' pet!”, they hissed at her back). She'd always been a freak, but ever since she'd become friends with Naruto it was like she was even more of a freak than she was before, and the knowledge set her teeth on edge. She'd rather have one of Naruto than a hundred of these jerks, she thought to herself ferociously as she stomped through the tall grass, barely resisting the urge to kick at the flowers in frustration (after all, it wasn't their fault all the girls in her year were big fat fakes).

Finally, just as she was about to give up and go ask if Kanami-sensei could be her partner (she'd had to partner with Iruka-sensei before, when all the other kids in class had purposefully shut her out, and she didn't mind it), she spotted a small pale shape huddled in the shadows of a hunched willow tree, alone. As Sakura approached cautiously she could tell she didn't recognize the girl, even all bunched up on herself as she was, her face hidden in her pulled-up knees. All Sakura could see of her were her small, white hands and her glossy cap of blue-black hair.

Something about the way the other girl sat, all curled up by herself and making sure to be as small as she could made something in her heart twist. She knew what she was thinking, knew what it felt like to try and make yourself small in the hopes you could disappear entirely. She hadn't felt that way in a long time, didn't think anyone could feel that way as long as Naruto was at their side, but she still remembered how it felt, and it wasn't a feeling she would wish on anyone, ever. No one deserved to feel so alone (not her, not Naruto, not Sasuke-kun, not even Kakashi-niisan).

And so the girl squared her shoulders and marched up to the tiny lump of a girl, making sure to make her smile as big and bright as she could, just like Naruto's. “Hi!” she called once she was in range and the girl-lump visibly flinched. “Do you wanna be my partner? Kanami-sensei said we're not allowed to work alone, so do you wanna work together?”

The girl-lump hesitated for a second longer before uncurling just enough to look up at Sakura with wide lavender-white eyes. The first thing Sakura noticed was that the girl's eyes took up most of her little heart-shaped face, and then she noticed that the girl had no visible pupils, which brought her up short. Byakugan, her brain piped up, recalling her reading from 'Konoha's Founding Families'. Which means she must be

Sakura took a step back to a more respectful distance and bowed at the waist, her mama's endlessly repeated etiquette lessons taking over. “Please excuse me Hyuga-san, I didn't realize. Please forgive me for speaking to you so familiarly.”

The tiny girl squeaked and shook her head so hard her bobbed hair swayed wildly with the movement. “N-n-no it-it's okay. I-I-I'm n-not...p-p-please d-don't a-apologize. I-I'm n-n-n-not-” With what appeared to be a great exercise in willpower the Hyuga girl snapped her mouth shut to cut off her helpless stuttering, ivory cheeks colored bright cherry red with embarrassment. “I-I'm H-Hinata,” she managed once she'd gotten a hold of herself, before burying her red face back into her knees, thin shoulders shaking with nerves.

Sakura couldn't do anything more than blink at Hinata's small form for a long moment. She'd never heard such a bad stutter. She sometimes stuttered when she was nervous, but never like that! This girl (Hinata, her mind corrected), must be even more nervous around strangers than Sakura herself if she was this bad, and with someone her own age at that!

The girl's heart twinged with empathy again. There was no way she could walk away and leave the other girl like this, all alone and obviously so badly frightened around so many strangers. She eased herself down to sit cross-legged on her rump a few feet away from the Hyuga, not wanting to get too close lest her presence was unwelcome.

“I'm Haruno Sakura,” she said simply, offering an encouraging smile when the smaller girl peeked up at her with one large lavender eye, visibly surprised that she was still there. “And I know it might be scary, but I really do need a partner, and I'm guessing you do too, so why don't we do it together? Maybe it won't be as scary that way.”

Hinata raised her head off her knees slightly. “Y-y-you s-still-” She gulped down a breath to try and steady herself. “-s-still want t-to p-partner with me?”

Sakura shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

Hinata blinked, apparently having no response to such irrefutable child logic. Seemingly despite herself, the corners of her pale lips started to wobble up into a small smile. “O-Okay. B-But, p-please don't...don't call m-me H-Hyuga-san. H-Hinata is f-fine.”

“Okay Hinata-chan!” Sakura cheered as she got to her feet, carefully pretending not to see the way the other girl went brick red at the unexpected endearment, and stuck out one hand to help her up. “But only if you promise to call me Sakura in return!”

“O-Okay,” Hinata confirmed tremulously as she let Sakura pull her to her feet. “S-Sakura-san.”

“Sakura-chan,” the girl corrected patiently.

Hinata let out a high-pitched squeak and turned pink again at the very idea of such familiarity. Sakura just smiled kindly as she began tugging her new friend toward where Kanami-sensei was holding forth at the forefront of a group of assembled girls.

“It's okay. We can work on that part.”

-

“This stinks,” Naruto grumbled as he kicked at a rock in the road, making it fly into the side of a building where it shattered and consequently making the fruit vendor stationed at the booth next to the wall jump and swear at them. “Don't see why you gotta go. School's for school, an' once you leave school you're not s'ppose to have to go and do even more school!”

Sakura just sighed. This was at least the fifth time he'd made this same argument in the last few days. “I told you Naruto-kun, I have to go to the hospital after school to learn from Misaki-sensei so that she can help me to become a medic when I'm older. Don't you want me to be a medic?”

“I want you to be whatever you wanna be Sakura-chan,” the boy answered immediately and honestly. “An' if you really wanna be a medic than ya know I'm behind you one-hundred-and-ten percent!” He pumped his fist into the air in demonstration, making the girl giggle (which had been his goal), then let his arm fall back to his side with a frown. “I'm just sad cause we won't be able to hang out after school as much.”

“Me too,” Sakura confirmed with a resigned nod. “But we'll still see each other at school and at practice with Iruka-sensei, an' we'll be able to hang out all day during the weekends when we don't have school and I don't have to go to the hospital.”

“I know, I know.” Naruto huffed, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and hunching his shoulders. “It just won't be the same, ya know?”

“That's true,” the girl agreed. “But that doesn't mean it'll be bad.”

“Yeah. Not the same but not bad.” The boy sighed explosively and scrubbed furiously at his face as they came to a stop before the automatic doors of Konoha Medical before turning to offer her one of his scrunched-eyed, sharp-toothed fox smiles. “Alright Sakura-chan, are you ready to become the greatest medic-nin Konoha has ever seen?”

Sakura laughed at his theatrics but gave him one of her own wide, curled-lip cat smiles in return. “I dunno about that, but I'm ready to try!”

“Well then go! Go in there and become the very best you you can be!” He threw his skinny arms around her middle in an achingly tight, rib-crushing hug and she hugged him back just as hard before they both pulled back to grin at each other. “You'll do great ya know Sakura-chan,” the boy whispered, squeezing her hands once before dropping them and taking a step back towards the road. “Believe it.”

Sakura waved good-bye to her friend as he started back down the road to the middle-ward and the orphanage where he lived, a fist-sized lump in her throat. In that moment, she would have given anything in the whole world for him to be able to go into the hospital with her and stay by her side as she began her training. She could always be brave when Naruto was beside her, but without him, sometimes she couldn't be as brave as she wanted to be. But, she thought as she turned back to the sliding glass doors and took a deep, steadying breath. I can be brave enough for this.

She made herself put one foot in front of the other, striding as confidently as possible through the automatic doors and into the cold, florescently lit lobby of the hospital. Thankfully Misaki-sensei was already there waiting for her and beckoned her over with a smile, alleviating some of Sakura's anxiety about possibly having to wait in the lobby until the head medic came to get her.

“Right on time Sakura-chan,” the old woman told her cheerfully. “That's good. One of the most important things you'll want to learn about being a medic is to always be punctual-that is, on time. Whether you're needed in the clinic, in surgery, or to handle an emergency situation out in the field, you must always be aware that even a second lost is a second your patient isn't getting the treatment they need. Do you understand Sakura?”

“Yes ma'am,” the girl answered promptly, shivering just a little bit at the very idea that one day someone's life may depend on her. She made sure to commit every word Misaki-sensei said to memory, so that she would never forget it. Sakura never forgot anything once she'd learned it, a valuable skill she was only just beginning to understand that not everyone her age (or even older kids, or even grown-ups) possessed.

“Good.” Indicating that Sakura should follow her, she began to move off down the brightly lit hallway that led into the hospital proper. “You must understand that I'm not trying to scare you dear, or tell you that at every moment of your medic career someone's life will depend on you, because that's just not true. To be entirely honest, most of an average medic's job is quite boring. It involves a lot of logged clinic hours, a lot of long, dull days, and a lot of extremely tedious paperwork.”

She glanced back with a smile at the little girl following dutifully in her wake (Like a little pink duckling, she thought fondly). “Now knowing that, are you sure you still want to become a medic? I warn you there is very little glory to be found here; neither fame, nor much fortune to be won. It's an exhausting, thankless job and the vast majority of your patients won't thank you for the work you do. In fact, most of your patients will curse you to the depths of hell and back, curse your ancestors and your descendents, and curse your pets and even your houseplants, if you have them. Depending on how lucid and how well-armed they are, some of them may even take a swipe at you, or try to at least.”

She abruptly stopped and turned to crouch on one knee before the girl, her face very serious as she held Sakura's wide green gaze with her own sedate brown one. “You will be puked on, spit on, bled on and worse. Should you pull clinic duty you will have to endure endless, mind-numbing hours of dealing with stupid people who don't know which end of a thermometer to stick and where, and those will mostly be civilians, average people, since most ninja wouldn't willingly cross through the front doors of a hospital unless they were carried in, or dragged in kicking-and-screaming. Should you make it to the point where you're skilled enough to work in the surgical unit, your life will be much more exciting but it will also in some ways be much, much worse.”

“Listen to me very closely, because this is one lesson you will have to learn in your time here, and learn it heart-breakingly well: you will not be able to save everyone. There will be some days where you can't even save so much as one person. No matter how hard you work, no matter how famous you are, or how skilled you become, no medic who has ever lived and worked in a hospital or in the field has ever managed to end their career without ever losing someone. It's just not feasible-not possible. I'm not saying that it's not a good goal to shoot for, that you shouldn't expend every last bit of energy you have trying to save your patient, but sometimes, often times, no matter what you do, you can work yourself into exhaustion and still lose people. That is just something every medic has to understand and has to live with, every day of their lives.”

“Now I'm going to ask you again, one last time: are you ready to commit yourself to this profession, even knowing all of that? Are you absolutely sure you still want to become a medic?”

The old woman waited patiently while the girl considered all she said. Watched closely as the gears turned and her words were processed and absorbed behind those jade-green eyes and couldn't help but be a little impressed. Most seven-year olds would have turned and run, would have said 'no thank-you' and walked away crying after hearing the brutal truths Misaki had just imparted on them. But not this girl. Instead she listened, she understood, she internalized what had been said, and then carefully thought about her final decision. Misaki knew some full-grown adults who weren't that self aware. It was amazing to see, especially in a child so young.

Sakura thought for a long, long time. She'd made sure to listen and understand every single word that Misaki-sensei had said to her, made sure she wouldn't ever forget anything her teacher said, just like she always did with her instructors at the Academy. Sakura knew she was comparably smarter than a lot of the kids in her year (most of them, actually, except for maybe Nara Shikamaru and that one Aburame clan kid), and she made sure to bring every scrap of her considerable intellect to bear on this decision, because she knew without asking that once she made it, there would be no turning back.

In the end, after a lot of time to think, there was only one more thing she needed to know. “Do you like your job Misaki-sensei? If you had to do it over again, would you still choose to become a medic, despite every bad lesson you ever had to learn?”

Misaki smiled, pleased. As she'd suspected, this particular little girl's innocent, seemingly vulnerable appearance hid a core of solid steel. “Yes. Yes I would. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, yes. I would do it all again.”

Sakura nodded once, decided. “Then I will too. Despite everything.”

The old medic-nin grinned at her and reached out to squeeze her shoulder firmly for a moment before creaking back to her feet, knees aching and joints cracking with displeasure at having been forced to kneel on cold linoleum for minutes at a time. She led Sakura over to a door, identical and indistinguishable from all the other white-painted doors in the hallway, and unlocked it with the key hanging from a cord around her neck.

Misaki swung the door open and waved the girl inside. “Well then, we better get started.”

-

Looking back on it years later, Sakura will be able to put her finger confidently to the month of September in her second year at the Academy as one of the most pivotal turning points of her life. It was the month she first befriended the shy Hyuga heiress and slowly, very slowly began coaxing the other girl out of her shell. It was the month she began her medic training, when she went home every night with her eyes itching and her brain spinning with all the information she'd learned poring over textbooks and anatomy drawings with Misaki-sensei that day. And, perhaps not most importantly, although it did seem that way at the time, it was also the month Uchiha Sasuke finally returned to school, forever ending the tradition of the weekly jaunts to the ghetto with Naruto to drop off the red cookpot.

It was very near the end of September, when the days were finally starting to grow cooler and merely walking the mile to the hospital from the Academy after school three times a week didn't make her break out in a sweat. The first bell had just rung to call all the students milling about in front of the school into their various classrooms, and as usual Sakura and Naruto were racing to be the first one through the doors to Iruka-sensei's room, dodging and weaving among both older students and their yearmates in the halls, laughing and calling mock-serious taunts to each other as they went.

Sakura won that day (though she didn't always), and burst into what she assumed to be the empty classroom with a boisterous whoop, skidding to a halt before the first tier of desks. “And the winner is: Haruno Sakura! The crowd goes wild!”

Naruto stumbled in panting a few seconds behind her, trying to scowl but laughing too hard to pull it off. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you just wait 'till tomorrow! Then you're goin' down, ya know!”

The girl spun to face him with a wide grin she was trying hard to turn into a challenging smirk and mostly failing miserably. She put her fists on her hips and cocked her head back confidently. “Oh yeah? Well, we'll just see about that! I bet you'll be eating my dust tomorrow too!”

Her friend put his fists on his own hips and leaned into her personal space. “Oh yeah?”

She leaned forward too, mirroring him so that they were nose-to-nose grinning into each others faces. “Yeah!”

A slight noise in the stillness of the room made them both jump and whip their heads around to stare in wide-eyed astonishment at the pale boy staring incredulously back at them from his position in the back row, at the desk nearest the window. None of them moved for a long, drawn-out moment, all three of them too stunned at the sight of each other to do more than gape wordlessly.

Naruto recovered first, as he always did. His customary sharp-toothed grin turned wide and wild and his blue eyes scrunched closed with glee, too excited to see the way the Uchiha heir tensed at the prospect of a loud greeting, though thankfully Sakura caught his discomfort and acted quickly. Before her friend could get out more than a, “Hiya, Sas-!” she'd thrown her arm around his neck and clapped her hand over his open mouth.

The blonde boy squawked indignantly and immediately started struggling but the girl merely twisted him into a headlock and smiled politely back up at the black-haired boy, forcing Naruto to bend at the waist with her (Naruto squeaked and quickly did as she bid lest she accidentally yank his head from his shoulders) until they were both more or less bowing in greeting to their erstwhile friend. “Hello Sasuke-kun. It's good to see you back at school.”

Sasuke stared at the picture they made, surprise, confusion, and maybe, maybe just the slightest hint of amusement visible in his dark onyx eyes before he jerked his head around to stare silently out the window as he had been doing before they'd so noisily interrupted him. He didn't smile or even nod his own greeting back, but he had acknowledged them and as Sakura set about dragging her wriggling and loudly protesting friend up the steps to their seats as the rest of their classmates streamed into the room behind them with the shriek of the second bell, she couldn't help but feel as though they were off to a good start.

Chapter Text

“Oh I'm sorry sweetie, but Naruto isn't here right now.”

The little girl visibly deflated, polite smile falling slightly before righting itself, albeit a bit more tremulously than before. “O-oh? Really? I. Um...He-he didn't tell me.”

The poor thing looked crushed and Chihiro felt her heart clench in sympathy. One would think that after nearly two decades of running the village's most prolific orphanage she would have grown indifferent to the many ways sadness could express itself on little faces, but if anything the opposite was true. She found that with time she'd actually become more sensitive to the various interchangeable moods and tempers of all types of children.

She could smell crocodile tears brewing a mile away and knew a hundred different ways to spot an oncoming tantrum. Strictly speaking Ogino Chihiro was probably the best judge of character in the entire village, civilian or otherwise.

Which is how she'd known the minute she opened the door to find the small bundle of pink hair and green eyes on her doorstep that here was a little girl without a scrap of guile in her entire body. A girl to whom (brutal) honesty came much easier than pretty lies or tears that came on command.

The girl had been nearly fit to burst with excitement, beaming widely and immediately launching into an obviously well-rehearsed speech almost before the door had finished opening, sweetly asking if 'Naruto-kun could please come out to play? Please ma'am? I have a birthday present for him and I promise to have him back before dark!'.

She had been so transparently eager not seconds earlier that it broke the woman's heart to have to give her bad news and watch that happiness drain away like Chihiro had personally pulled the plug on her good mood.

“Um.” The girl linked her arms behind her back and scuffed her sandals over the careworn welcome mat under her feet. “Do...do you know where he is? I wanted, uh, I wanted to give him his present today since we don't have school and I wasn't sure if, I'd, um. Be able too tomorrow...”

The woman felt so terrible for having put the downcast look on her petite face that she had already opened her mouth to reply with the truth before she managed to catch herself and shut it with a click. She wasn't supposed to tell anyone. She'd been sworn to secrecy by the Hokage himself, and never in the last seven years had she ever once considered revealing the truth; she'd never felt the need. But now…

She must have hesitated a second too long because the girl's bright eyes shuttered and went dark, something terribly like resignation taking up residence on her features, making her look much too old for someone so very young. “I see. Okay. Thank you anyway ma'am.”

She bowed low, scrupulously polite to the very end, before turning to make her way back up the path to the main street, thin shoulders rounded and head lowered. Her feet kicked up small clouds of dust as she slowly dragged them across the ground. Even her adorable cherry-printed backpack seemed to be drooping.

She was the very picture of dejection and damn her soft heart, but the woman couldn't just let her leave like that, looking like her whole world had just shattered around her.

“Wait!” She called before she could second-guess herself, her thoughts racing ahead of her as she scrambled to think of what she should say. Rather, what she could say, how much information she could reveal by law. No one had ever asked where Uzumaki Naruto spent every October tenth before this. Or rather, no one had ever cared enough to question it before.

Every October ninth at precisely ten o'clock on the dot for the past seven years, like clockwork two ANBU operatives dressed all in black, faces securely hidden behind painted animal masks, appeared on her doorstep. They never spoke a word, just collected an unusually quiet and solemn Naruto, and escorted him to the Upper Ward, to a secure location within the Hokage Tower. There he would stay until the clock struck midnight on October eleventh, when two different (or were they?) operatives would return him to the orphanage, still utterly silent. They would bow respectfully to Chihiro and then disappear off into the night. Every year for seven years the entire process had gone off without a hitch.

Until the previous night. When she'd gone upstairs to retrieve the boy only to find him halfway out the second floor window.

The ensuing shouting match had been momentous. She'd lunged forward, seized him by the ear, and hauled him bodily back into the room while he'd shrieked and caterwauled loud enough to wake all the other boys in his shared dorm room out of a dead sleep.

She'd grabbed him around the middle with both arms and carted him out into the hallway while he kicked and wriggled and wailed protests at the top of his lungs. Chihiro knew she had been yelling just as loud but she couldn't remember for the life of her what she'd been saying; her mind had been consumed with a whirling maelstrom of horror and delayed terror that at the time was rapidly morphing into fury.

What if she hadn't gotten to him in time? (What if he'd been seen?) What if she'd waited just a few minutes longer and he'd been successful? (What if someone had seen him?) She would have had no idea what happened to him! (What if he'd been caught outside alone, tonight of all nights?) She would have had no idea where to even start looking for him! (What if he'd been caught?!)

Chihiro had seen the bruises, the scratches, the black eyes. She'd put bandages on more scraped knees and disinfected more cuts than any one boy (even one as rambunctious as Naruto) could have managed to accumulate all on his own. She'd coaxed, threatened, and outright pleaded with him to tell her, or at least to tell one of his teachers what was going on but he'd just borne it all in stubborn, narrow-eyed silence.

She would never forget the first time it had happened. The day he'd banged through the front door a full two hours before class was supposed to let out and raced up the stairs into his communal room with her right on his heels, calling for him to wait, stop, slow down, Naruto what happened?!

It had taken her the better part of an hour to coax him out from under one of the bunk beds where he'd wedged himself. And when she'd gotten her first look at his tear-streaked, dirt-smudged round face, with mud all over his hand-me-down clothes and bloodied scrapes and bruises all over his skinny arms and legs she'd almost started crying herself. He'd been all five years old then, and he hadn't understood (and he still didn't).

It had killed her to keep silent. To hold him in her lap and attempt to sooth his hurt, bitter tears while he'd sobbed into the front of her dress and asked 'why?'.

It had torn her heart to ribbons to have to wipe the saline from his whiskered cheeks and lie to him. To tell him 'I don't know honey' when she knew full well the truth of the matter (children were cruel because they didn't know any better, but spirits save them all from adults who thought they were doing the wrong thing for the right reasons).

But she'd sworn an oath in blood, same as her mother, and her mother's mother before her, to keep the children in her charge safe. She'd stood before the Third, looked him in the eye, and promised him she would never tell another living soul what she and nearly every other adult in the village had learned that fateful night all those years ago. She'd sworn, and promised, and signed a contract with her own blood. She couldn't tell him. Couldn't offer him the solace he so desperately needed (and deserved). She couldn't tell him why.

And it was that day that kept playing over and over in her mind's eye while she dragged a wildly struggling little boy down the hallway, barely taking notice of the stares and whispers of all the other children that had been roused from bed and gathered in the corridor to see what all the fuss and noise was about, especially so soon after lights out.

She'd kept an iron grip on him all the way to the stop of stairs and it was there she'd turned him loose while still keeping a firm hold on his billowing sleep shirt to prevent any further escape attempts. She'd been panting with effort, no longer as young as she used to be, and she'd needed a moment to recover before she tried to get down all those steps with a recalcitrant child, who was also no longer as young or as small as he used to be, thrashing in her arms. But mostly she'd just wanted an explanation.

The woman had sunk to her knees and yanked her charge around to face her, taking a firm, no nonsense hold on his chin, attempting to force him to look her in the eye. She'd made her voice stay steady and calm through sheer force of will. “What did you think you were doing? I know you know what night this is, so don't try to lie to me. Why were you trying to sneak out?”

He'd gone silent and sullen the second she'd put him down on his own two feet. His hands had been balled up into fists and he'd twisted up his face into a scowl through his furious tears, gaze focused pointedly somewhere on the wall over her right shoulder.

Well she certainly would not be having any of that. She'd shaken him briskly by the shoulders, not hard enough to hurt but enough to show she meant business. She waited until his damp, over-bright blue eyes slid reluctantly over to meet her own serious gray ones, then enunciated clearly, “Why were you trying to sneak out? The truth, now.” Her tone had brooked no arguments.

Naruto's bottom lip had wobbled dangerously and he'd dropped her gaze to glare impotently at the threadbare carpet under her knees. He'd mumbled something inaudible and when she'd prompted him to repeat himself, he'd snapped his head up to stare at her imploringly, tears once more breaking their dams to flow unchecked down his cheeks.

“Sakura-chan!” He burst out, voice choked and thick with crying. “It's Sakura-chan! I forgot to tell her I won't be here tomorrow an' we're s'pposed to hang out tomorrow, ya know, cause I told her we could cause we don't have school an' the hospital's closed, but I forgot an' she said-she said she g-got me a present an' everything ya know, but I-but I-I-”

He'd broken off with a gasping sob and thrown himself into her arms. He'd clung tight to her neck in a way he hadn't since he was very, very young and buried his face in her shoulder. She'd hugged his shivering form to her chest on pure reflex, murmuring comforting nonsense and rubbing his bony, shuddering back as comfortingly as she knew how.

The woman had hardly registered when the crowd of wide, curious eyes surrounding them had begun to disperse, shooed back to bed by a group of older boys and girls who knew their manners a bit better than her younger charges. She had remembered to spare a moment to be fiercely proud of her kids (her womb may be sterile and barren as the deserts of Wind country but they were still hers, all of them, every single one), but didn't take her attention away from the boy she'd held.

It had taken another few minutes before he'd been calm enough to explain the situation with anything passably approaching clarity. Even then the most Chihiro was able to parse with any certainty among the waterfall of frantic, babbled information that had been raining down upon her were these three things: that Haruno Sakura (age seven and three-quarters) was 'the prettiest, nicest, most amazing person who ever lived ever, ya know', that she was also Naruto's 'bestest friend in the whole wide world!', and that Haruno Sakura was loved with the kind of uncomplicated adoration that could move mountains. And that, perhaps most importantly of all, the girl apparently loved him back just as much.

She'd had to reassure the boy no less than six times that she would 'definitely, positively, absolutely' remember to tell Sakura-chan where to find him if (when) she came looking for him the next morning before he'd finally allowed himself to be led away by the endlessly patient (and exceedingly long-suffering) ANBU agents.

Ogino Chihiro had never yet made a promise to one of her kids that she wasn't able to keep, and she wasn't about to start now, Third or no Third. She'd rather risk being turned over to Morino Ibiki's tender mercies rather than willingly go back on her word.

She sighed and shook her head, banishing the memories back to where they belonged. “Are you Haruno Sakura-chan?” The answer seemed obvious enough, but she had to be sure.

The girl-no, Sakura-chan-nodded warily, a cautious sort of hope beginning to rekindle behind her eyes. “Yes ma'am I am.”

Chihiro considered her for a few seconds longer before nodding decisively, her mind made up. “He's at Hokage Tower, though where specifically inside of it I don't know. They never tell me that part.” Probably because they didn't trust her enough. She snorted derisively. Shinobi were all alike; so suspicious, and ever more paranoid the higher up in rank they went, the Hokage being the most paranoid of all of course. As if she wouldn't cheerfully slit her own throat rather than give away any information that might even possibly bring harm to one of her children.

Sakura beamed anew at the admittance, happiness overtaking her melancholy expression from before and making her bounce in place a few times with the sudden unexpected lightness of it. “Hokage Tower? Really? I know right where that is! Oh thank you Ogino-san! Thank you very much!”

A with one last hastily sketched bow the girl whirled around and raced off in the direction of the Upper Ward as fast as her short legs would carry her (which for a second-year Academy student was already much faster than most civilian adults could ever hope to match, let alone beat).

Chihiro smiled and waved after her rapidly retreating back. She made a mental note even as she turned to reenter the orphanage, fixing the name Haruno Sakura in the back of her mind as one of those up-and-coming youngsters to keep an eye out for. That girl was definitely going places.

-

Getting into Hokage Tower was never going to be the hard part, especially not on a village-wide work and school holiday like today. Finding wherever it was that Naruto had been spirited away to within the structure however, now that was going to be a challenge.

But Sakura wasn't discouraged. If anything, she was equal parts excited and nervous at the prospect of having to track down and locate her friend all by herself. It would be just like playing ninja in the park! Except more so, since she had a feeling there would be actual, real life repercussions along with actual, real-life punishment if she was caught some place she wasn't supposed to be without a chaperone. She wasn't completely sure that she wasn't allowed to wander around the Tower unsupervised since it was technically a public building, if only by the very narrowest of margins. But it still never hurt to be prepared for the worst; that way you could be pleasantly surprised if and when everything worked out okay after all.

The girl had only ever been inside the Tower once before, on a school field trip the previous year, and they had stayed on the ground level the whole time. Which meant she had not the slightest clue where to start looking. So she decided to start by conducting a systematic, floor-by-floor search (and if that didn't work, well...well she'd think of something when the time came, if it ever did).

The front desk in the lobby was unmanned and the usually bustling corridors were eerily deserted as she crept through the hallways on quiet feet, thinking mouse thoughts and trying to make herself as small and unassuming as possible (she and Naruto had started experimenting with muffling their footsteps with chakra just last week; they'd had fun taking turns sneaking up on each other and tackling one another into the grass until they were both filthy and laughing too hard to keep going).

She took care to peer around every corner and stop frequently to strain her ears for sounds of pursuit or ambush but she somehow made it all the way to the fifth floor without encountering anyone at all. It was almost spooky how still and heavy the air felt without people around to disturb all the silence with noise and movement.

Any hopes she might have initially held about finding her friend quickly were thoroughly dashed by the time she reached the fifth floor. The girl had been searching for over an hour, making extra sure to check every nook and cranny before moving on (Naruto was small, the Tower was big, and grown-up ninja were notoriously crafty; they could have hidden him anywhere!), yet she had yet to find either hide or hair of the boy. In fact she couldn't seem to find any sign that he'd ever so much as sneezed in the general direction of the Hokage Tower in his whole life! Almost two hours of work and not a single solitary clue or hint or sign to show for it.

Sakura threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes to the ceiling in a dramatic display of frustration she'd learned from her papa, barely resisting the urge to stomp her foot or slam her fist against one of the stupid beige walls through an extreme exercise of self-control. One she wouldn't have normally bothered with if she hadn't still been worried about being seen and thrown out of the building onto her ear.

This place is impossible! She internally fumed, forcing herself to continue her sedate, careful pace through the halls rather than break into a sprint and start yelling for Naruto to just answer her already like so she so desperately wanted to. Maybe Ogino-san was lying after all. I mean, every single room in this place looks exactly the same! It's almost like whoever built it actually wanted people to get lost in-

She paused, stopping dead with her hand still outstretched to turn yet another identical brass doorknob no doubt leading to yet another blandly furnished, frustratingly empty room same as all the other multitudes of rooms on all the previous floors she'd checked so far.

She blinked. Oh. That would make a lot of sense wouldn't it? I mean, I'm sure grown-up Konoha nin never get lost in the Tower; they would always knew exactly where they were supposed to go and how to get there. So the only people who would ever have to ask directions from the chuunin at the desk would be foreign diplomats and...people who weren't meant to be here at all. Oh. Well now she just felt dumb for not having figured it out sooner. It was so obvious once she actually stopped to think about-

“And just what is it you think you're doing here kid?”

Sakura jumped half a foot in the air and barely managed to swallow her scream of surprise in time, turning it into a strangled squeak at the last second. The girl spun on one heel and automatically craned her neck to look up (and up and up) at the uniformed shinobi that had quite suddenly appeared behind her in the previously empty (or was it really?) hallway.

Said shinobi quirked an eyebrow at her and shifted the toothpick clenched between his teeth from one side to the other. “Well?” He crossed his arms over his chest and tipped his head back a bit to better look down his nose at her. “I asked you a question kid. No one's supposed to be up here today. This floor's been declared off limits to all non-essential personnel.”

She opened her mouth to reply on pure instinct with absolutely no idea of what she was going to say, mind churning through her limited options frantically. Maybe she should just offer a profuse apology before tucking tail and bolting, or at least stutter out some sort of plausible explanation, but instead what came out was: “You know, you shouldn't chew on toothpicks like that, you'll get buck teeth.”

The shinobi (probably just freshly promoted if his self-important posturing was anything to go by) gaped at her, mouth falling open in shock and sending the toothpick tumbling to the ground where it bounced off the tile with a strangely metallic ping. “What?”

Truthfully Sakura was just as flabbergasted as he was. Where in the world had that come from? Where had all her stammering and nerves gone? She didn't know and in that moment she didn't much care, she just grabbed the fleeting scrap of wild courage with both hands and plunged on blindly.

“That's what my mama always says anyway, but now that I think about it I'm not sure if that's true. I'll have to ask Misaki-sensei and check. But one thing I do know-” She broke off to frown sternly down at the thin piece of steel glinting innocuously on the polished wood between both their feet and prayed he couldn't tell how her heart hammered against her ribs and her palms sweat with anxiety at her own boldness. “-is that you really, really shouldn't chew on senbon. What if you accidentally swallowed it or something? You could choke to death! Or at the very least really in-con-ven-ie-nce the medic that has to pump your stomach to get it back out before it tears open your stomach lining and makes you puke all your guts up.”

The man opened and closed his mouth several times uselessly, looking very much like a landed fish before dragging one hand over his face with a groan. “Wow ma, that's a damn good makeup job I gotta say. I never woulda known it was really you under there if it hadn't been for that last bit. The nagging gave it away though. Better luck next time.”

Sakura played along, sniffing with disdain and turning up her nose as if to show him how little she appreciated his attempt at humor. “Maybe you should listen to your mother more. She sounds sounds like a smart lady.”

He glared back down at her. “Thanks a lot. How about the next time I actually want advise from a pint-sized pink pipsqueak such as yourself, I let ya know?” With a snap of his wrist a fresh senbon was abruptly in his hand and just as swiftly placed back in it's customary place between his incisors. “And don't think for a second I didn't notice that you didn't answer my question, kid-”

“Haruno Sakura,” she corrected him on knee-jerk reflex.

“-kid, so I'll ask one more time. What the hell are you doin' up here all by yourself?”

Thankfully she didn't have to try and think up a believable lie; the truth would work just as well. “I'm looking for my friend Uzumaki Naruto-kun. I was told this was where to find him.”

“Oh yeah?” Back up went the Suspicious Eyebrow (of Doom). “An' who told you that?”

Sakura just stared back up at him, unimpressed and not even having to fake it this time. She couldn't raise one eyebrow without raising the other but she hoped the flat expression on her face conveyed the sentiment clearly enough without it. Everyone knew what happened to ninja who snitched on their informants, even pre-genin like her, and none of it was pretty.

The jounin held her stare for a few seconds longer before huffing out a sigh and shoving his hands in his pockets, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. All of a sudden, it was as if the stiff-backed rookie with the bad temper who thought the sun shone out of his own behind melted away until all that was left was a ninja in his early twenties with bad posture and a worse senbon-chewing habit.

He eyed her consideringly, as if trying to judge her true worth from outward appearance alone. Studying her face for tells. “You said Haruno right? Never heard of a ninja clan with that name.”

All of her hackles went up at once, and it took everything she had to make her spine hard like iron and not take a step back. This, she decided, was rapidly becoming one of her least favorite parts of dealing with grown-up ninja: you could never tell whether the face they chose to show you at any given moment on any given day was the real one.

Sakura could deal with bullies, Naruto had shown her how. She could make herself talk big and act tough if it meant getting out of a bad situation unscathed. But to try and double-talk her way out of trouble against a trained jounin who could probably smell lies as easily as he could smell fear? No. She knew that that was a test of skill she was nowhere close to being a match for. Maybe one day, but not yet and certainly not right here and now.

Fortunately enough for her, this one of the very rare instances where being the only daughter raised in a semi-strict civilian family came in handy. The very first lesson she could remember learning from way, way back when she was very small was how to get out of trouble without ever having to tell a single lie.

She ducked her head and wrapped her hands tight around the straps of her backpack, directing her next question to the floor rather than look him the eye and risk giving away any more than she meant to, settling into her role with the ease of long practice.

“Um. That's because my family, both my mama and papa's families are all civilians.” She hesitated for an exact count of three, then continued. “Do...Do you know where Naruto-kun is staying? I promise I won't be long, it's just that it's his birthday, and I wanted to give him his present. I made it for him myself.”

She turned big green eyes up at him, the very picture of innocence and laid the sickening sweetness on extra thick.“Do you wanna check my backpack? I promise it's not anything dangerous, honest!”

The shinobi wasn't fooled (though he was secretly a little amused by the girl's performance). He snorted and shook his head at her, beckoning for her to follow as he set off down the hallway. “Save your little Big-Eyed Waif routine for some other sucker. I'll take you to the kid, but you can only stay an hour. Then I'm going to escort you, personally, out the front door and make doubly sure that you don't come back, got it?”

She practically skipped along beside him, relief making her heart feel light as a balloon. She knew he hadn't bought what she was selling, not one bit, but it seemed he'd decided to go along with her anyway and that was more than good enough for her. She hadn't really been looking forward to trying to scale the entire Tower from the outside and looking in every window for her friend, which had been her next plan if this one hadn't worked (not to say she wouldn't have done it; she would have, for Naruto-kun, but she was still very glad that it wouldn't be necessary after all). “Yep. I got it Mr. Shinobi-san sir.”

“Genma.”

“Got it Genma-san.”

-

No sooner had she stepped through the door that Genma-san had left her in front of than was she being barreled into by a blur of tan limbs and blonde hair. “Sakura-chan!”

She returned his rib-cracking hug happily, something deep inside her she hadn't even known was tense relaxing all at once now that she could feel him warm and solid in her arms again. “Naruto-kun! Sorry I'm late, it took me forever to find you!”

“No, no, no!” Naruto shook his head vigorously. “It's all my fault, ya know Sakura-chan? I forgot to tell you I wouldn't be at the orphanage today! I'm real sorry, ya know.” A spark of curiosity lit in his blue eyes. “Did Chihiro-no-ba tell you where to find me?”

Sakura giggled at the nickname. The woman she'd talked to hadn't been that old. “If you mean Ogino-san than yes, she did. She didn't know what room you were in or what floor you were on though so I had to check them all, which is why it took me so long to get here.”

His eyes went wide with surprise and something that looked very much like awe. “Wow Sakura-chan, you really did all that for me? You didn't have to ya know, you coulda just waited 'til tomorrow when you saw me at school.”

“No I couldn't,” she denied as she pulled back and took his hand, linking their fingers together snugly. “Cause today maybe-might-be your birthday so you should get your present today, because that's how birthdays should work.”

This was obviously news to him but he only nodded, deferring to her birthday expertise, and began tugging her lightly by the hand over to the large circular table that took up the majority of the spacious room.

The room they'd put him in was just as bland and unassuming as all the other ones she'd seen that afternoon. Even the bundle of blankets and pillows on the couch stationed in the corner were all made up of shades of gray and olive drab. It was exactly the kind of place you would expect people to leave things they just wanted to forget about.

A flicker of anger lit the banked embers under the cookpot of fury that had been simmering steadily in her belly for almost a year now. She tightened her grip on Naruto's hand unconsciously until she made herself take a deep breath in and out through her nose in order to calm down. That didn't matter now (that was a lie, it always, always mattered). It was her best friend in the whole world's birthday and she was here with him now so he wouldn't have to spend it alone (never again), and those two things at least were definitely worth celebrating.

She smiled at him as they settled themselves into two of the oversized chairs surrounding the table. “So what have you been doing up here all day? Besides sitting around being really bored I mean.”

The boy rolled his eyes in disgust and gestured dismissively at the sheaves of scribbled on papers spread out over the tabletop in front of him. “Homework, if you can believe it. Nothing else to do here 'cept sleep and I've already done all a that I can take. 'sides old man Third always come by and checks it after the ceremony an' he'll correct it for me 's long as I got most of it done beforehand.”

He brightened and turned to her eagerly. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan do you wanna help me pull a prank on old jiji? He already knows all my tricks but I bet together we could come up with something good enough to sneak by him, ya know? Wha'cha think, huh, huh, wanna try?” He was nearly bouncing in his seat with enthusiasm for the idea.

Her body flashed cold than hot and she could feel all the blood drain from her face as her mind flat-lined with terror at the very thought of trying to prank the Sandaime Hokage, the man the older nin still called 'the God of Shinobi' even after all these years. Deep, deep down (way, way deep down) she could admit that the suggestion did interest her just a itty-bitty bit; the challenge it would present and the chance to test her (their) budding ninja skills on such a worthy opponent.

Thankfully her common sense was able to successfully squash flat that little (suicidal) bud of daring before it was fully able to take root. Now she just had to convince Naruto of the terribleness of that plan, or at least find something to distract him with and fast. Luckily she had the perfect distraction already wrapped up and tied with a pretty ribbon in her backpack.

“Ah, maybe next time Naruto-kun-” Never. “-but for now, why don't you open your present instead?” She wiggled in place to get the backpack off while staying sitting down, pulling it into her lap and unzipping it once she'd managed to struggle free of the straps. “I can't wait to see you open it! I really hope you like it.”

She gingerly extracted the neatly wrapped package and offered it to her friend with a wide smile. She didn't think she could have been anymore excited than if the gift was being given to her on her own birthday. She'd never given anyone a present before, not even her own parents. The thought both exhilarated and worried her. What if he didn't like it? She had worked so hard and spent so much time on it...what would she do if he hated it? How would she feel? Would she want him to lie to her rather than tell the truth and maybe hurt her feelings?

I want him to tell me the truth. The girl straightened her back and squared her shoulders with determination. If he doesn't like it I want him to tell me so I can do better next time. She could handle the disappointment of failure as long as she braced herself for it first. What she knew she wouldn't be able to handle however, would be for Naruto to put on a false smile just to spare her feelings. She was sure that, more than anything else, would be the thing that broke her heart in two. Naruto-kun hated to lie almost as much as she did; she wouldn't want him to have to suffer through that just for her.

She needn't have worried. The boy took the package from her with utmost care, like it was made of delicate porcelain that would break at the slightest touch, and settled it gently on the table in front of him. And then he just stared at it. For a long time. The quiet reverence on his face made it seem as if he regarded a holy relic rather than a plain cardboard box rather inexpertly wrapped in fluorescent pink paper (her mama had helped her and she'd tried her hardest but even she could admit it looked a bit lopsided, especially after spending most of the day bumping around in her backpack). He didn't move for so long in fact, that Sakura started to fidget in her seat, afraid she'd inadvertently done something wrong.

“Naruto-kun?” she prompted softly, trying not to startle him out of whatever trance he'd fallen into. “Is everything okay?”

Her friend jerked slightly and turned to face her, blue eyes still clouded with some emotion she didn't recognize. It almost frightened her how very lost he looked in that single unguarded moment. “Huh? Wha'd ya say? Sorry Sakura-chan, I wasn't listening.”

“I asked if everything was okay.” She smiled tentatively to try and lighten the mood, still unsure as to why she felt so off-balance in the first place. “You're supposed to unwrap it ya know. The actual present is inside the box, and you gotta take the paper off first before you can get to it.”

Naruto blinked and the dazed look cleared from his expression, immediately easing the tightness that had started to constrict around her heart. He grinned at her, sharp and fox-like, making her grin back instinctively. “Oh yeah I knew that! I was just lookin' at the wrappin' job you did. It looks real nice, ya know? I've never got a present before-” And she might have imagined the way his voice faltered, just a little, but she didn't think she did. “-but I know enough to know that this is pretty top-notch. Ya did a great job Sakura-chan!”

The girl felt her face go pink with pleasure at the praise and she glanced away shyly. “It's not all that great, but thanks anyway Naruto-kun. Now would you please open it already, I wanna know what you think!” She really couldn't wait any longer; she was nearly beside herself with anticipation by that point.

“I'm sure I'll love it whatever it is,” he told her with iron-clad certainty (how could he not love it if it came from her?) but he obeyed her request and turned back to the package to begin the opening process.

And it was quite a process. He didn't tear into it as she had half-expected he would, all delighted smiles and laughter as scraps of brightly colored paper and ribbon showered down on them. Instead he took his time, methodically untying the big red ribbon that encircled the box and setting it to the side before beginning the task of locating all the bits of tape that secured the paper and unsticking them with painstaking precision.

It made her throat hurt and her tummy turn over funny to watch him as he savored the entire experience as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Which it wouldn't be, not now that she was here, not if she had anything to say about it, but he didn't seem to realize that, or if he did he didn't care. This was a special moment for him, and he plainly intended to make it last as long as possible. She didn't try to rush him again.

Finally, finally the plain brown box underneath the paper was revealed in it's entirety and the boy moved to open it at last. He closed his eyes for a brief moment and took a deep breath before quickly popping the last strip of tape that held the box closed and peering inside.

His mouth dropped open and Sakura held her breath, nearly vibrating with anticipation. This was it! Time to find out if the last seven months of her staying up until all hours of the night knitting and having to go back to unravel mistake after mistake after mistake in order to make her gift as perfect as possible was going to pay off. If he doesn't like it I'll make him another one, she thought half-hysterically. I'll redo it as he many times as he wants for it to be just right. I'll knit until my fingers bleed if it means he won't be disappointed on his birthday.

He pulled the folded scarf out of it's box and just held it in his hands for a long, long moment before unfolding it with almost reverential consideration. It was bright orange (his favorite color) and loosely woven, with holes big enough to stick his fingers through (mostly) evenly spaced throughout. She'd picked that weave partially because it was simplest, but also because she'd had the feeling he would like it better than neat stitches and solid, clean lines.

It was bumpy and lumpy, a bit chaotic and very loud (like him); it was also very warm and very soft since she'd picked the softest yarn she could possibly afford on her allowance. She'd wanted it to be special and as she'd knitted she had imagined all the affection and fierce protectiveness she felt for her best friend flowing into the yarn. She had made it with the sole intention of showing him just how much he was cared for, even if she'd never outright told him (she hadn't needed to, since he already knew).

It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen and he told her so with a sniffle, his voice clogging up with emotion and his watering eyes threatening to spill over. She climbed down from her chair to fit herself into his chair with him, wrapping her arms around him and letting him clench desperate fingers in her baggy training clothes, holding him tight as he cried silent tears into her shoulder. She didn't need him to explain; she understood. It could be overwhelming at times, to realize just how much you were loved, particularly when you'd spent half your life convinced that you were unlovable. (She'd had her parents, but it wasn't the same. Parents had to love you, but friends had to make that choice for themselves, and children could be so cruel.)

They sat together like that for a long, long time. Not speaking, just all tangled together and basking in the simple fact that the other was there with them and had no plans to leave anytime soon.

Eventually though, Naruto got himself back under control and she helped dry his tears. They spent the rest of the day together, giggling and making up games that could be played inside, and even studying a tiny bit too, helping each other to finish their homework before she had to go home. It wasn't until the sun was beginning to set that Genma finally came back to retrieve her, and she very prudently didn't mention that he'd let her steamroll right over her hour limit, for which he was eternally grateful (couldn't let people think he was getting soft, not so soon after making jounin).

She hugged her friend good-bye and waved up at his window from the sidewalk before turning to make her way home by herself, for once totally at peace and utterly content with the world. She made it home before curfew with an hour to spare.

Chapter Text

Sasuke didn't understand. At first, he had assumed it was simple pity that prompted the girl to venture alone into the hauntingly empty Uchiha clan compound. He had been sure it would be a one-time event, that the experience would not be repeated if he succeeded in driving her away with harsh words and cold glares, succeeded in making it known how much her pity was unwanted and her presence unwelcome.

When she didn't return within a few days he had been sure she understood his tacit message. He told himself he was glad, that he wasn't disappointed when she didn't return (lie), that she had been nothing more than a momentary nuisance (lie), and that he was more than content to be left alone (lie).

In a fit of temper he would never admit was childish pique, he had taken the cookpot directly to the kitchen, shut it inside the refrigerator, and sternly instructed himself to forget about it all together. It wasn't as if he had much of an appetite anyway; at that point, he hadn't eaten in days and honestly couldn't imagine that he'd ever be hungry again. The only reason he had even left his futon was because the girl (“Yes. I'm Haruno Sakura. Why do you ask?”) had unwittingly tripped one of his proximity alarms, but other than that he hadn't so much as left his room since-since...that night.

He wasn't hungry, he wasn't sad, he wasn't even angry (not yet). He wasn't anything beyond so tired he wished he could just lay down and never have to get back up again. Sasuke had not died with his clan but he hadn't survived either, not really. He'd been spared but it was more a curse than a kindness, more an act of cruelty than of mercy. He breathed, he blinked, could conceivably still walk and talk if some dire need arose but he did not live. He continued to exist only because his body would not allow him to do otherwise, stubbornly keeping his blood flowing and his heart beating no matter how many times he begged it to just stop.

It was survival instinct that eventually forced him up and out of his room once more. He still couldn't feel anything approaching hunger but his parched mouth and tense muscles cried out for water. Filling a glass from the tap in the kitchen, he nearly gagged on his first indifferent gulp, his body too dehydrated to tolerate anything but the smallest of sips. However, once he forced down the first few mouthfuls, it was like he couldn't stop. He sucked down at least half a gallon of water in under two minutes, only stopping momentarily when his lungs demanded it to gasp for air until his craving was satisfied.

Although once his urgent thirst was quenched he was suddenly and shockingly aware of the aching, ravenous, empty pit of his stomach. Nearly upending the cutlery drawer in his haste, he yanked a fork and spoon both from within and several quick, jittery strides later he was throwing open the refrigerator door and withdrawing the waiting cookpot with utmost care.

He sat down right there, on the floor with the fridge door still wide open and bathing him in a square of harsh florescent light, temporarily banishing the creeping shadows of approaching night to the far corners of the room. The pot he perched on his lap, discarding the lid (gently, gently so as not to crack the glaze on the ceramic), he wasted no time in plunging both utensils into the pot and scooping out a hearty serving of broth, beef, potatoes, and mixed vegetables. He shoved the whole heaping fork-and-spoonful into his mouth at once, sparing no thought for getting up and finding a bowl in which to properly heat the food, or even for getting up and going to sit at the kitchen table to gorge on his feast.

The beef was slightly under-seasoned, the spices dulled with cold and the meat a little tough after sitting unattended for days. The potatoes had likely been melt-in-the-mouth tender when fresh but had dissolved and half-congealed in the broth by that time and the vegetables were so lightly steamed that they still snapped apart under the pressure of his teeth. He wolfed down half the contents in one sitting and it wasn't until his sixth or seventh bite that Sasuke even realized he was crying, tears rolling thick and fast down his cheeks totally unheeded.

The food was cold, the texture of the potatoes and beef were off, and the broth could have benefited from more salt and less pepper and yet-he choked on a muffed sob-it was the best meal he had ever eaten. Even his mother's expertly prepared lunches and elegantly presented dinners couldn't compare.

At the thought of his mother he couldn't help but cry harder and harder until he finally had to stop eating or risk choking for real. He had no idea how long he sat there on his family's kitchen floor, the pot cradled in his lap with his arms clutching it tight to his chest protectively. His back bucked and his chest heaved with the outpouring of emotion too long suppressed as he wept unrestrained for all that he had lost. It was the first time he had been able to cry since that night.

He finished off the contents of the pot the very next day, again not bothering to heat it up to a more palatable temperature, finding he actually preferred it cold; he made sure to scrub the container so clean it shone. He returned it to the school in the early morning hours, slipping out of the clan ghetto before the sun had finished rising and returning just as the first school bell would have started ringing if he waited around to hear it. And that was that, or so he thought. The girl had conformed to whatever civilian rules of etiquette that had prompted her to seek him out in the first place. Her conscience assuaged, he knew he would more than likely never see her again outside of school.

But he was wrong. The following Thursday evening he returned from the communal garden on the outskirts of the compound, his arms laden with fresh-picked tomatoes, to find the cherry red cookpot stationed before his house's front door once again, in nearly the exact same location as last time (where he would be sure to find it). The boy was so shocked he nearly dropped his carefully selected afternoon harvest.

This time the pot was filled with tonkatsu, cabbage, and rice. Having learned his lesson, he eagerly fixed himself a plate while the food was still warm. He even went so far as to pull over a chair from the table and climb up on the polished wood counter-tops to dig through a high cupboard for the last bottle of tonkatsu sauce before sitting down to eat (at a proper table this time).

His first bite was an explosive medley of sweet sauce, spicy breading, and perfectly cooked pork. Again it was delicious beyond compare, made even better by the fact that this time the meat was still hot and flavorful. If his eyes happened to water, he told himself it was only because of the unexpected spiciness of the pork (a lie so laughably transparent he didn't even managed to convince himself).

The boy managed to stretch the leftovers straight through until Sunday, forgoing breakfast entirely most days and munching on juicy tomatoes and crisp apples from the orchards that lined the community garden to stave off hunger pangs. Sunday night he once again diligently scoured the pot of any trace of leftover food or grease and on Monday morning he departed before dawn to ensure he left the school before classes started. He felt for sure now that this would be the last time and he felt a sharp stab of disappointment at the thought.

Only the pot was there again the next Thursday. And the next, and the next, over and over like clockwork, lather, rinse, repeat.

He didn't understand and his bewilderment only increased when the meals stopped halfway through August to be replaced with flowers of all things. Flowers of all shapes, sizes, and colors appeared at random intervals in the pot on his doorstep in the ensuing weeks, much more often than when the pot had contained only food, sometimes as often as three times as week.

The most perplexing thing however, wasn't the seemingly hodge-podge selection of the flowers, but the notes that always accompanied them. They started off merely informative (apparently flowers had meanings outside their aesthetic beauty and pleasing scent; he never would have guessed), perfunctory even, but gradually lengthened and grew so crowded with words and stories and relentlessly cheerful anecdotes that they began to resemble real, full-length letters rather than a quick jotting down of thoughts and ideas.

It had occurred to Sasuke, rather belatedly, that the food might have been a trap, the deluge of gifts somehow a trick to get him off his guard or lull him into a false sense of security but it was a weak theory, and it hadn't stopped him from consuming the meticulously prepared meals in any case. Looking at the letter in his hands, the contents of which described in excruciating detail yet another segment of 'The Adventures of Haruno Sakura and her Very Best Friend Naruto-kun!: Part ???' (as he privately thought of it), the idea that this girl had been sent by his...by outside forces as a spy or a plant seemed beyond ridiculous.

The girl wrote all her letters on pale pink paper with a glittery green gel pen and signed her name with a stylized cherry blossom tacked onto the end for God's sake, hardly covert operations specialist material.

In fact the only 'undercurrent' of information he had managed to glean from her missives was so poorly hidden as to be made blindingly obvious, concealed only by virtue of having never been declared outright: this girl, Haruno Sakura, and to a lesser extent her Naruto-kun, wanted to be friends with him. Her intention practically dripped from every sentence she wrote him. The hardest thing for the boy to try and figure out was why.

He didn't know her, had never spoken to either of them in his entire life that he could remember before the-before his...before and the one time he had had something akin to a conversation with his pink-haired classmate he had been intentionally trying to scare her off. Not that she'd seemed very impressed by his efforts but the intent was there.

He felt a brief flash of irritation at her presumption. Why should she even expect him to want to be her friend in the first place? What did she even know about him anyway? Nothing. Though, it had to be said, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.

His ire faded, then disappeared completely at the memory of the endless questions Sakura had poured into every one of her letters to him. She would chatter on for pages and pages about this or that, about her day, her classes, her and Naruto's struggles and then hard-won successes in their taijutsu course; but somehow she always managed to seamlessly include him in her prattle in a way he could not explain.

He now had access to a veritable wellspring of useless, trite information about the girl and her near constant companion in the loud-mouthed blonde boy he vaguely remembered from his few Academy classes at the beginning of the semester Before. He knew their favorite colors ('Red for me, orange for Naruto-kun!'), their favorite sweets ('I'll eat almost anything with anko in it but Naruto-kun prefers chocolate-chip cookies.'), evens bits and pieces of their hopes and dreams for the future ('I know Naruto-kun will make a great Hokage, and don't tell my mama, but I think I'll make a good kunoichi too! Once we're grown-ups of course.').

The strangest part of the whole thing was how earnestly invested she seemed in learning the same unimportant drivel about him in turn.

“What's your favorite color Sasuke-kun? We can try and find a flower that color next time if you want!”

“What's your favorite kind of food Sasuke-kun? I'm sorry I didn't ask before; hopefully you enjoyed the food anyway. My mama had to help me make it cause she says I'm too small to use the stove but I did all the important stuff by myself, honest!”

“Do you like sweets Sasuke-kun? Naruto-kun says everyone likes sweets but I know that's not true. I hope you like the dango we left you. It's from this little shop in the lower ward that looks run-down but isn't. Maybe we could all go there and have dango and tea together sometime!”

“Naruto-san says to ask if you like taijutsu. Do you like taijutsu? I used to not like it very much but I like it a lot better now that I don't stink at it. Maybe we could all get together and practice sometime! That would be fun.”

Sasuke was confused, and frustrated by his own confusion. He didn't understand, not at all. But he wanted to.

-

It wasn't so much that Sakura minded Sasuke-kun following them everywhere, she just wished he would be more discreet about it. All that concentrated staring got awkward fast.

“Ne, Sakura-chan?”

Green eyes flicked to meet blue. “Hm?”

“I was just wonderin'...do you think he's actually tryin' to be sneaky or…?”

The girl could easily see the same discomfort she was trying to pretend she didn't feel reflected in her friend's face. She tried to smother a wince at the sensation of laser-focused black eyes gouging a hole in the side of her face. To be fair, the other boy was nowhere in their immediate field of vision, but it hardly mattered when he didn't take his attention off them for even a moment.

“I don't think he really cares anymore actually. And it is kinda also our fault; we did encourage him. Remember what we did when we first realized he was there?”

“You mean leavin' that green tea mochi on the bench where he could find 'em?” At her nod a combination of regret and consternation briefly tugged down the corners of the boy's mouth. “But I thought that was a good idea, ya know? That way he knows we still wanna be friends with him even when he's actin' like a big creep.”

“It was a good idea!” She reassured him quickly, hoping her words would smooth out the wavy lines of concern starting to bunch up on his forehead. “The best! 'Operation: Lure Feral Tomcat' is still in full effect, it's just that...Ano, well I think our attention may have encouraged him in a way we didn't think it would.”

“Ya mean a weird, stalkerish kinda way,” Naruto clarified.

Sakura's lips twitched in spite of herself and she nodded again. “A little bit yeah. But the plan is working. After all, he actually made contact with us yesterday didn't he?”

Her friend still looked doubtful. “Think you might be giving him too much credit Sakura-chan. All he did was bring back your kunai cause you missed the post. He didn't even say anything.”

“But he didn't have to bring it back,” she insisted, unwilling to give up the point. It was the only positive sign they had that their self-assigned mission might actually bear fruit.

“Maybe he was too afraid not too.” The boy snickered. “I haven't seen you miss the target in so long, even I thought you might have been tryin' to hit him. Maybe he thought so too, ya know?”

Sakura could feel her face flush warm with embarrassment in the chill late October air. She knew her friend was just teasing her but the reminder of her dumb mistake still filled her with mortification whenever she thought about it. Just knowing the Uchiha heir had doubtless been there in the forest with them, lurking somewhere out of sight, watching them practice had made her so nervous she was hardly able to aim, let alone hit the target. She couldn't help it; she still hated it when people other than Naruto or their teachers watched her practice. Her confidence in herself and her abilities was still shaky, but it was getting better. Mostly.

She gave her head a brief shake to banish such thoughts and smiled determinedly back at her friend. “He didn't say anything mean or nasty at least which is something more than nothing. And he was the one to take the next step, which could be another good sign. It's still forward progress.”

Slow forward progress,” Naruto muttered, but he squeezed her hand and let the subject drop for which she was grateful.

Contact without substance really wasn't as big of a deal as she was making it out to be and she knew it. But it was something. Progress was progress, as her papa liked to say. No matter how slow it was. Some things were worth waiting a long time for and a friendship with Uchiha Sasuke was one of those things. She was (almost) sure of it.

-

The thing about bullies is that they're not very creative. Whenever they found something that worked, they stuck with it. For boys, this (usually) meant punching and kicking their victims into submission. But for girls, it meant systematically attacking ever single physical aspect of their target until the person in question could hardly stand to look at themselves in the mirror anymore without breaking down.

Girl bullies primarily used words to get these results, with mocking insults and or backhanded compliments, but sometimes when verbal abuse failed to provoke the response they desired they were forced to take action.

Exhibit A. Sakura stared in horror at the hank of pink hair she held separate from the rest. There was gum in her hair. A lot of gum.

She didn't know when it had happened. Naruto had actually been the one to notice it and point it out to her as they were walking back from their lunch break (“Hey, Sakura-chan, what is that?”). The boy was currently watching her with huge, worried blue eyes, unconsciously shifting to put his back between her and the curious glances of their classmates as they walked by where she had stopped dead in the middle of the hallway.

“Sakura-chan?” he pressed tentatively, unsure. “Are you alright? Do you want me to get Iruka-sensei?”

She took in a deep, deep breath without taking her eyes off the sticky mess in her hair and bit her lip hard to keep the impending tears at bay. She refused to cry right out here where anyone (including the ones who did this) might see her. She could do this. She could be brave.

Once she was sure she had a better grip on herself, she let the air in her lungs out slowly and opened her mouth to tell her friend that it was okay, that she had this, when she was cut off by a burst of shrill, cruel laughter that erupted behind her.

She whirled around fast and her friend was at her side in an instant, fists clenched at his sides and glaring daggers at the group of tittering kids clustered near the doors the two of them needed to get through in order to reach their classroom. Sakura was surprised to only recognize one or two of them from her class, the rest of them strangers mostly comprised of girls a year or two ahead of them at the Academy. Ami and her friends were not among them, which only confused her all the more. Why would these girls (and a couple boys) she'd never even seen before have it out for her?

The third-year who appeared to be the leader, if her self-satisfied smirk was anything to go by, tossed her glossy chestnut hair over one shoulder and half-heartedly tried to school her expression into one of wide-eyed concern.

“Oh! Haruno, whatever happened to your, ah, lovely hair?” Her feigned concern vanished as quickly as it had come and her smirk returned. “Looks like you had a bit of an accident, ne?” She snapped her gum for emphasis and the other members of her gang snickered in concert.

Naruto snarled, an ugly, deep-chested sound none of them had ever heard come from a human throat before and the group started to look a little worried, then fearful when the boy took a purposeful step towards them. He was stopped by Sakura's arm coming up across his chest, halting his momentum. His expression of narrowed-eyed rage flickered and fell to be replaced with confusion as he turned his head to regard the girl at his side. “Sakura-chan?”

Her face was blank and unflinching, giving nothing away as she regarded the older kids blocking their path. Her green eyes were steely and her mouth was set with righteous fury; she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her humiliation. She may not know how to roar yet, not like Naruto-kun, may not be ready to charge head on into things without a thought for the consequences (his fearlessness bordering on recklessness was one of the things she admired most about her best friend), but that didn't mean she had resigned herself to being a doormat for the rest of her life.

She couldn't roar or charge but she could certainly bare her teeth and stand her ground if and when the situation called for it. No matter what she would not cower before these bullies, not like before. Not ever again.

She let her arm drop. “C'mon Naruto-kun.” She turned her back on them without a second glance, not having to fake the supreme disdain she felt for their words and their actions as she did so. “Leave them. They're not worth it.”

She walked away, the boy hot on her heels as he followed her down a branching hallway and around a corner, inattentive enough for the first time in weeks not to notice the way onyx eyes burned a hole in their retreating backs.

He followed her without hesitation into the second-year girl's bathroom (abandoned at this time of day as everyone funneled back to their classrooms at the end of the lunch period) and watched with something approaching awe as his friend struggled to reign in her temper, clenching her teeth and balling up her fists and refusing to let the tears fall as she fought for control over herself. Those-those-those fucking jerks weren't worthy of such energy; she refused to let them dictate how she should feel.

“Wow Sakura-chan,” the boy breathed. “That was amazing, ya know? After what you said to those assholes I never woulda guessed you were this upset.” He considered for a moment before his round, whiskered face lit up with sudden understanding. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, is this what you meant before? Ya know, that rule that says 'you must never show your tears'? Is that what this is?”

She couldn't help but smile at him for his roundabout reasoning (prompting him to grin back automatically, wide and sharp) and she let the last of her bad feelings go without a fight. How could she be mad when the greatest person in the whole world was on her side, ready to throw himself into battle on her behalf, even when he was outnumbered ten to one by opponents bigger than him? This boy who was entirely without fear when it came to defending the ones he loved.

She nodded decisively. “Aa, that's what it means Naruto-kun. Never show weakness to the enemy. Now could you please get me some paper towels? I need to fix my hair so we can get back to class, elsewise Iruka-sensei 'll get real mad, ya know?”

-

Only the gum wouldn't come out. They tried and tried, using handsoap and water and lots of paper towels, but the gum was stuck fast in pink tresses and if anything their attempts only seemed to make it worse. Half an hour later and Naruto was nearly frantic with worry and Sakura had long since given up on swallowing back tears, letting out involuntary whimpers and hitching sobs every time either of them pulled too hard.

Her head hurt, her hair was now a soapy, sticky, tangled, wet mess and she didn't know what to do, the haze of oncoming panic blanking every rational thought from her mind except one: her mama was going to be so angry with her.

They tried to solve the problem themselves for another ten minutes before she finally admitted defeat and asked her friend to please go get Iruka-sensei. He protested of course, he didn't want to leave her when she was so obviously distraught but she insisted. They needed a grown-up, and Naruto knew it too deep down. Eventually he agreed and dashed off with one final reassurance. “I'll be back just as soon as I can, ya know?”

True to his word, the boy was back in less than a handful of minutes with their teacher following close behind. Iruka had taken one look at the watery-eyed, red nosed, sniffling little girl and her dripping hair and felt his heart clench with sympathy at the same time he knew that there was nothing he would be able to do for her. This was a problem far outside the realm of his expertise.

He sighed as he sank to one knee to put himself on closer eye-level with the two of them. “Oh Haruno-kun I'm so sorry this happened, but I'm afraid there's not much I can do. Would you like me to call one of your parents to come pick you up?”

The girl sniffed wetly and nodded, one of Naruto's arms around her shoulders and his free hand clenched tightly in one of hers. “Yes please sensei, but not my parents. They're not home today; my papa has to leave for the capital this weekend and they're gonna be gone all day getting everything ready. But I have my Auntie Mamoru's number. For emergencies.”

Iruka nodded his understanding and straightened, offering her his hand. “Alright then, let's go down to the lobby and give her a call.”

After the call was made, her aunt arrived at the Academy in record time considering she lived on the entirely opposite side of the ward from the ninja school. Haruno Mamoru was her father's half-sister and a kunoichi (a high-ranked chuunin no less), the only ninja on either side of her family that still lived and Sakura secretly wanted to be just like her when she grew up.

With her long magenta hair that she kept tied back in a high ponytail and her Haruno family jade green eyes, the only thing that kept her from looking more like Sakura's mother than (blonde-haired, brown eyed) Mebuki was her dark brown skin which she had inherited from her father, a former Kumo nin who had died in the Third Ninja World War.

The second Mamoru hurried through the front doors of the Academy her arms were immediately occupied by her tearful niece. The woman murmured soothing nonsense and rubbed circles into the girl's back as she listened with half an ear to Umino Iruka's explanation of the situation, which was spotty at best. Both adults knew this had been no accident, but so far neither child had pointed fingers or named names. As soon as her aunt released her the girl stepped back and wordlessly laced her fingers with Naruto's.

One magenta brow hiked in inquiry. “So I take it this one is coming with us?”

Both children stiffened and Sakura paled at the question. Of course. Naruto didn't need to leave school, he wasn't the one who had to go get his hair fixed. Surely Iruka-sensei wouldn't let him leave with her when the days lessons were only half over.

She gulped and unconsciously tightened her grip on the boy; she wanted him to come with her. She could be strong, she could hold her head high and look bullies in the face as long as her friend was with her. But she'd never gotten a haircut before in her life (“You have such pretty hair sweetheart...”), none of the civilian girls she knew ever cut their hair, it just wasn't done. She was scared, she wanted him there, and she had absolutely no idea what she would do if they made him stay.

For his part, Naruto had no intention of letting the girl walk out without him. She was his most important person, she was hurting and she needed him. He scowled and stepped closer to her so that their shoulders bumped, able to feel it when a little of the tension drained from her frame at the action. The only way he was letting go of her was if they cut his arm off. Believe it.

The two adults in the room exchanged a silent, speaking sort of look, then Iruka turned back to them with a resigned sort of half smile. “Of course, Haruno and Uzumaki-kun are excused from lessons for the rest of the day, on the condition that they both arrive at school bright and early tomorrow in order to make up the work they will have missed.”

Both children gaped and gasped and swore up and down that they would, babbling and speaking over each other in their enthusiasm to promise that yes, they would both definitely be there.

“We won't let ya down, ya know?”

“Yes! And thank you so, so much Iruka-sensei!”

The teacher just nodded and shooed the three of them out the door, already mentally preparing the steps he would have to take to find and round up those responsible for the most vicious act of bullying he'd seen in a while. Kids could be cruel, insults could be cutting, but actions always spoke louder than words.

He couldn't do anything to stop the day-to-day infractions his students made against each other when they were out of his line of sight but this, this he could and would punish if he ever managed to get conclusive proof as to who the guilty parties were.

He turned from the door, distracted, and nearly walked right into someone standing just behind him. He jumped back in surprise and looked down at the boy with no small amount of trepidation. “Uchiha-kun, what can I do for you? Shouldn't you be in class?”

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted as he seemed to be trying to come to some sort of internal resolution. “Yes. But there is something you should know first.”

He flicked his gaze momentarily to the sliding doors through which the objects of his months long fixation had just departed. He then met his teacher's curious brown eyes squarely, decision made.

-

The next day, Sakura strode into her homeroom class with Naruto at her side, head high and eyes defiant, her pink hair expertly bobbed to just below her jaw. Her mama had been furious, but not at her, her papa had sung his (only mildly) exaggerated praises of her new hairstyle until she had been forced to believe him, and her best friend had been there to hold her hand and promise her that, to him, she looked just as beautiful as ever.

She ignored the staring and the whispers and headed to her seat without giving any sign that anything was out of the ordinary at all. She'd barely sat down when Uchiha Sasuke stopped just in front of her desk and she looked up at him in surprise.

His face was carefully neutral as he assessed her altered appearance for a long few seconds. He nodded once. “I like your hair. It suits you.”

Sakura was shocked speechless, Naruto was overjoyed, their classmates had been struck dumb, and Sasuke simply returned to his seat; that is, his new seat, the vacant one at the end of their row, sitting just beside Sakura with Naruto on her other side closest to the window. His expression gave nothing away but the look in his eyes dared anyone to say anything about it.

No one did. But what Sakura didn't quite get was why the very next day, almost every girl in either their year or the two above came to school with their hair cut off short.