Chapter 12: The Cleanup
"I wonder what's going to happen to Zabuza," Naruto mused quietly some time later. He was kicking up dust as he walked, obviously bored with their slow march forward. "After he's been interrogated, I mean." He frowned at the ground.
"We have an extradition treaty with Water," said Sasuke, perhaps also bored of the silence. The woods, at least, had been full of animal life and interesting plants. The road they'd been walking along the past two hours was empty of any interesting sights. Nothing lined the path except for rocks and the occasional tuft of grass.
"That hasn't been enforced in ages, though," said Sakura, turning away from her musings on Haku and what his presence as a ghost might mean. Her thoughts weren't going anywhere, anyway. She noticed Naruto's curious look and continued, "Not since the beginning of the Yondaime Mizukage's reign."
"He mistrusted and killed people with bloodlimits," Sasuke explained for Naruto's benefit with no particular inflection in his voice. "And instituted that mockery of a graduation exam..."
"He always was a bastard," a slurred voice behind them opined. Sakura had almost forgotten Zabuza was there. He'd been so quiet and cooperative up until now. "Should'a killed'im when I had th'chance."
"Why didn't you?" said Naruto, walking backwards to look at Zabuza when he spoke. The mouth guard was noticeably stopping the missing-nin from opening his sharp-toothed mouth all the way, but he was still intelligible.
"That Terumi bitch got in th'way." Haku gaze on Zabuza was intense and intent, and he floated closer as if to make sure he caught every word. Maybe this was something he hadn't heard before.
Sakura pursed her lips. 'But why is Zabuza answering? Why is he bothering to speak at all?' Were the drugs he'd been given that powerful? That seemed unlikely. But then, making yourself attractive to your captors in one way or other was part of the Academy curriculum's counter-interrogation techniques. So the information Zabuza was offering was either an attempt to ingratiate himself, distract them all for some reason, or to lead their conversation in a certain direction. 'He'd never get an in with the ANBU, so he's going for the naïve genin with ridiculous humanitarian beliefs?'
That was an unkind, but not entirely inaccurate, way to describe Naruto. 'But it's not like Kakashi-sensei or the ANBU would let anything happen to him. And Naruto isn't an idiot, even if he does tend to see the best in people who don't deserve to be given second chances.'
Sasuke was glowering at the missing-nin, who unprompted continued his tale of revolting against the sitting Mizukage and fleeing the village. Sasuke looked a second away from interrupting the impromptu story-time, eyes growing darker the more attention Naruto paid their prisoner. The blond seemed riveted, and admittedly the tale Zabuza was weaving would be engrossing if it were a book or a movie. But as it happened, Sakura had read the summarized account of what had lead Kirigakure to end their traditional battle royale graduation test. And Zabuza was neatly skirting that particular part of his life.
"What's that?" said Sakura, neatly cutting into Zabuza's bowdlerized version of his backstory and distracting Naruto, who'd begun to inch closer to the criminal. She pointed at a set of three roughly square rocks in the distance, shadowed by a set of large, jagged cliffs. Faintly, she heard the sound of waves slapping against stone on the other side.
Naruto's head swiveled and he made an interested sound in his throat at the sight. "Those kind of look like tombstones."
"That's Yugakure's burial site for those lost at sea during the creation of the village," Kakashi explained with a lazy, uninterested note in his voice.
Naruto adopted a solemn look, hearing that. With a nod and without warning he then took off towards the stones, stopping a few meters away from them to shout, "They look really old and worn, though! You can barely see any names on them!"
"Your teammate is very noisy," said Zabuza behind the mouth guard. Sasuke shot him another glare and started towards Naruto, looking like he was planning to pummel some sense into him. With a sigh and a glance at a long-suffering Kakashi, Sakura went after them.
"I don't think we should leave them like this," she heard Naruto say quietly to Sasuke when she got closer. "We could at least wipe them off before we go."
"We're not stopping here to take care of a bunch of old graves belonging to people who died decades ago, none of whom are related to us in any way." Sasuke's voice was stiff with irritation, and Sakura was surprised that he didn't let any insults slip out. Privately, she thought that the reason Naruto suddenly wanted to clean a bunch of strangers' graves probably had something to do with Haku's death. 'We all have our own ways of coping.'
"Fine, be that way. Ugh, you always drain all the life out of everything." Naruto rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the gravestones with curved shoulders, and then looked about to walk back towards their group. Sasuke snorted.
"You plan to let your new friend keep you entertained?" Then, with a warning look, "Don't start thinking he's actually misunderstood and secretly 'a nice person who just needs someone to believe in him', you nitwit."
Naruto turned back towards Sasuke, and when she caught sight of his expression, Sakura wondered if she should do something dramatic to head off the oncoming fight. 'Battle-nerves, maybe? We fight and kill Haku, then those two have to spend hours cooped up in a small room with nothing to do, waiting for me to wake up. They must have been going out of their minds.'
"I'm not stupid." At the disbelieving look on Sasuke's face, Naruto's expression firmed. "I'm not. I know you think I can't even walk in a straight line without stumbling if you or Sakura-chan aren't around to help." He crossed his arms, gaze defiant. "And I get why you think that, sort of. I'm not book-smart and I don't know lots about fiddly little details on historical battles or strategy or whatever. But that doesn't mean I don't know how to watch your backs when it matters. It doesn't mean I don't know that Zabuza would kill me, or take me hostage or something, if I was stupid enough to start trusting him."
Sasuke's eyebrows were raised with what Sakura thought might be genuine surprise, and Sakura felt like she might be wearing a similar look on her own face. Naruto was still looking at them with that defiant spark in his eyes, like he was expecting them to laugh or contradict him in some mocking fashion.
The surprise disappeared from Sasuke's eyes, replaced by a considering look. "Alright."
Sakura smiled a little. "Zabuza is a good story-teller, isn't he?"
Naruto opened his mouth, looked between Sakura and Sasuke, and uncrossed his arms. Now he looked a little lost, like he'd been handed a card he didn't know how to play. "Uh, yeah. But he was the one who killed a bunch of people when he was just a kid, right? I remember reading about him in Noteworthy Shinobi of the Fourteenth Century."
That was the same book Sakura had gotten her information on Zabuza from. She smiled a little wider. "Yes, that was him."
Sasuke huffed. "I have more water than I need in my canteen. And three industrial-strength wet wipes."
Naruto's forehead creased with confusion. "What, why?"
Sasuke drew up his chin, looking down his nose at his teammate. "It's for sanitizing areas potentially coated in poison or acid. Or ones that could cause infection if they came in contact with an open wound."
"For the tombstones?" asked Sakura carefully. It was an apology of some sort, she was sure; an olive branch offered in that prickly, proud way Sasuke had. Naruto grinned and bumped his fist against Sasuke's shoulder. 'Apology accepted.'
"Let's do this! Who knows, we might even get a few plus points with the ghosts of the afterlife." He winked at them, accepting the offered wet wipe and going to work on the closest stone. Sasuke copied him in silence. Both missed Sakura's expression at what Naruto's comment sparked in the air above them and as she kneed beside the boys to wipe the last stone, she let her bangs flutter over her face like a shield, trying to ignore the way her heart had jumped into her throat. She hadn't looked down quickly enough to make it seem like she hadn't noticed them hovering above her.
Sakura had forgotten how quietly they could appear- no sound announced their arrival, no gust of wind preceded them. Above the three genin, a silent group of silvery, transparent people kept vigil. Sakura refused to let her eyes flicker up toward them. There was clear air in that space one second, and silvery bleeding, mangled bodies the next. Despite the many disfiguring injuries distorting their looks, the group was so alike in appearance that they must be related. And they were all smiling.
"We will remember this, little Konoha genin. Thank you." A chill went down Sakura' spine when the closest spirit, an old woman with a jagged wound in her chest that poured blood and water down her front, put her wrinkled, translucent palm on Sakura's head as she worked. It felt, she thought, like a blessing.
The mass of ghosts stayed in Sakura's mind, long after they'd left the burial site behind. It had been so long since ghosts were a part of her daily life that even realizing that she could see Haku hadn't made her connect tombstones to there potentially being ghosts in the area. 'Stupid, stupid.' And Sasuke had been throwing her glances ever since they finished cleaning the tombstones. 'I probably didn't manage to hide my reaction as well as I thought.'
The gates of Konoha were in sight now, enormous, red and welcoming like a mother's embrace. 'Thank Merlin.' At least now she wouldn't have to deal with the worry that they'd be attacked again in addition to her worry about her newfound ability to see ghosts.
Yuugao had left them behind a few miles ago, apparently to announce their arrival, because when they entered the village they were greeted by another group of ANBU operatives.
A gate guard motioned them to follow him, eying their prisoner warily as he did so. Zabuza was delivered to the ANBU team without much fanfare, Shiranui shunshined away without so much as a by-your-leave and Kakashi shepherded Sakura and the boys in tight formation in front of himself after the guard. Shima hurried to catch up to them, the servant rushing after him with quick, stumbling steps.
The gate guard tipped his head to them in greeting. "I'm Yamanaka Santa. I've been tasked to bring you and your guests to the Hokage."
Shima puffed up like a tree frog, having been silent until then. He was noticeably travel-worn, dust having found its way into the creases of his clothes and even into the deep lines on his brow. "Why? We are all civilians!"
The Yamanaka smiled professionally. "I apologize for the inconvenience, but as you've been involved in two incidents in your travels to Konoha, we require statements from all of you." At that explanation, Shima shut his mouth with a disgruntled sound.
"There are a lot of civilians here," the servant, whose name Sakura was still unsure of, mumbled under his breath as he gazed about.
"You thought only shinobi lived in Hidden Villages?" Naruto asked, giving him a friendly grin. Shima was gazing disdainfully down at the poor man, who looked nervous enough to faint to be addressed by a shinobi.
'That's is a pretty wildly inaccurate assumption to make,' Sakura thought. How many of Konoha's inhabitants were shinobi? Ten percent? Twenty? Certainly no more than that.
"Um, no. Just that they were in the majority. The vast majority." He thought for a moment, mouth twisting. "Most people, I mean civilians, address people from Hidden Villages as ninja until they're sure that they're civilians. Unless they're civilians from ninja clans, then they'll be addressed as 'ninja' regardless of their own occupation…"
Everybody who'd been through the Academy had heard of that custom before, though Sakura hadn't personally known it was that widespread. 'Though while we were in Otafuku-gai, some people did greet us with 'ninja-san', didn't they?' Considering that she hadn't reacted to that even after they'd divested themselves of anything marking them as shinobi, she must have remembered the custom better than she'd thought. 'Is this praxis connected to why most shinobi refer to themselves as 'shinobi', but most civilians call us 'ninja'?' she wondered.
"Why?" said Naruto curiously. "I mean, I know civilians do that, but..." He trailed off with a thoughtful frown.
The servant waited a beat, and then hesitantly offered, "Because we don't want to give offense to any ninja by presuming them to be civilians. It's better to assume everybody from Hidden Villages are ninja until otherwise stated than to, uh, assume civilian familiarity with someone who later turns out to be a ninja. It's, uh, less dangerous. Or something." He looked even more anxious now, gaze on them like he was waiting for someone to snap at him.
Sakura thought back to her musings on what shinobi were seen like outside the Hidden Villages, and here she had a piece of that puzzle. Not a very pleasant piece, as he was heavily implying that the custom came about to avoid being harmed by shinobi for accidental rudeness...
"What? But it's not like it's an insult for a shinobi to be mistaken for a civilian!" Naruto's eyes were wide with dismay.
"You might think so, living here, but in most of the world..." He trailed off. "Ninja aren't always good to civilians. It's better to be cautious."
Naruto sputtered, clearly even more appalled. "But there are tons of rules against harming civilians!"
"And who will enforce those rules far away from Hidden Village law-makers?" said Shima, rubbing the dust from his face. He looked irritated, staring at Naruto like he was an idiot. "Some are good, some are bad, but all it takes is a bottle of hard alcohol for one ninja caught in bad memories, or just in a bad mood, to become a threat to an entire civilian city."
Naruto shut his mouth around whatever he'd been planning to say, glaring down at the ground like he didn't know where to direct his anger. There was something shocked and genuinely disturbed lurking in his eyes, and Sakura moved closer to him on instinct. She didn't like what she was hearing either, but it wasn't like this was the first time she'd been disillusioned by law enforcement.
"I know Konoha shinobi are said to be the nicest," the servant said tentatively. "I think I remember something about, uh, about there being a police force that dealt with shinobi behaving badly, both in and out of Konoha."
Sakura saw Naruto noticing the way Sasuke stiffened, just as she did. Did Naruto know that the Uchiha clan had once run Konoha's police force? Sakura did, though that was nowhere in any Academy books. The fan above the now severely understaffed and overworked police headquarters gave that away, if nothing else.
"But a Hidden Village couldn't just ignore a shinobi hurting or killing people, could they?" said Naruto, frown deepening.
Shima snorted loudly. "Have you been living under a rock, or are you just that sheltered?" He turned to look at Naruto with a contemptuous curl of his lips. "How in the world would a Hidden Village know that one of their ninja has killed civilians somewhere outside their jurisdiction, unless the ninja confesses to it? Most ninja don't wear their headbands when they're out on leave, you realize. A civilian who lives in a Hidden Village might be able to recognize exactly what Hidden Village a ninja is from by the techniques they use or clothes they wear or what have you, but unless the ninja is essentially advertising where they're from, most other civilians won't."
With another withering look, Shima started speeding up until he was walking ahead of everyone but the Yamanaka guard, chin raised and shoulders pulled back. The Hokage Tower was in view, so at least the tense conversation wouldn't be able to continue for much longer.
Naruto stared at Shima's retreating back, mouth open. "So a bunch of shinobi just wander around and kill people, and nobody does anything about it?"
Sasuke sighed, rolling his shoulders. "It's definitely not that common, or nobody would dare to hire shinobi."
"It's like the servant said," Sakura continued quietly, "It only takes one shinobi to ruin a civilian town. And bad news spread quickly, so the bad seeds are the ones that come to be representative of all shinobi to those who don't have personal experience with us."
Naruto made a restless sound, looking down again and seeming less than comforted by that.
Sasuke eyed him, then said, "It's not like Hidden Villages are condoning it. It's bad for business to have one's own be seen as unreliable thrill-killers."
Sakura nodded. "Hunter-nin would definitely be sent out after any killer identified as an active duty shinobi."
"Only if the killer shinobi was identified, though." Naruto sighed, brows drawn together. He looked a little like the world had shifted unexpectedly under his feet.
"If they can't identify the killer, they could hire shinobi to investigate the incident," said Sasuke, with a shrug too smooth to be anything but affected. Sakura looked at him from the corner of her eye, noticing the lingering tenseness of his jaw. As they climbed the stairs to the Hokage's office, she wondered if that tension was due to the mention of the police force or because of the depressing subject.
Naruto huffed a dark laugh. "Only if they have the money for that, and aren't afraid they'll just get killed by another crazy shinobi if they do hire one. Shit." Naruto rubbed a hand harshly over his scalp, like he was trying to rub the dark thoughts out. His face was twisted in an angry grimace and he continued to mutter curses under his breath as they walked.
They reached the entrance to the office, and stood silently as their Yamanaka guide knocked on the door. "Hokage-sama. We have a group here, ready to give their statements..?" With that vague sentence, he stood back and waited, head tilted attentively towards the office.
"Send them in," said a chipper female voice and stepped out to open the doors wide for them.
It took Sakura several minutes to recognize her. Dressed in impractically tight denim pants, with a shirt in some shimmery material that caught the light and wearing so much bronzer that she looked like she'd spent the past month on a beach somewhere, it wasn't easy to tell she was the ANBU called Yuugao. Even with the purple hair fully visible. If Sakura hadn't already had her suspicions about the real identity of the Hokage's secretary, she never would have guessed.
The ANBU masks were not the only kind of mask an operative wore, obviously. Perhaps not even the most important, or the best. 'Though ANBU identities still can't be all that secret, if a genin like me could figure it out with relative ease. Then again, I'm a genin who was once an adult witch…'
Sakura tuned back into the conversation. She'd only missed the introductory bits as she sneaked discreet glances at Yuugao, trying to figure out why she looked so familiar.
"Ginzou-san explained the reason for his and O-Hisa's arrival. But I'd like to hear it from you, as well." The Hokage smiled, puffing on his pipe with an air of grandfatherly informality about himself.
Kakashi related the story, still in his civilian disguise, and Sakura thought of how petty the whole thing sounded when Kakashi summarized it. She stole my toy, I want her punished! and No I didn't, and you can't prove it! was the essence of it, really. 'Ah, the squabbles of the elite,' Sakura thought with a small, mental eye-roll.
"We would never dismiss charges filed by a son of the Daimyo," said Sarutobi, and really, it was a wonder he could sound so genuinely concerned and solemn. "As you all witnessed this event, we would appreciate you remaining in the village for the duration of the trail."
There was going to be an actual trial? Either staying in the Daimyo's good graces was very important, or the little clock Naruto had whisked away from Ginzou was insanely valuable. 'Or else there is some plot afoot.'
Shima looked like he was a second from protesting, when the Hokage added, "You will of course be compensated for your time."
Shima immediately settled down, nodding, and wasn't that odd? He was supposed to be a reasonably successful merchant lord, wasn't he? Even with his gambling problem, the easy acquiescence seemed strange.
"Now, about your prisoner..."
"It was all thanks to the guards," said Kakashi, in a horrible simpering voice that made the hair on Sakura's arms stand on end. 'He's a really good actor. And I'm probably going to have nightmares about that simpering voice giving me painful training instructions.' "They protected us and captured that awful man."
Sarutobi nodded thoughtfully, like what Kakashi was saying was profoundly important and informative. Then he looked back at Shima. "Shima-san, do you know why Momochi was after you?"
Shima's tired face morphed into a sullen grimace. "No, but it can't be for any other reason than my business."
"You have no political enemies as a lord?"
Shima rubbed his eyes tiredly and shook his head. The Hokage smiled. "One last question, after which you can go. A room has been arranged for you." He cleared his throat, tapping more tobacco into the pipe. "Did you ever do any personal trading with Abe-san before he died?"
Shima looked up, and then slowly said, "Yes. My family has a long history of trading with his. He was good friends with my wife."
'This prick has a wife?' was Sakura's first, incredulous thought. Had that been in the scroll of personal information they'd received on him, back when the mission started? If so, she couldn't remember it.
"Your... wife," said the Hokage, drawing out the last word until it hung in the air.
Shima frowned. "Yes?"
Sarutobi smiled, picking up a paper that had been face-down on the desk before him. "Is this, by any chance, your wife?" He held up the paper with a photograph facing their way. A very beautiful dark-skinned woman looked out from the picture, her large green eyes gentle and her silver hair swept behind one ear. The collar of an elaborate kimono enveloped her shoulders and she was holding a small porcelain cup up to the camera, like she was inviting the onlookers to have a sip.
"Yes, that's my Mebuki." Shima's eyes brightened with obviously genuine fondness when he spoke her name.
Sarutobi nodded. "That's good to hear. My shinobi came across her on the way, and she was quite insistent that she was your spouse."
Shima looked up, his normally haughty lines of his face growing wrought with confusion. "Mebuki is here?"
"It seems she grew worried when you took so long to return," Sarutobi said with a kindly smile. Sakura didn't trust that smile. There was something there, some shred of something treacherous, a promise of danger.
"That woman…" Shima shook his head. "She should have known better than to come running after me."
"Indeed she should have," said the Hokage, and a flicker of barely-there movement later, Shima was on the floor with a dart in his throat and his eyes rolled up into his head. A drop of blood slid down the side of his neck and dropped to the floor. Another fraction of a second later and the servant was down and out right beside him. It was over so quickly Sakura wasn't sure she'd actually seen the Hokage move.
Sasuke froze in a movement beside her, Naruto made a strangled, wordless sound and Sakura was somehow not surprised at all. Dumbledore, Scrimgeour, Fudge, Voldemort… all these faction leaders and their manipulative little smiles. She'd have recognized the Hokage's expression anywhere.
"Well, now that you've sufficiently captured my cute little students' attention, Hokage-sama…" said Kakashi dryly. His lack of surprise was strangely comforting, thought Sakura.
"Ah, yes. Of course. I do apologize for that little show," said Sarutobi with a more sincere smile directed their way. "It was, however, necessary. On the way to Konoha, Mitarashi Anko was intercepted by two Kumogakure shinobi," he began, and suddenly everyone's attention had moved from their unconscious client to their leader.
"A man using light-based attacks to blind his opponents, and a woman with the ability to transfer objects and people around the battlefield at the speed of light. Very noticeable and notable personal techniques, I should say. Myself and the investigating shinobi believe that they meant to communicate with, or possibly free, 'O-Hisa'."
'So they're all Kumo shinobi?' thought Sakura. 'Working in Fire Country?' They were trampling pretty hammer-handedly over Konoha's and Kumo's very tenuous relationship, to say the least.
"…That's illegal, right?" said Naruto with a frown. He looked like he was starting to draw the same conclusions that had obviously already taken root in Sasuke, whose grim mien was severe enough to put another decade on his face. "Like, super-illegal. Isn't it?" Naruto looked around like he wanted someone to contradict him. Nobody did.
'The Hokage looks tired,' Sakura thought. She bumped shoulders with Naruto, her gaze even when he turned his eyes on her. The blond looked at her for a moment, like he was trying to get a read on how serious she was, and then nodded.
"How do you want this mission to proceed?" Kakashi sounded almost formal, and when Sakura looked over her shoulder, he was standing without his customary slouch.
"The trial will go on as scheduled, tomorrow at 1300. Ginzou is being overseen by a covert operative and 'the sparking viper' has been sequestered at T&I headquarters under heavy sedation."
"Anko fought them off?" Kakashi asked, a flicker of surprise in his voice. 'That Kumo shinobi was the one who hurt his eye,' Sakura thought with a side-along glance at her teacher. 'And Kakashi is supposed to be one of Konoha's top shinobi. I've never even heard of this Mitarashi Anko.'
"An ANBU operative arrived in time to assist her." Kakashi nodded, and Sakura might have imagined it, but she thought she saw the supposed secretary glance their way. "We have the male Kumogakure shinobi in custody, but the one who calls herself 'Mebuki' transported herself away before she could be properly secured. She was heavily injured at the time."
"What were they all trying to do, old man? Are they a team?" Naruto asked, eyes wide and frown deep. Sarutobi smiled at him.
"We've yet to establish that, but we have shinobi working on acquiring information as we speak."
"Why are you telling us this, Sir?" Sasuke asked slowly, the question colored with wariness. Sakura realized she hadn't even considered the strangeness of them being given such a large amount of information on such a sensitive subject. When she'd been Hermione, she'd been used to receiving information that would have been kept from any other civilian witch or wizard. And how the hell had their first mission gone from shopping for an old man into this mess of a pre-war scenario, anyway? 'Well, as Hermione I was admittedly also pretty used to steep escalations like this, but still…' Sakura thought with a weary internal sigh.
"That's a good question. I want you to be aware of the true nature of your mission tomorrow at the trial. It's not simply a petty-conflict trial you have to keep in mind. The implications of Kumogakure shinobi taking freedoms with our borders are not good."
"…The trial is preparation for a larger campaign against Kumogakure?" Sasuke sounded even warier now, the question phrased and delivered very carefully.
The Hokage puffed on his pipe, smoke curling in the air in front of his face and obscuring his gaze. "Potentially, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. We are not in possession of the information we need for a thorough understanding of the motives involved in this breach of Fire Country borders."
Sasuke nodded, face turned down and eyes thoughtful. Sakura wasn't sure if he believed the Hokage's reassuring words or not. Maybe Sarutobi was just trying to keep them from panicking at the thought of how bad things might truly become in the near future.
Sakura felt goosebumps rise on her arms. 'That's not a comforting thought on any level.' And then, like a ringing bell in her head, clearing away all other thoughts: 'I don't want to go through another war!' She'd had that thought on several occasions since becoming Sakura, but it had never felt this urgent. The idea of another war had never seemed like this much of an actual possibility before.
"How can we hold the trial if O-Hisa is in T&I?" asked Naruto, arms crossed uncomfortably. Probably at the thought of the Torture and Interrogation Department and what they might currently be up to. Sakura made herself focus on the conversation, patting away the gooseflesh as discreetly as she could.
"An expert in infiltration and disguise will be taking her place. As there will be very few shinobi in attendance, there is little need to worry about her being found out." He said nothing about which shinobi would be allowed in the trial hall, but Sakura assumed they would be handpicked.
"If the Daimyo's son is involved, won't there be journalists and TV crews around?" she asked curiously. Konoha didn't have anything as democratically advanced as a freedom of information law, but they were one of the more liberal Hidden Villages when it came to just what civilians were allowed to document for public record.
Kakashi hummed, glancing her way. "There are shinobi with good enough henges to fool even the most advanced of cameras." The cameras in this world weren't very advanced, so Sakura could believe that.
The only real proof that henge was in fact an illusion that fooled the senses of the people around you and not an actual, physical transformation was that it didn't show up properly in pictures. It was like trying to photograph a heat wave over a grill, or the rainbow-sheen of a soap bubble. If you caught exactly the right angle you could do it, but 49 out of 50 angles wouldn't give you anything. Unless, apparently, you were some sort of henge expert.
"Hey, do we know anything more about how Abe got killed?" Naruto suddenly asked, with an air of just having remembered something important.
Sarutobi nodded. "Yes. The tea samples Haruno-kun collected have been analyzed by the scientists in the Research Department. While the analysis has not been completed yet, they have a workable theory based on their findings." The Hokage flicked tobacco from his pipe and continued, "It seems as though the poison used was barium carbonate, and that Abe-san had been fed small amounts of the poison both through the tea and by way of the glaze of the tea cups themselves. The tea was also liberally mixed with so-called 'bamboo curare', the kind used in southern Wind Country."
Sasuke's lips thinned. "Why didn't anyone realize that he was being poisoned?"
"Abe-san went to see his physician, a civilian doctor, with complaints of irregularity in his heartbeat and muscle weakness. The doctor assumed age-related problems, and noted high blood pressure and high cholesterol. For this he prescribed ku ding tea. Most unfortunate, that."
"Ku ding tea is very bitter, isn't it?" Sakura said slowly, struggling to remember what little she knew about tea. The only reason she recalled ku ding was because after Abe's poisoning, she'd begun reading about how poison could be hid in different beverages. Any drink with strong flavor was a good base for hiding poison, apparently.
Sarutobi made an agreeing hum. "Indeed. That is probably why Abe-san did not note anything strange about the tea's flavor. Its bitter tang veiled the taste of the curare."
"But if he was fed the poison in small doses…" Sakura began with a frown, intending to question that.
The Hokage held up a hand, interrupting her before she finished. "He was fed barium carbonate in small doses, but the curare was given to him in larger doses for several days after his visit to the doctor."
"And it only started after he visited the doctor?" said Naruto with a suspicious slant to his eyes.
"The doctor has already been questioned. Thoroughly. He had no intention of poisoning anyone." There was a hard, flat grey shadow in his eyes that Sakura recognized. With a heavy feeling in her gut, she wondered how much that civilian doctor had to suffer before they believed his truth. 'Maybe it never got that far,' a voice in head piped up. 'That's the kind of mistrustful thoughts you begin to entertain after things go to hell on a campaign. When the staccato beat of war-drums play in the very back of your mind.'
A deep cloud of dissatisfaction shadowed Naruto's tanned face. "So we really don't know who did it? Who killed the old man?"
Sarutobi looked weary for a brief moment, before nodding. "Not yet." Then he straightened, aged voice suddenly shot through with strictness, "I expect you to prepare yourself for the trial tomorrow. For the sake of the mission, and for Abe-san."
Sakura frowned internally. '…Is he mentioning Abe to give us an emotional connection to the mission? A reason to be genuinely interested in what happens?' Sakura wasn't surprised at the subtle manipulation, but there was a thought at the edges of her mind, a suspicion that this trial was more important than the Hokage was letting on. Important enough that he wanted to make sure they didn't just treat the mission as professionals, but as people personally invested in the outcome.
"How is a trial with that Ginzou prick and fake O-Hisa going to make the old man's spirit rest any easier?" said Naruto, skepticism thick in his voice. He was being very rude to question the Hokage so, but Sakura was glad that he had the temerity to do so. Because that was actually a very good question.
"Because we have solid proof that Kumogakure was involved in both incidents." There was a gravitas to the words, a sense of something big and heavy about to drop on them from up high.
Naruto's eyes widened and narrowed in quick succession. "But we made up the 'incident' between Ginzou and O-Hisa! Kumo wasn't involved in that!"
"Hibana no Hebi being in Fire Country is incident enough in itself, idiot." Sasuke sounded drained, and the insult lacked heat. He evidently saw the implications as clearly as Sakura herself did.
Sarutobi laced his fingers together under his chin. "Uchiha-kun is correct, I'm afraid. While the two incidents might be unrelated, as unlikely as that is, we work with the assumption that they are connected."
"Once is coincidence, twice is a twist of fate, three times is a pattern," Sakura murmured. Who had told her that? She couldn't remember. Maybe Kingsley?
Sarutobi raised an eyebrow. "Well put, Haruno-kun."
"But there've only been two incidents!" Naruto hesitated, and then with the air of someone connecting the dots asked, "Are we waiting for a third incident?"
The Hokage nodded. His eyes were opaque, distant, and once again Sakura had the impression that there was something more to it, something he wasn't sharing. 'All leaders have their secrets,' she thought, because the Hokage was a military leader, and everything he did probably had several layers of thought and planning behind it. 'That's what worries me, though,' she admitted to herself, recalling past experience with leaders whose plans were definitely not in everyone's best interest.
One thing she'd always appreciated with muggle society growing up was knowing that the leaders, however useless or corrupt they could be, were elected by the people's vote. The Hokage was chosen either by the previous Hokage or by the council, who did not necessarily have the interests of the common shinobi or Hidden Village civilian in mind when making that choice.
She'd once read, in a small footnote in a thick tome hidden away in a dusty, obscure part of the library, that the Hidden Villages had the highest level of censorship of all societies in the Hidden Countries. Of course, what information shinobi had access to was not as limited as what was available to civilians, and as she'd acknowledged before, Konoha had the least censorship of all Hidden Villages. But still. 'I wonder if I didn't become a shinobi at least partly because I didn't want to be kept in the dark about what is really going on in this world.' Sakura smiled internally at the thought. Joining the military so she could read everything she wanted, without restriction. Would that have occurred to anyone else born in this society?
The Hokage dismissed them a minute later with another stern reminder to prepare for tomorrow's trial seriously. They left the office with Shima and the servant still passed out on the floor, and Sakura spared a moment's consideration for what would happen to them now. 'I still don't know the servant's name…' was her final, indistinct thought as the office door shut behind her.
The team trooped after Kakashi in silence as he lead them out, through Maple district and down a familiar alley. There was that battered, burnt green door and the smell of alcohol. None of them protested when Kakashi opened the door and shooed them inside.
"Welcome back," said Momo, apparently recognizing them with a sense other than sight. The large one-eared dog came forward to sniff them, brushing past them with soft barks. Momo put her hands on her sizeable hips, tilting her head in apparent consideration. "A table this time?"
"Yes," said Kakashi and slouched towards the table in the corner Momo gestured them towards. When they were all seated, Kakashi on one side and the three of them on the other, he leaned forward and murmured, "I trust I don't have to tell you not to repeat what you learned in the Hokage's office?"
"We're not stupid, sensei," said Naruto, equally quietly and with an eye-roll of annoyance. Kakashi's eye creased in a smile, and he reached out to ruffle Naruto's blond hair.
"This is the first time you have killed. You know very well it won't be your last." Kakashi's began when they were all comfortably seated, his voice soft but formal.
'Oh… That's right. As Sakura, this is the first time I've killed. Though Sasuke's killing blow was more visible than mine, what with it spurting blood all over and all.' Sakura glanced at Sasuke from the corner of her eye, and found him gripping the edge of his chair so hard his knuckles were turning white. His face though, was a mask of neutrality.
"There is no standard reaction to making a kill. Especially the first one." Kakashi stopped speaking to accept a tray of sakana and a jug of sake. "While you are not required to speak with anyone about your experience, as long as I don't order it, not allowing yourself any outlet whatsoever is unhealthy. You can talk to me, to each other or to a mental health professional."
'Talking to a psychiatrist is optional?' Sakura thought incredulously. Even the aurors' office had been less lax about their operatives' mental health, and they hadn't exactly been paragons of concern for their employees' well-being.
"What is there to say?" asked Sasuke, hand still clenched around the edge of his seat.
Kakashi turned an uncharacteristically serious gaze on him. "A lot, Sasuke-kun. Since you brats are considered to be adults in the eyes of the law, I can't force you to see a mental health professional until you show signs of being a danger to the team or to yourselves." The jounin's gaze mellowed, even as his expression hardened. "That said, my cute students, I'm unofficially ordering you to talk to someone. Stoicism will only take you so far when it comes to coping, and you will not be allowed to self-destruct because you think talking certain things through is uncool."
"What, so you talk to people about this kind of stuff?" said Naruto, face drawn into an uncomfortable little grimace, but clearly meaning the question.
Kakashi slouched further in his seat, leaning his chin on his knuckles and humming thoughtfully. "Occasionally. When I was a genin and even a chunin, my sensei convinced me talk to a Yamanaka shrink a few times."
"…Didn't you become a jounin when you were our age?" said Sakura with a wry quirk of her lips.
Kakashi shrugged languidly. "That's beside the point." He took a sip of his sake, so quickly there was no chance to catch sight of his face, and continued, "I still speak with that Yamanaka sometimes, whenever I think it serves me well to do so." Here he turned his one visible eye on Sasuke. "If you refuse to do it to make yourself feel better, think of it as weapon's maintenance. Your mind and body are the best weapons you'll ever have at your disposal."
Sasuke's brow creased and his lips thinned. "Talking doesn't help. It doesn't change the facts. And all psychiatrists are interested in uncovering are your feelings." The last word left his mouth like it was a curse.
'He's been to… oh, of course. The massacre.' Sakura wanted to offer some comfort, a hand on his arm or even a friendly shoulder-bump, but from the way Sasuke was glaring at the table, she'd only be harshly rebuffed at this point. 'Is this the first time since the Uchiha massacre that he's seen death?' If that was the case, killing Haku would be bringing up some truly terrible memories.
"While all of you worked to bring your opponent down, you struck the killing blow, Sasuke." Kakashi waited until he caught Sasuke's dark eyes with his own, pushing for an acknowledgement completely without words.
Sakura almost twitched at that ambiguous answer. Did she imagine it, or did he glance at her for a split second? Maybe he just disliked the attention and needed to divert his gaze for a moment. Sakura felt a drop of sweat slide down her spine, and forced the dismissive thought that she was just being paranoid to the forefront of her mind to avoid showing any overt reaction.
"I'm officially recommending that you all meet with Yamanaka Inoichi at some point in the near future. And that you remain together tonight."
"Yamanaka Inoichi? Isn't that Ino's dad?" said Sakura, just as Sasuke asked, "Stay together? Where?" and Naruto nodded his head firmly and said, "You can stay at my place!" It was a jumble of words, and Kakashi smiled at them in his crinkly-eyed way.
"Inoichi-san is indeed your classmate's father. And I imagine Sakura's mother would want to see her now that she's home."
Sakura nodded agreement. "You can stay at my place tonight, then."
"Really?" said Naruto, blue eyes wide. "Your mother won't mind that?"
"I don't think she'd mind some extra company for just one night," said Sakura with a dry smile, though she wasn't sure how eager she herself was to have the boys over. She needed to think- about her ghost-sight, about wand wood and possible cores and about where she wanted to go from here, magic-wise. And she'd missed her mother, missed Sayuri and her big, warm hugs and wide smiles and kind of wanted to keep that for herself. 'You're an adult, Sakura, stop acting like a little kid,' she scolded herself. "My mother has wanted to meet my teammates for a while now," she said aloud, and at least that was the truth.
Suddenly Naruto looked like he'd stepped into something unpleasant, throat bobbing when he spoke up again. "No, I meant… she won't mind, eh, me? Coming over?"
Sakura blinked. She knew quite a few people disliked Naruto for his pranks or some such, but her teammate's genuine concern about whether he'd be welcomed by her mother set warning bells ringing in her mind. "No, of course not," she said carefully, smiling a little when Naruto still looked hesitant.
"Fine. We'll stay at Sakura's." Sasuke sounded like he'd just made some great concession, and his snippy tone was almost soothing.
"Good! Then I will see you all tomorrow at the trial!" Kakashi clapped his hands and poofed away, leaving them all with a puff of smoke on the other end of the table… and with the check.
A/N: As usual, I want to know what you think about the character interaction. I'd also appreciate your thoughts on the slowly brewing conflict with Kumogakure and the upcoming trial. And really, anything else you'd like to share.
The poisons mentioned: they're RL poisons, but while I did research to make sure their effects were accurate, I'm hardly an expert in the subject. So forgive any potential mistakes there.