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Tsundoku

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She snarled as she staggered out of her room. 

“Son of a bitch.

Half dressed, and ready to tear that little orange loving little bastard a new one, she struggled to bring her half-shirt over her head to cover her hastily redone chest wrap. Asuka was definitely not pleased. Her eyes were blurry from being woken into battle adrenaline and it being a false alarm, body buzzing unpleasantly, and heavy feeling. Her mouth also tasted like she's licked a cat.

Gross.

“I’m going to kill him.”

He kept pounding away on her door and hollering. Asuka could almost feel her blood pressure rising.

She could hear Sakura scolding him, as well as Hatake half-heartedly trying to get them to calm down, in a bored monotone, along with a couple of soft snorts from the Uchiha. Throwing her leather armor over her front, while sticking her arms through the holes and lacing up the back with chakra controlled wires while tired was not fun. 

She double-checked that her bandaged ribs were still properly accommodated and that she was wearing her pants the correct way. She’d never had them turn around in her sleep before, but well, there was a first time for everything, and as a ninja she’d learned that strange things happened from time to time. 

Quickly securing her wrist guards, she did a small jump up and down, careful of her wounds, to make sure that everything was strapped down the way it should be and that nothing jingled too outstandingly. Double-checking her weapons pouch while stabbing through her left braid and twisting deftly to shift it into a bun with a senbon, she approached the door, trying to keep the grimace off of her face at the same time because of the bruise on her cheekbone from her last mission.  

She felt the stitches that held the edges of the cut in the middle pulling beneath the bandage, as the muscles in her face twitched with irritation. While she couldn't put on her usual shin guards, what with the rather impressive dent in the left one. 

Which it had gotten from blocking a rather large piece of shrapnel so as to keep it from hitting Ito in the face – no matter how it’d probably have done something for his appearance, if not his cognitive function. 

Asuka had some spares in the scroll in her pouch; still, her shin throbbed accusingly at her.

She’d gotten the bruised ribs on this last mission, as well.

With a sniff, she realized that she still smelled slightly burnt and her nostrils were a little clogged from a light exhaustion fever.

Great.

Finally getting both of her buns into place, she paused for a few seconds to secure the one metal shin guard that went beneath her leg wraps, before wrapping up her legs quickly. It made her gait slightly uneven, but she’d rather have some protection than none. Then she ripped open her door and glared down at the hovering fist of the little beast that had just woken her up from her much needed slumber.

“What!” she snapped irately.

Staring at the people in front of her with eyes narrowed and brow furrowed a touch, as she gave a slight glare to the loud one, who’s eyes widened as he recoiled comically. She stared blankly down at them, before the chuunin fixed her tired eyes on the jounin who was standing with his nose in a copy of Icha Icha: Paradise .

“Oh, Asuka-sensei,” there was a gasp that caused the chuunin to look down into the young kunoichi’s eyes. “What happened ?”

“Mission,” she stated, rubbing at her eyes carefully and, feeling herself softening at the genuine concern in those eyes, before glancing wryly at the jounin and his loud subordinates, expression weary. “That I got home from about two hours ago. Maybe.

“Ah,” the book snapped shut and the silver-haired man gave a wince of apology but shrugged a bit, because hey, he hadn’t known. “Well, the boys were bugging me about training, so…” that dark eye looked at her so earnestly that she felt vaguely uncomfortable, but noted that his eye was a sort of deep gray-blue if you looked hard enough. “Please?”

She was tired, she had a headache, her ribs hurt, her face hurt, she was hungry … hmm… well… she was hungry, and he was of a higher pay grade…

And she never said no to free food…

“Fine,” she grumbled, slipping on her shoes and shooting a chakra string behind her from her shoulder to set the AWAY traps, before shutting the door so that they could arm. “But you’re getting me breakfast, you smarmy bastard.”

“Maa, that sounds fine,” he eye-smiled at her as they set out. “You were on the border patrol?” 

Asuka found herself rolling her eyes at the action and trying to suppress the twitching of her lips as she did so. Absently watched the kids race ahead, the orange one shouting some sort of challenge that the young Uchiha apparently couldn’t back down from, causing him to run forward as well. 

Her young student ran to catch up, gait much smoother than it had been, she was pleased to note. Even though it hadn’t yet been two weeks since their initial talk, the girl had put on some healthy weight. Kunoichi snacks could do wonders, especially when they were geared towards weight gain and the child in question wasn’t overworking herself. 

The Akimichi were the best, really they were. Geniuses with food of all kinds for all purposes with the science of the Nara to back them up. 

His dark eye glanced over the patch over her right cheek and she sighed.

“Mhmm,” she tried to stretch her arms above her head a little and grimaced at the ache in her ribs as she did so. “Hit and run,” she brushed a hand over her bandaged cheek. “They set a timed explosion for the area we chased them to and then booked it,” she scowled slightly. “What frustrates me is that they had to know that we were heading that way despite route scrambling, and well, the Hokage wasn’t exactly pleased about it either.”

There was very carefully no pattern to the patrol routes, so that no one could predict where the scouts would be to try to sneak past them at the quickest opportunity. That someone had been able to either predict where they would be or had been informed…

Yes, the Hokage was displeased, to say the least .

“No casualties, though?” there was a serious glint in his eye as he regarded her from the corner of it, as she had chosen to walk on the side with the exposed one.

“Not yet,” she grimaced on the uninjured side of her face. “But Imori wasn’t looking so good last I heard, he was in surgery, took some shrapnel right in the gut.”

It worried her, beneath some of the haze of deep understanding of the mortality of humanity. She didn’t want to lose anymore people.

No one ever did.

“Hmm,” he returned softly, visible eye dark in thought. “And you couldn’t identify the enemy shinobi?” features dissatisfied, she shook her head, calming slightly at the clinking of her hair weapons. “Dango good?”

“Sure,” she agreed, letting the subject drop with something like relief and a sigh. In all actuality, she’d just have to talk more about it later, anyhow. “But if that’s all for breakfast,” so cheap… “I’m gonna need lunch too, so when you skip out, bring something back for me, yeah?”

He chuckled, as if she had said something amusing, but nodded agreeably anyway, his book hovering comfortably in front of his face.

~*~

“So,” she stood considering the children before her, munching on her current stick of dango, the plate being ever so kindly balanced on the jounin’s free hand, half of it covered in empty skewers. “Show me your stances.”

“Al right !” 

Always so loud… Predictably, the orange loving nuisance-to-her-laundry crowed before settling into… something.

Umm… did he… even go to the Academy?

She’d seen civilians with better stances, and they didn’t know jack shit about taijutsu. All that had was shitty action movies to go off of and they could parse something better together than that mess.

“The hell is that?” she muttered. 

Nibbling on her breakfast carefully, trying not to pull at her stitches again, she stared with her brows furrowed. While carefully keeping her fingers from getting sticky by holding the skewer delicately with the tips, her thoughts spun.

It almost looked like he was deliberately making openings in whatever poor excuse for a stance he had. To suck that bad it just had to be deliberate.

This was the sort of thing a master would do to lure in chumps and this kid was far from anything resembling an expert in the art of taijutsu… or anything, for that matter.

The Copy-nin just grunted helplessly before releasing a prolonged breath that was just loud enough for her to hear the exasperated, longsuffering held within it. From where he was leaning against a tree, still reading, as well as being a table watching her watch the genin. 

Now she saw why he was asking for help, and from a chuunin at that. She was sure, having grown up with a family style, he’d never have had much memory of starting from scratch. Asuka was equally as sure that once the kids were settled into a style – a real one – he’d be able to do more for them. 

Considering his experience in taijutsu and his ‘rivalry’ with Might Gai, or just battle in general, it was something of a given. Yet it looked like they hadn’t exactly been doing much for this kid at the Academy.

Another irritating thing in regards to the curriculum, she was sure.

The Uchiha, when she looked at him, caused her to make a face of half I’m so done and half what .

He was standing in something of a bastardization of the Uchiha Interceptor mixed with the Cat’s Paw, and she really wanted to palm her face, but her hands were both occupied. His feet were way too close together for either of those, though, so she wasn’t quite sure where he’d gotten his footwork, and that made her really uncomfortable. Perhaps he hadn’t thought to adjust it for growing? Or… maybe he’d learned from a scroll.

The thought made her grimace, chest tightening briefly but she swallowed passed the sudden dryness of her throat and sighed, shaking her head slightly.

A wry smile crossed her features as she finished her perusal of the three genin.

While Sakura was the most likely to fall in a taijutsu bout since she was lacking in strength, reflexes, speed and stamina, she also had the most correct stance. She was standing in the basic position of the Leaf’s Dragon Balance that was taught at the Academy. It was a taijutsu style that Asuka hadn’t really done much with since after reaching chuunin and settling into her own style.

Well, it could be worse.

Sort of.

“Alright,” she sighed, placing her empty skewer on the empty plate, sending a wry glance at the seemingly oblivious jounin. Last she’d checked there had still been three of the mild sweets left the last time she’d grabbed one, but hey, he had to be hungry too, and he had paid. It wasn’t something to take up arms about. “Starting with the Uchiha.”

His features twisted so that he looked a bit miffed at being addressed like that, and the Uzumaki boy was scowling something fierce as well. However, that displeased expression lit up into something like ecstatic joy when all she did was walk over to the pretty-boy and push him over into the dirt. The resistance had been pathetically easy to outmaneuver, even though she was a seasoned chuunin with a high strength count on her data sheet, she should have at least felt more strain than she did for opening a kami-forsaken door. It would seem that the kid apparently ate like a bird or something.

Well, she’d probably have to take care of that, too, then.

Sweet mother of the Sage of Six Paths, these kids were a mess.

“What –” he looked outraged from his seat on the ground.

“First off,” she held up her hand to forestall him. “Were you trying to stand in Cat’s Paw or Interceptor? Because whatever that was, it was neither of the two.”

His expression was mutinous, but he stood, dusting himself off and answered her query.

“Interceptor,” his lips were tight at the corners with anger.

Still, he wasn’t disregarding her as some of his predecessors would have, and that was good. He wasn’t a complete prick yet… still, perhaps it would hit after puberty did.

Like a punch in the teeth.

Sudden, jarring, and more than a little painful.

“Yeah, so, that wasn’t a very good starting stance,” she gestured at Kakashi, who had magically made the plate disappear altogether, but looked up lazily when she’d waved in his direction. “A demonstration of the Interceptor stance, if you please,” with a sigh, the man closed his book and settled his feet, his left hand still holding the orange volume. 

“Now,” she placed her hand on his side, ignoring the warning, dangerously aware and armed electric buzz of his chakra beneath the firm heat of coiled, lean muscle shifting with fabric. Hmm, perhaps this wasn’t one of her better decisions. Touching a jounin without their express permission? Hah, well, at least he hadn’t stabbed her yet. “When I push him,” and she did just that, using significantly more force in comparison to shoving at the Uchiha boy when she did so, and he shifted his center of balance perfectly with no sign of strain. “Did he fall over?”

“No,” made it out through gritted teeth, his pale cheeks flushed with either embarrassment or fury. 

Probably a mixture of the two, his brows almost meeting in the center because they were so tensed, dark eyes glimmering with heat and displeasure and something she couldn’t quite identify.

Children were insurmountably complicated.

“See his feet?” she crouched down into her familiar flatfooted squat, gesturing at the sandaled appendages, and looking up at the Uchiha boy to make sure he was paying attention. 

She was pleased to note that, while sullen, he was still listening and watching. While he wasn’t exactly eager he was still willing to listen to a more skilled ninja to excel his own abilities, even when they weren’t from a Clan or of jounin status. Wait, had she ever mentioned to them that she was a chuunin? Well, whatever, it didn’t particularly matter as long as their sensei didn’t contradict her somewhere down the line. 

“Look at the way his back foot is planted parallel to the direction he’s facing, and the way his front is angled just slightly out, not pointed straight, to work as a counterbalance from attacks from the side, making it easy to shift his weight accordingly; his knees are also bent to absorb impact and direct the weight away.”

Standing, she grimaced a bit at the pull on her ribs, but turned back to the lesson.

“And notice his arms, the left hovering a bit lower than shoulder height, bent almost ninety degrees at the elbow, the right echoing that in front of him,” she snapped out a lazy backhand at his front and he easily, smoothly, directed it away and his arm was back in place. 

She barely noted the interest that all three were having in the demonstration, as well as her in-depth explanation. She also didn’t notice the dark gray-blue eye that blinked at her thoughtfully, before returning to a bland expression behind a dark navy mask, position perfect and at ease despite her proximity. 

“Also, the slight lean forward at the hips, not the waist, keeps his weight proportionally centered.” 

She turned back to the Uchiha survivor, surprised, but pleased at the serious expression on his features, as well as the interest that was shown in dark eyes. Taking over the anger the perceived insult had garnered her when she’d ‘embarrassed’ him in front of his peers. 

“The Interceptor style is aptly named, in saying that you intercept attacks; it is a mainly defensive, reactionary taijutsu, with Cat’s Paw being its aggressive partner. In the Interceptor you should have no need to repurpose your stance, and can defend from both sides by simply turning your torso,” she heard the shifting of fabric behind her that signaled the jounin was demonstrating just that. “And switching the positioning of your arms.”

She waited for the question she could see burning in his eyes as he stared contemplatively at his jounin-sensei’s unfaltering stance, patiently settling her weight carefully onto her right side to relieve some of the pressure on her ribs.

“How do you… know this?” his brow was furrowed, and there was a familiar, heavy dark pain in his eyes.

For a moment, she glanced at the other two genin, only to be inordinately pleased with their own serious expressions as they regarded their taciturn teammate. The two were keeping their silence at some nonexistent signal that it was not the time

“Most of the older generation ninja have worked with Uchiha in the past,” she stated calmly, looking him in the eye despite the pain twanging in her chest. “I was on a genin team with two, and while I could kick Chitose’s ass around the block, Haruka knew what he was doing most of the time. He didn’t mind explaining his taijutsu styles, even if he wouldn’t teach them outright.” 

She quirked a sad smile at him, her eyes darkening with memories. Ah… how she missed the twins. They were always good for a laugh, for joy, for… everything. They were always… would always. No matter how… unconventional their relationship had been, she had cared for them deeply. To her, it was a given. They had been teammates. Especially after that night twelve years ago when the entire village had wept in grief, they had meant the world to her, had been hers in a way no one else was anymore. 

They had been Haruka and Chitose, and she’d loved them. 

She still did.

“And, well,” she glanced at the Hatake behind her – pulling her mind from thoughts of those she’d lost – who had returned to a normal standing position, shoulders slumped and hands shoved haphazardly into his pants pockets. “Him knowing is something of a given, considering he is who he is.” 

At the mildly confused  looks on their faces, she shot an incredulous one at the jounin, only to receive a helpless, sheepish shrug in turn. Who was she kidding, they had completely uncomprehending expressions on, like brick walls.

Did they really not know who their sensei was ?

How… did you miss that?

What was the Academy teaching these days?

Oh, whatever .

She didn’t have any reason to start giving history lessons as it were, and she definitely wasn’t going to bring up the Sharingan with that little sourpuss there. Not when he still had that hot poker of grief, rage and childish insecurity shoved up his ass.

“Anyway,” she cleared her throat, shaking her head in disbelief. “The Uchiha is going to go over there,” she pointed towards the far side of the training field. “And Hatake-san is going to go over forms with him,” she gave a quelling look at the boy who looked like he was going to speak, only for his teeth to click quietly as his mouth shut quickly. “Forms for both the Interceptor and the Cat’s Paw, while I work on you,” she pointed at the jinchuuriki with a frown, already imagining the headache that this would bring. “And hope for the best.”

Something like a despondent sigh escaped the jounin but he began to walk away, the Uchiha boy following after him once he’d given her something of a searching, uncertain look. He had seemed to find whatever it was he was looking for in her calm visage as she gazed mildly back at him, left brow quirking just a touch as if to tell him to hurry it up, and then he had gone on his way.

“Now.” 

Asuka turned to the orange wearing boy, only to see him situating himself into that mess again. 

“No, stop, that’s gross,” she grimaced at the bewildered look he sent her, but she waved a hand in front of her face at it, like it was a bad smell. Luckily, the pink-haired girl had listened to her advice and no longer had herself drenched in chemicals, so there was no real scent wafting eye-watering in her direction. “What you are doing is not a taijutsu stance.”

“Eh?” he looked confused, before glancing at Sakura, as if she had an answer, but she was watching her jounin-sensei correcting and explaining the stances of her crush on the other side of the field. Honestly, the girl hadn’t even entered puberty. “But, this was what I was taught! I’ve been using this since forever!”

A fierce frown found its way onto her aching features.

“Who taught you this?”

“Um,” he glanced at his feet before looking up at her sulkily, sky blue eyes dark with unhappiness and a smidge of pain. “Mizuki-sen… I mean, Mizuki-teme.”

“Ah,” she breathed in deeply through her nose, eyes closed for a moment. 

She really hoped he was having such a nice stay in Interrogation… perhaps she would ask Anko to make sure he was comfortable. It was only polite, after all. 

“Well, it’s wrong no matter how you look at it, but that’s no fault of your own, so, we’re just going to have to start from scratch then, aren’t we? I mean,” when she opened her eyes again, she was greeted with an oddly watery pair of sky blue eyes, something like helpless wonder on that silly, scruffy whiskered tan face. After a moment, he sniffed, rubbed the back of his arm over his face and then grinned up at her. What had she said? “It’s not like you can’t learn taijutsu, and I’ll drill into your skull what I can so that you have something to work on in the mornings when that asshole over there,” she jerked her thumb towards the jounin. The man in question looked like he was shaking his head at something as the dark-haired boy stood in the opening stance of Cat’s Paw. “Decides that he needs more primping time in the morning.”

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable only because Sakura was looking longingly at her crush – Baby steps Asuka, remember the baby steps – while the Uzumaki was staring down at the ground with a conflicted sort of expression. The woman herself was looking at the yellow-haired child with slightly furrowed brows and a small frown, eyes half-lidded against the sun.

From an outsider’s perspective it looked like she was a little sternly disapproving. Up close, however, when bright blue eyes flickered up to look at her, what she conveyed was amused concern through a tilt of her head and a hand on her hip, torso slightly tilted to keep her from worsening her wounds.

“You ready for this, kid?”

“Yeah…”

The boy was inordinately quiet for a moment, before he brightened with determination and a grin.

“Yeah, Nee-chan!”

~*~ 

There had been something a little familiar about her when he’d first seen her, but he hadn’t remembered it. 

Not until she’d shown up to take his pink-haired teammate to teach her about the girly side of being a shinobi, and hadn’t ignored him the way other grownups did. 

That steady gaze, those deep green eyes that seemed to stare right into him, into the core of his sense of self with intent he didn’t understand… that was what jogged his memory. The burnished way that her hair had burned brightly in light of the sun on the bridge, like a new copper coin, had cemented the memory into place and he’d found himself silently contemplative, even as he was hesitant.

She’d helped him once when he was younger, though he didn’t think she remembered it.

Why would she?

It wasn’t like he was worth notice.

He’d been looking into some store window, he couldn’t remember exactly what it was he was looking at, but it had been bright enough to hold his attention. To hold it for just long enough that one of the villagers had noticed him hanging around and gotten upset. 

He had still been trying to get on their good side at the time, had tried to be quiet and good for them so that they’d like him, would maybe smile at him like they did the other kids. It was before he’d given up on being what they wanted and had decided to be what he wanted even if it hurts and he cried more on the inside. 

It was before he felt what it was like to have his heart warmed by the acknowledgement of someone other than Hokage-jiji. To eat with someone and not have the stall owner glaring down at him and giving him subpar orders for extremely overcharged amounts of money.

He really was glad to Teuchi for dealing with him, for giving him a place.

Eating his ramen was like coming home.

Ah ! Get out of here, demon brat!” the man had yelled, waving a broom at him threateningly, causing the blonde to stumble back away from the window with wide eyes and hunched shoulders. He didn’t know if the man would actually hit him, but it had happened enough that he was leery of it even then. It didn’t matter how quickly the pain left, it still hurt . “You’ll ruin my business!”

Scampering back, he hadn’t noticed the kunoichi who had paused in her shopping, bookended by her two dark haired companions, to frown at the shop keeper intensely. Her green eyes were lit by the reflection of sunlight like a shard of bottle glass glittering in the rays, the color eerie in the daylight. The older man flinched and quavered under her gaze, chastised and unequivocally threatened. 

Naruto also didn’t see the way that the two young men seemed to slump with resignation as she followed after him with nothing but a short word to her companions, handing off bags of groceries to them. All he noticed was the fact that some of the civilian children had spotted him after the man had yelled out about his presence. That they were running towards him until he ran away himself, and then they were chasing after him with taunts and jeers. Some of them were laughing and picking up rocks, throwing them ahead after him, trying to hit him or trip him up, to make him cry, to fall and bloody his knees, to dirty one of the few sets of clothes he had.

It was a hateful routine that he was used to. Used to rage against loudly, but just let burn beneath his sternum with contempt.

No one was listening anyway.

Sometimes he hated how clumsy he could be, how sometimes his skin felt too tight and the inside burning energy that kept him awake at all hours of the night, much too big for his little body and small limbs. He would later learn that this was chakra and feel awe… and much later fear at what else it was he could have been feeling. 

He hated it, his fumbling too small body, because he tripped and fell, skinning his knees and hands with a muted cry of both resigned pain and despair.

Sometimes… he just hated.

A rock connected with his shoulder and he ducked down into a ball, covering his head against further assault as he’d learned, an ingrained reflex when one of them had managed to get a hit in on his small, thin form. 

Once one had gotten him, the rest would get more enthusiastic and he’d end up bruised and cut all over. Even if it healed really fast it still hurt – if he gave up he’d give in and he knew that was a bad thing even if he didn’t know why and the ache in his chest would get worse and worse like a pressure trying to crush him from the inside out even after they were done and gone.

Bored of him. 

Like a toy that has lost its shine. Scuffed and used up, from rough play.

Hey .” 

A young woman’s slightly husky voice had interrupted after a second rock had caught him, this time in the lower back, causing him to release a whimper and wish it was just over already. Wished that they’d get bored soon and wander away because he did nothing to entertain them. Naruto only hid his face and stayed as still as he could so as to lose their attention, even though it was lonely being alone. 

Her voice was surprisingly close, like she was… right behind him. Close. He could almost feel her heat. 

“What do you brats think you’re doing ?”

“Ah! A ninja!”

“Oh no!”

“Run!”

The footsteps that had been following after him scurried away quickly at the interference, and he hesitantly looked up and around himself. He found none of the kids that had been chasing after him in the area, but there was a pair of legs behind him.

They were kind of long, too.

Much longer than his stubby six-year-old legs.

Following the limbs upwards he found himself faced with a rather pretty young woman he’d never seen before. She was examining the rock that she had apparently intercepted with something like both detached distaste and rage, though it seemed to him that it wasn’t directed at him like it usually was. Naruto was well practiced in telling when someone was angry at him for existing and when they were upset about something else, and her expression was definitely in the latter area. 

Although he had no idea why she seemed so furious and disgusted about whatever that rock made her think about.

She had pretty bronzy brown, sorta reddish hair pulled back in a single bun on the back of her head that was covered in black cloth. The string that held it tight against her hair dangled down with little shimmering beads on the ends, red, white and navy blue little commas. Her large green eyes were very glittery and warm in the light when he looked at them, eyelashes like a bronze haze in the summer light where they bordered those pretty green orbs. 

She turned to him with her features clear of blemishes as she studied his slightly dirtied face and his wide blue eyes, lips soft and slightly open as she ran her gaze over him. There was a hitai-ate tied around her forehead, glinting just barely in the light of the sun, the metal a little beaten up and scratched while the material that held it in place looked a little dirty and burnt as well. 

Really, she actually kind of looked like she’d been in a fight her black and brown ninja clothes all mussed up and there was a little bit of blood on her left arm coming through the bandages she wore on her arms. He imagined something epic with made up explosive jutsu being flung around, he bet she’d been really cool facing whoever it was she’d been fighting with, probably with the calm, assessing gaze she wore just then.

For some reason, he got the feeling that whatever fight she’d been in, she’d been really strong. That she’d won .

Naruto had rarely won anything in his life – and never anything that anyone but the old man Hokage had congratulated him on – and he felt awed at the thought of someone who so clearly did had defended him from the bullying village children.

Nobody had ever done that before. Nobody but the masks, and they didn’t count because they didn’t talk to him.

Ever.

“You alright, kid?” she had asked with an uncharacteristically soft voice, squatting down next to him, still playing with the rock in her hand. “You’re not hurt too bad?”

“F-fine,” he stammered out, before scowling at her despite the hot burn in his cheeks as she kept steady green eyes focused on him. She was… she was looking at him… at him … “I-I’m… I-I didn’t need your help!”

“Oh?” 

The woman tilted her head to the side slightly and studied him curiously, eyes curving faintly to match her lips in a small amused smile with a wry tilt. She was… really pretty. His cheeks burned fiercely, his lip pouted without his knowledge, causing her smile to grow. 

“Well, then, I’m sorry for getting involved and stealing your thunder. You had a master plan, right? I’m sure those kids would have trembled in fear if they knew what was good for them.”

There was something about her tone that he didn’t understand, so he just looked at her with more than a little confusion. She sighed in something like defeat before he watched her casually crush the rock that was sitting in her palm into small grains and pieces. The shattered fragments glittered and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, falling to the ground on a lazy breeze that stirred them through the air before they scattered across the packed earth that was the street.

Later he would meet a woman who could vaporize them into dust in her hand, with just a finger, but for a long time this was the most impressive display he’d ever seen outside of awesome showy jutsu.

It didn’t change the fact that it was still one of the most important memories he had.

His eyes were wide with shock as he stared at her hand, even as she was reaching one that suddenly had water at her fingertips to his dirty slightly bloodied knees and washed away the grime and studied the tiny already mostly healed cuts. The water tickled and felt nice, and he felt his cheeks flush a little more at the action even though he couldn’t move his gaze away from the ground. Away from that evidence of casual use of ninja strength, not resisting as she grabbed his dirty cut hands and cleaned gravel out of his skin, her touch gentle and careful.

Her hands were warm, and not soft in the least, they were hard like the old man’s, but not as hard.

It was… nice.

He’d only ever had one person touch him nicely before.

He kind of liked it. It made his chest tight and warm, his eyes burned a little like he was going to cry but he clenched his teeth to hold back the tears.

She felt different. She didn’t have that cloud of anger under her skin, didn’t have the haze of grief like some of the masks.

She felt… nice.

“Huh,” her brows rose and she brought that deep green gaze back to his slack features where he was still staring at the pieces of rock, her own gaze having been curiously focused on his slightly raw hands that were visibly healing. “Neat. Well, see you around, kid.”

She had stood and turned to join the two young men he hadn’t seen before but definitely noticed as she walked over to join them. 

They had the Uchiha crest printed on the shoulder of their slightly scruffy and dirty looking shirts – a much less blatant display of Clan presence than he was used to from the ninja police – and were carrying grocery bags. One of them was noticeably shorter than the other and the same height as the woman was, the other was almost half a foot taller than his two companions. The dirt, blood and ash that splattered them and the singed areas of their clothes as well told him that whatever fight she’d been in they had probably been in it too. 

They didn’t really look like they’d won the way she did, though, especially not the tall one. She was so much cooler than them, it was obvious. 

He noticed the way that she smiled at the two men warmly, the way the taller one slung an arm around her shoulders to pull her into his side familiarly. The way that he grinned in an expression he’d never seen an Uchiha make, the action slightly crooked on pale, dirty and bruised handsome features. 

The shorter one bumped a shoulder against hers on the opposing side of his taller counterpart, his own attractive features twisted by a small, affectionate smile while his cheeks pinked a little in a blush. One that the blonde boy was half convinced he was hallucinating. Uchiha didn’t look like that. They didn’t look happy.

They were always super serious and like, constipated.

And yet...

He wanted someone to smile at him the way she smiled at them. He wanted someone to look at him the way they looked at her.

His chest ached.

Even as he thought it, the woman turned halfway back around and those pretty green eyes zeroed in on him. She gave him a slight smile tinged with some of the warmth she’d directed at the two Uchiha and a short wave, before taking the shorter man’s free hand in hers. An action that brought a brighter flush to his features as he glanced down towards the ground almost shyly, and they started on their way.

He sat in the dirt for quite some time after they’d gone, wondering if someday he might have friends like her. If he might have had something like that if he’d had a mother or a sister, if when he became a ninja people would respect him the way they had her, if he could crush rocks in his hand without thought the way she had, if he would have friends.

If, if, if.

Six years later, he was finally a ninja. Six years later, and she was standing before him without her two Uchiha friends – he felt an ache in his chest at the grief he’d seen in her eyes as she’d spoken to his jerk of a teammate about them – and she was teaching him. Her face was a little less expressive, her eyes a little sadder, her voice a touch rougher, but her gaze was still warm and intent, still focused wholeheartedly on whoever stood before her. 

Those brilliant green eyes on his face still not filled with an ounce of malice, only that kind of longsuffering indulgence, that slight annoyance that he’d seen on Iruka-sensei after he’d become important to him. 

When he’d told her about Mizuki, she had seemed to know why he was unhappy with it, that he was unhappy with it. Even though he’d tried really hard not to show how much his stomach and chest felt heavy at the thought of the teacher who had apparently screwed him over in more ways than one. 

The woman had known that his former sensei had tried to use him, had betrayed the village. Asuka had gotten that same exact look of distasteful, slightly bored, distant rage she’d had when he was just a six year old boy running from civilian bullies. He had felt the constant ache in his chest ease in much the same way it had when his favorite sensei had started to treat him like a person rather than like a nuisance that would go away the longer he ignored him. 

When he’d started to take care of him like a big brother mixed with a father or an uncle. Like family, his mind whispered shyly, something he’d never say out loud. 

The way he’d felt when he’d been really hungry and mugged by some of the meaner civilian kids so he didn’t have any money and Teuchi had given him free ramen, a safe haven from the other civilian adults. The way he didn’t like to admit it but Sasuke had made it ease when he’d offered to share his lunch with him when he’d been tied to the post as a failure. Again .

Naruto had been striving to win, to be something for so long, that usually failure didn’t register as anything other than another blackmark in his heart. Still, the thought of being left behind by people who were supposed to be his team had been…

It had hurt.

He was glad that Sasuke had saved him from that.

When she was teaching him she was patient, and when he didn’t understand something, she would do that same kind of demonstration she’d done with his jounin-sensei. For him, though, she used Sakura as the dummy this time, the pink haired girl he admired not protesting as much as he’d come to expect at being separated from the Teme. Asuka was amazing.

It was a lot easier to understand than the things that that bastard Mizuki had shoved down his throat, too.

He always did better when he could see and then copy, rather than when he was just being told what to do. He was a genin of action, not a bookworm.

Not that that was a bad thing. Sakura was very smart and a bookworm, but he… wasn’t very smart.

It had taken him a long time to learn how to read and write – and he still had trouble with some words – even when the old man and Teuchi had had the time to help him.

He wasn’t smart, but he knew that something that this woman, this Nagisa Asuka, had done with them that day was different than anything he was used to. 

The way she had done something before with his female teammate that impressed their sensei but he couldn’t really tell what it was. Well, other than the fact that he didn’t want to sneeze as often when she walked close to him, the way that their sensei wasn’t as distant with them as usual. With that, he knew that she had performed a miracle. 

Kaka-sensei was talking to them, working with them when the first few weeks he’d just dump them on D-ranks and go on his merry way, as if expecting them to teach themselves.

With the knowledge that those two who she’d looked at with such affection – love? He thought unsurely – had been her teammates – had given him hope that he might be close with his own someday. Even if Sakura didn’t seem to like him at all yet, and the stupid emo bastard didn’t like anybody, he still hoped so. Chitose and Haruka , he reminded himself, determined to remember their names, to carve them into his mind. Their names were Chitose and Haruka, and they were important.

It would be nice to have someone to smile at like that.

To be smiled at.

~*~ 

With a harsh groan, she slid down the tree trunk and squinted up at the sky.

Asuka took in the positioning of the sun to note that she’d just spent almost an hour and a half schooling the bright eyed idiot in actual taijutsu drills. With some cajoled help from Sakura to play dummy after she’d dragged her eyes from the Uchiha, of course. Really, that was probably the most Asuka had ever spoken to someone in such a short period of time in, like, ever and man, she sure was hungry because of it.

Also, her face ached.

The kid was surprisingly attentive when you had something interesting to teach him, something he wanted to learn.

She glanced over at where the Uchiha was slowly moving through forms, switching from offensive to defensive, from Interceptor to Cat’s Paw. He was trying to remember the feel of it, the smoothness of transitioning at the right moment, trying to ingrain reflexes. The fact that the Uzumaki boy was doing the same, under the careful, watchful, sometimes correcting eye of his female teammate brought a smile to her lips. Well, this was certainly progress.

Even as she reached a weary hand into her pouch for a ration bar – ugh, man, she really needed to restock her snacks – and some pins for her hair, she felt the slight ruffling of air and scattering of leaves that signaled shunshin.

Well, the common shunshin, anyhow.

Shisui, that little brat…

She’d never stop missing him.

“Lunch?” she queried, hands securing her bangs back whilst looking up at the returned jounin, who held two rather large bento in his hands.

Cool, she could forego choking down a ration bar then. Awesome.

Life was always brighter when one didn’t have to suffer through a small, dry granola bar that was designed not to be tasty but efficient in delivering as many nutrients in as small a form as possible. It was like eating dirt. The most unappetizing of dirt if it could be found, at that.

“Aa. No preferences?”

He plopped down next to her at a respectful distance, his dark eye lazily taking in the progress of his genin students. Hatake was perhaps pleased by their progress if the small, more natural curve to his smiling eye was anything to go by. 

“Nah, anything’s fine.” 

She nodded her thanks and broke open the cheap chopsticks that came with the takeout bento, making a noise of pleasure at the sight of the slightly sticky rice and steamed vegetables that sat to one side before her. Something else caught her eye over the regular additions to a standard lunch set. 

“Ooh, inari sushi! Itadakimasu!” she plucked a piece up and popped it into her mouth, humming in approval as he echoed her opening to the meal, though his tone was rather bored. “Wow, you sure go all out, huh?”

She carefully timed her glance up for when he’d set his chopsticks into her line of sight, so that she wouldn’t make him have to rush his eating, took in the pleased expression on the corner of his face she could see. She’d seen him choke once, subtly, when they’d been on a joint mission, and while it was mildly amusing at the time, it also made her feel a little bad for him, as well. 

There had to be a reason that he was always hiding his face, because no matter what some people say, one didn’t just decide that they weren’t going to show their face to the world on a whim. Because as far as she knew, he had literally worn a mask since before he’d gone to the Academy as a small child. 

That spoke of purpose, and it was only common courtesy to adjust to his needs like one would with any comrade who had some sort of special circumstances. 

Like never trying to look under the bandages around a Branch Hyuuga’s forehead, not commenting on the eating habits of the Akimichi, and never treating an Inuzuka’s canine companion as just another dog.

It was the little things that made the village go round, and being courteous while this man ate wasn’t a hardship.

“Hm, well, I did owe you lunch,” he gestured at his own bento, which was lacking in sushi, as well as sweet pickles, but had beef and radish in its place. 

They ate for a bit, and she couldn’t help but tease a little that she thought he should know that she had a preference for yellowtail for the next time he decided to drag her out of bed. Hatake seemed amused by her words, even if his preferred sushi was regular old fatty tuna. 

She sighed after she finished, stomach comfortably full for the moment. 

When she got around to testing for jounin, likely tokubetsu considering her skill set, the first thing she’d do was learn that metabolic jutsu. It’d be nice if she didn’t have to eat as much when she wasn’t expending chakra. It would certainly help her savings, and she’d get to eat tastier things more often. Considering their prices and how much she had to eat normally, that would even things out if she was only a little less frugal than usual. 

The jutsu itself was complicated and dangerous enough that it had a rank assignment to it that was casually called double A. 

Because if you fucked it up you could end up in the section of the hospital wards dedicated to Akimichi that had used too many of their food pills, so their body was eating itself.

Not the way that anyone wanted to go, really.

“So,” she started, gaze on the loud, earnest, annoying blonde boy as he fumbled a step, only to receive a whap over the head from his female teammate before she corrected him. Well, you couldn’t expect everything to fall immediately into place. “The loud one is working on some stances from the Academy style, and I’ve started him on the Grab and Go,” the Grab and Go was just a name for putting effective brawling moves together, a choreographed wildness, as it were. “But since I’m not particularly unconventional in my taijutsu, nor do I have the time to dedicate to this, so you’re gonna have to finish with him.”

“Well, that’s fair,” the sound of wings overhead caused the two to glance up, and Asuka groaned softly at the chuunin signal on the scroll it carried, before standing. “Have fun.”

“Thanks for lunch, Hatake-san,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away before hollering at the genin. “Keep up the good work kids, see ya!”

“Ah! Bye Nee-chan!” 

“Bye, Asuka-sensei!” 

“Hn.”

These were her simultaneous answers from the children as she was about to abscond from the training grounds. Hesitating for a moment thoughtfully, she threw a considering glance over them and then one back to the jounin who was eyeing her with a single pale brow arched.

“I might do this again,” she said vaguely.

“I might feed you again,” was the equally noncommittal answer.

While the shunshin that she executed in the next moment wasn’t taxing in particular, though her chakra system did throb a little like an overworked muscle, there was a headache building behind her eyes. Hell, her face kind of hurt, and not just from the cut on her cheek either, from all of that talking that she wasn’t used to doing, which meant that her throat got kind of scratchy by the end of the day. 

Even if she’d only spent a few hours with the kids, going over taijutsu stances, there had still been a level of effort to keeping their attention that she hadn’t noticed until after the fact and she was already tired. Asuka certainly had a newfound respect and sympathy for the even more antisocial than she was Hatake Kakashi, that was for sure.

Kids were exhausting .

~*~

She was… not what he expected.

Even though he’d asked her for her assistance and she had agreed to give it, he hadn’t really expected much from her. In hindsight, he was surprised that he had actually gone through with it, since it meant willingly socializing to some extent. 

However, he’d been pleasantly surprised when he’d shown up to training the day after she’d taken Sakura aside for the first time and been able to breathe

Nagisa’s first training session was something that the girl had been thinking about the entire day after the woman had left. 

Sakura had looked terribly embarrassed when he’d thanked her, with as much emotional sincerity as he could conjure, for toning down on her painful aroma so that he didn’t have to sacrifice his senses. The shampoo she used was still too strong, but they couldn’t have everything at once, and he got to use his nose again, so he was rather glad. 

She also had crackers that she would snack on when the boys were sparring together, some candied fruits as well, something that he approved of. 

When he mentioned as much to her, the girl had lit up like he’d told her that she could skip chuunin to go straight to jounin and Sasuke had agreed to marry her.

Of course, his yellow haired and extremely loud genin had not let things lie as they were, since the chuunin had apparently made the mistake of telling the kid to stuff it by passing off the ability to ask for extra training from her to him

That was basically her saying yes, but Kakashi hadn’t enjoyed the nagging from his genin in the least.

In some way, he was sure that he deserved the constant irritation from his two male genin, but he couldn’t help but sulk a little at her backhanded revenge.

When he’d finally given in and told them that yes, they could ask Nagisa for help with training, the genin had dragged him off to her apartment and he’d known as soon as he’d felt her chakra spike agitatedly, that they had woken her from an exhausted post mission sleep. 

Which it was a little odd that they’d already found out where she lived… it was… he… he had the creepy stalker genin, didn’t he? Hah, why wouldn’t he? There was a team every year… kami hated him, he was sure.

The low snarling of words he couldn’t make out could be heard through the door, and the Copy-nin was vaguely glad that he had chakra coating on his eardrums. It was a habit developed from being around his loud obnoxious students, one she obviously hadn’t thought to do when she went to sleep and was cursing them out. 

Not that he could blame her, because unless confronted by how obnoxious they were, one really didn’t think about how to avoid hearing loss when dealing with genin. Nagisa certainly wasn’t surrounded by the chaos and anarchy that were these children day in and day out. And no, he wasn’t jealous of her for that. Not even a little.

Okay, so denial was something he practiced. Often.

Looking at her after she’d opened the door, her pretty features dark and strained, he belatedly realized that this probably wasn’t a very good time.

Her hair was slightly askew from sleep, features wane with exhaustion, light purple bags standing out against her freckled and tanned skin, causing her large green eyes to look even angrier than usual. The high color in pale cheeks suggested something of a fever, too. 

There was bruising that was snaking out from beneath the bandage that had been slapped over her cheek. Likely to cover whatever abrasion was in the center of her cheek, a tiny dot of blood having seeped through the material to be clear to the eye. 

He could already tell that she was supporting some form of abdominal injury, just by the way she had situated her body. How she was ever so slightly slouched to one side to keep pressure off of the area of impact, her breathing shallow.

She smelled like charred earth, hot metal, blood and the lower key scent of pine and sap.

He didn’t breathe too deeply, it would be impolite to take in her deep chakra scent after they’d only been able to meet twice for training since the initial agreement.

They weren’t close.

He hadn’t done close in a long time.

Not when he wasn’t being forced to take on monster genin, anyway. The Sandaime was so cruel…

He did feel a bit guilty about dragging her out to entertain the brats when she was so obviously exhausted, her reserves a little low, if not to the extremes that he usually managed. 

Still, if all she wanted for the inconvenience was food, then he didn’t particularly mind. It was a bit startling to realize in a sudden epiphany that she really didn’t have much interest in impractical things when she wanted something from someone, or likely at all. That she wanted… useful things from him, like food and for him to help her equip herself against stronger opponents. 

There was something in the back of his mind where his instinct lay that rolled this around in consideration in a way that the rest of him didn’t understand, and he let it be. If it was important it would jump out at him later.

He’d learned to listen to his instincts. Well, usually.

The few times someone had done him a favor – he had never… asked for assistance before – they had always asked for ridiculous things that he had no plans of ever fulfilling. 

Like showing his face or telling them about the Yondaime, occasionally there were the idiots who wanted him to put in a good word with the Council for them when they were trying to get promoted.

Like the Council cared about his opinion enough for that to even make a difference.

It could even have a negative impact, who knew.

The fact that they had been ambushed on home soil was a little unnerving though, as was the inability to identify the nin that had managed to set it up in the first place. To be honest, Nagisa seemed a lot more irritated with the fact that they had mostly gotten away after harming a member of her team rather than the fact that they had been unidentifiable. 

It was a sentiment he could get behind at least, he could see the genuine affection and worry when she’d spoken of her injured teammate, and that fit with the picture he was getting of her personality. One that spoke of an abrupt, socially reticent woman who had few people she cared to speak with but held an affection for all of her fellows, even if it wasn’t a personal one. She may not speak to all of the ninja of Konoha, may not find the need to, but she cared for her comrades both on and off the battlefield.

When she basically stared in affected adoration at the large order of dango he got for her, he chuckled openly, well aware of the craving for food when tired. Even worse was what he normally dealt with, what with his own much larger chakra stores; and a penchant for chakra exhaustion.

Of course, it was nice to be validated in his distaste for the kids’ taijutsu. 

Even though he had no idea how she had managed to get them to listen to her for so long without shouting or arguing or anything of the sort. 

All she’d done was given them a placid, calm look and they’d been hung up on her every word. He had to be extremely serious and borderline angry for them to take anything he said to heart, and even then he had to beat it into them, especially the boys. Perhaps she had a teacher’s aptitude? No, if she did, then she’d be teaching at the Academy, even though she was a battle oriented kunoichi, it was a sad truth that the Council preferred having the female side of the shinobi of Konoha firmly within reach.  

Even if it had lessened its grip due to things like Senju Tsunade becoming a formidable force, having punched through the patriarchy, they still tried to hold females back. She was lucky that she was so militantly competent, because half of the Council’s argument for women not being in the field had to do with their apparent inability to compartmentalize. 

A thick, smarmy lie if he’d ever heard one.

Maybe it was because she was female that they listened to her better? Children reacted to women differently than they did to men, didn’t they? Something about how most adult females in a position of authority reminded them of their mothers, and instinctively listening to her because women ruled the household or something to that effect? Except that couldn’t be true for Naruto, no matter how much the thought burned…

Maa, well, he didn’t know. 

It’d never really made sense to him, and well, he’d never met his mother, only vaguely remembered a tone and the smell of earth, ozone and flowers. Perhaps a flash of pale mint colored hair dangling down towards his face, but he could have just made a memory up about seeing her hair as an infant after looking at her photos. She had died when he was very young, before he was even a year old at the hands of an assassin that had come to take care of the Hatake Clan Heir while his father was out on the front lines.

It was before the lull between wars. His mother – Hatake Isami – had been a high chuunin with a specialization in stealth about to be promoted to jounin before she’d gotten too heavily pregnant with him. The Council hadn’t wanted to risk the potential Clan Heir on the front lines, so she’d been suspended from active duty much earlier than was common for women while pregnant.

Almost an insult to her skill, really.

She’d died defending him and he couldn’t remember her face in the flesh of his memory, just warmth, a loving murmur and the tingling scent that meant love and safe and mother. He was lucky that he could remember even that and he was thankful for his prodigious memory in the times when he thought of her in the dead of night. 

When he saw her name etched alone on the Memorial stone when it should have his father’s right next to it. Thanked the enhanced sense of smell he’d received from the Hatake family Summoning Contract’s alteration to their physiology.

It was a little odd, having someone touch him casually at all, even during a demonstration, but he found another reason for Pakkun to be so hung up on her. She had very soothing chakra through her hands, the tenketsu there very open and well used.

Perhaps she had some medical training.

He knew the look in her eyes though, when she spoke of her former teammates, knew the loss and the tiny spark of pain that she couldn’t quite hide from him. Although he was sure that the children hadn’t noticed it. He had his own version of it whenever he looked in the mirror, or saw his reflection in the Memorial Stone. 

It was strange that she’d had two Uchiha on her genin team, but the Chitose she spoke of was probably close to dead last in his class. That the other Uchiha much higher up the ladder from the way they put it, meaning that she was rather high in the rungs as well. The fact that she’d been close enough with members of the Uchiha Clan that they would demonstrate Clan techniques to her, if not outright teach her, said something about both her character and theirs, setting them apart from the rest of their family.

Absently, morbidly, he wondered if they’d fallen in the Massacre.

When they sat down for lunch, he was surprised at how pleasant it was to pass small verbal barbs back and forth. The woman was even polite enough not to try to peek at his face, carefully timing her own bites against his own so that they could converse easily without any misunderstandings or unnecessary unease on his part. 

It was rare that she didn’t particularly seem to want to see his features, which he found was a nice change from what he usually found in his comrades and the civilians. He never had been very comfortable with people wanting to look at him when he didn’t want them to. 

It was for this reason that he had somehow found himself commiserating on occasion with the woman in the bathhouses who got peeked on by Jiraiya and other perverts. 

He himself was a pervert, no doubt about it, even if he was repressed, but he was a pervert of seclusion, and in no way did he involve others in his own physical pleasures. Nor did he push himself on the people he found attractive or pleasant enough to perhaps pursue. 

Generally, if someone was interested, and he felt comfortable enough to attempt sleeping with them – outside of missions, of course – he let them make the first move.

It was easier that way.

However, speaking to her seemed more stress-free than he’d expected, especially since they were of differing ranks, and he was technically her superior. 

Even though she easily handed out what could be construed as orders to him throughout the training session with the little twerps, he didn’t particularly mind. Kakashi was amused enough by the children’s reactions to her to not even make an offhand jab about it, and even though they were thoughtless little things that were easily done for the sake of efficiently. 

There were enough problems teaching headstrong genin, but there were jounin he knew who wouldn’t have been as accepting as he had been, and that made him wonder how she dealt with those people when she ran into them. She was a very self-sufficient woman who had little problem speaking her mind, and she hadn’t asked for anything that he wouldn’t have done anyway under different circumstances. Still, it wasn’t difficult for him to see the more petty of his peers taking offence at her pointing out holes in their plans or giving her more observant opinion. 

Perhaps it had to do with her lack of socializing but she really hadn’t adopted most of the mannerisms that her fellow chuunin had when confronted with jounin, the deferential attitude. But well, in the end, he didn’t particularly care on a personal level other than feeling a vague discomfort at the idea of someone else taking offence. 

Between them it just made the fact that they were working together much simpler, and easier to deal with because he enjoyed a more relaxed way of handling things. When someone else was uncomfortable and nervous even in an abstract way, he couldn’t real in his senses and unclench. Staying tense was terribly tiring.

Working with Nagisa was turning out to be easier than he’d hoped.

If something were easier on him, it was better.

At least, he had expected everything to keep with that easy going feeling  for the smooth sailing to continue for at least a while longer. He didn’t know why, he’d never been particularly optimistic.

Fate hated him, and there was something about Team 7 that he was coming to dread.

Stupid luck.

“I hear that you’ve asked a chuunin to help you teach your team,” the Sandaime stated calmly, standing at the window and looking out over Konoha. “It’s rather unusual for you to approach another and include them in your life. Willingly, I might add.”

Of course, he was referring to those emotional, frustratingly unprepared beasts that he’d foisted off onto the jounin.

Really, the Hokage was just lucky that the last Hatake loved and respected him as much as he did, because he was still around, despite the clear risk to his sanity.

“Maa, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” not so much when you’re being a busybody, though.

“You’re a lazy ass, Kakashi-kun,” then don’t make me have to bring it up first, the older man stated with a wry twist to his lip, reaching into his robes for his pipe before stopping himself and moving to sit at his desk instead. “And the fact that you foisted off some of your duties on a lower ranking ninja doesn’t surprise me very much. Probably less than it should, anyway.”

It always kind of made him feel awkward and thankful that the Sarutobi Clan Head remembered about his sensitive nose and didn’t light up in his presence. It wasn’t that the smell was bad so much as it was clinging and it coated his nostrils for a while after he’d left proximity, making him slightly disoriented. 

Of course, it seemed that he didn’t hold this same regard toward the Inuzuka who came into his office, if the loud and whining complaints he’d heard about the longer meetings with the Professor were anything to go by.

Personally, he thought that the old man got a kick out of torturing the most irritating Clan in his own passive aggressive way that didn’t mess with politics.

Politics were ridiculous. That was why he skipped as many Clan meetings as he could.

“Still,” the man continued as he sorted papers on his desk. “Out of all the chuunin you could have forced into labor you did a magnificent job of choosing. You chose the one that I most often send out of the village to settle political disputes without wasting my much needed manpower and would actually refuse you if she should not have desired to do what it is that you have asked of her.”

Hah , he preened. The product of genius .

“You are one lucky bastard.”

Or… not?

Had the man ever actually read one of their mission reports? Did he not see the disasters that were the genin under his command?

Lucky? I think not.

“Asuka-kun is a rather strong kunoichi in her own right,” he mused, ignoring as the silver haired man just stared at him with his visible eye slightly narrowed in disbelief. “I’ve yet to convince her to take the Trials, but I believe she’ll wear down soon enough.”

“You’re having trouble with a chuunin not wanting to be promoted?”

That was a first, if he’d ever heard it.

“Yes,” the Hokage shifted to the side, propping his chin on a fist with a wry, humorless smile. “It seems that it’s always the most capable of my chuunin that fight against promotion the longest. Or at all.”

Huh. He did pick well. 

He’d thought her very capable for a chuunin as well, although he didn’t know much about the middle ranks these days, what with him mostly having high ranking and solo missions since he’d been fourteen. Before that even, especially because he’d been under his Sensei’s command, and if there was one thing that his Sensei had been, it had been high profile enough to only get the most dangerous missions.

“Hmm,” he shrugged, unsure.

He’d not yet seen most of her skills, even if her use of water jutsu was impressive, so he didn’t really have much to say about the matter.

“Anyway, onto a matter that she, out of all my jounin instructors – as a chuunin with no affiliation with instruction at all – brought to my attention more thoroughly than Naruto’s graduation incident had implied. Which doesn’t particularly please me, Kakashi-kun.”

Without thought, he straightened, his attention caught.

That ‘graduation incident’ had included an ANBU alarm that he’d had to answer to as well, and the only chuunin in the mission room with a back bone almost losing said back bone. He’d heard that it was only the man’s foreign heritage that had saved him from being permanently crippled by the injury he had sustained in having to protect the blue eyed little devil.

“The Academy has been compromised.”

Well, shit.

“Fuck.”

“Yes, just what I thought as well.”

After the long and arduous meeting that followed – and the slight headache that came with it – he’d found himself walking through the streets. For once without his beloved Icha Icha in front of his face to protect him from the randy civilians and their staring, curious or awed eyes, though his bad humor seemed to be keeping them in check for the moment.

The problem that had been touched on with Mizuki had been much, much worse than he’d been expecting. To hear that the sabotage had been going on for years and that the increase in genin fatality rates dealt into it… well, it wasn’t pleasant. 

Apparently the only reason it hadn’t been worse was because of a few chuunin instructors who had been teaching outside of the somehow changed curriculum to help their students.

When a disturbance popped up on the road ahead of him he gladly latched onto the distraction, angling his direction towards it, only to raise a brow at the sight of his chuunin… assistant? Did that work? Maa, it didn’t really matter. Anyway, she looked to be having a rather intense staring contest with Yugao for reasons not apparent to the naked eye. The very haggard and put upon Hayate was standing slumped next to his girlfriend and partner with a beleaguered sort of amusement on his features, fondness in every line.

His gaze apparently caught the other jounin’s attention and then the tired and sickly man raised his eyes to the heavens and sighed as if the very world were against him.

“C’mon Yu,” the man said, coughing a little. “We gotta turn in our report.”

“But… she’s right there Hayate!” the woman actually whined for the first time that Kakashi could recall. “So close…”

Nagisa just kept staring intently at the kenjutsu user, a bag of groceries clutched in her hand and her body angled into a stance that hinted as to why the two women were eyeing each other like pieces of meat and they were starving.

“I know,” the man patted the purple haired woman’s shoulder comfortingly. “I know.”

With a frustrated noise from the purple haired woman, the two leapt to the rooftops and took off quickly towards the tower to give their report.

Some of the civilians looked a bit unnerved, some relieved, but the majority seemed to just take this whole scene in stride, as if it happened often. 

Which was interesting enough, considering the borderline hostility that the two women had been exuding. It hadn’t been Killing Intent, hadn’t even been negative really, but the intensity was somewhat intriguing, he had to admit.

When the chuunin sighed and quirked her lips to the side unhappily he meandered forward before he really thought about it.

“That was interesting,” his mouth said, and he wondered why he was talking. 

What was he doing? 

Was he socializing

How… disturbing.

“Oh,” she turned and blinked large green eyes at him, features clearing into something a tad more sheepish as she shifted her grocery bag. “Saw that did you?”

“Does it happen often?” he tilted his head. And he was… still talking. Weird. “You and Yugao looking like you want to rip each other’s heads off.”

“You could say that,” she muttered vaguely before her expression turned curious and slightly thoughtful. “Are you busy at the moment?”

“Hmm, no.”

“Feel like helping me out with something?”

For a mistaken moment he thought she was talking about training, and he rarely said no to that.

“Sure.”

“Want to carry my groceries and look manly?”

Ah, yes, assumption. Everyone knew what it made a person.

… Was he really getting drafted into hard labor? Was he letting himself get drafted into hard labor? After all those D ranks he managed to avoid getting conned into with his genin?

Why was that old woman at the fruit stall looking at him like she’d sucked a lemon and then whispering to her crone friend while pointing at the chuunin in front of him, who was pleasantly holding the bag in her hand out towards him? He contemplated listening to their conversation, but the younger woman’s delicately raised brow had him reconsidering and taking the bag from her hand, a part of him vaguely relieved that she didn’t brush her skin against his own in the transfer. Now that he was thinking about it  he found that a good portion of civilian women were looking at the chuunin woman as if she were the scum of the earth. And at him with something like distastefully confused incomprehension, dipped in envy, greed and desire. 

He normally didn’t worry about staring whilst within Konoha, since it either happened or it didn’t, but...

Hmm. Uh, awkward. 

Some of the men were giving them the side eye as well, and it snapped together suddenly that both he and the woman he was with weren’t exactly known for their talkativeness or sociability. 

So, yes, the two of them just casually chatting by a fruit stand might be considered odd. A number of emotions he picked up were a mixture of anger, jealousy and dislike.

A good portion of those emotions were directed at the green eyed woman, though she easily brushed this aside, blatantly ignoring the staring with an aplomb that spoke of experience.

Considering the fact that he was treated as a commodity to a lot of civilians who dreamed of having a chance at reawakening the Hatake Clan, either through marriage or sexual manipulation of other kinds with him, it wasn’t all that hard to guess what those people were assuming. That didn’t make him squirm with awkward disgust and tired resignation at all, no, of course not.

He found that it was equally as easy to understand that the fact that in her youth she’d been flanked by two Uchiha boys. So it wasn’t unlikely that she’d developed something of a thick skin when it came to civilian rumors or staring and rudeness in general. Because the Uchiha, even when they’d been plentiful, had been something of a hot article of interest. 

Of course, the fact that they even thought that they had any reason to start whispering and gossiping like vicious animals gave him pause. Yet, that steady gaze had kept his grip on the bag of what appeared to be vegetables firm when he slowly and steadily reached out to take it from her.

What was he doing?

Was he really doing this?

“Awesome, because they're having a sale down at ChiChi’s on rice and I want to stock up while the getting’s good.”

Right.

Of course.

This woman was probably one of the strangest he’d ever met.

Briefly cocking his visible brow at her he released a somewhat beleaguered sigh somewhat reminiscent of the departed Hayate, though he was unaware of it as he decided to push the thoughts of disgruntled and unhappy civilians from his mind. Well, if they were already talking…

Just helping the woman tote around large bags of rice, since she couldn’t very well effectively carry all of them herself – even if she did have the physical capacity – wouldn’t really do anything further.

They had taken to keeping a healthy, polite foot or two between them at all times, and there was really no way that the stiff, impersonal postures that they portrayed could be mistaken as romantic. In any sense of the word. At least to his understanding of the word.

Which, admittedly, was basically theoretical.

But hey, genius!

It wasn’t likely that he was wrong.

Again.

Hmm…

“You were hell on your teammates’ pride, weren’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and he was both amused by the thought and mildly exasperated. It was great that she spoke to him like a real person, but he couldn’t help the dryness of his tone. 

Though she didn’t seem to mind, was even amused by it.

She was something else, alright, the Hokage had gotten that correct.

“Ahaha! Pride! They didn’t know the meaning of the word!”

“I’m getting that.”

~*~ 

She hadn’t known the woman’s name until she’d introduced herself the second time she’d met her in person, but she’d heard about her when she was younger. 

She hadn’t known she had until the woman had told Sasuke-kun that she’d been on a team with some of his relatives. When she’d mentioned having had two of them it had clicked inside of the pink haired girl’s memory that this was the woman that the civilians used to whisper about.

Nagisa Asuka was disliked by many a civilian woman for a long time only a few years before. It also appeared to be starting up again for some reason.

When she was younger she hadn’t quite understood why it was considered bad that a woman was on the same team as two members of a prodigious, very important Clan in the village. Hadn’t understood the pressure that a lot of civilian women were under to marry into one of the influential Clans. The chuunin was seen as something of a blockade between other females and her teammates, keeping them from the market of eligible marriageable age civilians. 

Of proper ladies getting in good with those that they deserved

There had been a lot of gossip about how her relationship with the Chitose and Haruka of her team had been less than professional, about how they were inseparable and how they even went into mixed baths together.

A lot of civilians found the idea scandalous.

To be honest, so had Sakura, until the person she had tentatively started to call Asuka-sensei had explained how a ninja’s sensibilities differed from a civilians. 

How because the lifespan of shinobi and kunoichi was generally much shorter than that of the average noncombatant, they more often than not matured faster and had to find more life experiences to shove into a potentially smaller time frame. She had explained that sexuality was fluid amongst the ranks, even though it was frowned upon for those under the age of fourteen to fraternize amongst themselves. That genin teams below this age were not allowed to go into the mixed baths due to both immaturity of mentality and physicality. 

The woman had even admitted to having her own smattering of lovers that didn’t fit civilian standards of romance or ‘relationships’. That what most nin got the chance to do between missions unless they were very lucky was considered a hookup or a one night stand by the pink haired girl’s parents.

It horrified her that her mother would call her kunoichi sensei a slut and any other number of insulting, degrading names.

To think that the green eyed woman had mentioned that Konoha civilians were some of the most accepting!

She… she wasn’t a bad person .

The light red-brown haired woman looked at her, only her, before she had never had someone’s full attention focused on her. Dedicated towards just her. The intensity of the woman’s gaze made her feel warm and fluttery and appreciated, like she was important enough to warrant that serious stare.

It was a feeling she was unused to, having the sole attention of someone.

Her mother was very busy with the other women on the street, often going out to dinner parties to gossip with them. She had stopped taking her daughter to them after she’d found out the girl’s interest in becoming a kunoichi, mostly because she hadn’t thought she was interested in them anymore. 

As for her father, he was always out for work, and while he tried to make time for her, he was always very tired from long meetings and spending all day at work. Still, she was sure that they loved her, they just didn’t know that she was supposed to eat twice as much as a civilian girl her age should. Sakura was sure of it. 

When she’d told her mother this, tentatively, the woman had looked scandalized, looking at her daughter in a strange light. While her father had frowned severely, looking over his daughter’s thin frame as if noticing the fact that she was… boney for the first time.

It was something she hadn’t realized until she’d looked in the mirror the evening after speaking with Asuka-sensei.

She looked… unhealthy.

Looking the way she did… it wasn’t pretty.

Not at all.

She wanted to be stunning, like Asuka-sensei was without even trying.

It… she wanted to not try.

“Well, are you sure, dear?” her mother had asked her, something pinched appearing around her eyes. “Wouldn’t it be unflattering to eat so much at a time? And your weight , Sakura! Aren’t you on a team with that nice Uchiha boy? You wouldn’t want to put him out, would you?”

“I…” she blinked at her mother, who was echoing things she herself had said to the woman who had become her sensei. “If I don’t eat well, it’ll be bad for me, Okaa-san.”

“You do eat well,” the blonde woman had insisted, leaning forward in her emphatic response. “Darling, you eat quite a bit in a sitting already. Certainly more than young Hikari down the street, and she’s a year older than you!”

“Mebuki,” her father interrupted, seeing the taken aback meekness on his daughter’s features, the wideness of jade green eyes. “Let her speak.”

“If… if I don’t eat enough,” she started softly, staring at the floor. “I could lose the ability to have children, Okaa-san.”

Silence reigned for a few moments and the genin could hear her father taking a quick, shocked breath.

“Sakura, dear, that’s ridiculous –” her mother started, but she cut her off, her gaze flickering up with tears in her eyes.

“Okaa-san, I could die !” she snapped out, her hands shaking so she grabbed her opposing elbows, cradling her thin, slightly concave stomach. 

Before it hadn’t bothered her, but seeing her kunoichi sensei’s fit, muscular build that still looked slim and compact and shapely – like a woman – had made her feel… inadequate, made her feel small in a bad way. Asuka-sensei was pretty, sometimes it struck her that the woman was beautiful in a rather plain way – though she didn’t really understand it herself – her body full in a way that Sakura’s had yet to reach. 

In a way that could be out of her reach due to malnutrition if she didn’t take steps to prevent such a fate. The way she’d seen the woman eat … it made her stomach clench in hunger and fear because she had never eaten like that. 

Even when she had dearly wanted to, been so very tempted, but she never had, because she still thought like a civilian. She wasn’t though. 

Not anymore.

Her kunoichi teacher had drilled that into her over and over again as she explained and taught and assigned self-study.

Sakura couldn’t let herself think like that, like what she had been instead of what she was.

She would be a kunoichi.

A strong one.

“Because I use chakra and do a lot of exercising I could damage my organs, and my body would start trying to conserve resources by first getting rid of nonessential organs like my uterus!” tears trembled over her cheeks but she didn’t brush at them, staring at her parents imploringly, willing them to see how serious this was. “I could… I could…” she choked off and gave in to her tears, wiping at her face, hiccupping and sniffling.

She was so afraid .

“Oh, my Sakura-chan,” her father murmured, standing and moving to wrap her in his arms. “You just tell me how much more you need and I’ll add it to the budget.”

“R-really?” she asked quietly, trembling in his arms. 

It had been a long time since her father had last hugged her and she’d forgotten how warm he was. It was comforting and nice, but an aching part of her chest reminded her that her two sensei were more solid, a sharp pain telling her that she felt safer with them than she did in the arms of her own father.

What did that say about her? That she wanted that strength between her and the world, rather than the softness of her father?

“Of course. You’re my precious daughter.”

“I – I have c-calculations,” she stuttered out through her tears, clenching her fingers in the fabric of her father’s shirt. “There a-are books a-and scrolls that,” she sniffed as she listened to his heartbeat, closing her hot eyes. “That talk about appropriate food items a-and how much someone my size should eat…”

“Can I read them?”

She loved her father, even as she was worried about her mother’s silence.

“S-Some of them… other’s you’re n-not allowed…”

“Alright then.”

In the end, she’d actually had to convince her new sensei to come over and speak to her mother. Who, while she’d given in to serving her daughter larger portions and getting her snack foods that were directly for ninja in their growing years, had still been skeptical on a number of things. 

Including her no longer using scented lotions and shampoos.

Haruno Mebuki had been scandalized by her daughter’s insistence on having shinobi standard unscented lotion and soaps.

It seemed hard for her to compute that Sakura didn’t need to smell like a girly girl.

While she wasn’t exactly happy about it either, she was determined not to be a burden, to hurt people with enhanced senses – even if Kiba was an annoying pain – with negligence or ignorance that she could no longer claim. It had been mortifying to learn that her own jounin-sensei had heightened senses when the woman had brought up the topic. Sakura had nearly cried in frustration at the understanding as to why the man was so tense when he stood beside her or spoke to her directly, why he tried to stay upwind of them.

Sakura had been hurting him, and she hadn’t meant to.

How many people had she hurt without trying?

There was something odd about seeing her fashionably dressed mother trying to stare down her very obviously a ninja kunoichi sensei who wasn’t dressed to impress in the least. 

Something strange about the way that the older woman who was her mother ended up conceding something to the younger woman with a nod of her head. 

They were the same height, but for some reason the bronze and red haired woman seemed… taller. Older. Perhaps it was the confidence with which she situated her body. 

The smooth, elegant way she carried herself with a surety of grace that many civilians only saw in dancers, or in the rich politicians who were either from the large civilian trading businesses or from the Daimyo’s court. 

“I am Nagisa Asuka,” her sensei had stated with a slight, respectful bow. “A High-combat class chuunin kunoichi,” she introduced, as was proper when meeting the parents of your student, a greeting for only those civilians of your own village. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Haruno-san.”

“Ah,” the blonde woman who was her mother seemed somewhat surprised by how polite Asuka-sensei was as she bowed back. “No, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to suit my whims, Nagisa-san.”

If she hadn't started learning things with her kunoichi sensei, she likely wouldn’t have understood the need for the classification on anything other than the fact that she was a chuunin.

There was a grading system within the village for anyone higher in the ranks than a genin – there were only High and Low genin, of which she was currently the latter – that gave a quick and succinct definition to the individuals skill set, strength and abilities. High for genin meant a good chance of getting promoted to chuunin, while Low was the opposite, meaning that you sat in your rank for a while to learn, train and gain experience. 

New genin were often called Low and experienced genin were High.

There were three rank levels of strength for chuunin; High, Mid, and Low. 

When one was called High, it meant that they were close to a promotion, that their ability was above their peers. It was often that if there was a High ranked chuunin amongst a team of Mid or Low, then they would be the ones in charge unless the classification of the closest in rank was more suited to it. A Mid level was what was usually seen amongst the chuunin ranks and lead most chuunin cells, as once someone hit High they rushed forward to take their Jounin Exams so that it left a gap between Mid chuunin and Low jounin. 

When one was considered a Low they were usually newly promoted from genin and had not received a classification, because they had yet to choose a field to focus on. 

Or their aptitude had not been decided and the test was inconclusive.

For each rank there was a description of that level, a classification such as combat, intelligence, medic or specialty. 

Combat focused on general skill with weapons and body, with jutsu augmentation thrown in due to battle effectiveness. A frontline shinobi or kunoichi would be called a combat oriented nin, someone who was used to deter attacks and take the heaviest brunt in any assault to cover their weaker, less physically able, comrades. They were the ones who held the line when retreating or caused distractions during ambushes, drawing attention to themselves to take the brunt of everything. They were commonly thought of as the strongest classification as during war they were the ones who survived the longest on the frontlines and caused the most damage to the enemy, even if they had a high mortality rate. 

It was extremely rare for a female to reach High-combat. Seeing as most women didn’t go down the combat route at all, keeping their specifications more suited for their body types because of a generally smaller physique that held less muscle mass and lower stamina.

Asuka had told Sakura that was bullshit.

Intelligence dealt with those who were more prone to planning or categorizing – strategists – to those who became teachers or dealt with internal affairs rather than going outside of the village on missions. Those who worked in the Missions Office were mostly classified as Mid or Low-intelligence, while those who worked at the Academy were either Mid or High-intelligence. Everyone who worked in the T & I department was a High-intelligence ninja. Many having an intelligence class had a secondary classification as well, for when they were on rotation through other stations to get as much use out of those who remained within the village as possible. They used that well developed intelligence to be as useful as they could by multitasking and helping to fill as many positions as they could.

So as to use the resources available to the village to the best of their ability, the most efficiently. 

Those with medic stated as their classification rather spoke for themselves, and most that had it as theirs were either Mid or High. Just because it was such a sought after skill in the field and out of it, and the ability to use iryō-ninjutsu was rare when one didn’t completely dedicate their career towards it. Most with a medic classification never left the village because they were so uncommon and such a useful commodity, the training it took to raise them up to an appropriate level of medical knowledge allowing little time for physical training in a combat situation. 

So having a fielded medic was something that was practically a godsend to whoever managed to snag one for their team on missions. 

There were those who worked in the hospital who had some field qualifications but they were often very weak offensively and need a large escort when leaving the village. So, it was usually seen as a better choice just to keep them within the safety of Konoha’s boundaries where they could easily be protected and they could be of use in a moment’s notice.

Asuka said that they should just have more people take emergency courses, but those kind of appeals often got rejected.

When one was of the specialty variety of classification, it was usually Clan or family related, due to style, jutsu or kekkai-genkai ability. Sometimes it was used to classify those with an ANBU background or a rather shady skill set such as assassination, seduction, espionage, infiltration or sabotage, things that one wouldn’t speak of openly or want to advertise to the civilian populace. It was very rare for those with a specialty to be out and about in the village and not on missions, as they were usually the busiest because their skill set was a rare one. 

Another thing that was hard to find or train, and needed to be put to the best use for the village.

Jounin had the same classifications, but different ranking systems.

There was Low, Mid, High, Select and Elite.

The first three were the same as for chuunin with the exception of there being no higher rank to move to for chuunin, but Select and Elite were what could be considered a rank of their own in the ranks of jounin. Select were those who had a name for themselves, most of them went into ANBU at some point in their lives but had yet to either exceed a certain amount for their bounty or receive a kill order in the Bingo Book. 

The Sandaime’s son Sarutobi Asuma was an example of a Select as a former member of the Shugonin Jūnishi, the Twelve Guardian Ninja for the Daimyo. 

Elite were what civilians commonly referred to as Legendary, like the Sannin and the previous Hokages like the Yondaime and Shodaime. The Yondaime was famous for his Flee On Sight order in the Bingo Books of every surrounding country because he was so strong. It had been because of him that, at the time, the Council had apparently toyed with creating a new classification that was eventually vetoed.

It was when her kunoichi sensei introduced herself to her mother that she realized that the woman wasn’t a jounin yet.

While embarrassing – Sakura was glad she hadn’t said anything about her kunoichi-sensei’s rank – she waited until the chuunin was done getting her mother to see reason before they headed off to training to ask her about it. 

Her mother did love her, but she was very set in her civilian sensibilities, sensibilities that she had been drilling into her daughter since birth.

Haruno Mebuki was not a bad mother, and had promised to follow the dietary instructions that she’d been handed by the younger woman with a new understanding of the female ninja’s body. She’d even apologized to her daughter before stating that if she needed anything else just to let her know. 

It was a little mind boggling and downright shocking to see her mother seem humbled by someone else, considering the fact that she couldn’t ever remember her mother apologizing for anything before. Not even backing down without browbeating someone into agreeing to whatever it was she wanted. 

Her mother was very strong willed, and that her new kunoichi sensei had done the impossible and won an argument with the civilian woman without actually arguing was awe inspiring.

“Um, Asuka-sensei?” she felt very foolish. “You’re… you’re a chuunin?”

“Oh,” the woman blinked lovely dark green eyes at her before laughing softly, patting Sakura on top of her head just behind her hitai-ate. “I forgot I hadn’t told you,” she smiled down at the pink haired girl. “It must have slipped my mind.”

“But…” pink brows furrowed as she took in her sensei. “You’re ranked High, right? And combat on top of that! From what you told me, you should already be a jounin!”

“Ah,” the woman rubbed at the back of her neck a little awkwardly. “Well, I haven’t taken the Trials yet.”

“Eeeh, why not?” she caught herself as she inquired interestedly. “I mean, if you don’t mind my asking.”

A wry smile was quirked at her and the genin flushed a little at the attention, as the woman absently slung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against her side. It was an easier way to navigate through the crowd of civilians gathering in the market for early morning shopping in a way that didn’t get the girl trampled or pushed against. 

The woman was surprisingly affectionate with her when it was just them, and she enjoyed it immensely because her mother had never been one to coddle her after a certain age. Her father rarely gave her hugs, though they did press kisses to her head when they passed her or put her to bed. Still, the easy affection that the chuunin gave out made her warm on the inside, feeling like she was… cared for by someone other than family.

She had no friends really, no one left in the Academy or outside of it – no one other than Ino, who was more of a rival than anything else at that point.

She… missed them. Being best friends.

She missed that.

Sakura missed the girl who’d given her a pretty red ribbon and stood up for her, who’d taught her how to stand up for herself. She was beginning to realize that you could be rivals and friends at the same time. Naruto and Sasuke-kun were, weren’t they? So why couldn’t Ino and her do it? 

Why had they had to split apart so that Sakura was practically alone again? The only difference was that this time she could stand up to the bullying of others, to the ninja raised kids who put her down for being from a civilian background.

It wasn’t fair.

Now that she was learning all of these things about her body, she worried over her old best friend – her only best friend – and whether or not she would be receiving the instruction that she needed. Worried about why Inoichi-san hadn’t stopped it.

Because in the Academy Ino had always been thinner than Sakura herself had been, and while it had been a point of contention then, it just made her worried now that she knew what could happen. It also made her wonder.

Wouldn’t Clan ninja know this anyway? Sasuke-kun had known it, and had even taken to keeping snacks for her, just like Kakashi-sensei and Naruto had at Asuka’s insistence. They’d been helping her, the way that a team was meant to, and Sakura worried about Ino.

“Hmm, I just don’t think I have what it takes,” she mused down towards her student. “I’m not confident in my skill set just yet. Perhaps I’ll take the Trials after another year.”

“I’m sure you could do it now!” the pink haired girl encouraged, practically gluing herself to the woman’s side. “You’re really good! You make Kaka-sensei work hard when you spar, and he’s a jounin!”

“Thank you Sakura,” the small, amused smile she received had her beaming. “I’m glad you think so.”

“I know so!”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yup!”

“Rii iight .”

“I do !”

“Mhmm.”

“Asuka- sensei !”

“Ahahaha!”

It was like having an older sister, she decided with flushed cheeks, joy spreading a large smile over her features. 

Walking beside her teacher as she handed her a stick of dango to munch on while they headed out to meet the boys, Sakura was content, happy even. 

Where the chuunin would then run them through drills and throw things at them for a while with a placid look on her face, before she left a little after their jounin-sensei showed up so that she could do missions. Sometimes she would stay and the two adults would both torture the genin together – though it was rare – sometimes snacking idly while they did so. Something that drove the genin up the wall with how at ease they were even when the genin were trying their hardest to attack them when that was what they’d been instructed to do.

She was sure it was the boys’ goal as well to manage to interrupt them while they were having a conversation when the team was trying to land hits. 

That got irritating

The fact that they were talking about complex jutsu formulae was even more frustrating, because they never even broke stride on whatever difficult topic it was.

They had worked out a system for when she was in the village during the morning where she would meet up with them at the bridge and they’d go to an open training ground. Ready to work for a while to make the most out of their day before Kakashi-sensei showed up to run them into the ground. 

When she couldn’t be there, they would do what they could on their own, which generally involved a lot of sparring and even more yelling, but they were making progress

Even if the young kunoichi had to take frequent breaks and eat a lot in the mornings to keep up with even half the things the boys could do.

Altogether, Sakura could say with some certainty that Nagisa Asuka was good for them.

And she… she had always wanted an older sister.

Her new teacher was very close.

Very.