Chapter 17: missions

Chapter Text

A week after his spar with Sakura and throwing Shin at an unsuspecting Hayate, Kakashi is still riding the high of well-executed meddling.

(it helped that Sakura had caught onto the reason for him involving Hayate almost immediately, and, when her brother had gone off to spar with the tokujo, had shuffled over to Kakashi and laid her head against his shoulder, a point of heat against his side. she didn't say anything. she didn't have to. Kakashi understood the instinct to help and protect even if he no longer had a pack to apply it to.)

Two weeks later, Sasuke finally gets the Hosenka down, and Kakashi's given a front-row seat to the Uchiha smiling.

A month after the spar, and a little over a month and a half after getting his team, Naruto starts whining about a C-Rank.

(Kakashi panics. he goes looking for Gai first, but the man is on a mission. Genma's out of the Village as well, and Yugao in the hospital, recovering from an Earth jutsu to the leg. Bear, when Kakashi stalks into ANBU HQ in full uniform, tells him that Mongoose is on a mission with her new team and he needs to 'get the fuck out of HQ or he'll be benched permanently', so Kakashi goes.)

(not before slamming the door to the Commander's office, though.)

The next day, he accepts five D-Ranks in one day, and by the end of it, Naruto is too tired to so much as think about a C-Rank.

That only lasts him another week.

The next time Naruto asks, he goes to Genma, who's visibly tired and hungover when he opens the door, but still eyes him with that assessing gaze, then laughs in his face. Kakashi flips him off and heads to find Yugao, but when he gets to the window by her room in the hospital, he spies Hayate already in there with her, and decides against disturbing them.

He's not expecting Shin to find him as he's making his way to HQ again, after demolishing a training ground in a fit of frustrated helplessness in an attempt to work off some of his anxiety.

"Sakura is on a mission." The teen informs him, pushing away from his seat in one of the outdoor cafes closest to the hidden entrance into HQ Kakashi favours. How the teen knows about that though, he has no idea.

"She got home two days ago and I told her to go see you when she could, but she got called out this morning again."

"Why such a short turn-around?" Kakashi asks tensely, trying not to show his surprise when Shin falls into step with him. "And why would you tell her that?"

Shin shrugs.

"Apparently, there's a high demand for infiltrators." He answers lightly, and Kakashi fills in the gaps: because most of them have an expiration date before they're identified and eliminated. "And I felt you storm by my apartment, not to mention that Hayate-shishou told me you're panicking."

"I am not panicking-!"

"-I really don't care." Shin cuts him off, frowning up at him, though his pace doesn't slow in the least. "You're obstinate, but you're rational. If you're this worried about assigning your team a C-Rank, you must have a reason. So? What is it?"

Kakashi studies the teen, feeling more than a little thrown, but Shin doesn't so much as blink in the face of his scrutiny, and Kakashi gives in.

"…They're fragile." He confesses after a few seconds, using the same explanation he'd given Sakura over a month ago, surprisingly not feeling too embarrassed about admitting the same to her brother. "And I don't exactly have a good track record with the simple missions. A and S-Ranks I can do, but I've never had a C-Rank go according to plan."

"That's dumb." Shin comments mercilessly, though he holds up a hand before Kakashi can snap at him. "I just mean, nobody says you have to go to enemy territory. You could request a mission within the Land of Fire, minimise risk as much as possible, and if something still goes wrong, then at least you'll know that you did the best you could to prepare for it."

When Kakashi merely stares at the teen in a somewhat startled silence, Shin scoffs, finally looking away.

"The Hokage is your Uzumaki student's ward, somewhere down the line, if you go by the old laws pertaining to orphans. If you frame your hesitance for going above D-Rank as a concern for your students' safety, and request a fairly local mission, I don't see a reason why the Hokage should deny you."

Kakashi blinks, shocked to realise that he actually feels…somewhat better.

Reassured.

He debates thanking the teen, but realises that any show of gratitude would cross the invisible line in the sand between them, so he just raises a hand and tugs on Shin's ponytail, flickering away before the senbon the teen grabs in retaliation can touch him.

He's got a Hokage to accost.

Wolf appreciates that their new teammate fits into the team without much issue. After that first meeting when he'd been almost certain Mongoose would ask to be reassigned before running a single mission, the kid surprised him by sticking around, and somehow managing to wrangle Bat and Crow into a far less reluctant compliance than Wolf had come to expect from the two.

It helped that his newest teammate didn't lag behind even with the pace he would set, didn't need to be coddled on missions despite their obvious youth, and was able to hold their own in spars – barring he avoided using his more unpleasant genjutsu – and did surprisingly well in the two skirmishes they'd gotten into over the four missions they'd ran.

It also helped that their tiny teammate always had spare rations and a full plastic water bottle on top of their usual canteen, as well as more medical supplies than Wolf, Bat, and Crow combined, and the kid seemed more than willing to hand them out freely.

He'd gone through the effort of tracking down Mongoose's file after their first mission though, because he didn't make the connection between the fact that the kid's prior assignment had been to Team Ro with the type of missions and leadership Mongoose was probably used to as a result.

Wolf knew Hatake the way most Yamanaka did; through the irate grumblings of whatever unfortunate Clan member was tasked with carrying out the man's Psych Eval every year. The grumblings were mostly about the man himself, as it was generally well-known that Hatake was an obstinate bastard, though a few of his clansmen also dared voice their annoyance with the abject refusal from on-high to heed their warnings that the Copy-nin was not fit for fieldwork.

The man was twenty years of trauma in a flak jacket; he likely shouldn't have been field-approved since even before the Yondaime's death.

Those in ANBU that didn't have the Yamanaka insight into the man's psyche still knew Hatake by sight, even if they'd never ran missions together. Hound was one of the few operatives for whom the mask was rather redundant, so people still made the connection between Hound the ANBU Captain and Hatake Kakashi, bastard extraordinaire.

Due to the man's history, anyone who actually worked with Hound long-term was both, lauded for their survival, and watched with the same scrutiny as Hound himself.

The Uchiha Massacre only made that worse. It was no secret who Weasel had been to those who'd been in the forces at that time. Naturally, one of their own killing almost the entire Clan then going rogue didn't exactly help Hatake's infamy in ANBU either.

So, Wolf deemed his caution justified, and went on a hunt for Mongoose's file in the short downtime between their missions.

What he found was...standard. Almost alarmingly so, considering the team the kid had belonged to, and very much in-line with what Mongoose had divulged when he'd asked. There was one intriguing report about a poison extraction performed on a teammate in the field, but the write-up seemed to imply it was due to a familiarity with the poison used more than anything else.

The file painted Mongoose as a decently well-rounded agent: solid taijutsu despite their comment about needing to improve it, decent mastery of ninjutsu, knack for spotting genjutsu if not casting them, which Wolf had to grudgingly concede, some familiarity with the kodachi of all things, above-average speed and a surprising number of successful infiltrations and assassinations under their belt.

All in all, it sounded like the file of someone who'd spent most of their life in the shadows and had picked up enough in every field to not have whatever specialisation they'd started out with stand out on paper.

It would've all been fine - nothing to scoff at, but nothing spectacular, either - if only the operative it described wasn't eleven years old.

Still, Wolf wasn't exactly a people-person by anybody's standards, either inside the ANBU or out. Since the kid had proved she could handle herself, he wasn't going to treat her any differently.

Though the fact that she'd survived over a year in ANBU despite being, for all intents and purposes, a civilian child...complicated things.

What complicated things even more was their second mission with Mongoose, where Bat had gotten injured - like an idiot, because who in their right mind doesn't expect explosions from Iwa missing-nin? - and, after the fighting was over, all the enemies dead, Mongoose had approached the man with a hand encased in a familiar green glow, a question in the tilt of her head.

Bat had gratefully accepted the offer, but Crow had shot Wolf a sharp look.

Medics in ANBU were coveted. Wolf could count on the fingers of one hand the number of fully qualified med-nin in the ranks, and because of that, they were on a rotation system, assigned to whatever team's mission was most likely to go to shit. Hatake not writing the kid down as a med-nin in her file had likely been done so that he wouldn't have to share, and since Team Ro's missions tended to go to shit more often than not from what Wolf knew, it made sense.

It was still a dick move, though.

There were few capable medical ninja who could hold their own on the field, especially on the level ANBU required, and fewer still who came to ANBU from the hospital or any formal training. Most 'medics' that ran missions were simply shinobi who'd survived long enough to pick up the bare essentials over the years, and made do with the rest.

Yet, after watching Mongoose heal the vicious burn on Bat's arm in a couple of minutes, it was abundantly clear that she'd had training.

Which raised the question of when? And from whom? As far as he was aware, the kid didn't exist outside of the shadow ranks.

Still, Wolf decided keep his mouth shut and observe from a distance. He mentions that the kid was proficient in field first-aid in his report of that mission, covering his ass as it were, but he doesn't do anything beyond that.

He's starting to like the kid, goddamn him.

Three weeks after his talk with Shin, Kakashi is sure the gods are laughing at him.

And, perhaps, he muses idly, even as oxygen deprivation makes his vision go dark around the edges, it is high time to have a talk with his quietest student.

While Naruto was hiding unexpected intellect, as well as the Shadow Clone technique beneath the veneer of loudmouth dead-last, Kakashi is almost certain he has the boy figured out by now.

Sasuke, for all the trauma and brooding and above-par competence, is also just a twelve-year-old boy, and once Kakashi realises that – once he realised that, for all that he sees a reflection of himself in the boy, Sasuke is not yet as far gone as he had been at his age – he decides he could probably write a 95% reliable manual on how to handle his sourpuss Uchiha.

Sai, he'd thought, was the easiest. Consistent, yet only marginally above-average Academy scores, solid mastery of the Academy Three, mastery of throwing weapons on par with Sasuke's, and speed that Gai wouldn't have scoffed at for a genin. His only noteworthy attribute had been his skill with the tanto, but the weapon had been so generic yet also so specific that Kakashi had decided to give the boy the benefit of the doubt and dismissed it.

Only now, stuck in Zabuza's Water Prison, does he realise what had rubbed him the wrong way about Sai's perfectly average scores across the board, and his mind goes back to his sensei's words when he'd first joined ANBU, after he'd voiced his shock at recognising his then-teammate as a boy from his graduating class who'd disappeared from the Academy even before Kakashi had.

"Deception is a shinobi skill just as much as ninjutsu and taijutsu are, Kakashi-kun. Those who fooled their instructors within a certain degree of error as to the extent of their abilities were recruited directly from the Academy into Intelligence or Black Ops. Back when the graduation age was lower, Tobirama-sama made an unspoken guidebook of criteria for those wanting to go directly into specific branches of our society."

Sai had been aiming for an ANBU candidate, then, though as far as Kakashi was aware, the practise had been discontinued around the time Sarutobi returned for his second term, by which point, Sai shouldn't have even known about its existence.

Subterfuge being Sai's goal from the start would certainly explain what he's seeing now, though.

The student he'd dismissed as self-sufficient and a bit of an airhead is now crouched at the head of the triangle formation his genin have fallen into, one that he had taught them during one of his let's-treat-fresh-genin-as-ANBU-recruits training sessions, with Tazuna at the centre, passably-ambidextrous Sasuke on the bridge-builder's left, and Naruto on his right.

There's a focused look on the part of Sai's face he can see, no sign of the light-hearted boy always ready to pull out a notepad and coloured pencils to capture the colours of the setting sun, or run his fingers over the soft petals of a blooming flower, or spend just a little too long for a shinobi eating every hot meal, because all food that is not rations should be treasured, sensei.

No, instead, Sai radiates cool focus, his tanto clutched confidently in his left hand, even though, to Kakashi's knowledge, he prefers his right hand in combat. But his right hand is busy, flying across the scroll spread over his bent leg, seemingly heedless of the Zabuza clone heading for them with waves of Killing Intent radiating from him.

Then, when the clone is within twenty feet of them, there is a pulse of chakra and four cartoon beasts peel themselves off the scroll on Sai's lap and lunge.

One heads straight for the clone, jumping high, and Kakashi belatedly realises that the creature is a large saber-toothed tiger. Zabuza's clone raises the Executioner's Blade and slashes directly at the underbelly of the tiger, yet instead of guts, ink spills out, drenching the blade and its wielder alike. Disoriented, the clone doesn't dodge in time, and the second tiger bowls it over, fierce jaws snapping over its head until the clone turns into a puddle of water, effectively dispelled.

In the three seconds that it took two of the beasts to dispatch the clone, the other two covered the distance between Sai and Kakashi.

The two tigers jump at Zabuza, a split-second's difference in their tempo, yet while Zabuza easily slashes through the one that lunges for his sword-arm, Kubikiribocho is far too heavy and unwieldy for him to manage to bring the blade across his body and dispatch the one that targets the arm holding Kakashi prisoner.

Sharp-toothed jaws close around Zabuza's arm, and Kakashi gets his answer as to the damage the apparently sentient cartoons can deal out when the swordsman curses and drops his blade, a kunai appearing in his hand instead, yet even as the tiger erupts into a fountain of ink, a liberal spray of crimson joins it and Zabuza is forced to wrench his arm free from Kakashi's prison or risk losing the limb.

(Out of the corner of his eye, Kakashi sees the single tiger that had stayed on shore toss something suspiciously shark-looking into the water, and he thinks he sees a dark shape head for Zabuza's sunken sword, but he keeps his attention on the swordsman.)

He uses the unexpected window of opportunity when Zabuza leaves himself open to reflexively protect his wounded arm and delivers a punishing side-kick to the man's ribcage, sending him flying back-!

-straight onto the tusk of the cartoon sea creature that emerges from the water, Zabuza's sword clutched in its toothless maw, and Kakashi watches with alarming detachment as the tusk pierces straight through Zabuza's back and ends up just an inch or two south of the swordsman's heart.

Zabuza looks down, surprise clear in his eyes as blood begins to trickle down from the wound, the horn solid enough to act almost as a cork for most of the blood. Yet the swordsman doesn't appear to see it as the good it is, because he uses the kunai still in his left hand to slash blindly downwards and the creature bursts into ink and Zabuza falls, but before he can break the surface of the water, three senbon glint through the air and embed themselves in his neck. A hunter-nin materialises from seemingly thin air and catches his body, bent knee under his back, one arm around his neck – mindful of the needles, Kakashi's dazed mind supplies – and another pulling his damaged arm over their shoulders.

"Thank you for your assistance, Hatake-san." An soft, androgynous voice filters through the mask, and Kakashi wants to object, his brain calling up a protest but unable to focus enough to decide what it's protesting against, and then, between one blink and the next, the hunter-nin disappears, Zabuza in tow.

Kakashi makes his way to shore, body heavy with chakra-drain and the remaining adrenaline from the oxygen deprivation coursing through his veins, and shoots his students a crinkled eye-smile.

"We're going to have a talk about hiding skills from your commanding officers." He announces cheerfully, mentally adds again, then, his world spins for the final time and his vision goes black.

Sai sits in the field a bit away from Tazuna's house, a day and a half after their encounter with Zabuza. Kakashi is still unconscious, Sasuke asleep at the house, and Naruto out cold in the meadow where he'd been practising tree-walking until he passed out.

But while Sasuke had had the common sense to head back to the relative safety of their temporary accommodation when exhaustion caught up to him, Naruto was either too stubborn or too ignorant of his own body's signs. Something Sai is going to rip into him for once he wakes up, because having to go looking for his teammate past midnight in an unfamiliar land because the idiot hadn't come home had assured that Sai wouldn't be getting any sleep that night.

Not that he has been anyway, but that was beside the point.

He could've carried Naruto back to the house, but he trusted Sasuke's instincts enough to know that the Uchiha would wake up if he registered any threat, and if at all possible, Sai preferred to avoid Tazuna's house, especially if his daughter and grandson were also present.

Seeing the disparate family reminds Sai of all the families like their client's that he'd killed while under Danzo's thumb. Defenceless civilians whose throats he'd cut in their sleep, or whose water supply he'd poisoned with one of Sakura's toxins, or whose children he'd held at knifepoint until they surrendered.

Yeah, no, holding vigil over Naruto while the boy sleeps peacefully under the canopy of trees sounds like a much better option than being confronted with just how different he is from his teammates.

When the sky begins to clear though, pre-dawn light bathing the meadow in a soft, foggy glow, Sai takes out his sketchbook and decides to keep busy however he can, even if it means drawing the various flowers and herbs around them. He spreads out his chakra sense like Shin taught him, and makes sure he doesn't let himself become fully distracted even as he makes himself comfortable.

He plays with shading and switches between styles, then tries to label every herb he's drawn once he no longer feels like sketching. Trying to remember all the many times Sakura had tried to drill at least basic first-aid into him is a good memory exercise, and it keeps him busy and awake when exhaustion starts weighing his limbs down in a way that's becoming progressively harder to ignore.

"Ah, that's actually calendula, not arnica, though I understand the confusion."

Sai throws the charcoal stick like it's a senbon before he quite realises he's moved.

There was chakra in the throw, so it covers the distance between him and the mysterious speaker in a split-second, but his exhaustion makes the throw sail wide, and it doesn't hit the newcomer as he'd intended, instead striking the bark of the tree behind them, crumbling into dust.

"My apologies." The newcomer says, holding their free hand up in a placating manner, "I didn't mean to startle you."

Sai frowns, his exhaustion pushed momentarily aside in favour of hyper-awareness. He shouldn't have been startled, because his chakra-sense is still spread out in a ten-metre radius. Which means the newcomer, despite the civilian attire, is definitely a shinobi, and a good one at that.

"…It happens." He accepts the apology, after far too long for it to not be rude or awkward, but the other teen just smiles.

"I mean you no harm." They assure him in a quiet, strangely soothing voice, gesturing at the basket cradled in the crook of their elbow. "I'm merely here for the herbs." And they smile again, slowly getting to their feet, and Sai lets his shoulders relax fractionally.

He doesn't drop his guard completely, even as he finally takes in the other shinobi fully and sees the carefully-constructed fa?ade of innocent civilian. The other person is dressed in a short-sleeved, pale pink kimono, their dark hair long and loose, their sandals completely unsuited for combat, and Sai can't detect any obvious weapons hidden around their body.

Of course, that doesn't mean anything for shinobi of a certain level. He himself is far more dangerous with some ink and paper than he is with a kunai. And, he can acknowledge that he would be far more convinced by the – arguably well-constructed – fa?ade, if not for the fact that he also goes for the guileless genin mien around Kakashi, when in reality he's anything but.

"I apologise for attacking you." he says at length, when the other shinobi seems to stay true to their claim to only be there for the herbs, wondering whether Sakura and Shin would approve of his quest to find out more information, or sigh at him for his curiosity.

"It's alright." The other raven replies, shooting him another small smile. "You didn't actually hurt me, and I did startle you."

Sai hums, not sure what to say to that, and considers the herbs the teen has gathered. He recognises chamomile, echinacea and goldenseal, but there are a few others, and Sai frowns, considering their applications.

"There's some burdock and comfrey under that tree." He offers, mostly to see the other teen's reaction, and catches the minute tensing of the other's back before they turn to him, curious now.

"…Thank you." there's an intelligent glint behind the wide brown eyes, and Sai realises that he isn't the only one observing and calculating. "I'd thought to ask you, but being able to recognise medicinal herbs doesn't actually mean knowing their use."

There's an open question in the idle phrase, though it's said with no expectation nor inflection to make it official, but Sai has spent more than half his life deciphering Shin; he hears it anyway.

"My sister studies medicine." He replies, somewhat grateful for Shin's endless lessons about coded language and how to hold entire conversations without giving away anything of value.

"She enjoys reading aloud, and was insistent I knew at least basic first-aid." He shrugs, carefully careless. "I suppose some of the lessons stuck."

"Your sister sounds wise." The teen murmurs, heading in the direction Sai has indicated, gaze falling almost absently on the still-slumbering Naruto. "Your friend?"

Sai sees the dig for information for what it is, as well as the double-edged sword hidden beneath the idle words; his reaction to the other teen's presence had betrayed him as a shinobi, and Naruto is, fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, wearing all his holsters. Seeing as he's about 95% sure the other teen is a shinobi, this is a very easy way to find out whether Sai will lie to him. He sighs.

"Teammate." He offers, aiming for that same carefully-neutral tone the other employed. "He didn't come back to camp for the night so I went looking for him."

"That's considerate of you." the other teen returns, turning to face Sai, though he doesn't move to stand up just yet. There's a small, almost playful smile playing around the corners of their lips now, and their eyes, when they glance at Sai, are bright. "You never know what strange folk lurk about these lands."

Sai can't help his snort at the words, nor his intrigue at the new dimension of the battle of wits the other teen has offered.

"You're hardly the strangest I've seen." He shoots back, watching as the teen tips their head and laughs quietly, eyeing the black choker around their neck. It's placed in such a way that it would rather strategically hide any protruding cartilage that could betray their gender either way, if androgyny, not femininity, is the goal.

"Ah, excuse my manners." The raven demurs, sweeping their hair behind one ear, though it's a futile endeavour. "I'm Haku." Their eyes, when they meet Sai's gaze, are amused, making him realise the other is likely aware of his contemplations from moments earlier. "I'm a boy."

"I'm Sai." He replies, opting against a fake name. He already doesn't have a surname, and, if this boy is who he's starting to suspect he is, then he already knows who Sai is. Instead, he says the next thing that comes to mind, sleep-deprived as he is, which is; "You're very beautiful. Would you let me draw you?"

Pure shock colours Haku's face, followed almost immediately by a rather endearing blush. "I- ah, um- thank you?"

"It was a fact more than a compliment, but you're welcome nonetheless." Sai shoots back, unable to quite bite back the smile that's pulling at the corners of his lips, and the other boy huffs, though it appears mostly in good humour.

"Why do you want to draw me?" Haku asks, confusion, suspicion, and slight bashfulness evident, and Sai realises with a start that the boy isn't being as careful to hide his reactions as he was at the beginning, though Sai doesn't even try to capitalise on the fact; he's enjoying their back-and-forth far too much.

"Like I said: you're beautiful, I'm an artist. Beauty is something I like to appreciate." He considers the sketchbook in his lap, then offers it to the other boy. "Here. Have a look."

He knows every sketch that's in there inside and out, and there's nothing incriminating, nor anything that could be used against his family. Haku stares at him for a minute, then shuffles closer. He takes the sketchbook like he expects it to turn into an explosive tag, then eyes Sai again before carefully settling opposite him, closer than before, and opening it.

Instead of watching his sketches, Sai watches Haku's face. Watches the simple joy in his eyes when he flicks through Sai's many drawings of flowers, the awe at Sai's attempt at capturing the sunset over the river that cuts through training ground 7, the way his lips tick up when he finds the sketch of Sakura's summon, little Tamaki-chan, back when she was small enough to pass for a house cat, lounging in the spot of sunshine on Sakura's bed.

Haku spends the longest on one of Sai's only attempts at slice-of-life: a scene from a few weeks earlier, with Shin's lungs healed and Sakura back from her sabotaged mission, her arm in a sling. It had been sunset; Shin sat in the alcove by the window, one knee raised, straight arm resting against it, head tilted to look out the window and watch the people passing by on the street below. Sakura was perched on the floor by the sofa, legs crossed, a scroll spread on the floor before her, and though Sai only drew her profile, he'd still caught the thoughtful frown on her face.

Sai watches as Haku traces carefully over his siblings' figures, his fingers fluttering above the paper, as if not daring to touch.

"You care for these people. A lot." He murmurs, glancing up at Sai, expression unreadable.

"They're my siblings. Aneue and aniki." He replies, feeling his own lips quirk up in a fond smile. "They're precious to me."

"Precious." Haku echoes, gazing at the drawing again, before he looks at Sai. "Like beauty is precious?"

Sai's smile turns wry, because- well. There wasn't really a reason he shouldn't have expected another test from the teen.

"Not quite." He admits, and Haku gifts him with a smile when he doesn't even try to lie. "I wouldn't kill for beauty."

Haku's eyes are sharp when they snap to him, but when he realises that it's a statement and not a threat, something almost…relieved replaces the wariness.

"I understand the sentiment." The other boy murmurs, surprising Sai. "Though I'm afraid I must raincheck being your model. The person these herbs are for can't afford for me to dawdle much longer."

Sai tries not to let his disappointment show, accepting the sketchbook back, silently appreciating the care with which Haku handles it.

"I understand." He manages, though he's aware his voice has lost its earlier warmth. "I wish you well."

Haku smiles, and it's sadder now, tinged with something Sai doesn't dare put a finger on. The other boy sighs and gets to his feet, picking up his abandoned basket like he'd almost forgotten it was there.

When he's almost at the treeline, Sai speaks, unable to let the question go unvoiced.

"Haku," he calls, and the other boy pauses, turning indulgently, "is Zabuza after Tazuna for his own agenda, or because Gato is paying him for it?"

The air around them drops in temperature by a good ten degrees. Then, Haku is suddenly in front of him, basket abandoned, face a blank mask, the earlier softness gone, senbon pressing dangerously against Sai's trachea.

"You should be," the boy murmurs, his breath fanning over Sai's face, his face closed off and eyes narrowed, "very careful with your next words."

"I said my piece." Sai replies, feeling the senbon pierce skin when he speaks. "Which is it?"

Haku studies him narrowly, not lowering his weapon, and Sai absently realises that the other boy is almost in his lap, his knee resting rather uncomfortably on Sai's crossed shins.

"Gato pays well." Haku says at last, drawing back slightly, though keeping his needle against Sai's throat, and Sai appreciates the caution, even if it's misplaced.

"…But he's a means to an end." He fills in the blank, watching as something bitter twists Haku's face for a split-second. Carefully, telegraphing his every move, Sai brings his hand up and wraps his fingers around the other boy's wrist, though he doesn't so much as try to push Haku's hand away from his throat.

"And if he were to be…removed?" he asks, feels Haku's pulse jump beneath his fingers as the other boy considers his words.

"Then Zabuza-san would have no reason to do his bidding." Haku admits, eyes boring into Sai's. Or pursue Tazuna and your team, remains unspoken between them, but Sai still hears it.

Sai licks his lips, a nervous tick he can't quite shake, and the other boy tracks the movement before his gaze snaps back to Sai's eyes.

"Will you tell me where he is?" Sai pushes, carefully not smiling when Haku lowers his senbon, though the raven makes no move to remove Sai's fingers from his wrist.

"He has a shinobi guard." Haku warns him, and Sai smiles wryly.

"That's okay." He replies, squeezing Haku's wrist. "You may have realised I'm not exactly a normal genin."

Haku smiles too at that, a quicksilver thing, there and gone again, and rattles off the location, along with an approximation of Gato's schedule.

"Thank you." Sai murmurs, releasing the other boy's wrist with a final squeeze, and dropping his eyes, letting the other teen disappear if he wishes.

"No, Sai-kun. Thank you." and Sai is startled by the hand that cups his cheek, tilting his head up briefly to meet the other boy's gaze. "I hope we meet again, though I dread that it'll be as enemies."

And then Haku is gone, not so much as a breeze to betray his departure, and a quick glance around proves that he's taken his basket with him.

Sai smiles, wide and determined, and he resolves not breathe a word of this encounter to Shin or Sakura.

Still, he pulls out a scroll and sets to writing a message in their favoured shorthand. He has a mobster to kill, and for that, he'll need to secure some protection for his team and some sleep for himself.

Wolf's decision to keep his mouth shut and observe from afar changes a month and a half into having the kid on the team, on their fifth mission outside the Village. They're in the Land of Rivers, circling back from Hidden Valleys after a successful infiltration-assassination where the kid took centre-stage, when a white shape flies overhead, then dips, heading unerringly for their newest teammate.

Mongoose freezes, jerking the rest of them to a halt, and holds her arm out for the messenger bird to land on.

Only, upon closer inspection, it's not a messenger bird at all, but a black and white three-dimensional drawing of a bird, a scrap of fabric in its beak. Then, it shifts before their eyes, becoming a slip of paper, the fabric falling at Mongoose's feet.

There's a moment of silence, then-

"Shit."

Wolf eyes the girl sharply, less due to the language used and more because of who it comes from.

Then, he nearly startles when the kid is suddenly right in front of him, head tilted up to stare at him, giving him a glimpse of vibrant green eyes beneath her mask.

"Taicho, I have a request." she says, and despite the mask muffling her words, he can clearly hear the desperation in her voice, though the determination in her eyes tells him that it's a request only in name.

He inclines his head, willing to listen, even if that turns out to be as far as his acquiesce goes.

"I just got a distress signal from my brother. He's on Hound-taicho's genin team. They were attacked by Kiri missing-nin. Hound is-" she pauses, swallows, barrels on, "team leader's down."

Despite the urgency to her tone, Wolf has to appreciate the thought in her wording; not a single name, no identifiers, no location. Even if any undesirables are within hearing range, they won't be able to gleam anything from what she says.

"And the request?" he pushes, because he has an inkling, judging by the fact that she's personally involved with at least two people on the team, but he wants to hear her say it.

"We're ahead of schedule for our mission. I know their location, and we're close. Can I-" she cuts off the question before it has a chance to fully form. Pauses. Breathes. Rewords. "Requesting permission to detour to survey the situation and offer whatever assistance needed?"

Wolf studies the girl, then holds his hand out for the note. Mongoose hesitates, but obligingly passes the paper over, and Wolf studies her for a moment longer before turning his attention to the note.

He feels his eyebrow climb up despite himself.

. LoW. 4HOS, /, TL OoC. 2HOS X, 1HOS M.Z, 1 UNK. .

It's...the shortest of shorthands, almost incomprehensible at first glance. Either made with no Intelligence training, relying on familiarity of the receiver to convey meaning, or with so much Intelligence training as to know that the hardest to break ciphers are often the most straightforward ones.

He reviews what Mongoose had told him, considering the note again.

is the easiest to decipher, especially considering genin: civilian escort. Judging by the fact that Mongoose had said they're close, LoW is definitely Land of Waves. 4HOS...4 hostiles, likely, the crudely-drawn, crossed out slashes a mockery of the Kiri hitai-ate, missing-nin at that. TL OoC gives him pause, but then he remembers the wording Mongoose used: team leader. Team leader...out of commission? Probably. Two hostiles dead, one whose identity is known, M.Z, one unknown? Then, assistance required, or requested, doesn't matter really.

M.Z gives him pause, though.

Wordlessly, as if sensing his confusion, Mongoose reaches for his belt, digging into his pack. Wolf freezes, Bat and Crow along with him. Him at the fact that the kid doesn't show even a flicker of fear, them likely at the girl's sheer nerve; Wolf knows seasoned jounin who'd pause before going within three feet of him. After a moment though, Mongoose pulls out his Bingo Book, flipping through the pages until she stops at the one she's looking for, and turns it over so he can see.

Momochi Zabuza's profile stares back at him.

...'Shit' indeed.

"Do you trust the information?" he checks, because he's not about to go gallivanting off to civilian-land and risk coming across an S-Rank missing-nin on false info of all things.

"The technique is unique to my brother. Only he could've sent it, and the message was coded to my chakra: it wouldn't have opened for anyone else."

The words are reassuring, but the tone they're said in makes them sound more like 'fucking duh'.

"...Bat, Crow, make camp somewhere. We'll meet you at the border by the ocean three days from now. If we're not back then, assume we need extraction."

He can feel his teammates' disbelief the moment he finishes speaking, but he's more focused on the child in front of him. She sags with relief at his words, making it clear that while she would've likely gone anyway, not having to do it with the accusation of insubordination hanging over her head is a welcome development.

Wolf almost smiles behind his mask.

"Alright, Mongoose." he orders, and the kid straightens, snapping to attention. "Lead the way."

And, just as he's thinking that this is probably the weirdest situation he's had happen on a mission in a good five years, it gets weirder.

Because Mongoose bends down, picking up the scrap of fabric she'd dropped, then crouches and goes through a sequence of very familiar hand seals before slamming her palm against the ground.

When the smoke clears, a...cat? appears, up to around Wolf's knees, white with pale grey markings all over its body.

"Sabotage, hime? Again?" The tiny summon chirps, looking exasperated. "You need a desk job."

"Ah, not this time, Tamaki-chan." Mongoose demurs, making a move as if to scratch at her cheek, before realising that her mask is in the way and letting her hand drop, offering the scrap of fabric to the tiger instead. "Otouto's in trouble, though."

"You should've led with that!" The tiger chastises, then looks over Mongoose's shoulder at the rest of Wolf's team, before focusing on him, as if only just noticing them.

The pale blue eyes that drill into him are too intelligent by half for that to be the case though, and there's an unexpected weight behind the feline's gaze when Wolf holds it.

Sabotage. he belatedly realises the summon had said. 'Again', at that.

Something in Wolf's stomach twists uncomfortably. He doesn't care. He can't care. Mongoose is just a temporary addition. She'll go back to Team Ro as soon as Hatake gets his brats through the Chunin Exams.

She doesn't need him.

Yet, Mongoose turns to him for guidance, and despite her clear haste, waits for his nod of approval before she gives the go-ahead to the summon.

Then they're running, and Wolf has an excuse to not think about anything for a while.

The Land of Fire is prosperous. The most prosperous out of the other Nations, barring perhaps Lightning, but that's because they trade in diamonds and precious gems.

Land of Waves...doesn't reflect that prosperity.

It's been a few years since the last time Wolf was anywhere near the area, but he doesn't remember the poverty and malnutrition being quite so bad, or far-spread. A recent development, then.

Mongoose is quiet beside him, grim, and Wolf figures he'll wait until after they make sure Hatake and his brats are alright before he asks for an explanation.

He can be considerate like that, sometimes.

Despite running at shinobi speed, it's still night-time by the time the tiger slows down.

"They're in the house about two hundred metres ahead." the summon informs them as they stop at the treeline. "I count three civilians and four shinobi. Sai-chan is on the roof."

"Thank you, Tamaki-chan." Mongoose sighs, bending down to scratch the tiger under its chin.

"Always a pleasure, hime." the summon purrs, tilting its head to get a better angle for the scratches.

"Be sure you introduce my brothers to your new team soon. Hopefully in better circumstances than the last time." it adds meaningfully and Mongoose huffs, making the tiger laugh before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

"Thank you, taicho." The girl says suddenly, a propos nothing. "This means a lot to me."

"You realise I'll want an explanation after this, don't you?" he shoots back flatly, but to his surprise, the girl just laughs quietly.

"That's fair." she agrees, adding under her breath, "I figure I owe you one."

Then, as if she's said what she wanted, she sets off again, and Wolf has no choice but to follow.

When they reach the roof, he almost doesn't notice the genin at first, and it takes him a moment to realise that the boy is stifling his chakra and scent-blocking.

Mongoose turns her back on Wolf without a care, and that, too, is novel, heading straight for the boy, pushing her mask aside the moment he spots her, and Wolf watches the genin's whole body go tense before he relaxes and gets to his feet with surprising grace, letting Mongoose pull him into a desperate hug.

"You came." comes the quiet, relieved whisper from the boy, followed immediately by a fierce 'of course' from Wolf's subordinate. He can't see her face given that her back is to him, but the hand she has on her brother's neck moves, her fingers tapping an odd rhythm against the boy's skin.

Wolf sees the teen tense again, then flat, onyx eyes flash to him, and he disables the stealth jutsu he'd unconsciously activated, the technique second nature by now, and makes sure the boy can see his hands.

"That's Wolf-taicho." Mongoose murmurs, though her fingers don't stop tapping, and the boy relaxes. "He allowed this detour."

"Thank you." Mongoose's brother - Sai, if he remembers what the tiger had said right - says after a beat, making as close to eye-contact as he can through Wolf's mask.

Foolish, he muses, or fearless.

"For not making my sister have to do something stupid to get here." The boy adds.

...Fearless, then.

"You seem certain that she would." Wolf can't help but point out, and he gets an odd smile from the boy for his words.

"Oh, absolutely." Mongoose replies, and though her words are light, Wolf can hear the weight behind them. Can hear the threat.

Her fingers finally stop moving, and Wolf realises belatedly why the pattern had seemed weird. Why he even noticed a pattern at all.

Morse code.

He almost laughs again.

The hand that had been tapping whatever message Mongoose couldn't say out loud stills, then glows green, checking for injuries. "Teammates?"

"Sleeping below. Only scratches and fatigue." the genin reports, sagging slightly in his sister's hold, and Wolf wonders when was the last time the kid had slept. "They were scared, though. Didn't help that sensei collapsed right after the battle and hasn't woken up since."

"I'll make sure Kakashi books them an appointment with Psych, when you get back." Mongoose mutters, smoothing back her brother's hair. "When was the last time you slept?" she asks, voicing Wolf's thoughts from a moment earlier.

"Sensei used his Sharingan most of the battle, so I think it's just chakra depletion, but he was also held underwater for a while, so I don't..." the boy swallows, pulls back from the hug, and pauses in the same way his sister had, mere hours earlier. "Haven't been able to since the fight. Naruto and Sasuke are good for genin, but they wouldn't be able to sense Zabuza approach, and he's not exactly subtle. With sensei out of commission, I just...couldn't."

There's...a lot to unpack there, Wolf muses, but Mongoose speaks before he can get into it.

"I'll take a look at Kakashi. If there's anything other than chakra exhaustion, I'll fix it." She kisses her brother on the forehead, then slips her mask back over her face as she turns away from him.

'Give me a moment', she signs to Wolf, then hops off the roof, leaving him alone with the genin.

Once his sister disappears, whatever fatigue the boy might've been feeling is wiped away, and his eyes affix themselves to Wolf, his posture tight. Ready.

"You're a Konoha-nin." Wolf placates, wondering why a fresh genin has the instincts of a war veteran. "And a child. I won't harm you."

The boy just smiles humourlessly and doesn't relax in the least, and Wolf thinks back to the summon's words again: sabotage.

"You mentioned an 'unknown' in your message." he speaks up again when a few seconds pass in silence, and the boy narrows his eyes. "Anything you can tell me about them?"

The boy studies him for a moment, that same contemplative air around him that his sister had displayed, then nods sharply.

"They were dressed like Kiri hunter-nin." he says, and Wolf absently wonders whether it's normal for genin to know what Kiri hunter-nin dress like.

"They hit Momochi on the neck with senbon, here, here, and here." he continues, pointing to the spots on his neck as he says them. "And they hit their target from up in a tree, at least fifteen metres away."

That's impressive, almost worrying marksmanship, but Wolf is almost more worried by the fact that the kid knows that.

"It would've all been fine, if not for the fact that the hunter-nin then took Momochi's body away." he pauses, frowns. "The whole body."

...Definitely too familiar with Kiri hunter-nin protocols for a normal genin, Wolf decides.

"Not a real hunter-nin, then." Mongoose's voice floats over to them as she reappears, voicing what they're all thinking. "Likely an accomplice."

"Naruto and Sasuke were too keyed up on adrenaline to be of much use, sensei was weakened and unconscious, and someone had to protect the client." the boy rattles off, something fragile in his tone, even if his face is impassive. "Pursuit seemed...unwise."

Mongoose must read something else in her brother's voice though, because she sweeps over to him and pulls his head to her shoulder.

"Nobody's blaming you, Sai." she says fiercely, and, ah. That makes sense. "You considered the circumstances, made a decision in the absence of your team leader, and got all of your team as well as the client to safety. You did good. You can sleep now."

The boy fully sags then, letting his body fall against his sister's, who braces for the added weight with chakra in her feet, then slowly sinks to the ground, stretching her legs out in front of her and guiding her brother's head to rest on her thigh.

The boy is out like a light in a matter of seconds.

Mongoose sighs, then turns her head to look at Wolf, before patting the spot on the roof next to her meaningfully. After a moment, once she sees him start moving, she carefully reaches up and takes off her mask and the attached hood, and Wolf almost misses a step.

Though the features are still child-like, with big green eyes and smooth, unblemished skin, the expression on the girl's face makes her look old. And not just old but tired. Weary. Like she's seen too much.

Carefully, Wolf takes a seat next to her, though he doesn't move to remove his mask just yet.

"You told Bat and Crow three days." she murmurs, licking her lips absently, then that keen green gaze slides to him. "I figure we can wait till the morning, then head off. There was nothing wrong with Kakashi beyond a few cuts and bruises and a bad case of chakra exhaustion, but the Sharingan is a goddamn leech. He'll be unconscious for at least another day without a chakra transfusion."

Wolf doesn't say anything, and the girl takes a deep breath.

"If Momochi comes between now and the morning, I'll take him." she pronounces shortly, and Wolf stills at that declaration. "I don't expect you to get involved in the fight for me, taicho."

"...You think you can take the Demon of the Mist by yourself?" he asks, not sure if he's actually incredulous or once again merely needs to hear her say it.

Mongoose looks at him, licks her lips again, a nervous tick, then nods, not dropping eye-contact. "Yes."

"Alright." Wolf sighs, then reaches up and wrenches his ANBU mask off, tugging off his hood while he's at it. "I'd like that explanation now."

Sakura stares up at her captain, completely thrown.

He's a Yamanaka.

…She's fucked.

Chapter 18: masks

Chapter Text

He's a Yamanaka.

…She's fucked.

Wolf-taicho is tanned, with ghostly pale blue eyes and curly straw-blond hair that reminds her of Shisui's in its wildness. He looks anywhere between mid-twenties to early thirties, because while he seems young, there's a distant look in his eyes, one that she'd seen on Tsunade's face the few times her shishou had dropped her masks around her.

He looks tired in the way that sleep can't fix, and something in Sakura aches in sympathy.

Yet her taicho's most noticeable feature is the scar that runs across his face, the tissue raised and pale pink, starting at the outer edge of his left eyebrow, cutting over his eye, across the bridge of his nose, and ending less than an inch away from the right corner of his lips.

It's a miracle it didn't gouge out his eye when the injury happened.

Sakura has stared the Head of T&I in the eyes and not blinked, but something about her taicho makes Ibiki look like a child, and she gets the feeling Wolf isn't actually trying to be unsettling.

She swallows.

To tell, or not to tell?

She studies her captain, takes in the way he's just sitting there, waiting for her, eyes scanning their surroundings almost idly, though she knows he's likely on hyper-alert, despite his posture.

"My name is Sakura." she begins belatedly, deciding to start from the most obvious, having to clear her throat of the lump that had formed there. "I have two brothers."

She strokes Sai's hair gently, certain that the teen won't so much as stir at the act with how exhausted he'd been. If it's also an excuse to not look at her captain while she says her next bit, well. Nobody needs to know.

She takes a deep breath and drops her bombshell.

"All three of us were once in ROOT."

Sakura feels more than sees her taicho tense at that, and closes her eyes.

She weighs up how much she knows about her captain (not much), how much she trusts the man (...probably more than she reasonably should) then how much he seems to trust her (enough to allow her 'request' and not immediately stab her just now, so. yay?).

Then, she considers how much Genma, Yugao and Kakashi had been hurt by her keeping everything a secret for eight months, and finds that her decision is already made.

Absolute worst case scenario, she can probably kill Wolf herself, if he reacts negatively.

"I was taken into ROOT at six years old." She tells him, keeping her eyes closed, and her captain is completely silent at her side.

"Sai and Shin, my other brother, were already there. We planned and prepared for almost four years, and then we, well." she smiles sardonically, though she doesn't open her eyes. "We brought ROOT down."

She's pretty sure Wolf has stopped breathing.

But now that she's talking, she doesn't feel like she can stop.

"Afterwards… Shin was ill. Lung disease. He's been in the hospital the last few years. Sai was a child at heart, despite everything, so he was placed in the Academy, to be socialised. And I...I fell into ANBU."

"Nobody falls into ANBU." her captain's voice breaks the heavy atmosphere and prompts her to open her eyes, because this is the first time she's heard his voice without the mask to filter it, and he sounds…rough.

His head is turned away from her, but there's a grimace twisting his lips and she thinks he might be angry. Not at her, though, if she's reading him correctly, a task made infinitely easier by the lack of a mask on his face.

Interesting.

Still, she merely shrugs, her smile sardonic. "They do when they're the bargaining chip."

Wolf-taicho whips his head around so fast she's sure his neck cracks, and she resists the urge to roll her eyes, though she feels almost fond.

"Taicho, I was willing to go through you to get to my brother, if you hadn't agreed to the detour." she tells the man wryly, watching as the alarmed look in his eyes turns contemplative. "You really think I would've blinked at a few years in ANBU when I was willing to take on Shimura and ROOT just so my family would have a future?"

"Right." The blond breathes after a moment, raising a hand to rub at his scar. Sakura lets him have a moment to absorb her words, aware that he probably didn't expect to be saddled with a revolutionary when she was assigned to his team.

"And the gaps in your file?" Her captain asks, recovering remarkably quickly. "Your ANBU record didn't say anything about the medical ninjutsu. Or the summons."

Sakura considers him for a second, realises that she doesn't feel a flicker of fear or distrust towards the man despite their admittedly short acquaintance, then smiles sharply.

"It probably didn't say anything about the Mokuton either, hm?"

He stills. Blinks. Drops his hand from his face and turns to her, that pupil-less gaze sizing her up, and Sakura carefully keeps her eyes on the scar on the bridge of his nose.

"…I'm not going to perform a Mind-Walk without your consent." He tells her, not commenting on her admission just yet, and he sounds almost amused, though wryly so.

Sakura winces despite herself.

"Sorry." She breathes, dropping her head and raising the hand not petting Sai's hair to rub at her eyes. "Bad experience with dojutsu."

"Understandable, and I'm used to it." He brushes her apology off without much fanfare.

His comment makes her eye the man sharply though, and now he's definitely amused at her reaction.

"There's a reason you don't find many Yamanaka in ANBU." He explains vaguely, mirth dancing in his eyes, though his smile is too sharp for it to be completely genuine. "Or hear of Yamanaka genjutsu masters."

Sakura considers his words, the odd tone they're said in, and the fact that for all that she's been on their team for nearly two months and had almost back-to-back missions the whole time, this is the first time she's seeing any of her new teammates without their mask.

The camaraderie she assumed was a given in the shadow ranks from her stint in Team Ro is sorely missing in her new team. At least when it comes to Crow and Bat's interactions with their captain.

"Stop trying to figure me out, kid." Wolf huffs, though he doesn't actually sound irritated, still weirdly amused for some reason, though she wouldn't have known that if she wasn't so used to reading the signs from Kakashi's eye, or Shin's non-expressions.

"Finish your sob story." He orders instead, steering her back to their original topic. "Why is so much missing from your file?"

Sakura narrows her eyes at the abrupt change of subject and makes a mental note to press the issue at a later date, then shrugs.

"Mokuton's too distinctive." She explains, using the same reason she'd given Kakashi what feels like years earlier, though it was only a little over three months ago. "Medical ninjutsu would land me in the hospital, or on rotation, and I liked Team Ro. And summons are not exactly common, particularly with civilian-born ninja."

Her taicho nods, though he still looks expectant, and Sakura realises that the goddamn Yamanaka knows there's something else and he's not going to let it go.

Sakura sighs, feeling oddly sheepish.

"It might also be because, uh, ROOT didn't exactly keep files on its operatives, so even the Hokage doesn't know everything about what I can do." She admits, shooting her captain a side-long look. "And I…didn't feel the need to inform him of it."

She's not sure what reaction she's expecting at her admission. Suspicion, maybe. Accusation of treason, if Wolf is feeling particularly mean.

But it's certainly not the thoughtful silence that greets her words, or the way Wolf's icy eyes narrow at whatever he's putting together.

"Does Hatake know?" he asks after a beat, and Sakura hums.

"About my abilities and my ROOT 'sob story'. And he's met Shin." She smiles sharply, earning a raised eyebrow from her captain, so she continues. "He doesn't know about Sai, though. Thinks he's just a normal Academy student."

She can feel Wolf's disbelief, and she relishes it.

"How." It's not a question, it's almost entirely flat, and Sakura laughs quietly, because this has been years in the making and she's giddy.

"We made sure Sai never crossed paths with my ANBU team." She divulges, easily. "It took some manoeuvring, but we managed."

"And your brother's skill?" her captain presses, far blunter than Sakura's used to, and she welcomes it. After living with Shin and navigating between the many layers of what Kakashi says versus what he actually means, someone who speaks clearly is a welcome change. "He acts like a war child."

When Sakura grins, it's with far more teeth than she usually allows herself.

"I suggested he do the Nidaime's Academy ANBU test." She admits, and her cheeks hurt from the size of her smile, especially when Wolf stills at her side. "And Kakashi, for all his all-seeing eye, is an expert in denial. If he doesn't want to see something, he won't."

There's a moment of silence, and then her captain hangs his head and laughs.

It's quiet and hoarse, like he's rusty, as if no longer used to laughter, and it only lasts a few seconds, but it's undoubtedly a laugh.

"What I wouldn't give to be there when he finally realises." Wolf-taicho breathes, more to himself than to her, but Sakura picks up on it.

"Genma and Yugao said the same thing." She tells him with a smile, this one warm, more genuine. "And I was thinking of inviting Kakashi to dinner if he still doesn't realise Sai is my brother after this mission. I'd invite my old ANBU team and Kakashi's genin team anyway; it wouldn't be too much of a problem to cook for one more."

She sends the man a look when he merely stares at her, and sighs, clarifying. "You'd be more than welcome, taicho."

Her captain blinks, then- "Inosuke."

"Hm?" Sakura hums, distracted by Sai twitching in her lap, his face screwing up and muscles tensing. She soothes him with a pulse of healing chakra, encouraging his brain to fall back into deep sleep, then looks back up at her captain questioningly, finding his gaze already on her.

"My name. It's Inosuke. You don't need to call me 'taicho' when I'm not wearing the mask." He informs her, and his voice is- weird, to Sakura. Wooden. Like he's waiting for her to- something.

"Alright." She agrees, curious. "Inosuke-senpai, then."

Her captain – Inosuke – makes a sound between a laugh and a wheeze at that, and Sakura is officially confused.

"You'd be the cause," he manages, once he gathers himself, "of so many heart attacks, if you ever called me that in public." He tells her, though there's something almost cruelly gleeful in his eyes at the idea.

"You don't really like people, do you, senpai?" Sakura muses thoughtfully, unapologetically blunt, drawing a snort from the man.

"I assure you," he says blandly, his earlier good humour wiped clean like it was never there, "that the sentiment is definitely mutual."

Sakura watches him for a few more seconds, for all the good it does her.

Even though his ANBU mask is firmly in his lap, Inosuke doesn't need one. His face becomes smooth and placid once he notices her looking, his mouth flat, neither conveying amusement nor displeasure, and his eyes could just as well have been lakes or mirrors, for all the expression they show.

"Ugh." Sakura groans, giving up and leaning back on her hands, turning her face up to the night sky.

"I'll be sure to pick a suitably dramatic moment to give people heart attacks." She promises dryly, and gets a quicksilver quirk of the lip for her efforts, though it's gone between one blink and the next.

"Get some sleep." Her captain orders, nudging her hip with the toe of his sandal. "We're high-tailing it back to the border, then to Konoha come morning, and I'm not going to save you if you miss a branch 'cause you're sleep deprived."

"Liar." Sakura mumbles, but obligingly unclips her pack and pushes it away until she can lie back and use it as a pillow for her head. Then, she yanks at her ANBU cloak until the clasps give, and wrestles the material until it settles over her torso and arms like a blanket, though she's careful to not accidentally smother Sai.

"Night, senpai." She murmurs, closing her eyes and seeking out Sai's hand with her own, while her senses focus on the calming flow of his chakra.

She drifts off to sleep secure in the knowledge that her brother and Kakashi are alive, and feeling oddly safe with Inosuke's presence at her side.

She sleeps peacefully.

Inosuke snaps awake from the shallow doze he'd fallen into when someone next to him stirs.

It's not Mongoose – Sakura – though, but her brother, who sits up and takes in the quiet, pre-dawn morning with far too alert eyes for someone who was recently deeply asleep.

The teen's gaze flits to him briefly, and Inosuke absently realises that he's still not wearing his ANBU mask, but he lets the boy study him anyway, feeling only mildly curious about what the kid might find.

The raven seems to find something, though, because he lets go of Sakura's hand and gets to his feet, stretching his arms over his head until his back pops audibly, then tamping down on his chakra until Inosuke would've mistaken him for a squirrel if the kid wasn't standing right next to him.

Then, the boy taps his belt and a moment later, unseals a mask, though it's not anything Inosuke's seen before. It's plain, for one, moulded into canine features instead of having them painted on, and a deep blue, instead of porcelain-white.

"If aneue wakes before I'm back, please tell her I've gone to check out the bridge." The teen murmurs, pinning Inosuke with a blank look, so different from the hesitant, vulnerable boy he saw the night before.

Inosuke raises an eyebrow, not missing the hidden meaning. "And where will you actually go?"

Sai smiles, and it's the same sharp, humourless thing his sister favoured the night before.

"To cut the head off the snake."

And then, he slips his mask on, obscuring his face, and disappears.

Cut the head off the snake and the body will die. Inosuke muses, still staring at where the boy had been mere seconds previous. Let's just hope that he won't get bitten.

Once he ditches aneue's new captain, it's disturbingly easy to locate Gato's hideout with Haku's instructions in mind.

He's working blind, he knows; he shouldn't be doing this, he should stop and think and come up with a plan because there's so much riding on this, but there's no time.

Sai throws up a basic camouflage genjutsu, keeps his chakra muted, and sneaks inside during the guards' shift change. They're shinobi, like Haku had said, missing-nin by the looks of it, but no higher than chunin-level.

He can take them.

When he actually gets inside, he thinks he might not need a plan after all - the ego of powerful men can apparently be trusted to always be greater than their common sense. Sai heads for the biggest, most embellished door at the end of the corridor and lets himself sink underground, resurfacing inside the room.

He finds Gato at his desk, smoking a cigar and counting money, and it's easy, too easy, to creep until he's behind the man, still hidden under the illusion, his chakra carefully masked.

And then, he strikes.

One hand covers Gato's mouth, knocking the cigar onto the desk, while the other brings his knife to the man's throat, cutting through the soft tissue and the trachea first, a quick kill.

He switches knives, the new one with a serrated edge, and his second cut is longer, deeper, and he forces the knife until it meets spine and then keeps going. Sai watches detachedly as more blood sprays from the wound and onto the piles of money on the desk, moves his hand from Gato's mouth to his hair, and with a final effort and the disgusting feeling of metal sawing through bone, the head is separate and the mob boss' body slumps.

Carefully, Sai seals the head into a storage scroll, grabs four of the enormous money bags after a brief approximation of how much they contain, and heads for the window. Just before he can make the jump though, he pauses and turns back.

Gato's headless body is still, the only movement in the room being the smoke curling up from his still smouldering cigar, and an idea strikes Sai.

He smiles.

He sets the bags of money down and seals them into another one of his empty storage scrolls, and when he's done, he pushes his mask up, takes a deep breath, concentrates, and breathes out a small stream of fire.

Small is all he can afford while aiming for subtlety, but that's all he needs. The fire catches on the paper bills in the unzipped bags, and Sai waits until it spreads to the wooden furniture and finally reaches the edges of Gato's suit.

He pulls his mask back over his face and heads for the window, before the fire reaches the curtains or the smoke starts seeping out from under the door and alerts Gato's lackeys to come running.

He just killed a man, took his head, and torched his money, yet he feels not a shred of guilt. Instead, he feels vindicated.

For you, Haku.

He gets back to Tazuna's house before Sakura wakes. He ignores her captain's gaze which he can feel on his person despite the mask the man now has on his face, choosing instead to sit next to his sister and pull out his sketchbook.

He gets halfway through his sketch of the sun rising over the ocean before Sakura suddenly tenses and sits up, green eyes flickering over her surroundings before a soft smile lights up her face at the sight of his drawing.

"Morning, aneue." Sai greets quietly, not looking up from his sketch, and Sakura reaches up to gently run her fingers through the hair at the base of his neck.

"Morning, Sai-chan. Taicho." She greets, voice sleep-rough, then stretches and pins her captain with an assessing look. "Did you sleep at all, taicho?"

Her captain doesn't reply and Sakura huffs, then takes out three ration bars from her back and gets to her feet. She drops one next to Sai, then holds the second out to her captain, who takes it with an almost inaudible sigh.

"Will you be alright now, Sai-chan?" she asks once she secures her pack and cloak back to her person. "Kakashi should be waking any time now."

"Yes." Sai agrees, looking up from his sketch and picking up the granola bar. "I just needed someone to guard while I slept, and Naruto and Sasuke aren't…" he pauses, not sure how to explain his reasoning. "They're genin."

Sakura seems to understand, because she merely reaches down to ruffle his hair, slotting her mask over her face with her other hand. Sai gets to his feet then, stepping closer to give Sakura a quick hug.

"Thank you for coming, aneue." He mumbles into her shoulder, quiet but genuine, and soaks in the gentle way she strokes his arm in response.

"Always." She murmurs, then pulls away from the hug, tilting her head at her captain, who's also gotten to his feet.

And then, without a word between them, and not so much as a breeze to betray them, they're gone, and Sai is left alone on the roof, the head of a mob boss and a small fortune hidden in his pouch.

It happens on the fourth day after Kakashi wakes up, exactly a week since their first confrontation with Zabuza.

He's on the bridge with Sasuke, guarding Tazuna and the handful of other workers who dare continue their task, three of Sai's cartoon leopards milling about the bridge, appearing to – bizarrely – reassure the workers, when the fog starts to thicken.

The moment it becomes clear it's not a natural fog, one of the leopards takes off running towards the forest, while another begins to corral the workers sans Tazuna off the bridge, into the relative safety of the forest and the town waiting beyond.

"Sasuke, guard Tazuna." Kakashi barks at the Uchiha, ignores the sharp look Sasuke slants his way, before he nods and moves to do as told.

"Will you hand over the bridge-builder, or will we have to kill your genin to get to him?" Zabuza's voice rings out from the fog and Kakashi tenses at the 'we'.

If it were just Zabuza, that would've been dangerous enough, but he would've felt reassured in his ability to keep the man distracted enough to give Sasuke a fighting chance. As it is, he assumes the mysterious hunter-nin from before is Zabuza's reinforcement, and judging by everything they don't know about the tag-along, it's not looking good.

"Sasuke." Kakashi calls, knows he has the boy's attention even without receiving any verbal confirmation. "I will not let you die." He reassures his student, a vicious, animalistic edge to his words.

Zabuza's laughter rings out through the mist around them.

"Haku," he commands, voice almost bored, "prove Hatake wrong, will you?"

Kakashi senses the movement, more than he hears or sees it, and a moment later, Sai's remaining leopard launches itself into the space between Sasuke and the rest of the bridge, catching three senbon in its side before it bursts into ink.

Kakashi tenses, then flicks through the signs for his strongest Wind jutsu, because this fog needs to be dealt with, stat.

Wind and water are his least favourite elements, but he pushes through, his chakra coils protesting at not only being put to use, but being put to use against their nature, but the jutsu he produces doesn't reflect his inner struggle, and the mist clears slightly.

Once it clears though, it reveals Zabuza far closer than Kakashi's comfortable with him being, and a smaller form slightly in front of him, closer to Sasuke than Kakashi is, the Kiri hunter-nin mask firmly in place.

They're barely taller than Sasuke, and Kakashi quietly mourns another child being robbed of their childhood in favour of being a tool for power-hungry men.

And then, he doesn't have the time nor the mental space to think of much more, because Zabuza moves, and it's meet him or die.

Still, no more than five minutes of fighting pass before there is an interruption.

"STOP!"

The desperate call, as well as the wave of chakra the person releases, actually manages to freeze Zabuza in his tracks, a moment Kakashi capitalises on to put distance between them and shoot a quick glance to check if Sasuke is still alive.

Then, he realises that the person who'd shouted was Sai.

"Sorry I'm late, sensei." Sai greets once he reaches Kakashi's side, seemingly casual and completely relaxed, though his eyes are trained on Zabuza, his tanto held confidently in his hand. "Two samurai attacked the house. I had to help Naruto deal with them."

Then, he raises his voice, digging into his pouch and pulling out two scrolls.

"Your benefactor is dead." Sai announces, staring directly at Zabuza, and ignoring the way Kakashi startles at his side.

Then, he crouches and puts both scrolls on the ground. He pushes them, so they slowly roll towards the missing-nin, one to Zabuza, one to his apprentice, though a senbon stops the one heading for Zabuza before it can get within two metres from the man.

Sai looks like he expected that, though, because he merely rises back to his feet.

"Within these scrolls, you'll find his head, and two bags of money." He informs them calmly, and Zabuza's eyes widen. "I believe just one of these bags contains significantly more than he was going to pay you for this mission."

"Haku." Zabuza barks, and his partner steps towards the scroll closest to him, bends down to unroll it, then sends a pulse of chakra into the bloodied paper.

Kakashi hears Sasuke gag when a severed head suddenly appears on the scroll, flaps of skin and muscle by the neck covered with dried blood, the flesh pale and splotchy, in the early stages of decomposition.

Yet it's undeniable, even to Kakashi, who's only going by the rough sketch Tazuna had showed them, that the head belongs to Gato.

Seemingly emboldened by the fact that at least part of what Sai had said was true, Zabuza opens the second scroll himself, revealing two black bags, which, once unzipped, reveal stacks upon stacks of bills.

Easily ten A-Ranks' worth of pay in just one bag.

Zabuza straightens, then turns his attention back to Sai and studies Kakashi's student with an alarming intensity.

Kakashi fears, stepping forward to put himself between his student and the missing-nin, but Sai, it seems, is either ignorant or suicidal, because he returns Zabuza's gaze with a far calmer expression than the situation warrants.

"Are you going to keep pursuing the bridge-builder, Zabuza-san?"

Kakashi isn't the only one who startles at the bizarrely polite honorific tagged onto the missing-nin's name, though he doesn't shift his attention from Zabuza's form.

"…I have no quarrel with the bridge-builder." Zabuza speaks at last, seeming as surprised at saying the words as Kakashi is at hearing them. Then, his eyes drop to the bags of money at his feet. "A job's just a job, and now, I've got my payment."

Sai nods, then narrows his eyes and presses. "So you will allow my team to leave, unbothered, once the bridge is constructed?"

The missing-nin, the notorious Demon of the Mist, the personification of everything fucked up about Kirigakure, just huffs a laugh at Kakashi's genin.

"As long as your sensei extends us the same courtesy." He replies, and his tone makes it clear he sincerely doubts that is going to happen.

Four pairs of expectant eyes now turn to Kakashi.

"You and I," he tells Sai flatly, momentarily ignoring the two missing-nin in favour of pinning the boy with a weighted look, "are going to have words."

Then, he turns to Zabuza, and adamantly does not think about how ridiculous the situation truly is.

"If you attack my genin, or the bridge-builders, I will kill you where you stand." He informs the missing-nin coldly, letting the slightest amount of Killing Intent leak out.

"But," he concedes, when Zabuza tenses, his own Intent starting to spread through the mist, making Sasuke freeze, "provided you do so peacefully, I will not stop you, or your partner, from leaving."

Slightly wide-eyed, as if unable to believe the resolution could truly be so simple, Zabuza nods his assent.

Then, as if that's the cue they needed, the fake hunter-nin starts walking towards Sai, their pace quick and determined, and it's only the fact that Sai smiles at the figure and steps slightly away from Kakashi that stops Kakashi from putting a Chidori through the masked-nin's chest.

Once Zabuza's partner is within arm's length of Sai, they reach out, one hand settling on Sai's cheek, the other impatiently shoving their own mask up and off, revealing a young, androgynous face, and then they close the distance that remains between them and Sai and-

-Kakashi isn't sure what noise he makes, but he feels an echo of his shock in Zabuza, who goes still as a statue where he stands.

The fake hunter-nin is kissing Sai, and Sai isn't making a single move to stop them.

More than that, when Sai does move, it's to lift a careful hand and lay it lightly on the missing-nin's elbow, the gesture unspeakably tender and out of place considering the situation.

He doesn't even attempt to remove the hunter-nin from his person.

Kakashi is too stupefied to do much more than stare.

When the missing-nin finally pulls away, after what Kakashi knows realistically was no longer than five seconds but felt like a small eternity, they let their forehead thunk gently against Sai's, closing their eyes.

(Kakashi hates himself for thinking that now would be the ideal time to kill them.)

He hears a quiet murmur, something that sounds suspiciously like 'thank you', but even his sharpened hearing can't make it out properly, and the missing-nin steps away, letting their hand fall from Sai's cheek.

Sai catches it, though, and presses what looks like a thin scroll, no longer than Kakashi's palm and barely thicker than his thumb, into the other teen's hand. There's a murmured explanation, he thinks, but Sai doesn't move his lips enough for Kakashi to be able to read them, and the roar of the ocean around them means that his voice doesn't carry.

Then, moving slowly but deliberately, Sai reaches up to pull the missing-nin's mask back over their face, shooting them another one of his mystifying smiles.

With another nod, the missing-nin tucks the scroll into their pack with visible care, and shunshins to Zabuza's side.

Holding true to his word, Kakashi doesn't stop them when the mist momentarily thickens again, and once it clears fully, Zabuza and Haku are nowhere to be seen.

Kakashi moves mechanically through the motions of being a sensei: he checks on Sasuke, congratulates him quietly on his conduct as he pulls out the few senbon the boy had been hit with – luckily none had hit anything serious – then sends the Uchiha to escort a rather stupefied-looking Tazuna off the bridge.

Then, and only then, does he turn to Sai, his earlier good humour melting away.

Kakashi knows his face is blank and cold, his gaze sharp; it's the expression of someone who has lost everyone important and killed far more people than anyone ever bothered to keep track of.

It's the expression that had made him terrifying to enemies and allies alike after Minato's death, that had made the ANBU mask almost redundant. Not ROOT blankness, like what Tenzo had had at the beginning, but something else.

Something worse.

He almost feels guilty about using that facet of himself on a genin, but when he focuses fully on Sai, the boy meets his gaze easily, fearless and quietly expectant.

"Explanation." Kakashi snaps, cold and unforgiving. "Now."

Chapter 19: confrontations

Chapter Text

"Explanation. Now."

"Sure, sensei." Sai agrees easily, seemingly not in the least affected by Kakashi's brusqueness. "What would you like to know?"

And Kakashi, for the first time since getting his team, finds himself suspicious of the 'guileless genin' fa?ade, because he's known jounin who weren't able to look him in the eye the rare few times he's gotten serious in the field.

"Let's start with why you thought straying from the mission objective was an acceptable thing to do." Kakashi suggests icily, biting his tongue to stop saying more than necessary.

Sai blinks at his tone, though oddly still doesn't actually look too alarmed.

"I wasn't sure when you'd wake up." he says evenly, as if it can truly be that simple. "Naruto and Sasuke didn't know if you'd ever wake up."

Kakashi absently notes the unexpected switch to first names, and wonders at the reason behind it, though he shelves the thought for now to focus on his student's next words.

"If Zabuza had come when you were unconscious, we wouldn't have stood a chance. Not only would we have failed the mission, but we'd have all been killed in the process. I needed an advantage."

Kakashi pauses, feeling a little thrown, and frowning at the 'I' at the end. For the most part, it's a rational explanation, as much as he hates to admit it, if not a usual one to hear from the mouth of a genin.

But, more importantly, Naruto and Sasuke couldn't recognise chakra exhaustion?

"We're genin." Sai points out dryly. "We're not supposed to have experienced chakra exhaustion yet. And Naruto is an Uzumaki."

Kakashi nearly jumps at the explanation, eye snapping to his student's face. He's certain he hadn't spoken out loud, yet Sai pinned down what was bothering him within a second.

"And your...interaction on the bridge?" Kakashi asks, making sure his glare doesn't ease up in the least, though Sai remains bafflingly unaffected. "Despite our 'nice' reputation, Konoha doesn't make a habit of fraternizing with the enemy."

"I met Haku when I went to look for Naruto after he didn't come back to the house for the night." Sai relays, toneless and more like a mission report than an explanation, and Kakashi wonders, even as he wrestles his focus back to Sai's next words.

"He was dressed as a civilian and looking for herbs, but I recognised him as the fake hunter-nin. We talked, and I asked him whether Tazuna-san is Gato's target, or Zabuza's. He gave me the location of Gato's warehouse and the details of the guard shifts. I agree that I took a gamble, but I find that it was a justified one."

Kakashi...stares.

There's a lot to unpack there.

One thing stands out to him beyond the obvious, and he frowns, even as he tries desperately to absorb the rest of what Sai has said.

"When you say 'fake' hunter-nin," he begins, and Sai's expression does something odd - like he's not sure whether to roll his eyes or laugh, so instead, his face smooths out completely, and Kakashi is eerily reminded of Tenzo, "did you know he wasn't a genuine hunter-nin before I woke up?"

Sai stares at him for a moment, then he sighs, audibly exasperated, and begins rifling through the pack attached to his belt. He pulls out a book and offers it to Kakashi, eyebrow raised expectantly.

Kakashi takes it, eye falling on the title Land of Water: Culture, Customs, and Cuisine with more than a little disbelief, then raises his gaze to Sai's.

"Chapter eight, second paragraph." He instructs, and as Kakashi absently flicks through the book to humour his demand, Sai continues, "'Due to the high number of rogue-nin that have left Kirigakure no Sato since the ascension of the Yondaime Mizukage, the Village has a secret service of ANBU known as the hunter-nin. Their primary task is-!'"

"-I get it, Sai." Kakashi cuts him off, having found the page Sai had mentioned, intrigued to note that Sai had recited the paragraph nearly word-for-word.

He flicks through the text, absorbing the rest that Sai had likely been meaning to say: 'kill target on-site - excellent knowledge of anatomy required - only take the head and destroy the rest of the body' before lifting his eye back to his student, wordlessly asking for the explanation he feels is coming.

"A real hunter-nin wouldn't have taken Zabuza's whole body away. Nor would he have come alone to confront a member of the Seven." Sai explains, and Kakashi wonders whether it'd be hoping for too much that his student's only crime would prove to be that he is far too rational for a twelve-year-old.

"As for my last question," Kakashi announces after a beat, and this time, when he looks at Sai, the boy finally hesitates, the blank mask faltering, a flicker of apprehension in his eyes betraying how ill-at-ease he actually feels, and something in Kakashi relaxes when he realises that Sai's earlier lack of reaction was just bravado, "why did you think that hiding your skills from your team was in any way acceptable?"

As if his words are the trigger, the apprehension vanishes from Sai's eyes, and the blankness of his face is replaced with the usual guileless expression, all wide eyes and easy-going smile, and Sai's voice, when he speaks, is saccharine-sweet.

"Have you shared all thousand jutsu that you know with us, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi takes a step back before he quite realises he's done it, reeling both at the words, and at the unexpected slam of the memory of Sakura saying almost the exact same thing half a year earlier.

But Sai is not done.

"The first thing I told you was that I don't like hypocrites, sensei." He says, and Kakashi recalls that introduction, remembers the whiplash he'd felt then, and he reckons that he should've mentally prepared himself for a similar conversation as the one they're having now the first time he heard the words 'military dictatorship seeking to subjugate all people' come out of a twelve-year-old's mouth.

Sai's saccharine expression has melted into one of genuine discontent and disappointment, and Kakashi hates the fact that this expression seems the most genuine out of everything he's seen from his student so far.

"That holds true now, too. You can't expect us to tell you everything about ourselves, when you neglected to tell Sasuke you have the Sharingan, and didn't think it important to tell us that you might suffer from chakra exhaustion upon using said Sharingan." Sai looks at him then, and Kakashi feels pinned to the spot in a way he hasn't since Minato-sensei was alive.

And Sai seems intent on driving the verbal knife he'd stabbed into Kakashi's heart further because he continues:

"The more subtle aspect of shinobi life may be lost on Naruto and Sasuke, but it's not lost on me. I know how to get information, I know how to blend in with the crowd, I listened when Iruka-sensei told us not to underestimate the usefulness of Academy techniques for information-gathering."

Kakashi realises this is the most his student has ever said in one go as Sai takes a breath to steady himself, and his mouth curls at the corner into a fierce scowl, the disappointment shining so clearly in his eyes that Kakashi would have to be an idiot to miss it.

"I can guess why you didn't want a genin team." Sai continues, and Kakashi freezes. "But you got one. You got one, and you're stuck with us until we make chunin, but we don't know anything about you. You've told us nothing about your skills, or fighting style, or preferred techniques, anything that would help us fight with you, like a team should. And I didn't think I'd need to remind you, but normal genin don't have access to Bingo Books to get their information, sensei."

Another deep breath, and Sai appears to visibly wrestle with his frustration, and when he next speaks, his voice is calmer, more measured, though still sharp.

"You've kept us busy the last three months, but you haven't taught us anything useful apart from how to start a fire or catch fish during your 'training camps'. Letting us go on a C-Rank outside the Village without so much as teaching us how to tree-walk was irresponsible of you, sensei."

At that last part, Kakashi wrenches all the emotions Sai's speech has forced to the surface back down and locks it away, his posture and expression ANBU-still, betraying nothing. His voice, when he speaks is no longer accusatory, but cold and flat and quiet, and all the more dangerous for it.

"Are you building up to a point, Sai?" he asks quietly, and Sai must be much better at emotional sensitivity than Kakashi's given him credit for, because his hand twitches towards his kunai pouch.

(Kakashi hates the thread of satisfaction that shoots through his system at the reaction.)

"Yes." Sai bites out, not rude, not quite, but assertive. Unwilling to bend or break even in the face of Kakashi's anger.

Kakashi's not sure whether his student is brave or stupid.

"You're our sensei, whether you like it or not." Sai announces, merciless, as he does his best to stare Kakashi down. "I'm asking you to start acting like it, because I'm sick of playing mediator. I shouldn't have been the one to tell Sasuke why you have the Sharingan, just as I shouldn't have been the one to teach him and Naruto how to tree-walk. And I definitely shouldn't have been the one to saw off Gato's head in the hopes that Zabuza would be willing to listen before he killed my team!"

Despite his anger, Sai's words turn Kakashi's blood to ice, and he's too frozen to react when Sai's chakra lashes out, a cold, cloying sensation washing over him and making his shoulders sag under an invisible weight before Sai wrenches his control back and Kakashi can breathe freely again.

"So yes, sensei." Sai sighs, all the fight draining out of him in seconds, and the disappointment fades from his gaze like it had never been there. Instead, he seems almost resigned. "I deviated from the mission. I killed Gato. I fraternised with the enemy. I took matters into my own hands, and you can include all of this in your report, because I don't care if I'm punished for it, because I'd do it all again if it meant keeping Naruto and Sasuke alive."

They stand there in silence, the air around them ringing with the weight of Sai's declaration, and Kakashi wonders what the Yamanaka shrinks would say if he ever told them that a preteen genin called him out on every single one of his insecurities within three months of knowing him.

They'd probably try to recruit Sai, thinking of it.

"Oh, also." Sai speaks up after a few seconds of them just staring at each other, and he sounds tired.

Tired with the bone-deep fatigue that Kakashi's intimately familiar with, though he doesn't know why he's hearing it from Sai, and despite his anger, a twinge of worry makes itself at home in his heart.

"I recommend taking all three of us to Psych after we report back."

"Psych deals with chunin and above." Kakashi points out mechanically before his brain quite catches up with his mouth. "Genin are monitored by their jounin-sensei."

"Yes, well." Sai sighs again, and something almost cruel flashes through his eyes when he meets Kakashi's gaze. "Sasuke and Naruto might not be too comfortable with that. Neither of them reacted well to seeing you 'die' in front of them twice, as you might imagine."

"But you're fine?" Kakashi asks, mostly to hear what Sai will say, because he's a masochist like that.

And Sai doesn't drop eye contact, doesn't so much as pause, before he replies:

"I have to be." A few more seconds pass, then he inclines his head in what a generous person may have called a bow. "May I be dismissed?"

Kakashi stares at his student for a few seconds, anger and worry and curiosity warring within him in equal measure, and it speaks to Sai's favour that he waits for a verbal dismissal.

"Why didn't you graduate early?" Is what Kakashi manages at last, tired of the verbal tug-of-war with a preteen who should be able to trust and rely on him yet just admitted to doing everything but. "You're skilled and knowledgeable, and I might not know just to what extent, but it's definitely enough to be labelled a prodigy by Academy standards. Why did you wait?"

Sai seems surprised at the question for all of two seconds, before a bitter smile quirks his lips. "Do you think anyone with half a brain wants to be labelled a prodigy? After what happened to you, or to Sasuke's brother?"

The question feels like a slap to the face.

"I probably could've gone through the Academy in a year, maybe even less." Sai allows. "What then? Graduate, move up to chunin within a year, waste a few years as a chunin before I either get field promoted or allowed to test for jounin, then die before my fifteenth birthday?" The bleak assessment of Sai's view on the fate of prodigies rattles Kakashi more than almost anything else the boy's said so far. Sai snorts at his own words then, the most disdainful thing Kakashi's heard from him so far. "No thank you, sensei. I much preferred to stay a child a few years longer."

Something about the wording of the last sentence pings in Kakashi's memory, but he can't quite pin down what, exactly, sounds familiar about it.

So, he sighs.

"You're dismissed."

He blinks, and Sai's gone.

Sasuke doesn't know what to think.

He caught Naruto up on what happened on the bridge, as much as he could, anyway, given that a) he doesn't know quite what happened either, but he knows it wasn't normal, and b) Naruto's questions irritated him to the point he clammed up after getting across the absolute minimum of information.

He did agree to sitting on the veranda to wait for Sai, though, because he can agree with the dobe on the fact that they both have some questions for Sai.

When Sai finally appears from between the trees, Sasuke is immediately on-guard, and even Naruto can tell something is not quite right.

For the last three months, Sai has been...warm, is the only word Sasuke can think of to describe it. Unusually formal, a little distant, but always smiling in some way and ready to help or diffuse conflict. He was also fairly quiet, and far better than his Academy scores indicated, but Sasuke definitely preferred quiet competence to Naruto's incessant chatter and idiocy, so he didn't mind.

Still, Sai always smiled, even if his smiles were small and didn't always reach his eyes, Sasuke was familiar enough with reading expressions from It- from his childhood to know that most of Sai's smiles were genuine.

Now though, Sai's not smiling.

His face is blank, his back straight, and his footsteps don't make a single sound even though he's treading through the underbrush filled with twigs and dry leaves.

Sasuke is eerily reminded of his cousin Shisui's face that one time he caught him and his brother talking in Itachi's bedroom, expressions similarly empty, words hushed and clipped so much so that Sasuke hadn't been able to hear what they were talking about even though he'd been standing in the doorway.

He mentally shakes the memory off, though he must move somehow, because Sai's gaze immediately snaps to where he and Naruto are sitting. Sai's blank expression doesn't falter, though his shoulders sag slightly with what Sasuke carefully pegs as resignation, and he raises an eyebrow at Sai, gratified when his teammate reluctantly switches course and walks up to where he and Naruto are sitting.

"Uchiha-san." Sai greets, still on a last-name basis even after three months, his tone even, and his little eye-smile phony to the point even Naruto shifts uneasily next to Sasuke. "Something you wanted?"

"What did Kakashi want from you?" Sasuke asks, getting straight to the point, and Sai tilts his head.

"Answers, mainly." He replies without much fanfare, lifting a single shoulder in a half-shrug. "I believe you want the same?"

"Did you really kiss that missing-nin?!" Naruto jumps in then, eyes wide, and Sasuke resists the urge to facepalm at his idiot teammate's lack of anything resembling tact.

"Technically, he kissed me." Sai points out, lip twitching into the tiniest of smirks, but this expression is genuine, that much Sasuke can tell, and he narrows his eyes.

Could he be...?

"But yes, I did." Sai agrees, then flick his focus fully to Naruto and his gaze becomes somehow heavier. "In fact, Haku and I met when I went to the forest to look for you, Uzumaki-san."

Though his voice was quiet, and no part of his words was threatening or accusing, Naruto immediately throws up his hands in the universal gesture for surrender.

"I already said 'm sorry for not coming home!" he defends quickly, and if he could, Sasuke imagines Naruto would be sweat-dropping. "I know not to fall asleep away from base now, 'ttebayo!"

Sai's intense focus eases then, and a tiny smile takes the place of the earlier smirk, and Sasuke sighs, exasperated.

He reaches out, snatching Sai's wrist and pulling down, and though Sai instinctively resists the first few seconds - something which Sasuke makes a mental note of for later, because he could've sworn Sai's guard was down, yet he didn't so much as sway at Sasuke's rather firm yank - Sai quickly gets the message and drops to the ground, sitting in front of him and Naruto with his legs crossed and expression quietly expectant.

Sasuke studies him for a few seconds, but beyond the curious tilt to his head, Sai's countenance betrays nothing.

"You hid your skills from sensei?" Sasuke eventually asks, a non-sequitur but something that has been nagging at him since their first confrontation with Zabuza.

"Yes." Sai admits simply, unbothered.

"And all through the Academy," Sasuke pushes, thinking out loud even as the pieces slowly begin to slot together in his mind, "you were- you were aiming for average?"

"Yes."

"Why?!"

Another tiny smile quirks Sai's lips then, and he shrugs again. "To see if I could."

When it becomes clear that neither he nor Naruto are happy with his answer, Sai sighs.

"I believe that subterfuge and cunning are the marks of a shinobi just as much as you and Uzumaki-san believe in flashy ninjutsu or accuracy with throwing weapons." he explains, rolling his shoulder idly. "When I told her that I found the Academy's teaching material boring, my sister told me of an old practice introduced by the Nidaime which was used by those who wanted to get into ANBU even before Graduation. To challenge me, if you would."

"Hiding skills." Sasuke guesses, because it's the logical conclusion after what Sai has already said, as well as the little he remembers of his brother's brush with the shadow ranks.

Sai cocks his head again, the look in his eyes oddly knowing, the small smile still playing around his lips, then answers.

"Not quite." he corrects, shooting a reassuring glance at Naruto, who's looking rather wide-eyed. "Duping the instructors as to my real competence level, but not getting caught at it."

"You could've been the Rookie of the Year." Sasuke concludes flatly, not sure how he feels about the fact, but fairly sure that he's right.

Sai just regards him with another one of those infuriating smiles of his.

"Maybe." he allows, and Sasuke is proficient enough in Kakashi's 'underneath the underneath' to know that what his teammate means is yes.

"But what I told you during Kakashi's test is still true here: I wouldn't have minded going back to the Academy. I enjoyed it a lot more once I looked beyond the immediate teaching material and pointless tests." Sai points out, and Sasuke absently notes the use of Kakashi rather than sensei, a rather telling slip-up, though telling what, he's not sure yet.

"And saw what?" he presses anyway, because he's starting to feel like he's missing something, and he never thought that aiming for the Rookie of the Year position was a mistake.

Until now.

"The other Clans' traditions for their Academy rankings. How to hide my chakra from the chunin sensei. Or the fact that the outer wall of the teachers' staff room has fuinjutsu on it that makes it work like a one-way mirror, so the teachers can see the students while they're out in the yard on break. Or that genin teams are assigned less on your academic performance and more on your compatibility with the jounin-sensei."

Sasuke knows that he's just wide-eyed as Naruto is by the time Sai finishes, and he almost doesn't register the last point. Naruto does though, and his frown is audible when he asks:

"Whaddaya mean by 'compatibility' with the jounin-sensei?"

Sai looks skyward for the briefest of moments, then sighs, and when he turns back to them, he seems the slightest bit exasperated.

"Genin teams are more like apprenticeships than anything else. Sure, you have to pass the jounin's test, but the test itself also measures compatibility. Team 8's sensei had them track her through the Village, since they have a Hyuuga, an Aburame, and an Inuzuka, which means that they'll be a tracking-oriented team. Team 10, from what I heard, had to get a password of some sort from their sensei, since they're going to be an intel-gathering team."

Naruto gawks.

"How do you know this?!" he demands, and normally, Sasuke would scoff, but now.

Now he wants to ask the same.

Sai blinks at them, the most thrown he's been this whole conversation, his earlier blankness entirely gone now.

"Because I have...friends?" he offers, as if he's just as confused about Naruto's question as Naruto is at his earlier reveal. "And I know how to henge and ask the right questions? And a lot of this is obvious once you look at the team lists and have some basic knowledge of Konoha Clans?"

"Then what was our team built around?" Sasuke finds himself asking before he can bite his tongue, though Naruto makes an interested noise as well, so he reckons the dobe is too distracted to note his uncharacteristic curiosity.

"Yeah, yeah, what the teme said!" Naruto backs him up, almost jumping in place now. "Since Kiba's tracking and Team 10 is, uh, getting information? What were we?!"

Sai stares, then visibly bites back a sigh and points at Sasuke, his expression similar to what Sasuke remembers from Iruka-sensei.

"Uchiha taijutsu and Fire release. Sharingan." he says, enunciating clearly, then switches his finger to Naruto, "Trap-setting, evasion skills, and Uzumaki lineage, which means above average chakra reserves."

His finger turns to point at his own sternum. "I was in the seventies in every category in the Academy. Never higher, but consistent in every field. An all-rounder. Malleable, if you will. Easy to train me into anything that might be required, and that was without revealing my tanto and long-range ninjutsu."

Sasuke takes it all in, shoots a glance from the corner of his eye at Naruto only to find him mouthing 'evasion skills?' and bites back a sigh, then finally turns to Sai, expectant.

And Sai, for the briefest of moments, looks bitter, before his earlier blankness wipes the expression away.

"And our sensei is Hatake Kakashi, a man renowned as the Copy-ninja, rumoured to have learnt over a thousand jutsu, who created his own assassination technique as a teenager and has a flee-on-sight in three Nations."

Sai looks from Naruto, to Sasuke, and back, and concludes: "We're a combat squad."

There's a moment of silence as they take it all in, then:

"Aw, hell yeah!" Naruto cheers, jumping to his feet and pumping his fist in the air, startling some of the birds in the nearby tree, "Kiba can suck it!"

And Sasuke considers all that he's just learned, looking at his teammate in a new light. Sai stares back, perfectly blank, letting Sasuke come to his own conclusions.

After a few seconds of absorbing everything and tuning out Naruto's victory dance over getting the 'coolest designation', Sasuke realises that he wants to spar Sai. All out.

He keeps that sudden desire to himself, and instead asks the next thing that pops into his head when he considers everything he knows about his teammate.

"You think the Hokage is a dictator?" he asks, startling Naruto into silence with his unexpected question, but all Sai does is tilt his head in that annoying way of his and smile again, this one slyer than anything he's seen from his teammate thus far.

"You think he isn't?" he shoots back, his voice steady, always so damn steady, and Sasuke realises that's all he's going to get from him on that matter.

"Uh, guys?" Naruto interrupts, looking between them oddly. "What's a dictator?"

The run back to the Village was quiet. Bat and Crow had subsided after the most perfunctory of summaries from Inosuke, and though Sakura could tell that they were far from satisfied with the explanation of their unexpected detour, they let it go.

When they get to the Village, Wolf-taicho dismisses them almost as soon as they step through the Gates, but Sakura sticks by his side all the way to ANBU HQ. She can feel his curiosity as he makes his way through the corridors of HQ with her as a silent but persistent shadow, and he eventually relents and makes a left-turn towards the training ground they used on the first day Sakura met her team.

The door barely manages to shut behind her when Wolf-taicho turns to her and crosses his arms over his chest.

"Anything you want to say, Mongoose?" he asks, voice cold and blank through the filter of the mask, though now that she's heard his natural voice, Sakura can hear the undercurrent of concern in the words.

So she pushes her mask to the side, uncovering the right side of her face, and sends Wolf a weighted look.

"Taicho, I would appreciate if what we talked about on the mission stayed between us for now." she tells him frankly, and he's too good of a shinobi to react visibly, but Sakura feels the way he pulls his chakra closer to himself to hide his unconscious reaction.

"Why?" he asks simply, and Sakura wracks her brain for an answer that would satisfy him while she scans the training room, unsure if it has cameras the same way ROOT used to or if she's safe to speak her mind.

She errs on the side of caution and considers her words carefully.

"My first team and I…On one of our missions, we purged the forest of its most diseased roots, but doing so, we found similar problems above ground. We never told anyone about it because we'd have had to cut down whole trees to fix the problem." She says slowly, feeling a little ridiculous, but she can feel the way Inosuke's attention sharpens even though she cannot see his face, as he reads the double-meaning to her words: 'Yeah, we got rid of ROOT, but the situation above-ground is little better. Too many people were involved in hiding ROOT's actions.'

"There are many trees in the forest." He says leisurely, and Sakura relaxes a little at the realisation that he managed to follow her admittedly convoluted metaphor. 'There are many people in the Village. You can afford to lose some.'

"I'm aware, but the one that's the biggest problem is the strongest." She explains, stressing 'strongest', and this time, she sees him tense. "Bringing it down would hurt a lot of other trees in the area." 'And what if one of them is the Hokage? He wouldn't go down quietly.'

"And letting it be won't?" he asks after a beat, and Sakura does a double-take.

Is her taicho advocating for kagecide?

"Disease spreads. It can suffocate the trees nearby." He adds almost idly, and Sakura tries to school her expression into something less like a gaping fish when she realises that he's concerned about her.

"They can adapt." She manages through a dry throat, blinking back the sudden burn in her eyes. "They can survive until the opportune moment to bring the biggest tree down."

"Mm." her taicho just hums, considering her, then, after what feels like an age, inclines his head. "Alright."

Sakura almost sags with relief, feeling some of the tension she's been carrying since their conversation on the roof in Waves finally dissipate.

"But, for the record, Mongoose?" Wolf calls, pulling her out of her relieved daze, and she snaps to attention, suddenly wary.

She feels the shimmer of genjutsu around them, though she only notices it because it's not concentrated on her and because she's so on-edge that all her senses are on high alert, and she's more than a little confused when she realises the focus of the illusion is Wolf's mask.

She goes to run through 'kai', but Wolf moves before she can break the genjutsu, one hand rising to his mask and pulling it aside in a similar manner to what she had done earlier.

His expression beneath the mask sends a shiver down her spine: his left eye is focused on her and he doesn't even pretend to hide the bitterness in his gaze, and what she can see of his mouth is twisted into a wry, humourless smirk.

"I know a fair bit about forestry myself. I wasn't going to tell anyone your team's secret." He tells her steadily, gaze boring into her, and Sakura finds no lie or deception in his eye or words.

She nods numbly, stunned speechless and grateful beyond belief, and Inosuke's wry smirk softens momentarily, then he pushes his mask back over his face and drops the illusion.

"If that's all, I'll see you in three days for team training." He dismisses her, and Sakura nods again, slipping out of the training grounds and heading towards the showers almost on auto-pilot.

She doesn't remember a Yamanaka Inosuke from her timeline, and she can't help but wonder why that might be, though she's glad to have him on her side in this.

Still, she winces when she realises that Shin is going to rip into her regardless for spilling their secret so recklessly.

Maybe she'll just drown herself in the showers. That sounds like a much better fate than facing her irate aniki.

Two weeks after the almost-confrontation on the bridge and four weeks after they first set out, they're finally on their way back to the Village.

Sai is exhausted, mentally and physically, but from the way he can feel Kakashi's eye on him every time he edges out to the front of their group, he knows he's unlikely be able to properly relax until he puts his sensei's unease to rest, and that requires his siblings present.

Or simply Sakura, since from what he's heard about his sensei's interactions with Shin, having his aniki there might just aggravate the situation.

He's grateful that Naruto had an unexpected stroke of genius when Kakashi promised that they'd stay to guard the bridge builders until they completed the bridge and volunteered his clones to the task of carrying around the materials, accelerating the building process by at least another two weeks.

Sai pretended not to see the way the other bridge builders kept staring at him when they thought he wasn't aware, as if not sure whether they should be scared of him or grateful that he had rid them of Gato. He supposed even in a place as impoverished as Waves, the notion of preteens murdering in cold blood didn't sit well.

Hearing Tazuna christen the newly-completed bridge the Bridge of Hope did ease the knot of tension in his gut some, however.

Still, the scrutiny he'd been under in Wave left a bitter taste in his mouth, and that wasn't helped in the least by Sasuke's sudden increased interest in his person.

It's this interest that Sai reckons is behind his teammate emerging from their tent in the middle of the night, a good hour before he's due for his guard shift.

Somewhat predictably, Sasuke comes to stand at the root of the tree next to the one Sai has claimed as his guard perch, though Sai doesn't spare him so much as a glance, keeping his gaze on the sleeping forest around them instead, scanning the trees periodically.

With only the barest sounds of shuffling and a quiet grunt, Sasuke scales the tree he'd stopped by, settling on a branch only marginally higher than Sai's, close enough to be accidentally companionable but not so close as to be deemed friendly, and Sai stifles a sigh even as his lip twitches at his teammate's determination to maintain the 'not-friends' fa?ade.

"Trouble sleeping, Uchiha-san?" Sai asks quietly after a few minutes, knowing that if he doesn't make Sasuke spill what's on his mind soon, the boy will keep him there even after Sai's shift ends, and he'd definitely rather sleep than endure his teammate's tsundere-ness.

"Why are you so formal?" Sasuke shoots back, blunt as ever, and Sai closes his eyes briefly, wishing for patience. "We're the same age."

"Actually, I'm four months older than you and a full year older than Uzumaki-san." Sai corrects, because he knows exactly when his birthday is, despite what he maintains in front of his siblings.

He'd found his orphanage file in the pile of files they'd stolen from ROOT but kept from the Hokage as insurance. Even now, he can picture in his mind's eye the blurry little photo of himself around four-years-old, smiling uninhibitedly with a crayon in hand, and the hastily scribbled birthdate November 25th.

Sasuke twitches at his words, causing the branch he's perching on to creak tellingly, and Sai smiles tiredly.

"Then you definitely shouldn't be so formal." Sasuke scoffs after a beat, though his voice lacks the usual bite that Sai would expect from the words. "It's weird."

"What do you want me to say, Uchiha-san?" Sai asks flatly, not bothering to keep his tiredness from his voice, closing his eyes and tilting his face to the sky when he feels the first drops of rain begin to fall. "It's not like you were bursting with desire to make friends when this team was created."

"Friends would only get in the way of my goal." Sasuke brushes him off, though he sounds oddly startled, as if he wasn't expecting Sai to call him out on his hypocrisy.

Safely behind his closed lids, Sai rolls his eyes. He's done with keeping his mouth shut when his team behaves like idiots. The first thing out of his mouth had been that he hates hypocrites. They should've damn well listened.

"And what goal is that?" he pushes idly, though he knows Sasuke is listening. "Hunting down your brother?"

Sasuke's hitched breath is as telling of his shock as the sudden spike in his chakra, and Sai bites back a mean snort.

"What do you know?" Sasuke asks sharply, and Sai can feel his eyes on him, though he doesn't bother reacting outwardly.

"There are few other men you could be interested in finding, considering your history." He explains leisurely. "If my brother suddenly murdered my sister, I'd have some questions too."

"You've no idea what you're talking about." Sasuke snarls, chakra crackling again before he tries to reign it in, and Sai can feel his glare, and his own temper flares momentarily.

"A word of advice, Uchiha-san." He offers, and he's aware his voice is far colder than it had been mere moments earlier. "Don't assume you're the only who's had a difficult life. And don't try to figure someone out if you're not ready for them to do the same to you."

To highlight his words, he lets some of the intent he usually keeps under an iron-fisted control leak out, letting the oppressive hopelessness that is his version of K.I permeate the air between him and Sasuke and feeling more than seeing the Uchiha freeze.

He's never been one for talking circles around people like Shin, or for utilizing people's perception of him and weaponizing it like Sakura, but he has his own talents, and quiet observation and pinpointing weaknesses with unerring accuracy is one of them.

Sasuke just happens to wear his insecurities on his sleeve, and Sai is nothing if not opportunistic.

He reigns his intent back after a few seconds, feeling a twinge of satisfaction at the shudder in the breath Sasuke takes immediately after.

"Also, if I wanted to track down somebody who'd been a jounin when he'd been my age, I'd surround myself with the best and brightest that I could find." He points out into the silence broken only by Sasuke's heaving breaths. "In which case, friends would not only help with your goal, but be almost imperative to achieving it."

They lapse into silence after that, and Sai mentally calculates that he's only got about ten minutes or so left of his guard shift, though he doubts Sasuke is keeping track. He could go, probably, though he has no idea if Kakashi's awake or not, or whether the jounin even cares if they skip out on a few minutes.

"You're not a genin."

Sai startles a little, surprised enough by the words as to open his eyes, staring at the tree next to his and finding Sasuke already looking back at him.

"Excuse me?" he asks carefully, ill-at-ease by Sasuke's unexpected focus.

"I don't know what your deal is, but you're too much like Shi- like someone I knew to be a genin." Sasuke elaborates, and that in itself is interesting because Sasuke never says more than he absolutely has to.

Another minute of silence passes, and then Sasuke adds, voice softer than Sai has ever heard it: "You knew my brother? Or just of him?"

Sai sighs, considering his teammate and feeling an odd stirring of guilt and pity in his stomach. He wonders what he'd have been like if Shin had done what Itachi had – if he'd killed Sakura and Shino and disappeared into the dead of night. Would he have walled off the rest of the world like Sasuke? Would he have gone looking for answers? Or would he have just…given up?

"I met him, once." He says after a beat, apparently surprising Sasuke because his teammate's chakra jumps.

"He dislocated my sister's shoulder." He adds with a frown, remembering that spar.

He's not expecting for Sasuke to suddenly snort, nor for the snort to turn into hastily smothered almost-hysterical laughter.

"You're fucking weird, Sai." Sasuke announces out of nowhere, and Sai sees a glint of white teeth in the pale light of moonlight, meaning that Sasuke is…smiling? "I want to fight you."

Sai blinks.

His brain turns over their conversation, desperately trying to figure out what part of it could have resulted in Sasuke coming to such a decision, and fails. He'd expected anger or insults or at the very least for the Uchiha to shut down and refuse to speak to him again, not…camaraderie?

"Sasuke…" he starts hesitantly, wondering what the hell he's supposed to do with a not-antagonistic Sasuke all of a sudden. He also wonders what Sakura would do in this situation.

Laugh herself to tears, probably.

"…are we friends?" is what he settles on, knowing that, if anything would, the notion of 'friendly-relations' should be enough to bring Sasuke back to normal.

And, true to form –

"Hn. Don't push it."

Kakashi is glad that his mask hides 90% of his expression by the time he's finally done giving the oral report in the mission room, his bratlings uncharacteristically quiet at his side. He knows he's going to get called into the Hokage's office as soon as his written report is processed, particularly since the predicted 'easy C-Rank' had spiralled into a B-Rank the moment they encountered the Demon Brothers, and now might or might not get pushed up to an A-Rank.

Not to mention that one of his students had to deviate from the mission and have his first kill at the same time because Kakashi had inadvertently put him in that position.

He almost groans out loud when Naruto demands celebratory ramen as soon as they're free from the mission office hubbub, not comforted in the slightest when Sasuke shoots down ramen almost immediately and demands Yakiniku, which Sai surprisingly supports.

Yakiniku means Akimichi, and Akimichi means Yamanaka and Nara, and Kakashi knows that if Shikaku hears wind of this mission, half the Nara Clan will know within an hour, and that will mean that whatever Yamanaka gets assigned as his shrink this time will know.

Fuck, Sai wanted him to take them to Psych, too. Now he can't even avoid the shrinks.

Fucking peachy.

Still, he just about survives the dinner with his genin, shovelling down some barbecue when Naruto and Sasuke get distracted by Asuma's team, and Sai seems fascinated by some ink on his arm.

Wait. Rewind.

Ink on his arm?

But when Kakashi looks back to his student, Sai's arm is clear of any ink, and he has neither an inkstone nor a brush in hand.

Eventually, he dismisses his students, telling them to meet him at their usual training grounds in three days. He reluctantly resigns himself to footing the bill this time, because he's already dreading what Naruto and Sasuke will have to say to the shrinks about his leadership, he doesn't need 'lets us starve' added to the list as well.

He can skimp on his ANBU team. The genin, he might actually have to feed for the next few weeks.

He's not expecting Sai to stay at the table even when Naruto and Sasuke take their leave, the former grumbling about needing a week to sleep off the crick in his neck from sleeping in a tent while Sasuke just scoffs and shoves his hands in his pockets.

And he's definitely not expecting Yugao and Genma to slip into the seats his students had barely vacated, a grin he's come to be wary of on Genma's face.

He has no idea what's going on when Sakura slips onto the bench next to Sai.

(She looks a little worse for wear, a pale diamond-shaped ridged scar on her cheek, though its colour makes it seem years old instead of the month max that it has been since he last saw the girl, leading him to believe that it won't stay on Sakura's face for long.)

He's officially lost when Sakura wraps an arm around Sai's shoulders and pulls him into her side.

"Aneue." Sai breathes, melting into his kouhai's embrace. "You got my message."

Kakashi freezes.

Aneue.

Aneue.

Big sister.

"Oh, man." Genma chortles, the senbon in his mouth clacking against his teeth. "What I wouldn't give for a camera right now."

Kakashi barely hears him, gaze trained on the newly-named siblings.

Sai's eyes have slipped shut, lines of exhaustion Kakashi hadn't even realised were there until they were gone smoothing out, but Sakura is staring back at him steadily, her expression open and the look in her eyes the slightest bit guilty.

"Our otouto's the artist."

"We've put everything on the line to give him a normal childhood, or as normal as you can get being an ex-ROOT agent with the remnants of a failed conditioning program rattling around your brain."

"Perhaps, if all goes well, by the time he graduates, you won't even be able to tell he was once one of Shimura's most 'loyal'."

Umino's words to Shin: "Your brother's graduation is tomorrow, now that your sister can't make it, you better be there if you know what's good for you."

Sakura's unexpected concern when his kids had landed themselves in the hospital.

Sakura's apt summary of Sai's role in the team despite never interacting with his students: "The third one seems to be keeping them together, but you can't expect him to do that forever."

Sai's unexpected maturity. The bizarre formality towards his age-mates.

Sai being able to sneak up on him. Sai being able to match Sasuke for speed and throwing accuracy despite only marginally above-average Academy scores. Sai knowing Hosenka.

Sai barely blinking at having the Demon of the Mist's KI pointed directly at him. Sai's lack of reaction at having his 'first kill' on his first mission outside the Village.

Sai having a tanto, of all things.

God, he's an idiot.

"I think you broke him." He hears Yugao's voice, though it sounds like he's underwater.

His eye is burning, watering in a way that tells him he hasn't blinked all though his revelation, and when he snaps back to awareness, Sakura is still looking at him, and even Sai has opened his eyes, peering at him warily.

"So, even after you knew I was his sensei, you still didn't trust me enough to…?" he asks at last, his voice sounding far away even to his ears, and for some reason, Sakura's eyes soften, even as a wry smile plays on her lips.

"It wasn't a matter of trust, taicho." She tells him patiently, her tone apologetic but firm. "I knew he'd be in good hands with you as his sensei."

"Then why…?" He can't bring himself to actually finish the question, his usual masochistic tendencies unexpectedly eclipsed by his sense of self-preservation.

Sakura sighs, her arm still around Sai's shoulders, and cards her fingers through Sai's hair comfortingly, prompting Sai's eyes to slip shut again.

"I knew you didn't want a genin team." She says simply, Genma and Yugao watching their exchange with a mix of amusement and anxiety. "And I didn't want Sai to be stuck with the role of assistant-sensei once you realised that he's basically chunin-level and could do most of the teaching for you."

"You're our sensei, whether you like it or not. I'm asking you to start acting like it, because I'm sick of playing mediator."

Kakashi winces, Sai's accusations ringing through his head, brought to the forefront of his mind by Sakura's words.

"I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark, but I'm not sorry I did it." Sakura adds, the odd not-apology shaking Kakashi out of the worst of his stupor. "But I told you before that I will always put my siblings first, taicho."

"My goal is for my family to be happy."

"You're all disgustingly co-dependent." Is what he finally manages to get out, prompting a poorly-hidden snort from Genma and a startled cough from Yugao. "And terrifyingly competent."

It seems Sakura really does know him, because she doesn't react to his comment beyond a small smile, merely waits him out until he finally sighs.

"I'm not happy about this." He admits, waving a hand at her and Sai and Genma and Yugao who had clearly known about the Sai Situation and kept it from him. "But I can understand why you did it."

As if those words were what she'd been waiting for, Sakura breaks out into the most genuine smile he's seen from her so far, and next thing he knows, she's on his side of the table and has thrown her arms around his shoulders in a hug-ambush.

Before he can quell the instinct that has him reaching for his kunai or reciprocate the hug, she's already pulling away and returning to her seat next to Sai, raising a hand to call over the waiter who'd been rather conspicuously absent over the course of their conversation.

Slowly, Yugao and Genma steer the five of them onto more light-hearted topics, drawing Sai into the conversation little by little, something Kakashi can tell doesn't go unnoticed by Sakura given how much she softens when Sai smiles as Yugao compliments his fashion sense and asks where he found pants with that many pockets.

Eventually, even Kakashi is pulled into the discussion that has taken over the table, and when the food arrives, it's almost like it was the few times they'd gone for dinners as a team before the Mokuton Reveal.

He wonders idly, his masochistic streak returning with a vengeance, whether the atmosphere will still be as easy-going once everyone inevitably learns of the shitstorm that had been their last mission.

Sometimes, Kakashi hates being right.

Umino had been in the Hokage's office when he'd been called in to expand on his report two days later, as well as goddamn Yamanaka Inoichi.

The Hokage had been…far from amused.

Inoichi even less so at the news that he'd left a genin feeling like he had to take matters into his own hands.

Umino looked like he was going to personally gut Kakashi then hug him by his entrails from the top of the Hokage Mountain, but whether that was because he'd managed to make his students lose faith in him on their first mission outside the Village, or because he'd all-but left them alone for three days when an A-Rank missing-nin could've come at any time, that was anyone's guess.

After leaving the office, his shoulders sagging under the weight of his perceived failure as a sensei, Kakashi does what he does best.

He hides.

In plain sight.

In the Jounin HQ.

He isn't hiding from other jounin, or from their judgement – he's more than grown used to it.

He's hiding from his students.

(And, maybe, from Sakura.)

Those who were up-to-date with the gossip circles of Konohagakure, or knew who to ask, would've quickly realised that the girl that could sometimes be found chatting with Yugao or comparing poisons with Genma was, in fact, the second resident child genius of Team Ro.

Anko happens to be both.

She's decent enough friends with Yugao to have been able to ask early on, and apparently tolerable enough for Genma that when she said 'what the fuck's the deal with the kid on your team?' he'd just laughed.

From Yugao, she got a winding tale of the kid's apparent competence and adaptability and 'maturity beyond her age'.

From Genma, she got a wicked grin and a most unexpected explanation of; "She's the first person I've ever encountered whose default reaction to Kakashi's bullshit is humour."

The kid doesn't seem particularly amused now.

Anko notices her as soon as she steps into the Jounin HQ, and she takes in the shockingly pink hair in a messy undercut, loose black pants tucked into thick combat boots and a burgundy zip-up hoodie thrown over a familiar black turtleneck.

She considers the blank expression and utter stillness of the girl's body as she scans the room, and studies the assessing light in green eyes and something in her jolts.

There's something familiar to the girl, and at the same time, her posture screams child-soldier and she doesn't seem bothered enough to hide it.

The girl seems to find who she's looking for and her eyes narrow just the slightest bit, then she's moving, weaving through the crowd with a single-minded focus until she stops a few couches to Anko's left, where Hatake is lounging bonelessly, his porn book held in front of his face in a clearer 'fuck off' than if he'd yelled it from the rooftops.

The girl steps close enough until she can stretch out a hand and push Hatake's book down with a finger, meeting his eye with a non-expression that still manages to convey a deep disappointment that's almost enough to make Anko wince in sympathy.

"Your team's waiting for you." She tells Hatake quietly, and the area immediately around the duo falls conspicuously silent.

Jounin are incorrigible gossips, after all.

"They have been for the past few hours, if I'm not mistaken. You were meant to take them to Psych today." she adds, and Kakashi tilts his head.

"Have they really?" He asks idly, then meaningfully raises his book to his chin. "That's too bad. Guess we'll have to go tomorrow."

"You can't deny them a visit to Psych." she seems to remind Hatake, and it's not quite sharp yet, but her eyes have grown colder, the corners of her mouth curling down. "You don't have to go with them, but they need your rank to get in."

"Just henge into me and give them D-Ranks for the day, and I'll take them to the shrinks tomorrow." Kakashi waves her off, and raises his book so it once again covers his face.

Something in the girl's expression shifts – or rather, any expression that was left disappears – and Anko might not know the exact relationship the two have, but she can tell Hatake went too far.

Quicker than she would've expected, the girl's leg snaps up in a vicious kick, knocking the book from Hatake's hand and into the air, and she grabs a kunai and launches it with enough force that it hits the book and pins the now-ruined novel to the wall at the back of the room.

A hush falls around the HQ, and Kakashi slowly raises his eye to meet the icy gaze of his subordinate, and the temperature around the two drops by ten degrees.

"I already have." she tells him coldly, and it seems to be the answer Hatake isn't expecting, because his eye widens minutely. "And the first thing you teach them once you decide to be a sensei again should be how to spot henges because none of them noticed, and I don't think I need to tell you how much of a security risk that is, Kakashi."

Ouch. Anko thinks, and spares a second to be impressed by the nigh-masterful delivery – an insult, a threat, and a warning all in one.

"What happened to 'taicho'?" Hatake asks instead, eyebrow rising, though his expression is also colder than before. "Not feeling so respectful anymore?"

"You had my respect as my captain." the girl retorts, and if anyone had any doubts about how such a disparate pair knows each other, Anko can see they have been swiftly dispelled.

There are quite a few gaping faces and wide eyes as well, once some of the jounin in the room make the connection.

"But you have to earn that respect as a jounin-sensei."

Then she sighs, and Anko can see her wrestle the frustration back and lock it down, until all that's left is the same blank mask she wore as she walked in.

"Go to your genin, Kakashi." she says quietly, a hint of fatigue under the monotone, and something in her non-expression shifts. "Or I'm going to ask the Hokage to put you on forced leave for dereliction of duty. Your students could do with some in-Village time."

Anko sucks in a breath despite herself.

The kid either has serious balls or is straight up suicidal. Judging by the rumours floating around T&I that she survived ROOT and rose from Shimura's ashes like a macabre phoenix, Anko's willing to bet good money on the latter.

That finally seems to snap Hatake out of his attitude and he grabs the girl's wrist as she moves to leave, and Anko can both feel and smell the spike of his chakra, and the stench of ozone it leaves in the air.

She knows, rationally, that Hatake wouldn't Raikiri the kid, but she also suspects that this is likely a first for him – few have dared call him out for his behaviour since the Yondaime's death, so she doesn't really know what to expect at all.

"Is that a threat?" he asks quietly, dangerously, yet the girl is unperturbed. If anything, there's something almost...resigned, in her expression.

"No." she answers equally quietly, then twists viper-quick and brings her foot up in a sharp side-kick, and Hatake is forced to let go of her wrist or risk broken ribs. "I know you better than that."

Then, she steps away, out of Hatake's reach.

Her gaze lifts suddenly, flitting to the back of the room momentarily, something like wry amusement flashing through her eyes and her lip twitches, before it's wiped away and she looks down again, shooting Hatake one last meaningful look.

Then she leaves the HQ, just like that.

Anko watches Hatake for a while after that, not scared off like most others when the fuck-off aura he's been exuding intensifies. His eyes stare unseeingly into the door to the HQ where his kouhai had disappeared, then flicker to the clock on the wall, before he draws his book back over his face and pretends to nap.

Yet, fifteen minutes to the second after the girl leaves, he stands and heads out the door as well, porn stuffed into his vest pocket and the usual lazy, lackadaisical aura back in place.

Anko grins and makes a mental note to ask Yugao to introduce her to the kid. She has a feeling they will get along swimmingly.

(She glances behind her once Hatake leaves, to the back of the room where the kid had looked before she'd disappeared, wondering who could've made her smile after the dressing down she'd given Hatake, but only finds Yamanaka Inosuke buried behind Intel reports, the towers of paperwork a comparably clear fuck-off to Hatake's porn book for anyone who might've even thought of approaching.

Anko scoffs.

Yeah, nah, she must've imagined the whole thing. She doesn't know of anyone whose default reaction to that particular Yamanaka is a smile.)

Chapter 20: answers

Chapter Text

Genma is generally feeling good about life.

He's back to the normal jounin roster, which means that he's got more free time now than he had as an ANBU operative.

He actually gets to spend time with his friends now, and he managed to meet up with his old genin team twice in the last month, which is twice more than he has in the year before that.

Izumo and Kotetsu are still in one piece, which is always a plus, and they seem to have taken Iruka under their wing (and their last group spar showed Genma just what that has done for the already unexpectedly terrifying teacher).

He got to see Kakashi's reaction to the revelation that his innocent-genin-student was actually an ex-ROOT, chunin-level revolutionary (and that memory is easily in his Top 5 fondest memories when it comes to Kakashi).

So yeah. Life's good.

"I still can't believe you've got your own labs! I thought I'd have to blackmail someone in R&D to let me use the public labs for the more volatile poisons!" Sakura chirps from a few meters away, diligently slicing away at her bloodroot stems, then chucking the sliced roots into the pot nearby to simmer away.

It's the first time since their team was temporarily dissolved that she's been in the Village for longer than three days at a time, and Genma can see some of the mission-tension finally easing from her shoulders. He winces in sympathy, remembering how difficult it had been for him to part with that sense of constant alertness that came with ANBU life. And sure, some might not think of poison-brewing as particularly therapeutic, but Sakura's not fully out of that mindset yet – he reckons just sitting and chatting over food like Yugao had clearly wanted to suggest would've only made her tenser.

So he'd offered her use of her labs, when she'd off-handedly commented that she'd ran out of that batch of senbon tipped with lidocaine he'd given her after their team spar before everything went to shit. And now, well. Here they are.

He'd had to activate the old fuinjutsu around the stove to filter the air when Sakura let slip that she wasn't actually immune to any of the poisons she worked with, merely relied on medical-ninjutsu to fix up any accidental nicks or mishandlings.

He'd been comparably surprised to finding out that she wasn't immune to the poisons she worked with to how surprised she'd been upon learning that he was.

"Yeah, well. My family was never particularly big, but we had a poisons specialist in every generation since joining the Village." he explains, getting back to her remark and smiling fondly at the thought of his family. "The labs were actually a gift from the Sandaime when my sister made jounin."

"Mhm." Sakura hums, tongue between her teeth as she distils a part of another concoction she's working on. "I don't know of a single official poisons specialists in Konoha apart from you. I suppose having a full Clan of them, no matter how small, was too great an opportunity to let it pass by."

And Genma sends a quick prayer of thanks to any gods who may be listening that despite her apparent exhaustion and having grown up in ROOT, Sakura actually has more tact than most people her age or with her background, and doesn't press the matter of his sister.

After all, 'MIA presumed KIA' is no more satisfying to hear than it is to say.

"Probably." Genma agrees idly, scraping at the bottom of his pot to check the consistency of the powder he's working on.

"Why the sudden interest in making your own stuff, though?" he asks absently, picking up his petri dish with the botulinum cultures.

Because as nice and nostalgic as cooking up poisons with someone is making him feel, he reckons Sakura could do better with focusing on her existing fighting style, rather than adding even more elements.

"Poisons are cool." Sakura grins, her rarely-heard childish side shining through in her relaxation and startling a laugh out of Genma with the suddenness of its appearance. It's easy to forget Sakura is actually a child with how she acts most times. The reminders of her actual age are few and far between, so he knows that he and Yugao treasure them whenever they do show up.

"And I ran out of batrachotoxin a few months ago now, and the mass-produced stuff is either too weak or too expensive, and I don't want to keep relying on your handouts, no matter how useful they may be." She shoots him another quick grin at that last part, letting him know she's not actually cross at the handouts, but rather at needing them in the first place.

Genma huffs, fondly exasperated. With a roll of her eyes, Sakura adds:

"Besides, Shin was rather clear in his opinion that my aim is crap, so until I have the free time to consistently work on my marksmanship, I need to compensate for my decreased effectiveness somehow."

Genma frowns at the explanation, more at the fact that Sakura has noticed the danger of back to back missions than anything else, but Sakura must somehow sense his frown and misinterpret it as confusion, because she offers a half-shrug though she doesn't turn away from her beaker.

"I haven't stayed in the Village for longer than a few days at a time in the last three months. Wolf-taicho says we're too good at what we do. "

The petri dish slips out of his hand and shatters when it hits the ground.

Genma doesn't have it in him to react to the noise, even as Sakura jumps, turning to him with wide eyes and raised hands, scanning for whatever startled him so.

No, he's too busy being horrified.

"Wolf-taicho?!" he demands, sharper than he means to, but his brain isn't computing what his ears just heard. How had he missed this?! "Your new captain is Wolf?"

"Yes...?" Sakura replies, hesitant, as if unsure why he's so freaked out all of a sudden, and he comes to the rather daunting realisation that she might actually not know the reasons behind Wolf's infamy.

"Ask to transfer." Genma orders, not a hint of hesitation in his words. "God, what was Bear thinking-?"

Sakura though, now that the earlier worry has been placated, scowls at him.

"Why should I?" She demands, putting down her beaker and turning to fully face him, crossing her arms over her chest as she frowns at him. "Yeah, my teammates walk on eggshells around him, and even Bear-sama said that this team isn't 'known for long assignments' or whatever, but nobody has said why, and senpai hasn't done anything wrong."

Genma feels his blood drain from his face at the title 'senpai' and wonders when Sakura had the time to get personally acquainted with the Nightmare Walker of all people.

"I mean it, Sakura." he repeats, worry and anger warring within him in equal measure. "And you're saying that his own teammates acting weird towards him wasn't enough to clue you in to the fact that something's wrong? His ANBU teammates, at that?"

Sakura's earlier frown has shifted into a full-on scowl, and Genma thinks it's only thanks to their relationship and the fact that Sakura is somewhat fond of him that she isn't outright insulting him yet, or worse, already gone.

"I thought he was ROOT at first, if you must know." She tells him evenly, and as she speaks, the damn ROOT blankness steals over her face, wiping away all expression barring a raised eyebrow. "And don't pretend like ANBU are fantastic judges of character. I know what the majority of them think of Kakashi, but you've never told me to be careful of him."

"Kakashi's different." Slips out before Genma can bite it back, and he winces when he sees Sakura's other eyebrow fly up to join its twin, the look in her eyes challenging. He huffs, finally bending down to gather as many of the broken pieces of his petri dish as he can

without cutting himself.

"People process trauma differently. Kakashi's safer in a way, because he's only self-destructive-"

"'Only'?!" Sakura parrots incredulously, and Genma winces again, realising belatedly how that came out but not willing to lose his train of thought to rephrase.

"The difference between Kakashi and your new captain is that Inosuke has a habit of taking people down with him." He stresses, and he sees the moment Sakura's momentary ire is replaced with curiosity and he jumps on the opportunity.

"And while the Yamanaka are valued for their work in Psych and Intel and their usefulness with POWs, most people are still wary of someone who can read their mind like a book, and shinobi aren't exempt from that subtle prejudice."

He tries to be patient in his explanation, but when he straightens and sees Sakura open her mouth to undoubtedly refute him, he raises the hand not holding broken glass to cut her off.

"Inosuke took the already unpopular Yamanaka jutsu and added genjutsu to the mix. He earned the moniker Nightmare Walker before he disappeared into ANBU because he tended to use his Clan jutsu to find out his opponent's worst fear or nightmare, then incorporate it into a genjutsu so layered and convoluted most people lost their minds or got cut down before they managed to break out of it."

Sakura quiets during his explanation, her eyes wide and seemingly far-away, and Genma absently wonders what she's thinking about, before she zones back in, and her frown returns full-force.

"So what?" She asks, and Genma despairs the fact that she's apparently attached herself to her new captain in less than four months. "He's good at what he does. So? We're trained to exploit any weaknesses available."

Genma sighs, turning to throw away the broken glass so Sakura doesn't see his face.

"Exploiting physical weakness is automatic because they're visible, but mental weaknesses are different."

To his surprise, Sakura laughs.

"Is that it?" She asks lightly, and though her words are snide, she seems genuinely amused, the earlier ROOT blankness gone, though suddenly, Genma isn't sure if that's a good sign

.

"Genma, I was ROOT. My own brother can ferret out weaknesses and insecurities by observation alone, and his words can cut deeper than any knife I've ever been on the receiving end of. Your warning, while touching, is lost on your audience. And while it sheds some light on why senpai might not be the most popular, it doesn't explain why I specifically should go so far as to ask to transfer teams."

More than a little exasperated, Genma yanks off his bandana and runs a hand through his hair.

"Sakura, he lost his entire-!" but, much like he did to her minutes earlier, Sakura raises a hand and cuts him off.

"-if that's the problem, I don't want to hear it." she announces stubbornly, placing the hand she'd held up to stop him on her hip. "Especially not from you. Why do you think I haven't pressed Kakashi to tell me more about himself? About his past? That stuff's personal, Genma. If senpai decides to tell me, then I'll listen, but I want it to be his decision."

Genma is simultaneously endeared and unbelievably frustrated. "It's not his decision if it affects his conduct-!"

"-but it doesn't!" Sakura finally snaps, apparently reaching the end of her patience too. "If anything, it affects the conduct of everybody but him. I've been on his team for over three months and I haven't had a single problem with him!"

Genma stares at the girl for a few more seconds, then sighs, all the fight draining out of him.

"I hope he deserves the loyalty you're showing him." he finally concedes, knowing Sakura well enough to realise she isn't going to budge on the subject.

Then, as he's about to grab a dustpan to clean up the glass he wasn't able to gather, Sakura's suddenly in his space, deceptively strong arms sneaking around his waist and squeezing, the hug tight and warm and grateful.

"Thanks for looking out for me, Gen." she mumbles into his shirt and Genma smiles fondly, letting his hand drop onto Sakura's hair and ruffling gently.

"Anytime, kid." he replies and means it, and he knows she knows it.

With a final squeeze, Sakura lets go, and with a swift Shunshin is back at her workstation, stirring worriedly at the bloodroot still bubbling away.

Genma sighs, finally cleaning up the glass, and allows the topic to drop for the time being.

Still, just because he can't tell Sakura the full reason for his concern doesn't mean that he can't push somebody else into solving the problem for him.

"Don't freak out." Genma greets by way of hello, sidling up to Kakashi where he's watching on the bridge as his brats tackle water walking.

"What?" Kakashi asks absently, eyes trained on his students, the way Sakura's brother seems to be coaching Minato's son through controlling his chakra while the Uchiha pretends not to listen, but how none of them so much as think to turn to Kakashi for advice.

Genma hides a wince. Apparently Inoichi wasn't exaggerating in his claim that their last mission really did a number on the genin's trust in Kakashi as a sensei.

"I have some info you might find interesting, but you have to promise to not freak out first." Genma repeats, and Kakashi huffs, but he looks tired, fatigue and worry and self-loathing writ into his posture even if not immediately obvious on his face.

"I am not generally known to 'freak out', Genma." Kakashi shoots back, and Genma can tell that he's still not entirely forgiven for keeping Sai's real identity a secret.

"Sakura's been assigned to Wolf's team." Genma drops the news without fanfare, because if Kakashi doesn't want to beat around the bush, then he's not going to coddle him.

Kakashi stills.

"I caught Bat in HQ and apparently, the reason for the assignment was the rising demand for infiltration missions. Crow is well-suited to it, and with the addition of Sakura, they can get into places most squads could only dream of. It's why she's been out of the Village so often." He adds, monitoring Kakashi for his reaction.

So far, all he's seeing is shock, but that soon transforms into frustration.

"And what do you want me to do about it?" Kakashi demands, sharper than he'd usually be, but Genma's willing to let it go this time. "I've been benched."

"Get her out." Genma says simply, and he can tell he has Kakashi's attention when the frustrated expression turns contemplative. "Go to the Hokage, say that in the wake of your last mission, you want an assistant-sensei. Say that Sakura is familiar with you and one of your students, so she might help to bridge the chasm that's formed between you and your genin recently."

Kakashi winces at his wording, but Genma can tell that his words strike home, because he's not immediately refuted.

"You think the Hokage would agree?" Kakashi asks, the frown audible in his voice, and Genma shrugs.

"It's worth a try." he replies, then adds, "And if anyone could hope to petition for an assistant sensei and succeed, it's you."

"You've thought about this." Kakashi accuses, turning the full weight of his focus on Genma. "Why?"

"Wolf doesn't have a good track record for being put in charge of kids." he explains, which feels like the understatement of the century considering the man's 0% survival record for anyone teen-and-under placed in his care. "And as much as it serves as a convenient explanation, I genuinely think Sakura could help you with your team's situation. I don't like to see you struggling either, Kakashi."

Kakashi appears a little taken aback by his honesty, then, if he's reading the mask's shadows correctly, he smiles slightly.

"Thanks." he clasps Genma's elbow momentarily, then creates a Shadow Clone in the next second, positioning it perfectly between his real body and his students. "I'll see what I can do."

Then, the real Kakashi disappears, leaving his clone on the bridge to watch over his students.

Genma catches a flicker of dark eyes, Sakura's brother apparently being the only one to catch the replacement, but he doesn't say anything, merely focusing back on his attempt to create water tendrils while simultaneously coaching his Uchiha teammate through the difference in density between the surface of water and that of trees.

He thinks he catches a hint of a smile on the boy's lips though, and wonders how much of their conversation he overheard.

Even Sakura could admit that she got used to her new team rather quickly, all things considered.

She hadn't expect to feel anything beyond professional respect towards her captain and casual camaraderie towards her teammates when she joined, her heart firmly belonging to Team Ro. She'd thought that prediction a nigh certainty after it became apparent that her new team would be nothing like her previous one.

Given that, even she had been a little surprised at her vehemence on Inosuke's behalf in the face of Genma's warnings.

Yet, after their conversation on the roof in Wave, how could she have remained detached?

Beyond that, she'd been cheered when the initial distance and distrust she'd seen from her teammates towards Wolf had waned slightly. She thought they were getting better after she consistently refused to shy away from their captain, and though the camaraderie was still lacking, there was no obvious distance between Bat and Crow when it came to either her or Wolf, and the outward hostility had certainly all-but ceased.

Which is why she almost doesn't believe what she sees, at first.

Two days after her conversation with Genma, her team's sent out again, the unexpected reprieve from missions barely lasting a week.

And, naturally, they get ambushed, because of course they do, it's just her luck at this point.

By Kumo-nin this time, missing-nin at that, anywhere between chunin and jounin if she has to guess by chakra.

It's four against nine, an unusually large group for missing-nin, especially with all of them being from the same Village, but Sakura's too busy dodging lightning to puzzle out why the size of their group rubs her the wrong way.

She's the only one who chose to stay up in the outcroppings of jagged rock, Wolf, Bat, and Crow having jumped to solid ground the moment they sprang the ambush and the enemy revealed themselves. Wolf has a deep gash in his thigh, not having been able to dodge the fuma shuriken completely when he'd moved to push Crow out of the way of a blade that would've likely decapitated her.

Only one of the enemies is fully down so far, the others either still on their feet and fighting, or recovering from a hit.

Still, she can tell that Wolf is more preoccupied with guarding Crow than he is with gaining a quick advantage, and Sakura can understand why: Crow is a Hyuuga, after all, and Kumo doesn't have a great track record when it comes to the Hyuuga Clan.

Not that their current enemies know Crow's identity, hopefully, but the caution is still warranted.

Wolf is being unusually vicious as well, from what she manages to glimpse of her teammates' fights in the brief milliseconds she gets to recover from her own enemies' attacks, swinging his tanto with wild abandon and throwing senbon left and right with his other hand, a stark contrast to his usual quiet calm and swift illusions, and Sakura can't help but wonder whether there's a reason behind the change in approach.

Still, she tries to stay focused on her own opponents, cheered by the fact that Crow is steadily overwhelming her opponent with taijutsu, though Sakura can see that she has to concentrate to avoid using her Clan's style.

Wolf takes on any of the enemies who try to capitalise on Crow's exposed back, and Bat is flitting between Wolf and their female teammate and trying to catch the Kumo-nin with his ninjutsu. Sakura remembers Bat's quiet admission that he used to be a bodyguard before his assignment to Team 4, and that background is evident now as he skilfully keeps their enemies from his teammates' backs.

Sakura's own opponents had proven more difficult than she'd expected, and the wetness quickly seeping into her shirt on her left side is proof of that.

They were barely phased by her Shunshin, and given that they'd been the ones to orchestrate the ambush, she never had the element of surprise she usually relied upon to begin with. That, combined with the fact that she's still hesitant to use Mokuton in the field, both because she doesn't know Bat and Crow personally yet, and because it's Kumo, and with the limitation of the terrain and her opponents' age and height advantage over her, made for rather unfavourable odds.

It turns out that A and B hadn't been outliers, and Kumo-nin really are built like the mountains they live in.

Not ideal.

Sakura curls around a rock-plated fist from the opponent behind her and barely dodges the curved, glistening kunai that comes from the one in front and would've likely taken out her liver, turning so she earns a gash across her upper arm instead. It's deeper than she would've liked but it's not life-threatening, She'd long-since lost her ANBU cloak when one of her opponents had grabbed it trying to snag her and she'd simply released the clasps. Now, she ducks under her front attacker's still-extended arm and flashes into his personal space, pressing a blue-glowing hand against his chest, stopping his heart with a pulse of her chakra.

He falls, and as he does, she chances a glance back at the ground, where Wolf is guarding Crow and Bat is guarding Wolf. She turns just in time to see Crow finish off another one of their enemies, while Wolf holds off two more, the tanto wielding arm keeping one Kumo-nin at bay, while he holds the other one off with a forearm block, Bat at his back.

Sakura sees a third man approach, sword crackling with lightning in hand, intent on her taicho's unprotected back, another Kumo-nin at his heels, and Bat-

-Bat steps aside.

He steps aside and meets the second shinobi, but the first one slips right past him, and Sakura watches with her heart in her throat as the Kumo-nin rams his crackling sword straight through her taicho's kidney.

Her shout of alarm gets stuck in her throat because her second, still-alive opponent has not been idle, and she doesn't react in time when he moves.

She doesn't manage to dodge the spike of earth that pierces through her left foot, shattering the delicate metatarsals and shredding the tendons. She staggers, tears springing to her eyes, then decides to fuck subtlety. She pumps chakra into her fist, Tsunade-style, and a quick, six-foot Shunshin later she's in her opponent's guard, bringing her fist forward and towards his gut.

He raises an arm to block it like he'd blocked all her previous blows, the kunai he suddenly has in his hand catching on her wrist painfully, jarring the bone, but it's not enough. In his surprise at her reckless charge he doesn't reinforce his arm with the rock barrier that had protected his skin from all her other hits and Sakura's punch meets his forearm and shatters it with a single touch, then keeps going. The Kumo-nin is sent off his feet and off the branch, plummeting towards the ground, his organs ruptured and spine shattered even before his back meets the dirt beneath them.

Panic and pain rise within her, her foot and wrist and side screaming in agony yet her heart screaming to check on her captain. Healing herself takes a backburner to making sure Inosuke lives, so Sakura bites her hand and pumps a generous amount of chakra into the summoning technique.

Ryū and Yū materialise on her branch, and it takes her summons one look at her posture to quell whatever smartass remark Ryū likely had on the tip of his tongue, their bodies shifting into battle-readiness without her having to utter a single word.

She sways momentarily before she firms her stance, and as one, they converge on the ground, the twin summons tag-teaming the remaining missing-nin, jaws snapping and sharp teeth tearing delicate skin to shreds, while Sakura tries to keep her weight on her uninjured foot.

She flashes to Inosuke's side, vision briefly fading at the motion, and focuses on the shinobi still standing over her captain, sword raised.

She doesn't hesitate - chakra extends from the fingers of her uninjured hand, sharpening them to claws, and she digs her hand, fingers-first, under the Kumo-nin's left shoulder blade. Blood squelches between her fingers, the third and fourth rib shatter beneath her touch, but she doesn't stop her motion until her fingers close around the man's heart, at which point she wrenches her hand back and rips it out.

The whole process lasts less than two seconds and she drops the heart almost immediately, and there is a single, disembodied moment where the man who'd been about to decapitate her captain stares at where his own heart is laying on the ground, before he drops to the dirt like a puppet with its strings cut.

She ignores the retching she hears in the background and falls onto her knees next to her fallen captain.

Her vision swims and her heart stutters at her sudden movement, but she ignores that too and spreads her numb fingers out, blood-stained hands glowing green as they ghost over his body, trusting her summons to have her back.

(Unlike Bat, a voice whispers in her mind, but she shelves the thought for the moment, unable to afford any distraction, her head already feeling like it's full of cotton.)

She's not comforted by what she finds: beyond the wrecked kidney and surrounding electrocution, there's poison in her taicho's system, both old and new. The origin point of the new poison is the gash in the leg he got at the very start of the fight, and it's going to spread to the rest of his body if she doesn't do something.

She reaches for her pack but her fingers are unexpectedly uncooperative, her hands suddenly shaking too much for her to be able to unclasp the pouch, and she becomes aware of a soft but persistent pressure against her shoulder.

"-ime, hime, hime!" Ryū - or maybe Yū? - whines desperately, and it's his muzzle that she feels poking against her back. "Your arm!"

It takes her a few seconds to process his words, but she finally manages to mechanically jerk her head to look at her uncovered arm where she distantly remembers getting cut by one of her earlier opponents.

The skin around the gash is an angry red and glistening with something green-brown and sickly-smelling.

Poison.

Her brain feels muddled, but the realisation that she's also been poisoned spurs her into motion. Blood-stained fingers fumble for her pack until Ryū gets the hint and rips it off her belt, spilling the contents on the ground, but instead of annoyance, Sakura feels like she could cry with relief.

(The still-sober part of her brain contemplates the irony of having to deal with a poisoning yet again, but she pushes that thought away too.)

"-w can I help?"

Ryū nudges her temple, and Sakura blinks, raising her gaze from her shaking hands and the contents of her pack to Crow's mask, the kunoichi crouching beside her, her neck and shoulder smeared with blood and her arm bent at an odd angle, but all-in-all still decidedly in one piece.

"Water." Sakura croaks, her tongue feeling wooden in her mouth, her throat sore, her head pounding. She's got enough conscious thought to realise that she should be cycling her chakra faster to try and burn the poison out, but she can't do that and extract whatever's in Inosuke at the same time.

So she doesn't.

"Pour water on my hands."

She holds out her hands, attempting to gather chakra, and Crow does as asked. It takes Sakura three tries before she manages to keep the water within the bubble, her control shot to hell with the poison coursing through her body, but she turns to Wolf, only belatedly realising that she hadn't made the second incision needed for the extraction.

Tears spring to her eyes and she makes a frustrated noise, but she keeps the water in her hands even as her control threatens to wobble.

"Cut him." Yū's voice comes from somewhere to her right. "On the hip. Hime needs an exit wound."

Crow is two seconds slower to follow this command than she'd been to pour water on Sakura's hands, and in any other situation, Sakura would be gratified at the fact that the kunoichi hesitates to harm their captain. But eventually she does it, steady hand grabbing a kunai and slashing it determinedly across Inosuke's right hip.

"The glass tube. On the ground." Yū adds as Sakura leans over Wolf's prone form, trying to pull her poison-addled brain into focus. "She'll need it for the poison."

As she feels Crow move to fish for a test tube, Sakura sees large paws settle on Inosuke's shoulders, holding him down.

With a desperate, shuddering breath, she pushes the chakra water into his poisoned wound.

His knee jerks up and catches her ribs, jarring her bleeding side and knocking the breath out of her, making her bite on a sob, but she keeps her control on her chakra with the last scraps of her concentration, her hand shaking where it hovers over the exit wound.

With the water she pulls out of the cut on his hip come two globs of green-brown fluid, and Sakura hopes that the pre-Tsunade medics will be able to make an antidote with just that amount, because her control shatters the moment she manages to make sure that all of the poison she extracts ends up in Crow's test tube.

Crow corks it and moves to hand it over, but Sakura reaches for Yū's muzzle, ends up grabbing his cheek with uncoordinated fingers, and pulls him to Crow's hand instead.

Her summon gets the hint and grabs the corked vial delicately from her teammate's hand, and Sakura's semi-delirious brain muses that it might be a good idea to fashion her summons some sort of bag or scroll-pouch.

"When you're home safe, hime." Ryū mumbles from her left, pawing at her uninjured hip, and Sakura realises she must've spoken out loud.

"Take it to the hospital." She orders Yū, her voice sounding foreign even to her ears, and she's sure she's slurring. "Find Shin and Genma."

Yū blinks in affirmation, then turns and shoots off, in the direction of what Sakura hopes is Konoha.

"Ryū-chan," she mumbles, her vision greying and her eyelids growing heavy, but she can't sleep yet, she has to- has to-! "bite my hand for me?"

Ryū whines, louder than all the times before, but does come closer and gently clamps his teeth over her palm, sharp incisors doing their job.

Sakura barely feels it.

"Thank you." she slurs, then, with a last, ditch effort and the hope that the abundance of blood will make up for lack of hand-signs, pours all her chakra into the ground and prays for Eki-sama.

She hears Crow curse though it sounds distant, even though she knows the kunoichi is right beside her, and the shadow that falls over her lets her know that her desperate play worked.

"Disposal, or transport?" Eki asks, none of the usual cheer in the massive summon's voice, and Sakura gladly lets Ryū answer for her.

She's absently aware of time passing, but she snaps awake when teeth clasp around the collar of her shirt and throw her onto the tiger's wide shoulders, her shin colliding painfully with her taicho's still knee.

Then, not sparing a thought to Crow or Bat (stepping aside, stepping aside, stepping aside-!), she lets the stiff fingers of one hand wrap in Eki's fur, while the other clutches desperately at Inosuke's pant leg.

Lulled by the motion of Eki's shoulders under her and with the poison dulling her senses, Sakura allows her eyes to close, Shin's words from their spar a few months ago echoing in her mind in the few seconds before she finally loses consciousness.

You won't always have the element of surprise on your side. What will you do then?

Kakashi doesn't sense any chakra approach, yet in one moment he's sitting on Minato-sensei's hair spike by himself, and in the next, Shin is six feet away from him, perched casually on a nearby spike and staring out at the Village beneath them.

"Is this the part where you tell me you'll kill me if I let anything happen to your brother?" Kakashi asks idly after a few minutes, his nonchalance sounding fake even to his ears.

He's dreading this conversation, but he hates the silence even more, because with people like Shin, silence is more dangerous than a shouting match.

To his surprise, Shin snorts.

"Nah." he waves him off, though he doesn't so much as glance at Kakashi. "Sai is more than capable of killing you himself."

Kakashi huffs a laugh, amused despite himself, then he almost jumps, because Shin is suddenly next to him, and he didn't even see him move.

"I'm here for you, Hatake, bizarre as that might sound." Shin adds, and he seems comparably surprised at the admission as Kakashi feels. "My siblings were probably harsher than you deserved because they both know you, and they respect you, and because of that, they have certain expectations of you."

Kakashi is openly staring at the teen now, and when Shin feels him looking and meets his gaze, he smirks.

"I never pretended to respect you, and I don't claim to know you." he tells Kakashi frankly, offering a half-shrug. "No expectations here."

The admission, despite how blunt and plain rude it is, lifts a weight off of Kakashi's shoulders. No judgement. No disappointment.

"So." Shin drawls after a beat, and the look he sends Kakashi is almost amused. "You're not at the Memorial Stone and you're not reading your porn, but you're avoiding people and lounging on your old sensei's head. You're sending out some conflicting signals, Hatake."

And Kakashi can't bite back the snort at the words, and he doesn't try to. Not just because it's a scarily apt summary of his usual coping mechanisms for someone who claims they don't know him, but also because it's the closest to 'are you alright?' anyone has asked him since his team came back from Wave a week prior, and it comes from Sakura's bastard of a brother.

"My C-Rank turned into a clusterfuck, my genin don't trust me, Psych is on my ass, and everyone who questioned the Sandaime's decision to put me in charge of kids has been gloating whenever I'm in the room." He lists off, tone saccharine-sweet, and he finds that he doesn't care enough to censor his feelings in front of Shin, though he's not particularly keen on looking into why. "So I've no idea what could possibly be 'confusing' about whatever signals I'm sending."

"It happens, they'll come around, fuck 'em, and fuck 'em." is Shin's assessment, and the wording is enough to make Kakashi pause and stare at the teen incredulously.

"What?" Shin demands when he notices Kakashi's raised eyebrow. "You told me yourself your easy missions go to shit. So, nothing new. The kids will come around in a few days because they're kids, especially if you admit to fucking up and answer some of their questions. Sai too, before you ask, and don't look at me like that, he's used to dealing with obstinate assholes, trust me. He'll move past this, just tell him straight-up how you're going to treat him, 'cause that's his biggest hang-up now that you know who he is. And as for Psych and everyone else, what does it matter what they think? Ergo, fuck them."

"Even if they have a point?" Kakashi pushes, masochistic streak making a reappearance in the face of his uncertainty at how to deal with Shin's unexpected pragmatism.

"Hatake, I'm not going to coddle you." Shin scoffs, scowling at him, but his expression still lacks the judgement Kakashi has been seeing on the faces of some of his comrades in the last week.

"Yes, you fucked up, but what did you expect? You can't give a traumatised, orphan child-genius a bunch of children and expect him to know what to do. You reading porn in public should've been enough of a clue that you don't exactly have people-skills. The fact that people expected you to be fine as a jounin-sensei is more of a reflection on them than on you."

Every sentence that comes out of Shin's mouth carries some sort of an insult to his character or his competence, yet to Kakashi's ears, it sounds like absolution.

"Was there a point to you coming here, or did you just want to prove that you're not entirely a stone-cold bastard?" He asks instead of voicing that thought, and Shin's scoff morphs into a wry smile.

"I wanted to thank you, actually." He announces, and Kakashi nearly loses his hold on his chakra and freefalls off the Hokage Monument.

Judging by Shin's quiet snort, the lapse of composure didn't go unnoticed.

"Sai told me you didn't hesitate to act when you found out who Sakura's captain is." Shin explains, oddly gracious in that he doesn't comment on Kakashi's reaction.

"You know about her captain?" Kakashi checks, frowning behind his mask.

Sure, it's not exactly top-secret, especially if you're his age or older, but he hadn't expected Shin to know.

According to Genma, Sakura has no clue, and she regularly works with the man.

"Not many things happen in this Village that I don't know about." Shin replies, and Kakashi blinks at the frank admission. "And while I don't necessarily think he's a danger, I am more than in favour of getting my sister out of ANBU."

There's too much to unpack there. Moving swiftly on!

"Why seek me out?" He asks instead, asking the question that's poked at him since Shin announced his presence. "I didn't exactly get the impression that you like me in our last few interactions."

Shin snorts, but it lacks the usual derision and disdain.

"Because the mission going wrong was out of your control, but what you do next is your decision." And then, Shin pins him with a look that makes Kakashi feel like the teen sees right through him.

"I understand not wanting attachments, trust me. Particularly young, fragile ones with tragic backstories. But Hatake, you're infamous. You're in every Nation's Bingo Book – you literally have a target on your back wherever you go. And your kids will get tangled up in your shit whether you want them or not. By not teaching them to the best of your ability, you're denying them even the possibility of a fighting chance against whoever and whatever might come after you."

When Kakashi just stares at him, Shin sighs and gets to his feet.

"So either pass them off on someone else or get your act together." he concludes. "But start by talking to them. If nothing else, they deserve an explanation."

There's a beat, and then Kakashi mutters a quiet: "Thanks, Shin."

And then, as if the words are a trigger, all expression gets wiped from Shin's face and Kakashi's left staring at a blank mask and flinty eyes.

"This conversation never happened." Shin warns, voice an inflectionless monotone, and within the next second, he's gone.

Kakashi sighs.

(In the back of his mind, he briefly recalls Hayate's 'is he yours?' and finds himself reluctantly amused. He and Shin certainly have the same reactions to the full spectrum of human emotion, but the kid's still a brat.)

Unfortunately, it seems fate is not too keen on letting them avoid each other; not three hours later, as he's strolling to the Memorial Stone for a much-overdue chat, he catches sight of a familiar tiger sneaking through the shadows at breakneck pace, what looks like Genma hurrying behind it.

Kakashi changes direction and sprints to catch up before he even realises what he's doing.

"What's happened?" he demands as he catches up to Genma, and he's thrown by the clear concern shining in the tokujo's eyes.

"Kid's in the hospital." Genma holds up a hand with a corked test-tube of something grim looking. "Kumo poison."

Kakashi doesn't deign that with a response, and he's not surprised when they suddenly turn towards one of the more remote training grounds and find it already occupied by Shin and Sai.

Shin zeroes in on them immediately, before they even properly make it past the treeline, and his gaze flickers between the summon, Genma and Kakashi, and the vial in Genma's hand.

An ugly curse falls from his lips and he whirls on the summon with a demanding glare.

"Poison." The tiger pants, and Sai moves for the first time since he froze upon their arrival, kneeling by the summon and uncorking his water canteen, pouring some into the cradle of his other hand, and the tiger drops its head and drinks like a housecat.

"Hime shouldn't be far behind." The summon tells Shin once it's done drinking, rubbing its head against Sai's shoulder in what Kakashi interprets as gratitude. "But Ryū won't be able to carry them, and if you want to keep our contract a secret, you should head for the gates."

Shin's gone before anyone can say anything more.

"I'll-" Genma begins, frazzled, glancing between the summon and Kakashi's student, "I'll get to work on the antidote."

And then he, too, is gone, and Kakashi's left in the field with Sai and Sakura's summon.

"Thank you, Yū-san." Sai murmurs, raising a hand to pet the tiger gently, nimble fingers scratching at the summon's thick neck. "You can rest now."

Yū rubs his face against Sai's forearm one more time, then unsummons himself in a burst of smoke, and now Kakashi has no choice but to interact with his student.

"Do you-" he starts, drawing Sai's gaze onto himself, and he has to swallow to get the words out, "do you want to go wait in the hospital?"

Sai blinks, and Kakashi's sure he's not imagining the surprise he reads in the boy's eyes.

"You don't like the hospital though, sensei." He points out, and Kakashi wonders whether he really is that pathetically easy to read recently, or whether it's something about this family in particular that makes all of his many masks redundant.

He almost pulls out his book, more out of habit than any need for distraction or entertainment, but he keeps his hands still and forces himself to hold Sai's gaze.

"I don't." he agrees, because pretending otherwise would be an insult, and he's had both Genma and Shin tell him to be honest, and he can take the hint sometimes. "But I am an adult, and your teacher. I can manage."

Sai studies him for a second longer, then he smiles, small and genuine, and rises to his feet.

"I'd like that." he agrees, walking over to Kakashi and falling into step with him as they move to head for the hospital. "Thank you, sensei."

Kakashi twitches.

He hadn't realised none of his students had called him 'sensei' since they got back from Wave until the word spills from Sai's lips, and he can't help but feel like he passed some kind of test.

(He wonders if this is forgiveness.)

"But really," Sai continues once they're out in the main street leading to the hospital, eyes on the road, his lips barely moving and feet making no sound as he walks, and Kakashi once again can't believe he hadn't picked up on the fact that Sai was never a normal genin himself, "you don't have to sit and wait with me. I appreciate the offer, but I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

Kakashi bites his cheek to avoid saying 'I'm already uncomfortable' and opts for his eye-crinkle instead. "I'll manage, Sai. Don't worry."

Sai doesn't turn to look at him, doesn't say anything else, but his smile grows slightly wider all the same.

Sakura wakes up slowly, and as consciousness returns, so does the pounding headache when she makes the mistake of opening her eyes.

"Ow." She groans, her throat feeling like sandpaper and her voice sounding like she'd chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, "Light's too damn bright."

There's a quiet shuffle, then a 'click', and even with her eyes closed, she can tell the offensive light has been switched off.

"Thanks." She mumbles, then tries opening her eyes again.

The room is indeed darker now, the sky outside hinting at dusk or early evening. She squints at her unexpected saviour, and finds him already looking, and she knows that face- "Senpai?!"

Inosuke nods at her, pale eyes contrasted by dark circles visible even in the low light of the room, his scar stark against his pallid face.

Sakura breathes a sigh of relief.

"You're alive. Good." She mutters, falling back against her pillows, suddenly realising just how exhausted she feels. "I feel like shit."

Inosuke snorts at her observation and she cracks an eye open – when had she closed them? – and finds him smiling wryly.

"You can thank the poison for that." he tells her dryly, and he sounds exhausted as well as looks it. "There's water on your bedside table, if you want."

Sakura waves an uncoordinated hand and tries to make her fingers do a 'thumbs-up' in thanks, then tries to take stock of just how badly that mission had messed her up.

Beyond the general sluggishness, cotton-brain, and heavy limbs she attributes to the aftereffects of the poison, there's a cast on her right foot, a thick bandage on her wrist, and she can feel the tightness of stitches in her left side as well, but beyond that, she can't feel anything that could be debilitating in the long-term.

"Three cheers for contact poisons. Gas woulda sucked." She mumbles at the ceiling, then wiggles to a more sat-up position so she can reach for her glass of water, because her voice sounds like death warmed over and her mouth tastes like something died in it.

"Charming." Inosuke intones flatly, and Sakura glances at him over the rim of her glass, noting his raised eyebrow and quirked lip. For a man who got poisoned to kingdom come and whose kidney got skewered like a kebab and deep-fried on top of that, he doesn't actually look too bad.

She's almost jealous.

Inosuke laughs suddenly, and that's when Sakura forces her brain to actually pay attention because she doesn't think she's done anything to warrant that reaction.

"They've got you on the good stuff, kid." Her captain informs her, amusement colouring his voice, "You've been thinking out loud."

Sakura blinks, thoughts whirring.

"Oh." Shit. "They've got me on morphine? Really? That's a bit of an overkill, isn't it?"

Inosuke shoots her a look that's drier than the deserts in the Land of Wind.

"Out of the 26 bones in your foot, you shattered thirteen and broke or fractured nine others." He relays flatly. "You wouldn't stop screaming when they were trying to heal it."

Sakura…doesn't remember that.

But then, something Inosuke said makes her tired brain snap to attention, and she sends her captain an alarmed look.

"How long have I been asleep?" she demands, because if she was sleeping off a poisoning, chakra exhaustion and had morphine in her system, that should be at least-!

"Eight days."

Sakura closes her eyes at the news, dreading Shin's lecture that's undoubtedly coming next time she sees him. He had warned her, after all, and she was sure that her explanation of 'back-to-back missions' won't be enough of a justification for why she hadn't listened.

She wrenches her mind away from that line of thought because there's nothing she can do about it now, and turns her gaze back to her captain.

"How're you feeling, senpai?" she asks quietly, not sure if she's breaking some unaddressed taboo by asking.

"Like I got poisoned to kingdom come and skewered like a kebab." He retorts, and it takes her a moment to realise he's echoing her earlier musings on his appearance, but once she realises, she can't help her quiet laugh.

"That's fair enough."

They lapse into silence after that, though Sakura knows neither of them are likely to be getting any sleep any time soon; she's still too keyed-up from the memory of their mission (steppingaway-!) while Inosuke, judging by the bags under his eyes, hasn't had a restful sleep in days.

After a few minutes, a thought occurs to her, and she's speaking before her brain quite catches up with her mouth.

"With the Mind-Walk, do you just see the surface thoughts? And can your target steer what you see, or are they more like observers?"

Inosuke eyes her sharply, and Sakura realises that she probably should've explained her thought process a little more.

Flushing, she hastens to do just that: "I remembered you saying that you'd have liked to see ta- Hound's face after he found out about my brother's identity." She explains, cursing her earlier blunder. "Depending on your answer to my previous two questions, I might be able to show you what he'd looked like."

It's Inosuke's turn to blink at her, an odd expression momentarily flashing across his face before he finally speaks.

"Both. People trained to detect mind-manipulation, or with well-constructed mental spaces are often aware of a Yamanaka's presence in their mind. Unlike the Mind Transfer technique, there is no possession involved, so the target's mind is still their own. In that respect, if you make yourself think only about one thing, like a mantra, the average Mind-Walk user would struggle to see past that thought without forcing the mental landscape."

Sakura frowns as she mulls that over. "So, if I think hard about what I want to show you, you'll only be able to see that particular memory?" at his hesitant nod, she smiles. "Alright. Let's do this!"

When Inosuke merely stares at her, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, her smile slowly melts away. "…Wait, have the nurses cleared you to use chakra?"

Two weeks after first receiving the report from the ANBU gate patrol about half of Team Four approaching the Village walls on the back of an enormous tiger summon, Bear is sitting at his desk in HQ, going through the most recent paperwork submitted by Mouse's squad on the situation on the border of Sound and Hot Water.

Suddenly, there's a knock on the door, and he flares his chakra twice in the ANBU-standard 'come in', and feels his eyebrow climb up his forehead behind his mask when Mongoose slips into the room, crutches first, her mask over her face and hood up.

Someone must've fetched the kid a spare standard uniform or she 'borrowed' from Laundry, because the loose navy long-sleeve and trousers she's sporting are a good two sizes to big for her and definitely not up to ANBU regulations. At least it's a step up from a hospital gown.

He bites back a snort when he notes she's barefoot, though.

"Bear-sama, hello." she greets quietly, hobbling closer to his desk without hesitation, the motion a bit comical seeing as she's on crutches in ANBU HQ.

In the ANBU Commander's office, even.

"Mongoose." he returns dryly, wondering what could've prompted the visit. Shouldn't the kid still be at the hospital? "Something you need?"

"I want to talk to you about Team Four's latest mission." she explains, stopping about a metre from his desk and inclining her head respectfully.

"If you want a reassignment sheet, you need to hunt down Spider." Bear informs her, sighing inwardly and mentally resigning himself to suffering through Spider's gloating for the next few days.

But Mongoose doesn't move, and he can hear the frown in her voice even through her mask when she next speaks.

"I don't want to be reassigned. I'm happy on my team." she almost snaps, and Bear puts down the report he'd been reading and gives her his full attention. "Sir." She adds belatedly to soften the earlier sharp tone, but Bear pays it no heed.

(Privately, he wonders whether anyone before Mongoose could ever have claimed to have been happy on Wolf's team.)

"Then what brings you here?" he asks evenly, because the kid hasn't ever caused any problems despite her age, and she's long exceeded the time he thought she'd last on Team 4, and, from her words, doesn't seem eager to leave, so he's not sure what she could want.

He hears the deep, grounding breath Mongoose takes before she speaks, but he's still not prepared for the words that come out.

"I would like to request that agent Bat be temporarily suspended from the team and undergo a full psychological evaluation." she announces, the words polite and clearly rehearsed, but her spine is ramrod-straight despite the crutches and her chakra so tightly-coiled within her that he can't glean anything from it.

He takes a second to fully absorb the words as he leans back in his chair.

"That's quite a big request." he observes, keeping his tone as bland as he can, but Mongoose doesn't let herself be baited. "Your reasoning?"

"I believe he intentionally allowed an opponent to slip past his guard so that our team leader would come to harm."

Bear straightens immediately, pinning Mongoose with a sharp look which she must feel even through the mask, but she doesn't backtrack.

"I realise the gravity of the accusation." she assures before he can speak, but her voice doesn't waver. "And I'd be willing to allow a member of the Yamanaka Clan access to my memory of the mission to corroborate my claim, if needed."

Bear blinks behind his mask, mind whirring. "Your team would be Village-bound until Bat is either cleared or removed permanently."

"I'm aware. But taicho and I still have some recovering to do, and after that, well. Fox has been on rotation between Infiltration and Seduction – she could just as easily fill in for Bat if our team's specialty was needed in the field."

"You've thought about this." he observes, and she inclines her head even though it wasn't a question.

"I witnessed the moment Bat stepped away, Commander." She tells him evenly, though her chakra escapes her tight hold for a split-second and he can feel her anger at the fact before it's hastily smothered once more. "It's been difficult to think of much else, to be perfectly honest."

"I'll take your request to Psych." He tells her after a minute of contemplative silence. "Don't be surprised if you get a summon from them in the next few days."

"Thank you."

"In the meantime, I believe the Hokage wanted to see you as soon as you were awake and moving about."

"The Hokage?" she asks, frown audible even through her mask, and the wariness in her voice is…alarming. "Why?"

"Can't tell you that." he sighs, then slips his hand under his mask and rubs his fingers over his eyes, the genjutsu over his face assuring Mongoose doesn't glimpse so much as his chin. "But, Mongoose? Whatever happens, you're still ANBU. You're one of my best infiltrators; I'm not giving you up until you ask to be benched."

He can feel the thoughts whirring through her mind at his words, his assurance likely raising more questions than answers, but either the kid's smart enough not to press or has already drawn her own conclusions.

"…Noted. Thanks, Commander."

And so saying, she hobbles out.

Standing in front of the Hokage feels surreal, particularly considering the words that come out of the man's mouth.

"A request has come in for your skills outside of the shadows of ANBU." Sarutobi tells her evenly, and maybe the man has gotten better as an actor, or maybe he's stopped perceiving her as a threat, but his words appear honest, and she can't detect a single trap in the set-up. "I've decided to grant it."

Nara Shikaku's presence by the window is also helping her unease, somewhat.

When it becomes clear they're waiting for her reaction, she makes sure her tone is even, though she allows some of her surprise to leak into her voice.

"Outside?" she echoes, unsure what the man is getting at. "With all due respect, Hokage-sama," which is none at all, "I don't exist outside of the shadows."

Sarutobi sighs, though it was his decision that resulted in her spending the last three years in ANBU, so she's not sure why he's pretending remorse at the fact, but the way Shikaku's mouth curls down in displeasure is definitely genuine, and Sakura feels…somewhat touched.

"I am aware." The Hokage agrees, then gestures to the papers spread across his desk, and Sakura only now notices Kakashi's familiar scrawl on some of them. "And I believe we have found a way to rectify that. Your field commanders' reports all indicate that you're a highly capable shinobi, and your recent mission has proven that you possess the leadership qualities we were looking for."

He pauses, eyeing her for a second, gaze flickering from her mask to her hood and hospital pyjamas.

"Take off your mask, please."

Sakura freezes.

While the wording is different, the order is the same as the first time she had been in this office in this life, when she'd taken the gamble to expose Danzo and secure Sai and Shin's safety in exchange for her own.

With jerky movements, she lifts a hand to her face and pushes her mask up, to the top of her head, pushing her hood off at the same time.

Shikaku moves then, pulling out a familiar vest from behind his back and handing it to the Hokage, who also rises to his feet.

"Sakura of the Leaf," Sarutobi intones, and Sakura can do little more than stare as he extends the chunin vest towards her, "you are hereby awarded the rank of chunin of Konohagakure and assigned under Hatake Kakashi, as the assistant sensei of Team Seven."

Chapter 21: past

Chapter Text

Shikaku watches the girl watch Sarutobi, and he wonders at the blank expression on her face. It's not even that she's hiding her expression, the way that even the shinobi who don't regularly wear masks learn to do after enough time in the field.

There's just...nothing there. Her face could've well been carved out of stone.

'I don't exist outside of the shadows'

That had rattled him.

More so than the actual wording, it was the tone which she had used that had hit him. Like she was stating a simple fact of life. Like it was normal that a child who can't be much older than Shikamaru didn't have a life outside of Konoha's Black-Ops.

He watches as she finally shifts one of her crutches into her other hand and extends her free hand to take the chunin jacket and hitai-ate from Sarutobi. The state she's in had also struck him when she'd walked in; half her leg is in a cast, and the parts of her body that are visible are riddled with bruises and scars, both old and new. An alarming amount for someone so young. But worst of all is how casual she seems about her injuries. How little she appears to notice them, beyond the occasional glare at the crutches, as if they're simply a nuisance.

He wonders what Inoichi would say.

To distract himself, he watches as she slips the headband into the pocket of her vest and brings her new jacket close to her body, though she doesn't move to put it on, staring at the garment in her grasp. Shikaku doubts she's actually seeing it.

He tries not to think about why she looks like Sarutobi just signed the order for her execution.

"May I request something, Hokage-sama?" she asks quietly, her eyes still trained on the flak jacket in her hand.

Sarutobi appears surprised for the briefest of seconds, then nods indulgently, and the girl takes a quiet breath and raises her eyes, her gaze steely, her back ramrod straight.

"I'd like to remain on my ANBU team and help out with Team 7 part-time. My team will be Village-bound for the foreseeable future anyway due to an internal issue, which should allow me the time to help with Team 7 as requested. But I'd like to be able to prioritise my ANBU missions, once my team is cleared."

Ah.

Now Shikaku understands why Bear had argued so vehemently – at least for that man's standards of emoting – against making the girl a jounin from the get-go.

"Kid's a born infiltrator, Nara. I'm not letting her go unless she wants out, and her being a jounin would make it difficult to bring her back into the shadows. Agents like Hatake and Shiranui are the exception, not the standard."

He wonders whether the desperate need to keep a child in the shadows is testament to the skill of the child or the state of the shadows.

He decides he'd rather not know.

"I don't see why not." Sarutobi decides after a pregnant pause, and Shikaku belatedly remembers that the girl had asked something of the man. "As long as you can manage both responsibilities to the best of your ability, you may stay with your team."

Be careful of burn-out. Shikaku wants to say, the memory of Chouza's worry for the shadows under Genma's eyes when Genma had still been a kid, barely sixteen and already tokujo and ANBU, trying to pretend like switching between the two really was as easy as putting on a mask.

But he doesn't say anything, and the girl nods, her lip quirking ever so slightly, yet the expression transforms her entire face.

"Thank you, Hokage-sama." She murmurs, inclining her head, and in the brief moment when she drops her gaze, Shikaku catches surprise flicker across the Sandaime's face, but it's gone with the next blink.

The girl straightens, and she doesn't make eye-contact this time, switching her focus to the flak jacket in her grasp, though she still doesn't put it on. Instead, she threads her free arm through both of the sleeve holes then grabs her crutch again, sandwiching the vest between her armpit and her crutch before she turns to the Hokage and nods one more time.

"If I may be excused?"

When Sarutobi waves her off, she turns on her heel and hobbles out, and Shikaku gaze catches on the way her smile drops the second her back is turned. Though her posture remains remarkably tension-free, the white-knuckled grip she's got on the handles of her crutches says she is not as unaffected by this exchange as he would've otherwise believed.

Just who is this?

Inosuke doesn't expect any visitors, particularly after the ordeal he'd had with the nurse upon waking up from his drugged nap.

You don't drug jounin. Particularly not Yamanaka jounin.

(He may have glared at her until she ran out of the room when she came to check his vitals.)

(Maybe.)

He's just glad Mongoose hadn't been in the room at that point.

[It had been…novel, to have someone offer to let him use the Mind-Walk on them. Mongoose hadn't flinched, hadn't hesitated or backed out even after they'd clarified what the Mind-Walk entails. She'd simply maintained a small smile while he'd covered the distance between their beds, as if he was the one that needed comfort or reassurance in that situation.

Maybe he was.

The kid had been right, though; seeing Hatake's dumbfounded face upon receiving the news that he'd been duped so thoroughly – his shock visible even with the mask on – had definitely been the highlight of his week.

But when the memory had ended, Mongoose's grasp on it had slipped, and he caught a glimpse of the rest of her mindscape.

It seemed…elaborate.

Two corridors split off, dozens of doors on either wall, both paths running so deep into her mindscape that he couldn't see their ends. One corridor was considerably better-lit than the other, and much more cared for, though Inosuke wasn't sure how much of the mental upkeep was conscious.

Still, the instinct to reach out and pull one of the doors from the darker corridor open overwhelmed him, but when he'd gone to do so, he found that his hand had frozen on the doorknob.

'I'm afraid you've overstayed your welcome.'

A cold, hollow voice had called out, similar and yet not to Mongoose's voice. Similar in the pronunciation and intonation, but alien because it was flat. No warmth, no inflection, no emotion.

And then, he'd felt a tugging in his mind, and next thing he knew, his consciousness was fully back in his body, a bitch of a headache pulsing in his temples.

Mongoose had startled when he jerked back from her, her eyes wide. "Everything okay?"

"Fine." he'd waved her off, then turned to walk back to his bed to try and piece together whatever he had just experienced, and the fact that the kid didn't seem to realise that she'd forced a Yamanaka jounin out of her mind, but he stopped half-way. "Thank you for the memory. You were right; I did enjoy it."

She'd laughed, and he'd almost been able to pretend he hadn't seen anything unusual at all.]

So he's not expecting for the door to burst open and Mongoose to stumble in on her crutches, her face deathly pale and her breathing quiet but quick, though not the same type of quick as he'd expect from simple exertion.

She drops her crutches, seemingly not caring that the jacket she'd had on her arm falls to the floor as well, and presses her back against the door until it shuts. Her chest is moving unnaturally quickly, her breaths shallow, and she slides her back down the door until she's sitting down, eyes wide, sweat beading on her forehead.

Hyperventilating.

Inosuke is on his feet and out of his bed before he quite realises what he's doing, the pain that shoots through him at the sudden movement barely registering.

"Mongoose." he calls, stopping about a metre from the kid, not sure whether she'd even recognise him now.

The girl keens and raises her hands, grasping fistfuls of her short hair and pulling until her knuckles turn white, but she doesn't otherwise react to his words.

"Sakura." he tries again, reaching over and wrapping his fingers around her left wrist, though when he tries to pull it away from her hair, she sobs loudly, so he stops, but doesn't relax his grip.

"Look at me!" he snaps.

He doesn't usually raise his voice, doesn't need to when most of his subordinates wouldn't dare go against him anyway. But this isn't to assert authority over the situation, no – he just needs to drag the kid out of whatever spiral she'd fallen down, and he doesn't know what else to do.

Luckily, it seems to work. He waits until dazed green eyes finally meet his, then waits some more until the fog starts to clear.

"You're in the hospital." he tells her quietly, tugging lightly at the wrist he still holds captive, and he's slightly surprised when she relaxes her grip on her hair and lets him tug her hand away.

She's still breathing too fast and her face is still worriedly pale, but her eyes have lost the desperate panic that shone in them before.

This, at least, he can deal with. He crouches next to her, mindful not to crowd her, and turns the hand in his grip to press it to his own sternum, splaying her fingers out over his chest.

He takes a deep breath.

"Match my breathing." He orders curtly, since it seemed like the tone had worked before, and he adds in a brief glare when the kid just stares at him blankly.

Almost as if chastised, she hastens to do as ordered, though she nearly chokes on the first inhalation, and it takes her a solid five minutes to have her breathing even remotely matching his.

"Alright." He murmurs, releasing his grip on her wrist and letting it fall to her lap. He tips over from his crouch to sit his ass on the floor, legs crossed loosely in front of him, and he pins the kid with an assessing look. "Wanna tell me what that was about?"

To his surprise, Mongoose snorts, though it's weak.

"You're not actually my shrink, y'know." She mumbles tiredly, shooting him a wan smile.

"No, but I am your captain." He points out, baffled when the girl winces.

"They made me a chunin." She says, a propos nothing, glaring at what he belatedly realises is a flak jacket crumpled on the floor next to them. "Kakashi must've pulled some strings- Genma probably told him, the bastard- they tried to pull me out, and I-!"

She cuts herself off and squeezes her eyes shut, taking a deep, shuddering breath which they both pretend she doesn't choke on, before she tries again.

"The Hokage made me assistant-sensei to Kakashi's genin team." She relays tonelessly, blankly, like one would deliver a mission report. Like ROOT would relay a report, he thinks but doesn't say. "Tried to pull me fully from ANBU, but I didn't let him."

The impassive mask cracks for the briefest of seconds, an unexpected burst of viciousness escaping from the girl at that last part.

Inosuke takes a few seconds to absorb that, but before he pulls the full story from the kid, he needs to check one thing:

"Why would you oppose being pulled out of ANBU? From what I've gathered, it hasn't been easy for you." he asks, trying to keep his tone as neutral as possible, and carefully doesn't react at the sharp, humourless smile the girl shoots him in return.

"I wasn't meant to survive ANBU, I know." She agrees flatly, almost spitefully. "But I did, not just the shadows but the sabotage too. Disappearing me didn't work when I was fully in the shadows, I'm not going to let him try again."

Inosuke hisses out a breath and shoots her a warning glare.

'The walls have ears here' He signs, and the kid looks startled, then appropriately chagrined. 'Be careful'

"Sorry." She sighs, and she sounds so tired that Inosuke almost slips up and tries to comfort her.

Instead, he pushes to his feet and holds out a hand. At her curious glance, he raises an eyebrow. "Do you want the nurses to nag?"

Huffing a quiet laugh, the kid lets him pull her up, then accepts the arm he holds out to help her to her bed.

[Both of them studiously ignore the flak jacket on the floor.]

Once they're in their respective beds, he asks for the rest of the story.

"What did you mean, 'Genma probably told him'?"

Mongoose looks at him, sighs, and spills.

By the time Sakura is done with telling Inosuke everything that had happened since her poison-cooking session with Genma to her meeting with the Hokage, her throat's a little sore, but she's almost able to forget the panic attack she'd had upon leaving the Sandaime's office.

Almost.

[There was a reason she hadn't sought either of the boys out since she'd gotten this chance at a redo. She hadn't realised how subconscious her decision not to involve herself in either of their lives had been until it had been wrenched to the forefront of her mind by the Hokage's announcement. Honestly, fuck Kakashi.]

Worst thing was, she wouldn't have been able to explain why that decision had shaken her so badly if Inosuke had asked.

[Naruto and Sasuke had killed her, in her previous life. Now she's going to be their sensei. Fucking fantastic.]

She wasn't a big believer in lucky stars or good karma, but she thanks all her lucky stars at that moment that Inosuke doesn't ask, appearing content to just sit there and listen.

They sit in silence for a few seconds after she's done with her tale, and Sakura takes the opportunity to sip her water and soothe her throat with her chakra. She doesn't think she's spoken that much at once since her team dinner with Team Ro and Shin when they finally found out about her Mokuton.

"Anything to say, senpai?" she asks after more than a minute has passed without Inosuke so much as twitching.

"I…appreciate you defending me." He says at last, hesitating slightly as if he doesn't know how to react. "But Shiranui wasn't entirely wrong."

Sakura does a double-take, then narrows her eyes.

"How so?" she presses, tilting her head, and Inosuke smiles, but it's small and wry and decidedly humourless.

"So you really didn't ask anyone." He observes, and he appears torn between reluctantly amused and somewhat…touched? Sakura waves the thought off.

"Ask about?" she presses instead, and he shoots her a wry smile.

"Me." He answers simply.

"I figured you'd tell me if you wanted to." She answers evenly, repeating the same thing she'd told Genma. "And if you didn't, then it was none of my business."

Inosuke's smile dims slightly, then he sighs and appears to steel himself.

"I had a genin team." He begins quietly, and from the past tense alone, Sakura knows this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

"Managed to get them through the Third War in one piece somehow." He chuckles humourlessly. "Then all the treaties were getting signed, kill-on-sight orders rescinded, and we got a border run. Konoha to Suna, through River. Seemed easy enough to the mission desk."

Sakura keeps quiet even as Inosuke grimaces and closes his eyes, the scar on his face pulling painfully with his grimace.

"I didn't think much of it either; my kids had been chunin-level for a good few months at that point, and they'd survived a lot. A border run would be a paid vacation, I thought. But what nobody in the Tower had considered was that the peace treaties that were signed were only signed between the Great Nations. All the smaller countries that got the most fucked over by the War got nothing. But fuck them, right? They're just the buffer-zone."

He snorts derisively and opens his eyes, gaze trained on the ceiling, and Sakura waits for him to continue.

"Some disillusioned Ame-nin were lurking around the borders of River and Fire. Set up traps, area-effect genjutsu, poison bombs, the lot." He swallows, then sighs quietly. "We walked straight into it. I sent out a request for backup after I'd dealt with them, but it didn't come."

He lowers his gaze and meets her eyes, and Sakura is struck by the heartbreak on his face. "We set out as a team of four…and came back as a one man and three body scrolls."

"I'm so sorry." Sakura whispers after a few seconds, after she manages to swallow past the lump in her throat, her eyes wide. Inosuke inclines his head but doesn't comment, and she feels horribly lost.

After a few minutes, he clears his throat and looks up again. "That's not the reason people don't like me, however."

Sakura is thrown by the self-satisfied, bloodthirsty smile that suddenly splits his face, the earlier grief washed away, replaced instead with a slightly manic light in his eyes.

"I did the dance with the shrinks to get cleared for field-work after and tracked the fuckers down." His gaze falls to his hands, and Sakura can see all the way from the other end of the room that they're trembling. "I ripped their jutsu from their minds and used the same techniques they used against my team to kill every Ame-nin I came across."

Sakura stills.

"It took Psych another three months and numerous complaints to realise that only a Yamanaka should be able to clear another Yamanaka for field-duty." He adds, the vicious note still in his voice, and Sakura thinks he sounds proud of himself.

"Complaints?" she asks quietly, the word standing out to her, and Inosuke's sharp smile gains teeth.

"My team-leaders had to contend with a manic, suicidal Yamanaka able to pry out their worst nightmares and bring them to life through genjutsu." He summarises, and Sakura stifles a sympathetic wince. "I don't remember much from those months, but other people do. Apparently, I didn't really distinguish between friend and foe."

They lapse into silence, and Sakura tries to wrap her head around what she's learnt.

"Is that why you let me go to Wave?" she asks after a few minutes of silence, and Inosuke appears thrown by her question, because his vicious half-smile finally fades, and he tilts his head at her. "Because when you called for backup, it didn't come?"

Inosuke blinks at her, seemingly completely thrown, then hangs his head and laughs quietly, that same jagged, rusty-sounding laugh she'd heard back in Wave.

"That's what you got from that?" he asks, his tone a touch disbelieving. "I tell you I terrorised enemies and allies alike with their worst nightmares in technicolour and you ask if I felt empathetic for Hatake's situation?"

"Yes." She agrees, not hesitating in the slightest, which seems to catch Inosuke off-guard. "You are not the first person to lose their genin team, and I'm unfortunately certain that you won't be the last. You are also not the only person who's acted regrettably out of grief. While it is tragic, and I am deeply sorry you had to go through that, beyond the unique combination of genjutsu with your Clan's techniques, I don't see anything unusual in your story."

When Inosuke continues to just…stare at her, Sakura runs a frustrated hand through her hair and sighs.

"I'm no stranger to survivor's guilt." She says quietly, and it's her turn to drop eye-contact in favour of staring at her lap, Neko's mask flashing through her mind. "The things I did in ROOT…I'm not proud of them. But," she takes a deep breath and forces her gaze up to meet her captain's eyes. "I would not blame you for losing your team any more than I would blame the Yondaime for losing two-thirds of his, so-"

She shrugs, wrestling with her words to try and make them express what she wants to say.

"-so, I want to thank you for trusting me, but I still think Genma was wrong."

She tries not to fidget in the ringing silence that falls between them at her declaration, then, when she's about to start trying to explain herself, Inosuke finally chuckles.

"I can't decide what fucked you up more, ROOT, or Hatake." He announces drily, then meets her startled gaze with the most genuine smile she's seen from him so far. "But thank you."

Two days later, Sakura gets the all-clear from the doctor to go home, though she's sternly reminded not to overexert herself because she had shattered thirteen bones. She thanks the doctor, grabs her crutches, and bites her cheek to avoid laughing when he walks out of the room muttering about how bizarrely quickly she had healed.

Then, when he's out of the room, she flicks through a familiar set of seals and presses her hand to the blanket on her bed. Once the smoke clears, and she notes the worryingly-large drain of her reserves, Tamaki and Chie sit on her bed, Chie looking around curiously while Tamaki seems content to wait for Sakura to explain what she wants from them.

"Senpai," she calls, though she knows Inosuke hasn't looked away since she started gathering chakra for the summoning, "you've met Tamaki-chan before." She points at the sensing-specialising summon, and sees the moment Inosuke recognises the tiger as the one that had led them to Sai in Wave.

"This is Chie-chan." she continues when she has his full attention, and points at the slightly larger tiger, though still smaller than either Ryū or Yū. "If you don't mind, I'd like for her to stay with you until you're released."

Inosuke's attention sharpens.

"The nurses might object to a summon in the room." He points out evenly, though Sakura's become familiar enough with his tone to know that he's digging.

"Not if they can't see her." She shoots back, and Chie allows herself to be picked up and carried to the foot of Inosuke's bed. Once on the covers, the tiger curls up so she's comfortable and disappears. "Chie-chan specialises in stealth. She can do an approximation of what you used in Wave, I think."

"…Is this about Bat?" her captain asks after a beat, and now it's Sakura's turn to blink confusedly because she didn't know that Inosuke knew.

"…Partly." She agrees, settling for truth. "And also because falling asleep to a purring cat is much nicer than falling asleep to drugs."

Inosuke's startle is just as funny as it is tragic.

"Don't worry, I've informed her direct superior." She tells him with only a touch of schadenfreude, "She won't be working with high-level shinobi for a while."

Another brief silence, and then a sharp, "Are you sure you don't need a shrink?"

Unable to help herself, Sakura snickers.

"There are quite a lot of S-Rank secrets in my head, senpai." She informs him dryly once she gathers herself. "And a lot of my issues are directly connected to them. I wouldn't want to involve anyone in my mess, patient confidentiality be damned."

"And if they offered?" Inosuke asks without missing a beat, and Sakura actually pauses, reading between the lines of what he's actually saying.

"If they offered, I'd be grateful, but I'd still wait until they were back to full physical health themselves." She meets his gaze to drive her point home. "And I'd want them to know that letting my summon stay with them would be very beneficial to my mental wellbeing."

Inosuke snorts. "Manipulative brat."

Sakura just shoots him a mock salute and walks back to her own bed, shrugging on her new chunin vest despite how much it feels like a noose around her neck, then picking up Tamaki and wrapping the cat around her shoulders like a vibrating scarf.

"I'll see you around, senpai." she calls, and hobbles out of the room upon receiving an affirmative grunt, though she casts a quick concealment genjutsu on Tamaki's fur so it appears black instead of its rather characteristic marking.

"Remember the dog scent that's often around Sai?" she asks quietly, taking care to move her mouth as little as possible as she navigates the hospital corridors with Tamaki around her neck. At the press of a cold nose under her jaw, she adds, "Do you remember the chakra?"

"Thunderstorms." Tamaki replies, shifting so her head is resting more on Sakura's clavicle.

"That's right. Can you tell me how to avoid it if it comes close to us?"

Kakashi hadn't thought much about his request to get Sakura as his assistant sensei beyond needing to ensure that she doesn't share the fate of Wolf's other teenage associates.

In fact, it was not until Nara Shikaku caught his elbow in the Mission Assignment office, a cryptic, 'I don't know who the kid is to you, or why you did it, but I don't think she's happy with her reassignment' that he even entertained what Sakura might think about her new position.

Still, from 'she's not happy', there's still quite a long way to 'she'll actively dodge your attempts at coming closer on her way back from the hospital'. Kakashi doesn't think he deserves that degree of cold-shoulder, but on his fifth unsuccessful try to catch Sakura without causing a scene in public, [which, considering that the girl is on crutches but still manages to disappear on him, is a) rather impressive, and b) makes him realise that he should have connected Sai's lack of presence to ROOT stealth training much, much sooner], he resigns himself to a house-visit.

What was it one of his many shrinks over the years had said? That he needs to 'avoid running from things that make him uncomfortable'? Well, he's trying to run towards them this time, but it's still not working.

With a quiet sigh, he changes course from following his kouhai and heads directly to the Barracks, scaling the building and settling on the roof, trying to decide how long he should give it before he knocks on their window.

On the half-hour mark, he drops down to the third floor to the half-open window of Sakura and Shin's living room and perches on the outside window-sill.

"She's mad at you."

Kakashi does not jump.

Not even a little.

"Fu-! You need a bell." He swears at Shin, glaring at where the teen pokes his head out from the next window along.

He gets a judgemental eyebrow in response, and the sheer level of 'unimpressed' that radiates from Shin would be enough to make lesser men sweatdrop.

"I think you'll find that I'm in my own house, Hatake, and it's you who should be polite and announce himself, instead of lurking like a pervert." The teen remarks, and Kakashi doesn't wait for the official welcome before he slips through the window and straightens to his full height.

"Happy?" he snaps, immediately slumping into his usual slouch.

"No. My sister is still mad at you." he shoots back, also turning so he's leaning against the wall instead of leaning out of the window. "At Shiranui more, but you're not blameless. So. Fix it."

"Any insight as to why she's mad?" Kakashi presses, not enjoying the churn in his stomach. They'd not had much opportunity to talk since she'd come to the Jounin HQ to accuse him of dereliction of duty, and he'd rather not fuck over this relationship entirely. "Minimal sarcasm, if you could?"

"Social interaction for emotionally-stunted geniuses 101;" Sakura's voice rings out, and Kakashi realises that he'd forgotten she was just a thin wall away, "next time you do something that directly affects another person's immediate future, ask them about it first."

Kakashi sighs, though he inclines his head to show he understands. "I'm sorry."

Sakura, however, merely raises an eyebrow, and Kakashi's struck by how similar the expression is to the one Shin had aimed at him mere minutes earlier. "For what? For going behind my back, or for trying to get me off Wolf's team?"

"For going behind your back." Kakashi admits, because he's not sorry for reducing Sakura's chances at interaction with a man whose teammates' survival rate is zero out of six.

Even he's only at zero out of three. It's hard to be worse than him, and yet Yamanaka Inosuke succeeded.

"Well." Sakura sighs, and some of the earlier iciness melts away, though he can tell she's still a bit cross. "It's a start."

"And," Kakashi swallows, wraps Inoichi's words around him like an invisible blanket, and adds, adamantly not looking at Shin, "I'm sorry for not looking after your brother."

By the way her face softens, Kakashi knows Sakura understands he's referring to what transpired between them in the Jounin HQ.

"Apology accepted." She smiles, and Kakashi feels an invisible weight melt off his shoulders. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry if I humiliated you in the HQ."

"It's alright." He shrugs, suddenly uncomfortable. "Others have done worse for less."

To his surprise, Sakura frowns. "It's not 'alright'. I shouldn't have spoken to you like that. I'm sorry, taicho."

Maybe it's the tone, maybe it's the title she tacks on at the end which he hasn't heard in a while, but Kakashi relaxes fully and reaches out to ruffle her hair.

"It's okay, kouhai." He replies, mirroring her intonation. Then, with a shrug, he adds an only half-joking, "My shrink would probably agree that I needed the kick."

Inoichi had made it clear they were going to talk about things, and as the man had been friends with Minato and occasionally taken over 'Team Minato babysitting duty' when Minato had been busy with Kushina, Kakashi couldn't run away from the man as easily or as guilt-free as from the other Yamanaka shrinks.

"Stop the presses," Shin drawls from where he's still leaning against the wall, and Kakashi really needs to stop spacing out like this, "Hatake Kakashi, bastard extraordinaire, is going to his mandated therapy sessions?"

"It happens when your genin-who's-not-a-genin knows too many of the Psych buzzwords and makes the shrinks strongarm you into therapy or suspension." He shoots back, sending Shin the stink-eye, before adding, saccharine-sweet, "Maybe you'd know something about that?"

"'fraid not." Shin shrugs, though there's a small smile playing around his lips which Kakashi chooses not to read into. "Kudos to that genin, though."

"You're hilarious." Kakashi deadpans, and Shin's ghost of a smile morphs into a full-on grin for a second, before he turns and hops onto the windowsill.

"Alright. I've exceeded my daily quota for emotion and this house is teeming with it. Later!" and jumps.

Kakashi turns to Sakura, who appears torn between fond and exasperated. "Sometimes, I think Hayate-san might've been onto something." She sighs, then moves to the kitchen, completely ignoring the indignant noise Kakashi makes.

"So…" he draws the word out, ambling carefully over to where Sakura has started chopping something, "will you be my assistant-sensei? Voluntarily?"

To his surprise, Sakura smiles. "Yes, taicho." She agrees, then shoots him a look. "But you are aware that I'm the same age as them, right?"

"And a lifetime more experienced, yes." He adds drily, and Sakura laughs quietly, wordlessly conceding the point. "Only Sasuke is likely to have an issue with respect, but he appears to respect strength, so worst comes to worst, we can just have you fight him."

He's shocked when Sakura's smile drops, and she fumbles the knife, almost cutting her finger. "I thought you liked your team." She tries to joke, but her voice is much weaker than before, and Kakashi doesn't know why.

"I do." He answers slowly, eye trained on Sakura for her reaction. "But a superior is a superior, even if you're the same age as them, and Sasuke unfortunately doesn't like to do things 'just because'."

"Alright." Sakura sighs, and this time, when she shoots him a small smile, it's a touch more genuine. "But let's hope it won't come to that."

"You'll be fine." he reaches out to ruffle her hair again, but this time, Sakura dodges, pointing the knife she'd since picked up at him, so he gives up with an eye-smile. "Till tomorrow, then, kouhai. Training ground seven, aim for around noon."

And he's gone before she can throw the knife at him.

The next morning, Sakura spends about ten minutes staring at her open wardrobe. The temptation to just take out ANBU standard uniform is almost overwhelming, and she hasn't realised how much she hadn't developed an individual style until she's faced with her wardrobe and the fifty shades of grey and black that fill it.

In the end, she settles for dark grey cargo pants which she tucks into her boots, and steals an oversized black t-shirt from Sai's wardrobe, taking advantage of Sai having stayed the night at Shino's again. The shirt is plain, and despite the sleeves technically being 'short', they almost reach her elbow, which leaves only an inch or so of bare arm before her ANBU-issue gloves begin. She tucks her t-shirt into her trousers and throws her chunin vest on top, the green looking strangely out-of-place with the otherwise monochrome outfit.

She combs her fingers through her hair then ties her forehead protector over her throat, covering the delicate cartilage with the metal plating.

With a deep breath, she steps out of the house and heads for training ground seven, feeling somewhat like she's walking to her death.

She finds Kakashi in a tree overlooking the grounds five minutes before noon and shoots him a quick smile. "What time did you tell them?"

"Nine." Kakashi answers with a guileless eye-crinkle.

"You sick bastard."

Kakashi's quiet laughter shakes the branch they're on, and, once he stops laughing, he drops to the ground, and Sakura has little choice but to follow.

"My cute genin, your attention please." Kakashi calls as they step out of the treeline and onto Training Ground 7, expertly ignoring Naruto's indignant squawk and Sasuke's put-upon glare. "I want to introduce my other cute kouhai, who from today onwards shall be your assistant-sensei."

"Assistant...sensei?" Naruto mumbles, oddly quiet, even as he gawks at her shamelessly.

"I thought only jounin are made sensei." Sasuke points out, and though his tone is far less acidic than that of his adult self, the judgement and overblown sense of self-importance is still there, and it grates at her.

Kakashi just smiles, but the crease of his eye tells her that it's a hint sharper than his usual ones.

"That's mostly correct."

Sasuke's face says 'then why is she here?' clearer than if he'd shouted it from the rooftops, and Kakashi must realise it because his phony smile only grows, but he stays silent.

"I believe," Sai speaks up for the first time since Sakura entered the clearing, and she chances a glance at her brother, only to find him already looking at her, "that Sasuke-san is confused as to your kouhai's presence here, seeing as she appears to be close to our age."

Sakura carefully doesn't let her gaze linger on Sai, sending a mental apology to the boy for springing this on him without a word, though in all fairness, she's only been aware of this development for about 72 hours.

"Oh, well, you should've just said so, Sasuke." Kakashi chastises idly, and Sakura realises with no small degree of exasperation that he's enjoying this. "My kouhai was made your assistant sensei because she is, in fact, a jounin-level kunoichi."

Immediately, it's as if a switch has been flicked – Naruto snaps to attention even as Sasuke glares.

"What?! But- but she's our age!"

At that, Kakashi's good humour temporarily vanishes.

"Do you remember what I told you when we faced Zabuza the first time?" He asks coldly, and again, it's Sai who answers.

"'In this world, there are some younger than us, but stronger than you'." He recites dutifully, and Naruto and Sasuke's eyes widen as they remember their first real battle.

Kakashi merely nods, that cold look still in his eyes. "It would do you well to remember that."

When Naruto continues to gawk and Sasuke's glare turns assessing instead of scornful, Sakura stifles a sigh.

"I think," she addresses Kakashi, drawing the boys' attention to her face while her left hand subtly signs 'spar' to Kakashi, waiting till his own hand twitches in confirmation, "that a 'show of strength' will dispel any lingering doubts far faster than words."

Kakashi makes a great spectacle of looking speculative for a split second before he brightens.

"Good idea. Sasuke!" He calls, and the Uchiha raises an eyebrow. "Since you're the most distrustful of your new sensei's ability, you'll fight her. Go all out."

Sasuke smirks, radiating confidence, and heads off to the middle of the training grounds.

"Sakura," Kakashi addresses her this time, too quiet for Sasuke to hear, but not bothering to hide what he's saying from Naruto and Sai, "taijutsu and the Academy Three only. And watch your foot. I saw your medical chart."

Naruto's eyes widen but he stays uncharacteristically silent, choosing to watch her as she moves to face Sasuke instead, and Sai's eyes drill holes in the back of her head, but she'll explain herself later.

She has a moment of unbidden anxiety at Kakashi's restriction, her mind flashing back to memories of her previous life, of Sasuke-the-genin being hailed as a genius, but then, a voice in her head that sounds a lot like Shin calls her an idiot and banishes all doubts.

For all that Sasuke is a genius on the backdrop of their graduating class, he's got nothing on Shisui when he was his age. Hell, he's got nothing on Sai, and though he's fast for a genin, Sakura is faster.

She still forgets sometimes, but she's a genius too in this timeline.

She won't lose.

But she has to be careful not to accidentally kill him.

And she still can't meet his eyes.

"Go!" Kakashi calls suddenly, and Sasuke doesn't need further invitation.

He doesn't waste a moment, striking out with a barrage of admirably accurate shuriken, but Sakura isn't keen to turn this into an exhibition match. She deflects the shuriken with kunai of her own, each hitting one of the throwing stars and either deflecting them or pinning them harmlessly to the ground around them. And, in a move that's becoming a favourite of hers, she throws one extra and lets it sail wide by Sasuke's head.

Quicker than he can blink, she uses a seal-less kawarimi to switch places with the kunai and strikes out at Sasuke's knees, catching his arms as he falls and twisting them behind his back in a mimicry of what he had once done to the Sound-nin Zaku in the Forest of Death.

"Kawarimi." She mutters under her breath, just loud enough for Sasuke to hear, and he freezes under her hands.

"Ahaha teme, you lost!" Naruto exclaims from the side-lines, apparently choosing to focus on his glee over Sasuke losing instead of the sheer disbelief at someone their age being able to beat Sasuke so quickly.

"Round two!" Kakashi announces cheerfully, signature book in full view though his eye is trained on their spar.

Sasuke squares up again once she lets Sasuke up, and the earlier confidence has given way to a wary contemplation on the Uchiha's face.

"Go!" Kakashi calls again, and no sooner has he uttered the words does Sasuke produce a massive Fireball and send it flying straight for her. Sakura kawarimis with one of the deflected shuriken, calls up three bunshin and masks her chakra before rushing Sasuke.

She weaves and changes places with the bunshin at such speeds that, without his Sharingan, Sasuke has no chance of tracking her movements, though that doesn't stop him from striking out with a wide side kick. Sakura slides under it and, in a move reminiscent of what Rock Lee had once pulled, she pushes off the ground with her hands and kicks Sasuke right in the chin with her non-injured foot, sending him flying a good two metres vertically in the air.

She follows after him, pushing off the ground while circulating chakra through her legs. As she reaches Sasuke, he tries to strike out at her with a kunai but it's so predictable she doesn't bother deigning it with a block, just grabs his wrist and knocks the knife from his hold, then uses said wrist to flip him over.

She lets Sasuke fall slightly lower than her and delivers a downward heel kick to his solar plexus, taking care to not use any chakra in the hit.

She wants Sasuke winded, not dead, after all.

Still, even with her precaution, they were only about a metre above the ground when she hit him, so Sasuke slams into the ground, dust rising and hairline cracks forming in the earth and spreading a few centimetres out from the point of impact. She feels the tiniest flicker of guilt when he wheezes, doubtless completely winded, but if she remembers anything from the Sasuke of her time, he would scorn any help she were to offer now, so she lets him pick himself back up in his own time, and when he's finally on his feet, she glances at the spot between his eyebrows, the closest to his eyes she can make herself look, and mutters only one word.

"Bunshin."

Sasuke's eyes widen and it seems he's finally caught on to what she's doing if the way his gaze darts to Kakashi is anything to go by. But even suspecting that there's only one more technique to go, nothing can prepare him for what Sakura does when Kakashi says 'go' for the third time.

Sakura herself can barely believe she's doing it, even as she brings up a mental image of the man and lets herself assume the face and outfit of Uchiha Itachi on the day of the Uchiha Massacre.

Sasuke freezes.

She can feel Kakashi's shock and absently registers Naruto's confused demands as to what she's doing, but her focus is on Sasuke.

The boy is trembling, hands shaking at his sides, then she watches as the shock melts into pure, unadulterated rage, and that is the moment she strikes.

She is within Sasuke's guard in a blink and meets his uncoordinated blows with ease, and feels a flicker of satisfaction when she notices that Sasuke's anger is making him sloppy.

More vicious, yes, but sloppy.

So it's easy, almost too easy, to add half-remembered bits of the Uchiha Style she learnt from Shisui into her attack pattern, watching as Sasuke loses a little more of his already fragile control with every move he recognises.

Within half a minute, Sasuke is red-faced, his swings beginning to look more like Naruto's brawl-like taijutsu than the polished style he usually favours, and that's when Sakura adds a touch more speed. After that, it's less than ten seconds before she's got Sasuke on the ground, right wrist pinned under her foot, and a kunai pointed at his throat.

"Henge." She says at last, drops the transformation and steps away.

"And that's a match." Kakashi calls when she turns to him, seemingly recovered from his shock, and claps his hands.

"Now, Sasuke, before you complain," he waits until the Uchiha picks himself off the ground and Sakura sees him meet Sasuke's baleful glare before he continues, "I was the one who told Sakura to only use taijutsu and the Academy Three, and seeing as she still trounced you 3-0, I expect you to show her the deserved respect. If I hear of any cases of insubordination, it'll be back to D-Ranks for a month."

"Why tell me to go all-out if you're going to give her restrictions?" Sasuke bites out, angry and humiliated, and though he's clearly revaluating her, he's too much of an Uchiha at heart to let that showing teach him any sort of humility.

"Because, you arrogant brat," Kakashi replies, voice saccharine-sweet and his fake eye-smile in place, and it takes Sakura a second to actually register his words, "she is a jounin-level kunoichi. If I'd told her to go all-out, she'd have killed you in three seconds. Allow me to demonstrate."

He beckons Sakura to the middle of the field and they stand opposite each other just like Sakura and Sasuke had not three minutes ago.

"Let's give them a show, hm, kouhai?" Kakashi asks good-naturedly, and Sakura nods. Even with the minimal instruction, she has a feeling she knows precisely what sort of 'showing' Kakashi means, and she feels an answering grin to the one she can see beneath his mask bloom on her face.

They wait until Sasuke is safely by Naruto and Sai, then, they spring.

"Holy crap!" Naruto exclaims, unable to help himself as Kaka-sensei and his new 'assistant' spring into motion. "She really went easy on you, teme!"

Sasuke grunts and there's a scowl on his face, but his eyes are wide as he, too, struggles to keep track of the sparring duo.

"It's like Kakashi-sensei said," Sai speaks up, settling down on Sasuke's left, and Naruto glances briefly at the artist before gluing his eyes back to the fight, "if a- if Sakura-san had gone all-out, we could've fit all that would have been left of Sasuke into a matchbox."

Naruto can see that, as angry and embarrassed as Sasuke is likely to be at having been beaten so thoroughly and with the Academy Three of all things, he's beginning to understand that his defeat had nothing to do with him.

Kakashi and his 'kouhai' are simply on another level.

"I don't think he moved that fast when he was fighting Zabuza." Naruto mumbles, more to himself than anything else. "I can barely freakin' see them and there's no mist this time!"

Just then, Kakashi disengages from the flurry of too-fast-to-see taijutsu and flashes through some handsigns, and the wind he produces is sharp enough to score deep marks into the bark of the trees surrounding their training grounds.

The girl seems unfazed as she flashes through her own seals and a second later, a gust of fire erupts from her mouth and Naruto notices Sasuke twitch at his side.

For some reason, the burst of fire doubles in size when it meets Kaka-sensei's jutsu and suddenly, it's their sensei who has to kawarimi out of the path of the inferno heading straight for him.

The second Kakashi's feet touch the ground on the girl's other side, he's flashing through more seals and holding his arm straight up. Suddenly, a literal lightning bolt flashes down from the sky, and Kakashi barely lets it touch him before redirecting it right where his kouhai is standing.

Naruto thinks he hears a muttered curse, then the girl makes the cross seal that forms 90% of his battle plans and the clone she makes grabs her arms and spins, throwing her a good thirty feet up, out of the path of the coming lightning bolt.

She grins, the expression visible even from as far as they are, and lets a kunai fly, heading straight for Kakashi, yet before he has a chance to throw his own to deflect it, she switches place with the blade, suddenly less than a metre from the other jounin.

Naruto winces as Kakashi's retaliatory kunai digs into the meat of her forearm but then her heel touches the ground and the world trembles.

"What the hell-!" Naruto shrieks as he scrambles to his feet and away from the cracks that form in the earth, spidering out from the literal crater that suddenly appears in the middle of their training ground, with the girl and a dusty-looking Kakashi at its epicenter.

Sasuke seems comparably shell-shocked at the level of destruction wrought by a single kick, and that, more than anything, appears to banish the remaining anger he'd felt towards Kakashi at the restrictions he'd placed on their new 'sensei' for their spar.

"I think that was sufficiently educational." They hear Kakashi laugh quietly, reaching out to ruffle the girl's short hair, and she quirks a smile and nods before they both climb out of the crater and make their way towards the three genin.

"That was insane, 'ttebayo!" Naruto cheers, because now that he knows that Kakashi-sensei is not just some crazy old man after the fight with Zabuza, seeing someone who could've, by all respects, been in the same graduating class as them match him blow-for-blow is mind-boggling. "Are you really gon' be our sensei? Really-really?"

"Be quiet, dobe." Sasuke grunts, but his earlier acid and anger are completely gone now – at least, as gone as can be for Sasuke.

"Really-really." she confirms, speaking for the first time since she'd damned Sasuke by beating him 3-0 with nothing but the Academy Three and some taijutsu, a small smile on her face, though she still won't meet their eyes for some reason. "Taicho has told me a great deal about his team, and you all sound like interesting individuals. I look forward to working with you."

Naruto's mind catches on the word 'taicho' and he gets distracted by the way Sasuke freezes by his side at the term, side-eyeing Sai for some reason.

"How about introductions? Same style as before." Kakashi proposes after a beat passes in silence, but his kouhai holds up a hand and steps towards Sasuke, and, right in front of their eyes, her hand is enveloped in a pale green sheen of chakra.

"I kicked you harder than I'd intended." She explains when Sasuke eyes her distrustfully. "Will you let me check your ribs?"

Naruto watches as Sasuke scowls, glancing at Kakashi, who just smiles like he always does, then, to Naruto's surprise, Sasuke turns to Sai.

And Sai just nods, the corner of his lips quirking up. "It'd be wise to listen to the medic."

Sasuke's scowl doesn't fade, but he nods at their new sensei and lets her do…whatever it is she means to do.

"Alright." Kakashi-sensei calls once the girl drops her hand and steps away, seemingly satisfied. "So. The introductions?"

Wonder of wonders, it's Sasuke who speaks up first.

"Uchiha Sasuke." He tells their new sensei, and he looks oddly serious. "I enjoy training. My specialisation is Uchiha Fire-style and taijutsu. My goal is to find a certain man and…ask him something."

Their new sensei twitches the slightest bit at that, a motion Naruto only catches because he hasn't looked away from her since Kakashi had spoken, but her expression doesn't change.

He grins.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto!" he declares proudly, jabbing a thumb at his chest. "I like ramen and my team! I will be Hokage one day!" then, he realises what the other two have said and scratches his head. "Uh, I'm good at making clones and traps and stuff!"

Unlike all the other people he's made that declaration to, their new sensei merely cocks her head and nods thoughtfully.

"I'm Sai." Sai finally speaks, and the girl's eyes seem to soften as they fall on the artist. "I enjoy drawing and spending time with my siblings. I specialise in medium to long-range combat. My goal is for my family to be happy."

Naruto cocks his head at the wording, a tiny frown marring his brow as he tries to remember what was different from the first introduction he'd given.

"I'm Sakura. Despite what taicho has implied, I'm a chunin. My specialisation is mid to long-range ninjutsu and taijutsu. I enjoy reading and spending time with my brothers. My goal is…hm. My goal is to one day fight with my unit again."

Naruto doesn't bother hiding his confusion at her odd 'goal', but Kakashi interrupts before he can ask for a clarification.

"I think that'll do for today. Meet back here tomorrow at eight, and be ready to show me and my kouhai everything you've learnt since graduating."

Kakashi ruffles Sakura's hair, more for the stink-eye that gets him than anything else. "You did much better than I did on the first meeting. Well done, kouhai."

Then, before she can kick him, he shunshins to the treeline, masking his chakra immediately as he lands amid the branches.

He's seen the way Sasuke has been eyeing his kouhai since their little 'exhibition match', and he wonders what the Uchiha wants from the girl. And, more than anything, he wonders how Sakura will react to his little sourpuss Uchiha's less-than-stellar social skills.

And indeed, Sasuke lingers, waiting until Sai and Naruto disappear between the trees before he speaks.

"Sakura-san." Sasuke calls as his kouhai is about to head off, and she pauses obligingly, turning back around.

Inwardly, Kakashi is surprised that Sasuke remembered the honorific, even if it seems more like an afterthought than actual manners.

"Yes, Sasuke?" Sakura asks, and her tone is a curious mix of intrigue and careful politeness, though the latter seems almost like it's masking something. Her eyes, curiously enough, never rise higher than Sasuke's nose. "Did you need anything?"

"Why do you call Kakashi 'taicho'?" Sasuke demands, blunt as ever, and Kakashi despairs. Then, he almost topples out of his branch at Sakura's answer.

"It's what I've always called him." She replies with a shrug, offering Sasuke a tiny smile. "It feels weird to call him anything else."

"You were ANBU, then." Sasuke concludes, and Kakashi would've been surprised at his quick deduction if not for who his brother had been.

"Still am, actually." Sakura tells the Uchiha lightly, and Kakashi isn't imagining the way Sasuke's eyes widen at the news, then narrow as he scrutinizes her in silence for a few seconds.

"You knew my brother." He states, and he's not accusative, not really, but Kakashi's sure any other shinobi would've at least blinked at Sasuke's directness, but Sakura's expression merely turns a little melancholy.

"I did, although very briefly." She acknowledges, and Kakashi sits up straight.

This is news to him. She's told them about Shisui, however reluctant that had been, but she's never mentioned Itachi.

"But I was one of the first on the scene when he…left." She explains, sounding apologetic, and her smile turns sad. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry, Sasuke."

Kakashi goes very, very still.

But Sasuke doesn't even acknowledge her sympathy – instead, he frowns.

"Why did you henge into him?" he asks, and there's an odd note of…something in his voice. Something Kakashi can't quite decipher, but Sakura is apparently better-versed in interpreting Uchiha-speak, because she sighs.

"Half to test your mental state." She admits, quirking a wry smile which Sasuke clearly doesn't understand the reason for, but Sakura continues before he can question it. "And half to teach you something."

She flashes to just in front of Sasuke, startling him, and lays a hand on his shoulder before he can step back.

"You wear your weaknesses on your sleeve, Sasuke-kun." She tells him simply – or rather, she tells his eyebrow – her hand tightening on Sasuke's shoulder when he visibly tenses. "Literally and figuratively."

"Explain." Sasuke says, but it sounds breathless and scared, and definitely not like the demand he likely intended it to be.

"Most shinobi are not good people." Sakura replies obligingly, and Sasuke frowns at the non-sequitur. "And most are very opportunistic. If they see a weakness to exploit, a sore spot to poke, a button to push, they will. You wear yours like a target on your back."

She tugs on the high collar of Sasuke's shirt for emphasis, and Sasuke's eyes widen when he no doubt realises she's referring to the uchiwa on the back.

"I'm not saying you should renounce your heritage, or not take pride in your identity, but perhaps do so in a manner that doesn't broadcast your sore spots to any potential enemies quite so obviously, hm?" she explains, and though her tone is light, it seems Sasuke knows better than to ignore the weight behind her words.

"So, you henged into a- into him, to…teach me?" he asks, and Kakashi can see the pain it causes Sasuke to talk about his brother.

Sakura nods, and her expression is serious, her gaze heavy, the earlier lightness gone.

"Taicho has praised your taijutsu a few times." She offers, and Sasuke startles, clearly pleased by the praise, but suspicious as to its purpose.

Sakura doesn't keep him waiting.

"But, in your anger at seeing just the illusion of your brother, you fought less like the Uchiha heir and Rookie of the Year and more like a drunk civilian."

Ouch. Kakashi winces in sympathy at the way Sasuke almost flinches back at the assessment, and though it's not wrong, his kouhai clearly doesn't believe in mincing her words.

"Emotions are beautiful, and they can move and motivate and touch the deepest places in our hearts, but you can't let yourself be ruled by them, Sasuke. What you feel, that's yours – you shouldn't let somebody else take advantage of your feelings."

"So, not reject emotion, but…hide it?" Sasuke checks, and he looks more contemplative than angry or indignant now. "Like you and Sai do?"

That seems to be a curveball Sakura wasn't expecting, because she takes a moment longer to reply than before.

"…I beg your pardon?"

If Sasuke were anyone else, Kakashi is willing to bet he would've rolled his eyes. As it is, his lip curls up the slightest bit, as if pleased with himself to have been able to surprise Sakura.

"You and Sai. You seem genuine and straightforward, but I have no idea if what you say is what you mean." Then, Sasuke scoffs and looks away. "Kakashi does it too, but at least he's obvious about it."

Though he can only see her profile, Kakashi gets the distinct impression that Sakura is collecting herself. As if she doesn't quite know what to say to that.

"I…can only speak for myself," she begins hesitantly, and Sasuke seems surprised she's actually addressing his accusation, "but after you've been a shinobi for long enough, a certain degree of subterfuge becomes second nature."

Sasuke mulls over that for a bit, then something both curious and a little cruel flits through his eyes.

"And how long have you been a shinobi?" he presses, and Kakashi isn't certain what he's trying to achieve with the question. Has he found a new yardstick to measure himself by? Is he comparing Sakura to Itachi? Or is he simply hoping to get under Sakura's skin the same way she got under his?

It seems Sakura has the same thought process, or she thinks less kindly of Sasuke than Kakashi does, because her smile turns sharp, and for the first time since their introduction, she meets Sasuke's gaze without hesitation.

"The first time I killed a man, I was six years old." She says blandly, the reply cruel in its simplicity, and her hand finally falls from Sasuke's shoulder when he flinches back in surprise. "Extrapolate from that what you will."

And then, without so much as a breeze or a puff of smoke to betray her, she disappears.

Well, Kakashi thinks as he watches Sasuke collect himself before he leaves, that could've gone better.

Chapter 22: tension

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is Shin who finds her.

"ROOT, Sakura, really?"

Shin's voice carries over to her as he drops down into the abandoned underground training grounds they used to use regularly. One which she had apparently run off to following her 'talk' with Sasuke, though she doesn't recall much after that conversation beyond the desperate need to get away.

"Thank god you don't have a shrink 'cause they'd have had a field day with explaining this."

Sakura blinks, forcing her mind to focus back on the present.

It is with no small degree of surprise that she realises Shin is right – somehow, somewhere, her psyche decided that the ruins of the ROOT hideout were the safest place to retreat to.

(She ignores the little voice in the back of her head whispering that at least things made sense in ROOT.)

"You good?" Shin asks, and Sakura focuses on making her brain snap out of it and pay attention. She lifts her eyes from her fisted hands to her brother and realises that Shin has stopped about twenty feet from her and is making no move to come any closer.

She frowns, confused, and Shin sighs and gestures vaguely at her.

"I don't really wanna get skewered."

It's only when she glances around, completely stumped, that she realises she's curled up in a small half-dome made out of thorns. Not roots like usual, but dried out, thick, thorny branches which have twined around her and hidden her away from the rest of the world.

She…doesn't remember making them.

"I…think so?" she manages after another unquantifiable amount of time, her voice hoarse. "How long have I…?"

"It's not even sunset yet." Shin says lightly, though his gaze is intent. He watches her watch him, then takes a few careful steps closer, telegraphing his movements as he goes, then drops into a crouch about three feet away from her. "You're a mess, Sakura."

Sakura bristles.

"It's not an attack!" Shin snaps, apparently reading something on her face that's beyond the usual mock-annoyance at his bluntness, and Sakura takes a deep breath and tries to smooth out her expression and calm her chakra. "Sai couldn't look his teammates in the eye either in the first few weeks. It's not unusual."

Sakura pauses, eyeing Shin in surprise. Sai had had problems with his teammates?

"You weren't in the Village long enough to notice at that point, but yeah." Shin tells her, his voice a mix of wry and the insufferable 'I-told-you-so' tone that Ino used to use sometimes, but Sakura's more thrown by the realisation that she hadn't noticed Sai had been struggling.

She feels like a bad sister.

"He talked it over with the Aburame Head and the Wave mission apparently helped, but that's not the point." Shin huffs, pinning her with a look. "Point is, Sai saw Shisui in them, too, so whatever you're experiencing is normal, Sakura. You'll get over it."

Shisui? Sakura wants to ask, but her voice refuses to cooperate. What does Shisui have to do with this?

After a long few seconds, she realises that Shin means reflections of Shisui in Naruto and Sasuke, which, now that she thinks about it, yeah. She can see it. And god does it hurt, even if she knows, rationally, that Shisui is alive. She misses the Uchiha something fierce.

"Itachi tried to kill me." Is what she says after another minute, because it looks like Shin's angling for an explanation. Also, she can't very well admit that Sasuke had killed her to Shin unless she's prepared to open the whole can of worms that is her apparent reincarnation, but this should do. "During the Massacre. He wanted to use his Sharingan on Sasuke, and I stopped him. He…didn't take that well."

"You'll need to get over that if you're planning to teach the kid." Shin says frankly, and Sakura shoots him a glare because she's aware, thanks. Shin doesn't seem in the slightest fazed by her ire, and he also apparently used up all his capacity to be considerate, because he adds, "You'll also need to listen to me and use the time away from ANBU to brush up on your basic skills because you've gotten careless."

He jerks his chin at the bandage still around her wrist, the reference self-explanatory.

"If you say 'I told you so' I'll stab you." Sakura threatens, distantly disturbed to find that she means it, and certain that whatever expression is on her face is rather far from friendly.

"I'd like to see you try." Shin shoots back with a sharp, humourless smile, his gaze cold. "And I don't need to say shit; you know I was right."

"I'm not leaving ANBU." Sakura snaps, and she feels the thorns around her stir. "Whatever your agenda, you can forget it."

"My 'agenda' is that you survive, you brat." Shin seethes, and Sakura's not sure whether she's more shocked by the vehemence or the insult. "You're making that goal rather difficult."

Sakura feels her irritation spike, and with it, one of the thorns that has been slowly twining around her shoots out at Shin, tip sharper than steel and aimed right at his chest.

Shin throws himself back, putting distance between him and Sakura, but the branch doesn't slow, doesn't stop, and Shin slips-!

"Katon: Hosenka!"

It's not Shin's voice that shouts the technique, and Sakura's too shocked to react. She can only watch, frozen, unable to speak, unable to do anything but stare in horror as the fire incinerates the thorned branch inches before it can touch Shin.

She doesn't notice that Shin relocate, back on his feet and a safe distance away, standing between her and Sai. Sai, who must've been the one to produce the fire jutsu. Sai, whose eyes are wide, one of his tracking mice perched on his shoulder.

For a moment, nobody speaks.

"I- I'm sorry-!" Sakura tries, choking on her breath, the horrifying realisation of what she'd almost done slowly sinking in.

"You're a mess, Sakura." Shin repeats, sharper than before, also breathing hard. "Sort your fucking head out."

Sakura keens in the back of her throat, hands rising to pull at her hair as she tries to get her breathing under control.

"I'm putting myself in charge of your training." Shin announces over the sound of her gasping, and his tone is flat, authoritative. "Next time you're brought down on a mission, you better have been fighting the Kami himself."

"Aniki." Sai frowns, tone chastising, but Shin brushes him off.

"You, too." He tells Sai sternly, a scowl pulling on his lips, and Sai startles slightly. "I trust Hatake about as far as I can throw him when it comes to your safety. We're going back to ROOT-standard training, and you're both going to like it."

"Shin-!" Sakura starts, and she doesn't want to question him or disagree, she just wants to apologise before the guilt eats her alive, but Shin cuts her off.

"-I don't care. You didn't listen when I told you that you were stretching yourself too thin the first time, so you deal with the consequences now." He reminds her coldly, and Sakura flinches. "Shelve your martyr complex and get yourself together."

Shin looks from her to Sai, the coldest expression Sakura has seen from him in years on his face, then turns on his heel and leaves them alone.

Sakura musters the energy to crawl out of the thorny cocoon she's unconsciously made for herself, and as soon as she's a reasonable distance away, she spits a small fireball at it, watching dispassionately as it turns to ash.

She doesn't know what she's feeling, but she stumbles when she moves to follow after Shin, her legs numb. Sai is at her side in seconds, a concerned hand catching her elbow, and she lets him hold her up until feeling returns to her legs.

"Aneue?"

Sakura mentally commends Sai for managing almost two minutes in silence, but the thought isnt enough for her to manage a smile so she doesn't even try to. All she can do is drop her head until it thunks gently against Sai's shoulder, taking in the wordless comfort.

"I'm sorry I sprang being assigned to your team on you so unexpectedly, Sai-chan." she mumbles tiredly, closing her eyes and letting Sai support most of her weight.

Her foot twinges uncomfortably, and Sakura is rather painfully reminded of the fact that she'd smashed her heel into the ground like an idiot when she'd been fighting Kakashi and then forgot to heal it.

"It's okay." Her brother assures her, carefully steering her towards the latch that will lead them out of the bunker. "Shiranui-san came to talk to Kakashi at some point when you were gone and I heard your name, so I could've guessed something similar."

Sakura huffs, not quite a laugh but not a disagreement either, and pulls herself up the ladder and out of the hatch, breathing in the crisp evening air with relief.

"You heading home?" She asks Sai when he appears beside her, and Sai takes a look at her, a look at the sky, then shakes his head.

"I'll go to Shino's. I think aniki needs time alone for now." Sai meets her eyes then, and Sakura is surprised to see the barest edge of disapproval in his gaze. "You scared him. He's bad at expressing it, but he was really worried for you."

Sakura ignores the lump that forms in her throat and manages a nod.

"I'll crash at HQ then." She allows, because Sai might have the right idea regarding giving Shin some space. "I'll see you at training."

She pauses, shooting Sai a curious look, "Feel like cluing Naruto and Sasuke in as to our relationship?"

Sai looks briefly amused at the thought, which had been the goal, and nods.

"Sure. It should be fun." Then, he lifts a hand in a lazy wave and offers her a soft smile. "See you tomorrow."

And disappears.

Sighing, Sakura unseals her ANBU mask and heads for one of the hidden entrances to ANBU HQ. Her assigned cot might be less comfortable than her bed at home, but she's not about to try and face Shin after she tried to kill him.

The realisation that she might have to ask Inosuke if he was serious about the offer of being her shrink isn't a particularly comforting one.

Sasuke's not sure what reaction he's expecting when 'Sakura-sensei' appears on the training grounds the next morning, but he's still somewhat surprised when all she does is nod at him in greeting when she notices him looking, no visible annoyance or resentment on her face.

Then again, seeing as she admitted to being ANBU the day before, he's not sure how much he can trust that neutral expression.

What is even more surprising is that she arrives to the training grounds with Sai talking quietly at her side.

"Good morning Naruto, Sasuke." She greets them quietly, managing a small smile, though she still doesn't meet their eyes directly.

"Hi sensei, Sai!" Naruto shouts, because Sasuke has since learned that the dobe does not operate on volumes lower than 'deafening'.

He scoffs at the thought, a biting remark on the tip of his tongue, but then Naruto cuts him off before he can say anything.

"Why're ya wearing Sai's sweater, sensei?" he asks in a weird voice, frowning intently at their teammate and new sensei, and Sasuke straightens from his kata to look at the two more closely.

Third surprise of the morning is that the dobe's not wrong. Under her flak jacket, their sensei is wearing the same grey sweatshirt he can vaguely remember Sai having worn a few times, complete with the black pockets and asymmetric zip.

"Ah." Sakura breathes, appearing almost sheepish, while Sai seems amused. "I meant to talk to you both about that, actually."

Sasuke raises an eyebrow and he can tell Naruto's even more confused, especially when the girl gestures for them both to come closer to where she and Sai are standing. Exchanging a look with Naruto, Sasuke slowly obeys, stuffing his hands in his pockets and wandering over to the rest of his team.

"I didn't tell you yesterday because I wanted to let you form your opinions of me without external influence." She begins, gaze skimming Sasuke's eyebrow and Naruto's cheek, then sharing a look with Sai, who sighs, but obligingly takes over.

"Remember when I told you that my aneue was part of sensei's ANBU team?" he asks, and Sasuke nods automatically, Naruto a bit more hesitant, and Sasuke can't help but wonder if the blond even knows what ANBU is.

He's distracted from his musings when, Sai smiles, the expression brimming with mischief and the sense of 'I-know-something-you-don't', and Sasuke's struck with the memory of his cousin Shisui.

He can't help the quiet breath he sucks in when the thought sends a sharp stab of longing through his heart. Sai's gaze flickers to him briefly, still amused but too observant to miss Sasuke's reaction, but he seems content to let it go for now.

Instead, he gestures at their new sensei who is watching him with clear fondness on her face.

"Naruto, Sasuke, meet aneue." He introduces flatly, but Sasuke can tell from Sai's eyes that he's definitely entertained, and their sensei – his sister – isn't much better.

"Wait, what?!" Naruto demands after a beat, eyes wide, gaze jumping from Sai to Sakura and back again. "But-! You don't look anything alike!"

"Family's more than just blood, Naruto-kun." Sakura says quietly, and she sounds oddly tired, the earlier amusement fading. "You decide who you consider your family. Blood relations, appearance, experience, all that is secondary."

"But it's not." Sasuke cuts in, his mouth moving before his brain catches up, and he too frowns at their sensei. "I'm an Uchiha. Even if I considered someone else 'family', that wouldn't make them Uchiha."

"Perhaps not." Sakura-sensei agrees neutrally, then seems to steel herself and meets his gaze briefly, the look in her eyes challenging, before she looks skywards. "But you're also the Head of your Clan, legally. There's nothing stopping you from adopting someone into it, in which case they would be Uchiha."

Sasuke stares.

"I think," a new voice calls out, and Sasuke almost jumps when Kakashi suddenly appears next to them, an odd expression on the man's face before his eye closes in his signature bullshit smile, "that's enough revelations for the morning. Tora's escaped again, chop-chop, Team Seven!"

When none of them moves, Kakashi opens his eye and raises an eyebrow. "Tora was last seen around the Aburame Compound. The last one there pays for everyone's lunch."

There's a 'poof', and when Sasuke looks over, he catches a small cloud of smoke where Sai had been, but the teen is gone. Naruto squawks, leaping to his feet, and takes off running but he's—

"The Aburame Compound is in the opposite direction, Naruto-kun!" Sakura-sensei calls idly, and Naruto does a 180 before disappearing between the trees.

"Did you not hear me, Sasuke?" Kakashi asks lightly, but Sasuke can feel the man's full attention on his back.

"I'm the Head of my Clan." Sasuke mutters, the words tasting like ash in his mouth. "I can afford a few bowls of ramen."

He glances at Sakura-sensei's face then, wondering what she'll say to that, and is briefly surprised when she holds his gaze, her expression contemplative.

Wordlessly, she brings her finger to her mouth and bites the pad, drawing blood. She flicks through seals too fast for Sasuke to catch then drops into a crouch, pressing her palm to the ground.

There's a cloud of smoke then a tiger suddenly stands in the field, reaching around Sasuke's mid-thigh.

"Kyoko-chan." Sakura-sensei greets, reaching to scritch the tiger's chin, because she's apparently crazy. "How do you feel about playing catch?"

"Yū and Ryūnosuke are faster, hime." The tiger replies bluntly, eyeing Sasuke with an oddly weighted gaze.

"Yū and Ryū are also over two hundred kilos and very enthusiastic." The girl shoots back dryly. "The point is to teach, not grievously maim."

"Alright." The tiger huffs, then turns to Sasuke. "You should start running, Uchiha-san."

Sasuke wastes a few precious seconds to stare incredulously at his two sensei, but neither seems to be joking in the slightest, so he turns on his heel and bolts.

He doesn't wonder until much later just how the tiger knew who he was on sight.

"Not that it wasn't funny, but was that really necessary, kouhai?" Kakashi finds himself asking after the tiger gives chase, and Sakura has the gall to snort.

"Sasuke won't allow himself to act his age." She retorts, oddly astute for someone who's known the kid for all of twenty-four hours. "He needed some motivation."

Kakashi studies her then, wondering whether there's something more beneath the seemingly casual remark, absently amused when they both wordlessly set off in the direction of the Aburame Compound.

"Do you regret it?" he asks after a few seconds, and Sakura lifts her gaze from the path ahead of them to meet his.

"I regret a lot of things, taicho." She says lightly, but there's an undercurrent to her voice that unsettles him. "You'll have to be more specific."

"ROOT." He clarifies, wondering whether he's overstepping. "Not having a childhood. Chasing missing-nin instead of cats on your missions."

"Did you?" She shoots back, sharper than usual, and Kakashi masks a wince, aware that he probably deserved that. But, before he can speak, Sakura sighs and rakes a hand through her hair, dropping eye-contact in favour of frowning up ahead.

"No, probably not." She admits after a beat, her voice quieter than before. "It gave me Sai and Shin and Shisui. It made me a better shinobi. It made me more appreciative of what I have."

"You could've become a good shinobi even without it." Kakashi feels the need to point out, because he can't imagine a world where the girl beside him is anything but a shinobi.

Sakura, to his surprise, snorts.

"Not without a lot of luck and favours." She dismisses, sounding oddly certain. "Our world is not kind to civilian-born shinobi, taicho. I'd have had to fight twice as hard for half as much as the Clan kids, not to mention my gender. ROOT didn't care about any of that."

Kakashi considers that, realising that he doesn't actually have anyone to compare Sakura's words against. Yugao, maybe? He's also not what most would call 'social' when it comes to most of his age-mates.

"Why then the insistence on everyone having a childhood? If you were so willing to dismiss yours?" he asks, unable to help himself, and he knows before the words are fully out of his mouth that Sakura's going to slam the brakes on the conversation.

And indeed, he doesn't have to wait long –

Sakura smiles, her eyes creasing with how wide it is, and it's the same smile Kakashi tends to give people who press him too hard.

"Are you trying to steal the Yamanaka's jobs, taicho?" Sakura asks, not unkindly, not yet, but Kakashi gets the hint and drops the topic.

He lets a few minutes pass by in silence, then he asks, because he needs to know they're alright; "Got any training plans for the rest of the day?"

Sakura looks up at him then, momentarily suspicious before she scans his expression and realises that his interest is genuine, then she relaxes, smiling at him briefly, and much more genuinely than before.

"I want to see them fight."

Shin…might've done something stupid.

Not exactly a first for him, but he can count the number of times he's realised it himself on the fingers of one hand.

He's at Hayate-shishou's, the place a second home at this point, Hayate and Yugao-san on the other side of the wall, while Sakura, whom he'd asked to meet him here that morning, is in front of him, her face blank.

"What did you tell them." She asks, but her voice is so flat, the question sounds more like a statement. A demand.

"The truth." Shin replies simply, because he's still somewhat angry at her, a fact not helped in the least that she hasn't been home in the week since she lost control that time in ROOT HQ.

But Sakura's burning glare doesn't waver in the slightest, so he elaborates. "That you taught yourself to heal. That you cured my cancer. That you can cure him."

Sakura pales, and when she next speaks, she sounds torn between beseeching and angry, a break in that blank facade.

"Shin, did you think about the reasons for my inaction? Did you think I didn't recognise Hayate's illness? Or did you think it was selfishness that prevented me from healing him?"

Shin frowns at her rapid-fire questions, as well as the tone they're said in.

"I'm not following." he admits bluntly, though he's not expecting the derisive scoff his words earn him.

"Of course you're not." She snaps, the anger winning out, and she rounds on him, her finger pointed at his chest, but not touching, as if she can't bring herself to do so.

Or is afraid to do so.

"Healing you was a gamble in and of itself, but the risk of detection was reduced once we stole your records from the hospital. Do you know why the suspicion stopped there?" She asks him, though it's rhetorical, for a moment later she bares her teeth at him, and her next words are almost cruel. "Because you didn't exist. You were nobody."

Shin reels slightly at her reminder, but she doesn't give him a moment's respite, jabbing her finger back at the room where Hayate and Yugao are waiting for them, and her lips pull back in a snarl.

"Hayate though? He's a tokubetsu jounin. People know him. He's had this illness for years. If you genuinely think people won't question him being miraculously cured all of a sudden, then you're naive, brother." she throws the word 'naive' at him like it's a knife, and Shin feels the pain of it like a physical wound.

He's the planner, the mastermind. Calling him naive, after everything they've accomplished, after everything he's orchestrated, is invalidating his greatest strength. He feels the first stirrings of anger in his gut at the accusation, and his next words are sharper than he intends.

"I lived with his illness for years, Sakura." he reminds her bitingly. "I know what it's like. I don't think it's fair he should suffer from it if there's a cure-!"

"There isn't a cure!" Sakura cuts him off, shrill and cutting. "The hospital could only offer you ways of managing the illness for a reason! I'm fairly sure there's only one other person in this world who could attempt a cure, even if it was found. Did you think about that?"

Once again, she doesn't give him the time to answer, carrying on, anger rising once again.

"And Hayate wasn't suffering! He wasn't using opioids and silencing seals in his treatment, he was using hospital-approved medication when on missions to manage his illness and had risen to tokubetsu in spite of it!" she points out, waving the file he'd thrust at her – Hayate's medical file – around like she might smack him with it, or set it on fire.

"But you've gone and told him and- and Yugao that he can be cured! And you didn't even think to ask me why I didn't offer to treat him earlier!"

Shin blanches, the last accusation giving him a glimpse into Sakura's real problem with him. Still, he tries another avenue.

"You- you use medical ninjutsu in ANBU." he points out, and Sakura rolls her eyes and actually does throw the file at him, so hard the edge of the folder cuts his fingers when he moves to catch it.

"ANBU is nameless and faceless for a reason! People don't ask questions!" she snaps, and he can see that she's trying to stoke the anger within her, not wanting him to see what other emotion she's feeling.

"And, in case you haven't realised, there's a big difference between healing a comrade's burn or stab wound and treating an illness that the best hospital in the Elemental Nations deemed incurable." she sneers, and Shin has to butt in, has to try to make amends, because he has a suspicion about what's really upsetting her, and if he's right-!

"I didn't realise-!"

Sakura throws her hand up, cutting him off and covering her face in one move, and Shin stops talking mostly because he can see the way she's wrestling for control of her emotions despite her face being obscured.

"Even if we haven't been on the best of terms recently," Sakura begins, her voice deceptively calm, and once she lowers her hand, her face is wiped clear of all expression. "After six years, I expected you to know me well enough to ask me to do this, or ask for my reasons, at the very least."

The mask cracks for the briefest of seconds, and Shin sucks in a breath at the glimpse of the emotion that had been hiding beneath the anger.

Hurt.

It had been his goal only partially, a voice in the back of his mind whispering about payback when he'd told Hayate about his own illness, but now that he's staring at Sakura's hurt-stricken face, he feels cold.

Sakura's walls go back up an instant later, and she continues, her voice sharp and cruel.

"This, though?" she asks roughly, waving her hand at their surroundings. "Bringing me here, to Yugao and Hayate's home, after you've already told them what I could 'do' for them? Knowing I can't refuse them?"

She meets his gaze, her eyes flat and cold, the hurt buried deep. "This isn't asking, darling brother. This is tying my hands behind my back and painting a target on my back."

And then, pausing for the briefest of seconds for her words to sink in, she shoots him the fakest smile he's ever seen from her and brushes past him, walking back into the room with Hayate and Yugao, her face as smooth and placid as the porcelain that usually hides it.

...Fuck.

As soon as she was done healing Hayate, Sakura fled.

A full week after joining Team Seven as a sensei this time, Sakura sets out to visit Inosuke, her head a mess. Still, she stops just shy of pushing open the door to her and Inosuke's old room in the hospital's ANBU wing, old memories of half-remembered hospital protocols regarding non-urgent cases and ANBU turnover rates prompting her to run a quick chakra scan of the inside first.

She's disappointed but not too surprised to find the man no longer there. Sighing, and hoping she manages to keep it together long enough to find him, Sakura spreads out her chakra sense as much as she can and concentrates on finding Chie instead, knowing from the small but continuous drain on her chakra over the last few days that her summon hasn't dismissed herself yet.

Chie's signature leads her to one of the multiple-occupancy rooms a few floors up, and she's suddenly grateful she thought to change out of her ANBU uniform for this visit. Reaching the door where she can feel her captain and summon, Sakura opens it a sliver and slips into Inosuke's room, feeling somewhat like she's on another infiltration mission.

The room's predictably larger than the previous one, four beds in total, three of which are occupied from what she can see, though she can't tell if the other men are awake or not.

Deciding not to worry about that just yet, she closes the door behind her and heads over to Inosuke and all but collapses onto the uncomfortable plastic chair by his bedside.

'Hey, taicho.' She signs tiredly with one hand, opting against speaking, not sure if her voice would hold up.

Judging by the way her throat tightens, she reckons she might burst out crying if she tries to speak.

She manages a smile at the indent in the blankets by Inosuke's feet, and though Chie doesn't drop the camouflage technique she's still hiding beneath, Sakura feels her summon's pleasure at the sight of her through the chakra linking them together.

"I wasn't expecting a visit so soon." Inosuke greets quietly, the words slow and heavy, but his eyes are alert.

He sounds even more tired than he had when she'd been discharged, and the realisation prompts Sakura to shoot him a concerned look even with how out-of-it she feels.

"Can't sleep." He says wryly, and Sakura winces, aware of what the lack of drugs to dull the senses can mean for hyper-aware jounin, but she refuses to feel guilty for telling on the nurse who had drugged her captain without his consent last time.

You don't drug jounin without letting them know about it, and you definitely don't sneak-drug ANBU. If Tsunade had been at the hospital, she'd have fired the nurse on the spot, no questions asked. The fact she, to Sakura's knowledge, has merely been restricted to working with civvies and genin is barely a punishment if you ask her.

Still, she frowns at Inosuke, gesturing at where Chie's lying in what she hopes is a rather self-explanatory 'that's what she's here for' fashion, and gets a shrug in response.

Right. Can't spring a summon-guard on a jounin and expect it to magically fix all problems, no matter how much she may want it to.

"How's your new assignment?" Inosuke asks instead, not appearing in the slightest guilty about the completely unsubtle change of subject.

Sakura blinks at him, then catches the almost lazy look he shoots the rest of the room before turning back to her.

It takes her a second to realise that by 'assignment', he means Team 7, and another beat longer to clock the reason for the vague wording.

"A mess." she tells him honestly, if blandly, her voice hoarse and wet, and she absently raises her right hand to scratch at her nose while her left flickers through ANBU sign; 'They're a group of talented kids, but they're not a team'.

Inosuke huffs and tilts his head, though his face betrays nothing. "Anything in particular that's making you say that?"

He shifts to adjust his blanket, visibly mindful of Chie by his feet, and the hand not holding the blankets twitches in a more than familiar 'Explain?'.

Sakura runs a hand through her hair, too tired for the double-speak, but she gathers that Inosuke, for whatever reason, doesn't trust his roommates enough to speak freely, which.

Well.

Sakura's already decided she's going to be calling him 'senpai' at every available opportunity, especially within Genma's earshot, but apparently her campaign has gained yet another facet.

She swallows, and when she speaks, her voice is barely above a whisper.

"They're getting in each other's way instead of working together." She murmurs, frowning off to the side and ignoring the burning in her eyes. "Watching them fight is an exercise in frustration, but I don't know how to fix it."

Inosuke studies her thoughtfully, and Sakura's aware that she's twitchier than usual, and judging by how tense her shoulders feel, she's pretty sure the tension she's carrying is visible at this point.

She raises a hand to rub at her eyes, summoning some medical chakra to relieve the headache she can feel building behind her right eye, and as she drops her hand back to her lap, she signs 'Can I show you?', and knows Inosuke sees it by the way he freezes momentarily.

Then, his lip quirks ever so slightly, an odd shadow in his eyes, though he still reaches out towards her, the movement looking more like he wants to push Sakura's hair back from her face than perform a jutsu.

His hand stills millimetres from her skin, waiting.

Ignoring the stab of pain that shoots through her heart at the man's clear hesitance despite her having already given consent to the Mind-Walk, Sakura leans forward those scant few millimetres, concentrating on the memory of watching Team 7 fight Kakashi, and lets her forehead connect with Inosuke's palm.

She sighs, closing her eyes, and finds herself leaning into the touch unconsciously.

Perhaps it says something about her mental state, but she finds the Mind-Walk almost...soothing.

It's definitely not as invasive as that time Ino had possessed her body in the preliminaries of the Chunin Exams a lifetime ago. It feels more like having someone else's medical chakra in her system, different from what she's used feeling there to but not disturbingly so.

She can feel Inosuke's presence in her mind, unobtrusive but definitely there, and with the state of her head in the last few days, his steady presence is bizarrely comforting.

When the memory runs its course, she feels him pull back, and she opens her eyes sluggishly to find him looking thoughtful, though his gaze is on the other two beds. As she watches, an odd expression crosses his face, something between wry and cruel, and Sakura feels a pulse of chakra sweep the room, though it doesn't touch her.

Chie, though, drops her camouflage technique in the same moment as Inosuke does whatever it is he's doing, and Sakura wants to laugh at the way the tiger immediately stretches, but she's a bit too preoccupied by the glint in Inosuke's eyes.

"...Senpai?" She checks quietly, raising a hand to rub at the few tears that had accidentally spilled down her cheeks. There's only one explanation for the chakra pulse that makes sense, but she's not sure she wants to believe it. "Did you just...put them under a genjutsu?"

Inosuke meets her gaze, his face back to completely impassive, and doesn't say anything for a few long seconds, then; "Plausible deniability."

"They were eavesdropping, hime." Chie informs her languidly, finally done with stretching, and Sakura frowns at her summon, then decides she doesn't want to know.

"So," she says instead, turning back to her captain with a tired sigh, "any pointers about how to fix my newest headache?"

To her surprise, Inosuke snorts at her description. Then, he grows serious, and Sakura makes herself sit up straight and listen.

"They're getting in each other's way because they have different attack patterns." he tells her simply, and Sakura turns that over in her head. "One's brash, one's arrogant, and one has a clear preference for distance-attacks."

"Naruto attacks too soon." Sakura summarises, putting her disjointed thoughts into words, glad to have something new to focus on instead of the way her heart hurts every time she thinks of her last disastrous interaction with Shin. "Sasuke too confidently, and Sai too late."

She frowns at Inosuke, mulling that over, and her captain blinks.

"It doesn't have to be a weakness." he points out sedately, and Sakura tilts her head. "You've got the equivalent of a battering ram, a second-wave attack, and clear back-up in place. Turn that into a strategy, and you'll be fine."

He shrugs, and Sakura can't help but stare.

Because, hell, that's basically how the war-time combat-squads were built.

...She's so fucking blind.

Also mildly nauseous at the realisation that Sai is part of a combat-squad.

"...I think I know what to do." she mumbles distractedly, mind running hundred miles a minute, planning sparring exercises and teamwork drills and-! She shakes herself off and manages a smile at her captain, though it's wobbly at best. "Thanks, senpai. I think I know where to start now, at least."

Inosuke waves her off, gaze sweeping over the hospital room.

"It's not like I've got much else to do." he dismisses, then his eyes settle back on her, and he appears...Sakura has no idea what emotion is on his face, but it makes her pay attention.

"Crow dropped by." Inosuke says idly, likely noticing her focus, and drops eye-contact in favour of glancing around the room again.

It is then that Sakura's tired brain connects the dots and she belatedly realises that he's doing a sweep, and the realisation makes her stomach drop.

"Said she got tagged onto Sparrow's team since Bat was benched pending his Psych eval results."

Sakura makes sure her faces reflects no more than polite interest, even though inside she wants to dance and maybe kiss Bear for keeping his word. And maybe cry a little more, because no wonder Inosuke can't sleep if he found out precisely what events led to Bat getting benched.

"Oh?" she asks lightly, the news that Bat is getting his due being the best thing she's heard in a good few days, though her voice comes out bland and even, her fatigue, both physical and emotional, as well as years of ROOT conditioning overriding her happiness.

"Figured I'd let you know since I didn't think you've been to HQ since the mission." Inosuke adds, still maintaining that almost bored tone, but by the look he slants her with, Sakura knows he at the very least suspects her involvement.

She smiles, and it's her most genuine one so far.

"Thank you. I've been using the dorms at HQ but I'm not taking missions until you're back on your feet." she admits, and, considering that Shin has all but put himself in charge of her training regime, it's probably a good decision. "Any idea when that might be, by the way?"

Inosuke shrugs.

"Sometime this week." he says vaguely, surprising her. "Would've been longer if you hadn't extracted the poison in the field and provided a sample for the antidote."

Sakura blinks, surprised. She wasn't aware Inosuke had been conscious when she'd-!

"Your brothers came to visit when you were unconscious." he explains, Sakura's confusion apparently obvious on her face. "Told me how we got back to the Village. Then Bear came by yesterday to get my oral report and filled me in."

Shin had come to the hospital?

That's...unexpected.

She remembers Inosuke's gruff 'You wouldn't stop screaming when they were trying to fix it' and barely masks a wince. Suddenly, Shin's show of temper in the ROOT HQ makes a lot more sense, and definitely explains why he'd been so vehement about getting her skills up to scratch, now that she thinks about it. It still doesn't dull the bitter tang of betrayal at the back of her throat, but it's more than she had before.

She jerks out of her thoughts when Inosuke moves, and she watches him shift so his shoulders are turned more towards her, an intent expression on his face.

He brings his hand up and, slowly, so it's unmistakeable, signs 'Thank you'.

A lump suddenly forms in Sakura's throat and she has to blink rapidly to chase away the tears that threaten to gather.

"Anytime, senpai." she manages, her voice thick, and now it's her turn to look anywhere but at the blond. Scrambling desperately for something to distract them from her reaction, she blurts, "Feel like helping me come up with a training plan?"

Inosuke doesn't say anything until she finally makes herself look at him, and then he nods. His face is back to the impassive mask she remembers from Wave, but he speaks readily enough, offering tips and corrections to her suggestions. She'll have to run it past Kakashi, too, but she doubts the man will refuse, and if he tries, she's not beyond guilt-tripping.

She doesn't know how long she spends throwing ideas back and forth with Inosuke, but by the time they're 'done', she's got a tentative plan for the next month to hopefully turn Team 7 into the unit they never quite managed to become in her time.

And if she falls asleep sometime after they've finished, wrung out both physically and mentally but feeling safe in the presence of her oddity of a captain and her summon, well.

Both Inosuke and Chie are kind enough to let her rest.

Sakura falls into a routine after her that day: she sleeps at ANBU HQ, meets Sai and the rest of Team Seven at the training grounds, spars with all three as they wait for Kakashi to arrive with their missions for the day, then drills Naruto, Sasuke and Sai on teamwork and strategy after lunch.

She combines the ideas her and Inosuke had come up with, throws the boys at Kakashi while offering tips and advice from the side-lines, then has them spar one-on-one with Kakashi while the other two watch.

Watching them fight, the conclusions Inosuke had reached seem obvious – their pacing is different, but it's not necessarily to their disadvantage.

Sakura makes sure to say as much.

"Naruto, you come in swinging before we so much as say 'go'." She tells the blond frankly, though she throws in a smile so he knows it's not a complaint, as such. "Sasuke, you use Naruto to test the waters, then jump in either when he fails, or when you see an opening. And Sai-chan, you seem most inclined with the back-up role, even though I know you can hold your own in taijutsu."

She looks at each of the three boys, then sends a look at Kakashi, who sighs.

"It's a good strategy, though I'm not sure if you're aware you're using it as such." He agrees, and he sounds so long-suffering, Sakura has to fight to smother her snickers. "You've got a wide range of individual skills so when you learn to cover for each other, rather than just for yourselves, it'll be even more effective."

"Sasuke," Sakura calls, drawing the Uchiha's attention, so she smiles and does her best to meet his eyes, "you've got the best mix of Naruto's brashness and Sai's caution, and a good eye for detail when you give yourself the time to think."

Sasuke stares at her, clearly unsure where she's going with it, so she lets her smile grow slightly.

"How do you feel about the position of team strategist?"

A week after her impromptu nap in Inosuke's hospital room, Sakura's routine is disrupted by Shin emerging from the treeline at Team Seven's training ground.

She freezes, but refuses to otherwise acknowledge him, eyes trained on where the boys are trying to snag Kakashi in one of Naruto's pre-set traps.

Shin, however, doesn't give her the option of ignoring him for long – he walks up to her until he's standing directly opposite, facing her, less than three feet between them. His face and gaze are unreadable, but not as cold and hostile as they'd been that time in the ROOT basement.

Sakura keeps her expression placid, her eyes flat, and whatever else Shin reads on her face makes him sigh.

"I'm sorry." He says simply, and Sakura startles.

They're not in the habit of apologising to each other – the last time she can recall either of them actually saying the words and meaning them had been back in ROOT, when Sai had volunteered himself for the Hokage's guard rotation. Normally, they just give each other space and then go back to how things were before whatever disagreement that they had.

"I was angry, and worried, and I really did want Hayate to get better, but you were right that I didn't take your feelings into consideration." Shin allows when Sakura just stares at him, and he still seems somewhat angry, but at least Sakura doesn't think it's solely at her this time.

"...Thank you." She acknowledges after a beat, because she doesn't want to say that 'it's okay', because it wasn't. Whatever his reasons, Shin had still hurt her and potentially put her in danger by throwing even more spotlight on her, though she hasn't had anyone bring up the fact that she healed Hayate yet. Yes, she may have reacted more negatively because Kakashi and Genma had pulled the same stunt mere days earlier, but she thought Shin knew better.

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry, too." She adds, and it's Shin's turn to look momentarily taken aback. "I shouldn't have lost control like that; I didn't mean to put you in danger." She sighs, gesturing at where her Mokuton had almost stabbed Shin, for once feeling all of her almost thirty years. "You were right; my head is a mess."

"Speaking of," Shin says, instead of commenting on her apology, but she can tell by the way the line of his shoulders loosens that he appreciates it, "Psych came looking for you. Something ANBU related, I think."

"Finally." Sakura sighs, because she'd taken Bear's warning to heart and was wondering when Psych would ask her to come in. Then, she grins, an idea forming in her head.

She's not fully forgiven Shin, but the apology does go a long way to ensuring that she will, eventually. What will help even more, though...

"Hey, taicho!"

Kakashi turns, flinging Naruto away from him and pushing Sasuke into the trap the Uchiha had been trying to corral him into, and Sakura can sense his raised eyebrow even if she can't see it.

"I brought you another practice dummy!" she calls, pushing Shin so he stumbles, and Kakashi is suddenly there, grabbing Shin by the shoulder and pulling him along.

"Great, thanks kouhai." He offers distractedly, crinkling his eye-smile at her, then all-but throws Shin at his genin. "You owe me a flak jacket, but I think I'd rather have the kids play fetch with you instead."

Sakura leaves the clearing to the sounds of Kakashi and Shin's squabbling, Naruto's confused demands for an explanation, and Sai's quiet laughter, feeling rather accomplished.

Now, she's got a 'teammate' to fuck over.

Chapter 23: justice

Chapter Text

Sakura heads to the Psych building, stopping briefly in one of the shadowed alleyways to don her ANBU mask and shrug off her sweatshirt, dropping it between the dumpster and a random wooden box in the alley. She's left in a sleeveless black undershirt and her charcoal pants, close enough to the standard ANBU uniform that she hopes no one will comment on it.

She steps up to the reception, keeping to the shadows until she's in front of the desk, and she bites back a snort when the receptionist does a double take upon seeing her suddenly appear in front of them.

"Have you got an appointment?" the man asks, seemingly recovered, and Sakura shakes her head.

"I was summoned." She explains. "Agent Mongoose, ANBU Team 4."

"Agent Mongoose?" A new voice calls, and a man Sakura doesn't recognise, with short-cropped, almost ginger hair and green eyes steps out. He's probably in his thirties, and there's a severe frown marring his brow. "Come with me."

Sakura does, leaving the confused receptionist staring after them. The corridor the new man leads her down is a lot more sterile than the reception area, and Sakura's willing to bet that she's being led to the more secure wing.

She'd never been in Psych for herself in the before, only when Tsunade wanted her to study some of the worst cases of what shinobi life can do to people so she'd know what to look out for in her patients. Tsunade wasn't keen on sharing her apprentices or trusting others with Sakura or Shizune's wellbeing, so Sakura never had to experience the wonders of Psych treatments first-hand, trusting her shisho to watch out for her.

Finally, the man leading her pushes open one of the thickest doors Sakura's ever seen and gestures for her to step in.

She does, looking around warily, and is more than a little thrown when she spots Inoichi in the corner, a clipboard on his lap and a pinched expression on his face Sakura is unfortunately familiar with.

Sakura resigns herself to the fact that she's likely only going to add to the man's headache.

"Take a seat." her guide orders, closing the door behind them and taking his own seat behind the solitary desk in the room. "My name is Yamanaka Kaede. I suppose you've guessed why you're here?"

"Bat's case." Sakura offers quietly, obligingly sitting down, though she turns so she can keep both men in her periphery. She can hear Inoichi scribbling something on his clipboard, but she pays it no mind.

"Correct." Kaede nods, an unreadable look crossing his face when he notes the way she's positioned herself. "According to the ANBU Commander, you were the one who requested a Psych evaluation for your teammate. Can you explain why you did that?"

"He intentionally endangered the well-being of my team-leader." Sakura says, clearly, and perhaps a little too bluntly, but she's finally getting somewhere.

Inoichi's pen stops its quiet scribbling, though it's Kaede who speaks. "That is a heavy accusation."

"So I've been told." Sakura mutters, grateful for the voice-modulating seals on the inside of her mask that manage to take away some of the snark in her voice.

"Can you walk us through the mission that prompted this?" Kaede asks, and Sakura barely bites back a sigh, then launches into her report.

"I would've been able to write it off as an accident, perhaps something to absently mention to taicho or the Commander, if not for the fact that Bat had introduced himself as a bodyguard." She concludes a few minutes later, then pauses, reconsidering. "And if I hadn't witnessed the obvious, albeit one-sided, tension between him and our captain."

"Tension?" Kaede echoes, his tone making it clear he wants her to elaborate, which Sakura does, though she can't help but shrug.

"Tension, distrust, apprehension – whatever you want to call it, he definitely wasn't happy to be on Team Four."

"Why report him to Psych?" Kaede presses, and Sakura frowns behind the safety of her mask, confused. "Why not keep it internal, let ANBU deal with it?"

Sakura blinks, almost unable to believe the man has actually just asked her that.

"Because it's unacceptable." She says as soon as her brain turns back on. "Because we are taught to leave any personal grievances at the door the moment we put on the ANBU masks. Because there's nothing to prove that he wouldn't do the same thing to another member of another squad if he were simply reassigned. Because he still goes on missions outside of ANBU, and doing nothing could endanger his other potential teammates. Because, at the end of the day, mask or no mask, we are still Konoha shinobi, and one of Konoha's dogmas is teamwork, and he failed to uphold it."

As she lists off the reasons on her list titled Why Bat is Actual Scum, a voice in the back of her mind pipes up, and she's voicing the thought before she quite realises what she's doing, "Because, if I can't trust my teammate to watch my back, what use does he have?"

Both Inoichi and Kaede still briefly at the last question, then Inoichi puts his clipboard aside and stands up.

"Would you object to consolidating your account of the mission through a Mind-Walk?" he asks quietly, and though it's not as gentle as Sakura remembers from before, from her time as Ino's best friend and calling the man 'Inoichi-oji', it's still far kinder than she expected the man to be towards her in this life.

Sakura watches Inoichi for a beat, considering his question, absently aware that Kaede is still in the room but not paying the man much attention in favour of wondering whether Inoichi has somehow recognised her despite the mask. It has been over two years since they met, but then again, there aren't many ANBU as small as her.

That is to say, there are none.

"Go for it." she allows, because, justified or not in this life, she trusts Inoichi.

He does, quietly explaining the process as he comes closer, though Sakura tunes him out in favour of concentrating on the memory of the mission, letting it play out in her mind despite how much it makes her grip the edges of her seat to stop the tremble in her hands and how the memory of the poison makes her nauseous.

Inoichi's presence also isn't as unobtrusive as Inosuke's had been nor half as comforting, and Sakura absently muses on the differences while Inoichi watches her account of the moment Bat stepped aside.

She isn't sure what Inoichi makes of what he sees, but he draws back after the memory runs its course some five minutes later, reaching for what she belatedly realises is her file and paging through it as if searching for something. After a few seconds, he sighs.

"Kaede-san, please update the ANBU Commander and whoever's overseeing Bat's evaluation that it is the recommendation of Yamanaka Inoichi that Agent Bat should be permanently removed from ANBU Team Four and demoted." Inoichi orders, and Kaede pauses, visibly surprised.

"Sir?" He asks, seemingly unable to help himself.

"If Shikaku has issues with the demotion, he can come to me." Inoichi dismisses, then waits until the man leaves the room before he turns to her, his expression is the most serious she's ever seen it.

"Sakura-san, I'm aware I'm breaking several protocols right now, please forgive me." he begins, startling her both by the use of her first name and the note of unexpected urgency in his voice, "But there is another Yamanaka's trace on your mind, yet there is nothing about it in your file. I don't want to assume, but this could be a serious problem if you're unaware of it."

Sakura blinks, moreso at the news that the Mind-Walk leaves a trace than at Inoichi's words.

Then, she realises that Inoichi is genuinely worried, despite everything, despite the shitshow she'd dropped on his head, so she hastens to reassure him, taking her mask and hood off as she goes, seeing as it's mostly redundant at this point.

"I was aware of it. And I consented, if that's what you're worried about, Inoichi-san." she informs him, then adds: "It's not in my file because I wasn't aware it should be. The Mind-Walk wasn't for a medical reason or anything, I just wanted to show taicho something I thought he'd find funny."

Inoichi stares at the girl, more than a little stupefied.

The fact that she'd reported a teammate and her rather apt assessment of the scale of Bat's fuck-up aside, he can't quite wrap his head around what he's just heard.

"You consented to a Mind-Walk...to make someone laugh?" he checks, and he's not entirely successful in hiding his incredulous tone, if the way the girl frowns at him is any indication.

"...Yes." she says slowly, narrowing her eyes at him, the shrewd expression painfully familiar, even if her face has exchanged the baby-fat he remembers from their first meeting for permanent frown lines at the tender age of twelve.

Inoichi bites back a sigh.

He's not sure whether it's the ROOT conditioning, the girl's apparent lack of any sort of self-preservation, or Kakashi's influence, but the fact that she doesn't realise why he's shocked is rather worrying.

"Sakura-chan, most people don't volunteer for a Mind-Walk." He informs her, the familiar honorific slipping out without conscious input. "They see it as an invasion of privacy, even in the therapeutic context." he explains patiently, but if anything, the girl's frown only deepens.

"I'd say that's because most people go to Psych after they've gone through a traumatic event, so they don't have the time to build a positive rapport with their therapist." She points out, and Inoichi blinks, not having expected the turn in conversation.

"Considering the lack of a trust foundation, it's no wonder they find the notion of having someone who's essentially a stranger rifling through their mind violating." she adds, showing more wisdom than her age would imply. "The difference between that and my case is that I trust taicho."

Inoichi pushes aside the unexpectedly astute observation on the problem with Konoha's approach to mental health in favour of focusing on the title the girl used.

He knew, absently, who Bat's captain was. He also knew that Agent Mongoose was Bat's teammate, and Wolf's subordinate.

It just hadn't clicked that Mongoose was Sakura, and Sakura was a little pink-haired girl his daughter's age.

She must sense the way his attention on her sharpens because she straightens unconsciously.

"I was under the impression that the mission we just witnessed was a temporary reassignment and Hound was your captain?" Inoichi checks, his tone mild even if his question is probing, and the girl appears to relax, rolling her shoulders idly.

"He was." she agrees easily. "But until his students make chunin, I plan to remain on Team Four."

"There aren't many Yamanaka in ANBU." Inoichi pushes when the girl doesn't rise to the bait, almost morbidly curious. He needs to hear her say it. Sakura girl scrutinises him at his remark, so he adds, almost amused, "I'm the Clan Head, Sakura-chan. I have the clearance to know that."

She nods, though the assessing glint in her eyes doesn't fade, and Inoichi does his best to weather her scrutiny patiently.

"You know, Inosuke-senpai said the same thing."

Inoichi chokes on air at the title. 'Inosuke-senpai'?!

An odd smile appears on the girl's face at his reaction, part amused, part wry, and Inoichi has no idea what could've provoked such an expression.

"Actually, since we're on the subject," She adds, her gaze never leaving his, and Inoichi gets the impression he's being challenged, "could you please add him to my file as my designated shrink?"

"To clarify," Inoichi says once he gets over his momentary surprise, "you want Yamanaka Inosuke as your therapist?"

"Yessir." the girl agrees, not dropping eye-contact, and, yeah, she's definitely testing him.

"Sakura-chan, are you sure-?" He can't help but ask, because he wouldn't wish Inosuke in a bad mood on his worst enemies, but this girl is the same age as Ino and a part of Inoichi can't let that go.

In another life, perhaps, this girl and his daughter could've been friends. In this one, however, they're worlds apart, but Inoichi can at least try.

Well, at least until the girl interrupts him.

"- I don't care, Inoichi-san." she snaps, her eyes colder than the situation calls for. "I trust 'Friend-Killer Kakashi' with my life because I know the man beneath the moniker. I trust Inosuke-senpai too, and I will continue to do so until he does something to betray that trust, so you can save your 'warnings', however well-meaning they may be."

Silence falls between them, and Sakura relaxes gradually with every second that he doesn't move to try and dissuade her from her decision. Inoichi studies her, pushing down his slight ire at the sharp, defensive tone and far too aggressive response when he realises that he is likely not the intended recipient of the girl's sharp tongue.

Sighing, Inoichi nods curtly, the only acceptance of her choice he's willing to offer, and moves to jot Yamanaka Inosuke on the required line. He's long since learned from Ino that trying to argue with someone so dead-set on a decision is a futile endeavour.

And, deep down, he also can't help but admire the girl's stubbornness. Maybe that's part of the reason why she seems to have gelled with Inosuke of all people.

Why he let her.

Though, as he runs through a quick psychological evaluation with the girl, absently comparing her current answers and mental state to the ones she had given when they'd first met, he can't help the rather morbid thought that takes root in his mind:

With the Friend-Killer and the Nightmare-Walker as her immediate role models, what sort of monster will she turn into?

After Psych, Sakura stops by the alleyway to pick up her sweater, seals her mask back up, then heads back to the training grounds, wondering whether she'll find all members of Team Seven still alive, or whether Shin would have lost his patience in the short time she was gone.

When she arrives at the training grounds, Shin is nowhere to be found, nor, curiously, is Sasuke. Naruto is standing on top of the stream towards the back of the training grounds, brow creased in concentration and tongue between his teeth. Around him are four water columns, each reaching to around knee-height, and Sakura turns away before she thinks too hard about the sheer size of Naruto's reserves even without Kurama's input.

Because in the middle of the grounds, Sai is playing whack-a-mole with senbon and a good score of Naruto's clones, all of them offensively orange and darting all over the place, trying not to get hit, to various success.

And Kakashi- Kakashi's in the middle of what looks like a puppy-pile, his ninken gathered around him, though a moment later Sakura realises that they seem to be poring over a scroll rather than playing.

She steps over to Kakashi, whose head snaps up when she gets within thirty feet, his dogs following suit.

"Had fun?" Kakashi asks, gesturing to the spot next to him, and Sakura smiles and heeds the wordless request.

"Depends on your definition of 'fun', I suppose." She offers, stepping over the dog-pile, and Kakashi nods sagely.

"Ruined anyone's day?" he asks, tone serious, though Sakura knows from the glint in his eye that he's only messing around. Still, she can't help the snort that escapes her.

"Oh, yeah, definitely did that." she grins, and she knows it's not a nice smile. "Doubt Bat'll be too pleased."

Before Kakashi can comment on that, though, his ninken suddenly start growling. Even Pakkun, and Sakura had never been all too close with the summon, but she doubted she merited that reaction. Kakashi appears comparably taken aback, as he swats one of his summon's ears, visible eye wide.

"Hey, cut it out." He orders, audibly surprised, a frown creasing his brow when the dogs ignore him.

"She smells of cat." One of the summons, one that looks somewhat like a greyhound and one which Sakura had never met in the before, snarls.

Ah. Sakura thinks, realisation dawning. That would explain it.

Something mean flashes through her, an impulse entirely foreign to her yet irresistible and she smiles, eyes creasing, and the ninken's hackles rise and-

"Not cat, puppy." She coos, saccharine sweet, phony smile in place as her hands flash through seals. "Tiger."

And she presses her hand to the ground between the dogs, barely noticing the chakra drain from summoning Ryu and Yu together in favour of the burst of satisfaction that sparks down her spine when the dogs whine and growl as her summons appear.

"Hime," Yu sniffs, rising to his full height the moment the smoke clears, eyeing the dogs disdainfully, "what reason could you have for bringing us to this kennel?"

"I was defending your honour." She grins, obligingly scratching Yu's chin when he tilts his head up. "The 'kennel' over there said I smell of cat."

"Like owner, like ninken." Ryu grumbles, though Sakura can tell he's enjoying himself, especially when Kakashi's dogs start growling even louder.

"What's that supposed to mean?" one of them, a large bulldog, demands.

"That your noses are awful." Yu informs the dog regally, opening his eyes to stare imperiously at the ninken. "Mistaking a common housecat with a Noble Summon?"

The growls grow in volume, and one of the ninken snaps its jaws, and that, it seems, is the cue Yu was waiting for, because he bares his teeth and roars.

"Kouhai, please tell your cats not to permanently damage my pack." Kakashi comments idly when two of his ninken unsummon themselves, eyes still trained on the scroll, though they both know he's not really reading it.

Sakura shoots Yu and Ryu a look. "You heard him."

They nod, mischief sparkling in their eyes, then turn to the dogs, teeth bared. "Run."

Kakashi's remaining dogs, rather wisely, do.

When they're officially free of the assorted summons, Sakura sits down in the spot Kakashi had originally indicated and leans back on her hands, face tilted up at the sky.

"Where did Shin and Sasuke go?" she asks after a few seconds of silence, and Kakashi hums absently, finally rolling up the scroll he'd been studying.

"Your brother is chaos personified, I'll have you know." He informs her, a propos nothing, not even pretending to answer her question.

Sakura rolls her eyes, then turns her head to slant Kakashi a look. "I'll need a bit more of an explanation than that, taicho." She tells him dryly, and he, surprisingly, obliges.

"Not your taicho anymore." Kakashi repeats, though they both know she's not about to stop calling him that. "Sasuke noticed the uchiwa on Shin's sword sheath and started asking questions. Then Shin realised that Sasuke can barely hold a blade much less wield it." he explains, mirroring her earlier position and staring up at the sky. "Shin seemed to take personal offence to that."

Sakura snorts. "That sounds like something he would do, yeah."

Kakashi nods, then adds, his tone still bland, as if he's giving a report. "So he took Sasuke to the Uchiha smithy."

Sakura blinks, wondering what Kakashi's building up to. "Well, that's not too bad-"

Kakashi cuts her off as if she hadn't spoken, "Before that, he introduced Naruto and Sasuke to chakra paper and lectured me for not telling Sasuke that his main affinity is actually lightning, not fire."

Sakura stares at Kakashi openly now, her mind processing the information. "Which is why he was having trouble with Hosenka." She concludes slowly, putting the pieces together.

Beneath his mask, Kakashi grins. "Precisely."

Sakura laughs, bright and startled. "How long were you planning to keep that a secret?"

"Until Sasuke learnt to stop relying on appearances." Kakashi says immediately, and despite the humorous tone the words are said in, Sakura can tell it bothers him. "He just assumed he'd have fire."

Instead of commenting on that development, she shifts topics. "And Naruto?"

"Wind and water."

Sakura blinks, genuinely surprised. "I didn't think he had good enough chakra control to manifest two elements."

Because the Naruto from before had shitty chakra control as a trademark – even after mastering Sage mode and the mother of all power-ups, his chakra control was non-existent.

"He didn't." Kakashi agrees, and now he sounds wryly amused. "But he did shove a fifth of his reserves into the poor paper."

Sakura considers the implications of that, then- "...ouch."

"Mmhm. And then Sai suggested that Naruto work on his focus by training on water, working on his jutsu and having a literal army of clones leeching his chakra." Kakashi continues, and yeah, that's definitely wry amusement underlining his words.

"And?" Sakura pushes, curious despite herself.

"And it's the longest Naruto's stayed focused on one task since he was assigned to me."

Sakura can't tell whether Kakashi's mad or impressed at that fact, but it appears that he said what he wanted to say, so she lets the subject drop. They lapse into comfortable silence after that, time passing slowly, interspersed with the sound of clones popping and Naruto's quiet grumblings from the stream.

When she glances at him, Kakashi's sprawled on the ground on his back, hands tucked beneath his head, all pretence of working abandoned. Sakura thinks Kakashi's about thirty seconds away from falling asleep, but he surprises her by speaking up, as if having sensed her gaze, and his voice is much quieter than before.

"Performed any medical miracles recently?" he asks, and Sakura hopes the way she freezes isn't too obvious.

"Maybe." She allows after a beat, giving Kakashi her full attention. "Why?"

"Jounin HQ is raving about Hayate's 'magic ANBU medic'."

"ANBU?!" Sakura demands, surprised.

"Less chance of getting to you that way, according to Yugao." Kakashi explains, though it does little to actually explain anything.

"Yugao is running damage control?" Sakura checks, still baffled, and Kakashi sighs.

"She was less than pleased with Shin after she realised the stunt he pulled." Kakashi tells her quietly, opening his eye to peer at her, "Grateful, obviously, but guilty at the danger she'd unknowingly helped place you in."

Sakura sighs, dropping her hands and letting herself fall onto her back next to Kakashi, staring at the sky with a tired smile on her lips.

"I was more angry at Shin than at the situation. I've been in some form of danger since joining ROOT." She mumbles, and they both know it's not even an exaggeration. "At least something good came out of it this time."

"I don't think you should be so blasé about that." Kakashi points out, and though his voice is devoid of judgement, Sakura can't help but snort bitterly.

"As if you're any better." She bites out, more defensive than upset, and Kakashi surprises her again by simply rolling with it.

"Ouch, kouhai." He mutters, his voice even quieter than before, the words lazy around the vowels. "But fair, I guess."

When she concentrates on it, Sakura notes that Kakashi's chakra has slowed down considerably, not quite like it would with deep sleep, but definitely more relaxed than usual.

She tries to ignore the warmth that builds in her chest at the thought that Kakashi trusts her enough to doze next to her, to let his guard down and relax out in the open like this.

She sighs, closing her eyes as well and falling into herself, reaching for the chakra links that tie her to her summons to try and see whether she can still feel Ryu and Yu, or whether they've gotten too far out of her range on their quest to terrorise Kakashi's pack.

She doesn't realise that she, too, has begun to doze off, until Kakashi's voice jars her to consciousness.

"Do you think they're ready for the Chunin Exams?" he asks, and it sounds almost rhetorical, like he doesn't think she's awake or that she'll answer.

"Why ask?" Sakura mumbles, forcing herself back to full awareness and cracking her eyes open, relieved to note that she'd been dozing for under half an hour.

"I value your insight, kouhai." Kakashi says simply, still in that quiet, even voice, and the warmth that had been in her chest before spreads to her eyes and Sakura has to screw them shut to ward off the tears that would have otherwise fallen at the simple confession. "And you genuinely care for Naruto and Sasuke. Despite seemingly not being able to look them in the eye."

Sakura stills, cursing herself for not realising that Kakashi would definitely notice her weird behaviour.

"They remind me of-" Rasengan through her lung, Chidori through her heart, red eyes with slitted pupils, spinning tomoe, never being good enough-! "-of things I'd rather forget."

"Hm." Kakashi hums, and she knows he's not satisfied with her answer, will likely press again at some point, though he seems pacified for now, at least. "Anyway, Chunin Exams?"

"How long do we have?" Sakura checks, mentally doing the maths as well.

"Little under a month." Kakashi confirms her rough approximation, and she sighs.

"They could be ready." She offers, a concession freely given, because her Team Seven had definitely not been ready for the Exams, but this one, with Sai, a slightly better-adjusted Sasuke, and a Kakashi who's not afraid of asking for help is already leaps and bounds better than her team had been.

But this one also worries her a lot more, because she knows what they'll find in that Forest.

"But I'd want to put them through ANBU bootcamp: 'team-building edition' beforehand." She informs Kakashi, a compromise this time, and she sees the shadow of his smile beneath the mask. "Orienteering, foraging, tracking, the lot."

"...I almost pity whatever kids you get assigned when you're old enough to have your own team." Kakashi remarks after a beat, so deadpan that she can't help but laugh, though he sounds like he approves of her request.

"Thanks, taicho." She snorts.

"Alright. I'll ask the Hokage for a fortnight free from D-Ranks so we can do bootcamp." Kakashi concedes, pushing himself into a sitting position, his eye sweeping the training grounds with far more alertness than she would've expected from a man who'd been half-way to dreamland for almost an hour. "The two of us might end up running some minor assassinations around the Land of Fire, though."

"Sounds good."

At Kakashi's blank stare, she scowls, feeling her ears grow hot.

"You know what I meant." She grumbles, raising a hand to rub at her eye and hide her embarrassment.

Kakashi just laughs though, reaching over to pat her head. "There, there, kouhai." He pacifies, patronising to the extreme, though she can hear the amusement in his voice so she knows it's not malicious. "We'll indulge your mean streak, don't worry."

The day after Sakura's stint in Psych, she gets a summon from ANBU. She snags Sai before he leaves for their D-Ranks to tell him to inform Kakashi, then gets changed into her uniform and slinks out of the house, keeping to the shadows and heading for the closest entrance into HQ.

Once there, she heads for Team Four's old training grounds, both excited and dreading what she'll find. When she pushes open the door to the training room, she scans the room – Wolf is there, going through some stretches, and while he's moving slower and more carefully than he had been when she was first assigned to his team, he's still moving, and that's enough for Sakura to almost sag against the door with relief. Crow is there too, doing her own katas in the corner and appearing to be chatting absently with-

Sakura almost squeals, a startled, giddy sound escaping her as she slams the door shut behind her and barrels into Yugao, almost knocking the other kunoichi off her feet as she wraps her arms around her waist in a tight hug.

"Are you really getting assigned to our team?!" she demands, her smile so large under her mask that her cheeks are starting to hurt.

"Yeah, I am." Yugao laughs once she gets her breath back, wrapping her own arms around Sakura's shoulders and spinning her around gently, and Sakura feels more like a kid in that moment than she'd felt in decades. "Bear-sama seemed to imply it would be fairly long-term, too."

"This is the best day ever." Sakura sighs, melting into Yugao and letting the top of her mask rest against the older kunoichi's sternum for a few seconds.

"You make it really easy to forget your age, Mongoose." Crow observes from the side, and Sakura pulls away from Yugao long enough to shoot the other kunoichi a quizzical look, for all that she likely can't see it because of her mask. "A little too easy."

It's the most upfront the other kunoichi has ever been, her voice sounding almost...wistful, even with the mask muffling most of it, and Sakura frowns.

But, before she can speak, Yugao beats her to it, setting her fully down but not releasing her from the hug. "Mongoose's mask should've been Chameleon. She adapts to whatever situation she finds herself in. She went five months with Hound-taicho before we even heard her properly speak."

Yugao's voice is perfectly even, but Sakura can hear the note of defensiveness beneath it and feel the tension in her senpai's back.

"I meant no offense." Crow assures, and Sakura can believe that, even though the kunoichi still sounds bizarrely melancholy. "I just…forgot you're a child."

"Alright," Inosuke cuts in before Sakura can think about how to reply to something like that. "Fox, Crow, you're up. No permanent maiming, I only just got out of the hospital, I don't wish it on anyone."

When the kunoichi take their places in the middle of the training ground, Sakura sidles up to Inosuke's side, content to soak in the man's presence and the proof that he's out of the hospital in silence.

A few seconds go by, Fox and Crow fully getting into the spar, before Inosuke speaks.

"Inoichi told me I've got a new assignment." He tells her absently, or he wants her to think it's merely an idle observation, and Sakura is immediately fully alert. "Something about some chunin brat demanding I be her shrink."

Despite herself, Sakura huffs a quiet laugh. "You all but volunteered, taicho."

"Didn't think you'd actually go for it." Inosuke grunts, sounding amused and disbelieving at once, and Sakura shrugs.

"You said I needed a shrink. I happened to agree. It also happens I don't trust anyone else with my head. Seemed simple enough of a solution." She explains, and she gets the distinct expression that Inosuke is laughing at her, even though he remains perfectly still.

A few seconds tick by, during which he turns his masked face to look at her, then he huffs. "Yeah. You're definitely crazy."

A week after Sakura's brief trip to Psych, Kakashi puts their Bootcamp plan into motion.

Between him, Sakura, and Shin, kidnapping three genin from their beds and dumping them, unconscious, in a clearing half-way between Konoha and Tanzaku-gai, is almost laughingly easy. Shin leaves not long after getting the details of their plans for the kids out of them, an unreadable look exchanged between him and Sakura, and when he leaves, he heads in the direction that is decidedly not Konoha. Kakashi tries to catch Sakura's eye at that, but she busies herself finding food they can use to supplement their ration bars that won't require a fire.

Him and Sakura do end up running assassinations, taking turns with hunting down the targets on the literal list the head of Intel had shoved at them. In downtime, or, rather, the time spent watching the free cabaret show that is Team Seven sans Kakashi attempting to navigate the forests of the Land of Fire, Kakashi takes great joy in randomly pelting the boys with acorns, covering them with genjutsu, or, on the memorable occasion, casting a thunderbolt directly at the makeshift campsite the boys had erected.

Sakura hadn't been most impressed by that, her judgemental eyebrow making an appearance, though Kakashi could tell she was also trying really hard to bite back her laughter.

Sakura isn't here now, though, what with it being her turn to slink away into the night while he keeps guard over their shared ducklings, and his kouhai's absence is at least 45% responsible for Kakashi's boredom.

Still, he's made himself as comfortable as possible, perched high up in a tree a good few dozen metres from their team's campground, close enough to intervene should need be, but not close enough to overhear every snippet of conversation or risk being discovered.

He's almost dozing, Icha Icha open on his thigh, though he's long stopped pretending to read it.

It's been an interesting few days, half spent watching their team try to figure out where, exactly, they've been dumped, half finding entertainment by making himself into a nuisance for his genin with the random 'challenges' he and Sakura decide to throw at them.

Watching their kids come together, look out for each other, develop a wordless system of communication and settle into the dynamic that had been growing between them since Wave had eased both his and Sakura's ruffled feathers, for all that she hadn't been with the team from the start.

After the first week, the prospect of throwing their kids at the Chunin Exams doesn't seem as daunting.

Just as he's almost ready to admit he's dozing, he startles awake, suddenly on full-alert, kunai drawn, eyes wide and muscles tense.

Only he has no idea what startled him. The forest is still quiet around him, the silence of the night broken only by the ambient noise of the assorted critters and creatures who call the forest a home. His kids' chakra is a steady thrum at the edges of his senses, two in deep sleep while one keeps watch.

It's peaceful.

Yet Kakashi can't shake off the creeping feeling down his spine that tells him he's no longer alone.

A sharp glance to his left reveals that Sakura's somehow suddenly there, curled up, knees pulled up to her chest and chin tucked into the space between them, eyes glassy and staring unseeingly ahead. For all intents and purposes, she looks like she's been here for hours.

He hadn't felt her approach.

Not so much as a snap of a twig or a displacement of air from a shunshin, or, hell, even a breath had betrayed her appearance. He wonders how he had managed to notice her, because Sakura's presence is so stifled, he's not sure she's actually breathing, and then, as he opens his mouth to ask, he feels it.

Or rather, smells it.

He smells the gore that radiates from Sakura's form, the metallic tang of blood, iron and copper unmistakeable in the back of his throat, and the sharp, acrid stench of vomit burning his nose.

And yet, despite smelling like she bathed in a bloodbath, Sakura's clothes are spotless.

"You ought to wear a bell." He huffs, his heart hammering in his chest, and he's only half-joking as he studies Sakura out of the corner of his eye.

No reaction.

It's like she hadn't heard him, not so much as twitching at his voice.

"Kouhai?" He tries, growing somewhat worried.

Still no reaction.

"Sakura." And, because he's no stranger to dissociation, he reaches out to touch Sakura's shoulder, hoping to ground her to the now, not whatever is clearly happening in her head.

Only he doesn't manage to reach her. Quicker than he would've expected, Sakura's hand snaps out, deceptively strong fingers wrapping around his wrist before he can make contact with her skin, and those flat, empty eyes finally focus on him.

"Kouhai." He says again, not addressing the fact that his fingers are starting to go numb. "What happened?"

Those flat, dead eyes never leave his, but there's no recognition in them, so Kakashi ignores his apprehension and shoves his emotions to the back of his mind, letting his voice become the cold, soulless drone he uses only on S-Rank missions. "Report."

Finally, he gets a reaction.

Sakura's gaze drops from his, not to hide, but simply to return to her earlier contemplation of the empty space ahead of them, and her fingers slowly release Kakashi's wrist, though he can tell she's more aware of him than before, waiting for him to misstep.

"Mission objective fulfilled." Oh, Kakashi never wants to hear that tone of voice from Sakura again. Or any of his kids. Not at their age, not in peacetime. For all her unique circumstances, Sakura's still a twelve-year-old kid. She should not sound the same as he had after the Kyuubi attack. "Target eliminated successfully."

This time, he matches her soulless tone intentionally, because he knows that whatever state she's in right now, Sakura is unlikely to understand the reason for the rage he can feel beneath his skin.

"Complications?" he asks sharply, and that green gaze flickers to him for the briefest of seconds, then away again.

"Target had a shinobi guard." She says slowly, though her voice doesn't betray the jolt of apprehension that shoots down Kakashi's spine at that fact, because there was nothing in the mission specs. "Elite jounin. Ex-Kiri."

She digs through her pack, one-handed, and she doesn't even have to look at the Bingo Book to open it to the page she needs. "Once the target and the guard's apprentice were eliminated, the Kiri-nin fled."

She holds the book out for him, though Kakashi only barely glances at it – once he catches sight of the name and brief bio at the top of the page, his insides turn to ice and he looks away, clenching his jaw.

Kurosuki Raiga

Affiliation: Seven Swordsmen of the Mist; Kurosuki Family; ex-Kirigakure ANBU

Rank: Jounin

Status: A-Rank missing-nin

Wanted: dead or alive.

Another Swordsman encounter on a mission that should've been simple. He's pretty sure none of the assassinations on their list is higher than B-Rank, yet the mere presence of a Swordsman raises the rank.

"You did well not to pursue." He offers once he can speak in a relatively level voice, the anger boiling in his veins cooling to a slow simmer. "Any injuries?"

Sakura just stares at him, eyes sharp and flinty, and suddenly, despite their different colouring, he can see the resemblance between her and Shin. Only he never expected to see Shin's calculative, distrustful expression on Sakura's face, particularly not when directed at him.

"You can trust me, kouhai." He feels the need to reassure, because the girl before him is more like a spooked animal, licking its wounds than the kunoichi he has gotten to know over the last almost two years.

"I," the girl says, and her voice is colder than before, "am not your kouhai."

Despite how much the statement stings, Kakashi nods. This is an…extreme form of dissociation, even by his standards, but he had figured something of the sort when there was no recognition in Sakura's eyes when she looked at him.

"I figured." He admits, then takes a deep breath. "But it doesn't change the fact that I care about your wellbeing."

Sakura scrutinises him in silence for a few more seconds, then turns away, back to staring ahead. He almost thinks she's going to ignore him, then she speaks.

"The target and Kurosuki's apprentice were children." She says, and Kakashi's stomach sinks. "Your kouhai isn't equipped to process that."

Yeah, no, this is so much more than dissociation.

"And you are?" Kakashi checks, torn between confused and horrified, and he's proud that his voice doesn't waver.

"I completed the mission." Sakura says, and it sounds less like a response and more like she's quoting someone else. "Everything else is irrelevant."

The words feel like a bucket of cold water has been dumped over Kakashi's head, and he can think of only one thing: Tenzo.

The way Sakura is talking, the cold detachment in her entire demeanour, the mentality of mission-above-all-else, it all reminds him too much of Tenzo in his first few months out of ROOT.

He remembers their description of Sai – 'as normal as you can get being an ex-ROOT agent with the remnants of a failed conditioning program rattling around your brain' – and he wonders how he forgot that all three of them had been exposed to the conditioning.

And then, just as he can tell that he allowed the silence to stretch for too long, there's movement on their branch and Sai is suddenly there, hand snapping out quicker than Kakashi has ever seen him move, batting away Sakura's instinctive block, then smashing Sakura's head against the tree trunk.

Kakashi flies to his feet, kunai in his hand without conscious input, and he stares, wide-eyed, at his student and subordinate.

"What," he begins once Sai straightens, apparently satisfied with the way Sakura groans and raises a green-glowing hand to her temple once she recovers from the hit, "the fuck, Sai?"

"Cognitive recalibration." Sai states simply, cool as could be, though the way he angles his body reminds Kakashi that he's still tense and holding a knife, so he stashes it in his pouch and makes a conscious effort to relax his posture.

"I'm going to need more detail than that." he deadpans, turning the words over in his mind, and Sai shifts, glancing briefly at Sakura as she blinks repeatedly, eyes much clearer and far livelier than before.

"Aniki's theory is that aneue wasn't immune to the conditioning – she isolated it." Sai begins quietly, seemingly not wanting to be overheard. "It still comes up when she's scared, or anxious, or unable to process things."

Like a defence mechanism. Kakashi realises with a start, and he looks at Sakura with newfound worry.

"So, the hit to the head was, what? A reset?" he asks, rather than wondering how on earth nobody had picked up on the fact that Sakura's psyche was apparently split in two.

"Aniki used it before and it worked." Sai offers, shrugging absently, though still holding Kakashi's gaze. "I admit there are probably better ways, but it's effective."

"What the hell, Sai-chan?" Sakura grumbles, heaving herself to her feet and shooting Sai a glare. "That was uncalled for."

"What's the last thing you remember?" Sai asks instead of answering the – frankly, justified – question.

Sakura blinks, thrown by the non-sequitur, dropping her hand from her head as she frowns. There's a small, drying dribble of blood on her temple, where the thin skin had been cut by the bark of the tree, but her eyes are clearer and her face far more expressive than it had been mere minutes ago.

"…killing the target." She says, face paling and twisting in a grimace Kakashi recognises immediately, because he's seen the expression on his own face many times; self-loathing. "I- there was a shinobi guard, too."

"I know." Kakashi cuts her off before she spirals any further, which, judging by the look in her eyes, is quite likely. Then, aiming for his usual teasing but likely missing by a mile, he adds, "You should rest. And maybe find somewhere to wash – you stink, kouhai."

Sakura startles, visibly jerked out of her thoughts, then shoots him an annoyed look, though he can read the amusement in her eyes just fine. "Ha, ha, taicho. But yeah, sure. Want me to fill up your canteen, too?"

Wordlessly, he unclips his waterskin from his belt, deciding against grabbing his big bottle from his pack – this is more to give Sakura a task than for actual need for water, and he knows they both recognise it. Still, Sakura salutes and jumps off the branch, and Kakashi turns back to Sai.

"How did you know?" he asks, unable to hold the question back, not sure how to feel about the fact that even after two years, there are still some things he doesn't know.

"Unlike my teammates, I try to listen to what's going on in the Village, so I can guess at the reasons behind this 'adventure'." Sai explains, the corner of his lips twitching up. "And I also know how to sense chakra."

"I suppose you told your teammates, then?" Kakashi asks, torn between amused and resigned, and Sai's tiny smile grows.

"No." he shakes his head, and when he looks at Kakashi, it's with the 'guileless genin' look he'd been using in the first few months of Team Seven's formation. "I have, however, taught Sasuke to meditate to clear his mind and expand his chakra coils, and he sensed you."

"And then he told Naruto?" Kakashi concludes, this time definitely amused, even though his voice still sounds long-suffering.

"And then he told Naruto." Sai confirms, and this time, his smile is undeniable.

"Brat." Kakashi chuckles, then reaches out to ruffle Sai's hair, the action so instinctual that he doesn't question it until he feels Sai freeze under his hand and sees his eyes go wide. But then, he relaxes, and his smile gains a wistful edge, before he turns his face away and steps out from under Kakashi's hand.

"Good night, sensei." He throws over his shoulder, voice oddly tight, and hops down to the ground, crawling into the tent. There's a few seconds of stillness before Naruto crawls out, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and diligently takes his guard position.

Kakashi sighs, an odd sensation that feels bizarrely like fondness curling in his gut, and settles down on his branch to resume his watch.

A week later, they're back in Konoha, and he's handing his kids out the forms for the Chunin Exams.

"Remember," Sakura says, back to her usual self, no trace left of the soulless shell of a girl he'd met that night, "this is entirely up to you. Neither me nor taicho are going to judge you if you decide you're not ready yet, or if you don't ever wish to become chunin."

"You've been genin less than half a year." Kakashi agrees, though he also knows, judging from the looks on Sasuke and Naruto's faces as they scan the agreement, that their words are falling on deaf ears. "The average time between Academy graduation and Chunin promotion is about two years."

"Hey, Sai?" Naruto asks, a grin on his face as he finally lifts his gaze from the paper, "You got a pen?"

Wordlessly, Sai holds out the pen he'd just used to sign his own contract, and Kakashi watches Naruto as he scribbles something Kakashi assumes is meant to be his name, offers the pen to Sasuke who takes it with a quiet grunt, and proceeds to bite his thumb.

"Okay!" Naruto cheers once he's stamped his bloodied thumb at the bottom of the page and watched Sasuke do the same. "Where do we take this stuff?"

"Dobe." Sasuke groans, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Did you even read it?!"

"Nope!" Naruto shoots back, completely shameless. "But we're doing it anyway, so why should I bother?"

"Because you could die, Naruto." Kakashi sighs, sharing a long-suffering look with Sakura who, damn her, looks like she's barely holding back laughter. "That's what the form is for. It's a release of liability between you and the Village should you get seriously hurt or killed during the Exams."

Naruto blinks, and he actually looks somewhat worried before he brightens again. "We'll be fine! Sasuke and Sai won't let me die."

Sasuke snorts.

"We'd never be so lucky." He grumbles under his breath, but unlike what it would've been like when they were first put on the team together, it's teasing, rather than mean-spirited.

"Still." Sakura says, drawing all the boys' attention, and she smiles encouragingly, though there's a hint of worry in her eyes. "Be careful, okay? Stick together."

She gets three nods in response, and Kakashi starts heading home with a cheery 'see you tomorrow brats!' thrown over his shoulder. He dawdles long enough to see Sakura hand each of the boys something he's too far away to see, then, as the kids also disperse, he lets out the breath he'd been holding and goes to hunt down Gai.

The next day, Kakashi and Sakura see their team off in front of the Academy, not sure whether they're trying to reassure the kids or themselves. At least it looks like Sasuke and Sai took the 'you have no idea what you'll find, so prepare for everything' advice to heart and have come with hefty packs to the exam, though Naruto is still in his ever-present orange jumpsuit and weapons pouches.

Despite everything, they pass the first stage, somehow managing not to draw too much attention to themselves despite Naruto being on their team and Sasuke's eternal competitiveness.

As Anko returns from opening the second stage, the Konoha jounin sensei, under unanimous and unspoken agreement, gather in the second-floor meeting room of the Jounin HQ. The room is unusually quiet as they wait for their teams to get through the second stage, nobody seemingly feeling brave enough to break the silence.

Then, three things happen at once:

An enormous ink eagle peals itself free from Sakura's bare forearm and heads unerringly for the open balcony, beak pointed in the direction where a sudden burst of red sparks appears above the treetops. Sakura doesn't hesitate, jumping on the eagle's back and shooting off in the direction of what Kakashi realises is an emergency call. The grim determination and panic he briefly glimpses on Sakura's face assure him of just whose team had called for aid, and his stomach turns.

The other jounin sensei jump to their feet, and something in Kakashi wants to offer a scathing remark at the delayed response, but instead, he whirls on Anko, knowing from experience that few things can cause his kouhai to actually show her worry.

"Mitarashi." he snaps, and Anko jerks from where she's staring wide-eyed after Sakura's hasty exit. "What aren't you telling us?"

Immediately, the wide-eyed shock is wiped clean off Anko's face and she narrows her eyes, guarded and defensive.

"That's above your pay-grade, Hatake." she hisses back, then her face pinches with pain while her hand makes an aborted motion to her shoulder, and Kakashi blanches.

"Orochimaru?!" he demands incredulously as Anko staggers, Kurenai moving to stabilise the tokujo and help her onto a chair before she falls over.

Anko's expression is pained and angry, and Kakashi has no doubt that she wasn't supposed to tell them, but he is fresh out of fucks to give because those are his kids in the forest.

"We found Grass-nin bearing signs of his Shoshagan before the second stage." she bites out, and Kakashi's heart skips a beat.

Vanishing Facial Copy. His kids might not even realise they're battling a Sannin and oh god-!

He doesn't bother with waiting to see what the others decide - he takes a leaf out of his kouhai's book and jumps straight off the balcony, ignoring Anko's calls of his name and runs faster than he can remember running in a long time in the direction the flare had come from.

He only hopes he won't be too late.

Chapter 24: survival

Chapter Text

Shin spreads his senses wide, checking obsessively to make sure he isn't being followed. He'd half-assumed Sakura would have called him out on the fact that he very obviously didn't head back in the direction of Konoha once he'd helped drop off Sai in the forest, but it seems that his sister and Hatake were more preoccupied with boot-camping their team than his agenda.

Still, he's well aware that his paranoia never sleeps.

After finding the window Shisui had described in their last communication, the one with one square of the pane cracked all the way across, he scans it quickly and, after deeming it empty, he scales the wall and slips in through the window, excitement and anxiety warring under his skin.

"Thought you'd stood me up."

The shuriken flies from his fingers without conscious input before his feet even touch the ground inside the room, and he turns, viper-quick, just in time to see what can only be Shisui duck out of the path of the weapon, almost overbalancing from the chair he's perched on.

Shin doesn't relax from his crouch, not even when Shisui straightens and grins, because the room had been empty. He'd checked. There hadn't been an active chakra signature in the room.

Shisui, proving once again that he knows him better than Shin knows himself, takes a step forward, incidentally stepping into the patch of light coming in through the window, and Shin's breath catches.

"It's me, I promise." Shisui reassures, unfolding his arms and spreading them out, hands open, palms facing up, a small smile on his face. "Remember how I've been living with chakra-monks for the past five years? Look."

And then Shisui lets his chakra out, and it almost scalds Shin, the full force of Shisui's fire-natured chakra crashing over his senses and making it impossible to focus on anything else.

Not that Shin would even attempt to focus on anything else when Shisui is right there in front of him for the third time in as many years.

The sound that slips from his throat is somewhere between a sob and a laugh, and when Shisui's smile gains a wistful edge, Shin allows himself to be selfish just this once. He launches himself into the space between Shisui's arms, wrapping his own around the Uchiha's torso, and buries his face in Shisui's shoulder, hands fisting the fabric of his shirt between his shoulder blades with desperation.

Shisui chuckles, short and unsurprised, and his arms loop around Shin's waist, sharp chin coming to rest on Shin's shoulder.

They stand in silence for an indeterminable period of time, and Shin feels more like himself in that moment than he has in almost a year.

"I'm not sure how to feel about you being taller than me now." Shisui mumbles after a while, his fingers idly toying with the end of Shin's ponytail, and Shin snorts, the sound wet with tears he'll never shed.

"Shuddup." Shin grumbles, the words almost incomprehensible with how his face is pressed against Shisui's shoulder. "No talkin' yet."

"Alright, alright." Shisui laughs, quiet and good-natured, and it speaks to how much he'd missed Shin, too, that he doesn't comment on Shin still clinging to him, content to simply stand in the patch of early morning sunshine coming in through the window.

After another few minutes, Shin finally gets himself together enough to loosen his desperate grip on Shisui's shirt, his fingers numb, and slowly steps back from the hug, looking anywhere but at Shisui.

"Sorry." He murmurs, taking another breath and forcing himself to look up, only to find Shisui already facing him, that maddening, soft smile on his face. "It's…"

"I know." Shisui says, and the most annoying thing is that Shin is pretty sure he actually does. "And I'm never gonna turn down a hug. You don't need to apologise."

Shin scoffs, stepping around Shisui and perching on the side of the bed, shuffling until he can lean his back against the wall. He sighs and unbuckles his katana from his belt, setting it on the floor by the bed, then looks up at Shisui and shoots him an expectant look, not that Shisui can see it.

"You going to sit down, or?" he asks, and Shisui smiles again, then slowly heads over to the bed on Shin's left, as if unsure whether he's welcome, and something twists in Shin's chest.

"This is a change." Shin manages after a few seconds, lifting a hand to Shisui's hair and pulling at a single lock, less than an inch long, the shortest he's ever seen Shisui's hair, and a big change from the shoulder-length curls he'd been sporting last time.

"It has been almost a year." Shisui points out, the same thing Shin had been thinking mere minutes earlier. "Ten months and three weeks to be exact, but who's counting?" Shisui adds with a shrug and a wry smile, and Shin huffs.

"You're so dramatic." He accuses, though it sends a jolt through him when he realises that he's not the only one who's been counting every day apart. It's likely not for the same reasons as Shisui's counting, but it still feeds the small part of his mind he allows to entertain delusional fantasies.

"So?" Shisui teases, bumping his shoulder against Shin's and staying there, and Shin can't find it in himself to move away. He's only a man, after all. "You gonna catch me up on all the crazy stuff that's happened in the last few months?"

Shin huffs a laugh, bumps his shoulder into Shisui's just for the sake of it, and obliges.

This time, he stays for almost a whole day.

Sakura's heart is beating double-time as she whips through the air, her stomach twisting with nerves as she keeps her eyes trained on the area the flare had come from, noting the clouds of dust that signal summons and felled trees.

She had hoped her changes to the timeline would change this, too, but since surviving ROOT and living with Shin, she'd grown to appreciate being pessimistic and prepared over optimistic and dead. The eagle she'd pushed Sai to develop is testament to that, as are the flares she made all the boys carry after Kakashi had handed out their waiver forms, and she refuses to regret it.

She only hopes she isn't too late.

When the eagle swoops low and she spies the massive bulk of the snake summon that had eaten Naruto in her original time, she doesn't hesitate to launch herself off the eagle's back, biting her thumb and flashing through the seals while in mid-air, slapping her hand to the ground as she lands and pumping chakra.

Tsubaki appears, bigger than Boshi and Eki combined and eating a good forty percent of all of her chakra, but she doesn't care.

"You're the mongoose here, hime." Tsubaki grumbles as the smoke clears, almost of a height with the trees, but she bounds off towards the snake regardless, and Sakura takes a second to pop a soldier pill, then shunshins to where she feels Sai's chakra.

The scene she comes upon burns itself into her mind and she knows she'll have nightmares as soon as she closes her eyes, but both her boys are alive and Sasuke's neck is sans Curse Mark for now.

But that's about where the good news ends.

Sasuke's standing on shaking legs, his eyes Sharingan-red and spinning with a single tomoe, his shirt ripped, his thigh and arms bleeding, and sweat that's likely born of terror more than exertion running down his paler-than-usual face. Sai's crouched in front of him, tanto held in his left hand while his right arm hangs limp, visibly broken if not shattered, his left eye screwed shut to keep out the blood that runs down from the gash in his head and Sakura prays that it's only a concussion he's suffering from.

Then, Orochimaru's neck elongates and his head shoots towards her boys, mouth open grotesquely, his fangs elongating and the silver of the chokuto she remembers Sasuke later wielding glinting from his open throat.

Sakura doesn't hesitate.

She shunshins right in front of Sai, fist drawn back and loaded with Tsunade-taught strength, and punches Orochimaru in the throat.

The Sword of Kusanagi is forcefully dislodged from the Sannin's mouth and arches up into the air, while the force behind her punch throws Orochimaru's head back to his body and then even further, the momentum making his back smack against the trunk of the tree, and his feral golden gaze snaps to her in fury.

"Sai, take Sasuke and run to Tsubaki, now!" Sakura orders, her eyes not leaving Orochimaru even as her heart lurches when she feels Sai move. Luckily, her brother knows better than to question her, and she waits until he smothers his and Sasuke's chakra and shunshins away before she – rather idiotically – rushes Orochimaru again.

Her water bullets are brushed aside almost carelessly with a seal-less Wind jutsu, her earth pillars get destroyed before they have the chance to fully form, Orochimaru's ninjutsu coming to him effortlessly and without the need for seals or technique names, and Sakura belatedly remembers Tsunade referring to Orochimaru as their ninjutsu master.

She's certainly seeing that mastery now.

She launches herself into the air to avoid the earth spikes Orochimaru sends back almost idly, but when he moves to follow Sai's shunshin-addled dash to her summon, Sakura throws caution to the wind and calls on the natural energy around her.

The Forest of Death was made of the Shodaime's trees, and Hashirama's creations sing when she channels her love for her team and her to keep them safe into her chakra. They grow and draw nearer to each other, surrounding her and Orochimaru in an impenetrable ring of Mokuton, vines and roots reaching out to snag the Sannin in a mockery of the snakes he commands.

Orochimaru's golden eyes narrow as he dodges and cuts at the thinner vines with a wind-edged kunai. She feels movement behind her and half-turns to see an Earth Clone form out of the branch she's on, but before it has a chance to fully coalesce, her Mokuton pierces through it, turning it straight back to mud.

"You're too young to be my experiment." he assesses, the madness of earlier replaced by a mix of irritation and curiosity, while an effortless fireball incinerates the roots closest to him.

Sakura has no doubt what he's referring to and she grins, wide and unrepentant even as she ducks under a water jet and is a second too late to roll away from a barrage of shuriken as she concentrates on calling up a wall of wood to take the brunt of the Wind jutsu that makes Temari's techniques look like a summer breeze.

"That's because I'm not an experiment." she tells him sharply, wincing when she's once again too slow to completely avoid the spike of earth that shreds the muscle of her thigh, but she numbs the nerves and rolls instead of trying to heal it.

"Katon: Hosenka!" she calls instead, slipping shuriken into the flames with a sleight-of-hand that makes her miss Shisui something fierce.

If anything, that technique seems to catch Orochimaru's attention even more than her Mokuton had, and Sakura scrambles to capitalise on that curiosity and keep the Sannin's attention on her instead of on her team, the fingers of her left hand flashing through Tiger-Dog-Rat while her right sweeps down her calves, releasing her speed seals.

Then, she blurs, while her Shisui-taught afterimage-clones rush Orochimaru from every direction she Shunshins to.

It's the most recognizable technique she can think of, and she sees the moment Orochimaru realises whose it is, even as he easily dispatches her clones.

But Sakura's goal isn't to kill, or even hurt Orochimaru, not really - instead, she simply wants to block off any route he may have left to pursue Sai and her boys, and she waits until he's fully distracted by her clones before she pumps all of the chakra she has left into the forest around them.

Her chakra, combined with the remnants of Hashirama's, saturates the clearing so much that even the best sensor wouldn't be able to pick up Sai's trace; then she commands the trees to weave and squeeze together as much as possible to provide a physical barrier to keep Orochimaru in as well.

"Foolish child." Orochimaru snarls as Sakura finally stills, all her clones dispatched and all of her chakra gone, and she's surprised to note that there's intrigue in those unsettling eyes as well as anger. "You've just signed your death warrant."

Sakura grins even as she pants to catch her breath, adrenaline and Shisui's signature technique testing even her resilience, while the Sannin remains largely unaffected.

"You'll find that medic-nin are rather annoying to kill." she shoots back, then lets her grin sharpen as she takes the apparent break for conversation to pop yet another soldier pill, her reserves protesting. "But you know that already, don't you?"

Orochimaru tilts his head, eyes narrowing dangerously, and Sakura inwardly gives herself a small pat on the back.

Mission accomplished: attention diverted. Then, she realises that she has the force of Orochimaru's full focus on her, and panics a little. Now what?

"I will have what I want." Orochimaru tells her simply, with all the conviction of a man who wouldn't know how to envision another way. "All you've done is delay the inevitable."

"You won't have my student." Sakura tells him with equal certainty, meeting his gaze head-on. "You will not have Sasuke."

Then, deciding that she might as well go for broke, she adds, "Your other targets, I care not for."

"Oh?" Orochimaru asks, deceptively mild, and Sakura sees more snake than man in the Sannin in that moment. "Even if my other target is your precious Hokage?"

Sakura smirks, bloodstained teeth and bitter eyes, and she's sure it makes for an ugly expression because it comes from the ugliest parts of her heart. "Especially if it's him."

It seems to be the one answer Orochimaru doesn't expect, because he visibly pauses, and Sakura presses her advantage ruthlessly.

"Ask him about ROOT, if you want. Ask him what he did to those who came out of the ashes of Danzo's pyre." she croons, and Orochimaru suddenly smiles, and that, more than anything else, is the expression that frightens Sakura most.

Orochimaru tenses then, almost imperceptibly, but Sakura's been pumping her eyes with chakra since she sent Sai away so she notices, and when she extends the chakra to her ears, she hears what Orochimaru must have: dogs.

Kakashi.

Orochimaru turns to her with an expectant look in his eyes.

"To kill sensei, I'll need to escape." he observes simply.

"Why do you think you can still see the sky?" Sakura shoots back, and there's a there-and-gone glint of something in Orochimaru's eyes, then a Wind jutsu stronger than anything he's used so far lifts Sakura off her feet and flings her like a ragdoll, walls of trees and roots breaking against her back as she slams through them with the force of Orochimaru's technique.

She registers a dull pain in her chest as she blinks the dark spots from her vision in time to see the smudge of Orochimaru's hair as he flees. Then, what could've been minutes or seconds later, Pakkun's tiny face enters her view, and she raises her eyes until her gaze falls on familiar silver hair.

"Hey, taicho." she coughs, raising a hand alight with medical ninjutsu to her chest in an attempt to fix her broken collarbone, but her chakra flickers and disappears before she can finish, a wave of nausea hitting her in its stead.

"Kouhai." Kakashi sighs, moving to sit on his haunches, though the action is so sudden and disjointed it looks almost like his knees give out on him.

His hand lands on her head and he pats her twice, as if to see that she's real, then reaches out to squeeze her shoulder, and Sakura doesn't even mind the stab of pain the action brings her.

"Do me a favour; next time you go after S-Rank missing-nin, let me know, hm?" he asks, and Sakura knows him well enough to hear the panic and bone-deep relief buried in his voice.

"I didn't know what I was going to find, taicho. I just followed the distress signal." she lies, then quirks a wry smile at Kakashi's tiny frown. "But sure. I promise. You can always be my knight in shining armour."

"When did you make our team carry flares?" Kakashi asks instead of commenting on the promise they both know she won't be able to uphold, the grip on her shoulder not easing. "That's a little paranoid even for you."

"Can it be called paranoia if it's justified?" Sakura asks rhetorically, then shrugs with the shoulder Kakashi isn't holding and winces at the motion. "I gave them the flares before the first task. I...had a bad feeling about this exam."

"Was it as bad as 'rogue Sannin' bad?" Kakashi asks instead of questioning her apparent clairvoyancy and Sakura shakes her head, a grin threatening to pull at her lips despite everything.

"More like, 'there are two bijuu in this forest and one of them is being held back by a storage seal' bad. But, hey." she shrugs again, ignoring the way Kakashi startles at the news. "They're safe, Orochimaru's gone for now, and I know what he wants."

It's then that another presence enters the field, and Sakura and Kakashi both turn, with varying speed and smoothness of movement, to see Anko, her eyes wide as she takes in the wooden dome Sakura had created, as well as the felled trees around the clearing signifying a) enormous summons and b) a high-level ninjutsu battle.

"You got here in time then, Hatake?" she asks sharply, eyes straying away from Sakura's creations but flickering back every two seconds, as if drawn by magnetism to what is undeniably Mokuton.

"No, he was escaping when I arrived." Kakashi denies, and Sakura curses him in her mind for ruining the perfect smokescreen Anko had unknowingly provided. "This was all my kouhai."

Anko's eyes fall on her, then widen. "You engaged Orochimaru? Alone?"

Anko is more than justified in her disbelief, but Sakura still bristles.

"I didn't exactly have a choice." Sakura snaps, regretting it immediately when her vision swims and her lungs remind her that most of her ribs are likely broken. "He engaged my team, and if I wanted them to survive, it was me or them."

"Where are they now, then?" she asks sharply, and Sakura lets the subject drop for the time being.

"My summon should've taken them to the Tower." she replies, and, as if that's the signal she was waiting on, Anko sets off.

Kakashi twitches but stays still, and when Sakura catches his eye, he points at his back.

"Hop on, kouhai." he orders. Sakura does a double-take, then is about to protest, then thinks better of it – she doesn't even need to try and stand up; she knows she likely can't move. Her vision is swimming, black creeping at the edges, and her entire body feels like one big bruise, not to mention that she can hear how her breath wheezes with every inhale.

"Can't move, taicho." She manages between breaths, and Kakashi's eye loses any trace of humour as he moves to gingerly begin rearranging her limbs so she can climb onto his back.

"How bad is it?" he asks quietly once she's more or less secure on his back, and Sakura moves to shrug then hisses in pain when the aborted motion jars not just her ribs and back but her collarbone too.

"Quite." She breathes, settling into Kakashi and falling into herself, concentrating on the pain and disconnecting from it mentally, locking it into a cage in the back of her mind and throwing away the key.

Then, she digs shaking fingers into her back and pulls out her bottle of soldier pills, popping a third one into her mouth in the space of under an hour.

"But I'll manage." She promises, not sure whether she's trying to reassure Kakashi, or herself.

"You better." She thinks she hears Kakashi mumble, then they're rushing through the trees, conversation forgotten.

When they arrive, Anko seems to be very animatedly arguing with Tsubaki, gesturing wildly, but Sakura's summon isn't budging.

"Hime." the giant tiger greets once she spots her, inclining her head, and Sakura slides off Kakashi's back and stumbles forward, feeling Kakashi on her heel as she gingerly makes her way to her summon.

"Tsubaki-sama." Sakura sighs, shoulders sagging in relief as she melts against Tsubaki's leg, letting the tiger's warmth seep into her. "How are they?"

"Safely in the Tower." her summon replies, ignoring Anko's frustrated 'that's what I've been asking for three minutes!'.

"Sai-chan also snuck up on a team hiding out nearby and stole their scroll. I wouldn't have let him go, but he assured me it was important and didn't go far." Then, almost as an afterthought, she adds; "And I must tell you, hime, snake will never be my favourite snack."

Despite herself, Sakura laughs, and pretends she doesn't taste iron on her tongue.

"I'm sorry to have subjected you to the horror." she teases, then sobers and inclines her head respectfully, uncertain if she could manage a bow right now. "Thank you for your help."

Tsubaki lowers her giant head and gently bops her forehead against Sakura's torso, and Sakura staggers, both, due to not having the chakra to stick to the ground to weather the impact, and from the spike of pain the action sends through her.

"Summon me again soon, hime." the giant tiger replies and so saying, unsummons herself, disappearing in a puff of smoke.

"Shall we go in?" Sakura asks, when Kakashi and Anko just stare at the space her summon had occupied not seconds previous.

"I've never seen tiger summons." Anko murmurs in reply, her voice a mix of wonder and suspicion, and Sakura nearly rolls her eyes and starts limping towards the door Tsubaki had guarded, popping a blood replenishing pill into her mouth once her back is turned and ignoring the fact that the black dots at the edges of her vision refuse to clear.

"Well, now you have." she snipes under her breath.

Perhaps she's being ruder than necessary, but despite Tsubaki's reassurance, the anxiety she feels won't dissipate until she has her team before her and can ascertain for herself that they're in good shape.

Without waiting for the others to join, she pushes open the door.

Sasuke startles when the door opens, gaze snapping away from Iruka and to the figure of their assistant sensei who now stands in the door. His newly-activated Sharingan allows him to see the odd slant to her shoulders that signifies either hiding pain or an injury, and there's a large, freely-bleeding wound on her thigh, and her pupils are blown. The frown creasing her brow and the downward curl to her mouth clue him in to the fact that she's likely as worried for them as they've been for her, and exhausted, on top of that.

"Sakura-sensei!" Naruto cheers, jumping to his feet, and Sasuke inwardly despairs the idiot's complete lack of an inside voice.

Sakura smiles, a small, tired quirk of the lip, but it's a smile nonetheless, and opens her arms for a hug, an invitation that Naruto takes without a second thought. Sakura's arms come up around him, one of her hands alight with the mint-green of medical ninjutsu, and Sasuke takes that moment to take in the people who walk into the hall after her.

One of them is Kakashi, which alleviates some of the worry Sasuke hadn't even realised he was feeling, and the other is the creepy woman who led them to the Forest of Death, though she looks far more stressed and suspicious than sadistic now.

"My cute genin." Kakashi greets, also sounding stressed, signature book for once nowhere in sight. "Seems you had a bit of an adventure. Anyone care to fill me in?"

True to form, Naruto jumps at the opportunity, pulling away from Sakura to all but jump around the two jounin while he recounts being eaten by the massive snake and then promptly saved by an even bigger tiger. Sasuke tunes him out, his eyes falling to Sakura as she slowly heads towards him, her hand still glowing green and held up in a self-explanatory manner.

He nods slowly and feels the soothing wave of healing chakra sweep over his body, mending the wound in his thigh and the little aches and pains he hadn't even realised he'd amassed until they're washed away with his sensei's chakra.

"I'm going to manually switch off your Sharingan before it sucks you dry of the last of your chakra, okay, Sasuke?" she asks quietly, her lips barely moving, her hand no longer touching him, clearly waiting until he gives permission.

"Will I be able to activate it if I need to?" he checks, just to be sure, relieved when she nods.

"Of course. Though I don't recommend trying to until you've had some rest. Chakra exhaustion is...not pleasant." she advises, still not touching him. "May I?"

He nods, and as her fingers lightly touch his temples, the unusual sharpness of his vision fades, and he feels the beginnings of a pounding headache setting in.

"Ah." Sakura murmurs, and then the headache is swept away before it has the chance to fully form.

"You need to eat. Here." she holds out a granola bar she seems to produce out of nowhere and waits until Sasuke takes it before moving onto Sai.

"Sasuke?" Kakashi asks, drawing his attention to his other sensei. "Mind picking up from Naruto?"

"I..." Sasuke starts, then stumbles, because he hasn't been listening to Naruto's recounting at all, too focused on Sakura and his own guilt.

"We got separated." he swallows. "When Naruto came back, it...wasn't Naruto. When we made 'him' drop the transformation, he looked like a kunoichi from Grass."

Something flickers across Kakashi's face then, and the crazy proctor shoots him a meaningful look, but he doesn't even look her way, visible eye not leaving Sasuke.

"Strong Wind jutsu. Too strong for genin. Then, something I thought was genjutsu. I...I saw my own death. Like with Zabuza, but worse. I couldn't move. She was laughing. Mocking us. Spinning two kunai she planned to kill us with. When she threw them, I was going to stab myself and run, because I remembered Iruka-sensei saying that pain also breaks genjutsu."

Sasuke doesn't look at his Academy teacher, but he almost feels the man puff up with pride.

"But Sai moved first." He finally looks at his teammate, feels his guilt churn when he sees the broken arm, and his mind replays how Sai had acquired it.

But Sai doesn't meet his gaze. His teammate's eyes are shut, Sakura's hands on either side of his head massaging his temples, her fingers still glowing green, and Sasuke has a flash-memory of Sai's head smashing against the trunk of the tree, and he feels his nausea rising.

"He knocked the kunai out of the air and rushed the kunoichi." He continues his report, and even he's aware that his voice has grown toneless. Robotic. "I don't think she expected it. And he was fast."

Far faster than he's ever been in training, now that Sasuke thinks about it, even after he'd 'revealed' his skills.

"He managed to force her back, off balance, and cut her face, and that finally broke the technique she'd been holding us with. Then Sai used a Fire jutsu, and her skin started...dripping. And then it wasn't a kunoichi at all."

"It was Orochimaru." Sai murmurs, his eyes now open, though they're trained on his broken arm as Sakura mends the flesh the jagged bone had shredded.

Sasuke hears Iruka gasp behind him, but he's past caring.

"He started talking about- about Itachi. About the Sharingan. But Sai got in his way every time he tried to get close to me. And then...And then I think he realised that I hadn't activated my Sharingan yet. So he caught Sai and he- he-!"

"He tried to kill me. Used an Earth jutsu." Sai says simply, as if realising that Sasuke can't bring himself to say the words, and Sasuke doesn't know whether to be grateful he doesn't have to say it himself, or to curse Sai for the blasé way he says it.

"But he was sloppy. I managed to free everything but my arm. When it broke, Sasuke activated his Sharingan, and Orochimaru threw me into a tree."

"I went to him." Sasuke picks up, because as much as he doesn't want to talk about this any more - or ever - he doesn't want to hear Sai's dispassionate recounting of his almost-death even more. "He told me we can't fight an S-Rank shinobi, and to use the flares sensei had given us. He said that she'd come."

"And she did." Kakashi finishes, and Sasuke meets his gaze then nods. Then, Kakashi's gaze grows colder and he turns to the proctor, an expectant eyebrow raised, his whole mien emitting cool indifference. "Is that sufficient? Will you let my team rest now?"

Even Naruto jumps at that, because it's the harshest they've ever heard Kakashi sound, but the woman is either used to that tone or has no sense of self-preservation, because she pushes.

"And how did you get to the Tower?" she asks, and Sasuke almost rolls his eyes. Wouldn't Naruto have mentioned the massive tiger they rode to the Tower? It didn't seem like something the blond would miss out.

"Sakura-sensei's summon! I already told you!" Naruto jumps in, proving Sasuke right.

Then, Naruto leaves Iruka's side and comes to stand next to Sasuke, reaching a hand back blindly to wrap his fingers around Sai's uninjured wrist, eyes narrowed on the proctor.

He knows something's not right. Sasuke realises, and carefully doesn't jump when Naruto's other hand snags his wrist as well. Instead, he matches the glare the blond's directing at the woman, and feels more than sees Kakashi's proud smile at their defensiveness.

But then, he feels a gentle hand on the small of his back, and Sakura-sensei is coming around his other side, not stopping until she stands with her back to all three of them, unmistakably placing herself as the line of defence between them and the proctor.

"I made sure all my summons know that their job is to protect my team at all cost." she explains, and, like with Kakashi, her voice is much colder than what Sasuke's used to. "Now, will you let our team rest, or are you going to drag them off to T&I for a proper interrogation?"

The proctor narrows her eyes, and Sasuke gets the impression that he's missing something, but eventually, the woman subsides, offering a sharp; "The Hokage will want to hear about this."

"Then he can come find them." Kakashi replies evenly, and although he hadn't moved to obviously indicate where he stands like Sakura had, his posture radiates confrontation moreso than if he had openly challenged the proctor. "After they get some rest."

And Sasuke-

-Sasuke feels at home.

For the first time since the Massacre happened, he feels like he has a family.

Once they get the kids showered, fed, and into one of the makeshift infirmary rooms assigned to them to sleep in, seeing as it was barely day one of the five day exam, Kakashi finally allows himself to relax.

He'd been hypervigilant, making sure he had an eye on all his kids at any given time, needing desperately to make sure that his team, his pack, was alright. That Orochimaru hadn't managed to sink his fangs into any of his genin. That they would live to see another day.

Sai's broken, mangled arm and fingers had been wrapped in a cast, and each of his fingers wrapped in a sturdy bandage and splinted. Sakura's healing, though sufficient to burn out any infection and set the bone, still hadn't been enough to heal it fully, and Kakashi wouldn't have asked it of her anyway considering how depleted her reserves had been even before they'd stepped into the Tower. Still, the visual reminder of the extent of damage Sai had sustained – seemingly without any concern from his own part – added to the weight of guilt on Kakashi's shoulders.

Guilt which he, for the first time ever, sees reflected on Sasuke's face every time the Uchiha glanced at Sai's sleeping figure. Guilt which Kakashi felt weigh in his own gut when he realised just how much damage Sakura had suffered in her fight with Orochimaru when the girl passed out when leaning against the wall and couldn't be woken. Guilt which burns in his throat when the medics get called in and swear upon running the diagnostic, hastily carting Sakura away to a separate room, and Kakashi realises how much she'd hidden from him.

Guilt which only grows when the medics don't come to find him, but bring in Yamanaka Inosuke into the Tower, and when Kakashi presses one of the medics scurrying around, the man throws back something about 'designated shrink' and 'suicide watch'.

He's going to need to have another talk with his kouhai, and it's one he's not looking forward to in the slightest.

The nurse had told him that they had brought the kid out from under the anaesthetic, but it still takes another half an hour before Mongoose so much as stirs.

When she does move though, she groans, her voice hoarse and shot through, and Inosuke wonders whether he was too considerate to have turned off the light. He's not most pleased with the brat; having her suffer a little would be the least she deserves for the nerves she'd caused him.

He's leaning against the wall in the corner of the room and watching, silent as the grave, as the girl shuffles around on the bed and likely tries to take stock of her assorted injuries. Mongoose tries to sit up, then hisses, hand flying to her shoulder, and Inosuke remembers the clear break of the collarbone she'd supposedly suffered in her fight against Orochimaru.

[The fight. Against Orochimaru. From which she'd managed to walk away.]

She manages to push herself into a vaguely sat-up position after a few more seconds of struggling, and Inosuke, not for the first time, marvels at her pain tolerance. The medics had healed the broken bones as much as they could, but they'd left most of the bruising to heal naturally, not to mention that the kid is likely smack in the middle of the nausea that comes hand-in-hand with chakra exhaustion, yet she's still determinedly shuffling around.

And then, just as she reaches for the water jug on the small bedside table, her hand freezes in the air and she turns her head so she's looking directly at where he's standing, though her eyes sweep over him without recognition.

Still, a frown creases her brow and she abandons her quest for water in favour of staring vaguely at Inosuke's left shoulder.

"Kai." she murmurs, hands raised but not forming seals, and Inosuke watches as she winces at the feel of manipulating chakra, her coils likely still not recovered from the four chakra pills she'd taken.

Inosuke sighs and drops his Total Dark technique in the same breath.

"I don't think you're supposed to be using chakra yet." he says flatly and Mongoose jumps, having gone back to trying to get some water.

"Senpai!" she croaks, then winces again and takes a sip, her expression almost apologetic. "What are you doing here?" she asks, her voice more like what he's used to hearing, though she still looks far paler than she should.

Inosuke bites back an acerbic comment and raises an eyebrow instead, letting it speak for him.

"You fought Orochimaru." he states, not dropping his crossed arms nor making any attempt to come closer. "As your assigned shrink, I'm making sure you're not suicidal."

Mongoose chokes on her next sip of water, turning to him with wide eyes.

"What?" She manages after she finishes coughing, but Inosuke doesn't budge. "You're kidding, right?"

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Inosuke asks flatly, and the girl blinks, subsiding. "What were you thinking?"

"That my team was in danger." She says, and she's sharper now, her eyes narrowed, her walls up. "I didn't think I'd have to explain myself to you."

Ouch. Inosuke is almost impressed with the deflection, but he's still mostly angry.

"I'm not asking about the why. I can understand the why, as you so kindly pointed out." He shoots back, and the kid has the grace to look somewhat chagrined. "I'm asking why you rushed off without waiting for backup and fought Orochimaru, alone, like a moron."

"I didn't know I'd find Orochimaru." She defends, but Inosuke is undeterred and stares her down, and it speaks to her favour that she doesn't try to argue the point any more, just sighs and subsides.

"Can I show you instead?" she asks after a beat, almost whines, really, suddenly appearing older than her years, the look in her eyes the kind of tired that sleep won't fix. "I don't really want to talk about it."

Inosuke has known the kid for almost half a year at this point, but he doesn't think he'll ever get used to how unbothered she is about the prospect of letting him into her head.

So he doesn't say anything, choosing instead to cover the distance between him and the hospital bed, and he muses that they need to stop having serious conversations in the hospital. he holds his hand out, concentrating on the technique, and lets Mongoose cross the last few inches which separate her forehead from his hand, and then he closes his eyes and focuses.

When he pulls away, about ten minutes later, his first instinct is to punch Hatake, then the Hokage, in that order. His second instinct is to find Inoichi and shake him, because how the fuck had the man missed the chaos that is Mongoose's mind? And his third and final instinct is to cover his face, because the kid didn't show him just the fight, or the pursuit; she showed him everything: the fight, the journey to the Tower, healing her students, and the conversation with Orochimaru.

'Your other targets, I care not for.'

Eventually, he sighs, the corner of his lips twitching up, and he moves his hand from the kid's forehead to her hair, carding through it once before cuffing her around the head lightly.

"You trust me too much." He murmurs, and the kid has the audacity to smile sadly at him and shake her head, but she doesn't say anything, so he drops his hand and steps away. "When you're done with this part of the Exams, come find me. Your head needs some management."

[He doesn't tell her why he says that, he doesn't tell her what he saw, he doesn't tell her about the second layer of images superimposed over the memories she was showing him. Images in which Mongoose had long hair and wore a red dress and cried as her Uchiha teammate was bitten by the Sannin. Images too clear to be delusion, the sense of fear and helplessness in them all too real, but overpowered nonetheless by the memories where Mongoose plays the role of the distraction and fights a Sannin to save her students.]

And then he stops, because he can still feel the kid's chakra levels, and there are two bijuu in this Tower, and Kiri shinobi just parading around the place with their jounin-sensei who's been in the Bingo Books since before the times of the Bloody Mist, and Inosuke is not leaving Mongoose here unprotected.

So he sighs and digs into his pocket, pulling out one of the Akimichi pills, somewhat amused as the kid tracks his every move and clearly recognises what he holds out.

"As soon as you have enough chakra, summon Chie. Then take this," he holds out the chakra pill, "immediately. It'll help you recover about a quarter of your chakra without the adverse effects of the normal chakra pills, but it's still a quarter you could do something with."

Mongoose takes the pill from him and sets it quietly on the bedside table, then pins him with a look. Surprisingly, she doesn't say anything for a few long seconds, then smiles and nods.

"See you soon, senpai." She murmurs eventually, eyes unusually shiny, then settles back into her blankets, and Inosuke steps back fully, nodding back.

[He's going to kill Hatake.]

It turns out that Inosuke had come to visit because Preliminaries were starting in three hours. Sakura gets to her feet once Sai appears in her room a few minutes after Inosuke leaves. Her brother's arm is in a cast and in a sling across his chest, and Sakura's stomach drops.

"I'm sorry." She murmurs, stepping closer to Sai and letting their foreheads touch, one of her hands going to the nape of Sai's neck while the other seeks out his unbroken wrist and lets her fingers seek out his pulse-point, reassuring herself with the steady thump-thump of his heart. "I should've healed it better."

"You shouldn't have healed it at all." Sai rebuts, tone chastising, and his hand twists in her grip, his own fingers seeking out her wrist. "Three soldier pills, aneue?"

Sakura shrugs, closing her eyes and soaking in the fact that Sai is here, he's safe, and mostly in one piece.

"Worth it." She whispers, then takes a shuddering breath and pulls away. "How are Naruto and Sasuke?"

"Shaken." Sai informs her, hand slipping out of her grasp, and Sakura allows it, stepping back and giving him space. "Naruto finally realised who the Sannin are. Sasuke is annoyed at Kakashi for forbidding him from using his Sharingan in the Preliminaries."

"Kakashi did that?" Sakura asks, surprised, because Kakashi had always been of the 'exploit every advantage' mentality, in both of her timelines.

"After I told him that I recognised one of the other genin as Danzo's spy, yes."

Sakura snaps to attention, eyes wide and alarmed, and gestures at Sai to continue.

"He came up to us before the written exams. Introduced himself as 'Kabuto'." Sakura's stomach drops. "I recognised his nin-info cards."

Fuckin' Kabuto.

"I think he's Orochimaru's." Sakura breathes, closing her eyes again and trying to will back the tension headache she can feel gathering in her temples. "I'm going to find Kakashi."

Sakura glances back at her bed, catches sight of the chakra pill Inosuke had gifted her – breaking about seven Clan rules as far as she was aware – and feels a wry smile pull at her lips.

"Hey, Sai-chan, be my spotter for a second?" she asks absently, already flickering through the seals for the summoning jutsu, her coils protesting rather vehemently. She channels all her intention into the summoning, calling out for Chie in her mind to make up for where her chakra falters, and she sways when the little chakra she'd managed to build back up leaves her in a sudden whoosh.

She stumbles through the smoke, almost falling into the bedside table and grabbing blindly for the pill, popping it in her mouth and swallowing dryly as soon as her fingers close around it.

"You're an idiot, aneue." Sai chastises, and Sakura huffs a laugh despite how light-headed she feels, allowing herself to sit on the bed for a moment and get her bearings.

"You're the second person to tell me that today." she mumbles, then smiles when Chie jumps onto the bed and rubs against her thigh. She ignores Sai's quiet 'maybe you deserve it', and lets her fingers card through the fur at Chie's nape.

"Hello, Chie-chan." she greets, scratching the small tiger behind the ears. "How do you feel about a nap around my shoulders this time?"

Three hours later, Sakura stands on the balcony, Chie hidden behind her genjutsu and wrapped around her shoulders. Her back is leaning against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest, most of her focus on trying to radiate a disaffected air as she pretends to watch the first match of the Preliminaries, this time taking place between Kankuro and Misuri.

There are some changes in the lineup this time around - for one, Haku is alive and walking, standing next to Ao and two Kiri kunoichi on the other side of the railing, and Orochimaru's team from Sound is nowhere to be found.

She'd spoken to Kakashi about Kabuto's presence at the exam, explained some of what she'd 'guessed' Orochimaru might be planning to do, and Kakashi darted off to 'deal with' Kabuto as soon as she teen officially withdrew from the Exam.

Now, she's watching the matches while surrounded by her age-mates, yet they're not even acquaintances in this timeline. She's light-years ahead of them in experience and in rank, and it really should concern her, and most definitely shouldn't feel as satisfying as it does.

But, by being an unknown to the genin, she's also an unknown to the jounin-sensei. She feels the stares on her person, notes the way the Konoha jounin tense when Team 7 turns to her once they realise Kakashi is conspicuously absent, and it takes Chie's quiet purr by her ear to remind her to relax.

"Where's Kaka-sensei?" Naruto exclaims and his lack of an inside voice is somewhat of a comfort to her frazzled nerves; a reminder that this is what she's here to protect.

"Your sensei had an errand to run." She tells them frankly, schooling her expression once she feels Sasuke's scrutiny, but she lets an undercurrent of amusement colour her voice, which Sasuke and Sai undoubtedly pick up on.

It's fun, being so vague, and she finally understands why Kakashi did it her first time as a genin – Naruto's indignation is hilarious, and Sasuke's adamantly-not-pouting face is positively adorable.

(She laughs inwardly at how obviously the other sensei are eavesdropping.)

Sasuke is glowering at her, and the expression is far more bratty than she remembers it being when she was twelve the first time, coloured as her perception of it had been by her crush. Still, this time, she's Sasuke's superior, had whooped his ass after the first few times he contested her authority and under her expectant gaze, he dials his glare down until his expression is sour, but not antagonistic.

"Use your words, Sasuke." she encourages gently, makes sure her amusement doesn't bleed through this time, and sees Ino stiffen out of the corner of her eye, then gape.

"You know where Kakashi is." Sasuke says at last, grumpy and accusative. Sakura raises an eyebrow, telegraphs just how unimpressed she is, until he gets the hint and rephrases.

"Could you tell us where he is?" he pauses, looks like he bit into a lemon, then sighs, giving in. "…Please?"

Sakura only just smothers a smirk and nods. She lowers her head and lowers her voice, aware of just how many ears are listening in, and says; "He's investigating a lead about the man you fought in the forest."

As one, Naruto and Sasuke stiffen, faces growing serious, solemn. Sai gives her a calculating look, and she knows he can read between the lines and reach a fairly correct conclusion without her having to give any more detail than that.

Then, Naruto's serious expression switches to a petulant one.

"How come when the bastard asked, you told him?" he pouts, and his curiosity is clear, but Sakura detects an undercurrent of genuine hurt underneath.

Before she can begin to explain her reasoning, Kakashi materialises at her side, bringing along a tang of copper and ozone so strong that it makes her give him a concerned once-over.

"Because my adorable kouhai believes in rewarding good behaviour." he says, eye creasing in his signature smile, and it takes Sakura a second to realise that he's answering Naruto's earlier question.

She catches Sasuke's affronted glare and stifles a laugh at Kakashi's wording, even as the Uchiha bites out a vehement; "I'm not a dog."

Kakashi, for his part, looks completely innocent, blinking at Sasuke like he had no idea that his words could be interpreted like that.

"Of course not." Kakashi agrees, smiling like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "You're far too uncute."

Sakura glances at the board, notes that while they've been bantering, Kankuro won his match. She elbows Kakashi, both in reprimand and to draw his attention, and points.

Uchiha Sasuke vs Akado Yoroi

Sasuke smirks.

As one, Kakashi ruffles his hair and Sakura smacks him round the head.

"Don't get cocky now." Kakashi chastises mildly, and Sakura holds back the surprised glance she wants to shoot him.

"As your senseis, we've got bets running on this." He tells Sasuke and Sakura wants to gape and smack him, but settles for shooting the Uchiha a small smile.

"He bet you'd lose." She says quietly, throwing Kakashi in the line of fire with nary a thought. "In the spirit of proving him wrong, do your best. But don't let your opponent get too close; his chakra…" she frowns, playing up her concern as she looks at Yoroi, faking deep thought. "it's weird. Hungry. I don't like it."

Sasuke gives her a curious, measured look, but nods jerkily and vaults over the railing. Sakura sighs.

"You're a sensor?"

Sakura doesn't jerk, but it's a close thing. She missed the jounin sensei coming closer; apparently reassured by Kakashi's arrival, they must've ambled over at some point, bringing their teams with them. All the Konoha teams stand within arm's length of each other now and Sakura is overtaken with nostalgia.

"No." she denies, shaking her head at Asuma who'd been the one to ask. "But his chakra reeks."

And then, Sakura blinks, because Ino is suddenly in front of her, right in her face, close enough that Sakura can count the blonde's eyelashes, and her stomach drops out at the same time as a lump of grief and longing wedges in her throat.

"And who're you?" she demands, and Sakura hears Asuma and Shikamaru's chorused and quietly-despairing sigh of 'Ino…' "I don't remember you from the Academy!"

"Excuse me." Sai cuts in, tapping Ino lightly on the shoulder and offering her one of his patented smiles. "Please don't crowd our sensei."

It's Ino's turn to blink, stupefied. "Sensei?!"

Her bafflement seems to be echoed by the jounin.

Sakura feels more eyes on her now, not just the adults but the genin too. She reigns back a scowl and suffers through it. She knows what she looks like – barely over 5'2", built like a boy, with her cropped-short hair, her carefully-unisex, standard uniform that's barely any more personalised than Kakashi's – seeing as it was brought to her by Kakashi, she supposes it makes sense – and the ANBU tanto strapped to her thigh, a compromise of sorts.

She looks average. Androgynous. Forgettable.

Aside from her hair, of course, but she can't do much about that.

Her appearance, along with her age, makes her one of the best infiltrators in ANBU, she's found, and she holds the confidence that realisation had won her close now, forcing herself to ride out the curiosity of a handful of twelve-year olds and force down the wave of grief and nostalgia that hits her.

"Shouldn't you be in these Exams with us, though?" Tenten asks, and Sakura is a little surprised to hear the girl speak.

"That would be rather counterproductive." Kakashi hums, but like the reticent bastard he is, doesn't offer any more information than that.

Sakura fights back a scowl and shifts her weight under the pretence of fidgeting, makes sure her heel is right above Kakashi's exposed toes, then puts all of her weight on that leg.

Kakashi doesn't make a sound, but his stuttered exhale is enough for her to think them even.

Luckily, she's literally saved by the bell as Hayate announces Sasuke the winner, on the grounds that Yoroi, with his back broken, is unable to continue. When he tries to stand up from his crouch, however, Sasuke staggers, and Sakura takes it as her cue.

She vaults over the railing and drops by Sasuke's side, offering him a hand up. The Uchiha eyes it for a moment, torn between looking even weaker if he staggers again and the humiliation of accepting help, then huffs and takes the proffered hand. Sakura pulls him to his feet and steadies him as inconspicuously as she can manage when he sways.

"Good job with your fight." She tells him quietly, knowing how starved for genuine praise Sasuke had been. Is, still.

"You were at a disadvantage since he was older, and a Water-type who also favoured close-combat, but you won." She pauses, considers, then lightly squeezes the arm that she's using to keep him steady. "And you followed my advice."

Sasuke shoots her an odd look, somewhere between embarrassed and exasperated, then looks away with a grumble.

"It was good advice." He gets that expression again, the one that looks like he bit into a lemon, and if Sakura's not wrong, there's a flush making its way up the back of his neck. "Was there– do you think I could've done anything better?"

Sakura fights every impulse she has that's telling her brain she should be resembling a fish out of water right about now. She bites on her tongue to make sure she doesn't gape and carefully keeps her eyes ahead of her so Sasuke doesn't see how they'd widened at his question.

Sasuke… is asking for feedback. For tips for improvement. And he is asking her.

"Well…"

Once the kids get bored of standing around in silence and wander off in their own groups, the jounin descend on Kakashi like hungry vultures.

"I thought they only allowed jounin to be sensei, even assistants." Kurenai says, seemingly innocently, but her scarlet gaze is far too sharp for her words to be just the casual observation they sound like.

But Sakura is far more slippery an opponent in the art of word games and innuendo, and Kakashi has spent the better part of his adult life being as annoying as possible.

Kurenai doesn't stand a chance.

"Bold of you to assume my kouhai is not a jounin." He retorts, not raising his gaze from his book, even though he hasn't been reading the words for some time now.

"So he-" Asuma starts, at the same time as Kurenai exclaims "So she is-!" they both cut off and look at each other, then Asuma sighs.

"So they are a jounin?" he inquires, and Kakashi bites back a grin; baffling Konoha's elite is one of Kakashi's favourite past-times, and being able to do it so effortlessly is hilarious.

"I never said that." He denies, and relishes in the eye-roll and scowl that his response provokes.

Then Gai steps up and lays a hand on his arm.

"Kakashi," he murmurs, surprisingly subdued by the man's standards. "I may not recognise faces, but I remember that chakra. Are you sure that that," he waves a hand to where Sakura is still sitting with Sasuke, their heads bent together, "is a good idea?"

Kakashi glances over, and as if feeling his eye on her, Sakura looks up and meets his gaze. She seems to read something in his face because she says something to Sasuke, and in the next second, she's by Kakashi's elbow.

Asuma and Kurenai start, just a little, but Sakura pays them or Gai little heed besides offering a short nod.

"Taicho." she says instead, and at her admonishing glare, Kakashi pockets his Icha Icha with a mock-pout. He takes a leaf out of her book and ignores his friends' incredulous faces. "You should work with Sasuke on his speed and endurance." She advises, and Kakashi hums.

"Isn't he plenty fast already?" he asks, just to be difficult, but even he's not expecting the wry little twist to Sakura's smile, a crack in that practised ROOT blandness.

"For an average genin, he is. But there aren't many of those here." She says sagely, letting her gaze stop meaningfully on the Suna team and Gai's boys, then trails back to him.

"He asked how he could've done better in his fight." She adds, and Kakashi carefully doesn't react at the idea of Sasuke asking for feedback. "I said he should train to ensure his speed is consistent, even when fatigued."

That's good feedback, Kakashi muses, and smiles inwardly at how aligned it was with what he thought.

"Maa, I was going to put him through another boot-camp anyway, before the next round."

Sakura shoots him an exasperated look but nods, content. Then Sai is beside her and Kakashi glances at the board at the same time as she does.

Sai vs Tenten

Kakashi watches as brother and sister in all but blood clasp hands, and Sakura smiles.

"Kick ass, Sai-chan." She tells him quietly, and as she's talking, Kakashi notes the way her pointer finger is fluttering over the Sai's wrist, catches distance fighter and weapons and smirks to himself. Then Sai nods, offers her one of his truer smiles, and hops over the railing and into the arena.

"Who needs nin-info cards when we've got you, hm, kouhai?" he teases and Sakura laughs, short and surprised and not in the least repentant.

"The downside of balance." She says cryptically, winks, then sobers. "Her team's got two taijutsu specialists and a Hyuuga. It would be dangerous if she wasn't proficient in distance combat."

Kakashi hums noncommittally and turns to watch the match.

Hayate gives the go-ahead, and true to Sakura's hunch, Gai's student immediately bombards Sai with a barrage of kunai and shuriken, likely counting on the fact that Sai won't be able to block all of them with a broken arm.

Normally, Kakashi would concede to the wisdom of that assumption; a normal genin would've struggled to dodge them, and would've definitely gotten hit by at least a couple. Sai, however, nimbly twists out of the way and relocates a safe distance away. Gai's student jumps up, and, in a show of quite impressive airborne gymnastics and fuinjutsu, twirls a scroll around herself and bombards Sai anew.

Sai's posture slumps in what looks hilariously like a sigh, and he waits until the first wave is less than a metre away and-

-disappears.

To her credit, Tenten recovers quickly and sends the next barrage at his new location, but it's futile. Sai body-flickers like it's going out of style, seal-less, Kakashi would like to add, and when Tenten finally touches down, he's on her, tanto drawn, capitalising on her fatigue and mild vertigo before she has a chance to show off that Gai-trained speed. He knocks the kunai she belatedly raises away with the flat of his tanto, ducks the high-kick and swoops in low; one swipe at her hamstring, one at the back of her knee, and the brunette crumples with a shout. Sai crouches over her, the tip of his tanto resting suggestively on her jugular and turns to the referee.

"Winner of this match: Sai!" Hayate declares, and Kakashi feels the stunned silence that radiates off the other jounin.

"You taught a fresh genin the shunshin?!" Asuma asks incredulously, and Kakashi wonders if he should be offended.

Probably not, but then again, boring.

"Maa, how lowly do you think of me? I'm a responsible adult I'll have you know." he drawls, sees Sakura muffle a snort out of the corner of his eye and smirks. "My cute kouhai, however, isn't."

Instead of being offended, Sakura merely raises an eyebrow.

"Hm, tell me that the next time I have to play nurse for you, you obstinate bastard." His – on second thought – decidedly not-cute kouhai snarks back, and pushes off the wall towards the stairway where Sai is coming up.

Now that won't do. Kakashi decides, and wraps his arm around Sakura's neck, careful of her broken collarbone and bruised back, and pulls her in for a noogie. The teen startles and snarls, but suffers through the tough love with a resigned sort of exasperation, then tries to stamp on his foot when he releases her. Kakashi moves away and she gives him the stink-eye, but walks off without a word.

"Love you too, bratling!" he calls after her retreating back, and snorts at the middle finger she raises at him.

When he turns back to the other jounin, the expressions on their faces look like he just told them he's going to run off into the sunset with Orochimaru and have a host of genetically-engineered babies.

Oops.

When Naruto's match with Kiba is announced, Sakura puts her hand on his shoulder and squeezes.

"Inuzuka are known for their dependency on their sense of smell and for combo-attacks with their ninken." She murmurs, and Naruto turns, wide-eyed for a second as the information registers, then nods. She squeezes again. "Kick his ass, Naruto."

From the look on his face, you would've thought she just told him she'll pay for his ramen for the rest of his life. Naruto's smile becomes brighter than the sun and he wraps his arms around her neck almost quicker than she can respond and hugs her tightly for a split-second. Then, he whoops excitedly and vaults over the railing, jumping into the trash-talking with Kiba with ridiculous vigour.

His match, for all that it progresses much the same, is considerably shorter. He goes for Akamaru after the first time Kiba does Fang-over-Fang and knocks the puppy out before Kiba has a chance to feed him a chakra pill. Once he's faced with just Kiba, Naruto's clones and brawl-like taijutsu quickly overwhelm the Inuzuka, and the match ends in his win, and the proctor calls for a short break.

After he's gone through Kakashi, Naruto bounces up to her and drags her over to the other rookies.

"It was exactly like you said, sensei! You're so clever! How d'you know so much, dattebayo?"

Sakura glares at Kakashi when he makes eye-contact, and the man has the gall to grin at her and wiggle his fingers in a little wave.

She sighs and tries for a smile when she turns back to Naruto and their age-mates.

"It's important to know about your comrades just as much as it is to know about your enemies." She tells the group at large, careful not to make eye-contact with anyone but Sai. "You will eventually have to run missions with other shinobi, and not all of your assignments are going to give you the luxury of an introduction, so knowing your allies' strengths can be beneficial. Plus, Konoha Clans all have rather distinctive abilities, which makes it a little easier."

When she realises that it's not just Naruto who's staring at her rather blank-faced, she blinks.

"You really should've been taught this at the Academy." She says dully, because she's pretty sure she learnt most of the Konoha-related Clan trivia there.

Or maybe it was in the recommended reading?

It's Shikamaru who breaks the silence, and Sakura almost has a heart-attack because of that fact alone.

"They told us that the Uchiha, Senju and Hyuuga Clans were the first to settle in Konoha, which is why they are the Noble Clans." He remembers, and gives Sakura a measured look. "Nothing about the others, or their abilities."

Sakura drops her head against the wall and lets her back slide down it until she's sitting, then gestures at the other Rookies to join her on the floor. In a few seconds, she's got Naruto, Team Ten, Kiba and Tenten sat around her in a circle, while Sasuke, Sai, Shino and Neji stand nearby and pretend to not be listening.

"Right," Sakura sighs, and launches into lecture-mode.

"The Inuzuka are trackers with an excellent sense of smell and work in tandem with their ninken." She begins and laughs inwardly at how Kiba preens at the indirect compliment. "They are often partnered with the Hyuuga, whose dojutsu allows for telescopic, 360 degree vision, making them good for recon and tracking missions. The best tracker squads also comprise Aburame, whose colonies can track a target over hundreds of miles once they've tagged them."

She waits while the genin digest that fact, and when neither Neji nor Shino interject to correct her, she moves on.

"Team Ten, you probably already know you weren't put together by chance."

All three of them nod, with varying degrees of curiosity and apprehension, but Naruto, and even Kiba, look worryingly blank.

"The Ino-Shika-Cho trio, or in fact, any Nara-Yamanaka-Akimichi squad, is perfect for intelligence gathering. The Nara, with their control over shadows, are well-suited for capture and detainment. The Yamanaka have mind-walking techniques, and can interrogate a target in the field by bypassing the standard method in favour of simply extracting the information directly from the target's minds." She gives them a second to digest all that, then continues.

"They can also temporarily possess the body of another person, but that puts them at risk if their teammates aren't nearby to look after them. And the Akimichi are the combat specialists in those squads, though with their strength and Super-Size techniques, they also double as Konoha's demolition specialists, and, of course, run all the best restaurants in the Village." She smiles when Chouji blushes at her last comment, and stifles a laugh when she notices that Naruto's jaw is hanging wide open.

Kiba, and, surprisingly, Tenten, aren't faring much better.

Absently, Sakura realises that the adults have once again gravitated towards the genin.

"There have been other, smaller Clans dotted throughout the Village's history. The Sarutobi are renowned for producing devout followers of the Will of Fire and shinobi with strong Fire-affinities. The Shiranui have all been weapons and poisons experts. The Hatake were kenjutsu specialists hailed from samurai."

She notes how Kakashi tenses out of the corner of her eye, and powers through.

"You might've heard of one Hatake in history class – Hatake Sakumo, Konoha's White Fang?" she asks, and it's Ino who nods. "He was said to have been on par with the Sannin. He's one of Konoha's heroes, and someone who I personally believe to be the personification of the Will of Fire; he was instrumental in the Second Shinobi War, and he chose to save his teammates' lives at the expense of a mission."

Kakashi, she muses, is drawn tighter than a bowstring, and the jounin around them are either gaping at her or shooting him worried looks.

Then, Naruto breaks the silence with a loud, "Wow, Kakashi-sensei! You had a hero in your family! Did you know him? Did you?" he demands, bouncing on the spot with his excitement.

Kakashi lets out something that's a mix between a quiet guffaw and a stifled sob, and slumps. "Yeah, Naruto. I knew him." is all he says.

And then Sai, blessedly awkward, shy Sai, who in this timeline is a genius in his own right, butts in with a scarily perceptive, "What about the Uchiha? Or the Uzumaki?"

Wow. Even after all these years, I am still not used to Sai who understands social cues. Sakura realises, and it dawns on her with all the impetus of being tackled by Boshi.

Still, she grasps at the question and tries not to look at how tense Sasuke and Naruto have both gone.

"The Uzumaki were a large clan of fuinjutsu users, renowned for their longevity. Their princess, Uzumaki Mito-sama, married Senju Hashirama as part of the alliance between Konoha and Uzushio." Her heart twists at Naruto's awed expression and the quiet, surprised 'the Uzumaki were a Clan?', and she reaches over and lightly ruffles his hair, then sighs.

"The Uchiha… they ran the Konoha Police. They were well-respected by the civilians for treating civilian cases with the same gravity as the shinobi ones. Beside their dojutsu, the Uchiha were renowned for their mastery of Fire ninjutsu and proficiency in kenjutsu."

Sasuke whips his head around and she knows she's verging into dangerous territory, but this is a piece of his history she can give back to him, and the other genin are far too busy processing everything she's told them so far, so she gets to her feet and pulls Sasuke aside, smiling sadly.

"Though, having said that," she continues, far quieter, not sure how to feel about having Sasuke's full focus on her, "I knew an Uchiha who chose a different specialisation, and mastered the shunshin to the point of having 'of the Body Flicker' added after his name in Bingo Books, he was so proficient with it."

Sakura sees the warning look Sai shoots her at the same time as Sasuke lets out a pained sound.

"You knew him?" he breathes, awed and agonised. "You knew- you knew Shisui?" he stares at her, grief-stricken and betrayed and just the tiniest bit hopeful, and Sakura feels her heart break.

She raises a hand and rifles though the inner pocket of her chunin vest. "He was one of my good friends when I was younger." She tells Sasuke softly, then offers him the picture Sai had drawn years back, before the events that led to the Uchiha Massacre.

On it, a seven-year-old Sakura, a twelve-year-old Shin, and a fifteen-year-old Shisui are smiling at the camera, squished on a bunk in ROOT dorms, their arms thrown around each other's shoulders. The drawing is well loved, has been folded and unfolded many times since its creation and it's frayed around the edges, but even that can't dim the brightness of Shisui's smile. Sasuke reaches out with trembling hands and takes the picture from her, his face torn between grief and deep longing.

"That's Shin, isn't it?" Sasuke asks, quiet and fragile, and Sakura nods.

"He knew Shisui best. I'm sure he wouldn't mind telling you some stories, if you'd like." She offers, and Sasuke nods.

"I would." He looks at her then, an unreadable expression on his face, and carefully hands her back the picture, his grip on the frayed paper almost reverent. "Thank you, sensei."

Chapter 25: truth

Chapter Text

Once they are allowed out of the Tower, Preliminaries officially complete, Sakura dismisses Chie and treats all four Team 7 boys to a congratulatory dinner.

Naruto seems unfazed by the events of the last few hours and is, as always, bubbling and perpetually energetic. Sai seems content, half-dozing in the afternoon sun like a cat, and even Sasuke isn't as tense as usual, though Sakura can tell he's still reeling a little from her earlier reveal.

The most surprising of all, perhaps, is the fact that Kakashi agrees to come with them without a fuss.

"Right, you have the next month to prepare for the final round." Kakashi announces when all the food is gone. "I have already decided on your teachers."

The boys perk up, and even Sakura straightens, cocking her head curiously. It has only been two hours since the last match of the Preliminaries, and Kakashi has been by her side the whole time. Either he had full confidence that all the boys would pass and had planned trainers before the Exams even began, or some of his friends were about to be conned into having a genin dumped on them for a month.

"Sasuke will be with me." Kakashi begins, and Sasuke nods at the news, satisfied if unsurprised, while Naruto boos, muttering something along the lines of 'what a shocker'.

"Sai, you'll be with two friends of mine. They're partners and experts in close-combat and everything sharp that you can channel chakra through. Since you're somewhat familiar with Haku already, you'll have the freedom to decide what you want to focus on to fight him with. Meet them the day after tomorrow at 0800 in front of the T&I building."

Sai hums, considering, and Sakura can tell he's surprised by the thought Kakashi seems to have put into this. She is too, if she's honest.

"And Naruto, you get my kouhai as your teacher."

Sakura nearly chokes on her lemonade. Some damn warning, Kakashi!

Naruto, however, seems ecstatic.

"I get Sakura-sensei?! Awesome! I thought it was gonna be some creepy old guy but if it's sensei, I'm going to kick the Hyuuga's ass, dattebayo!" he cheers, and Sakura is comforted by his easy confidence in her tutelage enough to moderate the glare she's shooting at Kakashi.

"Thank you, Naruto. Meet me at Ichiraku's at noon the day after tomorrow." She manages, taking her cue from Kakashi for the timing and scowling at the guileless smile she can see beneath his mask.

The boys' conversation continues for a few more minutes, but gradually, they all start yawning, the exhaustion of the last few days catching up to them, coupled with the warmth of the setting sun and full stomachs.

"Okay, that's it, off to bed with all of you." Kakashi shoos them up and out of the restaurant, and Sakura waves at all three and signs at Sai that he shouldn't wait up for her.

When all the boys are out of sight, she pulls out the silencing seal ANBU's Intel branch uses for catching up with their CIs – which she may or may not have pawned from Inosuke on their last mission – and slaps it on the table.

"Right," she says, raising a meaningful eyebrow at Kakashi when he tries to pretend innocence, "want to explain to me what that was about? I'm not bothered," she reassures him, quirking a wry smile, "just would've appreciated some warning ahead of time to make a proper training plan."

Kakashi sighs and sags slightly in his chair as he runs a hand through his hair, and Sakura belatedly realises that he's relieved. As if, for all his bravado, he genuinely expected her to be annoyed that he gave her Naruto for a month.

"Sorry." Her old sensei mutters, unprompted, and if she'd heard that in the original timeline, she'd have probably had a heart attack.

"There weren't many people who trusted me to look after this team, and now there are even fewer who I trust to do right by them." He explains, and Sakura feels her heart give a painful twinge.

"I got Izumo and Kotetsu for Sai because it was obvious he'd pass. Genma suggested Ebisu for Naruto when I asked him what he thought, and, while there's nothing wrong with Ebisu, he's a solid ninja, he's just… not someone Naruto would respect. And I know you've had a training plan for him in your head since you first laid eyes on the brat." The last bit feels like a dying man's attempt at humour, Kakashi desperately reaching for the teasing tone and missing by a mile, but.

Still.

It's staggering to realise that for all that Kakashi is the paragon of confidence in the field, he's startlingly insecure when it comes to his decisions as sensei. She probably should've realised that in her original timeline, but at the time, Kakashi had been invincible in her eyes. Still is, if she's honest, even if she's gotten to know the man behind the legend a lot better this time around.

Sakura smiles, and it's meant to be reassuring, but she's not sure how much of her sadness at her sudden realisation manages to bleed through. (she thinks it might be a lot)

"Taicho," she says quietly, reads underneath the underneath like he's always stressed, and reaches across the table to lightly tap his hand, "I'm honoured."

Kakashi stares at her for a few seconds, an unreadable emotion in his visible eye, then snorts and hangs his head.

"Stop it. I'm still not used to the idea of a ROOT agent with social skills." He laughs, slightly breathless and it's a front, Sakura knows, a cover for the bone-deep weariness of constantly being doubted and thought the worst of, and the relief at suddenly having nothing but calm acceptance.

So she chuckles and lightly strokes her thumb over his knuckles, then takes her hand back to her side of the table and sobers.

"Kakashi." she starts, and Kakashi raises his head and gives her a measured glance. "What did you do with Kabuto?"

Kakashi studies her for a beat, doubtless notes just how much she cares about his answer, and replies, cool as could be, "His many parts are buried under six feet of concrete at the top of the Tower." then, a vicious flash she hasn't seen since the War passes through his visible eye. "Even his crazy healing couldn't keep up with Bull's teeth."

The relief that crashes into Sakura at the news that Kabuto is well and truly dead and before he could actually begin to cause trouble for her makes her sag against the table, breathing in deeply.

"Thank fuck." She mumbles, and Kakashi snorts.

"Language, kouhai. You're a sensei now." he chastises teasingly, and Sakura doesn't even have the energy to flip him off.

Instead, she pushes herself into a position which makes her collarbone scream at her a little less and pins Kakashi with an assessing glance. "I have one more favour to ask of you."

She studies his reaction to the words, and considering that the apprehension she would've expected to find in his gaze is nowhere to be seen, she doesn't think she's ruined his good mood too much.

"Don't teach Sasuke the Chidori." She says at last, and she sees him startle, if only slightly, and the eye that was trained on her widens. Sakura gathers her remaining energy and stumbles over herself to keep talking before Kakashi slams the breaks on the conversation.

"You know what that technique is. You know what it's done for you. Is that something you want for Sasuke as well?" she asks, blunt as can be, and Kakashi flinches. Sakura, however, ignores the guilt that surges up, because at least now, the glint in his eye is more thoughtful than affronted. "You know Sasuke is a budding megalomaniac. He will take that technique and he will run with it; he won't care whether the circumstances call for it or not."

Kakashi eyes her thoughtfully and when he smiles, it's cheerful and shamelessly fake.

"I didn't know your Yamanaka has started you on psychology." He remarks idly, his words mild, yet aimed to sting, to discourage from pursuing the conversation.

Sakura ignores the jab, brushes the words off with a curt, "Tell me I'm wrong."

They stare at each other, each refusing to back down, for what feels like an age.

Finally, Kakashi sighs and slumps once again. "What would you have me teach him instead? His opponent has an impenetrable defence."

Sakura thinks.

She knows that it is imperative that Sasuke stays in Konoha this time around, and she knows what she can offer him to keep him here. She doesn't know if it'll be enough, however.

But Kakashi needs a concrete, tangible training plan, so she goes silent and thinks. She thinks about the literal library-worth of jutsu scrolls and files on Fire ninjutsu she'd saved from the Uchiha Compound before she'd lit it on fire, files safely stashed in scrolls around their apartment and the old ROOT base. She reviews the techniques she knew in her other timeline and the ones she's learnt in this one, thinks back to the ones she witnessed in the war. She remembers hushed conversations while squished on a too-small bunk with three boys, remembers whispered legends and shared secrets and midnight sparring sessions and suddenly, she knows.

(she also aches because for all that she only knew him in this life, and for far too short, the hole Shisui left in her and her brothers' lives when he left is still gaping, still hurting, still-!)

"Teach him Katon: Gōka Mekkyaku." She breathes, and her mind whirs as she builds a plan on the foundations of a fledgling idea, and it makes sense.

"Sakura," Kakashi interjects, and he sounds incredulous, disbelieving, and he looks at her like what she said was sacrilegious. "That technique is-!"

"-the pinnacle of the Uchiha Fire Release, hasn't been used since Uchiha Madara was alive for the sheer disastrous potential that it has, I know, taicho." she cuts him off, and Kakashi is still looking at her like she's a madwoman.

"Sasuke has no chance of mastering it right now, but he doesn't need to." She explains, needing him to understand. "Think about it; in his quest to surpass his brother, what could be better for Sasuke than learning a technique of their greatest ancestor, one that even Itachi didn't dare to touch? Plus, it'll be another half decade at least before he can even dream of having chakra reserves large enough to make it work to its full potential. There are dozens of jutsu scrolls that have been salvaged after the Massacre, and I know of at least two dedicated to the requirements of Gōka Mekkyaku."

(she chooses not to mention that most of them are at her apartment)

Sakura pauses for breath, belatedly realising that she's breathing hard as she's been gradually speeding up as she was talking, fighting to get the words out as new ideas coalesced and getting them out before they disappeared. She scrambles for what to say next to fully convince Kakashi that this is a good idea.

"Sasuke is the rightful heir now that Itachi's a missing-nin, and he became an adult in the eyes of the law upon graduating the Academy. He can demand those scrolls, and nobody will be able to tell him 'no'." She finishes, fighting against the instinct to screw her eyes shut and await judgement.

Kakashi is still looking at her oddly, and then he blinks, throws his head back and laughs.

"You know," he says once he's done, and there's mirth and no small amount of disbelief in his visible eye, "sometimes, I think that you're one of the best-adjusted shinobi I know. And then, sometimes, you do or say something so outlandish, so blasphemous, that I can't help but think that you must be absolutely, categorically, clinically insane, and you're just the best out of all of us at hiding it."

He chortles and wipes at a non-existent tear. "This is an example of the latter, by the way."

Sakura huffs, but Kakashi waves her off.

"Alright, say I did teach our little sourpuss the most venerated Fire ninjutsu across the Nations; what do you want him to do after he attempts to cook the Ichibi's host in his own custom-made glass oven?" he asks, and Sakura at this stage isn't even surprised that he figured out what she was planning without her having to say a word.

Kakashi is a renowned genius, after all. She just never really noticed before. She doesn't even have to think about it this time. "Teach him the Uchiha Style."

Kakashi chokes, and it's about as insulting as it is hilarious.

"Kouhai, that style is extinct." he tells her flatly, daring her to disagree. "And even if, I am not an Uchiha. The old Clan Laws forbid it."

Sakura rolls her eyes and hopes it comes off as derisive as she intends it to be.

"Since when do you care about old Clan Laws?" she asks rhetorically, and when Kakashi pulls a face of mock-affront, she raises a hand. "But fine – since you're so worried about the law of all things: the very same Clan Laws say that if a clan member is orphaned before graduating and no family takes them in, their jounin sensei becomes their official guardian until they reach majority. I know you know this, taicho, stop being difficult."

"What if I don't know the Uchiha Style?" he asks, and now she knows he's testing her, but she has an answer to this question too.

"Ask Shin." When Kakashi blinks, thrown, she huffs a laugh. "Shin and Shisui trained together almost obsessively. If not for his colouring and the fact that his first element is Wind, Shin could pass for an Uchiha with his arsenal. And we have some Uchiha scrolls, too."

Kakashi stares at her for so long, she has to fight the urge to fidget.

"How long have you been planning this?" he asks at last, voice quiet, and it's the most serious she's heard him in a long time.

So she looks back, tries to make her voice steady, and answers just as seriously.

"Since I first saw Sasuke's face after he used Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu." She says, because it's true, then adds, in the same tone, "It was a rite of passage for the Uchiha. Let him have this, taicho. Give him a tangible link to his family that his brother cannot touch. Teach him about the strength in his history. Show him that there are other ways of honouring his family than revenge on Itachi. Help him become an Uchiha in more than just name."

Sakura knows she's revealed too much when Kakashi's serious gaze doesn't waver – if anything, it sharpens.

"This isn't just about the match, is it?" he asks, and she can do little more than sigh and shake her head with a wry smile.

"No." she agrees, "In the Forest, Orochimaru said he will come back for Sasuke and I'm– I worry. I worry Orochimaru will offer him something that might sway his loyalty."

Kakashi's next exhale sounds like an incredulous laugh.

"So you want him to learn the Uchiha ways so he stays in the Village instead of being tempted to go to the Sannin?" he clarifies, and Sakura refuses to look away as she nods.

"Yes."

There's a pause, a moment when they hold the eye-contact, and then; "Okay."

And when Sakura does a double-take, he smiles, and this time, it's genuine. "I trust your judgement, kouhai."

And that- that easy admission, it was everything she ever wanted to hear from Kakashi in her original timeline, and her eyes sting with the promise of tears.

Kakashi though, bless his suddenly emotionally-perceptive heart, quickly shifts tracks and changes the subject:

"What are you going to do with Naruto?" he asks, as if they hadn't just had a meaningful heart-to-heart about not teaching twelve-year-olds assassination techniques.

Sakura takes a deep breath and it only shudders a little, then says what she's been thinking of since Kakashi gave her the questionable honour of being assistant-sensei. "I'm going to teach him control."

"Control?" Kakashi echoes, and she can tell it's not the answer he expected. "Kouhai, he's facing a Hyuuga. He needs more than the leaf-sticking exercise."

Sakura snorts, shakes her head.

"True. But bear in mind we're talking about the kid who cranks out Shadow Clones like they're regular bunshin." She says, and she sees the exact moment Kakashi understands what she means.

"His work ethic is going to get even worse." He bemoans, but there's laughter in his voice.

Sakura doesn't bother hiding her schadenfreude.

"I know. But once he's promoted, that won't be our problem, ne?" she asks with an unholy grin, and Kakashi gives in to the laughter he's been holding back.

"You're awful." He tells her, but it's gleeful, and Sakura's grin grows. "You would really do that to our comrades? How cruel." Kakashi teases, and Sakura delights in the easy banter they've got going now.

"Better them than us, wouldn't you say?" she retorts and Kakashi snorts.

He raises his glass of water in a mock-toast and inclines his head, "Hear, hear!"

When Sakura stumbles home, exhausted beyond measure and her chakra still too low to properly heal herself, Sai's asleep on the sofa, his cheek smushed against his chalk pastels, sling-arm propped on a pillow. There's sealing paper strewn all around him and Sakura's hit with an unbearable wave of fondness. She never once thought, when she decided to get noticed by ROOT, that one day she would get to have this.

It's a good feeling, she muses as she drops her pack and perches by Sai's head, gently running her fingers through his hair to rouse him. Even though he's technically older than her, she truly feels like the elder sibling he treats her as when they're together.

Sai, for all that he's grown up in ROOT, carries a rare sort of innocence that makes Sakura's possessive nature rear its head and roar PROTECT!, that makes her face S-Ranked shinobi without a moment's hesitation despite knowing she's unlikely to win, and she knows without a slither of doubt that she would die all over again if it meant keeping Sai alive.

"Aneue?" Sai mumbles and presses his head into her hand like a cat. Sakura scratches a little harder, laughing quietly when he sighs.

"I'm starting to feel like someone swapped my little brother with a housecat." She teases and Sai stretches, not bothering to correct her. "You should sleep. Kotetsu is a slave-driver when he hasn't slept enough and Izumo is a perfectionist."

And suddenly, Sai sits up, looking surprisingly awake as he considers her.

"I thought it would be someone from your old ANBU team." He murmurs, running a hand through his hair to settle the parts she's ruffled and stifling a yawn. "The brunet, for instance."

Sakura hums, considering. It seems Sai's thought-process had been pretty similar to hers in regard to who Kakashi would assign to him. Instead of voicing that thought, though, she smiles.

"My ANBU team may have been famous, but it seems there are other people in the Village who owe taicho favours." She jokes, then tugs on Sai's arm. "Now come on, off to bed with you!"

Sai grumbles but obligingly gets up and, after pressing a sleepy kiss to her cheek that leaves her startled and near-tears, ambles off to his room.

Once his chakra evens out with sleep, Sakura sighs, pulls out a fresh notebook and settles down to plan a training regime for the next month, knowing sleep will likely not come easy despite how exhausted she feels.

The next morning, she's proven correct.

Sakura rises at dawn, mere four hours after she finally finished Naruto's training schedule, but she can't make herself stay in bed any longer. Even after barely four hours, she's more exhausted from spending most of the night wrestling with various nightmares of the Forest of Death – from both her timelines now – than because of the actual lack of sleep, though it certainly plays a part.

As she gives up on the idea of sleeping and gets up to start the day, though, she decides it's likely high time to see Inosuke. And while she's not sure what to expect – he hadn't exactly told her where to meet him, or what he planned to do – she can acknowledge that some help with 'managing her head' is probably needed at this point.

With a tired sigh, she dresses in a slightly more personalised outfit than she wore at the Preliminaries. She steals Shin's sweater this time, a wonderfully soft, blue-grey wool jumper with built-in fingerless gloves – and adds black track pants and her seldom-used pair of shinobi sandals instead of her boots. Shin's sweater is large on her, his shoulders being much broader than hers, and it hangs loosely off her frame. She forgoes her hitai-ate and her thigh holsters, leaving the house without any weapons for the first time in years.

Coincidentally, it's the most comfortable she's felt in weeks.

Once outside, she banishes her exhaustion to the back of her mind, stifles her still not fully recovered chakra, and heads for the Jounin HQ, deeming it the most likely place to start her search for Inosuke.

Luckily, she spots him mere moments after she steps into the Jounin Station – or rather, she spots the pile of folders around him, and the man himself scowling at a scroll rolled out on the table in front of him, sitting at the same booth he was in last time.

Sakura brightens and heads over, then, too tired to think much of what she's doing, calls; "Senpai!" to get Inosuke's attention.

She does manage to get his attention – he looks up, catches sight of her, and the scowl on his face fades slightly – but she also catches the attention of about a dozen shinobi in the vicinity. Shinobi who, upon seeing who she's heading towards, gawk shamelessly, particularly when Sakura ignores the clear 'fuck-off' vibes exuded by the piles of folders and Inosuke's scowl and slides right into the seat on the other side of the booth, a sheepish grin on her face.

She knows Inosuke hears the whispers that break out, and she wipes the grin from her face and shoots him an innocent look when he arches an eyebrow at her.

"To be fair, I didn't even intend to be dramatic. It just slipped out." She confesses, unable to fully bite back her smile, particularly when Inosuke huffs, though the amused look in his eyes betrays him.

"I'm sure." He says dryly, assessing her as he rolls up the scroll. "Did you come just to say hello, or…?"

Sakura rolls her eyes – she knows he knows why she's here, she's here on his order, even. Making her say it is rather excessive, in her opinion.

"I was promised therapy." She informs him just as dryly, making sure he knows how unimpressed she is with his pretend ignorance.

"And I was promised a subordinate who knew the value of a good night's sleep." Inosuke retorts, though he does tuck the rolled-up scroll into his breast pocket and starts gathering the mess of files around him.

Sakura snorts, even as she reaches out for the folders to help him clear the table.

"Kakashi put me in charge of Naruto's training for the next month. I had to prep." She explains, neatly dodging the topic of 'nightmares' for now, and while the words are not exactly a lie, they're not the full truth, either.

Inosuke doesn't pause in his motions, too good of a shinobi for such an obvious tell, but he does shoot her another assessing glance. "How do you feel about that?"

Sakura shrugs, genuinely unsure.

"I'm glad Kakashi trusts me with his students." She admits, because she wasn't lying when she told Kakashi she was honoured. "Beyond that…a bit weirded out. I'm not used to this sort of responsibility."

Inosuke's expression tells her precisely what he thinks of that, and Sakura rolls her eyes again even as she gathers the folders to her chest and stands up when Inosuke moves to leave.

"What have you decided on?" Inosuke asks instead of voicing his thoughts, likely because they're still wading through the people at HQ to get out, and Sakura sighs.

"He's facing Maito Gai's Hyuuga genius." She shifts the folders to one arm so she can rub a hand down her face, wiping the sleep from her eyes as she goes. "So I'm going to teach him control."

"And?"

Sakura shoots Inosuke a curious look once they're out of the building, because what? When he catches her looking, the corner of Inosuke's lips twitches up.

"You're not subtle. What's the endgame?" he asks, and Sakura can't help but wonder when he got to know her so well.

But, well. Inosuke seems to enjoy mischief, so she smirks and allows herself to verbalise the idea that had crystallised in her mind the previous night.

She gestures at the man to bend down, which he does with a bemused smile, and lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, looking around to make sure she won't be overheard.

"I'm going to teach him the Rasengan."

For a split second, Inosuke's smile slips, and his eyes widen as he startles at the news, then his expression smooths out, his gaze growing contemplative.

"That's going to make a statement." He points out, following her train of thought without any prompting, and Sakura is relieved and bewildered at the same time. Apart from Kakashi and Shin, few people have been able to see through her motivations so easily in this timeline. "Are you sure you're ready to deal with the fallout?"

Her earlier bewilderment is replaced with a sudden wave of fondness, but she buries it for the time being and widens her eyes instead, tilting her head and channelling her 'guileless genin' mien from before.

"'Fallout'?" she parrots, blinking rapidly as she tilts her head in fake curiosity and pitches her voice higher. "I have no idea what you mean, senpai. I was Kakashi's direct subordinate for three years, so I learned it from him. I'm only teaching it to Naruto because he's Wind and Water natured, so it suits him."

Inosuke studies her for a few seconds, a peculiar expression on his face, so Sakura blinks owlishly and goes for broke, smiling saccharine-sweet and pitching her voice even higher.

"I'm definitely not teaching it to him to remind people that the gag order doesn't mean their mistreatment of my student is going to go unpunished much longer."

At that, Inosuke blinks, then hangs his head and laughs, that same rough, rusty sound that's nonetheless starting to become comforting to Sakura's ears.

"That fa?ade is almost too convincing." He tells her once he recovers, looking somewhat impressed despite himself. "I see why you're the infiltrator now."

Sakura grins at that, quietly pleased with herself, and goes back to her usual register.

"I appreciate the concern, but gag orders don't tend to outlive their kage." She tells Inosuke frankly, shooting him a meaningful look. "I'll be fine."

Inosuke's face does something complicated then, before it smooths out all expression and goes back to the uninterested mask she's most used to. Wordlessly, he gestures to the files they're both carrying.

"Let's drop these off at Intel, then we'll get started."

As he closes the door to his office behind them, Inosuke wonders what he's going to find in the kid's head.

He'd asked Inoichi whether he'd seen anything of note in Mongoose's mind when she'd gone to Psych to report Bat, but beyond a mildly concerned remark at the kid's pain tolerance, Inoichi hadn't had anything of note to offer, and Inosuke knew the man wouldn't keep something like double-layered memories to himself.

Especially since Inosuke was Mongoose's 'official' shrink now.

Which meant that he was back at the drawing board in terms of figuring out what, exactly, he'd seen in the kid's head at the Tower.

The unsubtle remark about gag orders not outliving kage had confirmed that she had intended to show him her exchange with Orochimaru, which at least reassures him that she has some level of control over her mind.

It does, however, raise concern of how much the kid appears to trust him, which makes this whole situation a fuckload more complicated, but never let it be said that he can't procrastinate emotional conversations with the best of them.

"Senpai, is this…your office?" Mongoose asks once she steps into the modest room, looking around curiously before her gaze flickers back to him.

"You warned me about S-Rank secrets." He reminds her, waiting for the spark of recognition in her eyes, gratified when it comes with a mere seconds' delay. "This is the safest place I know."

Outside of a T&I cell, he thinks but doesn't say, because he's read the kid's file and Inoichi's notes from that first post-ROOT evaluation, and he will not be taking Mongoose to T&I if he has anything to say about it.

When the kid hesitates, clearly unsure what to do next, he tilts his head and waits for her to verbalise her thoughts.

"I've never done this" she waves her hand around as if to encompass their whole situation, "before. Are there any rules?"

"Only one." Inosuke replies as he gestures for her to sit on the armchair in the corner of the room instead of standing around awkwardly, while he settles behind the desk. When he's got the kid's full attention again, he continues. "I need you to be completely honest with me. Is that something you can do?"

Mongoose nods as she rearranges herself on the armchair, looking baffled, and Inosuke bites back a wry smile. "Alright. How are you feeling?"

If anything, the girl's bafflement only increases at the question, but the instinctive response comes out regardless, just like he thought – "I'm fine."

"Failed step one." Inosuke retorts drily, and Mongoose blinks, then scowls, chagrined. She opens her mouth, no doubt to shoot something back, but he holds his hand up and cuts her off.

"If this is going to work, I need you to listen to me. For our time here, you need to remember that I am your therapist." He stresses the word, because Mongoose doesn't seem like she knows what such a dynamic entails. "I'm not your brothers, nor your students, nor Hatake. You don't need to protect me, or look after me, or placate me. You need to let me do my job, and I can't do that if you're not honest with me."

He lets the words sink in for a few seconds, then tries again. "So, how are you feeling?"

And Mongoose studies him for a moment, her expression unreadable – a feat in and of itself considering who he is and what he does – then takes a deep breath. As she lets it out, he can see her losing her various masks, until all that's left is- well.

He'd called her brother a war-child, the first time he'd met him. Mongoose as she looks now can't even be called a child.

She's wearing the same expression as when she'd taken her mask off in front of him in Wave – and she looks old. Her eyes are flat, the look in them weary, like she's seen too much, lived through too much.

She's not smiling for once, no mirth in her eyes nor permanent half-smile apparent. In fact, her expression reminds him oddly of his own reflection – perfectly bland, placid. Yet even with her face as relaxed as it is, the frown-lines between her brows are still visible, etched permanently into the skin despite her young age.

Her shoulders have dropped, too, her back no longer straight and proud, but slumped, like she's simultaneously carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and trying to hide from that very world at the same time.

All in all, she looks –

"Tired." Mongoose breathes, and her voice is quieter and deeper than what he's used to. "I feel tired, senpai."

Inosuke wonders whether the bigger achievement is getting the girl to admit that fact to him, or to herself.

Then, he reaches for the bundle of threadbare blanket under his desk and throws it at Mongoose. Perhaps as testament to her words, she doesn't even twitch to catch it, letting the folded blanket land on her lap, letting her gaze drop to it leisurely. Then, she raises her eyes back to him, a single raised eyebrow articulating everything she seemingly can't bring herself to say.

"First port of call." He explains, gesturing to the blanket. "Sleep."

When the girl doesn't react, doesn't so much as move or blink, he adds, "You can summon one of your tigers to guard you, I don't mind."

He gets a quiet scoff in response, and the look in Mongoose's eyes is fond when she speaks next. Fond and wry, and she's not trying to hide either.

"I'm not afraid of you, senpai." She tells him quietly, and it's not snide, just honest, though it still feels like a revelation.

He'd guessed as much over the last few weeks, partly because she has only ever shown mild apprehension or healthy respect towards him, but never fear. Still, having her admit it so frankly is nonetheless novel.

He watches as she slowly raises a hand, almost lethargic, and taps her temple by way of explanation. "I saw Orochimaru threaten my brother and student. I am afraid of what I'll see here."

Inosuke holds back a wince. He should've known that Mongoose's superior experience would supersede the fact that she is the same age as her charges. The fact that her worry and trauma manifest in nightmares, however, is almost painfully familiar.

He sighs, smiling wryly as he considers his next words. "I…could help with that."

Mongoose's eyes widen slightly from where they've dropped to half-mast, and she tilts her head, studying him silently. "I would…appreciate that."

Inosuke starts flickering through the seals for the Bringer of Darkness technique and shoots the girl a measured look.

"Don't fight the genjutsu." He orders, because Mongoose is remarkably sensitive to illusion, all things considered.

"I don't think I could fight a fly at this point, senpai." She murmurs, her eyes cat-like, almost closed save for a small slither of green still watching him intently. Her words come like molasses, soft and slow. "But, point taken."

He completes the final seal and feels the illusion cover the girl like a blanket; there's a momentary, feeble twitch from her chakra network when she feels the genjutsu enter her system, but contrary to his expectations, she allows it to settle, lulling her to sleep.

He gives it a few more seconds, feeling her chakra fall into a slower pattern indicating true sleep, then gets to his feet.

Second port of call: food.

Sakura gets to Ichiraku's at ten to twelve the next day, surprised to find Naruto already there.

She's pleasantly rested, if a little embarrassed upon waking up in the middle of the night in Inosuke's office, only to get a box of cold chicken noodles shoved into her hands from a very unimpressed-looking jounin.

"Fifteen hours." he'd grumbled, then pinned her with a look. "We're not getting into your head until you catch up on the sleep you've missed."

Inosuke had been clear in his instructions afterwards; she was to see him every other day, unless either of them had a mission, or she simply didn't feel like talking that day.

He'd been oddly insistent on that - on her establishing and enforcing boundaries, even with him being her shrink. Sakura... wasn't sure how to deal with that, but she appreciated it nonetheless, especially because she was rather sure she'd make use of that caveat.

Still, she's in a good mood when she approaches Naruto's seat, so she has high hopes for the rest of their sessions.

"Treating yourself to an early lunch?" she teases with a smile when she settles next to the blond, not bothering to hide her amusement at him stuffing his face. "We haven't even started training yet."

"Bwekfasht, shenshei." Naruto corrects her around a mouthful of noodles, and Sakura wrinkles her nose, getting a laugh from Teuchi.

"We're going to fix that." She says shortly, because she's invested in Naruto's wellbeing now, and she's a figure of authority he respects in this timeline, so she might have better chances of driving the importance of a balanced diet home this time.

She waits until Naruto's done then pays for his meal before he has a chance to dig out his wallet, then adamantly ignores his grumbling and protests all the way to the training grounds she'd booked the previous day.

"Stop complaining." She orders shortly, still surprised when Naruto falls silent immediately, looking at her with a mix of excitement and nerves. "I hope you enjoyed that, because it's the last ramen you're going to have for a month."

The way Naruto's eyes widen and his jaw drops almost makes her laugh. He looks so betrayed, she has to fight to keep a straight face.

"I'm in charge of your training, Naruto. All aspects of it, which includes nutrition." She points out simply, and she sees him subside, if only slightly, with a muttered grumble. "Now, make three clones."

That earns her a curious expression. "Just three?" the blond asks, clearly puzzled. "I can do more! I could do thirty and-!"

"Three, Naruto." She repeats, and once again, the flat, no-nonsense tone cuts off any forthcoming protests like a charm. Huh. "I know you can be your own one-man army. What I need to know is whether you have discovered the other benefit of Shadow Clones."

Naruto frowns, but obligingly sets his fingers into the cross seal and feeds it chakra. Five clones appear. It's still better than Sakura had expected, so she waves off Naruto's anxious look with a smile.

"Other benefit, sensei?" he repeats, and Sakura points at two of the clones closest to her.

"Get rid of the other three." She orders simply and waits until there are three 'poofs' of smoke as the clones disperse, before she palms a kunai, keeping it carefully out of Naruto's sight. "Now, concentrate on the one on my left."

Naruto and the clone both send her confused looks, but the real Naruto does quickly turn to his copy and his frown deepens.

"Are you concentrating?" Sakura asks, knows instinctively he's not concentrating on the chakra like she wants him to, but hopefully it'll still be enough.

She gets a determined 'yes, sensei!' in response, and no sooner does the last word leave Naruto's mouth does she whip her hand out, lightning-quick, and slit the clone's throat with her kunai.

The real Naruto's hands fly to his throat and he gags, his chakra surging so violently the other clone pops out of existence and he drops to his knees, staring up at Sakura in disbelief.

"Sensei-!"

"You felt that." Sakura cuts him off, and Naruto nods, looking slightly horrified. "What does that tell you?"

"I don't know. It's never happened before." He replies, sounding panicked. When he sees that she's still looking at him expectantly, he pauses and rises to his feet, expression thoughtful. "I can- feel the clones? When they're killed?"

Sakura nods and flashes him an encouraging smile. "Not just when they're killed. If you concentrate, you can retain the memories of Shadow Clones, both physical and mental. It's why it was labelled a forbidden technique after the Nidaime – not only could one shinobi become a one-man army, he could also, if his control was good enough, master every jutsu in existence simply by having his clones practise while he slept."

Naruto's jaw seems to be hanging by his knees. "I could- I could do that? Would you teach me?"

At that, Sakura can't resist the urge to ruffle his hair.

"Why do you think I'm here, hm?" she asks and the smile he shoots her is so heartbreakingly hopeful, Sakura's carefully-constructed walls and barriers she'd built around herself shudder.

Then, she lets go and steps back. "Right. Two clones this time. And listen well."

Haku is sitting alone on one of the furthest training grounds from the centre of Konohagakure, one which, bizarrely, has a river passing straight through the middle of it. The vapour in the air comforts him, even if only by the cold certainty that he could freeze the water particles at will and likely kill or at the very least stun anyone who tries to sneak up on him.

He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, willing the vicious hyper-vigilance boiling beneath his skin down.

He'd nearly stabbed a senbon into his teammate's eye when she squealed in the middle of the street at the start of the week, her eyes drawn to some trinket in one of the store windows. He'd shot a baleful glare at his temporary sensei, unimpressed at the lack of professionalism, even if his teammates are barely teens and have never been out of the Village before. Ao had at least had the sense to dismiss him without a word, and Haku had found himself here.

The only place in Konohagakure where he could ignore the fact that he felt more comfortable with being a mass-murderer's right-hand man than being with people his own age.

He breathes in again, then freezes when his senses catch another chakra signature in the trees.

"Who's there?" he demands icily, getting to his feet in a flash, chakra already permeating the air and gathering at the tips of his fingers, ready to shoot off his ice senbon at the slightest provocation.

"I'm sorry." A voice, a familiar voice, calls out from the trees, and a moment later, a familiar boy appears on the other side of the river. "I did not mean to disturb you, but I was running by and you seemed...agitated."

"Sai-kun." Haku greets on a sigh, finally letting the tense breath he'd out and feeling a wave of not-quite-relief, but definitely not the unease he'd have felt had it been anyone else.

"It's nice to see you again." Sai murmurs, and though it sounds like a platitude, Haku senses that Sai actually means the words, and he almost smiles.

Then, he realises what Sai has just said, that Sai is his opponent in the final round, that, for all that the other boy had killed Gato and Haku had been so grateful he'd impulsively kissed him on that damn bridge, they're not friends. They're barely acquaintances, yet here he is, dropping his guard around some boy-!

"I'm not here to spy on you, or report on you or anything like that." Sai assures, apparently noticing Haku's inner turmoil and pinning down the reason for it with alarming accuracy. "But I meant what I said - you looked agitated. Are you alright?"

-and Haku feels his suspicion and ire melt away and his shoulders sag, and Sai is suddenly beside him, catching his elbow when his knees buckle.

"Haku?" Sai asks, and the placement of his hand on Haku's elbow reminds Haku of the last time they were in a similar position and he huffs an incredulous laugh, though it's short-lived.

Sai tugs gently on his arm then slowly lowers them both down to the ground so they sit opposite each other, legs crossed, and his hand falls away the moment he seems sure that Haku isn't going to keel over, and Haku finds that a part of him misses the touch as soon as it's gone.

"Are you alright?" Sai repeats, then falls silent, giving Haku a moment to compose himself, and he keeps his hands on his crossed knees, palms up, clearly in Haku's line of sight, which speaks either of his instincts with career shinobi or Haku's apparent jumpiness.

To lie, or not to lie?

He studies Sai, and just like in the clearing where they first met, Sai studies him right back, though he's more obvious about it this time, a tiny smile quirking the corners of his lips when their eyes meet.

Not to.

"In the last ten years," Haku begins slowly, dropping the eye-contact and staring instead at the river next to them, "I've spent every day by Zabuza's side. When we separated - hunting bounties, losing tails, raiding towns for food and supplies - it was never for this long, nor was there ever this much distance between us."

Haku flicks his gaze back to Sai's face, wondering what he's going to find upon having admitted to feeling separation anxiety from an A-Ranked jounin, ex-missing-nin, and one of the Seven, at that, but he doesn't see even a hint of judgement on Sai's face.

"Your unease is understandable." Sai says instead, inclining his head. "I don't do well when separated from my siblings, either."

And Haku can do little but smile, feeling the last of the tension from earlier drain from his muscles.

"Now, not that I am not happy to see you, but we are meant to be fighting each other in the final round." Haku points out, his voice teasing though his curiosity (suspicion) is genuine.

"I don't much care for the promotion." Sai explains easily, offering a shrug at Haku's momentary surprise. "And you likely saw most of my fighting style already, plus I all-but told you how my technique works when I gave you that scroll to write to me."

Sai's eyes flash to him then, gaze sharper than his words would imply, and Haku reads the question in them and winces guiltily.

Why didn't you write?

He deflects instead of answering, because answering would reveal far too many of his issues for what is only, despite how much it doesn't feel like it, their third ever conversation.

"You're far too trusting, Sai-kun." he sighs, smiling wryly when Sai raises an eyebrow at him as if to say 'you're here with me, aren't you?' which is a very polite way to call out Haku's hypocrisy, all things considered.

"It's okay." Sai explains, pulling Haku from his thoughts, and he watches as the artist offers a mirror of his wry smile and a half-shrug. "I'm not going to be using that technique anyway. It's far too...distinctive."

Sai touches his wrist then, and Haku almost doesn't feel the pulse of chakra the other boy lets out. Almost.

He's on-guard in an instant, ice needles crystallizing from the air and falling into his hands with barely a thought, though to the uninitiated, it likely looks like sleight-of-hand with regular senbon.

But all that happens is a tiny, cartoon-like snake that uncoils itself from around Sai's wrist, and falls onto the beaten dirt between them. The placement of the drawing had been like a bracelet or a tattoo, which is why Haku hadn't noticed it earlier.

Silence falls between them, broken only by the quiet hiss of the snake whenever it flicks its tongue.

Haku decides to take a gamble.

"I...also have an ability I would prefer not to use." he says, not looking at Sai, and concentrates, one hand flickering through the seals and the other waving absently between them.

A small ice-mirror appears out of the air when he's done, no bigger than Haku's hand, and Sai's eyes widen when he notices that it's not made of glass but ice.

"Ice-Release?" he breathes, gaze flicking between Haku and the mirror. "You're a Yuki?"

Haku startles, meeting Sai's wide eyes with no small degree of shock.

He hasn't heard his Clan's name in a decade, those in Kiri having either forgotten it or too ashamed to speak it. Not to mention that Sai isn't even from Kiri, and he recognised the technique on sight.

Then, as Haku's marvelling at the boy in front of him, Sai's awe is wiped away, and he gifts Haku with a gentle smile.

"I won't tell a soul." he swears, and Haku can once again tell that he means every word. Then Sai's smile gains an amused edge as he adds; "Though I wouldn't be surprised if aneue already knows. She knows everything."

"She told you what to expect from your opponent in the Preliminaries." Haku recalls, and this time, it's Sai who startles, eyeing him sharply, causing Haku to laugh quietly. "I can recognise Morse code, Sai-kun. Though seeing it used through touch was interesting."

Sai shrugs, a helpless 'what can you do' smile on his face that makes him look boyish and carefree, and his hand falls to Haku's mirror as if unable to help himself, fingers fluttering over the edges of the ice construct with unbridled curiosity and not a hint of fear.

Haku's breath catches.

"Are there any skills you wouldn't mind showcasing?" Sai asks after a few seconds of silence, his expression contemplative, though it's offset by the glint of mischief hiding in his eyes.

"My speed and marksmanship, I suppose." Haku allows slowly, withdrawing his chakra from his ice-mirror when Sai's done with his exploration and letting the water seep into the ground between them, watching idly as Sai does the same with his snake, a black, inky stain appearing on the ground as the snake dissolves.

"Excellent, we're in agreement." At Haku's questioning look, Sai elaborates. "I also possess those skills. And..."

Sai's grin turns a touch feral.

"As it happens, I have been duping my comrades and the Academy sensei as to my real level of skill for the last three and a half years." he confesses. "How do you feel about helping me extend this prank to the whole Village?"

Haku can't help himself - he laughs.

The first week goes by quickly.

Sakura dumps all the books and scrolls on chakra theory and history she'd picked up from the library, as well as some dictionaries and kanji guides, into the arms of one indignant clone, and sets the other on the daunting task of sparring with each other while water-walking.

She puts the real Naruto through a nicer version of ANBU physical aptitude tests.

In other (Kakashi's) words: boot camp.

In her timeline, Naruto had the endurance of his Uzumaki heritage, and the recovery rate granted by his foxy tenant, but even when he'd come back from his travels with Jiraiya, his taijutsu had still been appalling.

After living in ROOT, training with Shin and Shisui, and being on a team with Kakashi, Sakura can simply not let that happen again.

She makes him run around the clearing, do push-ups, sit-ups, squats, hundreds of kicks, punches, dodges and twists and feints and jumps, until his shirt is soaked through with sweat and he hardly has the energy left to glare at her.

Every twenty minutes, she lets him have a break and goes over to the clone tasked with studying, giving it a minute to run around and drop the books, ask questions and complain, before she quizzes it on the content of the scrolls and sets it back to work with a smile and a few encouraging words.

She has a theory, and within that week, it's proven right.

Suddenly, the reason Naruto struggled in the Academy, struggled with basic concepts and always took so long to learn things by conventional means is obvious.

Uzumaki Naruto has ADHD.

Sakura feels like slapping her old self. How could she have missed that? Did her brain just go on a vacation every time she was around the blond after he returned from his travels?

But she doesn't let herself dwell on the past, and instead, makes sure she doesn't let the previous timeline repeat itself.

And every evening, when Sakura calls an end to the practice and drags Naruto's limp, exhausted form to her and Sai's flat, cooks him a balanced meal and quizzes him over what he absorbed from his clones, she reaps the benefits of the allowances she makes when planning his training regimen – he aces every quiz.

When the clones can fight on water just as easily as on the ground, she sets them on katas practice and pulls Naruto over to the river.

"You have all of your clone's memories, so we're going to up the difficulty level." She encourages, hopping lightly onto the surface of the water and turning to face him, expectant, until he joins her. "You'll be fighting me."

Naruto sputters, shocked, but then she's on him, at barely half her usual speed but still more than enough to throw him off, to challenge and discomfit. Naruto dodges, adjusts, and seems to realise she's not actually aiming to hurt him, just wants to test him, and he obediently starts fighting back.

The second week passes like that.

In the third week, Sakura has Naruto make first one, then two, three, five clones, and he adjusts the chakra instinctively now, controlling it in a way she knows he hadn't been before.

"You're Wind and Water natured." She says, and throws a scroll each at two of the five clones standing before her. "Dispel the other three, and let those two start studying the theory for the jutsu I want you to learn." She orders, and Naruto follows without hesitation.

Two weeks into their training, Naruto's chakra control is better than what it had been during the war.

Sakura gestures at him to sit down, and settles down a few feet away, legs crossed and facing the blond.

She smiles wryly.

"I know you are probably wondering why I haven't taught you any jutsu up until now." She says, and Naruto's guilty wince tells her all she needs to know. Sakura waves him off with a laugh. "The reason is simple – I could either teach you one or two jutsu over this month we have, or I could work on your basics, and make jutsu learning ten times easier for you from here on out."

Naruto's eyes widen.

"Chakra control is the foundation of elemental manipulation, and any and all techniques which require chakra. Because of your… unique circumstances, your Academy career was less helpful for your development than it's normally supposed to be." Naruto looks away at that, embarrassed and visibly upset, but Sakura flings a senbon at his hitai-ate, startling the teen enough to meet her gaze.

"That was not your fault." She insists, holding Naruto's eyes until he nods hesitantly. "If I didn't know that it would get me locked up, I'd throttle the Sandaime for letting it happen."

And Naruto must see the truth of the statement in her eyes, because he laughs, startled, his eyes glassier than usual.

"But right now, Naruto, your chakra control is better than Sasuke's." she tells him simply, and sees the moment her words register.

"You mean-!? I could match him now?!" he exclaims, ecstatic and disbelieving at once.

Sakura smiles. "You're still slower and your throwing accuracy needs a bit more work, but in terms of jutsu learning, you can easily match, if not beat him."

Naruto looks like she just told him he's going to be inaugurated as Godaime tomorrow.

"Which brings me on to what I want to concentrate on for the second half of our month together." Sakura starts, and she knows she's wading into dangerous waters now, but she can't resist, not when she knows what's coming for them, or how much his victory over Neji meant to Naruto.

"Your clones are both working on two elementary Wind ninjutsu which should help you in long-distance combat." She continues, and sees the moment Naruto forces himself to concentrate on what she's telling him. "You, however, are going to be doing something slightly different."

Sakura reaches into her bag and pulls out a pack of balloons and one filled with water she'd brought already. She smiles.

"Tell me, Naruto," she chucks him the water balloon, "what do you know about the Yondaime?"

Jiraiya watches his godson scowl, Kushina's expression painted on a face that's almost a mirror-image of Minato's, and wonders how Hatake deals with the ghosts reflected in the boy.

"Nuh-uh, no way! I'm not goin' nowhere with you, mister! I've got a-!"

"Naruto."

The voice that cuts the blond off is quiet, soft, yet it commands attention at once, and Jiraiya twists, glancing over his shoulder and doing a double-take at what he finds.

"Sensei!" Naruto cheers, bounding over to the girl's side, his earlier annoyance forgotten. "This creepy old dude was trying to get me to go with him somewhere! Tell him to shove it!"

Jiraiya inwardly despairs, but can't help but arch an eyebrow when the girl casts him an assessing glance, emerald eyes flat and betraying nothing, then digs a hand into her pocket, pulling out a small, nondescript wallet.

"Go buy us lunch, please. High protein, low sodium. You can pick a dessert, as well." she instructs, managing a smile for his godson as she holds the money out to him, waiting until he takes it with an embarrassed flush.

"But sensei, I can pay for my-!" a single look from the girl cuts him off, and, to Jiraiya's surprise, he subsides with a grumble, turning in the direction of the nearby food store, but not before sticking his tongue at Jiraiya over his shoulder.

"That's a tight leash you've got the boy on." He observes, glancing away from his godson to the mysterious newcomer once Naruto disappears from sight. "And I notice you didn't correct his jab about me being 'creepy'."

The girl levels him with a look, the earlier smile gone yet her expression somehow still perfectly polite, though Jiraiya feels ill-at-ease.

"You are loitering outside an onsen, asking a young boy about his personal details and telling him to come with you somewhere. To most people, his assessment would be accurate." She announces, and the matter-of-fact tone would normally make Jiraiya splutter, but he grasps onto the words with an assessing look of his own.

"I take it you are not most people, then?" he asks, and lets his eyes take in the odd girl.

She doesn't look like much: short, pink hair, intelligent green eyes, and a fairly nondescript outfit. The most interesting part is that her hands and forearms covered by black, finger-less gloves, and instead of the standard ninja sandals, she wears heavy boots laced up to mid-calf.

The most disconcerting thing is how young she looks.

Then, she arches a brow.

"We are talking civilly, no?" she demands, a hint of ice in her voice now. "If I thought you were a threat to Naruto's well-being, this conversation wouldn't be happening."

Oh-ho-ho! How intriguing. Her tone lets Jiraiya know that she means every word.

"How refreshingly direct!" he cheers, the glee not entirely faked. "But you might want to tell him about his Village's history. I offered to teach him some techniques, and he turned me down."

While she is doubtless young, there's a certain look in her eyes that makes Jiraiya feel like he's dealing with an old soul. And he has no doubt she knows exactly who he is, which should be enough for her to understand why Naruto doing what he did was wrong.

Instead, she quirks a half-smile, eyebrow still firmly raised.

"I would hazard that it was more due to the fact that he already has a teacher than any slight to you, personally." she points out, bland as butter, and Jiraiya doesn't bother masking his surprise.

"He does? But Hatake is training the Uchiha." he says, and the smile turns wry, and, if Jiraiya is not mistaken, mocking.

"Mm. Yet another reason I didn't correct Naruto's... assumption about your character." she replies, a propos nothing, and Jiraiya has to think for a moment to realise what she's referring to. "Who his sensei is training matters little. The fact of the matter is that I was entrusted with Naruto's training, and I will see it fulfilled."

"You?" Jiraiya demands before he can stop himself, giving the girl a critical once-over. "Don't take it personally, but I am a Sannin. I could teach the boy more than you can dream of."

Instead of offence, what he finds in those flat eyes is annoyance.

"Naruto has flashy techniques aplenty in his arsenal already." she informs him, and it's far sharper than her previous words. "What he needs is control. In that respect, I believe I am better suited to his needs."

Then, she pauses, and her eyes narrow, pinning Jiraiya with an unimpressed glare.

"Besides, you already abandoned him once. I am not running the risk of that happening again."

Jiraiya freezes.

"Apparently," he begins, once he finds his voice, and his earlier good humour is gone, a seriousness even he can acknowledge is uncharacteristic for him taking its place, "it's not just the blond brat that needs to learn a little respect."

The girl snorts derisively.

"I respect those who earn my respect." she tells him sharply, her glare not easing in the least, and Jiraiya has not been on the receiving end of such a look from a complete stranger for three decades.

"Listen, girl," he snaps, losing patience, "I was protecting Konoha decades before you were even born. Dial down that attitude and learn your history."

"I know my history perfectly well." she shoots back, and the earlier ire is gone, and that bland expression is back, only her eyes are still mocking him, and it's a look Jiraiya hasn't had directed at him since Orochimaru. "And if we were talking shortly after the Second War, you'd have had my respect. As it is, the man who stands before me isn't the shinobi who fought Hanzo the Salamander. He isn't even a member of the best combat unit the Village had ever seen."

Her eyes sweep over him, and the mocking expression is almost sad for just a moment, then she meets his gaze and shakes her head.

"A title alone holds no weight if it isn't upheld."

She could've slapped him, and it'd have shaken Jiraiya less than her words. He stands there, gaping, her words reverberating in his head, cutting deeper than any blade, but the girl isn't done. Those empty emerald eyes have pinned him down, and her voice is bland but cutting, aimed to hurt, as she muses:

"It's not like the great Sannin even defeated Hanzo, is it? He let you live. And suddenly, it was like you got your title, and instead of improving your skills further, you got good at running away. You saw what following orders at wartime can do to innocent bystanders and you ran away. You couldn't keep your only student alive so you bailed, even knowing that he'd awarded you the honour of being his new-born son's godfather. Where were you during the Third War, Jiraiya-sama?" she asks, but she doesn't even give him a second to try and formulate an answer before she continues.

"I'm surprised, you know. I'd have thought that Naruto would fit the profile of the type of students you seem to take on to a T." when he tenses, her eyes seem to sparkle, but there's no joy in the expression. Instead, she pretends to take his shock as lack of understanding and widens her eyes, adopting a guileless, innocent expression.

"You know, what with him being orphaned, ostracized, with a lofty goal and a bucketload of natural talent that requires little more than a guiding hand and somebody to believe in him...But I guess I was wrong." She shrugs then, the motion the cherry on top of a cake of disrespect, the conclusion to the performance she just gave.

Jiraiya straightens, looming over this slip of a girl, and when he speaks next, his voice is low, dangerous. Demanding. "What do you know?"

To his continued surprise, the mask cracks and the girl smirks.

"Ask your sensei, oh great Jiraiya-sama, about what rose from the ashes of burning roots when Shimura fell." She croons, just as quiet as him, not appearing in the least intimidated by his appearance. "You'll have your answer then. And stay the hell away from Naruto. You do not deserve the honour of being a part of his life."

"I can give him a link to his family." Jiraiya points out, because that was partly why he came back in the first place when sensei called him. "I can teach him his father's techniques."

The girl's mocking expression doesn't fade, and it raises even more alarm bells that she seems to know exactly who and what he's talking about. She shouldn't know this, not when she doesn't seem all that much older than his godson, and yet-!

"I've been Hatake Kakashi's direct subordinate for the last four years." She says, a propos nothing, then turns away, and Jiraiya belatedly realises that Naruto has exited the shop, a heavy-looking brown paper bag in his arm.

The fact that she's had her back to the shop the whole time, yet senses Naruto before Jiraiya sees him tells him she's been far more on-edge during their conversation than her countenance would've led him to believe.

She shoots him a look over her shoulder, meeting his eyes with a sardonic smile, and adds, "At this point, so can I."

Then, she takes two more steps, reaches Naruto, and lays a hand on his shoulder. With no hand seals, no smoke, nor even the barest rustle of leaves, they disappear without a trace.

Jiraiya blinks, wipes away the scowl on his face, and heads for the Hokage's office.

Naruto whoops excitedly as he spots Kiba and Shikamaru on the edges of the Nara forest and doesn't quite race to them, but certainly picks up his pace.

Sakura-sensei gave him the morning off, and he can feel himself radiating with excitement at being able to catch up with the other Rookies, even if one of them is Kiba.

Sensei had been…weird after the white-haired guy. She felt wrong; cold and empty, even more closed-off than usual, and her voice had sounded…hollow. She seemed to snap out of it after a few hours, seeing him off to his apartment with a smile and a pat on the shoulder and the promise of a half-day instead of their usual gruelling ten hours training.

He bites back a grin when Shikamaru sees him and rolls his eyes, and activates the technique Sakura-sensei had been teaching his clone.

Just because he's not officially training doesn't mean he shouldn't do anything. Particularly if it can result in a prank on Kiba.

Kiba had known that there was something not quite right with Team 7.

Sasuke had been a monumental jerk in the Academy, all vengeance and brooding and scowls for miles. Naruto had been the dead-last, always loud and annoying, even if some of his pranks had showed hints of genius. And Sai had made Kiba's hackles rise since the day he joined the Academy in Third Year, and the only way Kiba could really justify it was that there was something distinctly superficial to the boy. Then there was the fact that he paid even less attention in class than Shikamaru, always drawing or reading, yet always managed to have upper-average scores.

[There was one time that Kiba remembers, when he thought to cheat off Sai. The raven didn't seem like somebody who'd care about others copying his work, nor was he even deigning to address Kiba's blatant attempts at reading his paper. And Kiba– well. He saw an opportunity and he took it.

He remembers the question; your opponent is hidden in a tree. five metres above ground. Your task is to force them to come down. Calculate the quantity and trajectory of the kunai needed to accomplish your task. The crude illustration by the question added some more details, but what had struck Kiba more was Sai's answer: the boy had crossed the last sentence of the task out and wrote in the answer box; 'burn down the tree'.

Kiba remembers recoiling, startling Akamaru, and drawing Iruka's ire for 'disturbing exam conditions', but he hadn't been able to look at the boy quite the same way since.]

But now, something is different.

He's looking at Naruto chatting with Shikamaru, and for the first time since he's known him, the blond isn't wearing orange. He's in a surprisingly practical pair of brown pants and a green jacket with more pockets than Kiba would know what to do with, and there's something in his posture that's not sitting right with the Inuzuka.

Then, there are his teachers.

Hatake Kakashi had been someone Kiba had heard of, by virtue of being one of the few shinobi left in Konoha who could come close to understanding the Inuzuka's bond with their ninken, but the first time he'd met him, on that balcony in the Preliminaries, the man had reeked of blood and ozone and gore so badly Kiba had almost gagged. Yet he seemed unfazed, unruffled, and casually chatted and teased his team and a girl who Kiba later found out was his team's assistant sensei.

Because clearly, Team 7 wasn't weird enough already.

If Sai sets his teeth on edge, the girl is even worse. She triggers Kiba's fight-or-flight instinct like few other things he's ever encountered, save for maybe his mother's anger or Kuromaru's growl, and all his senses are screaming at him that what he's seeing is an apex predator.

Yet what he's actually seeing is a girl who is probably no more than a few months older than him, yet who's somehow a chunin, with enough renown to be an assistant sensei for Hatake Kakashi and have Uchiha Sasuke respect her.

Something is definitely not quite right with Team 7.

But it takes the girl's sudden appearance at the edge of the Nara Forest and a quiet call of 'Naruto', for Kiba to understand what.

Akamaru whines.

His mother twitches.

Shikamaru's dad doesn't quite jolt, but his hands drift together in a way that would've been casual, if his eyes hadn't immediately zeroed in on the newcomer.

The girl snuck up on two Clan Heads. She may be a chunin, but Kiba's mother is a jounin and the best tracker in Konoha, and Shikamaru's dad is the owner of the lands they're on.

She shouldn't have been able to do it.

"Sakura-sensei! I was just going to find you!" he says sheepishly, and Kiba is surprised by the almost fond look that crosses the girl's face.

"I'm sure you were." She acquiesces, then holds out a hand to stop Naruto when he moves to rise, heading instead towards the two adults at the table.

Kiba watches as she talks to his mother, her words oddly baffled, her back to the three of them so he can't see her expression, but his mother's and Shikamaru's father's faces are perfectly visible still, and Kiba doesn't like what he's seeing on them.

Then, after some two minutes, the girl turns around, her face perfectly bland, and beckons Naruto with an impatient wave. "Come on. Play time's over."

Naruto grumbles but obligingly waves to Shikamaru and grins at Kiba, but it's not until he jogs past Kiba that he realises what, exactly, is wrong.

He can't smell Naruto.

Even the bizarre stench of rage and death that always accompanies his chakra is gone.

Once his friend disappears from view, Kiba turns wide eyes on his mother. She, however, seems to be having a wordless conversation with Shikamaru's dad, that ends once she notices Kiba looking.

"So you noticed, huh?" she asks, and her nose wrinkles in a way Kiba has long learned to associate with 'bad news'.

"I couldn't smell Naruto." Kiba admits, and his mother just nods, like she expected that.

"Both he and the girl were scent-blocking." she tells him, and Kiba had guessed as much, but that doesn't change the fact that scent-blocking is a jounin-level skill.

From Naruto's piecemeal explanation, he'd gathered that their assistant sensei had joined the team a few weeks after their first C-Rank, so only about two months or so before the Chunin Exams, then Hatake had assigned her as Naruto's trainer for the second stage.

And Kiba knows that Naruto's not stupid despite what his test scores might've implied, and he can grudgingly admit that he'd gone into their Preliminary match overconfident and underestimating the blond, but.

But.

Naruto is wearing neutral colours. He's masking his chakra and his scent. He's listening to those around him instead of talking over everyone. That's growth, and at a rate that alarms Kiba more than he can reasonably explain.

"His sensei," he begins, hesitating, even though the words feel right, "she's not...normal, is she? Even for chunin?"

His mother looks at him, really looks, while Shikamaru and his dad seem to be having a silent conversation of their own.

"You might even have a better nose than Hana." is what his mother says at last and Kiba jolts, surprised at the observation and resists the urge to preen. "I can't tell you more because I don't know more myself."

"What did she say to you?" he asks instead, pushing down the sting of disappointment. "You looked..." like you were going to cry, he thinks, but doesn't say, though his mom must be able to read the words on his face because she bares her teeth, not quite a threat but also decidedly not a smile.

"Don't finish that sentence, brat." she warns him, but her voice wobbles tellingly and she pulls something out of her pocket and unwinds it carefully. "She gave me something I thought long lost."

Kiba squints, and he can just about make out a canine tooth wrapped in leather cord, like a makeshift necklace.

"I'll be having tea with her tomorrow." His mother tells him, a propos nothing. "If you think you can handle it, you can be there."

Team Seven's weirdness aside, the most concerning fact for Kiba is that, with barely a few murmured words, the girl had managed to bring his mother to the verge of tears, and her posture had never changed.

He's definitely coming for tea tomorrow.

The next day, Kiba stays at the Compound, playing with the puppies and helping Hana around the clinic until his mother calls him in to the house to help with the tea.

When there's a knock on the door, he stands at his mother's elbow when she goes to open the door and let their visitor in, and for the first time since he's known her, Team 7's sensei feels human.

Her face is still blank, but she's not scent-blocking, likely aware how rude that would be on the territory of a Clan of trackers, and Kiba can smell how nervous she is at the prospect of this meeting, even though externally, she just nods respectfully and steps into the house when invited, the very picture of calm.

Tsume leads them to the sitting room and settles on the sofa, and, when he doesn't get snarled at, Kiba perches uneasily beside her, while their guest takes the armchair on the other side of the coffee table.

They all studiously ignore the tea.

"Thank you for having me." the girl - Kiba's peer, and yet not, and that stings - murmurs, her voice quiet, posture demure, and it's not an act, Kiba realises with a jolt.

"Thank you for coming." His mother replies, unusually cordial, and barely two sentences in, things have already stopped making sense. "I didn't think you would."

Sakura(-sensei? -san?) smiles, but it's wry and humourless.

"You might want to hold off on thanking me until you ask all your questions, Tsume-sama." she advises, and despite the words sounding snide, there's nothing but honesty and a tinge of sadness in her scent.

Something in his mom's countenance softens almost imperceptibly at that, yet when she speaks, her voice betrays nothing.

"All I want to know, is how you came to have the tooth of the ninken of a Clan member I'd thought dead for over a decade." Tsume says simply, yet there's a weight behind the words that makes Kiba's hackles rise. "We looked everywhere. Got the Uchiha involved and everything. A Clan of trackers couldn't find her."

"You didn't look underground." is the response she gets, and Kiba wants to bristle, wants to defend, but there must've been some hidden meaning in the girl's words because his mother pales.

"No..." she breathes, eyes wide, and Kuromaru looks between his partner and the unknown chunin with the same confusion Kiba is feeling. Confusion that only grows when Kiba's mom manages a sharp "Who are you?"

Sakura closes her eyes for a second, and the expression on her face is so full of regret that something in Kiba aches, before she speaks.

"Tsume-sama...what I'm about to tell you is classified at the highest levels. Are you sure you want your son to...?" she trails off tactfully, and Tsume doesn't even glance at Kiba when she replies.

"If he babbles, I'll punish him myself." she promises coldly, and Kiba flinches, trying not to let himself show how betrayed he feels, then the girl's words fully register.

Classified at the highest levels.

He revaluates.

Sakura manages a small, surprised smile, though her scent gets even sadder, if possible.

"It's not my safety I'm worried about." she denies, and his mom snaps to attention.

"He stays." she announces simply. "Tell me everything."

The girl takes a deep, fortifying breath, and does.

"My name is Sakura. I am twelve years old. I am a chunin of Konohagakure and the assistant sensei of Team Seven." she begins, and even with that brief introduction, Kiba is floored. "And before that, I was part of Shimura Danzo's ROOT." she continues, and his mother freezes.

What's ROOT? Kiba wants to ask, because it sounds significant but he doesn't know, yet he's sure that his mother will flay him alive if he dares open his mouth.

Sakura must read the frustration on his face because she smiles slightly and answers the unspoken question.

"Shimura Danzo was the Sandaime's genin teammate and was on Konohagakure's Council of Elders for many years before he was...disgraced." she explains, and that gives Kiba some context but still no answer.

"He...didn't appreciate the 'nice Village' reputation Konoha had earned after the wars, so he started his own organisation. One he tasked with ensuring nobody thought to equate mercy with powerlessness. One that eliminated threats before they had a chance to become threats. It was like his own private ANBU, all above-board at the beginning, and he ran it for well on thirty years right under the Hokages' noses."

"Who did he hire?" Kiba asks, unable to stop himself despite his mother's warning growl. "If the Hokage didn't know about it, he couldn't have just used normal mission rota."

Sakura shrugs.

"People who'd strayed. Who'd grown disillusioned. Nameless, Clanless orphans. People nobody would miss should they never return." she replies, and Kiba's blood grows cold.

"He was a man who lived and breathed war. He thought peace was an illusion, a time for shinobi to grow lazy and undisciplined." she takes another deep breath. "He developed a conditioning program. Loyalty was expected. Disobedience was punished, harshly. There was never a true 'safety'. Defective tools were...discarded."

Sakura's voice is hollow, her scent a horrifying mix of sadangryviciousheartbroken, her eyes empty, and Kiba is frozen in fear at how easily the words pass her lips.

"You gained security if you were useful. If you wielded a unique jutsu or if you got on Shimura's personal guard rotation, or successfully infiltrated the Hokage's ANBU guard. There were also...tests."

Unconsciously, Kiba's hand seeks out his mother's for comfort, for support, for something to distract from the horror story of a life unfolding before them. Instead of flinching back or growling at him, Tsume squeezes back immediately.

"When you were first recruited, you were assigned a mask and a partner. Someone you were supposed to share a bunk with, train with, spend every moment not on missions with. It was meant to be your closest bond in the organisation, even if you would seldom see them without their mask." she pauses, closes her eyes, and seems to offer a silent prayer before she continues, eyes still closed. "And then, once you were ready to prove yourself, or Danzo decided that it was time to complete your conditioning, you would fight them. To the death."

Kiba whines.

Sakura doesn't seem to notice.

"By severing the only bond you were permitted to have, you would've voluntarily chosen the unfeeling blankness granted by the conditioning, just so you wouldn't break. That way, you could keep going, and Danzo gained perfect, emotionless shinobi, who'd stop at nothing to complete the missions assigned to them, because they had nothing to come back to."

She pauses, opens her eyes, and her next breath catches in her throat.

"That's how your clansman died." she finishes, her voice dull and her expression empty as she gazes at Tsume. "I killed her."

His mother's exhale stutters on a sob, then she lets go of Kiba's hand and rises to her feet, and Sakura flinches back but stays in place, eyes downcast, clearly expecting violence yet making herself just sit there and take it.

Kiba is too frozen to move, stuck in the same position as he was on the sofa, and that grants him the perfect view of the girl's face when his mother, instead of striking her as she so clearly expects, drops to her knees beside the armchair and envelops her in an embrace.

Sakura's eyes widen, her mouth drops open, and she seems so shocked at the simple gesture of kindness that Kiba wants to look away, but he can't.

He wishes, absently, that he'd left when he was given the opportunity.

"But you are not emotionless." His mom points out after a few seconds, letting go and returning to Kiba's side, and Kiba knows what she's referring to, even though Sakura seems surprised at the observation. "You feel, and you feel strongly."

"I... the conditioning didn't take properly with me." she admits, although it seems reluctant. "The final test works off the assumption that you have nothing, no-one else. But I did. I found a family in those dungeons. We kept each other sane, gave each other something more to think and care about than just surviving."

"Sai." Kiba breathes, and the epiphany hits him with all the subtlety of a thunderclap.

Shock colours Sakura's face, but she doesn't deny it.

"Yes." she agrees slowly, and Kiba feels something in him jolt. "You're right."

"He-" Kiba swallows, has to force the words out. "He was- there? With you?"

"He was." she admits.

"The pale kid." his mom realises. "On Hatake's team. Looks like an Uchiha?"

"That's him." Sakura nods.

Kiba's mom looks torn between regret and concern.

"They let an ex-ROOT join the Academy?" she asks, and Kiba doesn't think he imagines the protective tone in her voice.

Head of their Clan she may be, but she's his mother first. If anything, Sakura just looks vindictively satisfied at the question.

"It was my price for information." she tells Tsume, her voice hard, the demure mien sharpening for a moment, and that must mean something more to his mom than it does to Kiba, because she freezes.

"You weren't just in ROOT, were you?" she asks slowly, as if weighing every word, her eyes narrow and thoughtful and concerned and disbelieving all at once. "You brought it down."

There's a moment where Kiba thinks Sakura's going to deny it. There's a moment he hopes she'll deny it.

But Sakura's face smooths out save for the frown that seems to be permanently etched on her young face.

"Less than ten people know about that part, Tsume-sama." she warns, concern for Tsume, for Kiba, when her gaze flickers to him, clear in her eyes. "Be careful who you tell."

The warning doesn't sit right with Kiba. Creepy guy Danzo-what's-his-face was dead, wasn't he? Why the secrecy? Why the distrust?

Then, his eyes catch the rapid-fire movements of Sakura's fingers of the hand she had resting on her lap, and a quick glance at his mom confirms that she'd noticed it before him.

The dawning expression of horror on his mother's face doesn't fill him with any confidence, however. When he looks back at Sakura's hands, her fingers are still, and her frown has smoothed out into a small, worried smile.

"Of course." his mom manages, her voice hoarse, before she clears her throat and tries again. "Of course we'll be careful."

Sakura nods, and then, clearly taking that as a dismissal, gets to her feet.

"Wait-!" Tsume calls, also rising. She makes her way around the coffee table, stopping inches away from the girl, and smiles weakly. "My Compound and my house are open to you and your family whenever you want. Thank you for bringing a piece of my kin back to me."

And Kiba watches as his mother reaches out, slowly, so as not to spook, like she does with the feral ninken, giving the girl enough time to back away should she want to, and draws Sakura to her chest, holding the girl close.

Kiba keeps his eyes on the girl, because her face screws up and she squeezes her eyes shut, though she doesn't cry. She stands perfectly still for a few seconds, then, slowly, almost as if she's not sure she's allowed, she wraps her arms around Tsume's waist and fists the back of her shirt, burying her face in Tsume's shoulder.

She doesn't cry; her breathing stays deep and even, and Kiba can't smell her tears – but he can smell the wave of sadness and grief that crashes into her like a tsunami, and he wonders how she manages to keep it hidden.

Then he realises that he'd rather not know.

At six days until the final stage, Naruto has almost managed to keep the Rasengan going for a solid three seconds, Sakura's seen Inosuke about a dozen times since her impromptu nap at his office, Sai is out of the house more often than he's in, and Shin is splitting his time between his kenjutsu apprenticeship and helping out Kakashi with Sasuke's training.

It's probably why Sakura doesn't think much of it when neither of her brothers come back home for the night.

Around three in the morning, there's the sound of frantic knocking on her bedroom window, and Sakura snaps awake, getting to her feet, kunai in her hand before she's consciously aware of reaching for it.

Yugao's on the outside windowsill, looking like she'd ran all the way to Sakura's place, face drawn, eyes visibly red-rimmed even from afar, and tear-tracks glistening on her cheeks.

Sakura feels her stomach drop and rushes to push the window open, but Yugao doesn't make a single move to get in, merely panting out four words Sakura had hoped never to hear again.

"Shin's in the hospital."

Chapter 26: closure

Chapter Text

They get into the hospital room through the window, as Sakura doesn't look like she has the patience to go through the proper route, and respecting hospital admin isn't on the list of Yugao's priorities at the moment.

The second they're inside, Sakura heads for the clipboard at the foot of Shin's bed, eyes scanning the illegible scribbles on the page with far more comprehension than Yugao would've expected.

"Penetrating abdominal trauma, hematoma in the right thigh, mild tissue destruction in both hands and feet, mild concussion," Sakura mumbles, frowning at the paper. "AIS Three, but they ran an ECG, CT scan, blood panel and urinalysis… Senpai, was he electrocuted?"

"They seemed to think so because of the burns on his hands." Yugao explains, slumping into the chair at Hayate's bedside and reaching out to hold his limp hand, running her thumb over his knuckles anxiously. "But I don't know what the verdict was."

"Looks like his skin was burned at the point of contact but his internal organs don't show signs of electrocution." Sakura mutters, frowning, then drops the clipboard and moves closer to Shin, green-glowing hand settling on his forehead. "Do you know what happened?"

"Hayate was on guard duty." Yugao sighs, propping her other elbow on the mattress and dropping her head onto her hand while her eyes traced over Hayate's still features. "Shin was staying at ours' after training. About an hour ago, he ran into my room, told me to alert the hospital, and jumped out the window. ANBU patrol found them, and the body of a Sand jounin."

Sakura's head snaps up at that, a sudden look of recognition in her eyes as they fall to Hayate, before she smooths her expression into something more sympathetic. "And how's Hayate-san?"

"He's badly cut-up." Yugao admits, too tired and stressed to sugar-coat her words. "The medics put him in a medical coma, but they seem confident he'll pull through."

When Sakura simply nods, seemingly content for the silence to settle between them, Yugao voices what's been bugging her since she recovered from the white-hot terror upon seeing her fiancé on the brink of bleeding out.

"You never told me Shin's a sensor." It doesn't quite come out as accusative, because she isn't mad about it per se, but whatever Sakura hears in her voice is enough for her to tilt her head and frown, glancing from Yugao to Shin's unconscious face.

"Is he a sensor?" she asks, seemingly unsure, and it's Yugao's turn to blink.

"He sensed Hayate from halfway across the Village." She says slowly. "I'm a decent sensor, but that sort of range is usually reserved for the Yamanaka or Senju."

Then, when Sakura's frown doesn't ease and she continues to contemplate Shin's sleeping face, Yugao feels the pieces slot together in her mind. "Wait, you didn't know?"

"We never called it by name." Sakura replies with a shrug, turning away from Shin to shoot her a wan smile. "Remember, senpai, that we came from ROOT. The standards for excellence were much higher there. The fact that Shin always knew where we were wasn't really questioned. It was just… a fact of life, you know?"

A fact of life. Yugao repeats in the privacy of her mind, too tired to really be as disbelieving or hysterical as the blasé admission would usually require. Sure, yeah, alright.

"Do you know his range?" she asks instead, after she wrenches her thought process away from Sakura's complete dismissal of the sheer skill needed to do what Shin did.

"Not really." The girl admits, frowning at the wall. "But, if you recall, he did track me to Kumo once, that time with fake agent Lizard."

Whatever Yugao could've said to that is interrupted by the door suddenly opening. Genma rushes through, eyes falling on Hayate with concern, then flickering to Yugao with sympathy, but he freezes when his gaze lands on Sakura.

Then, an ugly sneer twists his face, one Yugao hasn't seen on the man in years, and he shakes his head, stepping back through the door just as quickly as he'd come in.

"I'll be back when she leaves." He throws over his shoulder, then shuts the door behind himself, not quite slamming it because they're still in the hospital but making his displeasure clear nonetheless.

Yugao sighs, tired and exasperated, but when she glances at Sakura, something apologetic or commiserating on the tip of her tongue, the girl is staring at the door, mouth slightly agape and eyes wide and confused and hurt.

"Um," she asks, her voice breaking on the word, and she blinks rapidly, and Yugao realises with a start that her eyes are glistening, "what was, um, that about?"

She doesn't know. Yugao realises with a start, a realisation which is immediately followed by, Genma, you idiot.

"Sakura do you… know about Aoba?" she asks carefully, and Sakura blinks again, though she raises a hand to wipe at her eyes before any tears can fall.

"Who?"

That answers that, I suppose.

"Aoba. Yamashiro Aoba." Yugao explains with a sigh, scrubbing a hand down her face. "One of Genma's closest friends."

"…Okay?" Sakura mumbles, still sounding confused, eyes wide and shining still, and Yugao's struck by how young she looks in that moment.

Shit, most of the time she also forgets the kid is twelve, Crow was right.

"Aoba is, or was, also known as agent Bat." Yugao tells her, and it takes a second before the realisation hits, but when it does, Sakura freezes. "Genma's been avoiding you for a few weeks at this point, since Aoba's demotion was announced."

"I've been busy." The girl hedges, clearly hearing the indirect accusation beneath the words and not meeting Yugao's gaze for the first time in years. "But why is he mad? Does he think I reported Bat- sorry, Aoba- to, what, to…spite him?"

"I don't know what he thinks." Yugao admits flatly, stifling a yawn and squeezing Hayate's hand for comfort. "But apparently, you reported Aoba right after Gen tried to warn you off Wolf."

"That's a coincidence." Sakura defends, and she sounds annoyed now, the earlier hurt replaced with defensiveness. "I reported Bat because he intentionally allowed a comrade to get hurt."

"Yamashiro's younger sister was on your Yamanaka's genin team." A quiet, hoarse voice interrupts them. Both of them startle, heads jerking to where Shin is lying, blinking blearily and wincing at the bright light that came on when Genma opened the door.

"I'm so fuckin' sick of hospitals." He mutters immediately after, and that's enough to jar Sakura into motion.

"Shin!" She exclaims, moving to rush to his side, though she jerks to a stop as his words register, turning to Yugao with wide, questioning eyes.

Yugao herself just nods, because while it's not exactly common knowledge, Shin is right.

Sakura frowns, seeming deep in thought, then she visibly shakes her musings off and heads to Shin's side, reaching for his forehead again.

"How're you feeling?" she asks quietly, smoothing his hair back in a way that strikes Yugao as oddly maternal before she shakes the thought off.

"Like I ended up on the wrong end of a Wind jutsu and got thrown through a concrete wall." Shin grumps, closing his eyes under Sakura's ministrations.

"And the electrocution?"

"It…went through me, I think." Shin offers, voice softer than Yugao's used to. "I've seen what Hatake's technique can do, and I definitely don't feel like I got hit with something like that."

"You can call him by his name, you know." Yugao cuts in when Sakura just hums, and even to her ears, she sounds exasperated, though she shoots Shin an amused look. "You two are friends."

"Yugao-san, don't kick a man when he's down." Shin grouches at her, a whiny note in his voice, though he doesn't open his eyes. "And don't say that about Hatake and me. I'd throw him off the Hokage Mountain for a dango stick."

Yugao rolls her eyes, exchanging a look with Sakura, though the girl appears more amused than annoyed even as she cuffs Shin over the head lightly.

"What even happened? Has anyone taken a report?" she asks, and Shin cracks his eyes open to squint at her, though he doesn't even pretend that her strike hurt.

"Yeah, an ANBU took my report before I passed out." He studies Sakura for a second, then sighs, clearly reading something from her non-expression. "I felt shishou's SOS signal, so I told Yugao-san to alert the hospital and ran to help. Killed the Suna-nin before he could kill shishou, then engaged the other shinobi when shishou passed out. Got a Raiton thrown at me, then, when that didn't work, a Wind jutsu strong enough to throw me clean through the wall, as I already said."

"Did you get a look at the other man's face?" Sakura checks, moving away from Shin to stand against the wall closest to the window. Shin seems to relax more against his pillows at the regained space and he looks grateful.

"No. He stayed in the shadow then melted into mud before I could." Shin gives Sakura a look at that which Yugao can't read, but Sakura seems to understand, if the way she pales is any indication.

Silent communication appears to pass between the siblings, then Sakura shakes her head and smiles wryly.

"Do I need to give you a lecture about running into danger without backup?" she asks instead of addressing whatever she's just learned, her tone idle, but the look in her eyes anything but.

Yugao thinks she's teasing, but…it's Sakura.

Shin snorts, waving a dismissive hand, looking like he's already feeling better. "Speed was of essence. Besides, it was Hayate-shishou. What was I supposed to do, wait for ANBU to get their shit together? He could've died."

Yugao thinks that's a reasonable explanation as far as 'rushing into danger alone' goes, but even if it wasn't, she's not about to complain about the fact that Shin's intervention likely saved Hayate's life.

She turns to smile at Sakura, but the girl has frozen, staring at Shin like she's seeing him for the first time.

Yugao is watching her as it happens, which is the only reason she realises the extent of the change – one moment, Sakura looks surprised, but still visibly worried. The next, all expression is wiped from her face as if it was never there.

As Yugao watches, her gaze grows flat, the jade as cold and hard as the gem it resembles. Her face becomes eerily blank, more mask-like than her actual mask, and the worry and surprise disappear from her eyes until there's simply nothing.

For a moment, Sakura's still, no emotion to be found on her face or in her posture.

And then, there's rage.

"You gave me," she hisses suddenly, her voice low and dangerous, and the drastic change appears to startle Shin, "so much shit – me and Inu – for getting attached."

She's staring at Shin, no warmth or sympathy in her eyes, and Yugao watches as Shin twitches at the word Inu, and despite his weakened state, appears to put his guard up, visibly wary.

"So. Much. Shit." Sakura – or whatever facet of her Yugao is currently witnessing – repeats, and her voice, despite the low tone, is chillingly cold and biting. "And now what?"

She studies Shin for a beat, utterly still, and Yugao feels like she ought to interfere in the sibling conflict, maybe step in and distract Sakura, because she's getting the disquieting impression that she's contemplating hurting Shin.

But whatever god of wrath and distilled violence appears to be possessing Sakura, it is not enough to break through that final, omnipresent need to put her siblings first. Instead, after another few seconds of simply staring Shin down, Sakura steps back, closer still to the window, a sneer curling her lip.

"You're a fucking hypocrite, Okami." Is all she says, and then she's gone, not so much as a rustle of leaves or puff of smoke to betray her save for the suddenly-open window.

Shin, even though it never came to blows, for the first time since Yugao has known him, looks hurt. Not physically, at least, but Sakura's accusation appears to have dealt more damage than the Sand jounin's sword.

"Do you want me to try and find her?" Yugao asks after a few seconds of silence, because for all that Shin started as Hayate's student, he has become someone Yugao genuinely cares for as well.

"Aa, no thank you, Yugao-san." Shin sighs, sounding exhausted all of a sudden, then seems to shake himself off, and when he meets her eyes, he's back to the proud, unflappable facade Yugao's familiar with. "That wasn't a version of my sister you'd know. It's easier and safer to just let her work it out at her own pace, trust me."

"…ROOT stuff?" Yugao guesses, and Shin smiles wryly.

"Remnants of the conditioning, probably. More than we initially thought."

"…Dangerous?"

"Only to herself."

Yugao very, very carefully doesn't wince.

"I…alright." She agrees, because Shin would know more about what to do in this situation, and she's willing to trust him on this. "Thank you, by the way."

Her heart breaks a little at the way he startles, looking away from the window his sister had exited by to meet her gaze with no small amount of incredulity in his eyes.

"You've saved Hayate twice now." she explains, waiting for the light of comprehension to dawn, but Shin just continues to look completely baffled. Like he doesn't know what to do with her thanks. Or like he's not used to getting thanked. "Whatever Sakura's feelings on your actions may be, I'm grateful. So, thank you."

She gives him a few seconds to process, but when he continues to simply stare, she huffs, turning back to Hayate and tracing over the bandage on his neck with careful fingers. "Feel free to pretend this conversation never happened. I just wanted you to know."

It takes him a few minutes, but eventually, Shin speaks.

"I…" his voice is rougher than Yugao's used to, suspiciously wet, and she is gracious enough to not look at him as he collects himself. "I'm coarse and unpleasant on the best of days. I get along with Kakashi because we're both abrasive, obstinate bastards, but you- you all but took me in. You help me. You ask me to stay the night after training late because you don't want me walking across town at night even though you know what I come from."

Shin swallows, and for a moment, Yugao thinks that he's going to close himself off, go back to that untouchable, unflappable fa?ade he shares with Kakashi, but he surprises her.

"Outside of my siblings, you two are the closest thing to a family I've ever had." He admits quietly, and Yugao's head jerks towards him without conscious input, not sure if she heard right. Shin's got his eyes closed and face turned down and away, as if anticipating her reaction, but he's not taking the words back, even though she can see the pink tinge on his ears.

"Saving Hayate's life…that's not something you need to thank me for." He finishes softly, and after a few more seconds, Yugao looks away and bites her lip, trying to talk herself out of-

-fuck it.

"Shin?" She asks, and she doesn't even try to hide the fact that her voice wobbles a little, but, damn it, she wasn't expecting to get blindsided like this. "Will you stab me if I hug you?"

Shin's startled laughter at her question isn't a yes, and that's all the convincing Yugao needs to do just that.

When Sakura comes to, she curses, ugly and annoyed.

She's in ROOT HQ.

Again.

And she can't recall how she got there.

Again.

Whatever her psyche is doing, whatever's causing these 'blackouts', she's getting reaaaally tired of it. At least she's not in a vine cocoon this time. And Shin's already in the hospital, so it's not like she can almost kill him again.

Small mercies.

She sighs, feeling all of her almost-thirty years suddenly as she pushes to her feet. Crawling out of the trapdoor that leads out of the HQ and into the forest on the outskirts of the Village, she squints at the sky, startled to find that the sun is up, and considerably higher than she expected considering she was woken up by Yugao in the middle of the night.

Shit, Naruto.

Her head's still discomfortingly empty, her thoughts quiet but not in the relaxing way. More like someone took any essence of her and scooped it out, leaving only the shell behind.

She cares for Naruto, has managed to separate his genin self for whom she's a mentor from the man whose hand had been in her lung, but she's not in the right mental state to deal with his particular brand of energetic right now.

Crouching again, she flashes through familiar seals and presses her hand to the ground, not even blinking at the chakra drain.

"Yu, Ryu." She greets quietly, and Ryu immediately steps closer, bumping his snout against her temple gently, and Sakura reaches up and absentmindedly scratches at his neck, taking a deep breath to ground herself. "I need a favour."

"Tell us, hime." Yu says, lowering his head to his paws and watching her expectantly.

"Feel like playing catch with Naruto for a few hours?" She asks, following Yu's lead and letting herself fall back from her crouch to a sitting position. "I need to get my head on straight, but he needs some guidance, especially so close to the exams. Worst case scenario, take him to Kakashi."

"Of course." Ryu rumbles by her ear, then takes the sleeve of her pyjamas between his jaws and tugs until she follows the movement and gets first to her knees, then to her feet. "But you need to get some sleep, hime."

"Half the reason I asked for the favour, Ryu." She mumbles, huffing a laugh, and Ryu nods, then jerks his head at Yu, and they both bound off.

Sakura smiles, grateful for her summons and to Shisui for providing her with the opportunity to meet them, then heads towards the Village proper and, more importantly, home.

On the way, she thinks of what to do with Naruto, and adamantly refuses to think of Shin, because every time she remembers the hospital, she remembers Sai's scared face when she came home and he had Shino over. Remembers the fear in his eyes when he apologised to her for getting attached. Remembers the anger she felt then, and in retrospect, it was nothing to what she's feeling now.

She's not against Shin forming attachments of his own. But she is against the way he went about it, and his blatant hypocrisy.

And then, a familiar voice snaps her out of her thoughts.

"Look, Kimi-chan, a ninken!"

The Village is still quite empty, the early hour and imminent Chunin Exams discouraging all but the most determined of merchants and the shinobi who had no other choice but to be awake from coming out.

In the relative emptiness of the street, Sakura's eyes find the speaker without issue, and her breath catches.

A man is carrying a child on his hip, though the girl looks a bit big for that carry to be comfortable for him. A woman is standing beside them, looking fondly amused if a little exasperated, her hand half-covering her eyes as the Inuzuka partner of the dog the man had pointed out grins, waving at the girl.

"Puppy!" The girl laughs, and in any other situation, Sakura would've snorted, because the ninken is around the size of Ryu and Yu, which makes him easily shoulder-height with the child.

But she can't, because she isn't seeing anything funny about the situation unfolding in front of her.

Because the girl? The girl has dark, shoulder-length black hair, and soft, grey eyes, and her facial features are strikingly reminiscent of Sasuke's.

And the man holding her? He is about as far away from her looks-wise as could be, with blue eyes and pale pink hair, while the woman with him is blonde, her emerald eyes bright even as far away as Sakura's standing.

She's looking at her parents.

And, if she's right, one of the Uchiha children they'd saved is on her father's hip.

Sakura bolts.

Inosuke steps into Intel at half past eight in the morning, coffee in hand and a pile of folders he can't ignore any longer under his arm.

Before he can head for the admin office, he's got Tonbo on one side and Iwashi on the other.

"There's a kid outside your office." Tonbo informs him cheerily from his left, and Inosuke pauses right before the turn in for the stairway to the admin office. "Try not to be your usual self, hm? The brat looks shell-shocked."

There's only one person in his life who fits the description 'kid' recently, and who would willingly seek him out, especially here. Inosuke sighs, nods at Tonbo and raises an eyebrow at Iwashi until the other man also takes the hint and fucks off, then changes course for his office.

When he spots her, he frowns and lengthens his stride. Once he reaches his destination, Inosuke crouches in front of Mongoose, studying the girl.

Her legs are pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around her shins and chin propped up on her knees. Her eyes, though, are staring blankly ahead, almost through Inosuke, though he has no doubt that every one of her senses in on high alert. He can't see her mouth, but he's willing to bet by the frown marring Mongoose's brow that the expression he'd find on her face wouldn't be one he's seen before.

So he waits, knowing better than to try and touch. He counts almost three hundred seconds before the girl's eyes lose the far-away look and focus on him, though he wouldn't have spotted the glint of recognition if he hadn't been so actively looking for it.

Even then, the flicker that passes through the girl's eyes is…muted. And there's none of the bizarre joy that's usually on Mongoose's face when she spots him.

"Can you get up?" he asks evenly, watching for any nonverbal reactions, since he's not sure the kid can manage words.

He sees her hand twitch, fingers curling in a way that's much more likely to be intentional than a simple muscle spasm or anxious tic.

"Repeat?" he requests, and, as he thought, her fingers twitch again, same pattern. "I'm afraid I don't know that language." he informs her flatly, absently realising that there's only one type of sign the kid could use that he wouldn't know.

ROOT.

When Mongoose registers his words, her frown deepens a fraction before she forces herself to nod, the motion jerky and shallow, but undeniably an affirmation.

Rather than wait or continue having the conversation outside his office where every movement from the other Intel shinobi makes Mongoose's chakra twitch and her attention switch immediately to assess the potential danger, Inosuke rises, gesturing for the kid to do the same.

He blinks, and Mongoose is on her feet, though she's no more relaxed than she was when she was curled into herself on the floor. Stifling a sigh, Inosuke opens the door to his office and gestures for her to go in, shutting it firmly behind them.

He looks at Mongoose as he turns the lock, needing her to register that he's not locking her in, and watches as she tracks his fingers when he moves away from the door. When her eyes flicker to his face, there's not a hint of surprise in the icy jade when she finds him already looking, though she doesn't make a single move to sit down or relax from the tense, defensive posture she's fallen into.

Standing there in her blue and green turtle pyjamas, hair in disarray, he'd almost be able to believe the kid in front of him is nothing more than a kid, if not for the way her gaze is still sharp and wary, flickering around the office with the sort of constant vigilance usually seen on war veterans.

Instead of saying anything more, he heads to his desk and dumps the pile of reports he's brought with him, giving this new version of Mongoose the time to get comfortable in his space on her own terms.

Eventually, she takes the chair she usually sits in and drags it back, so when she sits, she's got both, the door, and the window in her periphery. And then, as she resumes her earlier position of nigh crouching on the chair, Inosuke notes the glint of metal by the tips of her fingers, momentarily illuminated by the light coming in from the window.

Senbon.

He's glad his common sense had advised him against trying to touch the kid before.

He turns his attention to the reports, making sure to keep his posture relaxed. Whatever this facet of Mongoose is, it's at least somewhat connected to ROOT, and he has a feeling that how he proceeds will greatly impact their relationship in the future, particularly in this context.

Finally, after almost twenty minutes since she settled into the chair, Mongoose takes a shuddering breath and fully relaxes, and when Inosuke glances at her, the earlier eerie blankness is gone from her face, replaced instead with fatigue and frustration.

"Welcome back." He greets, and when her eyes flit to him, a scowl twists her lips for the briefest of moments, though she also looks relieved.

Not fully 'back', then.

"Feel like telling me what happened?" he asks idly, surprised when Mongoose scoffs bitterly.

"Do I have a choice?" she mutters, and it's…not a tone he's heard from her before.

"Of course." He says, serious once again, putting away the files for the moment to meet her gaze and stress the importance of what he's saying. "Always."

And then, Mongoose sighs, frustrated, and scrubs a hand down her face, though he notes she never fully covers her eyes with her hand.

"I know." She breathes, slightly less antagonistic this time "It's just- I- Sorry."

He waits, expectant now, and Mongoose frowns again, looking away as she speaks.

"Shin's landed himself in the hospital. He- I got angry when I found out how. I lost…control." She looks like she bit into a lemon as the last two words pass her lips, and Inosuke's focus sharpens. "Next thing I remember is the ROOT headquarters. I got out, intending to head home, but on the way, on the main street, I-"

She trails off again, her gaze skittering around the room, and her expression a mix of longing and terror. She swallows. "I saw my parents."

Inosuke carefully, very carefully restrains his reaction to the words.

"And then?" he asks simply, and Mongoose sighs.

"Then I was here."

If only it could be so simple.

"Do you recall the time between seeing your parents and ending up in my office?" he presses, because these episodes of hers seem to be becoming more frequent than he's comfortable with. "Or the journey from the hospital to the ROOT HQ?"

He can't say he's surprised when the answer is a simple, stiff: "No."

[He wonders if such extreme dissociation can even be called a coping mechanism.]

"These moments where you 'lose control' appear to be increasing in frequency." He points out instead, choosing a different alley to explore and giving voice to his earlier thoughts. "Can you think of why that might be?"

"If I could, I wouldn't be here." Mongoose snaps, anger and frustration and spite dripping from her words in equal measure, and Inosuke pauses.

He remembers Mongoose admitting that she learnt medical ninjutsu from books. That she learnt history, and politics, and most of her jutsu from scrolls. Admitting, in one of their earliest sessions, her tone almost absent-minded, that she likes to read, but her chosen lifestyle rarely allows her to indulge the hobby. Remembers her calling herself a bookworm, a paper-ninja.

That thirst for knowledge certainly explains Mongoose's almost compulsive need to know everything, as well as the frustration he's seeing now – she doesn't know something about herself, and she's angry about it.

But, that's not important; the fact of the matter is: "There are many more reasons you should be seeing a psychiatrist than just finding the root of your dissociation."

That, however, has the opposite effect to what he intended.

"Oh yeah?" Mongoose demands, sharp and biting, shifting on her chair, though he doesn't see her pull out the senbon again, even though he wouldn't be surprised if she did, in this state. "You keep saying that, yet so far, all we've done is talk."

"Talking in a safe environment helps establish trust, which is essential for any meaningful exchange in the therapeutic context to occur." Inosuke reminds her, keeping his voice intentionally inflectionless now, because he's not sure what Mongoose is angling for, but he has a suspicion it's unlikely to be nice. "What were you expecting? A mind-walk and an immediate solution?"

"You're a Yamanaka, aren't you?" she shoots back, eyebrow raised challengingly, and it's not the cheapest shot anyone has ever taken at him, not by far, but despite his best intentions, what makes it sting a little is who it comes from.

"My Clan techniques are a supplement to my knowledge and application of psychology." Inosuke informs her icily, striving for calm. "Not the foundation of it. And I'm not here to indulge your masochistic tendencies."

Those sharp jade eyes flit over his face, then, seemingly deciding against pressing those particular buttons again, she scoffs.

"The trust exercises are unnecessary." She tries, and Inosuke has an odd feeling like she's…reaching. Procrastinating, almost. "You're my Captain; I already trust you."

"In the field." He points out, still in possession of the grace and patience needed to not mention that she didn't react to his last comment, though he makes a mental note anyway. Mongoose's gaze flits to him for the briefest of seconds at that, and this time, she frowns instead.

"You've done a mind-walk on me before."

Ah.

"Of a specific memory." He sighs, pushing the remaining folders away so he can fold his arms on his desk and pin the kid with a flat, serious stare. "The kind you're demanding is different. It gives me full access to your mind and body, and nothing you can do would be able to stop it."

He waits a beat, giving the words the time to sink in, then concludes: "It's violating."

"I've thrown off a Body-Switch before." Mongoose mumbles, almost absentmindedly, then jerks, startled when her words register, and the look in her eyes is almost…afraid.

Like she hadn't intended to tell him that. Like she thought she shouldn't have told him that.

Inosuke decides against trying to unpack that, and nods instead.

"I can believe that." he says slowly, honestly, cataloguing her reactions. "Your mind is very well guarded."

Mongoose's frown deepens instead of easing at him agreeing with her, and she tilts her head, curious. "How do you know that?"

"In the hospital, after the mission with Bat." He explains, watching her for even the slightest tell. "The memory you were showing me ran its course. I got curious. But before I could 'snoop', I was informed I'd 'overstayed my welcome' and promptly kicked out from your mindscape."

Mongoose blinks at him for a few long seconds, her face completely blank save for the barest glint of fear in her eyes. Then, she appears to almost visibly switch thought processes, summoning back that mulish, reticent persona, and asks;

"Can you at least give me a diagnosis?"

Inosuke considers her, the way she almost has to force herself to meet his gaze when she realises he's waiting for it, then declares:

"No."

Before Mongoose can complain, or do anything, really, he continues.

"But I can tell you that even if I did use my Clan jutsu on you the way you're asking, it still wouldn't give you a simple solution. You've lived through things most adult shinobi don't experience, but your psyche is still that of a child, for all that you rarely act like it. It'll take years to work through that trauma alone."

[as he speaks, he carefully pushes the file he's been compiling on the kid during their sessions under one of the bigger stacks of folders; he knows what he'll see on the first page already: self-esteem issues; paranoia; survivor's guilt; CPTSD; dissociative amnesia/DID(?); passive suicidal ideation

The fact that he's been able to compile his list after barely a dozen sessions speaks to just how badly Mongoose needs help with managing her head.

Inosuke's urge to shake Hatake rears its head again. And Inoichi too, while he's at it, just for missing something this big, twice.]

"If I have so many issues, as you seem to think," Mongoose asks after a solid minute of simply staring at him, a complicated expression on her face, "why am I allowed to be out in the field?"

Inosuke snorts, though it's humourless.

Fuck Hatake and his penchant for adopting annoyingly perceptive geniuses. He's never the one who has to deal with them.

"Normally, your dissociation alone would be enough to take you off field missions." He tells her simply, and Mongoose does a visible double-take, frowning in a way that, for the first time since she got into his office today, is genuinely confused instead of confrontational.

"Then why don't you report it?"

"Because you don't trust the Hokage."

And there's the thing that's been gnawing at Inosuke since they started these sessions.

He realised after three meetings that Mongoose is a very, very good actress, perhaps even unconsciously. He realised after another two that she most definitely shouldn't be allowed out of the Village, or be in charge of genin brats, two of whom appear to be triggers for her CPTSD, at that.

He also knew, even after that very first meeting, that he won't take his findings to anyone, barring maybe Bear, while the Third is still alive.

So he shoots Mongoose a look, one he hopes conveys just how annoyed he is at the fact that he's now invested in her wellbeing, and continues. "It would be counterproductive to my goal of helping you if I recommended you for forced leave and doing so revealed such an easily exploitable weakness."

For the next few minutes, Mongoose just stares at him.

Barely blinking, barely breathing, just looking, her expression that of quiet wonder and not so subtle disbelief.

Then, she smiles, and it's small, tired, and barely a shadow of the grins she usually throws around, but it's undeniably genuine.

"Thank you, senpai." She says quietly, genuinely, then takes a deep breath that stutters on the exhale and adds, "And I'm sorry for what I said. I wasn't really angry at you."

"I gathered." Inosuke admits, though he doesn't let his guard down.

"Can I show you what happened in the hospital? And why I'm angry?" Mongoose asks after a beat, and now she sounds tired as well as looks it. "I…don't really want to talk about it. But I want you to know."

"Of course." Inosuke replies once he remembers how to make his voice cooperate, then, to hopefully distract the girl from his momentary lapse in composure, he adds, "We can talk about your feelings about seeing your parents again tomorrow."

Mongoose scowls at him for that, almost back to her usual self now, then gestures for him to come closer and closes her eyes.

Their earlier conversation won't be forgotten anytime soon, and Inosuke knows he'll have to watch for even more things in their sessions now, but at least this time, he doesn't hesitate when he puts his hand on her forehead.

"Those look like some serious thoughts, senpai." Sakura comments quietly when Inosuke pulls away and falls silent, seemingly deep in thought.

"They might be." He replies absently, though his eyes are far more focused than the idle tone would imply. "But I'm not sure you're ready to hear them."

"Tell me." Sakura requests, because if today has proved anything, it's that, conscious or subconscious, she trusts this man, far more than just because he's her ANBU Captain.

She'd noticed, although she did her best to not think about it, that occasionally, she'd lose hours. Particularly when she was scared or overwhelmed or didn't know how to handle something, which wasn't ideal in their line of work.

The fact that her unconscious self decided to run to Inosuke when she felt overwhelmed instead of back to ROOT HQ spoke to the man's favour more than any of Sakura's complicated feelings about trust and comradeship ever could.

Inosuke sighs, but he appears to have expected that answer, if the half amused, half wry look in his eyes is anything to go by.

"Your brother is human." He tells her simply, and Sakura blinks, momentarily thrown off-guard.

"I know that." she says slowly once she realises Inosuke is expecting a response, but the man just looks at her, unblinking and likely seeing far more than Sakura is willing to share at this point.

She feels stripped bare, both from the early morning start and the two episodes she had, and she probably should've taken the out Inosuke'd offered, but now it's too late to take her words back.

"Do you?" He asks, and though the tone is mild, the sharp look in his eyes makes them feel like a jab. When she fails to answer in the first five seconds, he continues.

"You've put him up on a pedestal, almost deified him." Inosuke informs her, and now his voice is serious, not quite accusative, but decidedly not the idle, conversational tone he'd assumed earlier. "Was his reaction hypocritical considering what he told you and your brother when you first escaped ROOT? Perhaps. But was your reaction justified? I'm not sure."

Sakura takes a deep breath, and as she releases it, she imagines snuffing out the spark of anger and indignation she can feel beneath her skin. She's almost thirty, mentally, but being told she's in the wrong stings the same as it did when she was really twelve.

"You're saying I…overreacted?" she checks, testing the word, the conversation feeling a lot like the one she'd had with Shin before she'd healed his lungs.

"Yes and no." the blond replies, and when she simply stares at him, waiting for an explanation, he huffs, a hint of that earlier amusement returning. "You hold yourself to impossibly high standards. What I don't think you've realised is that you unconsciously project those standards onto others."

"They're not impossibly-!"

"They are." Inosuke cuts her off, and he's serious again, and Sakura quiets. "It's not the childish ideal that the adults around you are perfect and without faults, but it's to the same effect. Someone close to you messes up, and it shakes you much more than a simple human error should."

"So, what do I do?" Sakura asks, and even she can hear the note of helplessness in her voice, and Inosuke seems to soften, though his expression doesn't change.

"Being aware of the problem is a good start. Beyond that, it's up to you." He explains, shrugging lightly. "Maybe consider apologising to your brother, though."

"I hate that you're so rational." She grumbles, settling more comfortably into her chair. "Makes it really hard to argue with you."

Inosuke snorts, the sound sudden and seemingly startled out of him, and Sakura manages a small grin, feeling oddly accomplished.

"Brat." Inosuke chastises, though he sounds more amused than annoyed, closing the folder in front of him and raising an eyebrow at her. "Go home and go to sleep."

"Can't." Sakura shoots back, raising a hand to rub at her eyes, Inosuke's words reminding her that she's been awake since three in the morning. "Gotta find Naruto."

"What do you need to do with him?"

"I sent my summons to keep him busy when I got out of ROOT HQ, but I need to make sure he's ready for the final round." She explains around a yawn, dropping her hand and stretching until her back pops, and Inosuke pins her with a judgemental look.

"What you need is sleep." He presses, refusing to budge, and Sakura rolls her eyes, beyond exasperated.

"Senpai, come on-!"

"Food and sleep." He repeats, cutting her off. "You go voluntarily or I knock you out. Your choice."

"I am not leaving Naruto to fend for himself five days before the finals." Sakura shoots back, meeting his eyes and letting him know that she's not backing down on this.

Inosuke sighs, sharp and annoyed. "Fine. What does the kid need?"

"Huh?"

"If it gets you to take care of yourself, I can look after the Uzumaki today." he explains slowly, like she's being slow on purpose, and Sakura blinks. "Just today, but that's the best offer you're getting."

Sakura consider the offer, considers Inosuke, and her own state of exhaustion. Then-

"…Alright."

"Great. Summon Chie and Tamaki, if you have the chakra for it." He orders, and Sakura stares, though when he raises an expectant eyebrow, she obliges, somewhat bemused. "Chie."

"Inosuke-san!" Chie greets, unusually enthusiastic, and Sakura stares at her summon, shocked at the chipper tone, especially when the tiger follows it with; "What do you need?"

Inosuke doesn't seem surprised in the slightest, stepping out from behind his desk and crouching to scratch behind Chie's ears. "Your summoner hasn't been taking care of herself. She needs food and sleep. Make sure she gets those?"

When the fact that she's being double-teamed finally registers, Sakura splutters.

"I-? What-? Senpai!" When Inosuke looks up, now scratching under Chie's chin, his expression is indulgent and not in the slightest repentant. "You can't use my summons against me!"

"Can." Inosuke shoots back, patting Chie one final time before he stands up. "Did. Now go sleep, or I'll get Bear on your case."

"Bear knows?" she asks before she can bite her tongue, the tidbit of knowledge distracting her from her quest to out-stubborn Inosuke.

"Had to check whether it wasn't a potential conflict of interests if I was your Captain and your shrink." he shrugs. "Got the official blessing and all, so unless you want to explain to the Commander why you're refusing basic self-care, I suggest going to sleep."

"Are shrinks supposed to threaten their patients?"

"Not if they're not prepared to follow through." Inosuke shoots back, not missing a beat. "I'm not threatening, so much as warning you." and then he grins, sharp and dangerous, and Sakura is oddly reminded of Ino at her scariest, and the thought sends a lance of nostalgia through her. "So, kid, what's it gonna be?"

"…I'll go sleep." She concedes, blinking to clear the memories from her mind and bending down to pick up Chie and drape her over her shoulders. "But I want you to know you're insufferable, senpai."

"I'm very good at it, too." Inosuke replies, and yeah, he's definitely laughing at her now, so Sakura narrows her eyes and takes a gamble.

"Now you sound like Kakashi." She huffs, trying her hardest not to burst out laughing when Inosuke's smirk drops and he looks like he's a step away from declaring war.

She's about to take it back, say she's joking, and then she yelps, just barely ducking out of the way of a pen thrown like a senbon.

"Oi!" She shrieks, laughing as she dodges the pencil thrown immediately after she straightens from dodging the pen. "Okay, okay, I'm going!"

She unlocks the door and ducks, letting the box of tissues smack into the wall instead of her head and grins as she pulls it open, blocking another pen with the door.

She pokes her head back into the room and sticks her tongue out, then hides behind the shield offered by the door when Inosuke grabs the whole pen holder and holds it up threateningly. "I'll be by tomorrow. Bye, Tamaki-chan, senpai!"

And then she yanks the door shut behind her, snickering at the sound of something solid impacting the wood immediately after.

Naruto is panting, laid out in one of the meadows by the edges of the Village, back propped up against a tree and two very big tigers sprawled next to him.

He'd been disappointed upon finding out that Sakura-sensei would be late, but the promise of playing 'catch' with sensei's big-and-scary tiger summons had been enough to push any disappointment to the back of his mind because he'd been too busy running for his life.

Apparently, there's kid-fitness, there's shinobi-fitness, and then there's run-away-from-tiger-summons-for-three-hours fitness.

So yeah. He's dead.

There's no way Neji's gonna be harder to outlast than two combat-specialising summons.

And then, as he's contemplating whether he has the strength to get up and go get Ichiraku's, a man appears at the treeline, Sakura-sensei's littlest summon about three paces ahead of him.

"Uzumaki Naruto?" The man asks, stopping a few metres away from him. The tiny tiger that had been leading him hops into the space between Ryu and Yu and curls up in the patch of sunlight, and though both of the bigger tigers grumble, they don't make a single move to dislodge the newcomer.

"Who's asking?" Naruto asks, frowning at the man. He's learnt to be more cautious after Jiraiya, especially after Sakura-sensei's reaction to that conversation, so he doesn't move beyond making sure his hand is comfortably close to his pack with the chili smoke bombs.

The man who'd spoken is tall and blond, with ghostly pale eyes and a scar on his face that makes Naruto think of the scary proctor from the written exam. Similar to Morino-san, this man exudes an air that makes Naruto's hair stand on end, though, unlike Morino-san, Naruto doesn't think it's intentional.

At his question, he simply nods, and to Naruto's surprise, he doesn't seem offended at all.

Then again, Naruto can't read even a single emotion on his face, so that's maybe not an accurate assessment.

"Yamanaka Inosuke." He says evenly, and though Naruto recognises the surname, he's about as confused as to who the man is as he was at the start. "I'm your sensei's shrink."

"Is Sakura-sensei okay?!" he asks immediately, sitting up in alarm, and the man holds up a hand, though doesn't otherwise move.

"She had a rough night so I sent her home to rest."

Naruto's bewildered, both at the bland, deadpan tone, and the reason behind the man's presence here, since he doesn't think he's the sort of man who'd be content to be relegated to messenger bird.

So, because he's never been good at restraint, he asks; "And, uh, why're you here?" then, taking in the man's posture and general disposition, he adds a quiet, "…Sir?"

The Yamanaka huffs, and Naruto wants to say that he's laughing, but honestly, he'd probably have better luck reading a brick wall.

"Because she's also stubborn as a mule," he explains dryly, though there's a light in his eyes that wasn't there before as he looks at Naruto, "and didn't want to leave you without guidance so close to the finals."

"So you're here to…help me train?" Naruto asks carefully, because he appreciates Sakura-sensei finding someone to help him when she can't, but she could've found someone less scary.

"Apparently." The man in question retorts, appearing resigned to his fate. "So what do you need, kid?"

"Sensei said that Hyuuga see chakra." Naruto offers after a beat, watching the man watch him. "Is there a way to…overwhelm them? Like, pump out a lot of chakra at once or something?"

The man simply looks at him for a few seconds, his whole body still to the point that Naruto wants to get up and poke him just to check whether he's an actual person, but then-

-then, the man smiles, and-

-yep, definitely scarier than scary-proctor-dude.

…And this guy is sensei's shrink?

"Tadaima." Sai calls quietly as he slips through the door, fresh from visiting Shin in the hospital, still present enough to mind the creaky floorboard under the welcome mat as he steps over the threshold.

"Okaeri." Shibi's voice comes from the direction of the sitting room, and Sai stills then sighs, toeing off his sandals and donning the guest slippers before he pads over to the living area, a quick chakra scan proving that Shino is not home.

"Shibi-sama." He greets, dipping his head and perching on the loveseat he usually claims with Shino. "I apologise for intruding."

"I've told you many times we consider you family, Sai. Family can never intrude." The man chastises quietly as he puts the letter he'd been reading next to the tray with the tea set. When he looks up, sans glasses in the comfort of his home, his gaze is warm in a way that never fails to make Sai feel inexplicably safe. "Shino went to the greenhouse, but he should be back in a few minutes if you came for him."

"I did." Sai confirms quietly, inclining his head in apology. "I have not been…as good a friend to Shino as I should've been, recently."

"If you mean over the last two months, then I'd like to remind you that it's the Chunin Exams. Shino understands why you've been spending more time with your team and your trainers rather than with us. There's no ill-will there, I assure you." Shibi replies, and Sai feels somewhat cheered, enough to actually meet the man's gaze when he looks up.

"Thank you, oji-san." He murmurs, accepting the teacup Shibi holds out to him with a quiet thanks. "I…how have you been?"

"Well, thank you for asking." Shibi returns, taking a sip of his own tea before he focuses fully on Sai. "And thank you for another thing, actually."

Sai blinks at the change in tone, particularly when nothing follows. "Oji-san?"

"Inuzuka Tsume is a dear, if somewhat unexpected friend of mine." Shibi begins, and Sai frowns at the non-sequitur. "I was made aware that she recently spoke with your sister."

Sai nods hesitantly, because while he hadn't heard about what went on in the meeting, he'd seen Kiba around since, and the teen had given him an even wider berth than usual.

"Tsume's trust is a precious thing, so I won't repeat what she said, but she confirmed something I had suspected for a while, although I didn't know the full scope of the situation." Shibi continues, putting down his teacup and picking up the letter he'd been reading before, unfolding the paper in an almost reverent manner.

"I have a nephew." He says quietly, gaze trained on the paper instead of on Sai, and Sai takes the time to take a fortifying breath and sip his own tea to give his hands something to do. "When they were younger, he and Shino were raised as brothers. When Torune was seven and Shino five, they were approached by someone even I, a Clan Head, feared to refuse. The man wanted Shino, but Torune volunteered in his stead. I haven't seen him since."

Shibi looks up then, and Sai nearly fumbles his teacup, because there's more anger in the man's eyes than he's seen from any of his Clan in the three years he's known Shino.

"I'm sure you can guess that the man was Shimura Danzo."

Sai had guessed. He just didn't think Shibi would say it so frankly, nor that he would be saying it to him.

"This letter," Shibi continues when Sai doesn't otherwise react, folding the letter again and brandishing it like Iruka-sensei used to do with his teaching props, "is from Torune. It's the first communication I've received from him in seven years-"

Shibi cuts himself off with a shuddering breath and appears to revaluate his approach, visibly striving for calm.

"He's alive, he's with the Yamanaka alongside all the other ROOT recruits who could be reconditioned, and he's saying they're likely going to be back in Konoha in two, maybe three months, and 'could I please keep it a secret from Shino' because he wants to surprise him."

The man pauses, shooting Sai a small, quicksilver smile.

"I suspected you were ROOT from the beginning, Sai-kun." Shibi explains when Sai keeps silent, simply staring at the man as he collects himself. The admission feels like a bucket of cold water has been dumped over his head and Sai tenses, getting ready to throw himself out of the loveseat and out the door if need be. "But it was Tsume who made me realise that you're also responsible for its downfall."

Sai stills.

Then-

"Please don't tell Shino."

The plea is out of his mouth before he's fully thought it through, and a sad smile tugs at the corners of Shibi's lips in response, though he doesn't look surprised.

"I-I know he suspects something, he's too smart not to." Sai hastens to explain, though he's not sure why he feels the need to. "But- he cares for me. And- I'm scared. For him. For what he'd do or what could happen to him if- if he knew everything."

"I can promise that I won't be the one to tell him." Shibi agrees, cutting off Sai's fumbling explanation with his usual even, calm tone, and he looks…touched, though also concerned. "But as you said, Sai-kun, my son is smart. When Torune returns, he is very likely to put the pieces together."

"I'll tell him when he does." Sai promises, heart hammering in his chest. "I…Shino makes me feel normal, oji-san. I don't want to give that up, but I promise I won't keep the truth from him when he asks for it."

"That's all I can ask for, Sai-kun." Shibi replies, then sobers and stands up, gesturing for Sai to do the same.

When Sai does, cautious, not scared, never scared with this family, but somewhat wary, Shibi lays a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you for bringing my nephew back to me." he tells him quietly, a wealth of emotion packed into the words. "And I'm sorry. I'm sorry the inaction of the adults who should've known better led to you and countless others losing out on your childhoods. You deserved better."

Sai stares, completely lost.

"I can't undo the past, but I hope I will be able to show you over the coming years how grateful I am for what you and your siblings did." And then, Shibi smiles, warm and gentle, though his face looks oddly blurry to Sai. "And I've told you before, but I'll say it again; you're family, Sai. My home and my help is always available to you."

Sai blinks a few times and his vision clears up enough that he can see Shibi better when the man's smile gentles even further. Shibi raises a hand to Sai's face, moving slowly, telegraphing his movements all the while, and lightly wipes under Sai's eye.

His thumb comes away wet.

As if that was the last screw holding everything together, Sai's composure shatters, and he hears the shuddering sob that wrenches free from his chest before he fully registers that it comes from him.

"Oh, son." Shibi murmurs, shifting his grip on Sai's shoulder to his neck and pulling him towards his chest, wrapping his other arm around Sai's back in a warm, secure hug.

Sai presses his ear to the man's chest and screws his eyes shut, and the comforting hum of Shibi's kikaichu is almost enough to drown out the sound of his sobs.

[when Shino gets home sometime later, he finds Sai curled up on the loveseat they usually share, deeply asleep. there are dried tear-tracks on Sai's pale face, and Shino shoots an alarmed look at his father, but Shibi just gives him a small smile and shakes his head. accepting that he won't be getting an answer just yet, Shino hangs up his jacket in his room and takes off his glasses, grabbing the scroll on genjutsu Kurenai had lent him when he'd asked and treks back downstairs. he grabs a cushion, carefully lifts Sai's head enough to sit on the loveseat as well, puts the pillow in his lap, then lowers Sai's head onto it. it speaks to Sai's exhaustion – whether physical or emotional, he can't be sure, but exhaustion nonetheless – that he doesn't so much as stir, merely snuffles quietly and remains asleep. Shino smiles to himself, small and private, and unfurls the scroll, setting one hand on Sai's hair and settling himself in for a long read.]

[the look on his face when Sai wakes up almost two hours later and realises that he'd a) slept in Shino's lap, and b) drooled on the cushion rather liberally, is enough to make Shino regret not having grabbed the camera from his room when he'd had the chance.]