Kitagawa is traversing the rooftops, high above Sakura's head as she walks through the market, heading for the Uchiha Compound.
She watches him lazily amble across the roof tiles, as graceful as a cat. He prefers to travel up top, as he puts it, because it usually means forcing any lurking Masks to quickly vacate before he stumbles across them, and it also means he doesn't have to engage in small talk with the civilians who always want to chat with Sakura.
It's almost February, so it's almost warm enough to stop having to wear layers. Every year Sakura goes through the same old issue of figuring out how to cover up the scar on her back once the weather gets too hot to wear layers. The flesh is still raised and ridged, so she can't just use Tsunade's makeup to hide it. It's become paler over the years, less severe and fresh, but it's still an obviously life-threatening injury. Kakashi has never said anything about it again, not after she fed him Kagami's lie about Kumo kidnappers. Fugaku's too quick to get caught staring at her back, but sometimes Sakura will feel a spike of something in his aura, anger, concern, or sadness, and will glance up to find him looking anywhere but her. Tsunade occasionally asks if she wants it removed, but never pushes.
And now Kabuto knows.
Kagami thinks he was offering to help hurt the people who hurt her, maybe get rid of them for her if they were still bothering her. It's kind of him, but it doesn't change Sakura's suspicions of him. She smiles up at Kitagawa's figure as he leaps to the next roof. He'd be happy to know she wasn't just taking Kabuto's offer at face value.
Sakura returns the smiles of the familiar civilians she often sees in this part of the village. She likes the ones that still smile when she's with Naruto.
Tsunade's formal adoption of Naruto made waves throughout the entire village. Sakura watched some civilians change their minds about Naruto, their faint, underdeveloped auras radiating confusion, guilt, and tentative hope whenever they saw him. Kagami explained that they were reassured by Tsunade claiming Naruto as her kin, since they trusted the Senju name and what it meant.
But others got even angrier. It didn't help that they could no longer say or do what they pleased around Naruto, because he was protected by his clan and his bodyguard, so instead they said things behind his back and spread rumours about Tsunade. Sakura had waited for Tsunade to do something, to punish them or stop them, but Tsunade shrugged it all off and made a point of publicly walking around the village with all of her children.
Sakura knows Naruto is a jinchuuriki, like Gaara, because Kagami said so ages ago, and everyone hates him for it, even though he never killed anyone, unlike Gaara. She doesn't understand it and no amount of explaining from Kagami will make her.
She takes a right turn, ducking under the arm of a passing civilian and spinning around to mouth apologies at them as she backs away. She breaks out into a run, now that the path ahead is empty of people and she doesn't have to worry about charging headfirst into some soft-bellied merchant and getting in trouble.
She still runs exactly how Shisui taught her. She's fast, faster than Sasuke, Ino, and all of the Monsters except Naruto when he's upset. She's nowhere near as fast as Itachi, and whenever she races Shisui, it feels like she's wading through ankle-deep mud and he's skipping through the air. So, she's far from the best at it, but she still really likes running.
She charges down the back alleys, navigating Konoha with Kagami's memories guiding the way, aided by years of following Shisui down shortcuts, over walls and under fences, squeezing through tightly-packed buildings and climbing buildings with nothing but her bare hands and the certainty that Shisui will catch her if she falls. It feels as if she's been everywhere in Konoha, felt every inch of its earth beneath her toes and seen everything there is to see, and yet it doesn't feel any smaller.
She feels bigger.
There's no one on the main street when Sakura re-emerges into civilisation, a little dusty from dragging herself through an alley that's little more than a crack between two houses.
She looks up, instantly entangling herself in someone's laundry that they'd strung up outside their window. She frees herself, whispering apologies to the robes she accidentally wrinkled, then feels a hint of something familiar.
Copper on steel.
Sakura stretches up, balancing on her toes and peering in every direction. Itachi grew far too quickly, and she had to learn to look up if she wanted to see him.
She spots him sitting on a bench, his posture rigid and perfect, toes pointing forward, spine straight, head up. He's always so poised and purposefully placed. He looks like the faces on the Hokage Mountain, carved with discipline, eternally sombre and pensive.
Sakura beams, excitement buzzing through her, and jumps up to wave.
Itachi glances her way, a tiny smile flickering across his face, and the excitement inside Sakura bubbles up and fizzes over until –
The trees around them blossom at once. Pink petals suddenly sprout from every branch, too early for the season, their beauty belying the chill in the air.
Sakura has enough time to gasp, then Itachi is on his feet, his hands a blur of signs, unleashing chakra in a vicious slice that sends Sakura backpedalling in animal terror.
The petals fall from the trees, each one neatly burned to a crisp mid-air.
For a moment, Sakura and Itachi just stare at each other. Sakura's covering her mouth in shock, Itachi is angry enough that it reaches his eyes, burning embers clawing through her until she's flushed with shame and guilt, averting her gaze.
"You cannot be so foolish." Itachi snaps, his voice as effective a slice as his chakra had been a moment ago. The ash from the petals has already blown away. "To lose control in so public a place, for no reason at all – it's – it is beyond foolish, it is senseless, Sakura, I have warned you to be careful before, and you promised me you were learning how to control it – "
As he speaks, he hurries forward, hands out as if to place on her shoulders and shake some sense into her. Sakura flinches, unable to forget the rush of coppery chakra pushing her back, the visceral snap of Itachi's temper.
Kitagawa steps between them, the bells in his hair chiming an insouciant tune.
All signs of Itachi's temper vanish at once, the messy emotions neatly packed away at the sight of a near-stranger. Sakura sees his eyes flicker over Kitagawa's loose posture, his relaxed expression, sees him wondering what Kitagawa knows. If he was close enough to intervene when Itachi came near Sakura, was he close enough to see her use Mokuton?
Sakura knows the answer doesn't matter. Kitagawa has known for a long time.
"Uchiha-san," Kitagawa trills, deliberately obnoxious, "You look like you're heading for the training grounds. Shouldn't you get going already?"
Itachi is still, the only sign of life the slight rise and fall of his chest. Then he looks up, gracing Kitagawa with a polite nod. Sakura notices with interest how Kitagawa isn't quite meeting Itachi's eyes, his gaze a touch to the left of Itachi's. Why would he be careful around Itachi's Sharingan? Itachi's not an enemy.
When Itachi makes a move to leave, Sakura catches his sleeve and tugs it gently. She knows he allowed her to catch him, just like he's allowing her to keep holding onto his pristine Uchiha training garb with her grubby fingers.
He turns, a distantly expectant look on his face, the way adults often look when they're trying to humour her but can't quite take her seriously.
He's only twelve.
The look burns almost as much as the brush with his furious chakra. He's twelve and she's seven, almost eight. The gap between them is nothing but a stepping stone, but he acts as if it's a gaping chasm, filled with all the things he knows and Sakura will never understand.
"Good morning, Itachi," Sakura says, settling for something polite and inoffensive, something he can't possibly find fault in.
Itachi's eyes soften, just a fraction. Sometimes he looks like her friend Itachi, not the heir of the Uchiha clan. "Good morning, Sakura. I trust your bodyguard can escort you the rest of the way without trouble. Goodbye."
"Wait – the rest of the way? Were you waiting for me? To… to escort me back to your house?" Sakura asks, dismayed at the prospect of missing out on quality time with Itachi because of her own stupid mistake.
Itachi seems to sense her feelings, because his brow furrows and his chakra unfurls slightly, his aura opening up to her again. Then his gaze sharpens and his aura withdraws at once.
He slowly reaches out, to slow for Kitagawa to be driven to intervene, though Sakura can feel him aching to, and he plucks a single petal from Sakura's hair.
It burns between his fingers, his eyes hard and unforgiving again, "It doesn't matter now."
When he turns to leave, this time Sakura can't hold on, his sleeve slipping through her fingers like sand.
Kitagawa pats her head, brushing his ringed fingers through her hair as if it will erase Itachi's touch, "Shall we go, then?"
"Are you mad at me too, Kit-kun?" Sakura asks shakily.
"Nope," Kitagawa says, so simply and easily that she knows it's true, "You can only ever do your best, and if it turns out to not be good enough, then there was nothing more you could do. I'd never be mad at you for trying your best and not succeeding, okay?"
Sakura nods, trying to look cheered by his words, but they swirl around her mind endlessly. Kitagawa isn't angry because he assumes she's doing her best, that her lack of control over her Mokuton isn't the result of her own weakness and instability, but she knows better.
If she was doing her best, just the sight of Itachi's smile wouldn't be enough to make flowers bloom.
Fugaku opens the front door with a furrowed brow.
Sakura smiles up at him, not quite up to her usual beam.
He looks down, his brow clearing at the sight of her, "Ah, Sakura. Your punctuality does you credit."
"Thank you, Fugaku-san. You're not late answering the door either," Sakura replies.
For some reason, this wins her one of Fugaku's rare tiny almost-smiles, though it's gone in almost an instant, "Come inside, Mikoto is waiting in the reception room."
"The one with the pink lamps?" Sakura checks.
"More commonly known as the reception room, yes."
Sakura bounds inside but turns around to give Kitagawa a stern look. He's currently loitering halfway down the path, eyeing some of the flowerpots with the eye of a barterer eager to make a sale. Sakura has a vision of him grabbing an armful of begonias and dashing down to the market, cackling madly all the while.
"You can't come in, Kit-kun," Sakura says.
Kitagawa gapes at her, "Sakura-hime, I – "
"The last time you came here you broke Sasuke's favourite plate because you were juggling it along with Sasuke himself," Sakura says, using her best Fugaku-voice, aware of the man himself stiffening behind her at the sound of it, "And the time before that you made fun of Itachi for still having toys. If you can't behave yourself, you can't come."
Kitagawa looks stricken, "Sakura-hime, you know I'm contractually obliged to follow you to the ends of the earth – "
"But not the bathroom or my treehouse," Sakura interrupts. They've had a long time to iron out all the wrinkles of their arrangement, and it's worked out so far. Except now. She doesn't like what Kitagawa becomes in the Uchiha Compound, he gets twitchy and extra-obnoxious. He clearly hates being here. She thinks back to his careful avoidance of Itachi's gaze.
"No, some things are sacred," Kit agrees, waving a careless hand, "Like me following you into houses to keep you safe from random bandit attacks or emotional disputes. Okay?"
"No, not okay. If random bandits attack here, they'll be sure to make a mess, which Fugaku-san hates, so of course he'll stop them, so I'll be safe. Don't be silly."
Kitagawa stares, open-mouthed, disarmed by the warped logic.
"Don't worry, I won't tell Oba-san," Sakura says generously, "Fugaku-san won't either, will you?" She aims the last bit at the man standing behind her, confusion warring with amusement in his aura.
Fugaku is blank-faced, but vicious delight laces his words, "Of course. You can come collect Sakura after her meeting with Mikoto. If you wait in the front garden, I will have drinks and refreshments brought out to you."
"Kit-kun doesn't eat anything he didn't make himself," Sakura informs Fugaku, who eyes the bodyguard with the gleam of new knowledge.
Kitagawa's chakra disappears as if smothered by a blanket, his face empty of expression. He gives Sakura an unreadable look, which makes her stomach tighten. They'd been practicing her ability to read facial expressions, and she'd thought she was getting better at it.
He's disappointed, Kagami tells her.
Oh, Sakura says, biting her lip.
"I'll be close by," Kitagawa says. It sounds like a warning. He gives Fugaku a shallow bow, his form perfect, for once no mockery slipping in, and then vanishes with a little chime, the bells in his hair giving one last ring.
They leave an air of discontent behind.
Sakura swallows. Her throat hurts. What did I do wrong?
You could have talked about it with him beforehand, Kagami says gently, you sprung it on him without warning, in front of someone he doesn't trust.
Sakura digs her fingers into her dress, twisting the fabric.
He said he wouldn't get mad at me…
Disappointed. Not mad, Kagami corrects.
"Sakura?" Fugaku says, sounding concerned.
She takes a little breath, raising her eyebrows to clear her worried expression, and turns around in a whirl of skirts, "Okay, I'll be in the reception room!"
She hurries past Fugaku, not stopping to see if her forced cheer had fooled him.
"…The one with the pink lamps, yes." Fugaku's voice follows her.
Mikoto was waiting at a table with a tray of sparkling glasses, her chakra as patient as still waters.
"Sakura-chan, it's lovely to see you looking so well," Mikoto smiles, rising to greet her. Sakura clumsily endures Mikoto's inspection, her dark eyes taking in every change since they last met. It hadn't been that long, and Sakura hadn't grown that much at all, but Mikoto always made a big deal out of every tiny difference. It made Sakura feel like she was growing up faster than she actually was.
"Hello," Sakura mumbles, chin down almost to her chest, "Your hair looks nice."
She thought this was a good compliment, enough to equal Mikoto's, but it just makes the older woman give a tinkling laugh. Sakura's not sure when she'll stop guessing what she's supposed to say and just know. She hopes it's soon.
Mikoto flicks her hair over her shoulder, a lovely cascade of ink-black, "Take a seat, Sakura-chan. I've prepared a few things for today."
Sakura sits down on the sofa, all too aware of how delicate and flimsy all of the Uchiha's furniture is after years of Naruto-induced disasters. The sofa creaks beneath her weight, despite her tiny size. She gulps.
"So, Tsunade-san told me about your recent issues. Your chakra reserves are very small, and you're having trouble accessing them. Is that true?" Mikoto asks, as though Sakura's opinion means more than Tsunade's. Sakura flushes.
Sakura only hums in agreement, not trusting herself not to say something stupid or revealing.
"Itachi told me about the day your father got very sick, and you saved him." Mikoto says, pausing between every word as though ready to change the subject if needed. "He said you used up your chakra all at once, stopped, and then forced more out. That was his exact word, forced. I was concerned to hear it, but since you never seemed to struggle to use chakra afterwards, I assumed you were fine. Can you tell me what happened when you saved your father?"
Sakura silently asks Kagami to speak, and she does. Both she and Sakura remember how Kagami used to be around Mikoto, gazing at her with grim fascination, like she was witnessing something truly terrible yet too compelling to look away.
"I pushed all the chakra out," Kagami says as Sakura, copying her intonation, "But then it got stuck. I pushed it more and it came out."
Mikoto nods, not a single ripple of suspicion in her aura. Sakura fights off a shiver with Kagami's help. It never gets easier, lying to people who trust you simply because you're small and supposed to be harmless. Sakura wouldn't mind being harmless, sometimes. But then she remembers Konoha lying in rubble, Ino broken in the dirt, and resigns herself.
"Who taught you to use chakra, Sakura-chan? Before the Academy, I mean."
Sakura automatically goes to lie, but Kagami cuts her off, simply saying, allow me, Sacchan.
"Nobody," Kagami says, giving Mikoto a winsome smile. It's true, in a way. Sakura learned how to use chakra instinctively, after feeling how Kagami did it in her dreams. Kagami gives Mikoto a moment to process this unlikely truth, then presses on, "I read a lot of books. I wanted to be able to make fire."
That catches Mikoto's attention, "Fire? On your own? Sakura-chan, I hope you were careful."
"I wasn't!" Kagami says gleefully, enjoying herself. "I found books with Katon in them, and I wanted to make a fire with my mouth like the pictures said."
Mikoto's chakra flickers quickly from horror to interest. Clearly the idea of Sakura using Katon without any training worried her, but the idea of her picking an Uchiha technique to use first was too intriguing to ignore.
"I couldn't do it, though. I just made smoke, and that tasted bad," Kagami said mournfully.
Is that really how I sound? Sakura asks.
Oh, no. You're a little more sunshine and rainbows.
Sunshine and rainbows don't sound like anything.
I'm not going to explain metaphors to you again, Sacchan.
"I never tried to do it again," Kagami says earnestly.
"Well, I hope not," Mikoto says wryly, unconvinced, "So, you taught yourself how to use chakra from reading about the process, and didn't require any instruction?"
Sakura nods. It's true. The only reason she was able to do it was because of Kagami's memories giving her an instinctive grasp on the mechanics of chakra use, but she can't really tell Mikoto that.
"And that's when you started having trouble controlling your strength?" Mikoto supplies, mirth colouring her aura. Sakura wonders if she's remembering the time her floor got stomped to death. Sakura still feels bad about that.
"Yeah, it just happens sometimes, I – "
"You still have trouble with it? Surely Tsunade-sama knows, but if she did, she would do her best to help…" Mikoto trails off, talking more to herself than Sakura.
"It's always been like this." Sakura blurts out, accidentally pushing for control. Kagami moves aside easily, unbothered. "I can sometimes do things that make people think I'm a genius, like healing people and breaking things, but it's really hard to do it on command, it just – it just happens and I can't control it. I'm… I'm not a genius, I'm a freak."
The word spills out without warning and hangs in the air between them.
Sakura trembles, aware of Kagami's alarm and Mikoto's concern, aware of everyone's feelings but her own. They're all tangled up and pushed down, and when they spring up unbidden, they're always too sharp to hold back. Itachi's anger disturbed the shame and guilt that already lingered inside her, Kitagawa's disappointment only made it worse. They expect more from her than she can give because they think she's better than she is.
"Sakura-chan – "
"Don't say I'm not, you have to say that because you're a mother, and you're nice, but I am a freak and I've always known it. People… people say such nice things about me but if they knew the truth, they'd be disappointed. Naruto's gotten so good at the illusions Jiraiya shows him and Tenzo-nii's the best at everything, and Sasuke and Itachi are real geniuses, and I can't even throw a kunai straight, and… a-and I'm supposed to be so talented and so smart. I graduated the Academy just as quickly as Oba-san, but… I really can't do anything she can. All I can do is make messes." Sakura dissolves into sobs, shrinking away from Mikoto's hand as she reaches out to comfort her. It's automatic, the natural reaction of a kind adult being faced with a child in need, but Sakura's not really a child, she's a pretender, a freak.
"That's really not how I see you, Sakura-chan," Mikoto says warmly.
"No, t-that's just because I want you to like me," Sakura sniffs, "So I try to be as nice as possible and hide all the other stuff. I broke your floor, and I almost stopped being friends with Ino-chan because I was too busy having other friends, and I can't even stick up for myself with Ami, and I pretend m-my parents don't mind sharing me b-because I don't want to have to end up making a choice between them and Oba-san, and I broke my mattress."
"I killed a civilian when I was thirteen years old," Mikoto says calmly, so calmly that Sakura's head jerks up, certain she'd misheard.
"This isn't common knowledge, Sakura-chan, but it's not forbidden either, so I can share it with you. On one of my first missions, I was so scared and paranoid of every stranger I saw, that when someone tried to steal from me, I lashed out. I'd been holding onto my kunai for almost the entire mission, too frightened to let it go, and I forgot I was holding it. I only wanted to push them away, but I ended their life with my carelessness. They died, not just because of my fear, but because I was too proud to speak to any of my team about how I was struggling."
Sakura stares in silence, tears still rolling down her cheeks.
Mikoto sips her tea, giving herself a moment to think. Sakura sees a dull blue swirling around her heart. The centre of it was a very faint red, almost pink. An old hurt, surrounded by grief.
"When I got a good look at them, I realised they were even younger than I was. A child, just trying to survive by lifting a few coins off strangers. I… I suppose you could say I fell apart. I couldn't hold a kunai for months afterwards. I was given temporary medical leave, forced to see professionals and talk to them. Tell them all about my mistake. The funny thing is, even knowing the consequences of keeping quiet about my struggles, I still couldn't tell them. The Uchiha pride is more than a stereotype, it's very real. It's what keeps us going through the hard times, telling ourselves that they we are above our hardships, we are more than what we suffer. It's not even worth discussing, and it's weakness to share it with others. That's what I was raised to believe. To this day, I still find it difficult to admit my mistakes."
"But… you're doing it right now," Sakura says quietly.
"How could I not, after you told me so much about yourself?" Mikoto smiles. "Your problem isn't pride, Sakura-chan. It's insecurity. You don't seem to think very much of yourself at all, do you?"
Sakura squirms in her seat, biting her bottom lip to stop it from quivering, "I try so hard to get better at things, but I never do get better. I just stay like this. Everyone expects so much from me, but I can't even do half of what they think I can… It's hard. To like myself. It's hard."
Sacchan… Kagami sounds appalled. An icy shock trickles down Sakura's spine. She'd forgotten she wasn't alone with Mikoto, that their conversation wasn't private. That her conversations were never private.
Kagami must catch the tail end of Sakura's thoughts, because she withdraws at once, leaving a faintly apologetic air behind. It's tinged with hurt.
"I understand. You don't want to disappoint the people who believe in you, and you think your true capabilities are less than what they expect, and so if they knew that, you would fail to live up to their expectations," Mikoto reiterates, her tone utterly neutral.
Sakura hangs her head, "Yes."
"But Sakura-chan, don't you think the people who truly matter – that is to say, your friends, your family, and the rest of your loved ones – believe in you because of who you are, not what they believe you can do?"
Sakura looks up.
"Tsunade-sama in particular, I believe, would never be disappointed if she knew the extent of your struggles. Your parents have loved you since before you were born, and their love is completely unconditional. There is nothing you could do that would so much as dent that love, let alone take it away all together. You have graduated from the Academy, so there are no teachers to grade your abilities anymore. You're at the point in your life where you are your own master. You are the one who sets your own limits, the one who decides how much you can do and how much you will aim to do. What do you think will happen if you are open and honest about the difficulties you have been facing? Your chakra coils' lack of use is not a well-known fact, it's something only you, Tsunade-sama, the hospital, and I know. If you were to tell the people you've been trying to hide it from, what do you truly believe would happen?"
Sakura considers it.
"It… it would upset them," She says.
"And?" Mikoto prompts.
"I just – th-that's all. I don't know how they'd react, I just know they'd be upset that I'd been struggling. And that I hadn't told anyone."
Mikoto smiles at her, "And that's why you haven't told anyone? Out of fear of upsetting them because you hadn't told anyone? Sakura-chan, you're running around in circles. You know how to stop doing that?"
Sakura sniffs, shaking her head.
"Go in a different direction. Break the cycle of behaviour by trying something new. You did that today by being honest with me. You told me the truth, and it turned out well, didn't it?"
"W-well… I cried," Sakura says, hating the quiver in her voice. She sounds so young.
"Everyone cries, Sakura-chan." Mikoto says, the total certainty in her voice managing to assuage Sakura's doubts. The nasty knot in her stomach starts to loosen. "It isn't a bad thing in itself."
"Okay," Sakura says, letting out a long sigh, sagging back against the sofa, "Thank you, Mikoto-san."
"Now," Mikoto says cheerfully, clapping her hands, "The reason you're here! I was very pleased to be asked to be your tutor, Sakura-chan, and even more pleased when you agreed to be my apprentice."
Sakura flushes, not sure why she's embarrassed.
"I am chakra sensor by nature, though I haven't had to use my abilities in quite some time. You may have to bear with me." Mikoto says, a veil dropping from her aura, revealing the delicate plume of chakra in the centre of her being. It feels like ink on paper, similar to Sakura's old classmate, like silk ribbons and brushstrokes. Her chakra has endless depths, it's almost dizzying.
Sakura sits up straight, her own tiny chakra supply singing in response, "T-thank you very much, Mikoto-san! Um, Mikoto-sensei."
Mikoto just gives her a wistful smile, something dark and longing curling in her aura that speaks of old regrets, then her posture stiffens up, the sudden severity of her features strangely reminiscent of Fugaku.
"You will be a fine shinobi, Sakura-chan," She says firmly, her words ringing with the same gravitas as one of the Hokage's speeches.
It should be a comforting reassurance to feel Mikoto's belief in her, especially as she knew so many of Sakura's hidden insecurities, but Sakura heard the words that went unspoken, hanging in the air between them.
You don't have a choice.
It's Shizune's turn to cook that weekend, since Tsunade is busy at the hospital. Sakura's been looking forward to it all week, since Shizune's cooking tends to be a lot tastier than Tsunade's, who believes having to cut black bits off is just the final stage of meal preparation.
Sakura's favourite dinners are still the ones her parents make, not just because they know all her favourites, but because Shizune has a special interest in the health properties of food and prefers serving up things that are far too green and leafy for Sakura's liking.
Sakura helps set the table outside in the garden, the one that Tenzo made himself, designing it to be long enough to seat up to ten guests at a time, and capable of being folded up and put away when not in use. It's not perfect, more than a little crooked and battered from Sakura and Naruto's games (not to mention three dogs' teeth), but whenever it's unfolded across the garden, Sakura feels at home.
The guinea pig hutch is next to the table, ostensibly because that's the area of the garden that gets the best shade, but really because it makes it easier for Tenzo to sneak them food. They're all asleep in fuzzy bundles now, curled up together in the grass. It seems as though they've multiplied in Sakura's absence, since there's a few tiny spotted ones she doesn't recognise.
Tenzo is carefully arranging glasses, his hands red-raw from being scrubbed clean at the kitchen sink. Sakura's used to seeing him with fingernails blackened with dirt and knuckles smeared with mud and grass, but over the years he's got into the habit of vigorously washing his hands every time he passes a tap. Sakura asked him once why he didn't just use chakra, and he said he preferred to do things the hard way.
The treehouse still stands proudly, the focal point of the garden. Its branches bloom with whatever flowers Tenzo is in the mood to see, and over the years he's taken the time to hollow the tree out completely, making a little door at the base of the trunk, and a stairway inside that leads to the treehouse. Sakura usually just uses the steps on the outside, practising her ability to climb with chakra. She eyes it now, wondering how she'd fare with her own measly supply, not Kagami's enormous reserves.
Tamotsu, Naruto's great big beast of a dog, is lounging on his side in a patch of sunlight, his red fur a gleaming contrast against the grass. He's about two feet tall now and weighs more than Kakashi (they tested this very thoroughly, much to Kakashi's dismay), but despite his immense size, he's never done anything more strenuous than chase squirrels in the park, and he's much more likely to slam into a tree face-first than actually catch anything.
Tenzo drops a freshly-cut flower into a vase, then takes a moment to regard the table with intense scrutiny, looking for the best place to put it. His entire team is coming to dinner tonight, Inoichi included, and whenever that happens, Tenzo can't bear anything to go wrong. Every single time they arrive at the house, Tenzo's made sure to do everything from sweeping the hall clean to arranging the flowerbeds to suit the occasion. It reminds Sakura of how Naruto used to be, so desperate to please his new parents that he refused to use anything, not wanting to make a mess and then have to clean it up. Jiraiya's more lackadaisical style of guardianship soon mellowed out Naruto's concerns, but Tenzo's perfectionism has only increased with time.
Sakura straightens a plate, mindful of his desire to have everything be perfect and special, and tries not to preen under the weight of his grateful smile. Once everything is done, she joins Tamotsu in the grass, napping to the sound of guinea pigs squeaking, and the soft whump of Tamocchi's tail.
Later on, Shizune wakes her up and shoos her upstairs to wash up and change into clean clothes, and Sakura takes a moment to examine her chakra reserves, disappointed to discover her tiny flame hasn't grown at all.
Inoichi brings Ino, dressed as prettily as ever in a lilac dress with matching earrings, her hand loosely holding her father's in a way that suggests necessity rather than sentiment. She totters over the grass in short, stubby heels, with Shizune watching her every step like a well-intentioned hawk. Her father deposits her in Sakura's waiting arms, then heads to the kitchen to help with dinner.
"I have to tell you something!" Sakura whispers, keeping a careful eye on Tenzo's aura in case he notices her sudden exit.
Ino brightens, always eager to hear gossip, and drags Sakura to a far corner of the garden, hardly stumbling at all despite her stubby heels.
Sakura tells Ino the whole sad saga of her mattress and its flowery demise, her voice hushed and fraught with agony. Ino makes sympathetic noises and rubs Sakura's arms. Sakura sags a little in relief, glad to have the affair off her chest.
"Where is it, then?" Ino demands. "I want to see!"
"It's not here, it's in my house – the Haruno house, I mean. I put it in my wardrobe. I just don't know what to do next!"
"Get Tsunade-sama to buy you a new mattress," Ino says, as if it's obvious.
"Mattresses are expensive," Sakura informs her, happy to know a bit of grown-up information thanks to Shizune, "I don't want her to have to spend lots of money fixing my mistakes."
"But why not, if she wouldn't care?" Ino asks, her face blank. "She's rich. Maybe your parents wouldn't be able to buy another one, but she can, so why does it matter?"
"M-my parents could afford one, I just… I don't want them to know about the… you know." Sakura makes a little hand gesture, mimicking the way she makes flowers for Ino when they're in private. "And I know Tsunade hates going behind my parents' backs, so I can't ask her to do this for me. I have to figure something else out."
Ino looks sullen, displeased at having all of her suggestions rejected out of hand. Then she sighs, shaking her head, "I guess you could just save up all your spending money until you could afford one. Then you could buy one in secret, right?"
"Ooh!" Sakura squeals. "You're right! You're always so smart, Ino-chan, I don't know what I'd do without you!"
Kagami shuts off the connection between them quietly, not allowing Sakura a moment to share her reaction to the careless words. Sakura winces, her apology not reaching beyond the walls Kagami had put between them.
"Oh, I'm sure you'd be fine." Ino preens, tucking her hair behind her ear. The kittenish grin on her face says otherwise, and her chakra glows bright and happy for a long while after the conversation is over.
Kagami, on the other hand, is quiet for the rest of the night. When Sakura tentatively touches the connection between them, she finds echoes of Kagami's thoughts – not painful and spiky, as she had feared, but introspective and pensive.
As Sakura watches Ino happily tuck into her dinner, her earrings glinting in the candlelight, Kagami muses about her Ino, and what could have been.
Tenzo sneaks another piece of lettuce into the guinea pig hutch, and Tsunade pretends not to notice.
"Kabuto-kun, you should have what Sakura-chan's having, then maybe your patients would stop mistaking you for a lost child on the hospital ward," Izumi calls down the table, eyes alight with mischief.
Kabuto sniffs, taking a pointed sip of his water, "I wish you'd be less concerned with my diet, and more with yours, Izumi-chan. Perhaps then you wouldn't have to keep running off all the dango you've been sneaking during practice."
Izumi's grin vanishes.
Inoichi turns to raise an eyebrow at her, "Dango?"
"I'm shorter than Kabuto-kun," Tenzo says mildly, "Why do you never say anything bad about me, Izumi-chan?"
Izumi blinks, plainly unsure of which assault she should defend herself from first.
"You're all taller than me," Sakura grumbles, morosely flicking her glass of milk, "It's just bragging at this point."
"You're as tall as you're meant to be, Sakura-chan," Kabuto says, casting a smug grin at Izumi, "Isn't that right, Izumi-chan?"
"Yeeeessss." Izumi drags out, giving Sakura a polite smile, though her chakra is writhing in irritation pointed towards Kabuto. "More importantly, back to the dango – "
"At practise?" Inoichi says.
"On second thought, back to Sakura-chan – " Izumi says hastily, but it's too late, and they spend the rest of dinner teasing her over her not-so-secret snack habit.
Tenzo's smile never fades. Sakura really loves the nights his team comes over, because once his initial nerves wear off and he stops fretting over making everything perfect, he settles into himself. She already struggles to remember how he used to be – wooden, clipped, overly-polite, with the same edge of desperation Naruto always had, determined to be the perfect Senju son. As awful as Naruto's old life as an unwanted orphan had been, Sakura can only guess at the horrors Tenzo had suffered before Tsunade gave him a second chance at life.
She's experienced enough of his night terrors second-hand to have a fairly good idea what he left behind, occasionally bolting upright in bed with the taste of someone else's fear in her mouth, hearing the murmur of Airi's voice speaking words of comfort that almost seem to reach him. Sakura knows his nightmares come in the form of bubbling water, misshapen forms through glass, inexplicable pain that never abates, and a voice discussing him without ever using a name.
The Yamato that exists only in Kagami's memories seems very far-off and remote from her Tenzo, too. A serious, straight-laced sensei who somehow still managed to become the butt of every joke, someone Kagami remembers caring for in a very distant, impersonal way. But many of Kagami's memories are fading now, and she looks at Tenzo and Ino through a stranger's eyes, no longer seeing ghosts wherever Sakura went.
Tenzo shares his food with both Kabuto and Izumi, his smile brightening almost to a grin when their squabbling intensifies over the last rice cake.
Sakura lies awake in bed, happy to have an intact mattress at the Senju House, at least. She thinks about Mikoto, the readiness with which she told one of her darkest secrets, the way not even Sakura's sudden hysterics barely fazed her, and then the grimness that seized her expression before she began her first lesson.
It started when I called her sensei, Sakura thinks.
She felt regret, and then a fierce kind of… I don't know, Kagami muses, she was angry. But it felt distant. Not pointed at you, but something more abstract…
Sakura and Kagami have wordlessly agreed not to talk about Sakura's breakdown, nor Kagami's departure in the wake of it. Sakura doesn't want Kagami to feel unwelcome in her mind, even as she feels herself stretching to accommodate her.
It's interesting to consider Mikoto, at least. Sakura never used to think of adults as people, more like tall obstacles she had to charm or trick or get around in some way. Except her parents. But Mikoto has always been categorised as simply 'Itachi and Sasuke's kind mother' in Sakura's mind. Even after she killed the Mask in the hospital room, she still never registered as anything more than a comforting presence for Sakura.
She can't imagine Mikoto as a child on her first mission, scared for her life and taking someone else's in the process. She can imagine herself in the same position, though, remembering a bloody fist in a hotel room, the way the Mask's chakra cut off like water from a tap. She can't help but be glad she's not yet allowed to go on missions, even as she struggles to live as an ordinary seven-almost-eight-year old.
When sleep comes, she's imagining herself at Mikoto's age, tall, beautiful and wise, but with a fierce unnamed anger burning quietly in her chest.
It feels wrong
Kagami's memories sometimes bleed through, unbidden, hazy afterimages Sakura can scrub away just by blinking, but then other times they emerge in the forefront of her mind in screaming colour, visceral and all too real –
This doesn't feel like either.
Sakura feels the shattering agony of the moment her home crushed her during Konoha's invasion, the day her body gave way and she was orphaned in one fell swoop, she feels the dry snap of bone and the wet gush of blood, but it's wrong, isn't it? It feels off-kilter, like someone has taken the memory and twisted it around. The angle is different.
The pain is the same, though.
Sakura breathes out shakily, trying to reach out to touch something, anything, but her limbs are pinned down and it's nothing but dense black nothingness all around. She can't feel anything but pain.
Is this real? Sakura suddenly thinks, horror dawning on her at once, what if it feels wrong because it's right, because it's real, and I've never hurt like this before, I've only ever felt it through Kagami's memory, and that's why the pain… that's why –
Her breath is too fast. She squeezes her eyes shut, ignoring the uselessness of the move given the darkness she's already in, and does what Kitagawa taught her. She thinks of something else, something to distract from the agony clawing up her spine, the fear stealing away her breath.
She thinks of Naruto, of the day he wiped spit from his face and beamed at her, so amazed to be the recipient of common decency, and anger burns inside her almost as bright as Mikoto's. She thinks of Sasuke, the way he's slowly sobered up over the years, the childish joy in him dimming and fading until he seems almost like Itachi, almost like Fugaku, nothing like her Sasuke, but… but more like Kagami's Sasuke.
Somehow, you're the same as the last time I killed you.
Sakura can't even tremble at the voice, her body completely unresponsive to any of her desperate attempts to move.
"Onee-chan?" She calls out loud.
Sakura takes a quick, shuddering breath, and tries to reach for her chakra. But even if she could form handseals to perform the summoning, her chakra is weak and small and useless. Her breath sputters out, like a tiny flame blown out by the breeze. She wants the comfort of her birds, the security their presence brings, the assurance that someone else is in charge now. She wants Kagami's waspish voice barking orders, telling her what to do next. She wants to feel Tsunade's gentle arms around her as she lifts her to safety.
Want, want, want, she thinks, it's not about want.
And then suddenly, she sees it.
A red flame in the darkness, burning molten bright.
It blinks out, then shifts, warping to black, and realisation hits Sakura like a blow to the face.
She shrinks away, ignoring the ricochet of agony the movement brings.
"Still alive, then?" Someone says.
Sakura startles awake from the icy shock of rainfall dripping down her neck.
Rain? She thinks, no, I was buried in the rubble of my house in the future, my mother had just –
She blinks, taking in her surroundings.
It's still dark, but nothing close to the impenetrable blackness she had been swathed in, and she can see the edges of leaves against the moonlight, the great big trunks of trees all around her. Her feet are freezing, and when she looks down, she sees mud smeared across her toes.
I'm in the park, she realises, horrified, Onee-chan, we're –
But she can feel at once that her sister is not there.
Their connection is gone.
Kagami is a gaping chasm, like the pain of an old tooth that still hurts even when it's gone. She is gone, but the pain remains.
She tries to reach out, but there's nothing to draw upon but her own chakra, which is already drained from her first session with Mikoto. She stumbles away, her back touching the wet bark of the tree behind her.
She thinks she's alone, but can't be sure. She scans the trees frantically, unsure what she's even looking for until she catches a glimpse of something white and Izanagi comes to mind in a rush of regret and fear.
She blinks again, hoping it'll go away, but when she opens her eyes, she has to crane her neck to see what's in front of her.
It's a Mask.
She doesn't know who it is or what they want. She can't feel if they're one of the Hokage's Masks, like Kakashi, or if they're one of the emotionless Masks like the one from the hospital. Like the one Tenzo used to be.
Sakura holds her hands up, surprised to see them shaking in front of her face.
She's so cold it hurts, soaked to the bone. Her nightgown is glued to her skin. She can't feel anything beyond the cold, and yet somehow, she knows this is not Izanagi.
Kagami is gone, and in her place the words the last time I killed you reverberate on an endless loop.
"Please," Sakura starts to say, not sure what she's even asking for – pity? Mercy? Help?
The Mask reaches out.
Sakura strains to hear the sound of bells, hoping against hope that Kitagawa will show up out of nowhere and save her like so many times before, but there's nothing but the quiet rush of leaves in the night air, almost like the sound of a stream.
This time, it is not Kitagawa or Mikoto who comes to her aid.
This time, when the Mask crumples to the floor, it is Shisui who stands before Sakura, Shisui's crooked smile she sees first.
"Hey, Firefly," He says, his smile small but beautiful. She knows it's real even though she can't feel his chakra, because it's Shisui, and he promised he would never lie to her again.
My, what a pretty pickle the world is in right now. It's not the best, I can't lie to you. But here we are anyway, struggling on despite it all. I hope you're all okay and doing as well as you can. Even if the best you can do is just continuing on, that's more than enough.
It's been a long time since I last updated, and I really have no excuses for you. 2019 wasn't a very good year for me, and I wish I'd had the motivation to keep writing this at the time, because writing this story can be pretty therapeutic for me. However, since I didn't update in a very long time, that means I'm no longer as invested in this story as I used to be, simply because I don't remember many of the things I had planned, and I'm also not a huge Naruto fan anymore.
I wish I could say, "Oh yeah, I'm definitely gonna update again super soon!" but I can't, because I really don't know what will happen. I know I have no intention of abandoning this fic, but to keep going with it means regaining my motivation, interest, and spark. I have some ideas on how I can do that, the main one being….. reread TFLA from start to finish, and take notes the whole time. Like studying. Which I shouldn't have to do anymore, because I'm twenty-seven! (you heard me. Twenty-seven. Which is seventy-two in internet years, meaning I'm now a silver fox and am past retirement age.)
I've said it a few times, but I really didn't have much of a plan for this fic beyond 1) Sakura time travel 2) Future Sakura becomes Inner Sakura 3) ? 4) Profit!
I've planned out a LOT, but it's getting from A to B that's the problem. I need to inch my way there slowly, army-crawling through the endless distractions of real life and the lack of motivation. My initial attitude when I started the fic was literally, "Let's just see where this goes!" and now it's, "So help me god I will finish this thing one day lest I fall spinning into hell with this giant WIP still sitting on my shoulders."
Mikoto! She's not a mystery, she's just a feminist. I love Mikoto.
…I cannot believe I spent Easter in lockdown and thus was deprived of chocolate. When this is all over, I'm going to stick my entire head into a chocolate fountain, and if that's how I die, that's simply how I was meant to go.
ALSO. I'm older now, and less interested in pleasing everyone (character development in real life is never quite as fun or obvious as in anime, but. It's there.), which means I'm not going to put up with comments like, "I used to like this fic, but now it's too (insert complaint here)," or "Sakura is a Mary Sue." That means I'm going to delete comments that I find unhelpful or outright rude. After all, this is a fun hobby for me, which means I'm not looking for constructive criticism to help my writing get better. I went to university for that! Twice.
Also I made a discord for this fic and then promptly forgot about it in a haze of ADHD-induced stupidity (I'm not being problematic… I literally have ADHD), so if you're a member there… I'm so sorry about the deafening silence. I really need to resurrect the server at some point, but it feels like I abandoned my children and now I kinda wanna hang out with them at Christmas and it's just really awkward for everyone.
I've really missed you guys. I'm sorry I'm so inconsistent and poopy. I'll do my best to be more consistent in the future. And less poopy.
P.S. if you are struggling right now (or ever), please talk to me. I'm going to make a twitter right now just so I can actually communicate with you guys better. I'm katlou303 on twitter now, and, as always, I'm also katlou303 on tumblr.
Quick poll just for fun: What would you like to happen in this story? I need ideas, so please go wild and unload absolutely everything you want to see.
(Dogwatch Pupdate: A Large Tomato of a Dog took a nap in a garden, snoozing peacefully in the sunlight. A Small Pink Child joined him.)