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symbiosis

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Sakura doesn't understand other kids.

Especially the ones at the Academy.

The thing is, hard work is nothing new to her, not really, and she might not be very strong or very fast, but she managed to make Inuzuka Kiba's nose bleed when she hit him in the face in their spar last week. Iruka-sensei had been quietly horrified in the way adults always are when she does something violent that they don't seem to have expected, and she has to apologise to Kiba formally in front of the whole class - they were just supposed to be doing kata, after all, not actually sparring, but Kiba had said something about her hair and they'd ended up fighting. She's not sorry.

The thing is, she doesn't have a ninja family like all the other kids - even Uzumaki Naruto's parents were shinobi, apparently - and they seem to look down on her for it, for some reason. She doesn't really get why - she's spent every day of her life since she was old enough to walk helping her mother in the garden. She's the one who helps kaa-san move furniture, and she's the one who carries the groceries home every week. She might not know how to hit like the clan kids do, but her arms have more muscle on them. She can keep running for longer than any of them - except Naruto, but he doesn't really count when he's hardly there anyway, always skipping.

She's pretty sure half the problem with their teacher, at least, is she remembers Iruka-sensei from when he was Umino-kun instead, and she's pretty sure he remembers her as Sacchan, the girl he used to babysit with his team, instead of as Sakura, the unafraid kunoichi-in-training she so wants to be.

Still, she has Ino, and that's enough, until it isn't, and she and Ino are suddenly rivals instead of friends, and she plays the part but she hates it. Hates fighting with her friend like this, and some time after the massacre, she stops trying. Sasuke doesn't want them there anyway, that much is clear, and part of her mourns the cheerful boy he was as much as pities the churlish, spiteful young man he's growing into. The only time he really seems engaged with anything in the world around him is when he's mocking Naruto, and it makes her wrinkle her nose, but she firmly tells herself that Naruto's annoying, anyway, and that she doesn't care.

There's no true, pinpoint moment where things really change for her until a year or two before graduation, when the class go on their survival field trip and get paired up and sent off to find their own dinners. Sakura's partner is a boy she knows by sight but has never exchanged a single word with, Aburame Shino, who even still remains silent when Iruka-sensei calls their names from the list only nods once and sets off into the forest.

"I don't get why they wanted us to do this in pairs," she admits later, quiet beneath the shrieking and laughter of their classmates as they prepare their various catches for cooking over their campfires. She's been laying snares for small game since before she started the academy, as soon as her mother declared her hands dexterous enough for the work.
"It is to give us someone to speak with," says Shino, pushing his sunglasses further up his nose as he strips bark from the branch they chose to use as a spit. "Why? Because the aim of this exercise is to begin desensitising us to causing death with our own hands."
"Oh," Sakura says, and skins the rabbit in a single, efficient movement. Shino offers up the clean branch.

It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

She approaches him at lunch the next day, seeing him sitting alone, just as she has always done, and it's hard to tell with him if it's by choice or not.

"Ne, Aburame-san," she says, bento in hand, "can I sit with you?"

Shino blinks, visibly unprepared for the question.

"Most would not wish to," he says, as he shuffles sideways to give her space beneath the shade of the tree. "Why? Because of the way my clan houses our kikaichu inside our bodies."

Sakura wrinkles her nose as she sits, unwrapping her lunch carefully. "That's dumb," she says around a mouthful of rice. "They need you to live, right, and you need them for your jutsu and stuff?"
"Correct."
"That's just-- basic ecology!"

Shino is silent for a long moment, and when she looks up from her lunch, he's looking at her, intent and intense, and she blinks.

"What?"
"Many do not see it that way," he says at length, and she shrugs a shoulder.
"Then they're dumb, like I said. Can I see one?"
"...Yes," he says, and out of his sleeve emerges a tiny beetle, barely bigger than her thumbnail, its shell shiny and iridescent. It wanders along his outstretched hand and, once perched on the end of his finger, opens and closes its wings once, and then waves its antennae in Sakura's direction.

She laughs, delighted, and claps her hands together, leaning closer to get a better look. "Hello," she murmurs, and the beetle waves its antennae again. "It's beautiful!" she tells Shino, who this close is quite obviously startled by the exclamation, but he nods, and the kikaichu trundles its way back under his coat and, presumably, his skin. "How intelligent are they individually? How big's the queen?"
"Ah," says Shino, turning his attention back to his lunch, but there's a blush just visible under the edge of his glasses. "Each individual kikaichu may be compared, I suppose, to a civilian puppy. Why? They do not need to be any more intelligent than that, individually, as their strength is in the hive. The queen is perhaps three or four times larger than the workers, though she will grow larger as I age."

---

Sakura heaves a quiet sigh as Iruka-sensei calls out the members of the soon-to-be Team Seven, thumps her head on her desk. Between her folded arms, a small beetle waves its antennae at her, and she manages a smile. Shino had been right, all those years ago, comparing his kikaichu to puppies. They're not very smart, per se, but they're good at sensing emotion. And, like puppies, they don't quite seem to know what to do about it, other than make their presence known. She wriggles her forefinger in response, and the kikaichu, satisfied, crawls off the edge of the table to return to its master.

It's not that she isn't looking forward to being on a team, being a real shinobi at last, but-- well, it's pretty obvious that she's the weak link in the team. Naruto may be one of the most annoying people she's ever encountered, but his unconventional taijutsu has won him more than a few bouts over the years, and his traps are good. Sasuke is, well, Sasuke, and she's done enough research about the jounin in the village to know that there was never anyone else he'd be put with than Hatake Kakashi, the only other living bearer of a sharingan that isn't Sasuke's murderous brother. And her? She's just the best kunoichi in the class, but compared to the clan kids, she's nothing. Shino's team is going to be a tracking one, though honestly, an Inuzuka, a Hyuuga and an Aburame kind of seems like overkill to her. Team Ten isn't even one that needs thinking about; Inoichi-san once joked that he, Chouza and Shikaku planned their wives' pregnancies around another Ino-Shika-Cho, and it's not a stretch to think he wasn't much joking.

Team Seven, though-- they're going to have to be an assault team, surely. With a tracker team and a capture team, the only other possible option left is sabotage, and that's-- honestly, they're not at war, so an entire genin team of saboteurs seems... unnecessary. An apprentice here or there, sure, but not a whole team. So she's left to come to the conclusion that she's the expendable one, the one they put in the empty slot to fill out the team. It's not what she wants for herself.

The other teams are filing out, following their sensei, and Sakura settles in for a long, long wait. Hatake Kakashi is, after all, known for being late. Notoriously so.

"Sensei," she hears Shino say, and looks up to see him paused, by the door, his teammates following Yuuhi Kurenai out of the door. "One moment, please."

"Of course, Shino-kun," Kurenai says, with a gentle smile and not a hint of the bewilderment she must be feeling - Sakura has no doubt that Shino's file marks him very much the loner.

And then, the dramatic bastard, he draws the attention of the entire class, various jounin and chuunin sensei included, when he says only, "Sakura." She blinks as every eye swivels to her, tilts her head ever so slightly and waits for him to continue. "Okaa-san expects you for dinner at seven."

Sakura grins, wide and a little awed, because he couldn't have more clearly declared her as under the Aburame's protection if he'd kissed her. There will be no subtle slights against her for her heritage now.

"Of course, Shikkun!" she replies brightly, and he doesn't so much as twitch at the once much-maligned nickname, only nods, turns on his heel and leaves, leaving a stunned classroom behind him.

As soon as Kurenai, not hiding her confusion at all now, gathers her other two genin and ushers them out, the room explodes into noise. Some of them are yelling at Sakura, some at each other - Naruto is staring at her slack-jawed, utterly struck dumb for once - and in the melee, Iruka-sensei sidles over until he's stood casually beside her desk.

"Shikkun, huh?" he says, barely audible, and she smiles up at him.
"It may have stuck partly because he complained about it so much. Well, as much as he ever complains about anything."
"Hmm," says Iruka-sensei, and he pats her on the shoulder. "I think you'll do fine... Sacchan."
"Sensei," she whines, and hopes like hell he doesn't think to drop that particular nickname into any conversation he happens to have with Shibi-sama any time soon.

(It's a futile hope.)

Their sensei does turn up, eventually, even later than she'd anticipated, and she narrows her eyes at him when he lets the board eraser thump onto his silver hair. She keeps on squinting as he goes through his utterly uninformative introduction, and only smooths her face out when it's her turn to introduce herself.

"My name is Haruno Sakura," she says, "and I like Suna aubergine, salmon sashimi, and spending time with Shino. I dislike people who don't understand the impact insects have on an ecosystem, shinobi who look down on civilians, and plucking game birds. My hobbies include camping, gardening, and reading. My dream-- I want to prove that civilian-born shinobi are just as good as clan-born. On a more quantifiable level, I want an A-rank bingo book rating. At least. Flee on sight would be nice."

Kakashi-sensei blinks, just once, slow and dramatic, as Naruto demands to know what a bingo book is, what does ecosystem mean, as Sasuke's gaze burns into the side of her face.

"Well," says her new sensei, "that's... an ambition." Then his eye crinkles up into what passes for a smile, and he adds, "let's see what we can do about realising it, ne?"

Yeah, she thinks, this'll do. Team Seven is something she can make work.

"Was that all, Kakashi-sensei?" she says after he informs them of their survival training in the morning, meet at six, so she figures a hearty breakfast and turning up at eleven should be fine. "I have dinner plans, is all."
"Oh?" he says. "Hot date, Sakura-chan?"
"Shiori-ba-sama will be so disappointed if I'm late," she tells him, putting just the right amount of whine into her voice, and he can see straight through the manipulation, she knows he can, but he just smiles - a real one, this time, she can see it under the mask - and tips his head to one side.
"Maa, I wouldn't want to disappoint Aburame Shiori. I guess you'd better get going."
"Thanks, sensei! See you tomorrow!"

Sakura takes the rooftops to the Aburame compound, much too entertained by Naruto's squawk as she throws herself over the railing of the academy roof.

Chapter Text

It's easy enough to tell when Sakura enters the compound, because every single kikaichu in Shino's body begins buzzing in agitation. It's strange, to him, that his kikaichu are so well-attuned to the emotions of another, but he cannot say it has not been useful over the years. For instance, it allows him to prepare himself for whatever emotional outburst his friend is doubtless about to unleash upon him, though the information the kikaichu are giving him about her emotional state is difficult to interpret - anger and fear and shame and several others he finds it difficult to name.

He has barely opened his mouth to greet her as she steps into the house when she barrels forward and throws her arms around him. He pauses, momentarily, and then brings his arms up and pats her on the back.

"You are upset," he says, at a loss for what to do - emotion is not, after all, the strong suit of his clan. This is one of the few situations where he regrets-- not becoming friends with Sakura, but that he is so ill-suited to these needs, but apparently what little he can offer is enough, this time, because she tightens her arms around his neck and then takes a step back, gaze focused on the floor.

"Sorry," she mumbles, scrubbing at her red-rimmed eyes, and he is unsure as to what she's apologising for. He tells her as much, and she gives him a watery smile. "The unexpected hug. I know you don't like it when I ambush you like that."
"I am... accustomed," he allows, turning to lead her into the kitchen, though of course she knows where it is well enough herself. "Will you tell me why you are upset?"
"At dinner. It's-- kind of part of my first day recap. Speaking of," she says, turning to him with a bright grin, and he allows the obvious change of subject, "how was yours?"
"Kurenai-sensei tested our individual capacities. Hyuuga-san has an impressive taijutsu style, but her hesitance hinders her. Inuzuka-san is... loud," he settles on, and Sakura's laughter warms him. He is not much for jokes, but he tries, for her. "A great deal of his taijutsu skills hinge on Akamaru-san growing to his full size, and so Kurenai-sensei has decided we will focus on our tracking skills for the foreseeable future."
"And what did she think of you?"
"My taijutsu was... adequate. She was impressed with my kikai bunshin, though it is still incomplete."
"Looks like you guys are going to be a pretty great team," she says, a wistful note in her voice, and he cuts her a concerned glance beneath his sunglasses. Sakura was not thrilled with her team, he knows, but she was still hopeful, yesterday evening, that they could pull together. Now, she seems less sanguine about the outcome. He is not, he must admit, surprised - Uchiha Sasuke does not seem the type to work well in a team with anyone, and Uzumaki Naruto has a great force of personality that must be worked with or around before he can be worked into a team without overwhelming it - but he looks at the world in a much more coldly logical fashion than his friend.

"Sakura," says his mother, in that deceptively casual tone she's perfected, and Sakura pauses.
"Shiori-ba-sama," she replies, cautious, and Shino decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and sits down. Sakura has been visiting his family for long enough now that she's able to read the minute expressions they show, and can read as well as he can the concern in his mother's face.
"You've been crying," okaa-san says, and Sakura drops her gaze and flushes. "You'll explain."
"Yes, Shiori-ba-sama," Sakura murmurs, and his mother lets her expression soften and deigns to touch his friend's shoulder gently.
"It is concern, Sakura, not censure."

His father is the last to arrive, of course, and brings the sharp smell of chakra ink with him. He looks critically at Sakura for a brief moment before he takes his seat, and she smiles in the nervous, reflexive manner so many of his female agemates possess.

"Good afternoon, Shibi-sama," she says, and otou-san inclines his head.
"Haruno-san," he says. "You promised to tell us of your first day as a shinobi, did you not?"
"I did," she says, busying her hands with serving herself. Shino watches her fidget for a moment, and then reaches across between their seats and lays a hand on her forearm. She stills, darts him a glance, and then takes a deep breath and settles back in her chair. "My sensei is Hatake Kakashi, and-- he tested us. The set-up was designed to divide us; he said he had two bells, and whomever got one would be his student, whilst the third would be sent back to the academy. In hindsight, it was obvious, because of course genin teams are always four-man cells, but he was so serious about it. Naruto got crushed in a taijutsu match, unsurprisingly, and I think Sasuke used an Uchiha fire jutsu."
"You were subjected to genjutsu," Shino says, and believes he may now have an inkling as to the reason behind her hug earlier.
"Yeah," Sakura says, picking at the hem of her sleeve. "I think it must have been Hell Viewing. I saw-- you. Hurt."
"Ah," he says, when she doesn't elaborate. That very much explains things.
"I just needed to make sure you were okay," she says in a small voice. "Intellectually, I knew you were with Kurenai-sensei and your teammates, but emotionally--"
"It is understandable," his father says, quiet and calm, and Sakura gives him a smile.

"Thank you, Shibi-sama," she says, and her shoulders relax. It is possible, he realises, that Sakura puts a great deal of stock in how his family see her, and believes that they may be somehow disappointed by her shows of emotion. The issue with this is, he's unsure of how to disabuse her of the notion. She is not judged by the standards of the clan, because she is not of the clan, and his parents are aware of that. Perhaps, instead, he might put her at ease another way...?

"Sakura," he says quietly, as they eat and she hums inquisitively around her mouthful. "I, too, would be... distressed, placed under such a genjutsu."

Her smile is blinding.

Chapter Text

Sakura really doesn't get the complaints about D-ranks.

Sure, cleaning out the trash filters in the river isn't fun, but she's done harder, more disgusting work visiting her mother's relatives outside of the village. Picking trash out of a grate definitely isn't worse than delivering a stillborn calf, for instance.

Neither of the boys are happy about the work - Naruto is yelling constantly about how gross it is, and Sasuke just has this look of sheer disdain on his face - but Kakashi-sensei keeps giving her these odd looks, like he expected her to be complaining too. The fact is, she's done nearly three times as much work as her teammates by the time they're done, and their sensei tells them so as he divvies out their pay. Sakura stares blankly at the seventy-five percent share in her hands for a long moment and then says, "No, thank you."

"Oh? But you've earned it, Sakura-chan."
"We're a team, sensei," she says firmly, shuffling through the notes and coins until she has a solid third, and hands the rest to the boys in equal measure. "It doesn't matter who did the most when we all did it."
"Hmm," says Kakashi-sensei, eye crinkling into a smile, and he pats her on the head. "If you insist."
"I do," she affirms, stuffing the money into her kunai pouch and folding her arms over her chest. Naruto is staring at her in adoration, but not the kind he usually does - more the way he usually looks at Iruka-sensei. Sasuke merely looks between the money and her for a long moment.
"That wasn't necessary," he says eventually, eyes carefully on his kunai pouch as he puts the money away. "I have more than enough."
"That really isn't the point," she says, wrinkling her nose. "It's the principle of the thing. We can't work efficiently as a team if you two are resenting me just because I'm more used to physical labour."
"Yeah, how come you are, anyway, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks, putting his own money in a frog-shaped wallet. "Most civilian girls are, you know, squeamish and stuff. But you don't mind the dirt at all, and you're friends with that bug guy!"
"His name is Shino," she says flatly, eyes narrowed, and he holds up his hands in surrender and laughs sheepishly.
"Yeah, him! Even Ino doesn't go near him."
"I like insects," she says simply, shrugging. "My mama was a farmer before she married a shinobi, and insects are really important for growing crops and flowers. If they don't pollinate plants, nothing grows."

"And here your file implied you were all book-smarts with no practical grounding behind it," Kakashi-sensei says, clearly amused as he rests a hand on top of her head. "Though it failed to mention your friendship with Aburame-san, either."
"It's nobody's business," says Sakura with another shrug, "but Iruka-sensei knew. I guess he figured it wasn't important enough to put in my file."

Sensei gives her a shrewd look, because there's no such thing as not important enough to put in a shinobi's file. Too important, on the other hand, is frequent, and she makes herself smile blandly up at him. His eye crinkles up and he ruffles her hair gently.

"I guess so," he says. "Hmm, it's not lunch time yet... how about another D-rank?"

"Sensei!" Naruto howls, throwing his arms up in the air, while Sasuke folds his arms and points his best scowl in Kakashi-sensei's direction. Sakura just grins up at him, squinting against the sun.

"What kind, sensei?" she says.

---

Kakashi watches his genin weed a garden with a lazy eye, book held before his face. Sakura - his most surprising genin - is carefully showing Naruto the difference between bindweed and morning glories, and Sasuke is standing nearby pretending not to pay attention, but the next plant he pulls is white, not pink. This team is... less of a complete disaster than he was expecting, honestly. It's not a perfect team - they don't even have complementary skill sets like their fellow teams - but looking at it as parts rather than a whole, it could have been a lot worse. Naruto has the Kyuubi, of course, and the hilarious chakra reserves that come with being a jinchuuriki, but none of the knowledge Kushina had been given by Mito-sama. Sasuke... Sasuke is a complete wreck of a human being, and coming from Kakashi, that's really saying something. The kid hasn't had any therapy, as far as he knows, and that his ambition is to kill a certain man? Yeah, that's going to need the kind of help that Kakashi really, really isn't qualified to give. Why did Sarutobi-sama think it was a good idea to give him a team again? Couldn't they have just thrown Sasuke at him as a chuunin apprentice or something?

Sakura, though-- Sakura, he can deal with. Kind of. She's not a typical civilian-raised kid, but she is civilian-raised all the same, and she seems determined not to let anyone forget it. Her ambition is an achievable one, too, if difficult. He feels almost bad about the fact that, if she'd been the same kind of fawning fangirl that Yamanaka Ino is, he'd have ignored her almost entirely in favour of the last Uchiha and his sensei's son. As it is, he's fiercely glad of her - someone on this team ought to be well-adjusted, and the gods know it isn't him. Her friendship with Aburame Shino is a surprise, but not an unpleasant one. The Aburame are solid, dependable, and most importantly, practical. Knowing that her mother comes from a hardworking labouring background, the friendship makes a great deal of sense.

Besides, it's nice to see a young lady who doesn't scream at the sight of a kikaichu.

---

Sakura never wants to so much as pass through Wave again if she can get away with it.

Not only do they appear to have a chronic infestation of missing-nin, but nobody seems to understand even the concept of honesty, and it makes her skin crawl.

That's not even getting into the complete disaster that their fight with Momochi Zabuza is - not that she's a part of that at all, which also rankles. As much as she understands Kakashi-sensei's reasoning - she's not a powerhouse like Naruto and she doesn't have the jutsu under her belt that Sasuke does - she still doesn't enjoy watching, helpless, as her teammates fight whilst she gets to stand guard over Tazuna-san, clutching a single kunai.

Even Gato dismisses her, letting his gaze wander over her like she's of no consequence whatsoever, and she's glad when Momochi kills him. Speaking of Momochi, the former Mist shinobi survives longer than she'd expected him to - when all is said and done, Gato's thugs killed or scattered, Momochi staggers over to his apprentice's body and drops to his knees with a thud.

"Do it, then," he says to Kakashi-sensei, voice rasping, and her sensei reaches up a shaking hand to pull his forehead protector back down over his sharingan.
"Maa, I don't think I'd do it very cleanly," he protests, and the boys seem confused by the conversation. Sakura, though-- Sakura knows exactly what he's getting at, and she swallows hard.
"I'll do it," she says, more confidently than she feels, and the weight of the two jounin's attention is heavy, but she squares her shoulders and looks Momochi in the eyes.
"Yeah," he says, "you look like the steady one," and she gets the feeling he's not just talking about her hands.

Her hands, which do not shake as she approaches him, as she steps behind him and lays a hand on the crown of his head, titling it back, as she draws her kunai across the soft skin of his throat.

When the deed is done, she looks dispassionately at what was a moment ago a living, breathing human being and is now a cooling corpse, and Kakashi-sensei's hand lands heavily on her shoulder.

"You did a good thing," he says, barely audible, and she untangles her fingers from the dead body's hair.
"I thought I'd feel different," she admits, and the hand on her shoulder squeezes, just once.
"Take your trophy," is all he says, and gestures with his free hand towards Momochi's-- toward Zabuza's huge sword, taller than she is, and she looks at it for a long, long moment before retrieving a sealing scroll from her pouch and sealing it away.

"...Why did you do that?" Naruto asks, voice thin, some hours later, as they bury and burn the bodies of thugs and townspeople. She doesn't need to ask what he's talking about.
"He wasn't going to survive," she tells him quietly, knowing it isn't the sort of conversation she'd want civilians overhearing. "What I did-- it was a kindness. As for the sword, well, it's partly proof and partly practicality."
"What d'you mean?"
"It would be foolish to leave such a weapon lying around," Sasuke puts in from behind her, and when she looks at him, his focus is on his work. "And who would believe Sakura otherwise, if she told anyone she'd killed the notorious missing-nin Momochi Zabuza, one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist?"
"...Oh," Naruto says eventually, and turns back to digging a trench, brow furrowed.

That's the last either of her teammates speak about it.

Chapter Text

"I need to find a kenjutsu teacher for a genin who was marked as a paper ninja, possible genjutsu type," Kakashi mutters into his drink, and his fellow jounin turn stares on him that are variously bemused, amused, and utterly confused. Well, and brightly joyous, but that's just Gai's default, so he doesn't pay it much attention.

"You must tell us which of your students has taken up the noble art of swordsmanship!" Gai booms, and Kakashi sighs, chin propped on his hand.
"Maa, that's not really how it happened," he admits. "It's Haruno, and she, ah... kind of took out an A-class missing nin because I was about to drop from sharingan-induced chakra exhaustion."
"An A-class," Asuma says flatly, and Kakashi raises his eyebrows at him. "Is this the complete clusterfuck of a ranking mistake the old man was muttering about? In Wave?"
"Yeeeep," he says, and Asuma groans and slaps a hand over his face.
"So you now need to find someone to teach Haruno how to use, of all fucking things, Kubikiribouchou."
"Yeeeeep," he agrees, drawing the vowel out.
"My Eternal Rival!" declares Gai, startling Asuma out of his blank scowling, "I shall gladly assist this student of yours to reach the Pinnacle of Youth she must climb in order to wield such a legendary blade! Unfortunately, I will only be able to teach her how to Youthfully increase her physical strength, and so you shall have to find another teacher for the bladework itself!"
"Mm," Kakashi says, and takes a drink as Gai begins to wail about how Hip and Cool his rival is.

The thing is, he's not exactly going to be able to just throw Sakura at a standard kenjutsu user - if that were the case, he'd be able to teach her himself - and frankly, he's not sure there's any point to teaching her any forms at all. Maybe he ought to just have her practice with the biggest blunt weapon he can get his hands on? Ugh, he thinks, why did he agree to students, this was a terrible idea. Putting aside his hilarious inadequacy in terms of, well, emotions, this teaching thing is turning out to be a pain in the ass logistically, too. Keeping the kids alive in the field, he can do, but anything else...? He really doesn't think he's cut out for this. But noooo, Sarutobi-sama had insisted he keep the legacy of Team Seven alive, and Kakashi, like an idiot, had let himself be talked into it.

Thank the Sage, he thinks as he waves the barkeep down, that Sakura's the well-adjusted one. And then he thinks, oh, fuck, I'm going to have to explain to the other two why I'm paying more attention to her in training than I am to them. Shit. Nope. Maybe he can throw all three of them at Gai and the Hokage won't notice for a few weeks? He's sure he can sneak back into ANBU without anyone realising.

---

Sasuke is... interested, by his fellow genin teammate. Not Naruto, of course, because the dead last's going to be a dead last forever, ridiculously deep chakra reserves or not. Sakura, on the other hand-- she's refreshing to be around, though he wouldn't ever say so out loud. She's one of the only girls from his academy class who didn't spend more time squealing over him than training - her and Hyuuga Hinata, who doesn't seem to be able to look anyone in the eye at all - and he's so, so glad she's his teammate rather than Ino. Sage, he'd have killed someone by now if he was on a team with Ino. Whether it would have been himself or Ino is pretty much down to a coin flip at this point. And since Wave - since Zabuza - his respect for her has only grown. He didn't think he had it in him to respect anyone, not after-- that man, but Sakura is steady and practical and scrupulously fair, even to her own detriment. More than that, she'd cut a missing-nin's throat without pause, because he'd wanted it-- not from her, but death had been coming for him anyway, and Sasuke's surprised a civilian-raised shinobi, a civilian-raised kunoichi, would understand the mercy in the act. But Sakura had done it, and she hadn't freaked out at all, except for the one time on the way back to the village he heard her vomiting in the undergrowth, but she'd kept that back until he and Naruto were supposed to be asleep. And she'd explained it to Naruto, too, without even pausing, while Sasuke himself had been too surprised that the dead last didn't know to respond until Sakura had started talking about the weapon. It's one hell of a weapon, too - named, famed, and just taking it had put a huge target on Sakura's back.

For once, Sasuke isn't terrified of his-- of that man taking this away, like he has everything else. Sasuke may not be strong enough to protect her, to protect his team, these people who are so quickly, so frighteningly becoming precious to him, but Kakashi-sensei... As lazy as the man is, he has a sharingan, and more than that, Sasuke's seen the tattoo on his shoulder, and he knows what it means. He hadn't, when he'd seen the same tattoo on that man, but he recognises it now on his teacher. So he's trusting Kakashi-sensei to keep Sakura safe, to teach her to keep herself safe, until he's strong enough. And he will be, he promises himself - he'll get Kakashi-sensei to teach him how to use his eyes, and he'll make sure they can work as a team, because their sensei's words to him on their first day - those who abandon the mission are trash, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash - had meant nothing to him then, but now-- yeah, he thinks he maybe gets it, now, after throwing himself in front of those senbon for Naruto, after watching Sakura kill a man with steady hands. He'd die for them, he thinks, and more importantly, he'll kill for them, too.

This team is his, and Sasuke-- well, he knows himself well enough to admit that he's a fundamentally selfish person.

---

Sakura didn't know it was possible for her arms to hurt this much. She's always had good upper body strength, compared to her peers, but Kakashi-sensei gave her wrist weights and made her swing the sword around at him for as long as she could, and she thinks it might actually hurt less if she just cut her arms off completely right now.

She groans as she drops into the bath, and her mother, stood in the doorway, chuckles.

"Do I need to stand here and make sure you don't drown?"
"Maybe," she admits, leaning her head back against the edge of the tub. "No matter how much I complain, please make sure I do my stretches tonight."
"Mm," says Mama, amused. "No unsheathed swords in the house."
"Yes, mama."

(She does complain, but her mama makes her do her stretches anyway.)

Sakura lingers, the next time she has dinner at Shino's, and waves Shino off when he pauses in the doorway. He narrows his eyes briefly, then nods and leaves her alone with his mother.

"Shiori-ba-sama," she says, drawing idle patterns on the table. "Do you have to be born into the clan to have a hive?"

Shino's mother pauses in her washing up and turns a sharp, inquisitive gaze on Sakura. "No," she says, "however, it is incredibly rare for even those who marry into the clan to take on a hive. I assume you have a reason for asking."
"...I want a hive," Sakura blurts out, gaze firmly on the floor. "I-- I know you have to be part of the clan, but--"
"Sakura," Shiori-ba-sama says, ever so quietly, and Sakura shuts her mouth with a snap. "You are correct that you must be part of the clan, and regrettably, you are not. Were it otherwise, however, it is a request we would be glad to grant."
"Oh," Sakura says, voice thin, and Shiori-ba-sama puts a hand gently on her shoulder. "Thank you, Shiori-ba-sama."
"Of course. You are the outsider closest to us, but as it stands your only way into becoming an Aburame would be marriage, and I do not think you or Shino want that, just yet."
"N-no, Shiori-ba-sama," Sakura mumbles, bright red. She likes Shino, of course, he's her best friend, but she's only twelve. A glance up reveals a thin, almost invisible smile on Shiori-ba-sama's lips, and Sakura pulls a face. Grown-ups.

Shiori-ba-sama pats her shoulder, once, and makes a gentle shooing motion towards the living room, and Sakura goes.

"Oh!" she says as she goes, snapping her fingers, and hollers through the doorway, "hey, Shino, come outside and let me show you this cool jutsu Sensei told me about!" 

Okay, so she hasn't quite got the hang of Hiding in the Mist yet, but Shino just offers her a faint smile as he wrings out his jacket and says, "Critique my kikai bunshin, please?"

(Shibi stands at the back door, watching the two soaked children, his son, happy, and thanks the Sage for putting Haruno Sakura in his path.)

Chapter Text

Shino's being weird, even for Shino, Kiba thinks, as they traipse through the thick undergrowth of the forty-fourth training ground. He keeps twitching his head to one side like he's seen something out of the corner of his eye, but there's nothing there. Kiba looks to Hinata and raises his eyebrows, and his teammate gives him a helpless look in return, obviously seeing nothing in that direction with her byakugan, either.


"Dude," he says eventually, and Shino does this freaking whole body twitch of surprise, and wow, that really is weirder than normal, because Shino is always paying attention to what's going on around him, and even more, this is like the first time Kiba has ever seen him flinch. "What the hell is up with you?"
"Apologies," his teammate says, and Kiba just keeps on looking at him, as he goes very still and twitches his head to the side again, and then-- then things get really, really weird, because Shino suddenly smells afraid. "Hyuuga-san," he says, and his tone is the same as always but his smell is so wrong, Kiba feels his hackles rising, "I would appreciate it if you would lead us towards Team Seven."
"Shino-kun?" Hinata says, and then Shino does something that would have Kiba thinking he was an imposter if he didn't have his teammates' scents imprinted so strongly:
"Please."

Hinata glances at Kiba, who shrugs, though he's pretty sure his expression is completely baffled. What the hell has bug boy so spooked? And what the hell does Team Seven have to do with it?

"Of course," Hinata says, and starts to run.

They burst into a clearing just in time to see Haruno freaking bisect someone with the biggest sword Kiba has ever seen, taking half her hair with it. The smell of relief comes off Shino in waves.

"What the fuck?" he manages after a moment, and she looks at them with murder in her eyes for a fraction of second, before she recognises them, and then her shoulders slump and she smiles.
"I told them to tell you I was fine," she complains, as Shino crosses the space to her, stepping over the top half of a kunoichi in a Sound hitae-ate. She doesn't smell fine, though, all fear and stress and anger, buried under a smell of sickness, sweet and unsettling, coming from beneath the roots of a huge tree.
"Even were they capable of such communication," Shino says, "my kikaichu are not in the habit of telling me untruths."

Kiba shares another long look with Hinata, who moves towards the tree roots, and then looks back to Haruno and Shino, stood only inches apart but not touching, and just cannot understand how Haruno can be stood there, covered in blood and dirt with her hair shorn, smelling suddenly so overwhelmingly of affection that he has to look away.

"I feel like I've missed something," he says eventually, and then the smell of sickness gets stronger and Uchiha Sasuke steps out from beneath the tree. "What."

---

Naruto is pretty sure he missed a whole bunch of stuff while he was out cold - like Team Eight turning up, and also the reason there's half a person just lying around - but Sakura-chan heads off all the questions with a promise that she'll explain when they're at the tower. Except she doesn't, because once Iruka-sensei ushers them inside, she straightens up and squares her shoulders and says, "Iruka-sensei, I need to make a report."

Iruka-sensei's eyebrows go up, but he nods.

"A missing nin who may or may not be Orochimaru entered the exams masquerading as a Grass kunoichi, ambushed us, and laid a seal of some kind on Sasuke, as well as maybe Naruto. A Sound team then attacked whilst my teammates were incapacitated, one of whom I killed. Team Eight arrived shortly after, and already having both scrolls, travelled with us here."

"Thank you, Sakura," Iruka-sensei says, looking kind of grey, and Naruto doesn't hear anything else, because he's too busy staring at Sakura.

"You killed someone?" he says, voice shrill, and Sakura gives him a brittle smile.

"Again," she agrees, and then says, "excuse me," and makes a beeline for the nearest trash can, where she vomits noisily. She waves him off when he gets close, and it's honestly not like he can do anything but hover awkwardly anyway, but he wants to help somehow. How is it Sakura-chan's killed like, two people already, and both times him and the bastard haven't been able to do anything? He hates it, this useless feeling, because teammates are supposed to look out for each other, not just-- just carry the weak ones!

Something nudges him in the ribs, and he turns, startled, to see Sasuke stood next to him, watching their third teammate.

"I'm okay," Sakura promises, wiping her mouth on her sleeve with a grimace. "Or, well--"
"You will be," says Aburame, taking two long strides to set a hand on her shoulder. "I do not think you will be able to avoid counselling for this death, Sakura."

"Uh," Naruto manages, "what?"

"We're supposed to see someone, every time we kill someone, or a teammate dies," Sasuke says to him, barely audible. "I guess Sakura got out of it with Zabuza because it wasn't in combat."
"Kakashi-sensei vouched that I understood the consequences of my actions," she says, and smiles at the two of them as she pats Aburame on the arm and gives him a gentle push back towards his own teammates. "This one, though-- yeah, I'm going to talk to someone about it once the exams are over, definitely."
"Huh," says Naruto, scratching the back of his neck. The useless feeling is creeping back up again - his teammates know so much more stuff than him, and he's pretty sure it's not all things he missed when he was playing truant. He'll have to corner their lazy sensei and figure out just how much stuff he doesn't know that he really, really should, like this - because what if Naruto had had to kill someone in a fight and he hadn't known this, and nobody had thought to tell him because they figured he already knew? Ugh, he'd be a mess, even more than he already is. Honestly, Sakura-chan kinda got the short end of the stick with him and Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei.

"Sorry we're all screw-ups," he mutters, kicking at the floor, and Sasuke elbows him in the ribs again but doesn't protest, and Sakura laughs, but not meanly.

"We're ninja, Naruto, it's kind of in the job description."

Chapter Text

Team Seven spend the next two and a half days resting and, in Sasuke and Naruto's cases, having Kakashi-sensei hover and mutter about seals. Actually, Kakashi-sensei hovers over Sakura, too, but from slightly further away, and in a less involved manner. He doesn't ask her about the Sound nin she killed, just pats her on the shoulder from time to time, and otherwise carries on as if nothing's changed. She is unspeakably grateful.

"Hey," says Kiba, on the second evening, as they shovel plain rice into their mouths, "where'd you get that sword you had?"
"Ah," she says, and scoops another helping up on her chopsticks. "So, uh, did you hear about our first C-rank? We went to Wave, and it... was kind of a disaster, honestly. But I got a trophy, even if I have to keep it in a storage scroll because it's so big."
"Huh," says the Inuzuka, thoughtful, and then goes back to stuffing his face. Sage bless him, she thinks in amusement, and sneaks Akamaru a chunk of chicken from her bowl.

Naruto pesters her for details on what happened after Orochimaru knocked him out until she caves and tells him, even though reliving that six hours is the last thing she wants to do. When she reaches the part about the seal on Sasuke's neck, her less social teammate grimaces and rubs a hand over the juncture of his neck, and Naruto makes a disgusted noise.

"So you got bit by some snake pervert!?"
"What-- shut up, dobe!"
"That's totally what Sakura-chan just said, bastard! Some gross old perv wants your body."
"Ugh," Sasuke manages, looking a little green, "don't ever put it that way again, or I'll make sure it's your sandals I vomit in."
"Oh, gross, don't even!"

Sakura, watching from her seat on the floor of their assigned room, suddenly thinks to herself, I love these two idiots. Then she has a moment of gratitude that they're not looking at her, so they can't see her blush, and then she sets the embarrassment aside and examines the stray thought. Yeah, she thinks after a moment, she does love them. Like slightly irritating little brothers - annoying, but hers, and Sage help anyone who lays a hand on either of them. Which kind of makes Kakashi-sensei the weird uncle, who teaches you things your mother would be horrified by.

"You know," she says after a moment, and the pair of them stop their bickering to look at her, "I bet we're gonna be the best Team Seven yet."

---

They're holding preliminary matches for the tournament round. Of course they are. Sakura wouldn't mind so much, except they're so obviously rigged it's unbelievable. Almost all of the Konoha contenders facing off against each other? The two Hyuuga conveniently pit against each other? And, Sakura thinks with more than a little bitterness, the two other young kunoichi, clearly not proficient in taijutsu, fighting for a place in the bracket to be seen by Kage and clients alike in a month. Sakura stands across the sand-covered arena from Ino and has a brief moment of sympathy - Team Ten arrived only a couple of hours ago, but she's had almost three full days to recuperate from the forest - but reminds herself, firmly, that life, especially the shinobi life, isn't fair. The worst thing, though, is the look in Ino's eyes; not anger, or fear, or even disdain, but indifference. They were friends, once.

Once.

The proctor looks between the two of them, Ino's loose-limbed stance and Sakura's straight back, and brings his hand down.

"Begin!"

Sakura doesn't waste a second.

---

One minute, Sakura's stood across the arena from her, and Ino's bringing her hands up to form the frame for her shintenshin, and then next, she's gone. It can't be a replacement, because there's nothing to replace herself with, no telltale puff of smoke, she's just not there any more. Ino narrows her eyes and brings her hands together to dispel a genjustu, instead, but that doesn't do anything either.

"You should surrender, Ino," says Sakura from behind her, just as she feels the cold blade of a kunai come to rest against her throat.
"What?" she manages, breathless. When did Sakura get this good? She wasn't this good when they were kids, Ino knows she wasn't. And they might not have been friends for a few years, but she can't have improved that much, surely, not when Ino's been improving right alongside her.

The proctor raises his eyebrows at her, and Sakura presses just so, and--
"I forfeit!"

"Winner, Haruno Sakura of Konohagakure."

---

"What the hell was that?" Asuma asks, stunned, just quietly enough to be below the genins' level of hearing. "Did you teach her shunshin?"
"No," Kakashi says, in that flat way of his that somehow still manages to sound smug as hell. "That was a kawarimi."
"No way," Asuma says, scowling, and lights up a cigarette. "There wasn't any smoke or a replacement object."
"The thing with kawarimi is, the better your chakra control, the less smoke you produce, and the bigger a difference in mass you can achieve."
"Yeah, but-- no smoke at all? And what did she switch with?"
"Aha!" Gai booms from beside them, pointing towards the arena as the two kunoichi make their way back up the stairs. "I see!"
"See what?"
"Think deeply, Asuma my friend! What is the arena floor covered in?"

Asuma blinks, once, and then turns on Kakashi with disbelief written all over his face. There is no way. There is absolutely no way. These kids have been out of the academy for six months. Haruno is a damned paper ninja.

"Are you serious? You have a genin with control good enough to kawarimi with a grain of sand? That's-- that's nuts! She must have better goddamn control than Tsunade!"

Kakashi, the bastard, just raises an eyebrow at him and turns back towards the arena.

"Ah, my Cool Rival!" Gai declares, and thumps Asuma on the shoulder dramatically, hard enough to send him stumbling a step forward. "Young Haruno-kun is truly impressive, to have such skill! But your own Yamanaka-kun thought well, Asuma! To consider a genjutsu shows great tactical thinking, my comrade!"
"Yeah," Asuma manages, faint. What the hell, he thinks as he wanders over to commiserate with Ino, has Kakashi been feeding these kids?

Chapter Text

"Alright, kids," Kakashi-sensei says, hands stuffed in his pockets, as the other teams filter out of the tower, "you've got four weeks to figure out how you're going to win your finals matches."
"I'm gonna beat the crap out that asshole," Naruto declares, uncommonly vicious, and Sakura smiles.
"I was hoping for something more concrete," drawls their sensei, but his eye is crinkled up in a smile all the same.
"I have... some ideas," Sasuke says, but doesn't elaborate, rubbing one hand over the seal on his neck idly.
"And you, my most terrifying little student?" Kakashi-sensei asks, turning to Sakura, and she grins at him.
"Well, I guess it depends on who gets through the first round, and which match they decide to make a three-way battle royale," she says thoughtfully, and turns her grin on her teammates. Sasuke narrows his eyes at her, rightfully suspicious, and Naruto tilts his head to one side.
"Huh?"
"Wouldn't a Team Seven second round brawl be fun?"
"No way!" blurts Naruto, waving his hands in frantic denial. "I don't wanna die, you know!"

Sasuke snorts, turning his face away, and Naruto scowls at him.

"Oh, come on," Sakura pleads, still grinning, "I wouldn't kill you. Besides, you can still get promoted if you lose, remember? So... you two better win your matches, so we can show them all how good we are. Got it?"
"Ye-yeah, Sakura-chan! We'll blow them away!"
"As if there was any doubt," Sasuke mutters, but he's smirking.

"Ah, my adorable little monsters," says Sensei, putting a hand over his heart. "But first-- Sasuke, Naruto, there's a seal master in town, and you both need yours looked at."

---

As cheerful as she was talking to the boys - her boys, her mind whispers - Sakura knows that she has much, much more work to do if she wants to come close to winning the tournament. Getting a bye is a boon, sure, but it means she has no idea who she's going to face, and she has to account for fighting two shinobi at once. Odds are they'll both be Konoha shinobi, but there's a possibility - small, given that one of the competitors is Shikamaru - that she'll be facing off against not only two Sunagakure shinobi, but ones who are siblings, at that. She chews her bottom lip raw thinking up strategies, and her mother has to physically divest her of her shuriken and kunai one afternoon a week into their break.

"Rest, sweetheart," she urges, and Sakura makes a small, distressed noise.
"But Mama--!"
"No buts. Go take a nice, long bath, and if you can go the rest of the afternoon without worrying over this tournament, I'll make you anmitsu."

Her mother, Sakura discovers, drives a hard bargain. She complains about it, idly, over dinner with the Aburame family several days later, and Shino makes a quiet sound of amusement.

"Your mother was right to bribe you with sweets," he says, over his own small bowl of shaved ice. "You know it is unhealthy to train to exhaustion, Sakura."
"Oh, shut up. You only have to worry about the creepy puppet guy straight off," she mutters, and shoves a heaping spoonful of orange-flavoured ice into her mouth.

"Do not forget," Shibi-sama says gently from across the table, "that your opponents will likely be tired themselves, if not outright injured. You, however, will be in peak condition-- provided you do not overwork yourself in this preparatory period."
"Yes, Shibi-sama," she mumbles, shamefaced, and Shino pats her on the hand just once. "Anyway," she says stridently, rallying, and points her spoon at Shino, "you better win your matches, okay? And if we fight in the second round, don't you dare hold back!"
"I would not dream of it," he assures her, and she doesn't doubt him for a second.

---

"Up, Shikamaru! Get up!"

The Nara in question groans and covers his eyes with one arm, but it unfortunately does nothing to block out Ino's piercing voice. It's been two weeks since the prelims and she hasn't slowed down once, which is frankly ridiculous given that she doesn't even have a finals match to prepare for. He knows better than to say so, though, considering the first time he did she'd smacked him and reminded him that he did, and he better not shame their team.

A sandalled foot digs into his ribs, and he groans again, rolling over to press his face into the soft grass of the training ground.

"Get up, you lazy bum!"
"Ugh," he manages, "alright, alright, just be quiet, will you? How did I get stuck with such a troublesome teammate?"
"I think our dads conspired," Chouji offers around a mouthful of chips. Shikamaru hums, and drags himself to his feet. "Why are you so obsessed all of a sudden, anyway, Ino-chan?"
"Sakura!" she bellows, charging towards Shikamaru as soon as he's vaguely vertical, and he yelps and jukes sideways to dodge her wild swipe. "Sakura crushed me, Chouji! I have to show her she can't just leave me behind like that!"
"You haven't even talked to her since third year!" Shikamaru protests, throwing himself into a back handspring to avoid being gutted with an apparently freshly-sharpened kunai.
"That's not the point, Shika!"

Ten minutes later, he flops back down onto the grass, considerably more bruised than he was. Turns out mentioning Ino and Sakura's friendship as kids and the subsequent disintegration of it was not his best idea.

"Ow," he says, eventually, and twitches when Ino kicks him in the thigh.
"I have to get better," she mutters, and Shikamaru heaves a sigh.
"Ino," he says, slowly, "you don't need to beat Sakura. You have completely different skillsets. We're a capture and interrogation team, and Team Seven is... a machine made of destruction. They're the heaviest heavy hitter team the village has assembled since the Sannin. They're not even on the same level as us. But--" he says hastily, squinting up at Ino as she draws in a deep breath to yell, "that's not a bad thing. We're all of use to the village, just in different ways. You were never going to be at an advantage in a one-on-one match, Ino, but that's why they put us on teams."
"I guess," she grumbles, scowling, and then gets to her feet and brushes dirt from her legs. "Tou-san said he'd help me with clan jutsu this afternoon, so I'll see you guys tomorrow. No slacking, Shika!"

"She's so..."
"Troublesome?" Chouji suggests, as Ino disappears into the village, and Shikamaru gives him a sour look, but takes a handful of the offered chips. "It was good of you to do that, though."
"We're a team," he says, like that explains everything. "Besides, if I let Ino turn into a crazy training monster I'll never get any sleep."
"Mm," says Chouji, licking the last of the salt from his fingertips. "Wanna practice your kagemane versus my baika?"
"Yeah, okay."

---

Hinata is feigning sleep to avoid having to look her father in the eye, a week before the finals of the chuunin exam. She's fairly certain he's aware of her state of consciousness, but this way neither of them have to pretend at being politic. Her father has visited her every day since her bout with Neji, and they haven't spoken once. She has plenty of ideas about what he might say, and she can freely admit she doesn't want to hear any of them. It's cowardly, unbecoming, but-- Hinata is willing to put this off for as long as she can.

There's a sigh as he father decides today's vigil is over, and a quiet scrape of the chair as he stands. The door opens, but instead of the soft click of it closing, she hears a voice.

"Oh, Hyuuga-sama!" says Haruno Sakura, sounding more polite than Hinata imagines most of her yearmates would.
"You are... Haruno," says her father, a statement rather than a question.
"Yes, sir."
"What is the new holder of the fastest chuunin exam match doing visiting my daughter?"
"I'd like to consider Hinata-chan a friend," Sakura says, steel in her voice now, and Hinata blinks her eyes open and sits up just enough to see through the door. Sakura is stood facing her father, a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and her other is clenched into a fist. She's looking Hinata's father right in the face, in a way Hinata hasn't had the nerve to in years. The line of her father's shoulders betrays his surprise that anyone, let alone a civilian-born genin, would be so forthright with him.
"I see," is all he says, after a moment. "Then I will leave you to it, Haruno-san."
"Have a good day, Hyuuga-sama."

Her father nods, once, and moves off down the corridor, and Sakura watches him, eyes narrowed. Then she turns back towards the hospital room and her eyes go wide as she sees Hinata sitting up and awake.

"Hinata-chan! I'm sorry I haven't visited before, but I got caught up in training. Here!" she adds, thrusting the bouquet out in front of her. Hinata can see differing pink flowers, a sprig of small yellow blooms, and pale white-pink petals.
"It's beautiful, Haruno-san," she murmurs, and Sakura flushes as she sets it in the empty vase on the bedside table.
"Call me Sakura," she pleads, moving stems just so. "I, ah, hope you like the arrangement. I picked flowers I thought fit well, ah, meaning-wise, and luckily they look nice together, too."
"I see... Hawthorn?"
"Yeah," Sakura says, pointing to the white flowers. "For hope. The spruce, too. Cedar and fennel for strength, carnations for health."
"That's very thoughtful of you," Hinata says, bemused. "If you don't mind me asking, Sakura-san, ah... Why?"

Sakura turns to look directly at her, wearing the same expression she had when she'd told Hinata's father she considered her a friend.

"Because I think you deserve something nice, Hinata. Your cousin tried to kill you in an exam match. Nobody has bothered to bring you flowers - though I know Shino wouldn't because his brain doesn't work that way, and Kiba's, well, a boy, and boys don't think about things like that, but-- I meant what I said to your dad, you know. I would like to consider you a friend. And if-- if you're okay with that, I'd like to work on it. Okay?"

"O-okay," Hinata manages, momentarily dumbstruck. The idea that someone just wants to be her friend? It's baffling and completely new to her, but... she thinks she might like it. She hasn't had a friend who wasn't pushed into the situation first. "Okay," she says again, stronger. "I'd like that too, Sakura-chan."

The change of honorific is not lost on her new friend, and Sakura beams.

---

Sakura's weak point is, without doubt, her taijutsu - which is why, the day before the finals, she's performing kata in Team Seven's training ground, stood on the river.

"Maa, my cute little student hardly needs me at all!"

She turns her head to see Kakashi-sensei, dramatic as ever, hanging from the bottom of the bridge, and smiles as she brings the set to a close.

"Kakashi-sensei," she says, and tilts her head to one side. "I thought you were helping Sasuke with his eyes this month?"
"Ah, well," he says, eye crinkling, "I thought I should check up on all of you. Wouldn't want anyone to have an unfair advantage, after all."
"You're wrong, by the way," she says, settling into another set, splitting her attention between the water-walking, the kata, and her sensei, "I'll always need you, Kakashi-sensei. You should never stop learning, right?"

Kakashi-sensei claps a hand over his chest and says, "My Sakura-chan is so smart and kind!"

"Now you're sounding like that green spandex sensei," she tells him, deadpan, and he winces.
"That's just rude," he protests as he drops from the underside of the bridge to stand on the river with her. "Do you think you're ready?"
"I don't know," she admits, and then yelps and fumbles her chakra, sinking to her ankles before she regains control, as Kakashi-sensei lunges forward. "Sensei!"
"You need to be prepared for anything, Sakura-chan," he says cheerfully, and she scowls at him as he forces her into a spar. "This will do wonders for your chakra reserves, you know!"
"That's why I was doing kata!" she says, ducking clumsily under a strike. "I wasn't planning on sparring!"
"Well, how else are you going to improve? Kata only help so much, you know."
"You are the worst!" she shrieks as he sweeps her legs out from under her, and she plants her hands flat on the surface of the river to pull herself back to her feet, hair wet and stringy in her face.

It's actually... nice, to have this kind of attention from her sensei, when he's normally so scrupulous about paying equal attention to all of them or focusing on one of the boys. He's going easy on her, of course, but he's not making it easy for her. All he really seems to be doing is slowing himself down to her speed, and she thinks he might be deliberately aiming for her weaknesses, forcing her to close up any openings she's unintentionally leaving. Of course, he also feints all the time, and she keeps ignoring them only for that particular strike to turn out not to be a feint at all. She's hit him once or twice, though, and he's effusive with his praise when she does.

"Alright, we'll stop here," he says finally, when the sun is at its peak, and she sighs and lets herself sink into the river, sits on the riverbed and lets it cool her aching muscles. "You're getting there, Sakura-chan," he promises, softer than usual, and sets a hand on her head with a crinkly-eyed smile. "Eat a good lunch and dinner, go to bed early, and pay close attention to your potential opponents tomorrow, alright?"
"Yeah," she mumbles, and manages a smile. "Thanks, Kakashi-sensei."
"Maa, just doing my job."
"Thanks anyway," she insists, and he pats her head and shunshins away.

Chapter Text

The stadium is huge. That’s Sakura’s first thought, upon entering. Easily three times the size of the arena the preliminary matches had been held in, this one also consists of more than bare dirt. The southern edge is forested, the western a rocky terrain reminiscent of what she’s read about Earth Country.

“I’m knocking that asshole into the lake,” Naruto mutters, squinting at the eastern side of the arena, and Sasuke hides a snort of laughter in his sleeve.
“I’ll buy you ramen if you set his hair on fire,” she returns, as quietly as she can manage, though Kiba apparently hears, if his sudden bark of laughter is anything to go by. She shoots him a grin over her shoulder, and he bares his teeth in return, nudging Shino and Hinata. Hinata smiles shyly at her, a flower tucked behind one ear, and Shino tilts his head in acknowledgement. She brings a hand up in what she hopes seems like a natural gesture to most of their competitors and gently touches the female kikaichu nestled behind her ear, and catches the slightest edge of a smile beneath her best friend’s cowl.

Said best friend is the first to be called, and Sakura gives him a thumbs up as he moves past her to the stairs. She waits until he and his opponent are facing each other before she leans over the railing and yells, as loudly as she can, “Kick his ass, Shikkun!”

He twitches at the nickname, almost imperceptibly, and turns his head just enough to meet her eyes, his own visible over the top of his glasses.

“Of course,” he says, voice level as always, “Sacchan.”

Sakura can’t keep back the delighted laugh that bubbles out of her at the sound of her own much-maligned nickname, and folds her arms against the railing to watch a Suna puppeteer get his ass well and truly handed to him.

“You’re such nerds,” Sasuke mutters at her side, and she snorts and elbows him gently in the ribs.
“If you ever call me that,” she tells him cheerfully, “there won’t be enough left of you to bury.”
“Jeez, how come we got the scary one?” Naruto whispers from their teammate’s other side, and Sakura catches the incredulous look on Sasuke’s face as he gestures in Team Ten’s direction. Naruto wrinkles his nose.

“Maa, I’m proud to be the sensei for the most terrifying team of this year’s graduating class,” Kakashi-sensei says, patting the two boys on the head.
“Who won last year?” Sakura asks, tilting her head up to look at him.
“Gai, of course.”
“Green spandex sensei?”
“Mm. Please,” he adds, ruffling her hair, “never call him anything else. Especially in earshot of any other jounin.”
“Anything for sensei,” she promises, and gets treated to a crinkly-eyed smile.

Shino does, indeed, kick the puppeteer’s ass - honestly, she’s surprised he let Kankuro think he was getting away with the switch for so long - and when the pair of them return to the stands, he allows Sakura a brief hug, patting her once on the back.

The next match is only interesting in as far as watching Asuma-sensei physically hold Ino back from leaping down into the arena to murder her own teammate.

“Shikamaru!” She howls, and the Nara heaves a great, long-suffering sigh as he slinks behind Chouji, who’s too busy sniggering to take sides.

Then it’s Naruto’s match, and Sakura’s teammate is uncharacteristically serious, fists clenched.

“Remember,” Sakura murmurs, “free ramen if you set his hair on fire.”

That startles a laugh out of him, and he gives her a double thumbs up as he vaults over the railing.

(He does set Neji’s hair on fire, but the satisfaction of seeing it is overwhelmed by the sheer horror of the truth of the Hyuuga branch clan’s suffering.)

“I feel like I should buy him ramen too,” she murmurs to Naruto when he returns, shell-shocked, “pity ramen.”
“Naw,” her usually cheerful teammate says, “shitty past isn’t an excuse to be a dick.”
“Subtle,” Sasuke says from her other side, rolling his eyes, and Naruto gives him a bright, squinty-eyed smile. “Am I that bad?”

There’s a telling silence as Sakura tries to figure out how to politely say, ‘yes, but you’re getting better’ whilst Naruto is just nodding vigorously. Kakashi-sensei sighs and pats Sasuke on the head.

“Admitting you have a problem is the first step,” he says solemnly, and then, “you’re up! Have fun, my cute little student, and try not to die!”
“You probably shouldn’t say that so cheerfully, sensei,” Sakura tells him as Sasuke makes his way into the arena, and Kakashi-sensei shrugs expansively.

Shino comes to stand beside Sakura as the fight begins, laying a hand over hers where she’s gripping the railing. She’s indescribably grateful when he lets her turn her hand over and tangle their fingers together. Watching Sasuke poke and prod and probe at Gaara’s sandy defence doesn’t, it has to be said, make for interesting watching, despite the variety of strategy her teammate is showcasing - it’s a good decision for an exam bout, where winning or losing isn’t the end game - but there’s something deeply unsettling about Gaara’s complete and utter lack of expression. Sasuke’s getting frustrated, too, she can tell by the set of his shoulders, but he doesn’t lose his temper, only lets loose a Grand Fireball as cover to jump back and fly through a set of seals Sakura hasn’t seen him use before.

Then there’s the sound of chirping birds, and bright afterimages behind her eyelids, and Gaara is screaming. A great wave of sand is rushing towards Sasuke, and Sakura doesn’t think, just moves

The last thing she feels as chakra exhaustion crashes over her is sand, gritty against her skin, and she closes her eyes.

—-

Sasuke can barely think as he and his fellow rookies chase Gaara, because all that’s going through his head is why? One minute he’d been preparing to leap out of the way of a massive sand wall, and the next, he was back on the viewing platform, staring down at the arena.

Sakura had done the impossible again, apparently, when it came to using kawarimi. He just doesn’t understand why. Why she’s always the one on this team that makes the hard choices, what he and Naruto ever did to deserve her.

He runs, focusing on the bright blonde head in front of him, because if he gives himself a moment to think, he’s going to think about her, in that crushing sand coffin, and he can’t, can’t afford to fall apart, not yet. Naruto is yelling, raging, tearing through the forest after Gaara, but that’s not the scariest thing - no, that’s Aburame. Aburame is furious. His kikaichu spread out before him like a carpet, and any shinobi, Sound or Sand, that make it past, he dispatches with terrifying efficiency. He only releases the puppeteer from the grip of his bugs when the older boy begins to beg, sobbing, and Aburame’s blank expression has never seemed so cold. They leave Kankuro unconscious beside a pile of sawdust that was once a puppet.

Watching Naruto stand atop a giant toad facing off against a tanuki made of sand, Sasuke feels helpless, and seethes.

—-

Naruto forgives the Ichibi jinchuuriki, because that is who he is, but Shino never will. He will work with him, should it prove necessary, because coexistence is more important than his personal feelings, but he will never, ever forgive him.

Sakura looks terrifyingly small in her hospital bed, swathed in bandages and sprouting a multitude of tubes, and there is only a splash of her bright hair to be seen. There is a vase full of flowers on the windowsill, brought by Hyuuga-san and Yamanaka-san just this morning, a huge stuffed animal courtesy of Naruto, and a scroll on advanced chakra control techniques from, Shino assumes, Hatake-sensei. He himself has presented his friend with no gifts, not least because she is not awake to appreciate them, but also because he is here, himself. Additionally, the news he has to give to her when she wakes is not pleasant, and a gift would seem… churlish. A poor attempt at an apology for her loss. No, the best thing he can think of is to be here, and weather whatever emotions she displays regardless of how uncomfortable it makes him - though that is, he must admit, a great deal less than it had when they were children.

In the time before she wakes, there occurs a great deal in the village, including the funeral of one Hokage and the inauguration of another. It is the new Hokage, in fact, who wakes her, barging into the hospital room still in her robes of office and ignoring Shino entirely except to say, “Hands off a minute while I work, kid.”

He does as he’s told, sits still in the uncomfortable chair whilst Senju Tsunade heals Sakura, wakes her, checks her mental function and then orders her to stay abed until told otherwise. Then the Hokage turns her head to him, narrows her eyes, and nods once before leaving.

“Shikkun?”
“Sakura,” he says quietly, shuffling closer to take her less-damaged hand in his own. “You… missed a lot.”
“No,” she says with a surprising amount of sarcasm considering her state, “really?”

Chapter Text

Sakura spends the next week in a haze, like her mind has decided the best way to deal with loss is to just— stop. Shino’s worry is apparent in his more frequent physical affection, his solicitous questions. Shino-sama and Shiori-oba-san are as unobtrusive as ever, even when she’s sleeping in their spare room, though Sakura’s certain she’s eaten more fruit in the last week than the month before. She doesn’t cry, though, not at the funeral - a mass one, for all lost in Orochimaru's attack - and not when they visit the rubble of her house to see if any of her things can be salvaged. No, what makes her cry is this:

“Shibi and I have decided,” Shiori-oba-san says, one morning at breakfast, “that we would like to offer you the choice to become a member of the Aburame clan. The Haruno name would still be yours, to use or not as you choose.”

A week after Shino tells her that her mother is among the dead, Sakura bursts into tears and hides her face in her hands, and sobs out, “Yes.”

—-

There is a ceremony, of course, because nothing less would satisfy one of the village’s oldest clans, and when Sakura steps into the circle of Aburame gathered in a corner of the district, the very air hums. She takes a deep breath in, lets it out, and steps forward to face Shibi-sama.

“Haruno Sakura,” he says, solemn, as she meets his eyes - without glasses for the first time in her memory, “this eve you become Aburame, and to be Aburame means to hold a hive. In your contemplation, you have seen the hives, been told their purposes. Have you selected one for your own?”

“I have, Shibi-sama,” she says, and somehow her voice doesn’t waver. It’s a form question anyway - he’d been the one to show her the clan laboratories, explain the hives to her, recommend that she take on one of their experimental hives, one bred not just to deprive the enemy of chakra but pass it to the host in turn - but ceremony is important. She doesn’t think the Aburame elders would turn her away just for a small misstep here, but they’re going to be her family now, and she wants this to be as perfect as possible, for them as well as herself.

“Then shed your skin, Haruno Sakura, and become Aburame.”

She shucks off the heavy clan jacket she’d been given, revealing the halter top beneath, and as Shino steps behind her with the queen of her hive in hand, he allows his shoulder to brush hers, as great a gesture of comfort as he can show, here. She flashes him a brief smile, lets her tense shoulders relax despite the pain she knows is to follow, and kneels before her new clan head.

“I am ready, chichi-ue.”

There is a sudden hush as the rest of the clan take in the implications of Sakura calling Shibi-sama father in the most respectful fashion she can, and the corners of his eyes crinkle in amusement, and she’s so, so glad he let her keep this secret until this moment. This little slice of melodrama, of leaving the clan guessing just whose family she would be joining.

“Then we will begin... musume.”

Sakura can’t stop the bright smile that spreads across her face even if she wanted to, and Shibi-sama lays a hand on the crown of her head at the same moment as Shino’s settles between her shoulder blades, and the queen begins her slow, agonising work.

—-

There is a bench perhaps twenty feet from the village gates, and Sasuke slows as he approaches it, the pink hair recognisable even in the dark.

“Are you here to stop me?” He says, lowering himself onto the empty end of the bench, and Sakura scoffs.
“I’m acclimating to a hive, Sasuke, I don’t think I can so much as lift my arms right now, let alone fight you. Not that I need to, right?”

He just hums, and his teammate huffs and slumps sideways, resting her head on his shoulder. He brings his arm up and around her shoulders after a moment, and she tilts her head to grin up at him.

“Orochimaru offered me power,” he says, staring out into the forest beyond the gate. “Power enough to kill—”
“That man?”
“Itachi,” he says finally, and if his voice catches on his brother’s name, she doesn’t mention it. “He told me to grow strong, seek him out, take my revenge.”

He’s never told anyone this before, but then, before now - before Team Seven - he hadn’t had anyone to tell.

“I think that’s dumb,” says Sakura, and he makes a strangled sound that quickly becomes a cough. “I mean it,” she continues, poking him in the ribs with a scowl, “if I were you, I’d do the exact opposite of what he wants out of sheer spite. And I know you’re good at spite.”

He laughs, despite himself, barely more than a breath, but she turns that grin on him again regardless.

“It’s a thought,” he admits. “...Do you really believe I’m not leaving?”
“Those who break the rules are trash,” she says lightly, and he turns away to hide a smile.
“But those who abandon their comrades are even worse,” he finishes, and feels her nod against his shoulder. “When those Sound creeps told me to meet them here, I’m pretty sure I sensed Kakashi-sensei on the roof.”

Sakura laughs, breathless, and pats the hand on her shoulder.

“Of course,” she says. “Ugh, now I have to get back to the compound without, like, passing out.”

Ten minutes later, Sasuke is staring, blank-faced, into Aburame Shibi’s eyes.

“Aburame-sama,” as bland and professional as he can manage, “I believe this belongs to you.”

Shibi takes a prone Sakura from his arms, ignoring her sudden fit of the giggles, and responds, just as solemnly, “Thank you, Uchiha-sama.”

Sasuke walks back to the Uchiha compound with Sakura’s delighted laughter ringing in his ears.

—-

Turns out there’s a really good reason the Aburame have such a hold on their emotions, Sakura discovers as she stands beside Sasuke, seeing Naruto off. She’s literally buzzing with anger as she says, “Were you even gonna say goodbye, you idiot?”

“O-of course I was!” Naruto babbles, and she can smell the lie on him. She narrows her eyes, and he begins to frantically wave his hands. “You still need to, like, recover and stuff!” Sincere. “And bastard’s like, slammed with gross hospital stuff already, so I figured—”
“What, that we just wouldn’t notice?” Sasuke mutters, arms folded, and Naruto rubs the back of his head sheepishly. “Stupid, the quiet would tip us off straight away.”
“Sorry,” Naruto murmurs, looking down at his feet, and Sakura heaves a sigh and hauls him into a hug with a hand around his wrist.
“Idiot,” she says fondly, and drags a protesting Sasuke in with her other hand. “You better not die out there, okay?”
“Ugh, can you imagine Inuzuka as Hokage?” Sasuke says, and Sakura squeezes his arm in thanks as Naruto squawks, outraged.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll come home for the hat before you know it, believe it!”
“I do,” Sakura tells him firmly, looking him right in the eye, and his bright grin softens into something more real. Sasuke nods, once, sharply.

“Maa, my cute little students are all grown up and leaving me behind,” Kakashi-sensei laments, and Sakura turns to see him holding a hand over his chest, mock-injured.
“I woulda if you’d been any later, lazy sensei!” Naruto yells, and their sensei just sighs.
“Sorry,” he says, as insincere as ever, “I had to help an old lady carry her groceries home.”

Then his gaze moves from Naruto to the man he’ll be journeying with for the foreseeable future, and he goes from goofy sensei to deadly jounin in a blink.

“I expect my student back just as he left, Jiraiya-sama.”
“Better,” Jiraiya-sama promises, looking the most serious Sakura has seen him. “Come on, brat, we’re losing daylight.”
“Yeah,” Naruto says, and then lunges forward to hug her and Sasuke again, pressing them backwards into Kakashi-sensei’s broad chest, too. “I’m going.”
“Take care.”

Chapter Text

The village hasn’t changed at all in two years, Naruto thinks - even the gate guards are the same. He waves at Kotestu and Izumo as he passes, letting Ero-sennin sort out their (boring) paperwork. He has people to see! At least, he hopes he does, because the reply to his last message was just ‘yay!’ signed with a little flower. He doesn’t think Sakura would have forgotten, or not told Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei, so he turns himself towards their training ground and walks, taking in the atmosphere, breathing in the deep, green smell that is Konoha. He’s missed it.

The training ground is empty when he gets there, but only for a moment - Sasuke appears in a swirl of leaves with Sakura slung over his shoulders like a sack of flour.

“Uh,” says Naruto, and Sasuke huffs.
“Here,” he says, and dumps Sakura into Naruto’s waiting arms without pause.
“I’m home,” he manages faintly, and Sakura breaks off from glaring at Sasuke to smile up at him.
“Welcome home, Naruto! Put me down, please.”
“Don’t,” Sasuke says, narrowing his eyes at her. “Welcome home, idiot.”
“I’m fine!” Sakura protests, but she doesn’t struggle to get out of his arms, so he just keeps hold of her. “It was just a little break!”
“If you walk on that in the next six hours, I will know, and I will force your hive out and make you heal the civilian way.”
“Naruto!” Sakura appeals, looking up at him with wide green eyes, “Sasuke-kun grew up so mean!”
“What’s the first thing Iruka-sensei ever taught us about injuries?” Sasuke returns, and Naruto blinks, thinking back.
“Don’t… argue… with the medic?”
Don’t argue with the medic,” he confirms, and Sakura heaves a huge sigh and folds her arms.
“Fine,” she mutters mutinously. “Anyway! Looks like you get to carry me to Ichiraku’s, Naruto! Welcome home lunch! Everyone’s going to be there!”
“Sensei’s on a mission,” Sasuke adds, turning away from them and towards the village, “but shishou was planning on leaving the office to Shizune-san for a couple of hours. You can tell us properly about your run-ins with Akatsuki.”
“Man, it’s such a shame Hoshigaki-sempai is with them,” Sakura laments, as Naruto swings her around onto his back, “he’s pretty okay, otherwise.”
“Please,” Sasuke says, deadpan, “never call the giant blue shark-man sempai in my hearing range ever again.”