hello lovely people! i realise it's been two months since the last update and i apologise, university has taken over my life and devoured my free time, but i've been on xmas break for the last month so voila! hope you all had a lovely break/xmas/new year!

enjoy!


Somehow, Sakura and Genma managed to intercept the retrieval squad right after they'd gotten out of a confrontation with a doppelgänger of Uchiha Itachi. Kakashi looked resigned, Chiyo eyed Genma suspiciously but smirked at Sakura, while Naruto was baffled.

"Sakura-chan?" he asked, blinking rapidly. "What are you doing here? Did baa-chan send you?"

Sakura winced, having forgotten Naruto's annoying lack of respect for higher authority, but tried to smooth out her expression before she replied. "We had a mission around Grass and Rain, then got supplementary orders when we got to the border. Officially, we're here as your back-up." She said, trying to keep her frustration at bay when Naruto looked ready to argue something, then was surprisingly saved by Kakashi of all people.

"And unofficially?" he asked, tone sharper than Sakura reasoned it had any reason to be and she knew that it didn't escape neither Chiyo nor Genma's notice. Deciding that she wasn't paranoid, she smiled placidly and metaphorically dug her heels, all the while maintaining eye contact with Kakashi until Genma noticed and picked up where she left off.

"I believe that is up to the team leader's discretion." He intoned, perfectly civil though with a slight iciness in his gaze that made Sakura want to hug him.

Something unreadable passed through Kakashi's visible eye, then he gave a curt nod and ran.


When they approached the sealed entrance to the cave, Sakura swayed from the sheer magnitude of chakra that she could sense from within the cave, then squinted at the fuinjutsu on the rock as means of distraction.

"MY YOUTHFUL RIVAL!"

(The string of expletives that left her mouth and the handful of kunai she sent flying in the direction of the noise were largely ignored, apart from Genma who met her eye and started shaking with suppressed laughter. Sakura made a point to step closer to him and stamp on his foot. Hard.)

They both elected to ignore Kakashi filling Gai and his team in, and opted to focus on the writing on the wall.

"Simultaneous trigger-release seal?" Sakura hazarded, frowning. "With… three triggers?"

"Four." Genma corrected. "It's a strong self-sustaining seal which means the triggers draw power from the main matrix. The outer pattern also uses cardinal directions so I'd hazard that each trigger is located north, south, east and west from here respectively, and no further than a mile out."

"That's a good starting point. But removing the triggers will only disable whatever trap is keyed in the boulder but won't actually address the issue of the massive boulder blocking the way. Any ideas on that?"

At that, Genma grinned. "Well, it's a good thing we've got a little pyro on our hands, hm, kid?"

Sakura blinked a few times, trying to make sure she heard right, then smirked. "You want me to blow up the rock."

"I want you to blow up the rock." A moment passed between them, a flash of mutual understanding and amusement, before Genma turned back to the rest with a loud clap of his hands, "Alright here's what's going to happen-!"

And while he was doing that, Sakura was trying to dodge Chiyo's knowing, Machiavellian smirk and Kakashi's silent, blank gaze that she could feel on her face, telling her he'd overheard her and Genma's discussion. Sakura sighed and dropped to kneel on the ground, pulling out her tags and brush and set to work, channelling all her fear, her frustration at the situation, her worry for Gaara and Kankuro and Temari's mental state, her confusion at what it is the Akatsuki really wanted until she blinked. Paused. Focused on the tag. Then cursed.

She may have overdone the destructive power in the seal.

Sakura considered the matrix again then shrugged. Oh well.

When she deemed the seal done and looked up, Genma met her eyes, while Sakura did a slight double-take at the fact that Team Gai was no longer there.

"I sent them off to locate the triggers." Genma explained, easily catching on to the source of her confusion. "You about done with that?"

Sakura nodded and offered the tag up for inspection, then met Chiyo's amused gaze. "You got any other hidden talents girlie?"

The pinkette shrugged, "I can tie a cherry stem into a knot with my tongue?" she offered guilelessly. Chiyo blinked, considered her incredulously for a second, then threw her head back and cackled. Sakura allowed herself a small smirk, then rose and stuck the seal on the boulder.

"Okay. Kakashi, can I talk to you?" she asked when she was done, shooting Genma a meaningful look.

It was clear her old sensei wasn't expecting her to address him, but something in her expression must've convinced him that this was not the time to argue. Once he obliged and ambled over, Sakura dropped a muffling seal on the ground between them and pinned him in place with a look.

"In the spirit of cooperation and all that – we're most likely going to find the bomber and Sasori in that cave. The bomber has airborne clay creations and is likely to try and split us up, while the puppetmaster prefers stationary fighting. Chiyo-sama will want to face her grandson. You and Naruto should stay with her. No, just listen!" she cut him off before he could interrupt her, "I'm more used to working with Gen than you are with Naruto so it would be better if you have her beside you against Sasori. Besides, Gen and I are part of the Twenty Platoons. We've trained for this. You know just as well as I do that Naruto will react emotionally the moment he sees Gaara. Keeping him here, close to Team Gai and a closed structure is better than letting him run off in pursuit." When Kakashi looked unconvinced, she pushed, ignoring Naruto's indignant call. "You know I'm right, Kakashi."

"Can you keep up with the bomber?" he asked at last, and Sakura had to try very hard not to smirk victoriously.

"I can and I will." She assured him, and cancelled the chakra flow to the silencing tag. "Okay, let's blow it!"


She was right. Though the sight of Gaara's lifeless body was jarring and definitely something she'd need to see Inoichi about, compartmentalising was something she'd had three years' practice in.

Naruto… didn't.

Only Kakashi's firm grip on the back of the blond's jacket stopped him from running straight at the two Akatsuki members, and Sakura could feel his chakra growing, turning more volatile, trying to escape. She was almost glad when the bomber mounted his clay creation and flew out of the cave, Gaara's body clutched between the bird's talons. She could hear Naruto's vicious scream and cussing even as she and Genma ran out of the cave and after the bomber, but she resolved to feel guilty about this manipulation later.

Gaara was precious to her too.

She knew her and Genma worked well together. But it still took her by surprise every time he managed to seemingly read her mind without any effort.

They tested the agility of the bird, bombarding it with kunai and shuriken, making it swerve and dodge and twist and turn in mid-air all the while trying to dodge the explosions the blonde kept dropping on them. Sakura realised after a particularly large loop-de-loop that Deidara must've been sticking to the clay with chakra because he didn't lose his footing or stumble once since they've began their chase.

She layered five illusions on top of each other and was afforded only a split-second of satisfaction before she felt them break.

"I've made the Sharingan obsolete, your little tricks won't work!" the bomber called smugly, and Sakura had a few seconds of being alarmed before she smiled. She loved boasting opponents. They made it so easy for her to find a way to beat them.

Fine.

The Sharingan dealt in illusions that affected the optical nerve. All she needed was a technique that attacked the other senses.

Catching Genma's eye, she flashed through the seal-code the two of them had worked out and waited for his nod. Sakura took a deep breath, held it in for a count, then moved.

The Vertigo genjutsu came easily to her, hardly taking any chakra at all, and the effect was instantaneous. Deidara swayed, his bird swooped while he fell to his knees. Sakura sent out chakra strings while Genma flashed ahead, her threads attaching themselves to the bird's talons and prying them apart. Gaara's body fell free, and Sakura quickened her step and sent a clone to catch him while she focused back on a newly aware and angry bomber.

But Genma hadn't been idle. With Gaara free and the few seconds her genjutsu had worked, he'd planted the seals for the modified version of the Four Violet Flames Formation, and Sakura watched, awed, as a barrier of pure purple flames surrounded Deidara, trapping him within its confines, caging him in.

Sighing, Sakura sagged with relief and finally took a moment to assess the damage they took. Both her and Genma were singed in multiple places where they hadn't quite managed to evade the explosives, but were luckily otherwise unharmed. It was clear Deidara had been expecting Naruto to follow him and counted on the jinchuuriki acting out brashly or in anger, judging on what he'd said in the cave. Sakura found it even harder to feel guilty for pressuring Kakashi to keep Naruto back.

Genma turned to her and Sakura smiled reassuringly when she realised he too was doing injury assessment. Then, she got to her feet and regarded Deidara, who kept sending his explosives at the barrier, only for them to burst into flames before he could detonate. He was visibly growing angrier by the second, but Sakura didn't know how he could ever hope to get out. Unless-

"Did you extend the barrier walls underground too?" she asked sharply, eyeing Deidara who had stopped spamming the barrier with explosives and seemed deep in thought.

Genma nodded. "Twenty metres. He can't hope to walk under it. But it's eating at my chakra like a bitch."

Sakura paled. "You tethered it to your own chakra?! Genma!"

"It was the earlier draft, I didn't notice until I triggered it!" he explained, looking far too weary for Sakura's tastes. The barrier used during the Chunin Exams required four shinobi to sustain it. Genma was currently the only source keeping it up. Sakura didn't want to think about how much longer he could realistically sustain it.

It wouldn't be long.

"Okay…" she said, rubbing her hands over her face in frustration. "Okay, I can work with this. Chuck me your brush." She caught the item out of the air and pretended not to notice how Genma slumped against a nearby tree, visibly struggling with the chakra drain. Instead, she walked close enough to the barrier to touch it, coated the brush with ink then her chakra, closed her eyes and concentrated.

It was much like she used to concentrate in order to heal – find the other person's chakra, get a feel for its rhythm, its rise and fall, its speed through their coils, and try to match the wavelength of her own energy to theirs. Genma's chakra was as familiar to her as anything else about the man, a familiarity earned by years of living together, healing each other, fighting together, so it was not long until her chakra was in perfect sync with his, and she laid the brush in her hand against the wall of the barrier, felt it fight the contact, then accept her chakra as an extension of the one running through it. Keeping her eyes closed, Sakura began to draw.

First, she swapped 'personal energy' for 'natural', limited the draw on natural energy to a mile radius from the centre of the barrier, then focused on extending the walls further underground and closing it like a box, not trusting the bomber trapped within it to remain as complacent as he had appeared. Only when she could feel the barrier conform to the instructions she was carefully detailing in chakra and ink and sheer willpower alone did she close the circuit and finish the seal with a flourish, stepping away and opening her eyes.

"-kura! Sakura, get away from that barrier!" she tuned in to Genma's words just as her eyes focused on Deidara, noticed that he was no longer humanoid in appearance – his body had become translucent while she hadn't been looking, his veins turning black, the place where his heart should've been was now a macabre smiling sphere and growing.

"Sakura!"

Flash-stepping to Genma's side, she noticed that some colour had returned to his cheeks, but he was still visibly weakened from the drain.

"Please tell me you planted a hiraishin about a mile away?" she asked rhetorically, already gripping onto his arm and never taking her eyes off of what was becoming of Deidara.

"Of course; hold on-!" and the familiar tug of the hiraishin pulled them into the nowhere dimension of Space-Time just as there was an explosion of pure, blinding white light, making her eyes sting even from behind closed eyelids.

When she could once-again feel the ground under her feet, Sakura opened her eyes.

"Do you just spam those seals anywhere?" she couldn't help laughing, noticing that, by her estimation, Genma had literally deposited them a little over a mile away from the bomber.

"Precaution." The brunet sniped back, then added thoughtfully, "Though I didn't think I'd actually have to use them. Care to explain why specifically a mile?"

Sakura shrugged. "Precaution." She parroted, then sighed when Genma pinned her with a Look. "I made the radius for the natural chakra draw a mile. I didn't know what Deidara was going to do. I trust your seal and I have faith in the modifications I added, but… I didn't want to chance our lives on potentially misplaced confidence."

Genma seemed to assess her for a few seconds, then smiled. "I'm glad. Reckon we should head back now?"

Nodding, Sakura fell into step with the jounin, and they set off.

At first, nothing seemed amiss.

Then-

"…holy shit."

As they crossed to where Sakura calculated was just within the mile-radius, the scenery changed to something out of a nightmare. The forest which just a few metres back had been full and green and brimming with life was full of dead trees, the branches gnarled and weak. The grass under their feet was yellowed and brittle, crunching under their boots even with chakra softening their steps, and every few metres, there was a carcass of an animal unfortunate enough to have been in the vicinity; squirrel, rabbit, deer…

"Sakura, what did you do?" Genma murmured, wonder and horror alike evident in his voice, and the rosette frowned. What did she do?

Upon nearing the barrier, it became evident what had happened. The previously almost solid purple walls were thin and flickering, as if the chakra source they were sustained on was faltering, running out. As deep as the barrier went into the ground, there was no ground. As Sakura peered into the barrier, she realised there was a perfectly rectangular ditch in the ground, at least forty metres deep, and at the bottom was the barrier.

Deidara was nowhere to be seen.

"This… Deidara must've blown himself up." Genma murmured, and Sakura nodded slowly.

"Yeah… and the destruction was the barrier trying to contain the explosion. I don't even want to think how devastating it could've been. This is bad. A two-mile diameter of dead forest, versus… God even knows."

"Hey! Hey, kid!" Genma grasped her by the shoulders and shook her gently until she realised that she had begun to hyperventilate. "Breathe, okay? You did good. This is the lesser of two evils, alright? Yeah, you're gonna be blacklisted by some forest critters, but that barrier probably saved Hidden Valleys, Hatake, the Suna grinch and your teammate. Stop worrying!"

Sakura loved Genma.

She loved how he could always spot when something was not quite right and talk her down. But in this case, there was more to the issue, but getting to the bottom of why totalling and literally draining the life force of a section of forest the size of a small village was the thing that triggered her moral compass, when murder didn't – that would be Inoichi's job. So Sakura pushed it to the back of her mind and forced a smile on her face when she looked at Genma.

"Thanks, Gen. Let's see if the others are done?"

They made their way back, the tags that once made up the barrier stashed safely in Sakura's pocket. Sakura had her clone join up with them, Gaara's body in its arms which Genma took in his and the rosette dispelled the clone.

When they arrived back at the cave, Kakashi, Naruto and Chiyo were all still alive, and almost undamaged.

"How'd it go?" Genma asked quietly, laying Gaara down before Naruto had a chance to notice.

"Akasuna no Sasori is dead." Kakashi stated blankly, then his eyes flickered to Sakura. "He… gave some intel regarding Sasuke's location, right before he died. A member of his spy network is apparently Orochimaru's right-hand man." He sighed, rubbed at his eye, and jumped when Sakura's hand lit up green, even though she made sure not to touch him.

"I can't do anything about the direct cause, but I can ease the tension-headache the strain caused." She murmured, still keeping her hand away, waiting for Kakashi's nod. When it came, along with a quiet 'thanks', she let her hand rest on his forehead and tried to soothe the headache that her old sensei had developed.

"What about Deidara?" he asked, and Sakura and Genma shrugged simultaneously.

"Dead." Genma provided, while Sakura added, "Blew himself up."

"Casualties?"

"Mm, about one-mile radius of dead forest." Genma replied, a lopsided grin pulling at the corner of his mouth.

Kakashi looked between the two of them, eyebrow raised, then sighed, fatigue writ clearly in his posture and the shadows under his eye. "I changed my mind, I don't want to know."

Sakura laughed, leaning on Genma as the events of the last few hours caught up to her. Then, she turned in to what the others were doing, how Naruto was crying over Gaara and Chiyo was standing beside them, impassive. Their eyes met, and Sakura saw something flash through the Elder's eyes and firm. Something like resolve.


Sakura would've never expected the testy Elder to do what she did. She reckoned Shikamaru was going to have a stroke when he found out.

With all the Suna shinobi who had gathered while Chiyo was reanimating Gaara, plus Team 9 and the remains of the mish-mash team Kakashi had assembled, Sakura found it easy to fade into the background. She didn't want to hear Naruto's clueless insensitivity, nor wonder how the boy could've thought that medical jutsu would ever be enough to bring someone back from the dead. She left that to the newly-healed Kankuro to explain.

Disappearing into the crowd was easy even without her Chameleon jutsu, and she moved to the edge of the group, leant against a tree trunk and set to doing inventory of her weapons pouch. The mindless, routine task of counting, cleaning and sharpening gave her time to let her mind wander to the events of the day.

There were two less Akatsuki memebers to deal with. She had helped bring down one of them. Her and Genma had played god, using natural energy to their own ends. Gaara had died. Chiyo sacrificed herself to bring Gaara back. And yet Naruto got all the credit.

Sakura startled, surprised at the bitterness that had laced that thought. She wasn't jealous of Naruto so why-?

Chiyo deserved better.

She didn't have a chance to ponder on that any more as a hand suddenly appeared in her periphery and she looked up and straight into the curious, fond eyes of the Kazekage.

"I hope I'm not interrupting." He intoned, his voice soft, just as quiet as Sakura remembered but not as flat. Teasing, even. She noticed Naruto standing a few metres back, trying to look like he was engaged in conversation with a Suna-nin but very obviously trying to eavesdrop, but she paid him no heed.

Sakura let a small smile show and took Gaara's hand, letting him pull her to her feet. "Not at all. I'm glad to see you're well, Gaara-sama."

Gaara shook his head. "Just Gaara, Sakura, we're not in my office. And I've been told you took down the bomber, something I couldn't do. You've more than earned it."

Sakura snorted, touched but amused. "I didn't have a whole Village to protect." Then, noticing that the redhead still looked a bit shaky and even paler than usual, she rested a hand on his arm gently, frowning. "How are you feeling? Have you got any questions about what happened?"

Gaara closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath that shuddered slightly on the exhale. Clearly he wasn't as alright as he was trying to act. "It's…jarring. Everyone is so…kind. So concerned. I'm… not used to that. And I don't know- I don't know what changed." When he opened his eyes, Sakura felt her heart break a little. There was none of the confident, powerful shinobi, Kazekage at fifteen, able to command the power of entire deserts before her. Just a lost, confused boy, trying to find his place, and Sakura felt the last of her bitterness leave her.

She ran her hand down from his arm to his hand and clasped it in her own, squeezing gently. "You saved their lives, Gaara. You saved the lives of thousands, at the loss of your own. You proved that your power is not the monster within you. You honoured Chiyo. You've been doing everything in your power and more to prove yourself to your Village for over a year – losing you was what made the last of them finally realise it. So you better get used to it, and soon, or I'll have Temari smack you around, kage or no."

The corner of Gaara's lip curled up and his eyes glittered, which on anybody else Sakura reckoned would've been full-blown laughter. "Thank you, Sakura." Then, in a move that had Sakura gaping like a fish and convinced she had hit her head somewhere, he stepped forward and lightly hugged her. The action was made all the more awkward by the fact that he didn't let go of her hand and was also very clearly new to the idea of 'hugging'. Still, Sakura hugged him back as best as she could and tried not to jump too obviously when Gaara kept talking, "And do write my sister more. It's amusing seeing her get riled up when she reads your letters." Then he pulled away, and Sakura noticed out of the corner of her eye how multiple heads quickly turned away from the two of them and sighed inwardly.

Still, she smiled for Gaara and squeezed his hand before letting go. "Thank you. And I will, it's always fun writing them." She met his eyes and let her smile get a little smaller, more genuine even as she defaulted to their standard formalities. "I'm glad you're alright, Kazekage-sama. Remember, hearts and minds."

She saw the exact moment what she was saying clicked in Gaara's mind, and delighted in the fond, grateful nod she got in response. "Hearts and minds, Sakura-san. Take care."


"Hey, hey, Sakura-chan!" Naruto piped up, falling into step with her as the Konoha contingent was finally heading home. "I didn't know you were close with Gaara!"

Sakura heard a snort from the back of their group but didn't bother turning to see who it was, even as in front of her she could see Genma's back shaking with laughter.

She sighed and kept facing forward even as she answered. "Shikamaru and I are the Ambassadors to Suna, so we've been there a few times since we set-up the treaty. And I'm good friends with Temari, so I suppose that helps."

"But he hugged you." Naruto exclaimed, as if Sakura didn't realise the significance of that particular action. "Gaara doesn't hug people!"

Sakura fought the instinctive desire to snap and instead said, "I think you'll find that Gaara does what Gaara wants, Naruto. And he's grown a lot even over the year I've known him."

Her old teammate blinked, then seemed to consider something. "He mentioned that, once. You and Shikamaru helping set up the treaty. I guess I didn't realise…" but he trailed off, and Sakura wasn't all that bothered to get him to finish the thought, and was perfectly happy to lapse into silence. Her earlier surge of bitterness towards the blond had left her self-conscious and oddly off-kilter, and she needed Inoichi to help sift through the mess of emotions the last few days had brought.

Then, Naruto spoke again. "Hey, Sakura-chan? Do you want to get dinner when we're back in the Village? I haven't had Ichiraku's in ages and it could be like a da-"

"Naruto," Sakura sighed, cutting him off. "I'm not… interested in you that way. But I would be happy to get dinner with you," she added, to soften the sting of the rejection, "catch up, get to know you again. It could be…" she trailed off, struggling to find the right word – it could be what, exactly? Reassuring me I hadn't lost my mind? "nice." She finished lamely.

Naruto blinked, a bit thrown, clearly disappointed, but then smiled brightly. "Sure, Sakura-chan! It's a-! well, not a date, but y'know, ah… it'll be fun!"

Sakura managed a small, tired smile and a nod, trying not to wince at the tension headache that was blooming in her temples. It was looking like a long journey.


Her headache only worsened once they actually appeared before Tsunade and were tasked with delivering the oral report. Kakashi went first, seeing as Gaara's retrieval had been his main mission. Sakura was happy to deliver the report on her and Genma's original mission, the string of assassinations in Grass and Rain, but left explaining anything that happened after they joined up with Kakashi to Genma. She watched those around her instead and catalogued the reactions to Genma's explanation – Naruto's was confused, Kakashi's slightly disbelieving, while Tsunade looked satisfied but oddly… disturbed? Sakura couldn't quite put her finger on it.

It was only when Tsunade asked her whether she had anything to add that Sakura spoke again. "…Permission to tell Shikamaru about Elder Chiyo?" she asked at last, knowing that, despite all his complaining, the Nara genuinely respected the woman.

What she wasn't expecting was for Tsunade to pause, and for her face to take a concerned, almost pitying expression. "Ah… Asuma's platoon came across the immortal duo from Akatsuki. Asuma… didn't make it back." Sakura felt more than saw Kakashi and Genma freeze, their chakra roiling in a mess of confusion, disbelief, grief and anger. "Shikamaru has been missing since he got back to the Village. Neither the genin nor the chunin can find him. Shikaku is in Frost and Yoshino is out on a courier run; could you look for him, Haruno?"

But Sakura was already gone, not a leaf nor a cloud of smoke to show that she was ever even there.


When Sakura found Shikamaru, he was in the forest atop the Hokage Mountain, behind the kages' heads, his back against a tree and his head between his knees while his hand rhythmically tore up grass by the fistful.

Sakura had never dealt with this Shikamaru, but somehow, she wasn't worried. She strolled over to the teen, settled down beside him, and waited.

Half, maybe even a full hour passed before any words were spoken between them.

"I'm going to find him. I will find a way to kill him. And I will enjoy it." Shikamaru rasped, raising his head from between his knees and turning his face up towards the sky, his cheeks surprisingly tear-free, but his eyes were bloodshot and his mouth turned down in pain.

Nothing, Sakura reasoned, could have been more damning in determining how Shikamaru was feeling, than hearing him talk about murder with relish.

"I know you will. And I will do anything you need me to in order to help you achieve that." Sakura offered, putting as much strength and conviction behind her voice as she dared.

There was another moment of silence as Shikamaru finally turned to look at her, and Sakura's heart broke when their eyes met, but she made sure that her quiet confidence and carefully-controlled fury on the Nara's behalf was evident in her expression.

And then, as if that was all that he needed, Shikamaru's eyes filled with tears.

But that was the moment Sakura had been waiting for; she wrapped an arm around Shikamaru's shoulders, shuffled over so her back was pressed against the tree-trunk too, and pulled his head to rest in the crook of her neck, rubbing his back as he shook with the force of his sobs.

While Shikamaru cried, Sakura felt her anger grow – anger at Tsunade, for sending out measly four-man squads against monsters, anger at the Akatsuki, anger at Asuma for going on the mission knowing the danger, knowing what he was leaving behind, what he was risking, and anger at their world, the Shinobi Nations, the pretend-hierarchy meant to camouflage a military dictatorship and the fact that they were but pawns in an endless game of chess.

She would burn it all, raze it all to the ground, if it meant not having to see her precious people suffer like this.

"He k-killed Asuma. Asuma. Why… Why couldn't it have been anyone else? Why Asuma?" Sakura felt the exact moment Shikamaru started hyperventilating, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps, breaking the rosette's heart further with every shaky inhale. She soothed and coached him through the exercises Genma and Inoichi had taught her, then, when Shikamaru pulled away to wipe at his face once he could breathe again, Sakura laid a gentle hand on the back of his neck, met his eyes, and kissed him.

There was no heat behind the kiss, no passion, no lust nor expectation; just comfort in human intimacy and reassurance in the rhythmic meeting and parting of their lips. For Sakura, there were none of the fireworks she'd read about exploding behind her eyelids, no discernible shift in her world; it was just…natural. When they separated to breathe, Shikamaru seemed steadier, more grounded as his gaze met hers. Then, he craned his neck and brought their lips together again, cutting off Sakura's soft chuckle. The second time, Sakura tried to concentrate on what the teen novels had always focused on: Shikamaru's lips were soft but dry, salty from his tears, but most importantly, they were gentle. He was gentle.

Sakura had never much cared for the idea that her first kiss should be special, memorable, with the right person, but she was glad that, maybe apart from the circumstances, she was glad that her first kiss was with someone she trusted as explicitly as Shikamaru.

But this was not about her.

This was about comfort, about helping her friend, her partner, deal with his grief, about grounding him. Everything else, all Sakura's teenage woes and questionable hormones were secondary, a background noise that was nevertheless not enough to distract her from her goal.

As they separated for the second time, Shikamaru started laughing, quiet and breathless, and lightly thumped his head against Sakura's shoulder. They stayed in silence for a few seconds, then Shikamaru sighed.

"I'm not going home today. Probably not going down to the Village for a while." When Sakura hummed and scratched her nails through the hair at the nape of the Nara's neck, he shivered and continued, voice not as sure as before. "Stay with me?"

Sakura huffed, thinking it over, though her fingers never stopped their petting and Shikamaru didn't attempt to move his head. "I'll need to tell Gen, take a few days off from T&I… actually, screw this, Genma's tagged me, and if Ibiki or anyone in T&I wants to see me, they can find him. I'm staying. Have you got food? A tent?"

Shikamaru seemed a bit thrown, then shook his head and laughed. "Thanks… Wait, Genma tagged you? With his hiraishin seal?" he demanded, half-incredulous, half-amused, pulling away so she could see his face and the raised eyebrow that adorned it. Sakura could see the obvious change of topic, but she allowed it. She'd get Shikamaru to go through all the stages of grief counselling over the next few days – there was no real rush, so she smiled and focused on answering his question.

Sakura shrugged of her flak jacket and rolled up her left sleeve, where just below her ANBU tattoo lay Genma's personal hiraishin seal. "He got scared after that time we were coming back from Suna. Smacked it on me as soon as he was sure it was safe." She explained, corner of her mouth quirking up. "Paranoid bastard."

"Pot, kettle." Shikamaru coughed, though his eyes were sparkling with a hint of the mischief Sakura had gotten used to seeing in them. "Fancy setting up the tent while I scavenge for food?"

Sakura was more than happy to do just that, especially as the night was fast-approaching, but grumbled anyway, more for grumbling's sake than anything, but she still heard the Nara snort. "Ah, yes, give the girl the difficult job, sure, eugh."

Before he disappeared in search of where he must've dropped his mission pack, Shikamaru turned around and called back, "And, Sakura?" when the rosette looked up from the tent poles, he smiled, small but sincere and with a light blush dusting the bridge of his nose. "Thanks."


True to her word, Sakura stayed with Shikamaru for a week, making him talk about Asuma, talk about his plans, talk about anything and everything that came to mind. They played games, napped, watched clouds, and sparred – Shikamaru was determined to combine Asuma's chakra blades with the jutsu he'd been hashing out while they were in Suna all those months ago, and Sakura, as she had promised, was the willing guinea pig.

There were doubts lurking at the back of her mind, issues she was sure she was only making worse by not going to see Inoichi about, but she couldn't leave Shikamaru, and clearly, the Village was doing just fine without the two of them since Genma hadn't come after her yet.

And then, as if summoned, a week and two days after Sakura found Shikamaru, Genma appeared. He caught them when they were resting, enjoying the last of the afternoon sun – Shikamaru on his back, watching the clouds through the gaps in the trees, and Sakura on her side, arm and leg thrown over the Nara and her head cushioned on his chest, napping in the sun after hours of sparring. Her hair was grimy and she hadn't showered since the mission and Shikamaru was no better, yet instead of repulsive, the mixed smell of sweat, sun, grass and something earthy on the brunet was nothing but comforting.

"Kid," Genma greeted, "or, kids, really. Tsunade wants you in her office in an hour. Go home. Shower. Eat something that's not rations. Shikamaru, your parents are back, but if you want, some of your clothes are still at ours."

Shikamaru sighed and Sakura knew what he was going to choose even before he spoke so she smiled and sat up, stretching. "Thanks, but I reckon I should see them. Dad might be worried and my mum's probably already beside herself." He sat up too, cracking his neck and smiling at Sakura's automatic wince. "Thanks though."

Sakura smiled and held her hand up for a high-five, beaming when Shikamaru met her hand with his.

They were going to be alright.


When Sakura and Shikamaru finally showed up at the Hokage's office, she wasn't expecting the small crowd that was already there. Kakashi, Naruto, Ino, Chouji, a man whose chakra she vaguely recognised but whose face she couldn't remember, and –

Awaku-kun.

Sakura kept her face carefully blank and saw the boy do the same, despite the minute widening of his eyes and the way his hand dropped to his weapons pouch. She had a lot of questions to ask Tsunade after this.

"Right! You're here because you all deserve to hear this. Akasuna no Sasori provided us with intel pertinent to Uchiha Sasuke's location. Sakura, Naruto, you'll be going to investigate, with Yamato as your leader and Sai as the third team member!"

Sakura felt Shikamaru tense beside her and she momentarily saw red. She was meant to be going with Shikamaru. She promised him she would.

A hand snaked down to wrap around hers and Sakura glanced down and saw the Nara's tanner hand holding hers, right before he squeezed lightly. When she looked up and met his eyes, Shikamaru offered her a wry smile and a shrug.

"Ino, Shikamaru, Chouji, you'll be going after Hidan and Kakuzu of the Akatsuki, with Kakashi as your leader." She assessed the three teens, and a surprisingly soft, sympathetic expression appeared on her face as she added, "Give them hell."

Taking that as a dismissal, most of the group filtered out of the office, but Sakura hung back.

"Yes, Haruno? Got anything to say?" the Godaime asked, but Sakura knew she woman was aware of what she wanted to bring up.

"Are you aware that Sai-!" but Sakura cut herself off, her eyes drawn to Tsunade's fingers which were moving almost imperceptibly against the table, hidden from view of where she knew the ANBU guard was stationed by her arm and not inconsiderable bosom.

"operation in progress", "don't attack", "smoking out", "suspect", "act natural".

Sakura realised she hadn't been down in T&I for too long if something of this magnitude passed her by.

"That Sai what, Haruno?"

"That he might not fit in with me and Naruto." Sakura bluffed, then brought up another point she wanted to argue so it wasn't a complete lie. "And why are you sending out this particular group, Tsunade-sama? Team Seven was officially dissolved when I became jounin and I would be much more useful with Shikamaru's team."

"The blond brat seems to think that if the Uchiha sees what he left behind, he'll be more willing to come back." the blonde explained, and Sakura scoffed, her expression disbelieving.

"And do you believe that, Tsunade-sama?"

Tsunade sighed. "What I believe doesn't matter. But I am willing to try Naruto's way because we don't have the necessary manpower in the Village to try it any other. And having one rogue Sharingan was bad enough, but now that there are two, the Council is pressing for action. Uchiha Sasuke has been upgraded to a B-Rank missing-nin after what he did to Mitarashi." Sakura couldn't help the scowl, couldn't help opening her mouth to retort, but then Tsunade cut her off, "However, I am not so gullible as to believe that Naruto's luck won't run out at some point. Which is where you come in, Haruno. You will be going with them, and your job will be as the wolf in sheep's clothing. Your other day-job, if you will."

Sakura paused, narrowed her eyes and was about to ask what the woman meant, when it clicked. She tried very hard not to gape as she took a moment to gather her thoughts. "You… want me to assassinate Uchiha Sasuke?"

"No. I want you to drag him back to the Village using any means necessary. I know of the deal you made with Hiashi. You have my permission. But don't kill him."

Sakura couldn't keep the whine out of her voice. "Why not?"

Suddenly, Tsunade's mouth set in a firm, vicious line, her eyebrows drawing together as fury blazed in her eyes, and Sakura felt a shiver go down her spine at the sheer power that radiated off the woman.

"Because the bastard needs to face trial, that's why!"

Sakura was out the door and on the other side of the Village before the vase Tsunade threw even hit the wall.

Uchiha Sasuke wasn't going to know what hit him.


and here we are! as always, please do tell me what you thought in a comment, i love hearing from you guys! the next update will hopefully be out in the standard month so till then!