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Icarus (protect the flames)

Chapter Text


 

Shallow waves gurgled against the pier. The bubbling sound of the water mixed with Naruto’s snores in the next room. The creaky wooden building did nothing to damp the sounds of its inhabitants.

Sakura stared across the room onto the still form of her teacher, silvery moonlight casting his equally light hair in a ghostly hue and throwing a sharp relief against the darkened corners of their small abode.

The house was quiet; even Tsunami-san had gone to bed a while prior. Her steps had been light and fast in contrast to the old bridgebuilder’s shuffling gait. Sakura assumed from the clanking of earthenware that he had been drinking again until his daughter corralled him into bed. 

Kakashi-sensei didn’t twitch. Only his slow and steady breathing assured her that he had indeed survived. Or maybe he was just an apparition and the moonbeams that seemed to love him so much would spirit him away on their rays in a stream of sparkling dust when they left come morning.

Annoyed, Sakura shook her head and rubbed her burning eyes. How stupidly whimsical of her. She was really tired, though. Sleep sounded like the perfect solution to a pretty bad day, if only she hadn’t already tried and failed at it.

It was hard though, to be forced to reevaluate the last five years of her life and to suspect that maybe, maybe she had made a mistake – had miscalculated – had sabotaged herself for too long. 

She had known what to do, when the Demon Brothers attacked. Mission protocol was clear, their formation was easy, she had detected Kakashi-sensei’s substitution, had understood what the intended effect was and had acted accordingly in protecting their mission objective, Tazuna.

But… would she have been able to even do anything if action had been required of her?

Yes, she had always made sure that her reflexes were up to scratch, her accuracy was topnotch and even her academy kata were way above average. She had had to try hard to not train too much, to not try too much - it would have been so easy to be better and faster and stronger and she had yearned to compete with her classmates and to surpass them. 

Only, she had wanted her parents to not worry over her even more. 

So, when that teacher had come and talked about graduation - not even two years after she had started at the academy – and her parents’ proud cheerfulness had turned into badly hidden frowns and strained smiles, she adapted.

She just had to treat it like a mission, she had told herself. Go undercover, pretend to be a little girl - fawn, giggle, gossip and watch how to blend in. Mostly, it came easily. She had missed the adrenaline of competition most, though.

Sakura shifted from her seiza, circulating her chakra a bit faster to chase out the tingling of numb limbs. And then Zabuza had happened. She'd been useless - no,worse than useless. For all her vaunted intellect, the one thing she had not shackled down with her silly-girl facade, she hadn't made the connection between Naruto's white rabbit and a substitution; for all the rules and regulations she had memorized she hadn't been able to commit to a course of action; for all the ease with which she calculated trajectories, learned taijutsu kata and manipulated chakra she hadn't been able to help her team at all.

She wasn't able to fight her way out of even a paperbag. Sakura was a liability in the field. 

The realization hurt.

Kakashi-sensei’s breathing was perfectly calm. If her gaze wasn’t fixed on him she’d never have noticed that a dark eye suddenly observed her.

“We’re at Tazuna’s house”, she whispered, “it’s approximately 0200 hours, you’ve been unconscious for nearly 10 hours, chakra exhaustion most likely. The boys are sleeping in the next room.”

She dithered for half a second if there was anything else he would want to know immediately.

“We don’t have any injuries”, she ended with, lamely.

 “Thanks, Sakura.” Kakashi-sensei’s voice was a low rasp and his exposed eye flickered across the expanse of the sparse room. She had taken care to have him situated with his obvious blind spot to the wall.

“I have water”, she offered quietly but didn’t make a move to approach him yet. While her parents never made it beyond Genin, uncle Koji had, and it had been made clear to her to never crowd unconscious or disorientated ninja that had a few years of field experience. Jounin definitely fell into that category. 

He nodded once and tracked her approach lazily. 

She didn’t offer her help when he painstakingly levered himself up. It didn’t seem like he’d appreciate the physical contact; it was clear that he was still dizzy, though.

He slowly sipped the offered water, his back resting against the wall.

“You are not rooming with the boys”, he said, more statement than question.

“Inappropriate”, Sakura knew she had sounded particularly flat so she went on, “A unconscious comrade shouldn’t be left unsupervised, if possible.” She shrugged self-deprecatingly. “And my sensing isn’t all that great, so…”

“Much appreciated.”

Sakura tried not to react to the barely-there sarcasm in the Jonin’s voice. It wasn’t like she would have been any help in case of an emergency; she knew that.  

“It’s protocol.” 

A grey eye flickered over her form again, likely noticing everything from the polite distance she kept, to her hair in a high bun, to the way her face probably twitched when she had restrained the silly cute-girl-smile-and-head-cant she had made part of herself. 

“Aa, it is.” 

He set down the empty glass. “Get me a ration bar. Please.”

Mutely, she handed him one out of her own pack, not wanting to riffle through his without explicit permission. 

And still, he kept observing her. He wasn’t even covert about it. 

For the second time, she had to repress the learned response to smile and project mellow defenselessness, as was her rote response whenever one of the academy teachers looked too closely. Sakura wondered what Kakashi-sensei saw.

She couldn’t get a read on his thoughts at all. His body language betrayed nothing.

Eventually, the ration bar was gone and with a small sigh, Kakashi-sensei slid down the wall and back onto his bedroll. 

“I’ll likely be asleep until mid-morning, at least”, he warned her, “but you can wake me if something important comes up.”

He turned a bit to give her an eyesmile that had her let go of some of the tension that sat tight in her shoulders.

“You did well, Sakura. Go to sleep.”  

A yawn crept up on her even as he said it.

 

***

 

So that Hunter-nin had been a fake and Zabuza was probably still alive and convalescing at some hideout. 

Retrospectively, Sakura had to admit that the discrepancies were glaring. She had noticed that the disappearing act the Oinin had pulled was against typical Konoha standards for Hunters but then again… Kiri wasn’t Konoha, and she wasn’t exactly an authority on Hunter-nin anywhere. 

She swung her legs a little, up in her tree, seeing the faces of her teammates looking at her in a mixture of dismay and determination.

“Well”, her sensei goaded,” it looks like Sakura-kun here is closer to either of your goals than both of you combined.”   

Sakura twitched at the obvious provocation. That wouldn’t exactly promote teamwork. On the other hand, Naruto and Sasuke both were really single-minded and unobservant. It should get them to work, at least.

And maybe make Sasuke realize that there were areas where he was not the top dog, at least where chakra control was concerned. It had been a blow to realize that she felt real, cutting hurt, when Sasuke had brushed her off this morning. She had even actively tried to not hide behind Sakura-the-fangirl.

She didn’t think he had noticed that, however.  

And now here she was, with a tiny but hard ball of anger and shame sitting in her stomach at the realization that her farce had become partly real.  

Sakura looked down the tree, considering. It had been easy, nearly instinctual, to find the correct amount of chakra to stick to it. On the other hand, she already felt exhaustion setting in, not only in her core muscles from the unusual strain of holding her body horizontal but also the more pervasive one that signified emptying chakra stores. 

She didn’t bother to catch the downward turn of her lips at that. Her chakra stores must be tiny if that one tree was already exhausting them!

A glance at Kakashi-sensei proved that he wasn’t particularly invested in watching her, now that she had completed the assigned task. Then again, he didn’t even watch Naruto and Sasuke who were stubbornly running at their own trees and clearly not getting the concept of chakra regulation.

If they kept up their brute force approach they’d be out of trees before the day was over.

They definitely didn’t have her problem. And what did one even do to increase their chakra stores? Did they build like muscles? If yes, then should she just go up and down the tree until she was chakra exhausted again and again?

Sakura really wished the Academy had focused a bit more on chakra theory. In any case, walking her tree up and down should at least get her used to the sensation and build up her core muscles.

Casting a last look at her disinterested teacher – she could ask him about building up chakra stores but then she’d run the risk of him having her do something else entirely – she set to the task of walking down the tree. 

And up.

And down.

And up…

When lunchtime arrived, cold sweat was beading on Sakura’s neck and she was sure her face was a particularly ugly mixture of blotched red and white. She settled down on the base of her tree and got out one of her protein bars with shaking fingers. Flushing chakra through her muscles to faster break down lactic acid and keep them loose, she frowned at herself. She couldn’t keep this up for the rest of the day. She was pretty sure that at a point not too far off she would simply fall off her tree and probably break her neck in the process or something equally embarrassing. 

Kakashi-sensei was still leaned against his tree. How the man could sleep with the racket her two teammates made, Sakura had no idea. She was just glad that the two of them had moved several trees away after a tussle about something or other. She’d have hated to be sprayed by exploding bark for the whole morning. 

She fingered a pebble for a second and then threw it at Kakashi-sensei’s feet lazily. 
“Ne, sensei, I think I’m finished for now.” 

“Hmmm”, he stood slowly, leaning heavily on his crutch. Still dizzy then, Sakura observed. “I’ll go back with you. Could do with a nap.”

Sakura just rolled her eyes at him. “Sure sensei…” She rather thought that he should probably eat something before going back to sleep. Had he even eaten more than that one measly serving of rice and soup for breakfast that Tsunami-san had set before him?  

When they reached the dock in front of Tazuna’s house, she fished another protein bar out of her small daypack. He caught her throw with something like amusement on the visible part of his face and ripped off the wrapping. 

“You should try your hand at chakra meditation. Very relaxing, I hear. Good for increasing chakra reproduction rates as well”, he remarked off-handedly, as he ambled inside, throwing a half-hearted salute at Tsunami as he passed her. 

Chakra meditation, huh. Sakura hadn’t thought about that since she had managed to unlock her conscious chakra access when she was seven. Interesting.

*

When she returned to her and Kakashi-sensei’s room later in the afternoon, chakra coils tingling and muscles aching, there were several high energy protein bars laying on her bedroll.

 

***

 

“Where’s the idiot?”, was Sasuke’s first non-grunting communication attempt of the day when he came down the stairs after a desperately needed shower.

Sakura, who had just come in herself from another afternoon at the bridge with Tazuna, alternately meditating and hopping across construction beams bringing tools from and to the workers, shrugged in response.

“Didn’t he come in with you?”

The black-haired boy shook his head and carefully took a place at the small table next to Sakura, side-eyeing her as if she would use the opportunity to suddenly glomp him to death. He shot a glare at their teacher who was sprawled across the seats on the other side of the table.

Sakura bit back a small grin. He looked a bit like a skittish cat with his wet hair and scowl.

And damn her infatuation. A scowl was not supposed to be cute.

“Hn”, was the extent of his answer but his instant grab for the rice and gyudon topping was nonverbal communication at its finest. ‘Tough for him, more food for me’, he clearly said.

The meal was silent, only Tsunami puttering around in the kitchen and the clinking tableware distracted from the sounds of busy eating.

When the sun had well and truly set Sakura looked up from the history book she was reading and watched Sasuke sharpen his kunai with a rhythmic tchink-sound. 

“Where were you training?”, she asked.

“Hn?” He stopped, confused.

Sakura rolled her eyes and set down the book. 

“You and Naruto. Where were you training?”

“Further down the bay”, he said, disinterested gaze going back to his kunai, “About a five-minute-run inwards, closer to the road leading back out from the village.”

So, Naruto was still within the area Kakashi-sensei had circumfenced with a seal line on their second day here. He’d know if anyone crossed over it. At least, there was that. 

Sasuke went to bed soon after and only the soft turning of Kakashi-sensei’s book kept her company. If Sasuke was this tired, then Naruto probably was as well. Where was that stupid boy? Did he fall asleep on his way back?

She really shouldn’t be concerned but… Her eyes fell on the leftover dinner. He’d surely be hungry by now. Carefully, she set aside a generous portion for him. Eating did help with recovering chakra, after all.

 

***

 

Yes, Naruto did spend the night in the forest. Sakura felt exhausted just thinking about it. No dinner, crawling ants, dewy wet grass, obligatory mist… She shuddered. 

“Sasuke-kun, wait a moment, please”, she said as she noticed the boy was trying to slink out the door unobtrusively. 

“Hn.” His reply wasn’t exactly enthusiastic and she could have done without the suspicious look he threw over his shoulder (or the heat in her cheeks at the handsome picture he made, backlit against the bright morning sun, hair swept rakishly across his face) but he did stop his exit. 

“I – uummm…” 

How she hated that stupid crush. Hopefully he didn’t see the blush that was burning it’s way up her collar. 

“What is it?” He looked wary. And dismissive. Oh, how rude! At least the burgeoning anger – at herself and at his missing manners – made it easier to rally herself again.

“I saved leftovers from dinner”, she said, trying for cool and collected but probably sounding breathless instead.

“I don’t-“ he began derisively, likely tired of girls pushing unwanted bento boxes on him.

“For Naruto”, she interrupted. Well, now she did sound cool. And just a bit angry, probably.

Sakura felt a tiny smidge of satisfaction prickling in her chest when Sasuke looked surprised for the shortest of moments. 

“He hasn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch. That can’t be healthy, with the way the two of you are training.” She handed the boy a huge packet filled with rice, toppings, protein snacks and grilled vegetables. Perplexed, Sasuke took the offering.

“Okay”, he said slowly, frowning.

“Have fun.” Sakura waved as he turned around, shoulders just slightly stiff and went his way.  

And if there happened to be extra tomatoes and a second set of chopsticks in the packet, well, she certainly wouldn’t point it out. She grinned and set out for a half-hour run across the bay’s tame waters. Kakashi-sensei had mentioned that water walking was more chakra-intensive than tree walking just yesterday morning, after all.  

It had sounded like a challenge.

 

***

 

The boys stumbled back up the pier just as Sakura finished wringing salty water out of her hair. They were leaning against each other, though Sasuke seemed terribly intent on making it look like he was the one supporting Naruto instead of it being a mutual thing.

The waning afternoon sun was pale and cool against the rising mist and Sakura sneezed with chattering teeth. She probably should have stopped training sooner. 

“Finished already?”, she asked thickly through a tingling nose when they finally made it up to where she was shivering in her drenched, sticky clothes. Saltwater was really the worst. Her eyes burned.

“You better believe it!”, Naruto said brightly. His grin was tired but infectious, nonetheless. It instantly lifted her mood, soured as it was by her continued shortcomings in the chakra capacity department. “And thanks for lunch, Sakura-chan! It really helped!”

“Hn”, was Sasuke’s commentary.

“Don’t be a bastard, bastard! Say thank you!” Naruto shoved lightly at Sasuke’s shoulder and the boy barely kept from falling flat on his face. “You stole half the rice! And all the tomatoes! And-“

“If you say I stole the vegetables, I’ll trip you into the water. You didn’t want to eat them in the first place!“ 

Despite the glare on his face the tips of his ears burned red. 

“I so wanted to eat them, bastard!”, Naruto predictably cried.

“Tch.”

A tussled erupted and shoving, tripping and limping the boys tumbled inside Tazuna’s rickety house, leaving Sakura by herself.

“You’re welcome”, she muttered drily towards their backs. Another shiver wracked her, and she hurriedly followed the boys inside.

By the time Kakashi-sensei came back with Tazuna, Naruto and Sasuke both had already turned in – though not before falling asleep over their early dinner twice and glaring at each other in between yawing – and Sakura was feeling decidedly ill.

Her nose was stuffed, her head pounded and there was a cough sitting deep in her chest. Grudgingly, she clutched a cup of hot tea between her cold fingers, curtesy of a fussing Tsunami. Despite showering, her eyes still itched from the saltwater they had been subjected to for most of the day. She sniffled, feeling miserably.

“There you go.” Tsunami set steaming pots of spicy stew in front of her father and Kakashi-sensei. Local staple dish, she had said and good against a cold. Something about spicy fermented cabbage? Sakura wasn’t sold on the healing powers of cabbage, but the soup tasted nice, at least.

“Itadakimasu”, both of them mumbled. Sakura was sure she didn’t blink but suddenly Kakashi-sensei’s pot was half empty. That… was fast. And couldn’t have been fun for him. The soup was really spicy. And really hot.

He did look a bit tense and pushed the rest of the soup away. 

Sakura took a sip of her tea. “Do you want something to drink, sensei?” She wasn’t sure if she had managed to keep the skepticism out of her voice but helpfully slid over a cup and the pitcher of water from her side of the table.

He stared at her for a long moment before he took the offered utensils. Sakura thought she heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like “not cute”. 

He did drain two glasses of water in fast succession, though.

“You should go to bed, Sakura”, he finally said, when Tsunami came bustling back in, scolding her father for wanting to drink again but still providing the asked for hot sake.

“There’s a medic pack in in the storage scroll in my backpack. Take a couple of pills from the sachet with general medication. You know which ones?”

“Yes, I’ll recognize them.” She also probably wouldn’t forget to pack them from now on.

He slid half a cup full of warm sake in her direction. “Bottoms up”, there was a smile in his uncovered eye. Sakura eyed him skeptically. Yes, she was theoretically allowed to drink alcohol but… 

“Alcohol doesn’t actually cure colds, Kakashi-sensei”, she said. He didn’t really believe in this civilian myth, did he?

“I’m aware”, came the unimpressed answer, “but it does enlarge capillaries, heightens body temperature and makes sleepy. All effects we want right now. In small doses, at least”, he amended. 

Giving in – because he did have a point with that – she tipped the cup back, shuddering slightly. It tasted just as bad as it had when Ino stole a bottle from her father for the last sleepover they’d had before their rivalry. She still didn’t know how her once-best-friend had done that without her parents noticing, however.

Tazuna watched on in what looked like mute horror. “But… but… she’s a kid! And you’re her teacher!”

Deciding to let her sensei handle that particular conversation – and yes, Tazuna was probably right, but Sakura was a shinobi and Kakashi-sensei had obviously learned his slipshod healing methods in an artillery ditch in backwater earth country or something, because, really? – she slipped up the stairs and into their room.

A brief ruffle through sensei’s pack provided the wanted medication and not five minutes later, Sakura’s head hit the pillow. 

Hopefully, she’d feel better come morning. 

 

***


 

Chapter Text

 


***


When her team finally noisily left the house with Tazuna in tow, Sakura crawled out of her bedroll. Kakashi-sensei had told her to sleep for a while longer but Naruto and Sasuke’s loud competition over breakfast had woken her up for good and her empty stomach urged her to leave the warmth of her bed. 

Quickly, she slipped into her outfit and put her weapons strap on and swallowed another couple of the all-purpose medication pills. The urge to cough wasn’t completely gone, but at least her headache had subsided during the night.   

Trailing down the stairs into the surprisingly sun flooded kitchen, she called a short good morning to Tsunami who was on her way to wake Inari. 

She helped herself to a generous portion of rice with pickles and miso soup.

Bypassing the sad remains of her team’s breakfast battlefield on the table, she left the house and took a seat at the pier, feet swinging, savoring the taste of homemade breakfast. 

With the sun warming her shoulders and the light’s reflection off the waves dancing in her eyes, it took her a while to notice that something felt off.

It was the sudden flock of fleeing sandpipers that tipped her off. Stilling the bowl of miso in front of her mouth she tipped her head just so and tried to get rid of the sunspots dancing across her eyelids.

Careless, to impair her vision like this, she scolded herself while she inconspicuously tried to watch the part where muddy brackish water met low shrubbery and finally the edges of the forest they had trained in all week.

There was a reflection where there should be none.

Slowly, Sakura stood and stretched, changing observation angles. Who was there? Fishermen? Then why were they loitering in the undergrowth? Ninja? Not likely. Sakura saw another glint reflecting brightly off polished metal. Ninja weapons were generally as non-reflecting as metal could get. 

She went back to the house, keeping her stride as casual as possible and the forest edge within her vision.

What should she do? Kakashi-sensei and her teammates had surely just about reached the bridge by now. 

Just as she turned to open the door, a welcome voice shouted from around the house’s corner.

“Hey hey, Sakura-chan, Sakura-chan!” Panting, Naruto slid low around the corner and doubled over behind one of the old barrels underneath the kitchen window, trying to catch his breath. It put him neatly out of the range of any thrown weapon or attack, Sakura noted incredulously. Did he already know-

“Sensei… sensei said there was a… a breach?” He gasped, red-faced. “Of a… perimeter? Or something. And you should… you should protect Tsunami and Inari and… head off the rest…?” It sounded more like a question than the relay of an order from her captain.

The rest? What rest? Who was he talking about?

Something splashed against the metal fitting of the door next to her head and Sakura instinctively hit the deck. An arrow skittered away on the wooden planks. Hurriedly, she robbed into the relative safety of the second barrel.

“Huh?” Naruto looked around himself wildly. “What-?”

“Get back down!” Sakura hissed at him, frantically grabbing at his sleeve when he made a move to stand up from his crouched position. “There are enemies-“

“What enemies!?” Naruto, true to form, squinted determinedly into the absolutely wrong direction. 

“You idiot! Get down!”

Another arrow splashed against the deck. Naruto shook her hand off his sleeve and stood.

“Don’t worry, Sakura-chan. I’m not – “

A glint of metal.

“Naruto!”

The arrow hit true. 

There was no air in Sakura’s lungs as she stared into Naruto’s blue, blue eyes, arrow sticking out of the side of his head and –

Poof.

“What?” Sakura croaked weakly, unsteady arms pushing against the wooden planks beneath her.

“It was…” Only a clone? Only a clone. Kakashi-sensei had Naruto send only a clone. That was -  

More arrows came her way, several hitting the walls and barrels and staying stuck. There was no time to feel… relieved? Horrified? Angry about being worth only a clone?

When the door suddenly opened a gap, Sakura shook herself out of her stupor.

“Stay inside,” she screamed at the pair of terrified eyes that peeked through the opening. “I’ll protect you! Barricade the door and stay away from the windows!”

Tsunami looked conflicted for a second, then another arrow impacted on the door and with an apologetic last glance the door was shut again.

Sakura, behind her old, half-decayed barrel doubling as kitchen garden, felt reality settle in. Now what? If she waited long enough, the archer would probably give up and come closer. If she waited too long… Clone-Naruto had mentioned an unspecified rest… were there more? 

She’d have to be fast then. 

A few diversions for getting close, maybe a standard explosion first, within the mud to make it seem messier, one under water, the third a flashbang… yes, that could work. She had run situation simulations at the academy that went a bit like this. 

Wrestling her sudden panic behind logical calculations, she wrapped her tags around kunai. She couldn’t afford to sacrifice more than three of the weapons, though, she only had two packets of them. Barely enough, if there were really more enemies coming.   

It should be exactly like target practice. And after that, the obstacle course. She took a deep breath.

Throw. An ear-shattering bang rattled her; mud splashed, fast as shrapnel. 

Run.

Cover. Her heart pounded against her ribs. 

Fudge the fuse by a few seconds, throw.

Run.

Cover. She dived down deep against the saltwater soaked earth, cocking her arm back for the next throw.

The watery mist from the second explosion had barely blown away, when the flashbang she had thrown, went off. She burrowed her head into the crook of her left arm, letting the worst die down before she exploded out of her flimsy cover of leafy shrubbery.

There was movement at the forest edge, slightly to her left. A shuriken left her hand without conscious thought, a second and third close behind. 

A pained scream made her adjust the trajectory of her dead sprint, the kunai in her hand ending what her shuriken had begun. Hot blood slipped along the blade; a bow clattered to the ground; a body followed. The other man – why was there another man? – brought a short sword to bear, hammering the slippery defensive kunai out of her hand and swiping towards her stomach – 

She sprung back, slipping another knife into her hands during the backflip, charging low.

The kidney would make a good target; her blow partly glanced off his wrist, snagging on baggy clothes and barely hitting true. 

The burly man let go of his sword, right wrist hanging useless and shredded.

He fell to his knees slowly and heavily, pressing his good hand against the small stab wound at his side.

His face was rapidly losing color. “You…,” he started. His small eyes rolled in his head before finding focus again. 

“….Pink…. you…pink?” His eyes slipped shut with a groan that could be either pain or a laugh. He slumped over.

Silence descended. In Sakura’s ears her heart still ran a staccato beat, but her breath was the loudest noise outside her body.

A cough forced itself past her lips. Her chest hurt. 

Slowly, she sank into a crouch and counted her breaths, like they learned at the academy. Slowly, her heartbeat calmed. Slowly, the blood rushing in her ears quieted down.

She felt a shudder run down her back, that nearly interrupted her breathing exercise. Cooling sweat clung to her back and neck and face and made her hair stick uncomfortably. 

When she felt like she could control her limbs again she carefully stretched, checking herself over for injuries. Apart from a few scratches and sore ligaments from too fast movements she was unwounded. 

In the sudden stillness of the wood, Naruto’s blue eyes flashed across her vision for a second. They sent only a clone. That meant… Did that mean, they couldn’t afford to send the real one? 

It would make sense for Gato to coordinate a kidnapping attempt with Zabuza’s attempt on Tazuna’s life.

Should she… should she join them on the bridge? Did they need her? What if Zabuza’s fake hunter nin was too strong?

But hadn’t clone-Naruto said something about ‘the rest’? The rest of what? Of the men sent for Tsunami and Inari? 

Rustling in the bushes interrupted her vacillating thoughts. 

She gripped the bloody kunai more tightly and trained her eyes on the undergrowth that kept moving with breaking twigs. 

It moved in her direction.

“Sakura?”, a scratchy voice that she didn’t recognize said from under some big-leaved bushes. 

Warily, she took a step back.

“You Sakura-kun?”, the voice said again. This time, the pointy face of a dog with a reddish - white coat peeked out from under the leaves.

“Erm…”

“Look like her. K’kashi said you’d ‘ave pink hair,” the… greyhound – wasn’t he a bit small for that, though – continued, eyeing her up and down critically.

“You good, girl?”

“Erm…” Sakura felt her brain turning in circles, trying to compute the speaking dog that had just turned up. Because Kakashi-sensei had sent him? How was that even – 

“Oh, for the Sage’s sake,” the dog muttered and rolled his large eyes, “Ne’er seen a summon, girl?”

“You’re… Kakashi-sensei’s summon?”

He levelled an unimpressed look at her. “Tha’s what I just said. Uhei’s the name. So, on to business; you fine, girl?”

He asked the question in the exact same tone of voice as the first time as if he simply changed the records and went back to playing what was on, before. She got the vague impression that Uhei wasn’t really good at… people; dogs; whatever.  

Back to business, huh?

“I’m fine,” Sakura answered the serious dog, “no notable injuries.”

The greyhound looked skeptical for a second, but recovered with an awkward movement that might have been his interpretation of a shrug.

“What about tha’ big human wi’ the sword?”

Quizzically, Sakura glanced over at the figure of the man.

“He’s… erm… dead?”, she ventured.

“You askin’ or tellin’?”

“…Telling.” Sakura frowned at Uhei and straightened her shoulders. “He’s dead.”

“Is not.” Was the succinct reply from the greyhound. “I c’n hear his heart. An’ his breath. Unconscious, though. Loosin’ blood.”

Oh.

Sakura felt stricken. He was still alive? What if he woke up? What if he- 

“How many people crossed sensei’s perimeter,” Sakura asked, eyes fastened on the large man that had tried to kill her. Her mind was whirling. Should she just kill him? Now? An unconscious man? Could she, even?

“Las’ coun’ when I left, twelve.”

That was… a lot, she thought faintly, heart suddenly hammering. 

“Did-,” her voice wavered pathetically, and she had to clear her throat before she tried again, “did Kakashi-sensei… Is someone else coming?” 

Sasuke-kun? Naruto-idiot? Anyone other than just a dog? 

“No. He sent me.” Uhei’s voice sounded tight but whether with suppressed anger or concern, Sakura didn’t know. “They are pr’bly fighting on the bridge. We’ll be enough.”

A girl and a dog. The jumbled mess of thoughts in her hindbrain stilled slowly. Alone against twelve mercenaries. 

Well, ten, now.

And only mercenaries. That was... good? No... but likely manageable. There were calm calculations drifting at the back of her mind.   

Slowly, she tightened the lax grip on her kunai again and went to kneel next to the downed man’s head. If this was a scenario in an academy test…

Swiftly, Sakura ran the knife across the man’s neck. 

Halfway through, her blade scratched on something hard – his spine; too much force, Sakura acknowledged, surprised by her own clinical mind, surprised by the fact that the tissue was so soft to begin with but – there was no tension because he was unconscious and – 

Silently, she wiped down the weapon on the man’s stained tunic. 

“How long ago did he notice the perimeter breach,” she asked the now quiet dog. Her voice felt eerie in her own ears.

“Bi’ more than thir’y minutes ago. I was sen’ out twen’y minutes later when the loud one’s clone popped ‘n boss noticed ‘nother couple people crossin’ his seal line.”

Considering the edge of sensei’s perimeter and the time lapsed that didn’t leave her with a lot of time. Ten minutes, quarter of an hour tops until the other men would arrive. 

“I c’n lead you to them,” Uhei offered, “Tha’s what I’m good at. Hunting ‘n’ catching ‘n’ rending.” 

He pulled up his lips in a mimicry of a human smile. Kakashi-sensei had sent her not a warhound but a hunter’s best weapon. Closing her eyes, Sakura took a slow, deep breath and clung to the unexpected stillness that teased the edges of her uncoordinated fight-or-flight reponse.     

She shuddered. The cold forest air sat tight against her sweaty skin.

“Okay then,” she whispered, “we hunt.”

***

 

A quick count of her remaining equipment left her with little options. Not enough shuriken to realistically take everyone down with them; not enough kunai either. Negligible amount of wire; a handful of exploding tags and no further flash tag. 

“Then how’s your Taijutsu,” Uhei asked while they swiftly tracked the way the two mercenaries had come from.

“Weak.”

Precise but weak. A ball of lead sat in Sakura’s stomach when she admitted to it. What use was precision if her hits didn’t matter.

“Ninjutsu?”

Sakura didn’t even answer that one. She hadn’t ever bothered to go beyond the academy curriculum. Prodigious ninjutsu knowledge was the one thing that would see her graduated faster than she could say ‘Shuriken’ if coupled with the rest of her scores. 

She felt Uhei glance at her. If his face was human there’d probably be a deep frown on it.

“My throwing is okay,” she offered instead, “98 on moving targets…” 

In the end, they decided to go with a simple exploding trap as distraction. Sakura rigged most of her remaining exploding tags to go off on a pressure activation via wire; thinking for a second she extended the time delay to account for non-shinobi speed. 

“I’ll hound them from the rear,” Uhei whispered, “and corral ‘em between your trees. C’n you make two bunshin tha’ look like me?”

She could. They moved awkwardly and would dispel on contact but that shouldn’t matter as long as the real Uhei was intimidating enough.  

The sound of humans moving through the forest grew closer.

“Hide,” was the last thing the hound said before vanishing in the thick undergrowth, this time without moving a single twig.

Sakura stood alone between the trees. Human voices drew ever nearer.

Quickly, she scaled one of the sturdier trees, trying to blend in with the leaves. It was hard, hiding in a red dress with white stitching. With bright pink hair. How stupid she was, to let her farce go on so long and so far.

A long howl sounded.

Sakura palmed a handful of shuriken, waiting.

Shouting started up, angry first, then more fearful, louder, coming closer. 

Her trap laid in the one path that was mostly free of shrubbery and other obstacles. For the mercenaries it was the natural trail to take. 

The first two of the men reached the pressure trigger. And ran over it in long strides, not activating it.

Sakura froze. What should she do now? If she started the fight, the rest would not come through and she’d be in danger of getting caught in the blast if the trap was activated later on and -  

A group of four broke though the trees, hot on the heel of the first two.

One of them triggered the trap. Two steps, three steps… four.

Sakura squinted when the light of six discharging exploding tags reached her eyes. Sound followed close after. 

Ears ringing, her shuriken went flying through the tail end of the blast, one lodged fortunate into the throat of a new arrival, bringing him down instantly. The others cutting tendons and muscles. 

There was no thinking, afterwards.

She slipped down her tree.

Growling sounded, someone barreled past her, lopsided, missing an arm from shoulder down.

She swiped at his unprotected side, kunai cutting deep, slipping out of her grip.

Uhei flew past her, a bloody snarl on his lips. He spared her no glance, hot on the trail of the first two men that had missed the trap.

A knife bit into her hip unexpectedly.

Hot agony traveled up her left side as she turned from the blow. A new kunai parried a large knife on instinct.

The lanky man bore down on her, second knife coming in.

His hair was burned away, skin blistering red where it wasn’t blackish.

There was a flash of fear distantly racing through her chest, when her injured side gave ground. Then her other hand found its grip on a shuriken and she flicked it up towards cutting into his unprotected neck. 

Sakura followed it up with a kunai.

She swiped blood from her eyes; it wasn’t hers, was it? Was she bleeding? 

Someone ran. 

Away from her.

None of the men surrounding her were left standing.

Uhei’s growls were getting farther away, someone was screaming and then stopped.

Something acrid burned against her palate when Sakura inhaled, and she suddenly had to fight the urge to retch. She coughed instead, trying to burrow her nose and mouth in the crook of her arms. The lack of sleeves on her dress nearly made her cry.

Air burning in her nose, eyes watering, Sakura looked around.

Before she could do more than take in the broken bodies – there was an arm over there and was that even… - Uhei returned, fur matted with blood. 

And tissue. Sakura could definitely see bits of tissue clinging to his sides. And between his teeth.

“All done,” he said, voice still more growl than human tongue. 

“G..good.” Her voice caught on the stench of burnt flesh. 

“You’re no’, though. Those two o’er there an’ this one are still breathing.”

One of the indicated men was regaining consciousness. It wouldn’t do him any good. The explosion had ripped off most of one leg and badly burnt his side. 

“They’re… they don’t matter, do they,” Sakura said, weakly.

At this, Uhei turned his full attention on her. Sakura vaguely acknowledged that she, too, would run, if the greyhound started to growl at her now.

“Don’t leave prey alive,” the hound said. His voice was perfectly precise, no trace of the slurring speech impediment he had shown before. 

“Make sure your prey is dead before you leave to report.” 

Was Uhei quoting someone?

“When you catch your target, kill it swiftly.”

It sounded like a set of instructions he had learned by heart. Even the modulation of Uhei’s voice was slightly different.

Uhei was Kakashi-sensei’s summon. 

Oh.

Sakura dropped her arms from their useless place in front of her nose. 

Uhei was quoting from Kakashi-sensei’s training. Sensei had taught his summons to hunt for the kill. 

“I understand,” she whispered. They didn’t sound like the normal shinobi tenets; was sensei… what had been his job? Before Team Seven?

“Then ge’ on with it, girl.”

She shelved the thought next to the new knowledge that kunai could get stuck on the spine when slitting a throat and nodded once.  

It didn’t feel worse now than when she had done it the first time, with the archer’s partner.

Oddly enough, when she was finished it started snowing. 

***


 

Chapter Text

 


***

 

On Uhei’s command, Sakura and he had scoured the forest for any other of Gato’s mercenaries but had come up empty handed. 

There had been a few minutes of tense confusion when a group of four men, armed to their teeth had come running down the street leading away from Tazuna’s village but they had seemed intent enough on getting away, fast, that they decided to just observe. 

The fear on their faces had been a relieve to Sakura. 

If Gato’s men were fleeing in fear, then Team Seven had come out the winner.  

After that, they decided to turn back to Tazuna’s home.

When they arrived, the snow was gone, and the midday sun beat down from the clear sky and warmed the wooden pier in front of the house. If she disregarded the arrows, it looked as if nothing had happened. 

Her bowl of breakfast rice still sat half-eaten at the water’s edge. 

Half-heartedly, she called out to Tsunami-san. The woman thanked her for the all-clear but decided to remain behind closed doors with her son until her father turned up.

Sakura scooped up the lone rice bowl on the ground, eying it blankly. She probably shouldn’t let the food go to waste; Wave Country had little enough as it was. Her stomach felt queasy, though, probably with how empty it was by now.

Her hands looked dark against the pristine white of the grains. 

Carefully she set the bowl back down and took a few steps back. She rubbed at the reddish stains and soot on her skin. It smeared and part of it peeled off in sticky little crumbs.

Her throat worked involuntarily for a second before she forced it into a dry swallow instead of a retch.

Uhei’s head perked up suddenly, where he was sitting in the sun close to the front door. 

“Boss is coming,” he said, “along wi’ the pups and the drunk.”

Sakura barely had time to think about how she should probably not hide on the roof – and why would she suddenly want that, in any case – when Uhei’s tail began wagging and Sasuke and Naruto rounded the corner, followed by Kakashi-sensei and Tazuna.

Sasuke leaned heavily on the blond boy’s shoulder, pale but there was no blood to be seen on him. Naruto babbled a mile a minute and lit up like a miniature sun the second he spied Sakura.

“Hey Sakura-chan! We won! We totally kicked ass like you wouldn’t believe and-“ 

“You Idiot!” Sakura didn’t know when she had moved in front of him. She barely stopped herself from giving him a good wallop across the head – her hands would smear blood and soot all over his hair – and instead stomped heavily on his foot. 

“Yiaaaaauuuuhhhh!!! What was that for? Sakura-chan! What did I do?”

Naruto hopped on his good foot, dislodging Sasuke who swayed dangerously for a second. 

“What did - !?” Sakura felt incandescent with rage and her eyes burned and she would – not – cry. 

“You – the arrow –,“ was all she could force out between uncooperating lips, the scene of Naruto – the clone! – being hit fatally overlaying reality. 

“Oh… aaahhhh… Sakura-chaaaan!” Naruto, the idiot, waved his hands in front of her face apologetically. “I didn’t mean to! And it was only a clone! And did you know that my clones can …” He babbled on and on, something about his clones relaying information when they were destroyed and Sasuke's new fancy eyes but Sakura barely listened. 

Yes, just a clone. She shuddered. 

Naruto, dragging a lagging Sasuke behind him, threw open the door with a shout of “Inari! The heroes are back,” barely evading a still high-strung and frightened Tsunami’s swing with her frying pan. Sasuke ducked obligingly out of the way of the utensil, gave the woman a weird look and shrugged it of with his usual disinterest. 

Sakura watched the Naruto-and-Sasuke-show from outside, feeling suddenly removed by more than just the door.

There were still arrows stuck in its metal fitting.

Nobody had noticed them. Or the dried blood that dyed her outfit and skin a splotchy reddish-brown.  

Tazuna pushed past her small frame and joined the chaos inside. 

The door fell close behind him.

Sakura took a step back, then another, not knowing weather it was a grin or a snarl or something else entirely that tried to twist her lips over her teeth.

A hand suddenly clamped down on her shoulder.

She turned, ducking, but the injured muscle on her left hip burned and gave in and she grasped for her weapons but there were no shuriken left – 

“Calm down, Sakura.”

She finished her turn on her knees, the familiar voice draining the panic nearly instantly. 

“…Hi… Kakashi-sensei,” she said, feeling awkward, instead of lobbing shuriken.

Wincing, she tried to stand but sank down to her knees again. “You.. ahhh… surprised me…”

He took her elbow to help her up and offered what passed as a small smile on his covered face. 

“You’re injured.” It was a statement, not a question but still, Sakura nodded. 

“I got caught when…,” she trailed off, “Did Uhei tell you what happened already?”

“I got his report, yes.” He eyed her intently. “You did very well, Sakura. Better than I hoped.” He glanced at the greyhound lying in the sun. “Uhei said, he wouldn’t mind working with you again.”

“Oh…thanks, I guess?”

Her face felt hot. Very well? Better than he hoped? What a curious mixture of making her feel small and complementing her.

Kakashi-sensei hummed thoughtfully, still watching her closely. “I don’t think he ever had to work with a Genin before. So, take it as high praise.”

She didn’t quite know what to answer to that, so she just nodded and tried for a smile. The hound that had been trained to kill wouldn’t mind working with her again. That was…what was she supposed to do with this kind of compliment? 

Considering the light frown on sensei’s face, her smile was a mile off from looking genuine.     

“I’d like your report as well, Sakura. Your fight started a good while earlier than his." His gaze slid over the abused barrels and stuck arrows. "It looks like it was an interesting one.”

So, report, she did. And if sensei looked furious at the part about Naruto’s stunt with the clone, well, the idiot could do with a bit of a dressing down. 

 

*** 

There was, Sakura thought, nothing quite as off-putting as a serious and sad Uzumaki Naruto. She was so used to his ever-present smiles and loud boisterous voice that the sight of the lone boy standing quietly in front of two unmarked graves sent her terribly off-kilter. 

“She was really nice, ya know?” he mumbled when Sakura reached a spot behind his left shoulder. “He, I mean. He’s a he. Was a he.”

The words didn’t make a lot of sense to her but she nodded nevertheless. 

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. But he died for Zabuza, ya know? And I s’ppose that’s what Haku meant when he said, he wants to protect his precious people?”

It sounded like a question but Sakura wasn’t sure if an answer was required of her. Naruto had his hands stuck in his pockets and stared listlessly at the graves.

The wind blowing from the ocean whipped a few stray hairs out of her bun and made her shiver despite herself. There was a headache pounding behind her eyes to the beat of her heart. When Sakura was just about to give up and offer at least some kind of platitude to the brooding boy in order to get out of the wind, his expression cleared up.

“I think I like that,” he said, thoughtful but decidedly, “becoming strong to care for my precious people.” 

He turned around and Sakura offered him a smile. He grinned back, mood obviously lifted by whatever resolution he had just come to and started back down the small hill off the road. They had dug the graves for Zabuza and Haku outside the village borders, hidden from curious eyes.

Sasuke, who was inconspicuously pretending not to wait for them, joined them at the foot of the hill. There was a streak of mud running along his jawline and several clumps of dirt in his windswept hair from when he had gotten into an earth-shoveling contest with Naruto.

Sakura averted her eyes before she could blush.  
  
“So, so, so what happened on your end, Sakura-chan? Kaka-sensei was really angry ‘bout that clone thing but I kinda didn’t get it. What was the big deal?” 

Naruto had his face set in a squinty scowl at the memory of Kakashi-sensei’s lecture. Stubbornness practically radiated off him and Sakura debated for a second if it was worth it to delve into why, exactly, that had been such a shitty move but that would mean she’d have to talk about her fight and the phantom sensation of sticky blood between her fingers made her queasy, already.
  
“I… um. There were some of Gato’s men that wanted to kidnap Tsunami-san and Inari, I guess,” she explained, lackluster.

“Ooooh, sheesh, those assholes turned up at the bridge, too! At least fifty! Or a hundred!”

Something complicated flitted across his expression for a second before it settled on a too bright grin.

“But Kaka-sensei totally beat them up, no problem!”

“It… wasn’t as many with me,” Sakura offered, uncomfortable. She knew that the villagers had been out to dig graves since dawn. Had they also taken care of the bodies in the forest? More likely, that was where Kakashi-sensei had disappeared to, after breakfast. “I think sensei took care of them today.”  

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t a hundred, dumbass. And Kakashi and Zabuza didn’t ‘beat them up’. They killed them.”

“Yeah, well, it was a lot! No need to get prissy, teme!”

Predictably, Naruto fumed at the condescending correction of his rival until something else occurred to him. “And he didn’t have to kill them, really. I mean, why would…,” he trailed off, looking lost, “couldn’t he have just – I dunno, scared them away? Why would he…” 

Sasuke turned away, hands in pocket, and Sakura just knew that anything out of his mouth right then would probably end in an epic row. He could be insensitive like that. Swallowing against her dry throat she struggled for an answer Naruto could accept.
 
“I guess, sometimes you just don’t have a choice,” she offered, mind not quite with her teammates but rather struggling to stay away from the carnage Uhei and she had wrought. In her fight, there hadn’t been one, had there?

“If you’re not strong enough or-“

“But Kaka-sensei’s plenty strong!”

Sakura glared half-heartedly at the interruption. “Not everyone is. And didn’t he fight Zabuza before that? And anyway, who is there to make sure they stay away, when we go back home? There’s no prison here or police or anything, really.”

There was a mulish expression on Naruto’s face. 

“I still don’t like it.”

Sakura shrugged, done with this conversation. 

“Sometimes, it’s your duty and when there’s no choice, you just have to,” she repeated, voice clipped and so, so glad that she hadn’t said anything substantial about her own experience.

Make sure your prey is dead before you leave to report, she repeated to herself. Her mind overwrote Uhei’s words with sensei’s smooth, detached voice. 

It fit.

Naruto stayed silent at noticing her plummeting mood and walked ahead of them in large stomping steps.  

Sasuke’s gaze burned at the side of her head and when she turned to him the look on his face felt like a bucket of water down her back. 

“Tch.”

Cold tar settled in her stomach at the derisive noise. What would the fangirl know about killing and duty. She clenched her fists when he passed her. 

The silent disregard – no different than usual - suddenly stung.

 

***

It took Tazuna another 2 weeks to finally finish his bridge. 

By then, traffic by boat had already picked up again, business slowly, warily returned and there was a general air of relief over the small island and its sister islands when, instead of Gato’s remaining thugs returning, a few of the older but far removed noble families of Nami no Kuni preemptively set up a small base close to the bridge. 

There’d be a toll, paid to them for transporting wares across it and Tazuna couldn’t stop grumbling into his sake about it but it wasn’t a heavy one and Sakura thought the small army base would probably bring some much-needed stability to the islands. 

Also, she got the impression that Kakashi-sensei had somehow had a hand in that, what with several disappearing acts and several of his summons covertly coming and leaving with scrolls.  

And if there was an accord reached about how payment for the knowingly underrated mission was dealt with, then that was solely between stoic Kakashi-sensei, pale and trembling Tazuna and a stern but contrite Tsunami. 

Sakura really didn’t want to be involved. 

The two weeks of boring guard duty for Sasuke and Naruto at the bridge was exactly the time Sakura needed to get her cold treated, that had set back in the night after digging the graves. 

She stayed under Tsunami’s strict purview for the first few days of hacking coughs and shivering fever. Contrary to Kakashi-sensei, the young mother had a decidedly less slipshod approach to treating a cold and Sakura was stuffed choke full of cups of bitter sage tea, soups and other civilian-approved treatments. 

Also, she wasn’t allowed to leave the bed for the first four days which had led to a few awkward instances of Sakura hiding behind curtains and assorted inventory trying desperately not to cough and be caught.

It also led to an awkward conversation in one such hiding place, smooched in between an overflowing coat crack and the shoe cupboard. 

The little boy had nearly bowled over the coat rack when he found the small space already occupied and only quick maneuvering on Sakura’s part kept them from being discovered by his mother, sweeping the front porch. 

“What are you doing here?”, Inari asked, baffled.

She shot him a dark look. 

“Hiding.”

“Why?”

“I was taking a walk when your mother nearly caught me,” Sakura whispered, feeling sullen. What was wrong with taking a walk? If she didn’t stretch her injured hip, the muscles would probably heal all bunched up wrongly.

She didn’t have to acknowledge that laying in bed all day and napping made her heart race with remembered explosions and growls and screams. She hated waking up to the imagined scent of burning skin and hair.

“And you?”

In answer he stretched his short arms around Sakura’s back.

For a second she had the thought that he was trying to grope her backside but-

When he pulled his arm back there was an arrow in his grip. Sakura felt her hand jerk involuntarily at some sort of odd fight or flight instinct. Instead, she gripped her fingers tightly, turning to face the boy with suddenly tense shoulders.

“Why did you keep that?”

Belatedly, she realized that it was her own voice she was hearing. 

Inari frowned down at the weapon in his hands then at her, lip between his teeth. 

“I want to…,” he trailed off again. Then he squared his shoulders and looked straight at her with his head high.

“I want to remember that you were so brave! I … we were hiding, and I was so afraid… and you just…” His hands tightened on the arrow shaft.

Sakura was flummoxed. He wanted to keep the arrow to remember how brave she was. Things like that only happened to Naruto! Or in stupid Shonen manga! 

“You fought them, and you won, and they stopped coming after us, and your teacher told my mum that there were even more of them that you defeated and…” He took a deep gulp of air before he went on in a quieter whisper. “I was so scared, and you were so brave. I want to be brave like you. Even though you’re a girl and you have pink hair.”

And then he had to go and bungle it up.

Tsunami-san had not been amused when she had to separate Sakura, coughing deeply, hand fisted into the boy’s hair, and her kid trying to stick an arrow into said girl’s stomach. 
 
Finally, though, the bridge was completed, and the team was prying away Naruto from a crying Inari – and Sakura wanted to un-see the strand of pink-dyed hair that was hardly hidden within his dark mane – and they moved out.

The journey that had taken them more than a week on the way here, was over before the fourth day had run out of steam.

And thinking about steam…

Sakura eyed her blond teammate apprehensively. If he got any redder from anger, he’d probably screech like a tea kettle.

“Tempura,” Sasuke said in a deadpan voice.

“How… HOW can you even…it’s ramen!” 

Naruto sounded apoplectic with rage. Sakura had no idea what the argument was even about. 

“…nope. Still tempura.” 

Sakura chanced a glance at Sasuke. The corners of his mouth were lifted just the slightest bit. Well, who would have thought. He did actually enjoy riling Naruto up.

A raised eyebrow asked her to offer her own opinion on the matter. Caught flat-footed that Sasuke of all people demanded her input, she tried to get a read on the topic of conversation. 

“…erm… Zaru Soba,” Sakura finally answered decisively.

At Sasuke’s baffled look and Naruto’s despairing scream, Kakashi-sensei slammed his book shut.

“Aaaaand on that disconcertingly slippery note… let’s see who’s first at the gates.” He vanished in a puff of chakra smoke, Naruto hot on his invisible heels.

Sasuke shot her another vaguely horrified glance before he set of after them.

“What… did I say?”   

***


 

Chapter Text


 

Sakura’s lungs burned, her chest ached with every inhale, the nearly healed stitches on her left hip twinged and exhilaration swept through her. 

She was nearly there, training ground thirteen was within her sight, her second round circling the village was nearly-

Something green raced past her, upsetting enough leaves and dust that her eyes watered. She wheezed with the dirt filling her nostrils. What had that – 

Another green something flashed past her, this time clipping her elbow and forcing her into an ungainly twirl to avoid falling.

“So soooorryyyy, kunoichi-saaaan….!”

The screamed apology faded into the distance.

“What… was that?!”

 

***

 

Notwithstanding the weird encounter that morning, Sakura thought her day had been pretty successful so far. 

Kakashi-sensei had given them a few days leave after they had gotten back to the village. The normally standard mission report had been upgraded into a direct debrief with the Hokage. While the boys were given a pass on the report completely, Sakura had been asked by Kakashi-sensei to hand in a separate one, for the unforeseen side mission of preventing a kidnapping and eliminating mercenaries. 

She had turned it in first thing in the morning, treating herself to a breakfast of green tea and cinnamon buns afterwards before starting on her light jog around the village. Managing two rounds on her first try was a pretty uplifting experience. It certainly chased away the lingering lethargy from having woken up too early. 

Stretching out tired muscles, Sakura flopped on her back after finishing her last set of crunches. There was no reason to shy away from training any longer. Competing with Ino over who had the slimmer waist and the longer hair wasn’t relevant for anything anymore. Dainty hands didn’t mean ‘save from graduation’, they meant ‘useless in a fight’. 

And speaking of long hair… Sakura held up a loose strand of pink hair, damp from training all day, split ends already creeping in after three weeks of neglecting her previous care routine.

She should probably trim it; or, at least use her conditioner again.

It was just…

She had started to grow it out when she had made the decision to botch her physical shinobi training.

It signified a flaw she had consciously chosen to display. She had grown it long to say, ‘look at me, I care more for being beautiful than for being dangerous’. It had made her the same as all the other girls in her class.

She let the strands of pink slip limply out from between her fingers. She didn’t even particularly like having long hair.

Ino had loved it, though. 

Sweat tacky on her face, she levered herself up again. Another, clean rendition of her red and white quipao dress stuck wetly to her back and she shivered when it was exposed to a refreshing late spring breeze.

Chugging down the tepid rest of her water bottle, Sakura eyed the empty remains of her lunchtime bento. Her stomach gurgled pitiful. It had swiftly adapted to being fed regularly sized portions, after the protein restricting diets she had forced herself into so far. 

It looked like some shopping had to be done. Considering that her parents hadn’t been home the evening before nor come back during the night she would probably have to tough it out herself. 

And she should probably check the Genin mission roster for information on her parents’ assignments, at one point. 

A short while later, Sakura found herself ambling across the marketplace by Nidaime Koen, the only one of Konoha’s markets that was open until late in the evening. Little restaurants and colorful Yatai clustered around the park’s circumference and supplied eager patronage to the late-night market.

Sipping on a thick milkshake to tide her over until dinner, Sakura was just considering a large slab of pork belly at the butcher’s stand when a grating voice cut into her thoughts.

It wasn’t as if Yamanaka Ino naturally had a unpleasant voice. She hit the shrill tones mostly, when there was a competition about Sasuke going on or if she was being aggressive to deflect others.

“Look who the cat dragged back in,” she said, Shikamaru slumping in her shadow beneath the tight grip she had on his sleeve. Choji and their teacher, Sarutobi something or other, came up slowly behind them. Sakura gave the three of them a vague smile and bow in greeting.

“Hi Ino-pig,” she offered blandly.  

“Forehead-girl, back from the wild…” Ino’s eyes raked over her form, taking in her scuffed sandals, sweat-stained clothes and dusty skin, reddish from being exposed to the sun all day. “Did you get inspired by the local wildlife out there? You look like you rolled around with the boars all day.” She took an exaggerated sniff in Sakura’s direction. “You smell like it, too.”

Ino seemed like she was on a roll today. After years of playing the same game, Sakura easily found the tightened corners of Ino’s eyes, the way she was all but strutting and putting up a glossy front. Deflecting then, Sakura interpreted, and maybe hoping for information on her teammates, or rather, Sasuke.

Giving the pork belly a last glance, she tried to scratch together the edges of her academy persona. 

“I’ll take it from you,” Sakura finally said, probably a tad too slow to react, “You’d know all about rolling with any type of pigs, Ino-pig.”

Sakura was sure that her tone of voice was off; it was too… disinterested? Or too cutting? Too something, in any case, and not girly enough. Discomfited, Sakura tried to play it off by flipping her hair and turning back to the butcher’s selection. It should be easier than that to get back into her role; it hadn’t been that long, after all.

She had liked being able to let it go.

“At least I remember how to care for my hair, Forehead-disaster,” Ino sniffed, “and… oh my GOD! What is that!?”

Ino’s hand suddenly clamped around Sakura’s that was holding her milkshake, eying her fingers in clear disgust.

There was a moment of disconnect.

She did get all the blood off, didn’t she? Sakura frantically tried to remember how her fingers had looked this morning when she had scrubbed them again. There wasn’t anything! It had originally taken several soaks to get it out from under her nails but- 

Ino tugged harshly at her hand. 

Did she miss a spot?

She sharply turned her wrist, second hand coming up to twist Ino’s own towards her forearm and putting pressure on it. With a pained yelp, Ino let go of her hand.

The half-full milkshake cup clattered onto the street and spilled its foamy content over the cobble stones.

She glanced briefly at her nails – there was, of course, no blood; how stupid of her, it had been weeks! – and put her arms on her hips, slightly shaking fingers carefully curled inwards. She should probably invest into something with pockets, just in case. Stupid Ino. What had even gotten her so worked up today.

Ino was massaging her wrist and something a bit meaner than usual settled on her face. 

“Ohhhh, someone’s really defensive about her cuticles.” Her blue eyes were narrowed. “You should better worry about fitting into that garish dress, the way you’ve been eyeing the fatty meat over there.”

“Ouch, that’s mean, Ino,” Choji said concernedly, putting down his bag of chips in favour of frowning at the two girls.  

“Ino, let it go,” Shikamaru cut in, elbowing his teammate slightly. He was no longer slouching, and his gaze rested on her hands, suspicious.  

But Ino had overextended, Sakura decided, her eyes catching on the way her skirt kept riding higher on her hips with every movement and how its edges dug into the bandages underneath. It looked just this side of too tight. Deflecting, indeed. 

“Don’t take it out on me that you could barely fit into your skirt this morning,” she answered, without effort to sound anything other than dismissively bland, “try a size bigger or it might hinder you in training.”

Silence descended. 

Ino’s face went slack and a suspicious sheen entered her eyes, hands involuntarily pushing down the garment in question. Choji’s gaze flew from Ino to Sakura and Shikamaru took a small step forward. 

A telling reaction on his part, Sakura catalogued, very defensive.

Their sensei just shook his head, cigarette hanging unlit between his fingers, something like resignation on his face. 

“You’re one of Hatake’s Genin, aren’t you?”

 A healthy amount of dismay colored his voice. He didn’t seem to be a fan of either Kakashi-sensei or the fact that she was his Genin, or both.

Sakura nodded curtly, corner of her eyes still on Ino. That was real hurt she saw there. A hot feeling swepy uncomfortably through her belly and eradicated her hunger pains. 

“I didn’t realize he would impart his own people skills onto his students that fast,” he said. He put the cigarette to his lips and casually lightened it with a snip of his fingers. He took a deep drag. “It’s certainly not something to be proud of.”

He corralled his students in the direction of the restaurants on the other side of the marketplace, Ino conveniently ushered into their midst, leaving Sakura with nothing but a censuring look.

Watching their backs, feeling out of sorts with herself, regret and indignation battled behind her ribs.    

“Ey miss. ‘ave you finally decided on som’ting? Ye’re holdin’ up business ‘ere.” She gave the harried butcher a vague smile and perused his wares, mind empty. 

In the end, she decided to buy the tenderloin.

 

*** 

 

It was the middle of the night when Sakura heard the door to their modest house open. Their obligatory traps didn’t go off. She probably wouldn’t have noticed at all, if she hadn’t been up anyway, trying to calm down after… 

Sakura successfully shoved thoughts of her nightmare down with another gulp of the cool water cupped in her trembling hands. 

Relief made her limbs lighter when the telltale uneven gate of her mother reached her sensitive ears.

Not bothering to be silent, she took the steps down, four at once and skidded into the living room, sometimes doubling as all-purpose room, that connected to the genkan and front door. 

“Mum! You’re back!” 

Her mother turned, face lighting up in a tired smile. 

“Sakura, when did you get home?”

She opened her arms and Sakura wasted no second to embracie her. She was glad too; her mum was not the cuddly type and Sakura cherished every opportunity to snag one of her strong hugs. Since Haruno Mebuki had reactivated her Genin status those opportunities had dwindled along with the times the whole family was home together.

“I came home a week ago,” Sakura finally answered the question. 

“Ahhh, I already thought we’d probably miss you when we were sent out…” 

Her mum tightened her hold around Sakura’s slim frame for a second. “Are you okay? It feels like you’re growing some nice muscles there…”

“I’m fine, now.”

Sakura buried her head in the fabric of her mother's coarse, loose standard shinobi top. The mesh underneath was an unused hardness against her cheek. Then she sniffed and drew back. There was a smoky and metallic tang overlaying the usual crisp pine scent from her mum's favorite soap. 

Sakura took half a step back. Her mother’s arms slipped off her shoulders.

“Are you hurt, mum?”        

Her eyes raked over her form but with the moonlight through the window being the only illumination Sakura couldn’t make out much. She shivered. She’d much rather be back with her mum’s arms around her.

“I’m fine, honey.” 

The smile she sent Sakura looked exhausted and not entirely genuine. Slowly, her mother crossed the living room into the kitchen and set a pot of water to boiling.

Sakura followed her closely. There was still something missing… someone.

Sakura’s heart lurched.

“You said you… Were you and dad sent out together?” 

Didn’t her mum have a standing assignment at the aviary? What was she doing out with her dad, he didn’t get along with birds at all! And hadn’t she learned that family and lovers were never on the same squad?

“We were. Oh, don’t scowl like that, honey. Sometimes there is an overlap or an unlucky reshuffling that ends like this. In this case, your father was already slated for the mission.”

“Oh. His usual one?”

Sakura was aware that her father was routinely requested for a caravan protection detail between Konoha and Suna with several stops in between. If they were back already, the caravan must have left shortly after Team Seven had headed out for Nami no Kuni. 

Her mother smiled slightly.

“Yes, that one. This time they had lumber, tea and bakery supplements.” She snorted. “Their combinations are getting wilder every year.”

The routine assignments brought semi-steady income for a Genin, which was a luxury that mostly only desk duties allowed for. And Haruno Kizashi was probably the last person in Konoha anyone wanted around their paperwork. Sakura was sadly aware of her father’s chaos after quite a few misplaced homework assignments she had mistakenly asked him to hold on to.

“Halfway to River, two of his teammates caught a stomach bug and someone at mission assignment decided that I was the best option to replace one of them. It was a coincidence, is all.”

Sakura accepted the cup of hot mint tea her mother handed her and settled at the table. 

“Then where is he now.”

Sakura knew her father. He’d be home by now, setting another small bead of Suna Glass on her desk, like he did every time he went there. By now she had a collection of 27 of the shimmering little ornaments. When she managed to get forty of them, she’d have enough to make a short necklace. Her dad had promised her one of those the very first time she had seen one of the merchants’ daughters wear one. That had been a bit more that five year ago, now.

They were expensive, though. Nothing for a single Genin salary that had to feed a family.

With all three of them as active shinobi they'd earn a sizable amount more, now. Even disregarding Sakura's split mission rewards and the loss of Mebuki's part-time work at the baker they'd more than double their income. Shinobi work - even just C-ranks - gave a considerably better bonus in addition to the basic Genin payroll than most common civilian jobs could offer as salary.  

Her mother set the cup down gently.

“We were caught in a raid two days from Sunagakure.” 

Sakura barely managed to keep a hold of her own cup.

“What –“

“It wasn’t too dangerous. We managed to drive them off quickly, but they got a few good hits in before they took off with the flour and soda. And you know your father. His defensive earth techniques aren’t the most stable.” She rolled her eyes fondly. 

Sakura could clearly remember at least four instances when one or another of his jutsu collapsed and he came back from the training fields, tracking mud, earth and on one memorable occasion, clay across their floors. Suna’s sand wouldn’t have made it any easier on him.

“So he’s fine?”

“It’s nothing life-threatening, honey. His earth dome collapsed and earned him a cut across his back that nicked his shoulder blade. He had the standard patch-up done in Suna but… you know…never trust an Iwa builder, a Kumo merchant…”

“… a Kiri diplomat or a Suna healer,” Sakura finished together with her mother, rolling her eyes fondly at the old saying.  

“So he’s getting it treated at the hospital now. And they’re trying to extract the poison.”

“The cut was poisoned?!”

Her mother blinked tiredly.

“Ah… not that cut. He also caught a kunai with his forearm. We weren’t sure. The medics said it was some neurotoxin.”

“Oh…” Sakura slumped in her chair, tired after the unintended scare. “So, he’s… going to be okay?” 

A fond smile sat on her mum’s lips. “Yes, honey. He’ll be fine. We can visit him in the morning, okay?”

“Okay.” 

“So, let’s get to bed, then. Why were you up, in the first place?”          

Watching her mum tidying up the used cups, line of her shoulders falling tiredly and smelling of smoke and blood, Sakura wanted nothing more than to go back to everything being familiar and homey again.

“… I needed the loo…,” she muttered, shoving the nightmare into a tiny box at the back of her mind to be thrown out later.

“Well then, off you go. I’ll be right behind you, but I do need a shower first.”

Sakura fell asleep to the sound of running water.

 

***


 

Chapter Text


 

“You’re late!” 

Naruto screamed at the top of his lungs. Sakura startled underneath the pages of the book she had used as a makeshift sunscreen for her face and rapidly blinked the grit out of her eyes. 

She’d probably overdone it the evening before with the chakra training. Sluggishly, she pulled herself to her feet and readjusted her hair into a topknot. 

“Yes, you’re…,” a yawn interrupted her, “…late, Kakashi-sensei.” 

“That’s not very convincing, Sakura-kun.” The man in question regarded her disappointedly over the top of his orange book. “Shall we try it again?”

“Don’t bother on my account.” 

Her sleepy mind ran off without consulting her first and her voice didn’t quite manage a pitch beyond ‘bland’. There was a snort behind her that sounded suspiciously like Sasuke.  

“Since you’re all so enthusiastic this fine morning, we’ll start with something new today.”

Sakura doubtfully eyed her teacher up and down. The humid heat of summer was already palpable even in the morning hours. She wasn’t sure if she wanted any part in whatever had Kakashi-sensei so obliging to offer training. The overt body language he projected sent tingles down her spine in discomfort. 

Naruto, in contrast, grinned broadly, hands behind his head. “So, we’re finally getting real training! What is it Kakashi-sensei? A jutsu? Since we know all about catra now ‘n stuff!”

“It’s chakra, air-head.” 

Sakura didn’t have to turn around to Sasuke to know that an eyeroll accompanied that statement.   

“What I said, what I said, bastard.” Naruto put his nose up but didn’t do much more than glare half-heartedly at his teammate. Sakura was sure he was much too buoyed by the prospect of learning a jutsu to get into a real fight with Sasuke. 

“Maahhh…,” Kakashi-sensei scratched his masked cheek, feigning deep thinking.

Sakura slumped where she was standing. The theatrics had her reasonably sure that it was not going to be a jutsu at all. 

“Today I was planning on something special… a form of … roleplay, if you will.”

Kakashi-sensei giggled unabashedly behind his book. Sakura felt heat creep into her cheeks. What was he on about?

“Oh, oh, oh, I know!” Naruto crowed, one arm wildly waving in the air like a violent rendition of a raised hand in a classroom, “Sakura plays the princess and you the enemy ninja and the bastard and I’ll have to rescue her with our super new jutsu!”

“Don’t be stupid, Idiot,” Sasuke bit out, “that’s not what he meant!” The tips of his ears burned bright red and a blush dusted his normally porcelain skin. His scowl was still a formidable thing, though.

“What’d he mean then, huh, bastard?!” Predictably, Naruto was instantly in Sasuke’s face.

“Yes, Sasuke, what else could I have possibly meant, hmmm?”

Kakashi-sensei’s eye-smile looked positively devious from where Sakura was standing. The blush on Sasuke’s face deepened. 

“How would I know?! Just not… that.” 

“Hah! You don’t know, bastard! So I’m right and we’ll actually –“ 

The orange book suddenly came down on Naruto’s head and interrupted him mid-shout.

“Nope.” 

The p even popped. Her teacher was the absolute worst. Naruto deflated comically. 

“Only Sakura will be roleplaying for this.”

Sakura was sure she was instantly beet red. “W..what?”

“But if only Sakura plays a princess… that doesn’t even work!” Naruto squinted confusedly around the group, one giggling teacher and two blushing teens. “Huh? What’d I miss?”

The urge to bury her face in her hands was overwhelming for a second. At least then, her cheeks would have the opportunity to cool down.

Finally putting his reading material away, Kakashi-sensei leaned down forebodingly and draped an arm across Sakura’s shoulders. Sakura didn’t dare to move when his other hand tugged at her messy topknot. 

“Sakura … will roleplay as… teacher!”

Playing a role, in any form, was probably something Kakashi-sensei was very familiar with, Sakura decided, annoyed. Though, his teacher-role left something to be desired.

Ten minutes later had everyone down at the water edge of the training ground’s artificial lake and Sakura was blushing for another reason altogether.

Without stopping even once, the boys had made a competition of who could rid themselves of their clothes fastest. Sasuke-kun was proving to be the winner. He was already down to his boxer shorts and shirt. She really shouldn’t stare and she totally was over that crush but… 

Suddenly, two fingers snapped in front of her face. 

“Earth to Sakura.” 

She turned her head so fast that her neck popped. 

Kakashi-sensei looked at her expectantly. Did she miss something? She tried giving him a smile while keeping Sasuke’s nice bu… Sasuke in her peripheral vision. 

“Erm… did you… Did you say something?”  

He stilled for a second and stared at her. If she didn’t know that Kakashi-sensei never showed any emotion apart from apathy or distant amusement she’d say that he looked dejected. 

Maybe she should apologize.

“I’m sorry but I got… lost – erm. In thought, I mean.” She stumbled awkwardly over her tongue. 

It didn’t look like that was the response he had been aiming for, though, judging by the hand that swept across his face. He muttered something indistinguishable about some guy and a beast before he shook it off.  

“I said, please show them water walking a few times. Explain if you want. When you’re finished, come meet me at the training posts. You’re doing something different today.”

His voice was terribly dry, and he wasted no second to poof away in obnoxious chakra smoke. 

Sakura had no idea what that had been about. She wasn’t inattentive all that often, was she? And she certainly wasn’t a beast. Or a guy. 

When Naruto and Sasuke had finally stopped shoving each other, Sakura stepped out onto the lake. Good timing, too, since she just barely managed to rescue Naruto’s orange jacket from drowning where it had been bobbing in the water. How had it even ended up there?

“Okay, so… ummm… this is also a chakra control exercise.” 

Predictably, Naruto looked dejected at the prospect.

“It’s not the same as tree walking though. You don’t really want to stick to the water surface, right? And it’s not like that approach would work anyway since water molecules aren’t stationary in their element and…”  

She cleared her throat. They didn’t really need to know this, did they? 

“Ummm… You have to increase your effective area of weight distribution to use the water’s natural surface tension. So… it’s much easier on a lake than on a river for example. And of course, you have to adapt the distribution for moving because friction is really low like this and also, account for movement in general…”

Sakura stopped herself. It didn’t look like either of her teammates had understood a word. How could she simplify this… or she could just borrow the generally lacking explanation Kakashi-sensei had given her.

“It takes more chakra than tree-walking. You need a steady stream to keep from sinking in.”

Naruto’s face instantly lit up. “Okay, Sakura-chan! I got this!”

She somehow doubted that but came off the lake anyway. Naruto started splashing.

Sasuke was still standing on his spot though, making no move towards the water. She stopped. He looked… uncomfortable. 

“Hn.”

“Umm, yes?”

His gaze flickered from her face slightly off to the side and back again. His obvious discomfort was nearly cute. Even if there was a scowl accompanying it as usual.

“Can you… may I… May I use the Sharingan to watch you. Walking on water, I mean.” A dusting of pink caught on the tips of his ears.

“Oh, of course. Of course, you can.” 

Was this etiquette for Sharingan users? She hadn’t ever thought about it but there had to have been rules in place for this, before. Otherwise, teamwork and comradery would probably always be sour.

She stepped back onto the lake, showing off several movements to give him more information to work with.

“Ah… thank you,” he finally said stiffly. His Sharingan flickered out. 

“Do you really see chakra like this?”

“Hn. Just it’s movement. Not when it’s static. Or when it’s molded inside the body.”

She thought for a moment. Then…

”You’ll still have to find out how to make your chakra behave like mine by yourself?”

“Seeing the effect helps,” he offered.

“That’s…good then,” She watched him turn around. His shoulders were hunched a bit, clearly uncomfortable.

“Hn.”

She left Sasuke to his own devices and turned to a soaked, yelling Naruto further down the muddy water edge. If Sasuke had his Sharingan helping him, then how could she even out the odds for Naruto?

A half forgotten, half repressed memory finally came to her as she ambled over to him. 

“How is it going, Naruto?”

The boy was in the water up to his thighs, dripping wet from head down, a determined glare on his face. 

“Hey, Sakura-chan! Didn’t see you here! What’cha want with Sasuke-teme so long, over there? Bastard didn’t get it, huh?”

Sakura shrugged. “He asked for help.”

“Ha! I knew it! This time, I’m soooo gonna beat him and learn it faster! Believe it!”

“You don’t have a Sharingan, though. That’s going to help him quite a bit.” There was, Sakura admitted if only to herself, probably no better way to motivate Naruto than to point out his disadvantage in a matter. She really wondered what had wired him like that. 

If determination had a visible wavelength, Naruto would be glowing with it right then. 

“I don’t need stupid red eyes to learn this! I’ll do it all by myself!”

Well, this wasn’t really what she’d had in mind when coming over.

“But wouldn’t it be awesome if that memory relay thingy of your shadow clones would work here? I mean, it would still be you doing all the work…Only, more of you?”

Naruto stopped cold, where he was just in the process of focusing his chakra again. 

“Ummmm… I guess? I mean, they could… and then they would… oh, that’s…” His face scrunched up and the whiskered cheeks puffed out nearly comically. He looked a bit like a fluffy, drowned baby fox. Then his expression suddenly cleared in enthusiastic surprise. 

“YES! I got it! You’re the best Sakura-chan!”

Drowned out by the poofs of appearing hordes of Kage Bunshin, Sakura retreated with a quiet “You’re welcome, Naruto.”

She honestly didn’t want to be near the disaster of several hundred-strong troups of shouting, determined Narutos. She kind of doubted that this many of them would really help him but that wasn’t her problem. 

Sasuke on the other side of the lake looked really put out by the waves the splashing and stumbling clones were making.

Sakura walked a bit faster. Not. Her. Problem.

Her problem, it turned out, was sitting in the shade, calmly dozing against Kakashi-sensei’s leg.

There was a weird ringing in her ears for an eternal second before she managed to untwist her clammy hands from where they were tangled in her dress.

Kakashi-sensei closed his book the moment she remembered how her feet worked and gave her one of his eye-smiles. “I thought it was about time you got a real introduction to Uhei.”

The dog in question shook himself out of his doze at that and sat attentively, tail swishing friendly over the ground behind him.

“Nice to meet you again,” he said obligingly.

“N…nice to meet you, too.”

Kakashi-sensei’s gaze lingered on her. No ridiculous quip was forthcoming. 

Sakura rallied herself and offered a close-lipped smile. Uhei’s tail wagged a bit harder.

“Well, now that that’s out of the way we can get to the training part.” 

Hound and human ambled over to her, Uhei switching from Kakashi’s side to crowd around her own legs. Cautiously, Sakura extended a hand and ran the knuckles over his head and down his back. The short fur was warm and smooth and calmed her nearly instantly. 

“This training ground is mostly used for its extensive forest.” Kakashi-sensei gestured behind him where the shadowed depth of Hi no Kuni’s forested wilderness lurked. “You’ll be training with Uhei, today. I prepared a path for you to follow. If you manage to stay on it, you’ll find a small pond that’ll demark the half-way point. You won’t be allowed any breaks.”

There was something missing from Kakashi-sensei’s countenance. It reminded her of the silent appraisal she had endured, after he had woken up in Tazuna’s home. 

“Good luck, Sakura-kun.”  

The silly smile he gave her with his one eye closed didn’t quite fit with the rest of him.

Was this a test?

And if yes, what for?

 

***

 

Suffice to say, Sakura did not find the pond. She did manage to get thoroughly lost, though. Uhei, running easily beside her, not bothered at all by brambles, mud and stones, took over navigation at one point until he had her back on the faint trail of shallow footprints and scratched bark that Kakashi-sensei had her follow. 

When she reached the forest edge again, the sun was already setting in reddish hues. Her ankles throbbed and her calves burned from navigating the uneven ground of the forest and her red dress had rips where it had repeatedly snagged on thorns and twigs.

Instead of Kakashi-sensei, a small wrinkly pug wearing headband and vest waited for her. 

“About time you two got back,” was what he said in greeting.

Someone clearly didn’t care for introductions. 

“Well, hello there,” was all Sakura felt she could manage in response. There was no one there to play pretense for so she was glad she didn’t have to bother with social niceties either. Bland was easier when she was exhausted, anyway. 

Uhei, a constant but mostly silent presence at her side, bounded over to the pug. Sakura followed more slowly, wrenching little twigs and assorted debris out of her bound hair.          

“Everyone else left?”, she asked the pug when she flopped down next to Uhei.

“The boss got called away and dismissed the boys,” he said. With boss, she supposed he meant Kakashi-sensei. “You took longer than he expected, so he summoned me to wait for you.”

Bite me, Sakura thought. She offered nothing but a frown at that and, fed up with her hair, ripped the elastic out of her tangled bun. This run through Konohan forests was definitely worse for its continued health than her time in Wave had been.

“She di’ fine. Boss said she’s ne’er di’ tha’ before an’ she foun’ most of the trail by herself.” Uhei’s voice was unconcerned. “She coul’ be faster, though.”

That wasn’t half bad, she decided. Maybe she’d get Uhei a treat for sticking up for her. She did notice the raised brows the pug gave him, though, surprise on his wrinkled little face. 

“If ya say so… Anyway, since Boss’ll be gone for a little while, you’re supposed to meet up with Uhei or one of us at 800 every morning at the bridge near the memorial, you know the one?”        

Sakura nodded once. “Will you be on time?” 

It was a valid question, she thought, because 8am was really cutting it close with the time she had set aside for her new morning runs and strength training. 

She got an affronted bark in response. “We’re always on time, girl.”

They got up to leave, the pug stretching his legs lazily and shaking himself. His pink paws looked really soft. Uhei nudged her side lightly. 

“Your fur’s all long an’ tangled.” He regarded her seriously. “When boss’ fur ge’s like tha’ he shears it with a kunai.”

He eyed her for a second longer and then turned back to the pug. “You said your piece now?”, he asked the greyhound gruffly. Uhei gave a bark and the pug did a weird little shuffle that looked like a shrug. “Okay then, your call… See you, kid.”

He gave a wave with one of his front paws and with a quiet poof they were gone in a cloud of chakra smoke. 

“Shear my fur, huh…” 

Sakura gave a piece of bark knotted in her strands another tug. Her scalp protested angrily.       

“Well then… do it like the dogs do…” A short huff of laughter escaped her at the thought. Or like Kakashi-sensei, she amended, but then again she didn’t want to end up with weird hair like his.

Instead, she gathered her hair in a high ponytail and made short work of cutting it off barely four fingers behind the elastic. 

In her fist, the cut pink strands, bark, twigs and all, looked oddly dead. “Okay Sakura, the nuisance is gone now.” Her voice warbled a little. 

The nuisance was gone. The hair fell unceremoniously to the ground, the slight breeze spreading it over the grass.   

***


 

Chapter Text


 

Cicadas shrieked loudly through the evening air when Uhei trotted up the old and rarely used path to their homestead. 

Pakkun watched through wavering heat rising up from the humid ground, as his slim pack mate drew closer. The rice fields on either side of the road were waiting for the threatening summer rains; the ones closer to the village and along another tangent of the small road were well kept and green. The fields on Uhei’s path, on the other hand, consisted mainly of yellowish stalks and drying mud.

It had been a long several years since the Hatake Clan was numerous enough that someone had cared for their fields.

Uhei bounded up over the barely standing fence, and Pakkun slowly and lethargically stood from his perch in the shade of the engawa. 

“You’re late,” he grumbled but made space for the greyhound to reach the small well of flowing water that had always served as drinking spot for the Hatake Hounds, whether they were bound by contract, blood or stayed wild. 

Uhei snorted between mouthfuls of water but he didn’t answer until he had drunk his fill. It was hot enough that even he grudgingly panted with his tongue lolling out – Uhei was still conscious about the missing tip of his tongue. 

Pakkun had chewed Urushi out after hearing how he had ribbed little Uhei about the injury that was the result of a training accident, but the damage had already been done and Uhei did his best to keep the perceived flaw hidden.

No wonder the Boss didn’t usually summon Urushi and Uhei at the same time, no matter that they were both trained to be the go between with his wolfhounds. There was no love lost there. 

“Did the girl take that long for the training course?” 

Uhei’s newly acquired ‘puppy’ was still a source of endless amusement for Pakkun. Ribbing him about it brought the best reactions from his serious and uptight pack mate. 

Predictably, Uhei shuffled back defensively and narrowed his eyes.

“Her name’s Sakura. No’ girl. An’ she was finished before lunch, already. Bu’ she wasn’ sa’isfied wi’ her chakra enhancemen’. So we did it again on a differen’ course.”

As funny as it was to see Uhei’s hackles rise, there was a slight sinking sensation that settled in Pakkun’s stomach. This was the third day of Uhei training Sakura without the boss and also the third time that the slip of a girl finished too fast. 

“Which course did you do?,” he scoffed, “the woodland trail on Ground 14?” That, at least, would be in accordance with the skills of a beginner. 

Uhei scowled right back. “Tha’s too easy. We did nature and scen’ trails this morning in grassland.”

Well, wasn’t this just the thing to happen when the boss was away. Pakkun shook his fur and tried for nonchalance with an extended scratch behind his left ear. The only way up in difficulty to the grassland course was the one in the swamp. And they really couldn’t just bring a green Genin to that Training Ground. Even the boss himself probably wasn’t really free to do that.        

“Aren’t you the proud father there…”

“She’s no’ my puppy!” 

***

      
“Huh. You’re back early!” 

Pakkun regarded his pack mate, laying in the shade next to the old compound house. There was a bag of small, bunny-shaped dog treats between his paws and Uhei was busy chewing. 

“Un. I’ve been here since…,” he squinted at the sun that peeked between the leaves of the old acorn tree, “about a sprin’ distance aroun’ our lands.”

No longer than two hours then. Pakkun silently lamented the continued disability of his pack mates to tell the time in human means. 

“Tought her stalking, today,” he went on proudly. 

“And you keep telling me, she’s not your pup… You even teach her of your own accord!”, Pakkun needled while trying to swipe one of the delicious smelling treats. 

“Paws off,” the greyhound growled and tugged the bag closer.

Pakkun huffed but relented. There was definitely a lot to tell the boss when he came back tomorrow. Uhei was really invested in ‘having an eye’ on Sakura-san’s training as Kakashi-boss had requested. He should probably keep an eye on that unexpected dynamic; already a bit of an outlier in the pack due to Urushi, Uhei taking treats and then not sharing with him as the leader… 

“You really like her, don’t you?”

Uhei rolled on his side, unimpressed. 

“She listens. An’ she learns. Wha’s no’ to like there?”  

Pakkun let the topic go. The boss had to decide how to deal with the mess he had created here. The girl was his Genin; to drop her on Uhei, hunting dog through and through, had been a gamble in the best of scenarios.  

This was just an added complication.

  
***

 

Sakura ached.

Kakashi-sensei, she thought blearily, had really gone overboard.

Their C-rank delivery run to Otafuki Gai the day before had taken a nasty turn when they had been chased by a flock of geese; embarrassingly, they all still had the beak marks to show for it. 

Her fingers ached from the Senbon handling Kakashi-sensei had decided to punish her with today. She had no idea what she had done to deserve it. She’d have rather played ‘Stalker’ again with Uhei but she hadn’t seen the dog for more than a week.

Sasuke and Naruto, in contrast, had been allowed to play ninja tag in the forest with ink seals. They’d looked like they’d played canvass for a body painter, afterwards.  

Even her chakra ached from following Kakashi-sensei’s off-handed challenge of asking her to change her natural chakra frequency. It would refine her control, he had promised. She still held out on judging that morsel of absentmindedly given learning motivation.  

So, when she trudged home that night, stars already twinkling brightly overhead, and finally, shakily, managed to pry the front door open, she was not prepared to find two figures sitting at the kitchen table, cups of steaming tea in front of them and frowns drawn on their faces.

“Are you supposed to be here?”, she heard herself say before her brain caught up with her.

“Hello to you, too”, her father, Kizashi, answered cheerily, the worried lines around his mouth softening. 

She clumsily toed off her sandals, not trusting her hands to hold up to the strain of pulling them off.

“Also, the poison is out of my system. I’m allowed to sleep at home under the condition that I return every morning for more treatment…,” he raised a pink eyebrow, “And please don’t be rude, darling. Say hello to your uncle.”

“Hello Koji-ojisan,” Sakura repeated durifully. She wasn’t particularly thrilled to see uncle Koji. 

The man was several years younger than her mother, his sister, and had the unfortunate tendency to drop in unannounced at the oddest hours, sometimes in the middle of the night, crashing on the couch. His visits usually left her dad looking worried and on the rare occasion that he and her mum happened to run into each other, there’d always be terse words and drawn shoulders. Her mum was withdrawn for days after every one of these visits.

To make matters worse, he was the only one who had not been mollified when Sakura’s grades had dropped in the physical classes and her pretend obsession with girly things started. He’d been poking at her since, whenever their paths crossed. 

“Hello Sakura. Nice haircut, looks practical.” His voice was as annoyingly amicable as ever. 

Sakura swayed through the darkened living room, catching the kitchen towel her father threw at her face in mock outrage over her bad manners, and fell into the third chair.

“I’m soooo tired…”

She hid her face in her arms for good measure. Just incase her dad hadn’t understood her predicament yet.

Porcelain clattered too loud onto the wooden table before her. The scent of her mother’s favorite herbal tea drifted under the tent of her arms.

“Tea, dad? What happened to the curry?”

“The… curry?”

“You had take-out curry for dinner. Is there anything left?” She had smelled the spices the moment she had come in. Uhei’s – or maybe Kakashi-sensei’s, she wasn’t sure - games of ‘what does this smell like’ the week before was bearing fruits, it seemed. Even if her nose had felt mostly clogged after each session. 

She lifted her head just in time to catch her dad’s sheepish expression. 

“Ah… so sorry, blossom, there aren’t any leftovers…”

That figured, she thought and gave uncle Koji a baleful look. Making her dad worry and eating all the curry. 

“So sorry, Sakura-chan,” her uncle tried. The sincerity in his voice left much to be desired, though. Instead, he rummaged through one of the pockets on his half-open flak jacket. “Here, catch!”

She caught the ration bar before it could smack into her forehead. Take-out curry against a ration bar and uncle Koji’s presence. What a bad trade off. 

“I’ll make a huge breakfast tomorrow, okay blossom?” Her father extended an arm to ruffle her hair but aborted the movement with a grimace. 

Sakura straightened. “Is it supposed to be like this? I thought the medics said your arm is healed?”

At least that was what her mum had said when she’d last asked her. 

“It’s okay, blossom. There are just some late reactions to the neurotoxin. It’s why I’m at the hospital every morning, so we get this taken care of.”

His grin didn’t really hide the tightened corners of his eyes nor his hunched shoulders. He was clearly worried. Her dad was really bad at lying, Sakura realized suddenly. What a weird thing to notice. She was better at it than he was.

She let herself relax and smiled slightly, face smooth.

“Oh, okay then. Does it hurt a lot?”

She extended her arms to him slowly, as if to take his hand and inspect it.

“It’s mostly just when I’m moving too fast. Don’t worry over your old man, daughter of mine!”

His smile was slightly more natural at this, but Sakura didn’t miss the way he drew his hands back from her. Both of them.

“You’re not old”, she protested, as she always did. 

“Oooohh, but I’m feeling my age, blossom. Maybe you shouldn’t make an old man like me stay up so late, waiting for his beautiful daughter…” He shook his head in played-up dismay and his dark pink hair flopped around ridiculously. 

“Then this old man should probably turn in now”, uncle Koji said drily and made a shooing motion with his hands. “Chop chop, off you go, Kizashi-jii…”

Her dad rolled his eyes but obligingly made his way out of the kitchen.

“Please don’t traumatize my little blossom too much, Koji.”

The playful admonishment had a kernel of real warning somewhere in it. 

Sakura listened until his steps on the floor above faded and let go of the gullible little daughter front, she had put on for her dad. A snort drew her thoughts from contemplating the real extent of her father’s injuries.  

“Kizashi’s never been a good liar.”

Koji-ojisan was slouched over his side of the table, chin on fist, dark blond hair hanging messily where it wasn’t stuffed behind his hitai-ate. His eyes were fastened on her, curious. 

“I… yeah. I noticed.” 

“Mhm. I’m sure you did.”

His gaze didn’t leave her face. It was unnerving and Sakura abruptly realized that she couldn’t remember ever being completely alone with Koji-ojisan before. 

“Nice acting, by the way,” he added offhandedly. 

Sakura swallowed a sour retort. There was a reason she didn’t like him other than her parents’ worry whenever he showed up. And it definitely had to do with the subversive poking he did whenever he saw her. It had been so hard, in the beginning, to not react to his jabs. 

Instead, she just rolled her eyes, more of a concession to him than she had ever allowed herself since designing her academy act.

“Did he tell you what’s wrong?”

“What did you notice?” 

There was a challenge buried in his words that Sakura couldn’t help but want to rise to. And by now, was no reason to hold back. Even if it would definitely validate uncle Koji and his annoying persistence when it came to herself.   

“Both of his hands are shaking, and they can barely carry any weight.”

The teacup had been a worrying indicator.

“He can’t straighten his right arm, maybe something with the tendons? And he avoided my touch. The nerves then?” She frowned at the teacup in her hands. “He’s in pain and worried about the treatment.”

Koji hummed approvingly. “There you have it then.”

“What, that’s it? You don’t know more?”

“He’s worried about treatment success. Hasn’t said it in so many words, though. There’s an old Suna neurotoxin from the Second War that the symptoms look like. Easy to treat if caught immediately. If it’s allowed to settle? Not so much.” He shrugged lightly. “He has your mother fooled, by the way.”

If it was allowed to settle in, then what? What happened then?

Silence descended over the small kitchen and Sakura unenthusiastically chewed on the mealy ration bar. Her dad had said that he’d be fine after the treatment. Medicine had come far since the Second War. Maybe he was afraid of the treatment itself. Sakura would probably be.

Urgh.. there was no use in getting upset about it now. Maybe it would really be just fine. She’d have to keep an eye on the situation.

Sakura washed down the last of her disgusting dinner with lukewarm tea, when another question rose in her mind. One she actually hadn’t ever allowed herself to contemplate in depth before. 

But there was a ninja sitting at her table that was neither a Genin nor her closed-off sensei and he seemed willing to talk.

She didn’t want to stay a Genin forever. She could do much better but for that she needed to  start scoping out options.         

“Ne, Koji-jisan, you’re a Tokujou, aren’t you?” 

His trademark mellow smile was on his lips when he nodded. “Need career counselling already? Aren’t you too green for that?” 

“I just want to find out about specializations for later,” she offered.

“Later, huh? Do you have a sensei?”

As if her father hadn’t bragged about his daughter being assigned to the Jounin-track already. 

“I started learning how to track recently. I just want to know what else there is. So, what do you specialize in?” 

He’d never carried any equipment with him in all the years she’d known him that gave her any clue.

Some expression flitted across his face, not amusement but something darker. Sakura wasn’t sure, it was gone too fast.

“I’m pretty solid with Taijutsu and knifes. Best with the Tanto, though don’t give me sword or I’ll stab myself,” a grin lifted the edges of his lips but something told her that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with her asking him. 

“Other than that, I specialize in having a superbly winning personality and rakishly good looks.” He shrugged, gaze straying off her for a second.

Something settled weirdly in her stomach. Her mind ran through possibilities, but the options she came up with for that answer were limited.

“It’s just, you’re mostly out of the village, right? I was just wondering…” She trailed of probingly.

A bark of soft laughter rang out. “You’re good at putting things together, aren’t you, Sakura-chan? I’m sure you’ll get this.”

He finished with his tea and made his way to the genkan. 

Not staying the night, then.

When he had pulled on his shoes he stood and regarded her through the dark of the living room and something conflicted crossed his expression. “I live in the Tokushima district. Big yellow apartment block facing Ueno Koen. Feel free to swing by. If you can find out the rare times when I’m in the village.”  

In the yellow cast of the genkan's single overhead light bulb, he appeared much older than she knew he was. 

“Jaa ne, Sakura-chan.”

He slipped out of the door without a sound.

Well. That was definitely a less grating visit than usual from him. The underlying disappointment whenever he looked at her hadn’t been there, either.  

 

***

     
The next morning brought a surprise.

Sakura had just started in on her strength training in one of the communal training grounds when a Kakashi-sensei shaped person dropped down next to her.

She flexed her chakra sharply.

“Kai!”

The apparition didn’t vanish and stayed Kakashi-shaped. She frowned at it. 

There was no way this was real.

“Kai!” 

“… I am personally insulted right now, Sakura-chan”, the apparition drawled and okay, Sakura had to admit that the flat voice did sound like her teacher.

“You’re … early.”

“I feel like there was a question somewhere in that statement.” 

She stared at him. There was nothing she could read apart from a mock hurt front and amusement. Annoyed, she blew a strand of escaped hair off her sweaty face. 

“Yes, you’re sensei, alright”, she huffed.

“What gave it away?”

That question deserved nothing but a glare as response, in her opinion. A smile crinkled his visible eye at that. 

“Anyway, now that you know I’m me, and I know you’re you, I can tell you that I have put you down for a mission.”

“Just me? Without Sasuke and Naruto?”

“Aa, just you. The boys will get their own entertainment, but I stumbled across a perfect learning opportunity for you.”

Kakashi-sensei sounded a bit too upbeat about it for Sakura to be sure about his intention but there really wasn’t anything she could do about that. Or maybe that was just because she continuously felt like she was missing something with him when he was like that.

“What’s it about then?”

“There was a last-minute spot on a Search and Rescue squad. It‘s C-ranked and Chuunin-led. They leave in an hour from the south gate.”

“In an hour? How long? And where to? And why didn’t you find me earlier?! I need to pack!” Sakura abandoned her half-finished crunches and started speed-walking towards the village.

“And why am I doing Search and Rescue in the first place?”  

Kakashi-sensei side-eyed her. His long strides kept him easily by her side. 

“Plan for a week. I don’t know where; south probably, considering your exit gate”, he counted down her questions on his fingers, voice droll. “Hummm… I only found out about the mission twenty minutes ago… and…ah. As for why; you’re the backup tracker since the lead is also doubling as field medic and team leader. Was that everything?”

“No!”

Of course, that wasn’t everything! Who were her teammates and what was the team structure and – 

She bit down on the flare of unreasonable panic at the thought of doing a mission without her own team. That kind of wasn’t the main problem.

“Ah. There’s more?”

“Yes! I can’t track yet! I just started! Why am I slated as a tracker?”

Did he want to embarrass her? There was no way that a few short weeks of training qualified her for this.

His amused huff stopped Sakura stopped short.

“What. What’s so funny?”

“You’re an annoyingly fast learner. Uhei was so proud he had to come up with something new those last two days last week.”  

And there Kakashi-sensei went again with the weird compliments. And if those five days of training were enough to count as a tracker, she'd never again complain about Kakashi/sensei being late. Shouln't he have continued with her training then, after being back from his own mission? Instead, he'd had her doing... 

Oh. 

“Then what was the internal chakra manipulation for? It’s not really meant to be for control, is it?” 

That would probably be too easy, all things considered.

Kakashi-sensei shrugged, visible eyebrow raised. 

“Mah, Sakura-chan, maybe I simply ran out of ideas on what to occupy you with. And it really does refine chakra control, too. I suppose experience will give you better … insights.”

For half a second, Sakura mournfully thought back to Iruka-sensei and his clear-cut instructions.      

“Who’s the team leader? Do I know them?”, she asked instead and banished the thought with memories of unending boredom, also of Iruka-sensei. 

“You might. Ever heard about Inuzuka Hana? As far as I know, her brother should be about your age.”

“Oh. Yes, Kiba mentioned her.” Well, more like complained about her but with Kiba that was nothing out of the ordinary. Considering the things he bemoaned about his mean old sister, she sounded like a very sensible person.

“There you go then.” He glanced at the sun, barely up in the hazy sky. It was just gone seven and the creeping humidity already promised to make the day unbearable. Summer in Konoha was nothing to scoff at. 

“You’ll do well, Sakura. Don’t worry.”

And then he was gone, flitting across the roofs faster than Sakura could follow.

When she finally arrived at home, she only had half an hour left until the mission was supposed to depart. Hastily, she grabbed the last few packets of kunai and shuriken, making a note to restock upon return, and stuffed two dozen ration bars on top. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need that many, disgusting as they were.

The summer bedroll followed.

Her wardrobe had her stumped, though. Three of her four red quipaos were either torn, waiting for needle and thread, in need of washing, or unsalvageable stained. The last was clinging, sweat-soaked, to her body.
 
That didn’t look good. 

Feeling the minutes slip by as an itch on her back, she hastily stuffed an old dark long-sleeve and leggings combo into the pack. It would do.

She dithered a bit in the kitchen, wondering how to inform her parents of the last-minute mission but decided that a short note would have to suffice. 

Gone for a week, Search and Rescue. Don’t worry. Love, Sakura.

She looked it over critically, added the date as an afterthought and pinned it to the fridge with an obnoxiously pink magnet.

When she arrived at the south gate, there were several teams milling about, all of them Chunin, all of them clearly preparing to leave. She didn’t see anyone who looked like she could be Kiba’s sister.

Nervousness swept hot over her skin. How unprofessional if she couldn’t even find her designated team.

“Are you the last-minute stand in, then?”

The voice came from her back and Sakura spun around. A chunin stood behind her, a good head taller that her. His wild black hair spilled over his hitae-ate in long spikes and the handles of some kind of metal weapon peaked over each of his shoulders. 

The bandage across his nose crinkled with the smile on his face.

“I…suppose so. At least if you’re Inuzuka Hana’s team?”

“Oi, Izumo, you hear that? ‘Hana’s team’, she says!” He shouted over to a gaggle of other Chunin, all of them years older that her. One of them extricated himself from the gossiping group and came over.

“Well, as long as we’re at the tracking part, that holds up, Tetsu. If there’s a fighting part to it then you’re mine.” There was an easy smile on his face as he adjusted the bandanna covering his hair. 

“Oooohhh, I’m yours anyway, Izu-darling, don’tcha worry!”, the one who had found her first simpered at his comrade.

Sakura stifled a grin at the ribbing. That sounded like a much more mellow kind of relationship than the one between Naruto and Sasuke-kun. 

“Kamizuki Izumo’s the name. This goof here is Hagane Kotetsu. You’re our stand-in then?” Despite the hair that was obscuring the better part of the right side of his face, Izumo didn’t give the impression of skimping on the emotional expressions. 

Sakura immediately decided that she liked him. He projected a kind of openness that was very genuine in the way it was so casually displayed. 

“Haruno Sakura, Genin”, she introduced herself, ”Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Genin, huh. That’s a rare one.” Izumo gave her once-over at that.

“Rare specialization, tracking”, Kotetsu explained, “more so under the rank of chunin. Most find it boring; no fighting and such. Don’t think I ever heard of any, apart from the obvious constellations with Aburame, Inuzuka and Hyuuga.”  
 
“I’m not a Hyuuga. Or any of the others.”

Izumo laughed. “You don’t look like it, either.”

“Yeah, you’re not stuck-up enough for a Hyuuga and you’re missing the shades for an Aburame-“

“-and if you were a bastard Inuzuka I’d have heard of you before”, said a new voice, drily.

The older girl it belonged to was tall, taller than her male mission partners, but she still looked dwarfed next to the three humongous ninken that crowded around her. They went up nearly to Sakura’s collarbone.

“Haruno Sakura, right?” She scrutinized her from head to toes, gaze lagging on her bright pink hair and the frayed white hems of her red dress. Sakura wished she’d taken the time to change out of it.

“Hai.”

“Well then. You came recommended from Sage knows where. Didn’t think we’d get a secondary tracker on such short notice, but then there you are, popping out of the woodwork.”

Again, her gaze was weighing.

Sakura didn’t quite know if she was required to answer this. There was no question involved.

Hana rolled her eyes at her silence and shrugged.

“Anyway. The paperwork’s handed in; let’s move out.” They fastened their packs and cleared the thinning crowd of Chunin teams in front of the gate.

“Good hunting, girl”, she said, when they left the cobble stone path where it swerved to the left in a lazy curve and took to the trees to kept straight south instead. 

“Good hunting”, Sakura muttered warily at her back when she passed to the front of the group, Sakura herself staying third in row before Kotetsu.

Such a prickly team-leader.