Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 31: Ghosts of the Past


She found herself outside of Naruto's door and when he opened it and caught sight of her worried expression, he didn't even protest her dragging him out and towards the Uchiha compound. Perhaps she should have talked to her mother before making a beeline for her team, but that wasn't her first instinct.

"Sakura, what's going on?" Naruto asked, yanking his sleeve out of her grasp. She hadn't even noticed that she'd been holding on to it.

Sakura pursed her lips and knocked harder on the Uchiha compound door. Sasuke knew more about clan stuff than she did, so there was no point in telling Naruto before him.

There was a strange, nervous energy in her limbs. Most of it was worry but another, smaller part was something like excitement. She wasn't sure why that kernel of excitement was there, because this was going to cause her no end of trouble. Nothing else. It wasn't actually an opportunity to gain what she'd wanted, what she'd thought about, since the forest. It wasn't any kind of real power. 'The Juntoku just want to use me. I'll have to keep that at the forefront of my mind in my dealings with them. I can't let myself be tempted into doing something stupid.'

Sasuke opened the door with a scowl that only partially melted when he caught sight of them. Since he was dressed in shinobi casual, he had probably been meditating or cleaning his weapons.

"What?" he said, the rasp in his voice more prominent in his annoyance. As he surveyed Sakura's face, his expression unfroze into something as close to friendly as the prickly Uchiha ever came.

Sakura breathed out sharply. "The meeting with the Juntoku. I need to talk to you."

"It didn't go well?" He asked, taking a step back to let them in. He closed the door behind Naruto just as some curious civilians were starting to glance over at them and turned to inspect her closer.

"I thought they were just going to give you some shiny bauble or whatever," said Naruto, sweeping blond strands out of his eyes. 'His hair is starting to get long,' Sakura thought irrelevantly.

"If you count an engagement as a 'shiny bauble', then yes," Sakura said as they walked into Sasuke's home. Naruto promptly tripped over his feet as he stopped to stare at her, eyes like dinner plates.

The main house was as clean as it apparently always was, and they took a seat at Sasuke's kitchen table. Naruto was firing questions so rapidly at her that she couldn't answer any of them, until Sasuke raised his voice to speak over their teammate.

"They offered you an engagement to a clan member?"

"Yes, to the kid we saved. Yura." Sakura sank deeper into her chair and wished she were the drinking type. Alcohol seemed like an excellent remedy for her confused and rapid thoughts. "He's eleven and they want a four-year engagement and then marriage. He's the heir to -"

"- the Koshaku branch. I know." Sasuke leaned back and looked her over, his eyes thoughtful. "It's not unheard of."

"I know, but it's not exactly common either. That's what made me suspicious." She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then explained what she'd overheard as she was leaving the Juntoku compound.

"So they just want to use you?"

"Don't be so dramatic. Of course they want Sakura's bloodlimit." Sasuke's lips twisted down in annoyance. "You're not attached to a clan, which means you're available."

"…Doesn't that mean you're available too?" Sakura asked slowly, carefully.

Sasuke stared at her like he couldn't believe she was being so stupid. It wasn't a look he usually directed her way. "The moment I earned my headband I received two dozen marriage proposals from various powerful clans, merchant families and nobility."

"What?" said Naruto, mouth opening. "You've never said anything about that!"

"Because there is nothing to say. I turned them all down." Sasuke's shoulders drew back stiffly, but though he looked like he wanted to shout, his voice lowered when he spoke. "My parents would curse me from beyond if I ever bore a name other than Uchiha."

"That's not entirely true," said Mikoto, and Sakura must have been more rattled then she'd realized, because her head twitched towards the new voice.

"What is it?" Sasuke asked, staring at her and then at where Mikoto was floating in through a wall. She cast a pale glow over the kitchen floor underneath her and her chest still dripped with blood.

"What's going on?" Naruto asked, leaning his chin on his knee. "You do that staring thing sometimes and I know it's one of your secrets, 'cause you always look kind of guilty after you do it."

Sakura clenched her jaw and didn't know what to say. There was a silence in the kitchen and the room seemed suddenly darker as Sasuke stared at her like he was trying to scan her brain.

"…Is there someone there?" he finally asked, with a kind of dawning realization in his voice that made Sakura's insides turn and knot.

"Like a ghost, huh?" Naruto asked, but he sounded cheerful, teasing and then when Sakura said nothing, his eyes widened. "What, really? Sakura?"

"This is the part where I lie to you," she said, because she couldn't quite remember why she was keeping this one secret from her team anymore. They knew about her 'bloodlimit' and they were her closest friends and allies. What was the point?

"Or it's the part where you trust us," Sasuke said slowly, restrained but with eyes bright with focus.

"They're not always around," Sakura began and then stopped herself, gathering her thoughts. This was a very unexpected turn in the conversation. Some things she'd never tell her team, some things were hers alone, but she didn't need to keep all her secrets herself. 'Constant vigiliance!' shouted Moody in her memories and then added, 'Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead!'

But that was just her own paranoia talking, her sense that things were about to go wrong at any second now. It wasn't the factual truth. Naruto and Sasuke were waiting, watching her with what looked like bated breath, and Sakura squared her shoulders. 'Let the chips fall where they may.'

"But sometimes people don't leave when they die. They're scared or worried, and they stay here…"

"We're always surrounded by dead people?" Naruto said, voice a hushed whisper. He looked like his skin was crawling, glancing around like he expected a zombie to pop out of Sasuke's pristine kitchen floor.

Sasuke cast a furtive glance around the room. "You're serious?"

"Yes," said Sakura quietly. Mikoto had floated over and her cold, transparent hand was hovering over Sakura's shoulder. Like she wanted to imbue strength.

"And who is here?" said Sasuke and he seemed so much more inclined to believe her than Sakura would have thought of a muggle. But then, muggles didn't have a shinobi's abilities.

"…It's your mother," Sakura said quietly. This really wasn't what she'd expected to be talking about when she'd made her way here. If she'd known she'd be spilling secrets all over Sasuke's kitchen table, she would have prepared herself better.

Sasuke's knuckles whitened as he clenched a fist around the edge of the table. He stared at her for a long second, and she thought he'd question her. Maybe get angry and think that she was messing with him. But he didn't. "Was she here the last time you and Naruto visited?"

Now she remembered why she wanted to keep this a secret. Sakura swallowed quietly and nodded. "She - yes. She was here."

The taut beat of silence was broken when a piece of the table snapped off in Sasuke's hand. "You-" and his voice was hoarse and deeper and not doubtful in the slightest. "You knew how much it would matter to me, being able to talk with any one of them, even once-" His voice rose and he stood up, putting his hands flat on the tabletop and leaning in to snarl in Sakura's face.

'He's never been angry at me before,' Sakura thought. Guilt bubbled up, but Sakura forced it down. She hadn't kept this a secret to hurt him. And he wasn't entitled to know, no matter that… well, that it was his family. That his crazy brother had murdered. And that Sasuke had spent the past year greiving for, deeply and privately. 'Maybe he did deserve to know before now.'

She thought that, and realized that she'd have to ride out his anger. And when he cocked his arm back, fist raised, she didn't dodge the blow that slammed into her face. Her head hit the wall behind her with a dull thudding sound, the chair crashing down to the floor below her as she stumbled back. She spit blood into her hand. 'He could have hit me a lot harder,' she thought, even as her ears rang.

Naruto was hovering between them now, worried but apparently not sure who was in the right here. Sakura couldn't blame him. Sasuke wasn't the only one who wanted to talk to family, she imagined.

Sakura righted the chair slowly, rubbing the back of her head. Sasuke was panting, eyes hot and furious, and she could see him wanting to strike out again. Maybe fight her for real, even. 'Apologizing would only anger him, I think.'

"Do you want to know what it's like?" she said instead, voice rough and moist with blood. She hadn't even noticed her own mouth opening to speak. "What it was like for me at the Yugakure massacre? What the dead are like?"

Sasuke narrowed his eyes and Naruto kept his hands stretched out between them, though his head was turned towards her, eyes alight with worry.

"They scream in pain. They're confused. They mumble stories about the horrible ways they died, how it felt to burn alive, how it felt to see their children burn." Sakura paused and realized that she hadn't even known how much she'd needed to tell someone this. The Hogwarts ghosts had been mostly at peace, mostly happy, but the ghosts here were mostly not. "And do you know what they look like? Like they did in their dying moment. Gushing blood. Skin melting. Asphyxiating. Weapons sticking out of their transparent flesh."

"You want to know why I didn't tell you?" Sakura said and now she was breathing harshly too. "Because I didn't want you to ask me what your family looks like!" And as she spoke the words, she recognized their accuracy. That had been the final barrier. She didn't want to cause him pain, for all that it was a selfish impulse.

Sasuke was pale and Sakura felt drained and cruel. She rubbed her hand down her face and her shoulders slumped. "There's nobody else here who can see them, just me." She shrugged her shoulders. "And that's alright. I can take that, even if battlefields will always look worse to me than to you. Killing will always, at least potentially, have more consequences for me than for you. And I didn't want to hurt you."

"Are you telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" asked Mikoto where she was hovering behind Sasuke. She looked more curious than accusing, but there was still a pang of emotion in Sakura's chest. She'd been more selfish than she was letting on, hadn't she? 'I've trusted both Sasuke and Naruto for a while now. Was part of my need for secrecy that I wanted to keep Mikoto and her knowledge all to myself? Or maybe I just don't trust them enough -'

She hoped not. She had no delusions about her own purity of mind, but she hoped that kind of pettiness was beyond her.

"Is it really that bad, Sakura?" Naruto asked, tilting his head to the side and looking like he wanted to comfort her but wasn't sure how to.

Sakura smiled faintly. "I'm used to it. And not everybody who dies becomes a ghost, just a fraction of the whole. But sometimes it can be... difficult."

"Where is my mother?" Sasuke asked, and the heat had gone out of his eyes. He looked tired, frustrated and like he wasn't sure what to say to her. A little disgusted too, perhaps.

"She's right behind you," Sakura said and watched as Sasuke immediately turned to stare out into what for him was just empty air. Mikoto smiled down at him gently, looking so maternal that Sakura ached.

"Tell him I approve of his dedication to training, but that he forgets to stretch too often. Tell him he can't live on tea and rations. And that… I love him more than I could ever possibly express in words."

Sakura repeated what Mikoto said and Sasuke uttered a low, wounded sound that made Naruto look at the back of his head in alarm. Sakura turned her gaze to the floor, wondering if they should give him privacy. Sasuke would see a moment like this as a weakness, even if she and Naruto never would.

"Sasuke, I'm -"

"Leave," Sasuke interrupted with his back still turned. His voice wasn't angry, it was horribly thick and choked, and Sakura thought she must be the worst friend in the world.

This time, Naruto was the one to take her by her sleeve and drag her away. Sakura kept her eyes on their teammate until the door closed and he disappeared from view.

"Let's go to my place, okay?" Naruto said gently. Sakura nodded, wondering how a day could go so completely off course.

-.-.-.-

She stayed the night at Naruto's house and it was quieter than it usually would have been. Though Naruto did ask her to check if his apartment harbored any unwanted dead house guests and was visibly relieved when she told him there were no ghosts there.

The next morning Naruto had seemingly bounced back to normal, which Sakura couldn't help but envy. Even if it was more bravado than genuine feeling. At any rate, his good mood was the antidote to the anxiety that had kept her awake most of the night. Once one worry took hold, another joined until they became a chain of misery that she couldn't untangle. It wasn't just that she may have ruined one of her best friendships in this life. Baked into the mass of dread in her chest were black thoughts of Orochimaru's plans for her genetic material, Juntoku's plotting, the curse seal that looked more and more smeared every day... and how she was starting to feel like her life was a house of cards in the middle of a tornado. What little sleep she got was restless and fitful.

"It's a pretty scary ability, though!" he said while they made breakfast. Sakura had been surprised at all the vegetables in his fridge and Naruto had murmured something about Kakashi 'making him' eat them. "And unusual. I mean, I don't think I've ever heard about anyone with the ability to see ghosts!"

He stuffed half an avocado in his mouth and attempted to talk around it. Sakura couldn't make out a word he was saying, so talked over him, "I don't really want people to know."

"Yeah, yeah, I get that. I'm that not stupid."

"Not anymore, at least," Sakura said with a teasing glance at her friend, trying to establish some normalcy. "I saw the books on your living room table. I didn't mean to turn you into a bookworm." She'd done her best trying to turn Harry and Ron into readers, and that had been a lost cause from the get-go.

"Ugh, I've been taking forever with those books. They're so dry. But I guess they're kind of useful? It's all about Konoha and history and governance and stuff." He waved his chopsticks at the boring but useful books, smiling a little.

"Sasuke and I aren't the only ones with ambition, huh?" Sakura said, picking up a piece of cucumber.

"No way! I'm going to be Hokage, remember?" Naruto paused, pushing his vegetables around on his plate in thought. "You know, I didn't really get that strength isn't enough. Before, I mean."

"But you do now," Sakura said.

Naruto nodded, licking some tomato juice off his lips. "Yeah, I do. Guess I have you to thank for getting me into the library and shit."

"You have yourself to thank for going back," said Sakura, shrugging. 'I didn't think he do that, to be honest. I didn't think he was that serious about becoming Hokage.'

There was a silence as they finished their food. Then Naruto looked up at her again, and this time his eyes were darker and his voice quiet. "I don't think he's going to stay angry with you. I think he gets it. I mean, I sort of get it and he's smarter than me, so he should get it too."

"He's more emotionally invested, though." Sakura rubbed the back of her head, which felt bruised and tender. "I didn't even mean to reveal it. I just wanted advice on the whole Juntoku thing. And we didn't even get around to that."

Naruto looked at her with sharp blue eyes. "Do you regret telling us?"

Sakura thought for a moment, thinking back on Sasuke's anger and her own guilt. Worrying that he might not be willing to forgive her. "No, it's… it's a relief."

"Yeah, isn't it? There's no point carrying all this stuff yourself." Naruto paused. "You know, before I told you about the fox, it was like I was always half-lying about everything, 'cause you guys didn't know this super-important thing that was affecting me so much. If that makes sense?"`

"It does," Sakura said with a half-smile.

"Secrets isolate you, I guess," Naruto said, picking at his last sliver of tomato thoughtfully.

Sakura leaned back in her chair. "And on that note, can I ask you about Mizuki?" Naruto's shoulders stiffened, but he looked resigned. Perhaps he'd expected her to bring him up. "I've been meaning to ask since the forest, but things just keep happening, and I forget."

"Couldn't you have forgotten for a while longer?" Naruto frowned, putting his chopsticks down on the table like he'd lost his appetite.

"What happened?" Way back before the chunin exams, she remembered Kakashi swooping in to divert the conversation when the subject turned towards the wayward Academy teacher.

"Mizuki- That guy-" Naruto turned to stare at the ceiling, but he looked more pensive than scared to tell her. "He was a traitor, you know?"

Sakura's eyebrows twitched up, because the mental image of the teacher who'd always been so encouraging and interested in her studies clashed badly with Naruto's confident statement. "What? In what way?"

"In the in-prison-for-treason kind of way," Naruto said and slid a glance towards her, as though gauging her reaction. Sakura closed her gaping mouth with a snap.

"But he was always so…" she trailed off, not sure what to make of that. Mizuki had been connected to Orochimaru, she'd understood that from what the missing-nin had spouted in the forest. But… "So he's - what? Awaiting execution?"

Naruto leaned in over the table like this was something he couldn't speak loudly of, and he looked a little fragile around the eyes, so Sakura leaned in as well.

He told her about how he'd earned his headband. How Mizuki had tricked him into stealing a scroll, how the teacher had disguised himself as Iruka. How angry he'd gotten.

"You know, Iruka-sensei told me after that it made sense for me to get so angry and beat him up. That it's what anybody would have done." Naruto's eyes flickered away from her for a moment, then flickered back just as quickly. "But now that I know what it feels like when the bastard fox gets inside my anger, I'm pretty sure that was a part of it too. I think it's the first time I've gotten angry enough that the beast got involved."

He said it like a confession, and perhaps it should horrify Sakura. Maybe it did horrify some part of her, that the demon could augment Naruto's anger to that point. But she'd seen him do worse before. "Did you… hurt him very badly then?"

"Yes," he said and his voice was small, like a younger child, and he looked like he still hadn't let it go. "They healed him later, but they said he was so close to death that there was no way he could have recovered completely even if they'd got to him sooner."

Sakura put the tips of her fingers on the back of his tanned hand. Naruto unfurled, radiating relief, and Sakura knew she couldn't blame him for taking down her favorite teacher. Even in such a violent way. Naruto had obviously carried Mizuki's shadow with him since that day. For someone as bright as Naruto, that shadow must have weighed heavily on his mind.

"He was nice to me, in the Academy," she said quietly, though that was perhaps not the best way to assure her teammate of her understanding. But she felt strangely unsettled at the thought that a traitor had been so interested in her. That a traitor might have reported on her to Orochimaru… Some fairly obvious conclusions followed from that notion, and Sakura shied away from that train of thought.

"I know, and I'm sorry," Naruto said, eyebrows scrunching together. "That's mostly why I didn't want to tell you. I thought you'd be- I thought you'd think-"

"I thought I would feel something more too, honestly." She wiped a hand across her face, sighing. "It's been a trying couple of days, and I think I'm all out of big feelings." She smiled wanly and this time Naruto reached out to her.

"Sasuke will come around. And we won't let the Juntoku fuck things up, no matter what you decide to do." He frowned for a moment, looking none too pleased. "Even if the thought of you being engaged and getting married is all kinds of weird as sounds pretty dangerous, since they want to use you and all."

"Imagine how I'm feeling. Marriage was the last thing on my mind until… this." She made a vague gesture meant to encompass all of yesterday's strangeness. "This isn't really the time for such relationships."

"Mmm. I guess not. But I kinda thought you and Shikamaru were going to be something." Naruto sighed, even as Sakura stared at him incredulously. "I was all prepared to threaten him to treat you well."

"Uh, I'm not interested in Shikamaru like that."

"Yeah, I can tell. But he has something you're interested in, right? Maturity and thoughtfulness and shit."

Sakura didn't even know what to say to that. "Since when did you become interested in romance?"

"I'm not, really. I just notice things about you and Sasuke." Naruto shrugged.

"You could try noticing more about yourself."

"I do. More than I used to, anyway. I'm not interested in Hinata. I tried, you know, after the funeral and all. To see if there was something there, besides admiration for her badass-ness."

"What?" Sakura asked, a little thrown by the sudden segue. 'When?'

"Uh, after the Academy… I think she liked me?" Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "She was around sometimes, when I turned to look, and she got all red when I tried talking to her. Those books I got around to reading, with the romance stuff and all that?" He threw her a glance, and Sakura nodded to show that she was listening. "They talked about that sometimes. The heroine gets 'ruby red' or 'rose pink' when the hero says something nice… or takes his shirt off."

"Did you take your shirt off?" Sakura said, raising an eyebrow. Naruto looked at her like she'd suggested something horribly indecent.

"I tried talking to her. She didn't say anything, just kind of stared at me. Once she just fell down where she stood."

"You must have been saying some impressive things for her to be swept off her feet like that." Sakura smirked at him.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Take that Sasuke-ish expression off your face. I was just asking why she was following me."

Sakura placed a piece of tomato on her tongue, chewing slowly. "When was that?"

"Some time before the chunin exam?" Naruto said, looking up at the ceiling like he was hoping to find the memory up there. "Before, you know, everything."

Before he could elaborate, there were three sharp raps on the door, hard enough to rattle the doorframe. As he went to open it, Naruto mumbled that he never used to have so many people showing up at his apartment.

On the other side, Kakashi-sensei was smiling behind his mask. The morning sunlight filtered through his hair and gave him an almost saintly halo, which he proceeded to thoroughly ruin by whacking Naruto over the head with a stick of celery.

"Well, don't you to look cozy?" the jounin said as he stepped over the threshold. Naruto muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, rubbing his skull with two knuckles and frowning. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

"Nothing too interesting," Sakura said carefully, and was surprised to realize that she could read him a bit. Something about the way he stood, the way he smiled, made her think Kakashi was here for a real, serious reason. That he was about to produce questions for them that he expected to have answered.

"Earlier this morning, I strolled by the Uchiha compound in search of my favorite three chickens. Imagine my surprise when only one of my chickens were in place, and that chicken squawked that he didn't want to see the other two."

Sakura had trouble imagining Sasuke squawking, but said nothing. Internally, she winced. 'I doubt I'd be able to keep this from Kakashi. And I'm not even sure I want to.' The only problem was that she couldn't be certain that their teacher wouldn't pass the information on to the Hokage at first opportunity. That, after all, was the way things went in a Hidden Village. The Hokage would probably use her in some way she didn't want to be used.

Kakashi folded his long limbs into one of Naruto's rickety chairs, the casual air dissipating into something heavier. "Our favorite angry Uchiha doesn't seem to have slept a wink last night, which has turned his standard angry-neutral mood into an angry-angry mood. What happened?"

Naruto opened and closed his mouth several times and then blurted, "Sakura's getting married!"

Kakashi's eye flickered over to Sakura, and Sakura could feel one of his eyebrows rise though his expression didn't seem to change.

"Not to Sasuke-kun, I imagine. He was not in a nuptial mood." His voice was utterly deadpan.

"The Juntoku clan offered me a place with them. And the hand of Yura, the heir of the Koshaku branch." Sakura rubbed a hand over her mouth. It sounded so much more farfetched when she said it like that. "The offer itself is legitimate, though they really only want to use me."

"Hmm. They're heavily involved in clan politics," Kakashi said neutrally, his visible eye slightly narrowed. Naruto made a disapproving sound.

"I figured," Sakura muttered, and paraphrased what she'd overheard on her way out of their compound. Kakashi sighed, then ruffled her hair lightly.

"You're growing up, and you make your own choices. Just don't make them lightly."

"I never do, Kakashi-sensei." Sakura smiled at him, just a little. Sometimes Kakashi was less of a flaky prick and more of an older brother. Like a Bill or a Remus. And because of that… "There is something else."

Kakashi glanced at her. "I figured. But from the looks on your faces I assumed I'd have to drag it out of you."

Sakura took a deep breath and glanced at Naruto. He nodded, smiling brightly, and that was encouraging even if he hadn't considered the potential ramifications to her revealing this secret to Kakashi. She wanted to believe their teacher was on her side.

"Uh. You know how I'm newblood…?" she said and only then realized that this was the first time she'd said that aloud since that conversation with Sasuke, what felt like a thousand ages ago.

Kakashi nodded casually, completely unsurprised. Though Sakura suspected the look wasn't entirely natural, but drawn up for her benefit so she'd feel more comfortable in telling him.

"I can see dead spirits, Kakashi-sensei. Ghosts." She said in one breath, resisting the urge to clench her eyes shut and wait for a reaction. Kakashi eye-smiled at her, radiating a kind of mildness that Sakura thought must be something close to a Genjutsu.

"Go on."

When she'd started, she couldn't find it in herself to stop. She told him about seeing ghosts that time at the Yugakure burial site, when they'd escorted Zabuza, she told him of the Uchiha compound ghosts and about the Yugakure massacre. How they looked, how they screamed, how sometimes she'd see them through her window at night and how she'd occasionally find them staring at her like they thought she owed them something…

Sakura didn't realize she was staring stiffly at the wall until Kakashi tapped her on the crown of her head.

He looked at her with a gaze that was carefully shuttered and a body language so overtly casual it was almost a pose. "Alright. I believe you."

Sakura breathed in harshly. "Why?"

"Why would you make up such an elaborate lie? It wouldn't gain you anything. Thank you for telling me."

Sakura hesitated and then asked quietly, "Are you going to tell the Hokage?"

Kakashi gave her a long, unreadable look. "Not straight away. The protections for people with bloodlimits extend to keeping certain matters from the higher ups… for a certain amount of time." Was that the truth, or was Kakashi just placating her? She didn't know enough about the protections afforded to newblood to know for sure.

"It's not really any of the old man's business," Naruto mumbled, but he looked unconvinced. The Hokage was the god of this village, and through him flowed everything that mattered even distantly to its continued prosperity.

"If I accept the Juntoku's proposal, Hokage-sama would have to go through them to gain access to me. They could protect me from having this particular thing turned into a weapon. And from any other clan's attention, if someone ever figures it out. The constitutional laws regarding the treatment and privacy of clans would ensure that."

"They could. For a price." Kakashi's gaze was inscrutable.

"Everything has a price, though."

"Meh. Marrying into a clan you don't trust just because you need a shield against busybodies sounds like a crap idea," Naruto said, leaning back on his chair and frowning at her.

"It's not a shield against busybodies, more a shield against assassins and kidnappers. Or at least a wall they'll have trouble climbing over." Sakura muttered that last bit into her sleeve, rubbing a nervous line across her mouth, and the words were muffled against the cloth.

Naruto flicked a piece of lint at her. "You're becoming a pessimist."

"No, just dark and angsty," said Sakura with a smile that barely tilted the corners of her lips. "I'm a teenager, you know. Full of raging hormones and what not."

Kakashi made a low snort of amusement, and when she looked over at him the mask was creasing in a smile. He looked thoroughly relaxed. That had to be a lie. 'Is he really not going to react more than this? Doesn't he have more questions? Doesn't he have dead friends, dead relatives?'

"And on that moody note, I have scheduled psych evaluations for you this afternoon."

Sakura twitched. "What?"

"That's kind of sudden," Naruto mumbled.

"It's not sudden at all. It's long overdue." Kakashi stalled Naruto's questions with a raised hand, and explained briefly what they could expect.

"Who are we doing these evaluations with?" Sakura asked slowly, thinking. Had Kakashi really scheduled these visits now or had he decided to send them to be evaluated after what Sakura just revealed? 'Does it still count as paranoia if the suspicion isn't unfounded?'

"Yamanaka Inoichi is his name."

"Isn't he Ino's dad?" Naruto asked, and Sakura threw a surprised glance his way. Ino's father was an interrogator? "I've met him before, once. He's a pretty cool guy."

Kakashi said nothing, but although both his body language and his gaze said he was entirely focused on Naruto, Sakura had the feeling that his attention was resting firmly on her.

"It's a basic evaluation. Asuma's team went through the same thing a week ago. Your teams are being sent out together on a longer mission together, under Shikamaru-kun and Sakura's lead."

If he was lying, it was a very believable lie. It was also pretty conveniently timed. "And we don't really have a choice, I guess?" Sakura said, turning a grimace into a wan expression.

"Unless you want to be suspended from active duty, no."

And that was apparently all there was to it. Sakura sat back in the chair as Naruto peppered Kakashi with questions, trying to let everything sink in. She squeezed her eyes shut. As was usually the case lately, everything seemed to be happening all at once.


A/N: Sakura finally spilling this particular secret, and team seven's first real internal fight. Clan-plotting in the background, psych evals and a new mission on the horizon. Tell me your thoughts?

(As a sidenote: A Life in the Sun and The Long Night have both been updated.)