As always, many many thanks to crowind for her editing. All remaining mistakes are my own. Thanks also to elenathehun, stormwind13, Hiruma_Musouka, moor, phoenixyfriend, sariasprincy, and Tozette for their encouragement and ideas. Please enjoy.


"Again," Tenjouma ordered.

Sakura panted with her hands on her knees. All around her there were trees of varying shapes and sizes, providing a much appreciated shelter from the brutal sun.

"I can't," she said. Her legs trembled at just the thought of growing more trees. She was out of chakra and exhaustion was making her control tenuous.

Tenjouma's expression was unpitying. "You can and you will. Do it again."

Sakura tried to straighten and groaned in the process. Between morning taijutsu training with Enchuuma and now ninjutsu training with Tenjouma, her body felt like one giant bruise.

"Quit your complaining." Tenjouma cuffed her over the head.

Tears pricked at her eyes but she valiantly tried to hold them back. She recalled Danzou's words in the Hokage Tower. The Nidaime didn't cry. Be like the Nidaime. Sakura took a shuddering breath.

"Yes sir," she replied. She readjusted her position and twisted her hands through the necessary hand seals. Her chakra responded sluggishly but once it was pulled through her coils, the Mokuton answered as quickly as it always had and needed little of her own guidance.

Mokuton: Jukai Koutan.

More trees burst through the ground and stretched towards the sky. Sakura didn't have the energy to attempt to see how far she could spread her chakra and grow more trees, nor to force her trees to new sizes. Her head throbbed with the effort of keeping her kekkei genkai from sapping more of her chakra so it could continue its growth. Activating the Mokuton was always a trial. The struggle wasn't in encouraging it to grow; it was in controlling the growth and stopping it once started.

Tenjouma paced around the new trees, examining them with a critical eye. Sakura released the jutsu and fought to ignore the pull on her chakra. The Jukai Koutan Jutsu wasn't the same as the Shodai's; they were even written with different characters to reflect the difference in scale. Where Sakura could only grow a three or four trees at a time, the Shodai could create an entire forest. A sea of trees in comparison to a world of trees. Sakura frowned. Not that her version looked much like a sea.

At last, Tenjouma nodded. "Acceptable, for now. We will have to work on improving your stamina and chakra reserves. The larger they are before puberty, the more they will increase afterwards. Now, clear this away."

Sakura withheld her frustrated whine and nodded. The only benefit she could see to all this was that, each time she molded the Mokuton, it became easier and easier to work with. She barely needed signs anymore to activate it, and only needed the Snake Seal to focus herself when actively manipulating the trees.

She formed said seal and sent out the remnants of her chakra to the closest trees. They shuddered as she urged them to shrink back into the ground. Her temples throbbed again and the pain turned the edges of her vision grey. She gritted her teeth and clenched her fingers tighter as she forced the trees to act against their nature. Her back itched tellingly.

The trees were nearly done reversing their growth when Sakura lost control of the Mokuton. The pressure to simply let the bloodline ability loose had become too much. A branch burst from her spine, shortly followed by three more. She staggered under the new draw on her chakra.

"And I see we also need to improve your control over the Mokuton. I will not allow these outbursts," Tenjouma gestured at the branches stretching from her back. "Do they still respond to your emotions?"

Sakura grunted in the affirmative as she worked. Like most unskilled shinobi, her chakra reacted to her emotions. And when her chakra reacted, so too did the Mokuton. Luckily for Sakura, she hadn't had any incidents in public. The worst loss of control she'd had yet, besides attacking Ami, had been when her mom had made her anmitsu for dessert one day. As she'd gone to hug her mom, branches had sprouted from her arms. Since then, controlling her emotions was just an extra layer to suppressing the constant urge to release her hold on the Mokuton and let it grow as it pleased.

Tenjouma frowned. "We can fix that with some genjutsu training as well. Your records from the Academy say that your intelligence scores are high, but both the records and Enchuuma agree that your taijutsu needs considerable work as well. I hope you don't think I'll accept substandard physical ability just because you're capable of memorizing a textbook."

"No, Tenjouma-sama," Sakura muttered. She stopped her efforts for a moment to catch her breath. She was nearly done with the trees she had grown during training, but recalling the branches from her back was just one more thing she had to do.

"Good. You're not hopeless. With time and effort, you will be an excellent heir to the clan."

It didn't feel that way to Sakura. Every training session with Tenjouma resulted in hours' worth of harsh critiques about her abilities. The only thing about her that seemed to please him at all was her chakra control.

Tenjouma waited with her while Sakura struggled to clear away the evidence of the Mokuton, both in the field and on her body. He always did, no matter how long it took her. Afterwards he would escort her back home before disappearing to do whatever it was that old people did. It was the only time Sakura ever came close to liking him, instead of simmering with resentment.

She stumbled when she finally finished her work. The world around her seemed to spin and tilt, and her head ached fiercely. Tenjouma placed a hand on her shoulder to steady her.

"See? I told you that you were able to use the jutsu one more time. You must strive to push your limits every day," he said. She nodded wearily in response, unable to make a reply.

Sakura shuffled through the winding streets to her house with Tenjouma at her side. Every day against her will the neighborhood became more familiar. That side street was a short cut to the Academy. That right fork went to a small but fantastic tea shop. Soon enough, it'd feel as normal as her old neighborhood. Sakura scowled at the ground.

"Head up, Sakura."

Sakura straightened her posture at Tenjouma's command. It took more effort than it should've but she felt she could be forgiven, with the way her body complained about every movement she made.

Soon enough they were at her house. Tenjouma left after she bowed and said her goodbyes. She trudged the house without acknowledging her mother's cheery greeting. Instead she climbed the stairs to her bedroom and only the desire to clean up after practice kept her from throwing herself on to her bed.

She still had Academy homework yet to complete before the weekend was through. Then it'd be back to school all day followed by training with either Enchuuma or Tenjouma. At least Enchuuma was nice while he told her that her taijutsu sucked. Tenjouma had no mercy whatsoever. Even the days when she trailed after him while he did "clan business" were full of things for her to memorize by the end of the day so she could repeat it back to him. Sakura hadn't had time to play with Ino in what felt like years. The only time they had together anymore was at school during breaks and lunch.

A bright spot arrived in the form of a new friend when Sakura returned to school. The day started like any other, with Tatema appearing at her house early in the morning to take her to the Academy and disappearing like a shadow the moment she passed through the gates. Upon seeing Ino, Sakura felt a weight lift off her shoulders. She dashed forward to greet her friend and forgot about the aches in her hands from taijutsu practice and the weak-kneed feeling she still had from chakra exhaustion.

Ino dropped her conversation with a girl that looked like she was from the Inuzuka clan when she realized Sakura had arrived. "Sakura-chan! How was your weekend? Did you do anything fun?"

"The same as last weekend," Sakura scowled. "A lot of training and clan stuff." She flexed her fists at the memory of training. Tenjouma's warning from the beginning of her Mokuton training echoed in her mind. If she couldn't learn to maintain control over the Mokuton, she'd be a danger to everyone around her, and the Senju would have to train her in isolation until she mastered it to their satisfaction. That alone was enough encouragement to at least make sure Sakura wouldn't lose control in public.

"What kind of training are you working on?" The Inuzuka girl asked. Sakura blinked in surprise. The girl had never spoken to her at all before. In fact, Sakura didn't know if she even knew what her name was.

"Just some ninjutsu and taijutsu," Sakura replied. That was safe to say, right? Tenjouma didn't want anyone to see her Mokuton until it was mastered, and she wasn't supposed to talk about it at all with outsiders, because it was a clan secret. But Sakura didn't think that ninjutsu and taijutsu training was such a big secret; all shinobi had to train in those areas eventually.

A boy appeared at Sakura's elbow, startling her. "Are you any good at them?" he asked bluntly. Sakura's jaw worked up and down for a few seconds. She recognized him as a fellow classmate, Sarutobi Daisuke.

"I mean, you probably need a lot of work," he continued blithely. "You don't seem to score that great on them during the practicals in class."

Sakura flushed. The Inuzuka girl leaned in with interest. "But you've got the Mokuton, right? So, can you use it or not?"

Luckily, Ino interfered before Sakura could make a fool of herself. "Could you two be any more obvious? It hasn't even been thirty seconds and you're asking her about her bloodline limit! Do you think she's stupid? Sakura-chan and I can tell you're only interested in her now because she's a Senju."

Daisuke shrugged. "I was just doing what my dad told me to, I don't really care besides seeing the Mokuton. It's a super cool jutsu, you know?"

"And so what if we only care now? What is she going to do about it?" the Inuzuka planted her hands on her hips. Daisuke leaned away from them as the air became noticeably chillier.

"I'll tell you what I'm going to do about it," Ino bared her teeth. Then, in textbook perfect Academy form, she punched the other girl solidly in the face. The force of it knocked her on her back into the dirt. Ino stood over her prone form. "No one gets to use Sakura-chan for anything. I don't care who they think they are. If you want to get at Sakura-chan, you're going to have to get through me."

Sakura noted in the back of her mind that Daisuke had disappeared towards the main building. Most of her focus was drawn towards Ino. In that moment, with the sunlight glinting off her hair and her fierce expression, Ino was everything she aspired to be. Sakura's fists clenched.

The Inuzuka girl shook herself and then climbed back to her feet. A long growl issued from her throat before she launched herself at Ino. Ino met her part way, and before Sakura could fully take in what was happening, the two of them were wrestling in the dirt. Formal taijutsu was completely abandoned as the Inuzuka sank her abnormally sharp teeth into Ino's arm. Ino in turn grabbed her hair and seemed determined to rip it out of her opponent's scalp.

Sakura danced around them anxiously. Should she help Ino? How could she interfere that wouldn't make Ino look bad? But didn't it make Sakura look bad that Ino had to fight for her? Before Sakura could decide what to do, Mizuki-sensei had appeared and was pulling the two of them apart.

"What is wrong with the two of you?"

Ino pressed her lips together mutinously as she glared at the Inuzuka girl. The girl snarled back at Ino. Neither answered Mizuki-sensei.

"Fine, then. I'll be sending the two of you home, where you won't be able to disrupt classes and you can explain why exactly you got into a pointless brawl," he said. He let go of both of them and beckoned for them to follow him to the office. "Senju, get to class before you're late."

Sakura swallowed. Now was her chance to start sticking up for herself, instead of relying on Ino to do it for her. "It's Haruno, sir," Sakura said in a squeaky voice.

Mizuki-sensei turned. "What was that?" His brow was arched in curiosity and his expression indicated no irritation, giving Sakura the courage to repeat herself.

She coughed to clear her throat. "My family name. It's still Haruno. I…it hasn't been changed." She didn't know what would happen if she denied the Senju clan in its entirety, but she could keep her name. Tatema told her so.

"I see. Well, Haruno, my point still stands. You need to hurry along or you'll be in trouble with these two here," Mizuki-sensei's voice soured as he glanced at Ino and the other girl. Sakura bobbed into a bow. She waved at Ino before heading towards her classroom.

Sakura settled into her usual seat with several minutes to spare. She pulled out her notes and homework, and when Daisuke tried to catch her attention, pretended to study them. It wasn't like he knew she had spent her time outside of training making sure her homework was up to its usual standard and she was prepared to answer any question Iruka-sensei had for her. She wished Ino was beside her to make the day less dull, but Sakura knew she also had to prove she wasn't reliant on her.

The morning and lunch went well. The lecture was comforting in its normalcy, punctuated by Iruka-sensei having to stop to scold misbehaving students. At lunch, Shikamaru had dropped into Ino's seat and put his head down for a nap. Before he could doze off, Sakura asked him what he was doing there, instead of sitting with Chouji.

"I just want to sleep today, and you're not being troublesome," Shikamaru answered. Mere seconds later and he started to snore. Sakura felt her face pull into a scowl. She wasn't ever troublesome! For a moment she thought about making as much racket as possible to chase Shikamaru off, but as long as he was next to her, that meant no one else could sit next to her either. And really, there were worse people to sit next to than Nara Shikamaru.

It was the afternoon that took a sudden turn for Sakura. When Daikoku-sensei came in to teach the afternoon session, he announced there was going to be a surprise taijutsu practice session, to make sure they had been practicing their forms at home. Sakura glanced down at her still bruised knuckles. She had been doing lots of practice with Enchuuma, but despite his encouragement, Sakura didn't know if it had actually made any difference.

The class shuffled in a single file to the outdoor training area. Excited whispers made their way to Sakura's ears. A taijutsu practical was different than chakra control exercises. Often, the children abandoned formal stances for victory-at-all-costs strategies. Thus, taijutsu practice was a prime spot to establish hierarchies.

Daikoku-sensei had a box with everyone's name inside in order to create blind matches. He announced the participants at the conclusion of each match, forcing Sakura to wait with her heart in her throat for whom she would be paired with. Would it be Sasuke or Kiba, who had some of the highest taijutsu scores in class? Or would she be lucky enough to draw with Shino or Shikamaru, who had much lower scores?

"Hyuuga Hinata vs…" Daikoku-sensei swished his hand around inside the box. "Haruno Sakura!"

Sakura swallowed. She had forgotten about Hinata. It was sort of easy to, she thought guiltily, because of how quiet she was. But Hinata also had some of the highest taijutsu scores in class. Sakura guessed it was from training for her clan style, the Gentle Fist, though Sakura didn't know what exactly it was comprised of.

Sakura made her way to the makeshift arena, Hinata following suit. She fought the urge to hunch over and instead pulled her shoulders back and head up, as Tenjouma so often had to remind her. When she stood across from Hinata, they both made the Seal of Confrontation.

"Please be kind to me, Sakura-chan," Hinata said formally. Sakura decided against verbally replying, lest her voice croak, and just nodded.

"And, start!" Daikoku-sensei called.

Both of them stood there. Neither of them had it in them to make the first move to start the fight. A pleasant summer breeze blew by while they stared at each other.

"Um," Hinata said.

Sakura raised her fists. As she suspected, Hinata didn't even bother using an Academy form and instead shifted to her clan's style with the tell tale open palm.

"Girls, you have to do this some time," Daikoku-sensei said.

Sakura nodded. "Right. I'll just, um." This was her chance to show that she was strong enough to not be bullied. She just didn't have the heart to hurt Hinata, or was even sure she was good enough to face her.

She threw the first punch. Hinata moved with Sakura's motions as if she were water, stepping back with Sakura's momentum before striking at her open side with her palm. Sakura barely managed to twist out of the way. Her eyes narrowed when she realized Hinata didn't follow through with her strike. That was her weakness. If Sakura could take advantage of that, she might win.

That had been Sakura's hope. But Hinata, despite her unwillingness to push Sakura hard, was still better at taijutsu than Sakura. No matter how fast Sakura threw her punches or where she tried to hit Hinata, Hinata had a counter for her. As frustration mounted, an itch began underneath Sakura's skin.

Sakura scrambled backwards to give herself time to bring the Mokuton under control. Hinata pressed her advantage and lashed at Sakura repeatedly. Sakura dodged them by the skin of her teeth, having given up on trying to hit Hinata and instead solely focusing on dodging and preventing the Mokuton from bursting through her skin.

Pain lanced through Sakura's head from the tension. She stumbled. Hinata's palm struck her shoulder hard and it was only sheer stubbornness that kept Sakura on her feet. Her blood prickled beneath her skin. In an effort to keep from losing control, Sakura swung her arm wildly. Only by luck did her knuckles collide with Hinata's chest. Hinata stumbled backward in shock, her form broken by the force of Sakura's hit.

Feeling emboldened, Sakura pressed forward. Her momentary success lent her the will to suppress the Mokuton. Hinata was hesitating and wide open. She landed another hit before Hinata began to react once more.

In another six or seven strikes, the match was over. Sakura huffed on the ground before Hinata. A few weeks of extra taijutsu training was no match for Hinata, who had likely been training since she could walk.

Hinata peered down at Sakura. "Thank you for the match, Sakura-chan." She paused, then added, "Y-you've improved since the l-last time we had taijutsu p-practice."

"Thank you," Sakura replied as she got to her feet. Her face burned with humiliation nonetheless and the Mokuton was a creeping thing in her veins.

Hinata held out her fingers and Sakura wrapped hers around them in kind, for the Seal of Reconciliation.

"Excellent work, girls. It's time for our next match," Daikoku-sensei prompted. At his urging, they both left the fighting area and stood with the rest of their classmates by the fence.

Sakura stood by herself, her nails biting into her fists. She knew her taijutsu was bad. She knew a few weeks worth of training with Enchuuma wouldn't make her any good. It didn't make losing sting any less.

"Sakura-chan?" Hinata said.

Sakura startled and looked up. Hinata pressed her fingertips together uncertainly and failed to meet Sakura's stare.

"You must have been training hard," Hinata gestured at Sakura's hands. "W-while we were fighting, I saw your hands. D-doesn't your clan heal them?"

Sakura's nose wrinkled as she recalled the memory of her asking Tenjouma that exact question. "Suffering through minor pain builds character. I will only get healing if I am seriously hurt," Sakura parroted. Never mind that the bruises on her knuckles interfered with her taijutsu work. But Tenjouma had laid down the law and the rest of the Senju obeyed. When Sakura had tried to ask Enchuuma and Tatema for treatment, they both had refused as well, citing Tenjouma's rule. Sakura was not to be given any healing while she was in training.

"I-I see," Hinata replied. "My clan often feels the s-same way, but our hands are too important to d-damage, so we use this." She pulled a small jar of balm from inside her baggy coat. In the background, screams and cheers echoed as Naruto fought with Sasuke.

Hinata opened the jar and dabbed her fingers into the balm before reaching for Sakura's hands. She was too stunned to stop Hinata from slathering it over her bruises and cuts. Sakura didn't think she had ever seen Hinata act this bold. Then the healing from the medicinal balm took over. The aches in Sakura's hands disappeared almost instantaneously and the redness was soothed immediately. Some of the older bruises even faded before her eyes.

"It helps to heal not just b-bruises and small cuts, but also treats i-inflammation of the tenketsu," Hinata explained. "It is h-helpful if you use techniques that regularly e-expel chakra from them. This is my mother's own recipe." She blushed and looked down at the admission.

"This is wonderful, Hinata-chan, thank you," said Sakura. "I couldn't have asked for a better opponent." And Sakura knew that to be true. Anyone else in class would've held it over Sakura's head that she had lost, even Ino, who was above all else, very competitive. It was probably only Hinata would think to treat her opponent's injuries after a spar.

Hinata pressed the jar into Sakura's hands. "You can have this one. I can m-make more."

Happiness bloomed in Sakura's chest. She cradled the jar gently in her hands before tucking it away into a pouch. "Thank you so much, Hinata-chan. This will make taijutsu practice a lot easier."

Hinata murmured something unintelligible and looked down again, her fingers returning to their fidgeting.

"Do you want to be friends?" Sakura blurted. Hinata's head rocketed up, her pale eyes wide as she met Sakura's own for the first time during the conversation.

"What?"

"It's just…there's no reason why you can't hang out with me and Ino. Unless you don't want to…" Sakura trailed off. Maybe asking Hinata to be her friend was a mistake. Even though Hinata had always been nice to Sakura, that didn't mean she liked her; Hinata was nice to everyone. At least Sakura would know it wasn't because she was a Senju or had the Mokuton.

"It's okay if you don't want—"

"I'd love to," Hinata interrupted. She clapped her hands over her mouth. "I-I'm sorry Sakura-chan, I just…"

As Hinata's voice drifted away, they both stared at each other until they burst into giggles.

With Hinata's agreement, Sakura felt that the day had become perfect. It didn't matter that she had lost a match in front of her class, or that people still stared at her. Sakura had made a new friend. Not only that, she had made a new friend without Ino's help. Hinata was Sakura's own friend.

Sakura couldn't keep her grin off her face, even as the day ended and Hinata walked away with her own shadow, a teenaged shinobi she had introduced as Hyuuga Tokuma. She waved excitedly at Hinata until she disappeared, uncaring if she looked silly. It was then that Sakura realized that for the first time since Tatema began escorting her he was late.

She peered around the front entrance to the Academy, trying to spot his dark hair, to no avail. She rocked back on her heels. It wasn't like Sakura didn't know how to get home, but to the best of her knowledge, she was supposed to be walked home. Was this a test? Should she wait or get moving on her own?

"Are you waiting for someone?"

Sakura whirled around. Standing there were Sasuke and an older boy who could've only been a relative. He had the beginnings of stress lines and long dark hair pulled back from his face.

"Um, yes, I'm waiting for…" Sakura trailed off thoughtfully. She wasn't even sure how exactly Tatema was related to her. They certainly didn't look a thing alike, so they probably weren't that close. "For my cousin?"

"I see. My name is Uchiha Itachi. We can wait with you, if you'd like," he offered.

"Nii-san!" Sasuke tugged at Itachi's clothes. "What about shuriken practice?"

Before either Sakura or Itachi could reply, Suzume-sensei walked back from where she had waved off a few students. "Is there going to be a problem here?" She looked steadily at Itachi, who remained placid.

"Not at all, sensei. I offered to wait here with Haruno-san for her cousin," Itachi said.

Suzume-sensei turned her gaze to Sakura. "Is this right, Sakura-chan? He's not bothering you?"

"No, Suzume-sensei, I'm fine." Sakura watched Suzume-sensei leave with puzzlement. Had she looked upset by Itachi?

She turned back to Itachi. "Thank you for waiting with me." She didn't really understand why he would want to, especially with Sasuke looking more and more impatient beside him, but she appreciated it all the same.

"Sensei thinks that because you are the heir of the Senju clan and I am the heir of the Uchiha clan, we will fight with each other," Itachi said. Sakura blinked. That was off topic. Not that they really had a topic to begin with, but it was an odd thing to say. But it did explain why Suzume-sensei was so concerned.

Then the other part of his statement clicked. "You're the heir of the Uchiha clan?" Sakura looked Itachi up and down with renewed interest before flicking her eyes over Sasuke. She knew Sasuke was from an important family in his clan, but she hadn't realized he was the second born son of the main family.

"Yes, I am the heir," Itachi replied. He looked like he might say more, but Sasuke interrupted.

"And he's a chuunin already! Nii-san is the going to be the strongest shinobi in the village." Sasuke's expression challenged Sakura to contradict him.

Sakura took in Itachi's pale face with its stress lines. He looked like he was only a few years older than her. She couldn't imagine what it was like to be both an heir and a chuunin already, and yet Sakura knew that she was staring at what she would someday become. "Your clan must make you train very hard, since you're a chuunin so young."

Sasuke seemed to miss part of her statement and beamed with pride. "Nii-san trains everyday with Otou-san."

"You're correct, Haruno-san. Training is very difficult." Itachi's dark, serious eyes however, told Sakura that he had completely understood her.

Sakura swallowed. "Does it ever go away? Or at least get easier?"

Itachi shook his head slowly. "There is no escaping the clan."

"Sakura-chan!"

Sakura tore her eyes from Itachi to find Tatema approaching. For the first time Sakura saw a frown pull at his mouth and his dark eyes were hard as he considered Itachi.

"I'm sorry for keeping you waiting, Sakura-chan," he said without looking at her.

"It's fine, Itachi-san was just waiting with me and we talked a little bit. He was very nice." Sakura tried to stress the last bit. If Suzume-sensei thought that Itachi and Sakura might argue, who knew what Tatema thought they were doing.

Tatema's face relaxed but he still didn't return to his usual pleasant smile. "I see. Thank you for your hospitality, Uchiha-san."

"It was no trouble, Senju-san. Have a good day, Haruno-san." Itachi bowed before urging Sasuke away, who looked confused and a little disgruntled. Tatema stared hard at Itachi's back before he too pulled Sakura away.

"I'm sorry for being late," he apologized again. "I was called to the mission desk. I leave tomorrow morning, once a team has been fully assembled. I'm going to introduce you to my older brother; he'll take you to and from school while I'm gone."

Curiosity filled Sakura. "Didn't you say once that he was married?" she said as she followed after Tatema.

"Yes, that's right. His name is Retsuma, and his wife is Sakumi," Tatema answered.

Tatema led Sakura down a new street through Hanarakuen. Retsuma and Sakumi's home was farther from the heart of the district and instead closer to the training fields on the outskirts. On the way there, Sakura learned from Tatema that they needed the space for Retsuma's lab, who was a genjutsu and poisons specialist. Sakumi, by contrast, worked in Intelligence, where her role was anything from spy to saboteur and everything in between.

"He inherited Touka-obaasama's talent for genjutsu. He might be even better than Tenjouma-ojiisama," Tatema confided to her.

"Touka-obaasama?" That was a name Sakura hadn't heard before.

"Touka-obaasama was the elder cousin to Hashirama-sama and Tobirama-sama. After their deaths, together with Mito-sama they ran the Senju clan. Tenjouma-ojiisama is her only surviving child," he explained.

Tatema approached a nondescript house and entered with little ceremony. They lined up their sandals neatly in the entry way, and then Sakura followed Tatema further inside. As she did so, she peered around for evidence of the lab, but disappointingly, found nothing. It would've been fascinating to see real work and not the manufactured examples they showed to the Academy students.

In the next room they found a woman sitting at a low table and drinking tea while perusing a few scrolls. She had long chocolate brown hair tied in a low ponytail over her shoulder, and sharp grey eyes. And then her yukata gaped open as she turned to face them and Sakura realized she was actually a he. Sakura blushed.

"Retsu, I've brought Sakura-chan. Sakura-chan, this is Retsuma," Tatema said. Sakura evaluated them again. Tatema had short, shaggy dark brown hair bordering on black and brown eyes, making him seem like Retsuma's opposite. But they both had long, angular faces with a sharp jaw and broad shoulders with tanned skin.

"Hello Sakura-chan. It's good to finally meet you," Retsuma smiled at her. A strange, light feeling came over Sakura. She grinned at Retsuma.

"It's nice to meet you too, Retsu-niisan. I can call you that, right?" Sakura dropped to the table across from Retsuma. "You're so pretty. The prettiest person I have ever met. Prettier than Ino-chan."

Retsuma covered a smile with his hand. "Am I? I'm flattered; thank you, Sakura-chan."

"Retsu, cut that out." Tatema placed a hand on Sakura's shoulder and with a sudden jolt, the dreamy feeling she'd been floating in disappeared.

"No need to spoil my fun, Tatema. I was testing her genjutsu aptitude," Retsuma said.

Sakura turned bright pink as she realized what she'd confessed to Retsuma.

"Tenjouma-ojiisama is handling her training, not you," Tatema snapped.

"You're so uptight—it was just a little genjutsu. You failed, by the way," Retsuma informed her.

Sakura hunched over in embarrassment. She didn't even know anything about genjutsu. They hadn't covered that yet at the Academy. How was she supposed to know how to detect one, let alone dispel it?

"She didn't fail anything because there was no test. Don't be late when you pick her up, and if she tells me that you put her under another genjutsu or, worse, tested a poison on her, I'll tell mom."

"Would she even notice?" Retsuma murmured. "But yes, of course, I'll take good care of her. It'd be boring if something happened to her before she ever improved."

Without another word, Tatema picked Sakura up by her arm and pulled her from the room.

"Leaving so soon?"

"Her parents will be wondering where she is," replied Tatema. "Come along, Sakura-chan."

Once again Sakura followed after Tatema obediently, this time out of Retsuma's house and to her own. Tatema seemed annoyed by the visit to his brother's but not nearly as stiff as he was when he saw Itachi.

"Your brother is scary," Sakura said tentatively. "I don't think I like him."

Tatema barked out a laugh, releasing the tension in the air. "Try growing up with him. Normally he doesn't do that sort of thing, at least not without permission. It's bad taste. He's in a mood; the elders have probably been bothering him again."

Sakura wrinkled her nose. Was that all the old people in the clan existed to do? Harass the younger members until they obeyed them? "About what?"

"Retsuma has been married to Sakumi for a few years now, but they still haven't had a child. I would've thought they would relax a little after adopting you into the clan, but it seems like they've only gotten pushier about it. I'm surprised they haven't said anything recently about me not being married," Tatema said. "But that's not for you to worry about. Now you know who Retsuma is, and he'll be there to walk you to and from school while I'm gone."

"Will you be gone long?" Sakura hoped not. She was finally used to Tatema and he was the nicest of the Senju she had met so far, with Enchuuma being a close second.

"Only a few weeks. I'll be back before you know it." They stopped in front of Sakura's house.

She looked down at her sandals before glancing back up at Tatema. "You're not so bad, so come home safe, okay?" Tatema's jaw went slightly slack at her words. Sakura took the opportunity to run inside her house. No need to make it anymore awkward.

As she leaned against her door, she took in a deep breath. She was not looking forward to having to be stuck with Retsuma, especially not if she had to worry about genjutsu or poison all the time. But, Sakura smiled to herself. Not even Retsuma's presence could dull the fact that she was going to meet with not just one friend tomorrow, but two. And with that thought in mind, Sakura headed upstairs to get changed for training, already looking forward to using Hinata's balm on her knuckles.


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