Comments: I suck at updating. Sorry! Anyway, I'd like to introduce everyone to Plot. Everyone, Plot. Plot, everyone.


Chapter Two
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The tree is strong and hard and rough against her back, oblivious to her situation as it stands and reaches for the sky. Sakura's heart slams hard against her chest, her breath is sharp in her lungs, and her eyes are wide and dry and aching as she stares at him, this monster of him, this him that she can't quite believe. "Sasuke-kun...?"

His eyes are different from anything she has ever seen. Once, they had been aloof and disdainful and secretly amused, filling her with all the wonder and awe of a child fascinated by something mysterious; now, years later, they are cold and distant, focused on a place far from here, away from her, away from this moment. They see something in the future, the goal he has yet to reach. They see his victory, and they see his pain.

Her voice breaks as she begs him to turn into that boy she remembers. "Sasuke-kun," she pleads, and knows that she is going to cry. Once again, she will cry in front of him, and once again, he will not heed her tears. Bitterly, she acknowledges the irony; he is different, she is the same, and there is no change.

"Come back?" Maybe she is begging, or perhaps she is arguing. Even Sakura doesn't know, and the expression on his face never changes. His eyes – the ones she loved so long ago and is terrified of now – never flicker, not even a little, with emotion. He simply stares her down and continues to step forward as that tree, that blissfully oblivious tree, stands tall and unmoving at her back.

She speaks in babbled sentences, incoherent and cutting into the next too sharply. They love him, they care for him, she will do anything for him. If he wants to get stronger, she will help him. If he wants revenge, she will not stand in his way. But please, come back. Please come home.

But her words are ignored, and he draws his sword. "Annoying," he says flatly, looking through her.

She knows she is going to die. It isn't even enough to be called a fight; she knows that, in the reports, it will simply be called murder. Her hands won't move from their position, clenched in front of her stomach, nails digging into knuckles and sharp pain reminding her that she is still here, still alive, still dying.

"I left all of you because of this drivel." His eyes seem to briefly pierce her, focused suddenly in now and startling her with the clarity of his gaze. It is a clear, straightforward stare that makes her think that he's gone insane, before guilt flips her stomach and has her glancing away, unable to bear the weight of his simple statements and emotionless face. "Fighting for your friends? Being there to the very end? Together we'll all become stronger? Don't bother. This is why Konoha is dying."

His fingers flex lightly around the hilt of his sword, and Sakura once again thinks of the bark at her back, the strong and unyielding wall. She can move and run and be caught again, or she can plead until she dies. Maybe, by some miracle, he won't kill her. Maybe, by some miracle, he'll no longer be this monster of a man who thinks nothing of killing a friend.

She's thinking stupid thoughts like that even when she desperately wants to run, but she can only think of Naruto, who doesn't run and who wants desperately to keep his promise to her. She thinks of things like the past and a Sasuke that smirks and fights with Naruto like a juvenile, and a Sasuke who sits quietly in class like he is better than them all.

Yet even as he's saying things like this, her heart beats a little faster at the sound of his voice. Even when he's staring at her, sword drawn and eerily clean in the light of the sun, she thinks that he must care for her just a little, because she cares about him this much.

Sakura loves Sasuke, and Sasuke is gone.

But Sakura can bring Sasuke back, right? Sasuke's still in there somewhere, right?

She won't die, right?

"I should have killed you when I had the chance." Conversational, bland, regretting missed opportunities; her heart twists and jumps and slams into her chest at his words, and she wonders hysterically if she is happy or frightened by what he is saying. Why is she so happy to hear his voice, when he is saying these words?

Her heart skips a painful beat before pounding once again, slamming against her ribs as though wanting to burst with pain. This unnerving happy/scared makes her think that standing here like this is suicide, not murder, and she wonders if they'll add that to the report, too.

Haruno Sakura stood there and let him run her through in a clear act of murder/suicide, and Uchiha Sasuke is still on the run...

She's going insane. "Don't you remember anything?" she rasps, wondering when her throat became this dry. How long have they been standing there?

Only moments.

Long, painful, terrifying moments.

Her last moments.

But they are with Sasuke. Her last moments are with Sasuke, and he will be the last of her memories. She supposes that's sort of a good thing, even when the back of her mind is screaming at her to run, idiot, run, and that there's backup somewhere in the forest. They can help her and she doesn't have to die and she can always try again--

The tip of the sword wavers slightly, and her heart leaps again - how many leaps, now, in this short little time? - as she thinks that he's coming back, just a little.

"Remember?" That disdainful tone is back, and she shrinks away from the cold amusement threading silkily through that one word. "It's not worth my time."

Sakura knows that tears are sliding down her cheeks, and knows that, if he notices them, he hardly cares. Perhaps he considers them evidence of her sniveling weakness. Does it matter what he thinks? It doesn't. She just knows that she's crying and she hurts and that, once again, his eyes are distant and far away and even if she dies by his hand he won't be there to watch her leave.

She doesn't care that he's in front of her, too close to her, blocking her view of anything but him. She doesn't care because he's not really there, instead lost somewhere in that future he can see. Living, she means nothing to him. Dead, she means even less. Anger flickers inside her, and she hates him in that moment, because he's not giving himself to her even when she's dying. She hates him because he's not Sasuke. She hates him because he is Sasuke, an insane and crazy and cold Sasuke.

The wind is cold and harsh, snapping at her nose and eyes, and she wants to snap back. Sakura jumps forward, then, heedless of the sword he holds between them. She feels pain, pain, ripping skin, tearing muscle, cold steel, hot blood, stop, it hurts, HURTS, and then her arms are wrapped around his neck and her flushed cheek is pressed hard against his, chilly and dry against her skin, and she is whispering, or maybe she's praying, confessing love desperately even as he lifts the sharp edge of a kunai against her neck.

Then she feels him shove her away, nearly slamming her against the tree. Her head snaps back and the sword comes with her, slipping out of his slack grasp as she feels a sudden surge of wind.

His eyes are glazing a little as she stares, and his hand presses against her chest as though keeping her away, fingers stiff and hard and unyielding. Then it falls to his side and he is saying something she can't hear past the roaring in her ears.

Perhaps it is some sort of movement, perhaps it is a sense of not being alone, perhaps it is some part of her that witnessed it it all, but something makes her look over Sasuke's shoulder and straight into the eyes of her teacher.

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The air was muggy and hot, heavy in her nose and an unhappy companion to the vague buzzing in her ears. Any gratitude she felt over her welcomed abrupt awakening faded in the flat reality of waking up to a nasty cold. Sakura rolled to her side with a groan and closed her eyes as though that could help against the enemy of illness and nightmares. "How bad is it?" she muttered, and could only hear air; the words that she knew she spoke were lost before ever leaving, adding another negative to her otherwise already-horrible day.

After long moments of breathing and testing the pain, like little toothpicks stabbing and scraping at the back of her throat and right side of her head, she opened her eyes to have the clock tell her she'd only been up for five minutes. She was supposed to wake up forty-three plus five minutes ago for morning drills at thirty past the hour, set earlier than usual this morning due to "a sensitive situation", according to the note Shizune sent last night.

Sakura stretched, feeling her muscles pull and loosen, hating the feel of warm sweat gone cold against her skin, the sticking of silk. She was in a hurry but felt listless, bowing to the demands of her body, soaking in laziness like bread loves milk. Her mother had yet to shout for her to wake and she could hear her father walking around the kitchen, probably grabbing his favorite cup and filling it with water from the kitchen sink.

Four forty-eight, she thought, rolling to the other side and staring at the wall, white and filled with blank space. Fifteen plus three minutes late, but awake thirty-three minutes earlier than on a normal day. If she didn't mind getting lectured by Tsunade, she could sleep for that other thirty-three minutes before getting up for her shower and doing her facial and rummaging for cold medicine. On the other side of the scale weighed the fact that even if Sakura left immediately she would still have to undergo a lecture of timeliness, standing straight and still like a wooden doll, one that could feel the pain of a too-straight posture and a properly subdued facial expression. But – and Sakura groaned as she rolled out of bed with this thought, hating the cold floorboards beneath her toes, like walking on wooden ice – if she left any later, she might not receive much training today at all. Tsunade's schedule was tight, even if Tsunade herself rarely stuck to it, and Sakura considered it a minor miracle that she had been taught so effectively for these past few years with all the interrupted lectures and shortened training periods.

Flinching her way across her room, Sakura flung open her wardrobe and grabbed the first outfit she could find, huffing a bit as cold fabric bit at her fingers and wriggling as quickly as possible out of her worn cotton pajamas, shivering in the cold air. Sniffing back congestion and the impending doom of a dripping nose, she slid quickly into warmer pants and an oversized shirt, ignoring her more ninja-seeming clothes in the back of her closet. After a few months, Sakura had learned that it was pointless to dress into her shiny little ninja uniform. After a year, she had stopped wanting to. Between the stains from various medical concoctions (some of which she still didn't believe to be effective) and the rips and tears from Tsunade's more vigorous physical training, Sakura's mother had put her dainty foot down and refused to buy or mend any more of her daughter's clothing – leaving Sakura no choice but to put in the man-hours herself or to dig into that so-empty coin purse of hers. In the end she had cut down on sweets and other little luxuries and became much more prosaic towards the realities of life, even acknowledging that dressing into old and semi-ruined clothes wasn't all that bad after all.

Besides, she still dressed up when late morning rolled around and training was nothing more than memories of sweat dripping down her face, matting hair to her neck and giving her the general feeling of grime-covered example of refreshing energy.

Absently flexing her toes as she walked, Sakura minced her way to the vanity near her balcony doors, finger-combing her pale pink hair and vaguely missing the more vibrant color of her youth. Now she looked paler and often resembled a vampire in the morning when color had yet to flush her cheeks and bring a healthier tone to her face; her skin had never been prone to tanning. Of course, the one advantage to her delicate pallor was her eyes – seemingly darker and deeper than in her youth, and deceptively large since she'd lost the baby fat around her cheeks and jaw.

Normally she was at least partially satisfied with her reflection in the mirror, after all the vigorous training and healthy food choices, but Sakura could only stare and think of one description for her this morning.

Sick.

Her lips were like a little desert plastered on her face; cracked and dry and begging for rain, having completely lost their normal healthy color and shine. Dark shadows floated beneath her eyes, resulting in a more waifish, feed-me appearance; Sakura thought she looked far too thin. Kill me now, she thought with an inner sigh, turning resolutely away from the vanity – cosmetics would be a pointless cover-up, since she would probably sweat it off in another hour.

The moment her frigid toes made contact with the carpet in the hall, Sakura shuddered in delectable bliss, sighing softly as warmer air touched her face. One of the eternal mysteries of her home was that her room was always several degrees colder than the rest of the house; it was possibly due to the balcony doors, as her mother had explained once, but Sakura still felt that there was something more to it than that. Her father took the stance that if she ever opened her door and let the air mingle with the rest of the house, it would be warmer. She had no urge to test that theory, but the heat found her steps to be a little livelier as she moved toward the bathroom, turning on the hot water tap and rummaging through the cupboards for her toothpaste and facial toiletries. A bit more awake by this point, Sakura paid more attention to the signs of an active Haruno household morning as she prepped her toothbrush.

Sakura could smell coffee. Though she didn't hear any sound from the kitchen, she knew that the coffee machine was bubbling and her mother was most likely getting breakfast ready for her father, perhaps mixing the eggs and milk for his morning scramble while he took his morning shower. When was the last time her mother had come into her room to wake her up in the morning? Two years ago? And the breakfasts had stopped last year at Sakura's request, upon her discovery of the sinful delights of breakfast smoothies. Her mother had probably bought some fresh fruit at the market yesterday, which gave her the slightly cheering option of being able to make a smoothie for breakfast—

"Sakura! Turn off the hot water!"

Startled, she dropped her toothbrush in her haste to turn off the running water. Oops. "Sorry," she mumbled around a mouthful of foam, wincing as she heard her dad's thunderous steps disappear once again into the shower. A bit more cautious, Sakura quickly finished brushing her teeth and washing her face with a more decorous amount of cold water – she felt her fingers begin to freeze again – and rubbed moisturizer into her face as she finally made her way downstairs, sharing a rueful smile with her mother. "Morning, Mama."

"Do you have a cold?" Instant maternal concern had her hand on her daughter's forehead, lips pursed as motherly judgment was considered and passed. "You don't have a fever."

"I woke up like this. Do I sound that bad?" Absently ducking away from her mother's palm, Sakura opened the fridge and grabbed her milk carton – the gleeful addiction of whole milk had yet to grasp her entire family, and so her milk was always her own.

"You sound like a dying frog, darling. Can you hand me the onion? It's in the bottom drawer."

Sakura bent down obediently. "The one marked vegetables?" she asked dryly, closing the door and setting the half-used onion on the counter. "Did you buy some oranges yesterday? Wait, never mind, I see them." Grabbing one from the table, she began the arduous task of neatly peeling it, happy to see that it was one of the seedless types. "We're out of bananas, though, right?"

Her mother responded in dismay, "You used all the frozen ones already?"

"Yesterday," Sakura confirmed, quartering the now-naked orange. "That's fine; I'll just use some ice cream. Can you get the blender for me?" she asked as her father walked into the dining room, freshly dripping from his shower.

"Kanae, where did you leave my razor? Morning, pumpkin. Is the blender on top of the fridge?" he queried, even as he grabbed it and handed it to Sakura. "Kanae, where is my razor?"

"Beside the kitchen sink," his wife replied calmly, unaffected by his quickly repeated question.

"Ah, right. Hey, use yogurt instead of ice cream," he cautioned Sakura, grabbing the morning paper off the table and heading back to his bathroom. "It's healthier."

She huffed at his turned back, making a face. "This coming from the man who puts an incredible amount of sausage in his four-egg morning scramble?"

"Sakura," her mother said in that pleasantly warning tone.

She grimaced and grabbed the yogurt, quickly shoving all the ingredients into the blender. "Okay, Mom. Anyway, I'm going to mix this and head out; I'm late for training."

Busy with her father's food, Kanae responded quickly, "Remember to take your medicine."

"I work with medicine," she reminded her mother in frustration, wondering when her parents would ever realize that she wasn't a young, stupid kid anymore.

"I know, dear," her mother said in that absent-minded, soothing tone that gave Sakura visions of mother-daughter tea time when she was six and crying over the tea she had spilled over a brand-new white dress.

Viciously pressing the little high-speed button on her blender, Sakura grabbed a disposable cup with her free hand, suddenly wanting out of her house. She could only take so much of these friendly family mornings; it was like she was still twelve sometimes. "I'll be home late tonight," she declared rashly over the loud motor, not certain what she would do to make that true.

"But you're sick—"

The blending now over, she muttered, "I made plans."

"Sakura, you really shouldn't stay late when you have a cold." Turning away from the stove, brow furrowed and eyes concerned, her mother added, "Besides, your father—"

"Running late, gotta go, love you Mom." Pouring the majority of the mixture into her cup, Sakura dashed out the door, rubbing at the tip of her nose in annoyance before reaching into her pocket and blowing into a tissue. Damn, she hated being sick.

Her watch told her that she was now thirty minutes late and counting.

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His hand was nearly numb, but he pretended it wasn't with all the power of male pride and arrogance he routinely set aside for moments exactly like this one. Ignoring Asuma's sharp gaze, Kakashi settled into a chair and grabbed a pen, flipping through pages of an empty report summary with his free hand. "Shikamaru performed exactly to the standards his duty required of him," he finally said, continuing their line of conversation that had broken off for a brief sparring session just moments ago. "Even with the additional problems Kiba brought to the team."

"Additional problems?" Asuma took the chair beside his and watched blatantly as Kakashi filled out the requisite blanks on the cover page. Though the children (as Asuma privately referred to them) often thought the missions were great batches of fun and danger and excitement and more often extreme boredom, they had no idea the reams of paperwork involved behind the scenes. He had dreams of delegating his piles to Shikamaru and watching that dull face become both annoyed and resigned at the necessities of life.

Of course, he couldn't do that until he convinced Shikamaru to test above Chuunin…

"Attitude and a dog with a cold," Kakashi supplied, filling in the line that said Please note any extenuating circumstances in the space provided below with those very words. Tsunade would call him in for it later – seven words did not an explanation make – but he was tired, and it was already the fifteenth form he'd had to fill out that morning. Besides, his hand was starting to go from numb to aching, and he would be damned if he let Asuma have the satisfaction of knowing that. The man was a bear in human form. "And it rained."

"Oh, the rain," the bulkier one commiserated, leaning back and blowing out a thick stream of smoke. "That had to be the worst."

Kakashi made some sort of noncommital sound, moving on to the next page. "He dealt with it fine. Don't you have your own papers to go through?"

"Hatake, Hatake." Asuma shook his head with a sigh. "There's a thing called breaks. It helps, you know; takes that stress out of your shoulders, lets you relax that hand of yours—"

"Right." Flexing his fingers, Kakashi kept his concentration on his pen and the slightly difficult task of writing five names in a slot meant for two. "So the reason you aren't leaving would be because of your temporarily bum left knee."

"Something like that," Asuma agreed, completely unfazed. "You've gotten a bit slower in the years. You should have been able to take me completely down."

He sighed then, settling the papers on his table and turning an unnerving stare to his friend. "So how long have you been spending your lunches with Gai?"

Asuma, as always, grinned and shrugged, completely unaffected by Kakashi's normally intimidating stare. "What can I say? You've been gone for a few weeks and the lounge has been empty. We like to chat every so often."

"He's rubbing off on you." Turning back to the desk, Kakashi continued his way through the papers, leaving his comments in scratchy characters and fading ink, often going back and rewriting what the ink didn't bother painting. "Of all people to hold some sort of juvenile contest of strength, I certainly didn't think it would be you." Though, he admitted darkly to himself, it was certainly better to have juvenile contests of strength than to deal with the temperament of annoying juveniles themselves, and their inability to get one simple order through their thick skulls while Kakashi was busy touching base with the Konoha agent. He hadn't expected the entire camp to turn into a battleground with gypsies, though he had been pleasantly surprised to watch Shikamaru smooth the situation over. They'd even had a gypsy-cooked dinner, which tasted (much to the kids' surprise) much like any other camp-cooked dinner, only with more spices and better company.

But he didn't write all those little personal comments in the fields provided, and simply answered with the generic Slight incompatibility due to inexperience in the field and Needs more discipline in a team environment for some of the sprouts they'd dragged along in this last run.

"…Naruto this time," Asuma finished in a thoughtful tone, startling Kakashi out of his annoyed contemplation.

"Repeat that," he requested simply, scratching another vague answer on the sixth page of the report.

"Jiraiya will be back in the village, and he's taking Naruto when he leaves this time." Asuma finally pulled a small scroll from one of his vest pockets, tossing it onto the table. "A little letter from him to us. In any case, I guess he's finally getting serious again about the kid's training. It only took him six months to get over this last spat between the two of them."

Kakashi reached for the scroll but didn't open it, gathering what it probably said from past experience with the teacher-student spats. Though he had expected to be rid of Naruto four years ago – was it four years now? Perhaps three – when Jiraiya had taken him in as a disciple of sorts, he'd ended up still dealing with the overexcited youth whenever Jiraiya dropped him off after an annoying three-month venture or so. Once it had only been two weeks, if he recalled correctly. "We'll see how long it lasts this time."

"If Tsunade has anything to say about it, Jiraiya won't be back for a while." Lighting up his third cigarette since they started talking, Asuma added, "Jiraiya seems to be pretty serious this time."

"Oh?" Pocketing Jiraiya's little note, Kakashi grabbed his pile of responsibility once again, a subtle signal that their conversation was long past a finishing point.

"His latest book is long past its deadline, and he ran out of inspiration, as I hear it." Standing, Asuma grinned. "But you didn't hear that from me."

"Of course not; it's not as though Konoha ever participates in gossip." Beginning his nearly illegible writing once again, Kakashi added dryly, "And certainly no one would mention smelling a certain woman's perfume whenever you walked by, either."

"Shit." Asuma grimaced, sniffing at his vest. "So much for discreet."

"Well, they haven't found out yet."

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Sakura ran up the stairs as gracefully as possible, one hand constantly placed over the white mask on her face to keep it from dislodging. She hated wearing the things – they did nothing to keep germs from spreading when people had colds – but she had to admit that it was convenient to keep people from seeing the blustery crimson of her nose, swollen and dripping in a most unclean way.

At the top step she finally stopped, breathing heavily through her mouth and hating the feel of having something in her throat to block the air she gulped like a man free from prison for the first time in fifty years. It wouldn't do to dash in there like a novice, gasping and wheezing and doubled over as though she couldn't understand her own body's boundaries. Sakura lifted pale, slender fingers to wipe the sweat from her brow, and hating how the cooling perspiration felt like thick grease coating her fingertips. She wanted to rub them against rough cloth until they felt clean again.

Tugging the soft mask down her face, Sakura pulled tissues from her pocket and blew her nose vigorously, trying to ignore how the sound echoed through the building and hating how her cheeks flared red during the after waves of sound. She tossed the trash as quickly as possible, covering her face once again as she walked the few extra steps to the double doors of Tsunade's study, nodding politely to the guards on duty. They didn't nod back, though they did stare at her for long moments as though to verify her presence in their minds. Ignoring them – and startled by the slight atmosphere of heightened security – Sakura pushed through the doors and rushed silently toward her mentor's desk, bowing immediately. "I am late," she announced, with no excuses.

Silence rang back at her, and Sakura slowly raised her head when she realized there was no presence in the room. Still cautious, she took a few more steps toward the desk and leaned over, just to make sure Tsunade wasn't hiding beneath the desk.

She wasn't.

Damn.

Sakura had run to the Hokage's building first, knowing that Tsunade had little patience in waiting for those late for training. Now it seemed she would have to head to the field she should have been at an hour earlier, which would have her another fifteen minutes late. So much for the convenience of skipping a step.

She blew her nose again, constantly dogged by that edgy feeling that it would start trickling any moment, and headed out the door with a brief nod toward the guards, jogging down the stairs as quickly as she could.

Tsunade was going to kill her.

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The ANBU Records Department was not only depressingly dim but also eerily empty, echoing with every step and rustle of the pages. There was always a mysterious breeze making its way through the room, touching books and flapping them just enough to make haunting sounds follow at the unlucky victim's heels like a tenacious dog after that forbidden bite of chocolate.

Kakashi found the entire place quite amusing and strode through briskly, checking the shelves for dates and labels. "Are you quite certain this record exists?"

"Absolutely." A newly promoted ANBU Research Technician nearly skipped to keep up, apparently at home with the creepy atmosphere of the Records Department. "We are quite thorough in documenting anything unusual, of course, but the Clan documents were simply to keep knowledge of them. Some were simple records of marriage, divorce, births and deaths, but others were on treatises and alliances within Konoha and out of it. The Inuzuka Clan, in fact, has a large on-going record of all missions completed and failed whenever an Inuzuka member was in attendance. The old ones are archived, but the newer one is at their home and still added."

"Yes, I've seen it." He paused at shelf number 432, labeled simply Shuuei. It stood out when most shelves were labeled with dates and brief letters or easily-recognized Clan names. "Is this it?"

"Yes. The fourth record on the third shelf should hold information on the dates you are requesting, but we must ask that you place it back in its correct spot after finishing your research. We have strict rules on such old files." Stiff-necked with all the righteousness of his new rank, the Research Technician bowed and moved away as quietly as he'd followed, leaving Kakashi with a shelf full of information on a man he was starting to hate.

"Uchiha Shuuei," he murmured, grabbing the book in question. "What were you thinking?" Very carefully, he ran his fingers over the simple lettering that read Out-Country Treatises and wondered just how Jiraiya had known such a record existed. The seemingly innocuous letter was now ashes on his desk, and he wondered how much Asuma knew or suspected, and if he could bring the other in on the investigation. But—no. Asuma's responsibilities were both important and time-consuming, and Kakashi could little afford a partner who couldn't hold his weight in the investigation. They died too easily.

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Sakura stared intently over Tsunade's shoulder, wondering if the squirrel was some sort of void sucking up her soul like a voracious teddy bear. She simply couldn't keep her eyes off of it, depite or especially because of Tsunade's voice stabbing at her ears, repeating words that had been repeated before like a mantra of pointless babble. Sakura knew exactly what her mentor was saying - could probably even quote parts of it - yet even so, the lectures never really seemed to keep her from being late that once in a few weeks. A long while of stern lecture was sometimes worth that extra half-hour of paradise, snuggled beneath her blankets and pretending the world would coast along just fine without her as she slept.

"—our expectation is for our people to be responsible and timely. I hardly expect to have to lecture you at this late date—"

The squirrel dashed back into the leaves without a glance in her direction, apparently done looking for danger and leaving Sakura feeling oddly bereft at the disappearance of her furry little void. She returned to having her eyes dart from Tsunade's eyes to Tsunade's feet, flit to the tree behind Tsunade, settle for moments on a particularly innocuous-looking rock with suspiciously purple stains, and finally start all over again in a swift cycle of jitter. Her palms itched for some unknown and irritating reason, her knee wanted to jiggle, the hem of her skirt kept scratching at her thigh, and Sakura was fairly certain that her bra strap was slowly but surely sliding down her shoulder, but she could do nothing but stand straight and still as possible, wishing for the lecture to come to an end.

"—et cetera, et cetera, I am sure you are hardly listening at this point—"

Sakura's nose twitched as she thought longingly of the tissues in her pocket. The worst part of having a cold was definitely the congestion. Already she could hardly smell anything, and she'd gone through one of her little portable packs just on the way here from Tsunade's office. She'd run as fast as possible, which was quite slow when she had to blow her nose every few moments in a vain attempt to breathe, and eventually all of the tissues were used and dumped in a convenient trash can outside the field. Then, after getting there, she'd had to stand directly beneath the tree where Tsunade was perched and patiently wait for her to stop being so engrossed in some book that she was flipping through. It could have been a book of poetry or a record on an infamous murderer, but Konoha's version of the Powers That Be hardly deigned to explain when she finally jumped down in front of her student with a stern look and a ready-made lecture that Sakura wasn't—

"—paying the slightest bit of attention to me, are you?"

Blinking, Sakura backpedaled the forests of her mind as quickly as possible, wondering what part of the recital – lecture - they were at.

She couldn't remember.

Bowing her head, Sakura winced in preparation for another lecture or – worse – a flick against her head. Naruto had once laughed at her dread of the punishment, until she'd explained with long moans and winces and theatrical shuddering that two years ago one little flick would have sent her sprawling through the field. Though she was now only sprawling halfway across the field, it was still all of half a field and her forehead would be smarting for days afterward. "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening." Idiot, she berated herself silently, with the voice that she once called her inner self.

"Yes, I realized." Very gently Tsunade's hand cupped her elbow, and Sakura found herself gently propelled in the direction of the village. "You have been distracted of late. This is not good for your studies, and I hear your attention span at the hospice has been worse recently."

"I haven't been late for my shifts," Sakura protested, stiffening a bit at the words. Was she to be relieved of duty? "I've been doing as I'm told."

"Yes, you have been working up to and exactly as they ask of you," her mentor agreed promptly, in a tone like honey slathered on top of dried bread. Sakura found her steps slowing in reluctance. "But you have not been performing above standard for weeks."

"But there isn't a problem with my work," she reiterated stubbornly, and would have dragged her heels if Tsunade wasn't much stronger and much more determined. "If there isn't a problem, I don't see what this conversation has to revolve around."

"In the office, Sakura."

"But—"

"In the office," Tsunade repeated in that too-soothing tone, and Sakura snapped her mouth shut, grinding her teeth a bit in frustration. She should have known that today was not going to be any normal day.

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Shuuei did not agree with their opposition to the war, but took his family and fled with the refugees to the forests, where Konoha was built under the guidance of—

"Hatake," the earpiece hummed into his ear.

"Yes?" Marking the spot in the book with one finger, Kakashi spoke as softly as possible, not wanting his words or voice to carry.

"Tsunade is returning to her office with Haruno Sakura."

Sakura. He frowned, wondering how long their training would last. It should have been ending soon, and Tsunade had not originally planned on bringing her back to the building. "Acknowledged." He would have to wait until Tsunade was once again alone before bringing forth the knowledge of these shelves. It at least gave him more time to read through, but he would rather speak to her as soon as possible – especially with the mission she was considering, and the people she would want to bring into it.

Settling more firmly on his precarious perch of a rickety ladder, Kakashi continued to read, skimming through a few pages.

the Uchiha Clan, an honor many thought to be undeserved. Unlike the Hyuuga leader, Shuuei had truly wanted to participate in war with their strength and numbers, and opposed their choice to run and develop their own community and become a power unto themselves. However, the Uchiha Clan seemed devoted towards the protection of Konoha, and Shuuei became more favorable towards their new standing, especially when the village gained power strong enough to rival the army of the Fire Country.

Once again Kakashi turned to the front of the book and checked the introduction carefully. Though the name signed was that of a Konoha Historian, the book itself read as though it were written by an outsider and not once did it mention a single treatise with another village or country.

Closing the bound record, Kakashi placed it back on the shelf and looked over the various scrolls. Some were in states of decay, with ink fading and paper torn; others were carefully preserved, the words easily read and paper crisp to the touch. All were covered in dust. Except – he jumped down from the ladder and knelt against the floor to observe – for that last shelf, where the scrolls were a little too clean and the shelf streaked as though a sleeve had brushed off a layer of dust within the past few years.

If the rest of your theory is true, Tsunade's voice echoed in his mind, then we've found out about it too late.