Spoilers for ch.238. Sakura-centric.

They think, when you're twelve, that you don't know any better.

One of the first things we learn at the Academy is how to follow mission orders. We get tested on it when we're four: blocks and colors and putting things in the right slot. Our teachers count on us wanting to score high and become good shinobi, but they don't trust us all to graduate with perfect grades on Instructions.

That was the origin of the hunter-nins, which exist to eliminate those of us who betray the village laws. We have a hunter force and a police force. Leaf has extra assassins. Not as many as Mist, but enough that the Anbu's animal masks are getting creative. They have to search for unique faces. My mother thinks I'm making it up, but I see it.

I got an A on last week's paper about hunters. My scores are always perfect. I wrote that hunters were created when there was a rise in shinobi who left their village. My conclusion said that the reason so many traitors exist is because the Instruction Drills are purposefully weak, so the villages can keep an eye on failures ahead of time.

What I didn't write is that I also think the hunters must be the best at following rules, because no one else can arrest them.

At twelve, Sakura knows about wanting to grow her hair long and have a dark-eyed boyfriend, but she also knows about desperation. Dead bodies are not unfamiliar. She is capable of reciting the first fifteen hand-to-hand weapons common among genin in her sleep, and even has, once. The night before the Academy finals to earn her head protector, Sakura woke up to find her lips mumbling, slurred, all while her mind panicked over kunai grip-types. She shouldn't have worried. The test was a breeze.

Sakura knows a lot of things. She knows about the diary that she keeps underneath her mattress. About Naruto, who will never grow older, and Sasuke, who always seems to have run past that stage of maturity too fast for her to catch up. Her mother likes to say that Sakura has nothing to worry about, but the truth is entirely the opposite. No matter how many times her parent clucks in dismissal, it doesn't make a twelve-year-old's concerns go away.

There's too much going on in the world for Sakura not to think about.

So far, her greatest humiliation is that even Naruto is better at fighting than she is. This beats out Ino's hair, which has been Sakura's nemesis for three years. No - now, instead of watching Sasuke always walking up front, choosing point-position because he's capable of handling the problems that attack, Sakura also has to deal with the onus of Naruto there too. Of their team, she's the one who lags behind.

She says to herself that she will be better as she gets older.

She says to herself that she can only improve as time goes on.

Adults all say that children always think we're invincible. That we act without reason, or planning, or that we don't understand consequences. Like we'd change our minds just because we lived another year. Like getting older instantly makes you more wise.

I know about death already. I've seen what failure's like. My mother thinks I can't handle it yet, but there are too many A's on my tests to go wrong now.

For days after they bury the bodies, Team Seven doesn't talk about it.

All of them - except Naruto - know the transgression of entombing shinobi corpses, rather than letting an official hunter-nin dispose of the remains. There are numerous risks within cross-village politics. Deaths are counted among them. It's protocol to let the hunters perform their business; such laws smooth out diplomacy, and cut down on accidents.

But politics are how Zabuza slipped free the first time, with needles in his neck like a spiked dog-collar. Now Team Seven is more careful. Even though they have checked to make certain Zabuza is dead, his head grey and lolling, none of them decide to wait for Hidden Mist. They take care of the funeral arrangements themselves.

Kakashi, surprisingly, lets them perform the burial. He only mentions the rules once while his single eye rolls up to the sky and looks at treetops instead. Then he walks off to the side with his hands in his pockets, commenting on fish.

Rain country is full of warped-wood shacks. It smells of halibut. Maybe sea bass. Sakura didn't study fishing, so she doesn't know what's local to the region, just like she's not sure what exactly happened during the fight on the bridge.

Zabuza's dead. His apprentice, also dead.

Sasuke's alive.

The snow disappeared as quickly as it came, leaving disappointed children to hunt behind sheds, squatting to peer for hidden mounds beneath muddy benches. Kakashi has read all through the funeral and continues to palm his ragged book, the spine split in deep grooves from where he'd pinned the pages. When Sakura rinses her hands in the ocean, scrubbing at the grave-dirt stains, the salt pricks at the tiny cuts in her fingers and causes her to wince.

Naruto refuses to talk about the boy with the ice mirrors, which is so uncharacteristic that Sakura finds herself laughing to fill in the silence. She babbles cheap encouragements. If there's a force powerful enough to sober Naruto, then it's stronger than Sakura - stronger than anything she's encountered before, really. Stronger than Sasuke. And seriousness just doesn't look right on Naruto, features flat above a scorchingly orange jumpsuit.

She jokes about the weather. Naruto doesn't laugh back.

Instead, he looks at Sasuke.

Kakashi turns another page of his romance novel.

They take it slow, returning to Leaf. Sakura has plenty of time to think. The hunter-nin boy they fought couldn't have been much older than any of the team, but he was strong enough to mix duty with mercy. Doing so betrays everything Sakura's learned, but it saved Sasuke's life.

Rules wouldn't have.

Rules would have killed Sasuke, and probably Naruto, and there wouldn't have been anything Sakura could have done about it - and as she thinks about this, soft whisper of Kakashi's pages flapping near their campfires, Sakura wonders if the only thing age bestows is a mouthful of futility. That the lofty experience adults brag about is only how you learn to swallow.

Duty. Mercy. The first is listed in the Shinobi Handbook Starter 101, but the second is a footnote, categorized with asthma and hiccups. Mercy is a detriment to the higher levels of ninja training. It is addressed briefly in Instructional courses, and always as a negative.

The night that Team Seven files guiltily back home, Sakura pushes back the front door and walks straight up into her room. She drops one sandal by the front door and one on the stairs, bathed in the smell of dinner washing through the house. Her stomach rumbles; an aching, clawing nuisance that Sakura tries to ignore, wrapped in her bed-covers.

Her mother's knuckles interrupt her private misery. They rattle the door to her room and then slide it open, bearing a tray of rice and meat.

She tries to talk to Sakura.

"I won't quit being a ninja." Lifting her face from the sheets, Sakura glares defensively at a wall. "I can't let Ino beat me. Or Naruto," she adds, fumbling through the faces of her classmates and trying to bend each into an excuse. "And I don't want to leave Sasuke either. I can keep up." The heel of her palm shoves into her eye, rubbing hard against a surprise dampness. "I can do it."

The face of the hunter-boy haunts Sakura for a month. Zabuza is almost as much of a paradox. Unmasked at the end, gripping a kunai in his teeth - monster. Demon. Someone who knew how to kill and didn't hesitate, who wouldn't have spared Sasuke. Zabuza's training was perfect.

But the missing-nin didn't care to follow the rules. Zabuza did what he wanted outside the boundaries of any village, just as his apprentice ignored every single principle Sakura's devoted herself to learn. The equation doesn't make sense. Something happened that day on the bridge, and as hard as she tries, Sakura can't understand it. Naruto's solemnity. Sasuke's life.

Her own inability to do anything.

Confusion haunts her through lesson reviews and leaves her squinting at the chalkboard, attempting to decipher Kakashi's ribbon-scrawl. Eventually she cannot think through her headache, which she dimly remembers her mother calling a migraine. She's too young for this; if she told anyone, told Ino, she'd only be teased about her head again. Her brain is too big for her skull, and it's swelling against the bone.

Back in the classroom, Sakura spends her time with her eyes closed. She thinks about throwing up. Numbers swim. Letters hammer at her eyeballs. After the third day of it, she can't concentrate through the pressure.

Kakashi, when he finds out, takes her aside after class. It's the only time Sakura has ever been held back, and she bites one of her fingernails ragged until she discovers that he's mixing up some foul-smelling brew and calling it tea.

He offers some to Sakura to drink. She refuses twice as he sits there, saying nothing, a dark mask crouching over his knees with the paper cup extended.

She wonders if Kakashi's telling her in his own way that she has to be stronger than this. For a very brief time, she hates him too.

Then she takes the cup.

We can't fail.

I always score A's. I'll do it on the Chuunin tests too. I won't be the weakest, and I won't let us down.

I know we can make it through.

As long as we're together, we won't ever lose.

At thirteen, Sakura goes back to her diary after the return of four genin and one stalk-haired chuunin. Some of the genin were carried home in shrouds, cradled in the arms of the medical-nin. Their health is detailed on crisp doctor reports, casualty reports of the failed mission; Sakura sees the files passed back and forth in the hospital as she waits by the emergency rooms, Ino beside her and Hinata stopping through. The doctors send all three girls home when they notice the army of vending-machine cups stacking up, rancid with ghost tea.

Once back in her room, Sakura digs out the diary and holds it in her lap. It turns automatically to her academy graduation. The thick bookmark wedged in there has permanently widened the pages, bright yellow among the rose-ink happy faces. When she removes it, there's a daffodil stain left behind where the dye smeared, tinting the day her team assignment was given.

She starts at the beginning. As she flips through the pages, the entries grow shorter and shorter, finally slamming to a blank, unfinished halt on the day Sasuke disappeared. In frustration, Sakura throws the book against the wall in a flutter of pages; it leaves a scuff in the wood, falling to the carpet with a smug thump.

Sakura rolls onto her back on the bed in order to ignore it, staring up at the ceiling while she thinks about being twelve.