Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Naruto...

Query Post:

-Sorry for the delay; had a physics final to study for but that's over now.

-I already have an idea as to who will be teaching Sakura after she graduates; won't say anything more than that. Sasuke and Naruto also won't be on the same team she is (at least not right away) as they won't graduate at the same time.

-I'll definitely be adding minor characters to this story too (ie. Hayate, Yuugao, etc).

-Still going to keep this gen; I might add pairings later on but I'm not planning on it at the moment.

-I'd like to think that Sakura's shy persona has been 'lessened' through her interactions with Ino, etc so that would be why she's somewhat more outgoing now.


Chapter Summary: In which Sakura finds out just how socially retarded a certain Uchiha heir can be, Fugaku defends his recent actions from his clan's Elders, a missing-nin escapes, and graduation is just around the corner.


Chapter 6 – Conflicts and Conclusions

Tucking a medical scroll under her arm, Sakura locks up her house and heads out for the day. For once, there is no school, no Naras, no Naruto and Sasuke, and no other friends to meet up with. She has the entire day to herself.

She continues believing this right up to the point when she unlocks her garden gate.

And then she stops.

"Good morning, Sakura-san," Itachi says impassively.

It actually takes a few seconds for Sakura to register the fact that Itachi had spoken out loud.

"Uh," She replies intelligently.

A long minute passes, stressed with silence.

"Good... morning?" Sakura finally returns, inwardly cringing at the audible question mark at the end.

Itachi seems satisfied though because the intensity of his gaze lessens somewhat even though he continues watching her.

Sakura scans the standard shinobi gear the Uchiha is wearing and wonders why he isn't training or on a mission. More importantly, she wonders why he is standing outside her house at eight in the morning.

"Can I help you, Itachi-san?" She finally asks when it is clear Itachi isn't going to say anything.

Itachi blinks and the set of his shoulders shift a little. "I would be pleased to make your acquaintance, Sakura-san."

Sakura just stares. What?

Most likely seeing the lost look on her face, Itachi tries again. "I would like to gain your friendship."

...?

Sakura's mind is literally blank for several moments but she is more dumbfounded than confused as the seconds tick by. Itachi wants to be... friends with her? If she doesn't know better, she would think it is a joke.

When she recovers, the first thing out of her mouth is, "That was blunt."

She flushes a little at her own candour but neither of them can deny the truth of that statement.

Itachi tilts his head a little. "Shisui said I should make my intentions clear to you," A miniscule frown creases his brow. "Have I done so?"

Sakura can't help gaping at him. So Itachi doesn't hate her? Then what was with all the frowns and stiff nods and stony silences?

"Are you serious?" She can't help blurting out, and then quickly amends, "Nobody says things like that just because..."

Sakura trails off as a thought strikes her. Itachi has told her that he is following Shisui's instructions. So either Itachi is going along with a prank, which Sakura just can't see happening, or the Uchiha heir is really just completely clueless on how to go about making friends.

Itachi is still staring at her but Sakura can pick out the slight tension running through his frame. Huh. Why hasn't she seen it before?

Looking closer, she thinks she can pick up the same brittle quality in Itachi's eyes as she once did in Naruto's and Sai's and even Sasuke's when he thinks no one is looking, the one that speaks of uncertainty and fear of not being accepted and just the smallest shadow of longing, like he wants her company but isn't sure how to go about getting it.

And she wants to slap herself.

Haruno Sakura, She scolds mentally. How could you not see this coming? A child prodigy from the Uchiha Clan would no doubt receive resentment from teammates and colleagues alike, but they would hide it because of what he represents. Where would he ever learn how to make friends?

So she forgets all her previous frustration to the emotionally stunted heir and focuses on the patience that she has built up when dealing with her boys. She does the first thing that comes to mind.

Waving a hand in the general direction of the open street, Sakura asks brightly, "I haven't eaten breakfast yet. Wanna go get ramen with me?"

If she isn't already looking for the signs, Sakura would have missed the slight widening of Itachi's eyes and then the minute relaxing of the tightness in his jaw.

He doesn't answer verbally but Sakura supposes it is alright since he has already proven to be willing to speak to her, not to mention she does understand his wordless replies, so when he only inclines his head, Sakura doesn't reprimand her brain for translating Yes, I would like that.

Itachi isn't one for talking so Sakura fills in the silence and chatters on about the week she has had and tells him about the medical texts she has read so far. Itachi never cuts in with his own opinions or even looks at her but by the way his head is turned just a little towards Sakura, she knows he is listening.

Ten minutes later, they are seated in Ichiraku Ramen and Sakura is trying not to laugh as they wait for their orders. She supposes with Itachi being Itachi, the Uchiha heir wouldn't exactly be one to take the time to wander through the streets of Konoha. The fact that he is having breakfast out in the open is so unprecedented that it seems to have shocked most of the population into stares and whispers.

"You really don't get out much, do you?" Sakura asks dryly as Itachi blinks owlishly at the bowl of ramen Teuchi places in front of him. She flashes a smile at the chef when her own miso ramen is produced before turning back to Itachi. "Don't tell me you've never had ramen before."

Itachi gives her a look and Sakura blanches. "Really? You've never had ramen before?"

"Uchihas don't eat ramen," Itachi says blandly.

"Sasuke does," Sakura reminds him.

"Sasuke is friends with Uzumaki-kun," Itachi counters.

Sakura chews on her ramen for a bit. "Fair enough," She allows after swallowing a bite. "But so does Shisui-san."

Itachi gives her another look, this time one that is equal parts reproach and deadpan amusement. "Shisui is an anomaly. He does not count."

Sakura blinks at him, chopsticks halfway to her mouth, before she laughs and nods in agreement. "There is that. He really isn't much like the rest of you Uchihas."

They sit in a comfortable silence as they eat the rest of their meals but when they finish, they spend several minutes fighting over who would pay what.

"I can pay for myself, Itachi-san," Sakura insists stubbornly, already digging into her weapons pouch.

"It is simple courtesy for me to pay for your share as well," Itachi maintains adamantly, whipping out a plain black wallet before Sakura can even find hers.

"No, it's chauvinistic," Sakura retorts, ignoring the fact that she probably shouldn't know a word like 'chauvinistic'. She is in the company of a fellow prodigy after all. "And you're nine. If we were both several years older and you were my boyfriend, then I'd consider letting you pay."

Itachi doesn't look even mildly perturbed. "It is unbecoming for a man to let a female companion pay for a meal when it is he who takes her out to eat."

Sakura puts her hands on her hips and glares up at Itachi. "Okay, one, you're not a man yet, no offense to your ego. Two, I'm the one who asked you to eat breakfast with me. And three, if you put that money on the counter, I'll kick your ass from here to Suna."

This is apparently enough to give Itachi pause as his hand halts an inch from the table, halfway through the process of placing the appropriate amount of money down.

Sakura smirks triumphantly but it slips off her face when Itachi enquires, "I do not believe that to be possible. From your spar with Shisui, I have deduced that you are not yet on par with me."

Sakura's mind blanks for about three seconds before she channels Inner and her temper explodes because it is such a Sasuke thing to say and the tiny bit of her that still remembers that twelve-year-old Sakura rears its head.

"Oh, that is it, Uchiha!" Sakura snaps, finally fishing out her own money and slamming it down on the counter with almost enough strength to crack it. "We're gonna fight and I'm gonna show you just how on par with you I am!"

Itachi barely has time to drop a few coins for his own meal before Sakura grabs his arm and hauls him out of the stand, dragging him in the direction of the nearest training grounds. Itachi may be stronger overall at the moment – which is something she is determined to ignore – but Sakura's strength is only rivalled by Tsunade.

Neither notice Teuchi shaking his head as they leave. "Poor kid," He mutters, sweeping the money off the counter. "Don't those Uchihas teach their children not to anger females in general?"

~T~

For his part, Itachi has no idea what he has done wrong. His mother has always lectured him on the importance of being a gentleman but Sakura has not reacted to his actions the way he expects. Mulling over the last few minutes, Itachi lets Sakura drag him through the streets of Konoha and doesn't notice the varying looks of astonishment and disbelief crossing shinobi and civilian faces alike as he is led to the training grounds like a puppy on a leash.

Sakura is very independent, he can acknowledge that, and she never lets Shisui coddle her in a spar, often forcing his cousin to fight seriously. So perhaps he should have treated her as an equal and let her pay her own share? But just because he offered to pay for her didn't mean he saw her as anything less. He has seen her fight Shisui, after all; her abilities make even him wary.

"Alright, let's spar!" Sakura announces, dropping his arm when they reach the first training area.

Itachi arches his eyebrow in silent question. Is this really necessary?

She understands him, of course, something he has never figured out how. Only his mother has ever been able to interpret all his gestures.

"Damn right it is!" She responds hotly, already tucking her medical scroll away.

Itachi frowns and crosses his arms. He had originally planned to befriend her. Fighting doesn't seem particularly productive in reaching that goal.

"No," He says, and watches as one of Sakura's eyebrows twitched.

"What do you mean 'no'?" She growls.

"I mean I will not fight you," Itachi clarifies, which only makes the twitching worse.

"Why not?" Sakura snarls indignantly. "You think I'm too weak to take you on-"

This is so far from the truth that Itachi disregards decorum and cuts her off. "I do not believe that," He assures her. "I have seen you spar with Shisui. Your abilities in taijutsu is formidable, your skill with medical ninjutsu even more so. It would be foolish for anyone to underestimate you."

This leaves Sakura gaping for reasons Itachi isn't sure of. He is only speaking the truth; why is she so surprised?

"But- But what about what you said back at Ichiraku's?" She splutters. "You were all 'you'll never be on par with me 'cause I'm Uchiha Itachi'!"

The last part is stated in a crude mimic of his voice and Itachi can't help twitching a little as well. "I did not," He denies. "I said you were not yet on par with me, and you are not. Your stamina still needs work. But when your chakra reserves build up enough, not even Shisui's speed will prevent you from defeating him."

Sakura gawks at him some more and Itachi waits patiently for her to speak.

"Oh," She says after a long moment. "So... you don't think I'm weak?"

Itachi regards her with some puzzlement. "Why would I?" He asks, which only seems to make her brighten more. "I am not so thoughtless as to believe you would pose no challenge for me even right now, much less when you have built up your stamina."

He pauses, and then feels it would probably be better if he makes amends now about earlier. "And if you insist on paying for yourself, I will agree to split the cost of our meals from now on. Even if one meal costs more than the other."

"Oh," She says again, this time much more cheerfully. Her arms drop back to her side and her stance relaxes, absently reminding Itachi of an offended cat calming down. "Well that's alright then, I can work with that. Sorry about just now."

She smiles sheepishly at him and Itachi blinks at the sudden change in demeanour. "You do not wish to fight anymore?"

She waves a dismissive hand and jogs back over to his side. "Nah, not in the mood. Wanna just walk around a bit?"

Itachi nods in agreement, feeling a little dazed at Sakura's seemingly bi-polar disposition. But she isn't angry anymore; more importantly, she isn't angry at him and Itachi has managed to calm her down all by himself. He thinks this is an accomplishment worth being proud of in and of itself.

The rest of the day is spent in the library and Itachi actually finds himself interested in what Sakura has to say. She is cheerful and enthusiastic when she talks and her knowledge of medicine is more in-depth than anyone he knows. Granted, he has never been particularly fascinated by medical ninjutsu and really only knows the basic healing all shinobi eventually learn but he can't help feeling a little awed at how much knowledge is stored away in Sakura's mind. She will become a powerful kunoichi, this he already knows, but he thinks she will be an even more formidable medic-nin.

"Thanks for listening to me babble all day, Itachi-san," Sakura grins up at him and he nods stoically in response as they stop in front of her house.

Sakura rolls her eyes and mutters something he can't quite pick up but her chakra doesn't spike so he is fairly certain he is still safe. He still remembers the last time Shisui pushed Sakura too far. The pink-haired Academy student had put him through the floor with one fist. Even Itachi had been hard-pressed not to laugh.

"I have a training session with Shisui-san tomorrow so I'll see you then?" She ends on a questioning note and Itachi nods again. He doesn't have any missions scheduled for the next few days, although that might be because he hadn't asked for any recently. Well, his mother is always telling him to cut back a little.

When she waves and makes to turn away, Itachi quickly intercepts her. "Sakura-san, how far along am I in gaining your friendship?"

Sakura stares at him before her mouth twitches just a little. She is clearly amused but her green eyes soften considerably. "I thought we were already friends," She says and a genuine smile spreads over features without reluctance.

Itachi opens his mouth to say something but for once, he is unprepared and he ends up closing it again, mildly embarrassed.

Sakura just giggles and waves at him in farewell. "Call me Sakura, Itachi-san. I'll see you tomorrow."

And before Itachi can return her parting gesture, before he can tell her call me Itachi, she has disappeared into her house.

For a long minute, Itachi stays standing in front of her house. When he finally turns away, a small smile has made its way onto his face.

He had had fun today, which doesn't happen often. And it seems he has made a friend as well, which has never happened.

All in all, it has been a very good day.

~E~

"Are you serious, Fugaku? We have been planning this for years and you wish to forget everything now?"

Fugaku bites back a sigh and concentrates on not glaring at the Clan Elders. This is a first because he is usually on their side, but even he has to admit that his recent actions have been uncharacteristic at best.

"I am simply proposing to put any further thoughts of the coup on hold," Fugaku explains, ignoring the dubious looks all around him. "After what happened to the Hyuuga Clan, it is unwise to provoke unrest within the village. Konoha will be seen as weak to the other countries."

"Fugaku!" One older cut in sharply. "It is not Konoha we should be worrying about! The village is prosperous enough but the Uchiha Clan is the exact opposite. We must act, and soon!"

Fugaku levelled the Elder with a cool gaze. "The Uchiha Clan is, I believe, more valued to this village than I previously thought."

Discontented murmurs swept the room but Fugaku forges on before anyone can interrupt. "Recent dealings with the other clan heads have led me to reconsider their stance on this clan. It seems to me that they are not as against us as I originally believed them to be."

"And what exactly has led you to that conclusion?" An Elder on the far side of the room enquires, dark eyes hard.

Fugaku is relieved that they are at least willing to hear him out, no matter how reluctantly. "They supported me in a recent petition I had to bypass the village Elders with," Fugaku explains. "Once I gave them sufficient reason to support my cause, they aided my request and saw it through to the end."

"Are you speaking of the Uzumaki boy?" Another Elder asked, voice frigid. "Why you took on such a burden I will never comprehend but the other clans could very well have their own motives for aiding you. That is not an adequate basis to stop all plans for a coup!"

"Then what is?" Fugaku counters just as icily. He has never really noticed before but his clan is very cold. Maybe he just never wanted to notice. "It was still a decision needed to pass through the Council and one that would benefit with all the clans' agreement. It was a decision like any other decision."

"It was not for the good of the Uchiha Clan," The Elder's nose flared, the only outward sign of anger. "What benefit does representing that demon have, I would like to know!"

Fugaku tightened his jaw to reign in the sudden burst of rage inside him. He had never gone out of his way to look out for Uzumaki Naruto but after so many months of watching the boy interact with his son and Sakura, some... obligation on his behalf had appeared. Minato had been a close friend once upon a time and he didn't like the way people treated the man's only child.

But the Elders don't know any of this and Fugaku doesn't have the clearance to tell them so he uses their fear against them instead.

"And you think the boy wouldn't notice all the resentment and hatred directed at him?" Fugaku challenges. "If the seal ever fails, wouldn't the Kyuubi have a much easier time in taking over if the boy feels no loyalty to this village at all? And would it not be better if our clan holds more of a place for him than it previously did?"

The law bans people from talking about this issue but within his own compound, Fugaku doesn't really care since he is using the information to defend the boy.

There are gasps and mutters from all directions and Fugaku lets them talk. He doesn't want to bring Sakura into this unless absolutely necessary. While she does owe a debt to the Uchiha Clan as a whole, he doesn't want the Clan Elders to know this because even they are impressed with Sakura's skills and they will exploit her debt in as large a capacity as possible.

Sakura has left an echo of herself in his thoughts. Perhaps it is because he alone is consciously aware of just how much influence she has had on his recent actions or perhaps it is something else entirely, but Fugaku can't help the seed of – he can't call it anything else – blind faith he has in her. Either way, he wants – needs – to save that debt for a rainy day because ever since Sakura got him thinking on that fateful evening, something a lot like dread has been knocking insistently against his attention, telling him that the path the Uchiha Clan is going down is not at all safe or wise. And if a time ever comes when the Uchiha Clan will need to be saved from itself, Fugaku will need all the help he can get.

"Perhaps it is a wiser decision than we originally thought," One Elder finally acknowledges grudgingly. Uchihas do not like yielding to anyone, even to other Uchihas. "But it is still not enough. Should the village turn against our clan, we must be ready."

"We were planning to attack even before Konoha showed signs of blatant hatred," Fugaku retorts sharply. "And what good is civil war if it only draws the entire village into another shinobi war with another country? We would be destroyed anyway."

Another wave of murmurs swept the room but Fugaku doesn't wait for anymore complaints. He is tired of their protests. He does not understand why they do not see what he sees, but then again, he had not seen the bigger picture either before Sakura came along.

"This is my final decision," Fugaku says firmly, rising to his feet. "For now, plans for the coup will be placed aside. Instead, perhaps the Uchiha Clan would benefit more from creating stronger ties to the other clans of Konoha."

On that dismissive note, Fugaku turns and vacates the room. He is quite sure most if not all his Elders are still unhappy with his verdict but he also knows that he has given them something to think about. At least that will put them off for a little while.

~M~

Neither Inoichi nor Ibiki had gotten much out of the Iwa missing-nin in the past few months. Even Anko at her worst had had little effect and they are forced to conclude that the missing-nin is exactly what Inoichi managed to find out from the man's mind.

"Just a missing-nin who thought it would be a brilliant idea to kidnap the Uchiha's second son," Inoichi mutters as he files away the most recent paperwork for the captured nin. Damn, he hates paperwork. He has no idea how Sarutobi does it on a daily basis.

Glancing up, he frowns at a stack piled neatly on the right between two other stacks. He is fairly certain that is new. Picking up the top sheet, his eye twitches.

"Shikaku you bastard!" He snaps aloud even though he knows the man is probably halfway home by now. "How many times do I have to tell you to do your own paperwork? We're not even in the same department!"

"You've known his habits for years, Inoichi," A familiar voice says from the door. "You should be used to them by now."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it," Inoichi grumbles, not bothering to turn as Chouza enters the room. "He only ever gets worked up when a disaster hits Konoha."

Chouza chuckles but the sound dies faster than usual and Inoichi glances up with a frown. "What's wrong?"

The Akimichi Clan Head looks uncharacteristically frustrated. "The missing-nin you interrogated a few weeks back; he's gone."

Inoichi is on his feet in an instant. "What? What do you mean he's gone? He's locked up in our holding cells waiting to be deported back to Iwa!"

"Well, he's escaped," Chouza says shortly. "That's what Shikaku's doing now. He's sent out some Jounin around the village and the Chuunin at the gates swear blind that no one's come or gone all day." He pauses, and then grins dryly, "Except one was sleeping when Shikaku got there and the other looked about ready to drift off."

Studying Inoichi's growing disbelief, Chouza adds with resigned amusement, "Oh, and just so it won't be a shock, the Hokage's hopping mad, someone's gone and spray painted the Hokage Monument hot pink, and it's just after Academy hours at the moment. We've got kids everywhere."

Inoichi slaps his forehead before moving to grab his coat.

"It's gonna be one of those days, isn't it?" He asks rhetorically as he follows Chouza to the door.

Chouza just laughs despite the situation.

~P~

"Can someone please explain to me how a four-year-old kid can spray paint the Yondaime pink in broad daylight during school hours while being tailed by ANBU and all without getting caught? And don't tell me it's not the boy; everyone knows it's him."

Shikaku is fuming – as much as a Nara can fume anyway – so Chouza does his best to chase away his friend's irritation. The Jounin Commander has been running around all afternoon trying to keep track of his Jounin spread out through the village and making sure the missing-nin hasn't yet killed off any civilians. Needless to say, the man is more than a little annoyed, especially seeing as the Hokage had originally given Shikaku an off-day today.

Shikaku sighs and waves a hand at a group of Jounin. "I don't care what it takes; just find the missing-nin. Capturing him is preferable but kill him if necessary. Spread the search to the eastern gates."

The Jounin dart off and Shikaku turns to Chouza and Inoichi with another sigh. "We have to find him," Shikaku says grimly. "I want one of you at the western gates and one at the southern. I already have Shiranui and Mitarashi at the main gates," A slightly humorous but wry smile twists his lips as he gestures at the head of the Yondaime. "If nothing else, I don't want the missing-nin spreading word about that pink monstrosity to the rest of the world. Konoha would never live it down and that's just too troublesome to even think about."

Inoichi snickers as Chouza smothers a smile and asks, "What about you?"

The smile fades from Shikaku's face as he twirls a kunai in one hand. "I'm going to go find Sakura-chan," He says curtly. "She's the one who got him captured. If the missing-nin decides on revenge, he'll be heading straight for her."

"She's probably with the Uzumaki boy," Inoichi points out. "There'll be ANBU around."

A dark frown creases Shikaku's brow even as he turns away. "Yeah, I hear they did a great job last time."

And then he is gone, flitting over the rooftops in the Academy's direction.

Chouza meets Inoichi's mildly stunned glance and suggests calmly while suppressing another amused smile, "I imagine that's what Shikaku would be like if he had a daughter."

Inoichi just shakes his head. "He only gets sarcastic when he's stressed and that doesn't happen often. It's just a bit of a shock."

They depart with a nod at each other and Shunshin off to their assigned positions. Neither of them knows Sakura as well as Shikaku but the girl is a good influence on their children – Ino's become more responsible; Chouji's become more confident – and that is enough for them to worry about Sakura as well.

~E~

Sakura is sparring in the Academy's training yard with both Naruto and Sasuke at the same time – they have long since accepted the fact that she is stronger than both of them – when she senses him. Both boys are panting when she calls a stop to their spar, and she doesn't waste any time in grabbing their hands and dragging them off to the side into the shadow of the Academy walls.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto's eyes are curious as he peers at their surroundings. "What's wrong?"

"Remember what I taught you about sensing chakra signals?" Sakura murmurs, eyes focused on the rooftops as the hostile signature draws closer. "See if you can sense him."

Both Naruto and Sasuke obeys, closing their eyes to concentrate. Sasuke gets it first and his eyes snap back open as he clutches at Sakura's hand in a tighter grip.

"That's him, isn't it?" Sasuke whispered, eyes wide as his brow creased in recollection. "That's the man who tried to kidnap me. I thought he was caught!"

"He must've escaped," Sakura says grimly as Naruto opens his eyes as well, looking uncharacteristically solemn. Both boys are already hiding their chakra signal as best they can and Sakura has already tucked hers away but she knows it isn't enough to fool the missing-nin.

"Naruto," She glances at the blond on her right. "Any shortcuts that can get us to the Uchiha compound from here?" She knows Naruto knows Konoha like no one else even as a child.

Naruto spins around, squinting towards the left before gesturing to them. "Yeah, this way. C'mon."

Neither Sakura nor Sasuke hesitated as they hurried after the blond and weaved out of the school, pausing only to grab their bags. Sakura makes sure to take up the rear. Last time she managed to catch the missing-nin off guard but she is fairly certain she would only be able to hold him back for so long now that he knows what she is capable of, not to mention she has two kids to protect this time.

The presence draws closer and Sakura whips out her kunai as they continue to run, keeping to the shadows of alleyways as Naruto leads them through Konoha.

"Keep going!" Sakura only has time to shout this to her boys before the missing-nin is bearing down on her. She brings her kunai up just in time to block the downward punch of a metal gauntlet.

"Sakura-chan!" "Sakura!"

She hears her teammates cry out in alarm and the reminder that they are the ones who need protecting right now, that she is the only one there who can do the protecting, gives her enough strength to shove the missing-nin back.

Her opponent is missing teeth and is splattered with blood, the haggard air of a torture victim hanging over him. Sakura watches him warily, not daring to take her eyes off him as she calls over her shoulder, "Naruto, Sasuke, keep going. I'll hold him off."

The missing-nin releases an ugly hacking laugh but it is her boys' immediate responses that frighten her.

"No way!" Naruto's stubborn reply sets Sakura's teeth on edge and she tries not to lose her temper right then and there. "We need to protect you, Sakura-chan!"

"Yeah," Sasuke agrees. "We can't just leave you here."

Normally, she treats these sentiments with indulgent amusement but right now, she simply wants to scream at them for being idiots or kick their asses for thinking her weak.

Because she is currently contemplating kicking the missing-nin's ass, Sakura picks the former. "YOU IDIOTS!" She snarled. "I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU DON'T RUN NOW I AM GOING TO KICK YOUR SORRY ASSES AROUND THE TRAINING GROUNDS AND ENJOY IT!"

She doesn't hear their answer because the enemy-nin is surging forward again and Sakura needs all her senses to keep up. She ducks under the first swipe and jabs forward with a kunai, taking satisfaction when she draws blood. But it is a shallow wound and her opponent doesn't even seem to notice as he comes in swinging again.

A set of senbon come flying in from her left and she catches Sasuke circling around the missing-nin out of the corner of her eye. The shinobi dodges them and catches one before flinging it back at Sasuke, who is too slow to move out of the way in time and Sakura has to yank out a shuriken to deflect it.

"Damn it!" She swears as the missing-nin turns malevolent eyes on his original target. "Hey, eyes on me, bastard!" She yells, snapping a kunai at him. It slices his cheek open and embeds itself into the wall behind him but it is enough to turn the man's attention back on her.

"No, over here!" Naruto shouts and Sakura would've hit him if he had been close enough. Naruto's kunai is snatched out of the air and the missing-nin grins.

"NARUTO, SASUKE, GET BEHIND ME! NOW!" Sakura roars, very much at the end of her patience. Her voice cracks just a little, still too high-pitched to sound all that commanding, but the authority in it is unmistakable and both boys rush to her side, looking frightened and confused and still obstinately defiant.

Under any other circumstances, Sakura would've hugged them.

But she has bigger problems right now and she barely manages to block the missing-nin's next blow, muscles shaking at the sheer weight of her opponent's strength. Grimacing, she snaps out one foot and catches the man in the groin. The enemy-nin moves back just enough to merely grunt and stagger back but at least it gives Sakura a breather.

"I just want the boy," The missing-nin growls, eyes flickering to Sasuke.

"Over my dead body," Sakura snaps back instantly, blinking sweat out of her eyes as she levels her remaining kunai at him. She doesn't understand why her opponent wants Sasuke so badly. If she is in his place, she would make escaping the village her top priority.

The missing-nin shrugs. "Suits me fine. Still have to pay you back." A bloody sneer twists his lips and before Sakura can blink, the man has shot forward, one hand wrapping around her wrist. With a jerk and a loud snap, Sakura's wrist snaps and her kunai tumbles out of her suddenly numb fingers.

She can't quite bite back the cry of pain that tears itself from her throat but she still has enough presence of mind to lash out with her other fist. It catches the missing-nin, who probably thought Sakura would go down after a broken bone, square in the gut, deliberately putting the right amount of chakra in it to shut down his kidneys and liver. The man howls as he is thrown backwards, crashing into a brick wall with a satisfying crunch.

To Sakura's dismay, the enemy-nin clambers to his feet again within seconds, one arm wrapped around his stomach and an enraged grimace on his features.

"Stupid little bitch!" The missing-nin spits out, and Sakura just manages to turn and throw herself over Naruto and Sasuke as a kunai comes flying at them with lethal speed. Her superior strength brings them all down to the ground but she winces as the metal blade skims her back. It is only a scratch though so she doesn't spare the injury any thought as she rolls over and finds the missing-nin towering over them.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto is tugging at her shirt, still trying to somehow tuck her behind him and away from danger, and Sasuke is clutching at her good arm as if that alone will hide her from view, and Sakura doesn't know whether to be exasperated or pissed. Already furious with her five-year-old body for being next to useless, pissed sounds like a good idea so she digs her elbows into whatever parts of their bodies she can reach to shut them up.

"Looks like you get your wish after all," The enemy-nin cackles, picking up the kunai Sakura had dropped earlier.

Sakura glares, her brain is screaming for help, Inner is raging inside her, and she lifts a foot and brings it back down with an ear-splitting crack. The ground under them shakes and the missing-nin lurches on the spot, momentarily thrown off-balance, but it is enough.

Out of nowhere, a kunai comes flying out, metal glinting in the afternoon sunlight as it finds its mark in the missing-nin's neck. The weapon slams into the shinobi with so much fury behind it that he is literally knocked sideways off his feet. Instinctively, Sakura throws an arm over each of the boys under her, ignoring the pain that lances through her when her broken wrist is jostled as she covers their eyes from the gruesome sight. Blood gushes out of the wound and the enemy-nin gurgles as crimson splashes his lips. It only takes a moment more before the light in his eyes dies and he stills on the ground.

"Sakura-chan!"

Sakura blinks and glances to the side as Shikaku leaps down from a rooftop. She has rarely ever heard the Nara Head sound so worried, and it is usually directed at his son during the war in her previous timeline.

"I'm fine," She coughs out, struggling into a sitting position. "Check these two."

Sakura catches an exasperated look from Shikaku before Naruto and Sasuke are speaking, talking over each other to describe her injuries to the Nara Head.

Two more Jounin appear, bending over the missing-nin with matching frowns. Her line of sight is blocked when Shikaku crouches down in front of them, giving cursory once-overs to the two boys before focusing on her.

"Let's see," Shikaku holds out a hand and Sakura extends her broken wrist.

"It's fine," Sakura assures, pushing the pain away as she focuses healing chakra to her injury. "It'll be healed soon enough."

Shikaku says nothing for a moment, just watches the soft green light glowing around her wrist with unreadable eyes before looking up again with a wry smile. "Be more careful, Sakura-chan."

There is a shadow of something else in Shikaku's voice, as if he is hinting at a different meaning than the obvious one but Sakura doesn't have time to ponder on it as one of the Jounin call for him. The Nara Head ruffles her hair before rising and hurrying over to the dead shinobi, already muttering orders to the Jounin.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Sasuke interrupts her thoughts and Sakura quickly turns to him with a smile.

"I'm fine, Sasuke," She says before scowling at both of them. "And you two are idiots. You should've run."

Naruto puffs up, crossing his arms. "Shinobi don't run," He protests.

"Then you can stand your ground all you want when you are shinobi," Sakura retorts.

"Well what kind of shinobi would we become if we just left you alone to face the enemy?" Sasuke asks dubiously.

"Yeah, we have to look out for each other!" Naruto says belligerently.

Sakura sighs but feels her anger slipping away with each passing second. She never could stay mad for long at these two and they had been trying to protect her.

"Thanks then," Sakura allows grudgingly. "But next time, try thinking before going up against a missing-nin. We haven't been working on battle formations for nothing, you know."

Naruto shoots her a sheepish look and Sasuke glances away, slightly embarrassed, but Sakura just smiles again and they know they are forgiven.

The missing-nin is well and truly dead this time and is quickly taken away for disposal. Naruto gets permission to stay with Sasuke for the rest of the day and night but Sakura insists on going home. She doesn't spend much time with her parents anymore but she has promised herself that she wouldn't let them drift apart again so seeing them when they get home from work as much as possible is the least she can do.

An ANBU doesn't accompany her home this time. Instead, Shikaku takes her hand and walks her home. Both are quiet and the silence between them, while not uncomfortable, is a little tense for reasons Sakura isn't sure of.

"Shikaku-san?" Sakura speaks up then, not liking the strained atmosphere. "Is something wrong?"

Shikaku glances down at her, studying her for a few seconds before offering a slight smile. "Nothing's wrong, Sakura-chan. It's been a busy day though."

Sakura nods and lets the issue go. If Shikaku doesn't want to say, nothing she does will get him to reveal it.

"By the way, how did your friend spray paint the Yondaime's head?" Shikaku suddenly asks.

Sakura blinks and then giggles. The air clears between them as Shikaku arches an eyebrow at her. "Dunno," She sings. "It might not be Naruto."

"Never said it was," Shikaku points out good-humouredly. "Could be Sasuke-kun."

"Sasuke?" She gives him a skeptical look but her mouth betrays her and twitches into a smile. "Mikoto-san says we're a bad influence on Sasuke."

"Oh?" Shikaku looks thoughtful. "You like Mikoto-san then?"

Sakura nods enthusiastically. "She's great. We helped her throw a birthday party for Itachi the other day."

"A birthday party for Itachi-kun?" Shikaku repeats slowly, looking slightly shocked.

Sakura swallows a snicker at the expression. "Yup. He was twitching a lot when we showered him with confetti and made him cut his cake but I think he liked it anyway."

Shikaku chuckles softly. "Never thought I'd see the day," He mutters almost to himself before saying more loudly, "I don't suppose Fugaku was there as well?"

"Oh, he was," Sakura confirms. "I made sure to ask him earlier and Mikoto-san made him clear his schedule for the day. He looked kinda uncomfortable at the beginning but Itachi actually laughed when Naruto tripped and fell into the garden pond and took Sasuke with him and then Fugaku-san looked a lot more relaxed."

"I see," Shikaku considers her with sharp eyes but again, he doesn't expand on what is on his mind and Sakura doesn't ask.

When they reach her house, Sakura exchanges goodnights with Shikaku before heading inside. She glances back only once, half inside the house, half out, and catches the Nara Head's gaze again. It isn't unfriendly or hostile; far from it, but there is still something in it that unsettles Sakura. She will have to watch herself more carefully from now on, but after she gives one last wave and closes the door behind her, she remembers how easily Shikaku can usually hide anything he feels behind a lazy facade and wonders if the man had shown her a little of what he is feeling on purpose.

If so, she wonders why.

~S~

He isn't pleased. The man he sent inside has not come back and he has picked up enough gossip from various Konoha shinobi to know that the missing-nin is now a dead nin.

It doesn't throw a particularly big wrench in his plans; the younger Uchiha boy is simply supposed to be collateral. He is confident he can convince the Uchihas' precious heir to carry out this part of his plan without the boy.

He knows the missing-nin won't be able to reveal anything so he is not concerned on that front. Instead, he ponders on the rift between the Uchiha Clan and the rest of the village. For now, it is deep enough to cause even more problems if it continues on its destined path but he will have to keep an eye out just in case.

He will have to intercept Uchiha Itachi next time the boy leaves the village for a mission. Turning him against his own clan will be the first step.

~T~

"There is an odd number of students graduating this year," Sarutobi begins. "Mostly because one of those students is graduating much earlier than anyone expected at the beginning."

In the Jounin-filled office, Genma alone brightens. "Sakura-chan really did it then? I always knew she would!"

Sarutobi's mouth twitches as he regards the laidback shinobi. "Yes, it seems, just as she promised, she has managed to complete all the Academy curriculums in one year alone."

"Wait, who's Sakura?" Sanae queries from the left.

"Haruno Sakura," Sarutobi clarifies. "A prodigy from the civilian sector represented by the Uchiha Clan."

"The Uchiha Clan took her in?" Tekuno whistles in admiration. "She must be something else."

"Yes, which brings us to the problem of which sensei to hand her off to," Sarutobi glances down at the list of teams he has drawn up. "For the most part, I have already drawn up teams for those of you who have agreed to take on a Genin team. Sanae, Riku, Kai, Tekuno, Taichi, Hayama, Hiki, and Raidou."

The aforementioned nin all nod and Sarutobi focuses on the remaining shinobi. "Now, I know you have not signed up for a Genin team, but I do need an extra Jounin to apprentice Sakura-chan to until her teammates graduate."

"She already has teammates?" Hiki enquires curiously.

Sarutobi nods serenely. "I will be placing two others with her when they graduate, which will most likely be only two years from now. They work well together and their Academy sensei has already mentioned their excellent teamwork, so whoever takes on Sakura-chan will have to be prepared for the long haul."

Murmurs sweep the room but no one speaks as Sarutobi continues. "Kakashi, Genma; I have called you in today because I believe either one of you are ready to take on a team."

He pauses then and is hard-pressed not to twitch in annoyance as the sound of a flipping page permeates the room. "Kakashi, are you listening to me?"

The Copy-nin looks up and eye-smiles at him. "Of course, Hokage-sama, but I'm not interested in taking on any brat."

Sarutobi sighs. He has grounded Kakashi for the time being. The man has been on far too many ANBU missions and some down time would be good for him. He has told the Copy-nin that until he has taken on at least one team of Genin, he would be banned from any S-class missions. Sarutobi knows Kakashi has resorted to wait him out. Too bad for him Sarutobi can be as stubborn as they come.

But for now, he glances at Genma instead. The senbon wielder shrugs. "I'd like to, I really do, but I've got my own missions plus rotation duty." Here he adds a meaningful look and Sarutobi nods in return.

"You will be taken off the rotation, of course," Sarutobi assures him. "And your missions will be cut back so you can properly teach Sakura-chan."

Genma looks thoughtful. "She's not gonna be a hard one to teach," He admits. "She's already at least Genin material. Chuunin in some areas after seeing what she did to that missing-nin."

There are agreeable nods all around. Not many shinobi in Konoha have missed the rumour of a five-year-old Academy student taking down an Iwa missing-nin.

"She's that Sakura?" Kakashi suddenly cuts in, the orange book in his hand lowering. "The one who's friends with the Uzumaki boy?"

Genma snorts. "Where have you been, old man?"

Kakashi shoots him a bland look. "In Water Country, for the past year."

Genma blinks but is too comfortable with himself to feel any embarrassment and simply shrugs instead. "Whatever," He turns back to the Hokage. "I'll take her. I wanted her as a student from the very beginning anyway."

Sarutobi is about to nod but has to suppress an amused smile when Kakashi jumps in again. "Hang on, I don't mind taking the girl. She's mature for her age and she can help keep the boys in line when they join her."

Sarutobi raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything. Kakashi was on rotation duty as well and would have seen what Sakura is capable of.

"You just said you weren't interested in teaching brats!" Genma protests, unconsciously straightening in place. "I've been watching Sakura-chan all year; she's my student!"

Kakashi waves a dismissive hand. "You just agreed right now," He points out mildly. "And Hokage-sama said either one of us would do."

"You turned the offer down," Genma bristles. "I didn't."

Sarutobi notes the incredulity on the other Jounin's faces. It isn't often Kakashi stirred himself for anything and Gema is usually quite easygoing.

"I'm sure another team will come along," Kakashi says easily. "You've taught before, haven't you? You've had a team already. I actually need one to get back on active duty." Here he spares a moment to shoot a reproachful look at Sarutobi.

Genma scoffs around his senbon. "So you're doing this for yourself, because Sakura-chan will be an easy student to teach and you'll be able to get all of them through the Chuunin Exams that much faster. Yeah, I can see how that's a great help to her."

Kakashi frowns, his book closing almost absently in his hand. "I'll make sure she's prepared," He counters, voice still mild. "I wouldn't make her take the exams if she's not ready."

"And I'll train her like I actually care about her," Genma retorts tersely. "Do you even know what she specializes in?"

"Medical ninjutsu and taijutsu," Kakashi says immediately.

"And genjutsu," Genma corrects. "She has excellent aim and is devoted to her friends. She works hard and eats the library for breakfast. She wants to be Head Medic of Konoha when she grows up."

Kakashi stares at him for a moment, visible eye blank even though the man is still relaxed. "Have you been stalking her?" He finally asks lightly, but there is no mistaking the slight edge in his words.

Before Genma can snap anything back, Sarutobi finally stops them. "That's enough," He says firmly.

He looks between the two. They have never been friends as far as he knows. Perhaps that will change somewhere down the road but Genma remembers the Kakashi from before the deaths of Uchiha Obito and Namikaze Minato, and unlike his peers, the senbon wielder has never simply accepted the change. Sarutobi knows Genma always keeps a careful if subtle eye on everyone around him and is obviously wary of the sides that the Copy-nin has hidden of himself. It stands to reason that Genma doesn't like the fact that someone he cares about may be placed under Kakashi's protection when he doesn't really trust the man at all.

"Well then," Sarutobi lets the slightest of smirks surface on his features as he tilts his hat back. He wants his ninja to get along and he needs a sensei for Sakura. It seems he can kill two birds with one stone in this case. "You can both teach her."

The matching stunned looks he receives are rather satisfying.


Finished! Again, sorry for the delay but I did say that my updates can be erratic. This chapter was particularly hard to write too so I hope it came out okay.

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