Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 32: Poking and Prodding

Notice: I've changed my username to "romanescue".


On their way to one of Intel's units an hour and a half later, Sakura's mind was less on Naruto's chatter and more on her mother's reaction when Sakura had told her about the Juntoku proposal. And about being newblood.

"You really thought I wouldn't notice the knick-knacks in your room flying around whenever you had a nightmare as a child?" Sayuri had said, looking a little disappointed, a little tired. Her big shoulders had slumped forward, her calloused hands absently twisting a dishrag into a spiral of cloth.

Sakura wasn't even sure what to make of that. She'd been capable of unconscious accidental magic back when she was a child? For all that it was the most rudimentary form of accidental magic, Sakura was still confused. She'd thought her magic was completely cut off from her back then.

"So how did Sayuri-san take the news?" Naruto asked and Sakura shook herself out of her musings. "Does she even want to join a clan? She seems way too cool for stiff bullshit like that."

"She didn't seem that surprised…" Sakura said, not entirely sure what to make of her mother's lack of reaction. But to be fair, Sakura had led the conversation with the whole newblood-thing, which was a greater concern and a more serious conversation. Sayuri had told Sakura that this was not a decision to be made lightly and that it wasn't something Sakura could decide on her own.

The serious look in Sayuri's eyes had in that moment made her look like a shinobi.

"Think somebody from the Juntoku already talked to her?"

Sakura made a non-committal noise, though she'd been asking herself that as well. "Maybe. But if so, she didn't mention it."

The Intel unit in the Maple district looked so thoroughly normal that even with written directions, it was difficult to find. For camouflage's sake, Sakura supposed. You couldn't really tell the difference between this complex and any of the other complexes on the street. The paint was partially chipping off the walls and someone had painted obscene graffiti below one window.

The inside was decidedly less casual. Two shinobi were seated behind square computers at a metal desk in the middle of the room, talking quietly amongst themselves. Rows of chairs, empty of occupants, lined the walls.

"Looks kind of like the waiting room at the clinic," said Naruto. "'cept it's less busy."

Sakura murmured her agreement as they approached the two… receptionists? Guards? "Hi. We're here to see Yamanaka Inoichi?"

One of the shinobi flicked a bored look at her. "What level evaluation?"

"Level one."

"Dogtags, please."

They produced their tags and waited for the shinobi on the right to look them up in computer system. "Alright, I notified him. You can enter through that door."

He pointed to his right, at a nondescript door Sakura somehow hadn't even noticed. Actually, now that she was focusing on that door, she could suddenly spot two other doors in the periphery of her view. 'Genjutsu. Of course.'

They passed on through to the other room, which was not quite as empty.

"Kurenai-sensei!" Naruto called, and the jounin who'd been staring listlessly out the window visibly jerked back to the present moment. Sakura discreetly elbowed her teammate.

'I don't think this is the best place to start up casual conversations.' She and Naruto might be here for level one evaluations, but the public Intel units handled evaluations up to level five. Level six and above were evaluations that were closer to interrogations and more sensitive in nature. Rumor had it that the T&I headquarters was directly involved.

"Naruto-kun…" said Kurenai, smiling faintly. "Here for your first real evaluations?"

"Yeah! Kakashi-sensei's been going on about them forever and I guess now's finally the time."

Kurenai's lips pressed into a crooked smile. "And where is your third teammate?"

Sakura saw the aborted glance in her direction before Naruto plastered on an uncomfortable-looking grin. "Eheheh… uh, I guess he's going after us?"

Would Kakashi allow that? It seemed to Sakura far more likely that their contrary teacher would have forced Sasuke to meet with them here, to speed up the progress of their argument and subsequent reconciliation. 'Unless Sasuke was so upset and angry that Kakashi didn't think reconciliation would be the outcome.'

Through one of the stark doors on the other end of the room, a short brown-haired woman stepped out and greeted Kurenai like an old friend. Kurenai followed her in with an absent wave in their direction and Naruto deflated as soon as the door slammed shut behind her.

"She still seems really sad."

"How would you feel if I was maimed and Sasuke died?" Sakura asked softly and mostly rhetorically. She knew very well how he'd feel. How she'd feel, if it was Sasuke and Naruto.

"Don't even say that, Sakura. You've gotten maimed enough…" he trailed off, looking like he hadn't meant to say that part out loud. Sakura leaned back in her chair until her head met the wall behind her. She was still doing her best not to think too hard on what had happened during the invasion. It crept into her dreams enough as it was.

"Sorry," Naruto said quietly and with her eyes closed, Sakura shrugged. It was a blunt and honest thing to say. 'Blunt and honest sums up Naruto's character perfectly.'

A few minutes later another one of the doors opened and a tall blond man stepped out. Classically handsome and with only few crow's feet around his eyes that belied his age, he looked a lot like what Sakura would have imagined Ino's father to look like, had she bothered to imagine her classmate's parents at all.

"Team Kakashi?" he inquired politely, as if he didn't already know. Naruto gave a very enthusiastic nod in response, while Sakura half-bowed quietly. "My name is Inoichi. And you seem to be missing a member."

Naruto laughed awkwardly. "He's coming! Uh, probably. Later."

Inoichi smiled. "Alright, then. Who wants to go first?" he asked, looking like he'd expected their subsequent lukewarm responses. "A basic evaluation is really nothing to be concerned about."

"I don't know about that. I've heard you feel like grilled salmon afterwards," Naruto said with a frown. Sakura threw him a quick look, wondering where exactly he'd heard that. She couldn't remember anybody mentioning the first-time genin evaluations outside of the one Academy lesson devoted to them.

Inoichi nodded. "Sometimes, yes. That comes from having to tell a virtual stranger about what you would otherwise spare for your close friends."

Naruto frowned. "I don't know if I could tell you that much about the really important stuff."

Inoichi's shoulders twitched upward in a minute shrugging motion. "And I don't intend to force you."

"But you'll read things into our refusals to discuss certain issues," Sakura said flatly. "Our attempts to redirect certain questions, our nervous blathering when we're feeling unsure…"

Inoichi's lips twitched briefly curled into an upward curl. "Haruno Sakura. Ino has mentioned you, on occasion."

"Her paranoia?" Naruto said and gave Sakura a teasing look. Sakura kicked at him halfheartedly.

"It's not paranoia when you're right," said Inoichi, just as Sakura was about to open her mouth and say something similar. "Want to get it over with, Haruno-kun?"

"Might as well," Sakura said and stood slowly, wondering how much of her quiet unease showed on her face. Konoha's interrogators were supposed to be so good at their jobs that they could make you feel like handing over your darkest secrets, your friends and even your liver was the best option.

As though hearing her thoughts, Inoichi said, "This really is just a rudimentary evaluation."

Sakura said nothing.

The room behind the door was so aggressively nonthreatening that Sakura was forced to wonder if there was some kind of specialized shinobi interior decorator employed to create these types of rooms around Konoha. The carpet beneath her feet was crème-colored and fluffy, the windows were big and let in so much sunlight that the room didn't need to be further lit by electrical lights. A big, comfortably worn armchair with a small table by its side stood in one corner facing an even bigger sofa.

Inoichi glanced back at her where she'd stopped just inside the threshold. "It's a bit much, but it does a lot to set the mood."

"If the mood you're going for is an aunt's living room, then yes. I suppose. It's very… safe-looking."

"That doesn't seem to put you at ease," said Inoichi, taking a seat in the sofa and slinging one arm over the backrest.

Sakura took his cue and sat down in the armchair. It really was comfortable. Kind of like the ones in the Gryffindor common room, though those had been bigger and reddish and occasionally talkative. "Is this the part where you ask me how that makes me feel?" she asked, a bit dryly.

Inoichi hacked a laugh better suited to a man decades older and seemed to concede her point. "Congratulations on your promotion, Haruno-kun. It was a very interesting match."

"Shikamaru is the kind of opponent that requires interesting tactics," said Sakura after a beat. Her promotion to chunin seemed like it happened ages ago. But her words were entirely truthful.

"I can imagine. He's a lot like his father, that one."

She'd almost forgotten that Inoichi was one part of the famous third generation Ino-Shika-Cho triad. "I guess you'd know."

"So would you, from what I hear." At Sakura's questioning look, he elaborated, "From what I understand, you and Shikamaru are friends."

"I wouldn't say we're that close. Friendly acquaintances, maybe."

Inoichi made a thoughtful sound. "But you occasionally spend time together, when your schedule allows, and you enjoy each other's company."

"Friendship is more than that, though." Sakura shrugged. Friendship was getting hurt to spare your friends pain, it was sticking by your friends no matter what, it was what kept you going when things had gone to hell and you doubted you'd ever make it out again. It was a bond as strong as any romantic relationship she'd ever had. She'd never felt less loyal to Harry when she and Ron became romantically involved.

"That's true. But they tend to start roughly the same way."

Sakura thought of two boys stepping in front of a mountain troll for a girl they didn't even like and smiled a little. No, not all friendships started the same way. "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree."

Inoichi put his chin in his palm, elbow on the side-table. "From what Kakashi has told me, your team is very close."

"Yes. They snuck their way in. I didn't mean to let them." That was a little too truthful, perhaps, but she guesstimated she had to give a little for this evaluation to be a success.

"You didn't want them as friends?"

"The 'dead-last' and the grouchy Uchiha? Not particularly." Sakura frowned, looking briefly out the window. "But then, I can be too quick to judge. It's a flaw of mine."

"Many people see only the surface."

"I thought I saw deeper, even before I got to know them." She'd thought of them as uncomplicated children. She still did, sometimes, and there was something stupidly patronizing in the thought. 'How Harry, Ron and I mistrusted adults who saw us as stupid children,' Sakura thought. They'd lost their faith in adults before she had, but it had gotten to her in the end too.

"But now you see their true selves."

Sakura folded her hands together on her lap. "As much of the truth as they will allow, I suppose."

"What would you do if they died?"

Sakura blinked, jarred. She opened her mouth, saw the vaguest image of some grisly death scene behind her eyelids, and snapped it shut again. Something is Inoichi's mild gaze sharpened fleetingly before fading away and Sakura cursed to herself.

"I don't know," she said and tried not to feel angry at whatever she'd let him see.

"I don't think that's the full truth."

Sakura felt a snarl threatening to twist her mouth into something ugly and held it back as well as she could. "You don't exactly inspire me to tell the truth."

Inoichi nodded seriously. "Fair enough."

Sakura glared out the window and thought she heard that eerie, faint laughter in the back of her mind again. It still sounded like Ginny, but it could be the crazy child she'd… imprisoned. Was holding hostage. "Sometimes I feel like everything is falling apart." Sakura trailed off, surprised at herself for speaking up unprompted. Only to become immediately suspicious. 'Genjutsu? I don't sense anything…'

"What do you mean?"

Or maybe it was just that she never really talked about the bad things, just lived through them and tried to outrun them when they got too close. Like she was carrying a rucksack filled with stones and every time she turned around yet more stones had been added to it.

Sakura felt herself wanting to tell him, focused on the feeling, and carefully pushed it back. "Unpleasant things keep happening, that's all." What a childish way of putting it.

Inoichi nodded, catching her eyes with his own. "…I read your files this morning. You have my sympathy for what happened with Orochimaru's henchman."

The way he didn't say he was sorry or radiate any pity in her direction made it easier to breathe. But her hands curled reflexively at the sound of the traitor Sannin's name. "I thought I was stronger."

"You are plenty strong, from what I have heard."

Sakura leaned back in the armchair, looking up at the ceiling and then again out the window. "There's no point if I can't protect myself, if I can't protect my friends."

"Nobody can do those things all the time, though we all dearly wish to."

"I know. Don't think I'm…" It was a lie to say that she didn't blame herself, at least to some degree, but it wasn't entirely the truth either. "I do know that."

"Prior experience?" Inoichi said and Sakura was impressed by how smoothly he'd put that out there. It was almost a hum, a soft and gentle suggestion, and maybe if it hadn't put her on edge she would have found herself nodding along.

As it was she just stared him down until he nodded, apparently deciding against pressing the point. He looked like her silence had given him some kind of answer anyway.

"Given a choice between ending Orochimaru's life yourself and somebody else ending it in your place, what would you choose?"

"Whatever got him out of the picture quicker." It came out more scornfully than she'd intended, and she made herself breathe out and relax before she said something she'd regret.

Inoichi hummed with consideration. "Well, you might get your chance."

"Because we're at war, though people still pretend otherwise?" Sakura said bitterly. She'd let Kabuto and Orochimaru both live out a thousand pleasant lives if it meant she didn't have to repeat what had once led her to abandoning her own world, her own body. She'd let evil people live before she'd let her friends die.

"What do you imagine war to be like?"

'Imagine. What do I imagine it to be like.' Sakura would have taken a note out of Sasuke's book and scoffed, if she hadn't been so tightly wound. Her foot wanted to thump rapidly against the floor, her face wanted to contort into a grimace of discomfort or anger.

She breathed out. "Depends on what kind of war it is, I suppose. I imagine it alternately as a machine chugging away somewhere, a machine someone left on by mistake, whose empty chugging does nothing except allow it to go on and feed on itself and alternately I imagine it as a fanged maw stretched wide open as we march inward on its tongue, half a heartbeat away from snapping shut around us." She said it all in one breath, the words rushing out like they had been waiting on her tongue for her to speak them out loud.

Inoichi was looking at her steadily, with consideration, and Sakura felt like she'd just torn her own ribcage open and offered him all the soft organs within. Her head was starting to spin and there was a queasy wobbling in her stomach.

"That's a very interesting way of putting it," said Inoichi after half a minute's silence. With some difficulty, Sakura shrugged and stared harder out the window. She hadn't meant to offer up raw sentiment. She hadn't meant to give him something out of the more vulnerable parts inside her.

"I don't usually speak this freely with strangers," Sakura said in lieu of continuing this thread of conversation, her tone measured. It had to be some kind of Genjutsu, it had to be. She couldn't just have let him trap her into talking.

"I am here to evaluate you. Honesty can only do you good."

Sakura's jaw tightened. "Since when is honesty a virtue among shinobi?"

"…For a shinobi among allies," Inoichi amended.

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "We were allied with Kumo some time ago."

Inoichi sat back in his chair again, crossing one leg over the other. "Perhaps that paranoia Naruto spoke of is an actual concern?"

"It's not paranoia when a supposed Konoha shinobi rips out your ovary and takes off with it. Don't tell me you trust everybody in the village."

Something in the way Inoichi's gaze lit on her made Sakura think that she'd just implied that her caution and apparent lack of blind loyalty had sprung out of that one moment during the invasion. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe she should hope for that to be his interpretation, even.

"I don't trust them all, no. But I don't look upon the village's people with a general distrust either."

To be fair, she didn't mistrust all of Konoha's people either. But whatever loyalty she had for the village itself sprung from her team and her mother's presence here. 'Well, I suppose I also do feel some affection for this place, after having lived here for so long.' When she nodded, Sakura hoped Inoichi saw that in her.

"What do you think the other villages are like?"

"More violent, less kind. At least that's what's said about them." Sakura tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she thought. "But with a society that's shaped around the same system as Konoha's. Shinobi on one side and civilians on the other."

Inoichi gave her a long look. "It can be difficult for civilian-born children to adjust to shinobi culture."

Sakura almost snorted at him. "What culture? I've been to one shinobi bar, that's about as much as I've experienced of 'shinobi culture'."

"You've only been a chunin for a short while. You have time to explore the niche we've created for ourselves in this village."

Shrugging indifferently, Sakura tried to make herself relax a little. She felt like she was a housecat circling around Yamanaka's bigger feline, waiting for a strike to come.

"How do you find shinobi life otherwise?"

Sakura felt her brow crease as she thought. "Uh… well, fine?" Was that what she was supposed to say? It was a rather open question. "Sometimes the missions end up being more than expected, but until now we've made it out alive."

Inoichi hummed. "Unlike your enemies. Your team has a greater body count than all other active genin teams."

Sakura opened her mouth and paused. That wasn't unexpected, exactly, but the blunt way he revealed it was. "…What are you getting at?"

Inoichi leaned forwards slightly and his voice dropped into a cajoling murmur. "I'm not trying to trick you, Haruno-kun. I would merely like a view into your own observations."

"I don't like it. I don't dislike it." Sakura thought it might be too flippant to shrug again, but she had a feeling Inoichi could see her lack of concern in her body language anyway. "I don't know about Naruto and Sasuke, though."

"Many genin do mind it. Some for a long time."

Sakura felt her hackles rise and tried to abort the feeling before Inoichi could catch it. "And some genin teams are really good at keeping each other from becoming depressed."

"Are your teammates doing that for you?" Inoichi asked, and maybe Sakura was just imagining a slight incredulous tint to his words, but maybe…

"No. Is that what you want to hear? No. It doesn't depress me, for the most part. Sometimes I think it's unnecessary or that it's a cheap alternative, but I don't lay awake at night crying over it." 'I lay awake at night crying over other things,' Sakura thought wryly, mockingly, and all of it directed at herself.

"A 'cheap alternative'?"

"With Naruto on your team, it's difficult not to look at things from the brighter side. Maybe they don't all need to die, just because they're not allies."

"But you don't have trouble killing them if a mission requires it?" Inoichi's voice was soothing again, the kind of gentle that would inspire trust in the unwary.

Sakura had to hold back a snort. "You don't kill people because you dislike them or because they're on the wrong side or what-have-you. You kill them because they're an active threat."

"A very mature stance to take."

Maturity had nothing to do with it. It was just the truth. Sometimes the people you were opposing weren't all bad, and sometimes the people on your side weren't good. Sakura hadn't realized what a privilege it had been to fight people as overtly corrupt as inner circle Death Eaters until she had to fight people who were only on the 'other side' due to circumstance.

"If you say so."

Inoichi smiled. "You're not an easy person to interview."

"I'm uncomfortable, as I'm sure you've noticed," Sakura said dryly. 'And doing my best to resist whatever it is that urges me to spill my secrets into your lap.'

"If it's any reassurance, I have met shinobi your age with significantly more debilitating idiosyncrasies than yours."

"Well, we're all mad here."

Inoichi laughed again. "Some slight madness never hurt a shinobi."

'What if it's more than "slight"?' Sakura thought, though she smiled back at the interrogator with all the calm she could muster. Laughter was echoing back at her again, gleeful and mocking and not a little frightening.

-.-.-.-

When Naruto finally stepped out of the room with Inoichi in tow, Sakura was close to crawling up the walls with agitated boredom. Her eyes caught his and he smiled, a little queasily. Sakura sympathized with the feeling, because while she didn't feel like a grilled salmon, she didn't exactly feel fresh as a daisy afterwards either. Who really knew what she'd given away with her reactions to Inoichi's questions? Who knew what he'd seen in her, what he might pass on to whoever he reported to?

"Well done, you two. That wasn't so bad, was it?" Inoichi said in that overly gentle way. It kind of made Sakura want to kick him in the shin.

"Eheh, sure," said Naruto, laughing weakly. "Not so bad."

Sasuke wasn't there, which made Sakura frown to herself. How badly had she damaged her relationship with him with this secret of hers? Sasuke was the kind of person who could nurture a grudge from a tiny seed into an enormous tree. 'I shouldn't assume that I've ruined everything. That's not a productive line of thought.'

As they walked out into the sun, Naruto kept casting glances her way. Sakura didn't know what to tell him.

"Think we should check up on Sasuke?"

Sakura grimaced faintly. "I wanted to give him some time to calm down."

"You have given him time, Sakura-chan. I don't think we should let him stew too much. You know how he gets."

She did know. And that was why… that was why she was being a coward. That was the truth of it. The thought that she might have ruined their friendship completely made her cold.

"Uh, well. Looks like he's already started the stewing." Naruto was staring down the road, an apprehensive look on his face. Walking slowly towards them was Sasuke, accompanied by Kakashi. The jounin had his face stuck in that book of his, but Sasuke's eyes were fixed on Sakura's face. Dark circles around his eyes stood out against the paleness of his skin. With a twitch of guilt, Sakura thought it looked like he hadn't slept at all.

She wanted to take to the rooftops just to avoid him, but she wasn't that much of a coward. And Naruto's eyes were on her too, encouraging even though his smile was hesitant.

"So are you gonna have your evaluation now too?" he said when Sasuke had come close enough that he didn't have to shout.

"Indeed he is!" Kakashi said, thwapping Sasuke upside the head with his book. His cheerfulness was so abrasive that Sakura grit her teeth. "So if there is anything you three need to tell each other before we go in...?"

He left the sentence hanging, but though Sakura felt like that was her cue to blurt out an apology, she couldn't do it. This close, Sasuke's face seemed drawn with accusation.

"The last thing we need is another emotionally stunted kid on the team," Kakashi said, face turned toward the sky like he was begging the heavens for help.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," Sakura all but spat out. The words stuck briefly in her throat and then tumbled over her tongue. Sasuke's expression changed, but not to anything less accusatory.

"I was thinking… You're all about being a team and protecting your friends," Sasuke said slowly, seeming to measure the words carefully before speaking. Or maybe the words were sticking in his throat too. "You say it, you imply it, you act like that's what you believe. But somehow I don't think you view Naruto and I as peers. Not entirely."

Naruto laughed nervously. "Sasuke, I don't think she -"

"Not now, Naruto," Sasuke said without taking his eyes off Sakura. She was nailed in place.

'He's right,' she thought, though her thoughts were a confused jumble as she both tried to defend herself and acknowledge that what he was saying was the truth. A truth she had already acknowledged to herself.

"You're smart. I guessed long ago that you probably could have graduated at the top of our Academy class if you wanted to. Maybe even graduated early." Sasuke looked aside for a moment, brows tight together. "And you have secrets. We all do on this team, so I didn't particularly care. I assumed that your 'team spirit' shtick would be given higher priority than any secret that could hurt me or Naruto."

A part of Sakura wanted nothing but to sink through the ground. Sasuke sounded tired and maybe a little self-deprecating, like he should have known better than to trust that she'd care more about her team than herself.

"I'm sorry." Was that her voice? It sounded so small.

"What utter bullshit, Sasuke."

Sakura's head jerked up to see Naruto drawing himself up and crossing his arms over his chest.

"Yeah, she should have told us earlier. And I get that it really hurts that some part of your family was right there and she didn't 'fess up to it. But you make it sound like keeping it a secret was hurting us. Well, hurting you. And that's not true, because you didn't know the secret existed in the first place. If she'd never told us, you'd have been fine. Or, I mean, you would have missed your family and everything, but it's not like most people get a chance to talk to their dead families, you know? And there are a lot of people with dead families here."

Sasuke looked somewhere between furious and bewildered. Naruto continued unheeded, "And it wasn't like it was a simple secret. We talked a little yesterday and seeing dead people everywhere just sounds horrifying more than anything else. Even if I found out who my parents were, I'm not sure if I would wanna see them all cut up and bleeding and everything, even if that meant I could talk to them." Naruto took a breath. "Who'd want to see their loved ones hurt so badly?"

Sasuke stared at Naruto. Sakura found herself also staring at Naruto and perhaps even gaping a little at his vehement defense of her actions. Kakashi was reading and humming quietly to himself, obviously content to let them sort things out between themselves.

"Uh, I'm just saying?" Naruto said, a little uncertain. The confidence drained out of his stance.

Sasuke flicked a glance at Sakura. "Is it really that bad?"

"Not always, but…" Sakura cleared her throat and looked very hard into the air over Sasuke's left shoulder. "I didn't like looking directly at Morino Ibiki. There was a man hanging around his neck with his nails and most teeth torn out and he kept grinning and bleeding everywhere."

"What?" Naruto said and Sakura twitched. Kakashi had looked up from his book but when she met his gaze, he looked back down again. He stopped humming.

"And that's what it's like when it's bad?"

"I told you." Her voice wanted to quake and she wouldn't allow that. "I didn't want you to ask what your family looks like."

Sasuke glanced away, biting the inside of his cheek. It was cruel, making him imagine what the ghosts of the Uchiha compound looked like, but since he'd seen it all happen… 'Actually, that probably makes it even worse.'

"So what you're saying is that you kept the secret for the team," said Sasuke. "For me."

It would have been so easy to just say yes and let him think well of her again. Sakura took careful stock of herself and breathed out. Despite her own uncertain age, maybe it would be a few more years until she could see Sasuke and Naruto as the young men they one day would be. As true peers. But that didn't mean she could justify lying to them. That didn't mean that she could justify the lack of respect a blatant lie would be right now. She could acknowledge their youth and still give her teammates the respect they were due. She could make a fucking effort to be the sort of teammate they had earned.

"Partially," she said and paused when Sasuke's eyes shot to hers. "But I also didn't want anybody to know. I was worried what would happen if anyone ever found out."

"You thought we would tell people?" Naruto said.

"I - " Now she wasn't sure what to say. What had been her less altruistic reasons for keeping her mouth shut? "Keeping things to myself makes me feel safer," she hedged. "Or it did. Now, with the bloodlimit thing and the Juntoku sniffing around…"

"We're not gonna use you, Sakura," Naruto said, frowning deeply. Sakura nodded.

"I know that. But when you start telling people your secrets, you lose control of them."

"You thought we would reveal it by accident," Sasuke said, sneering. Sakura darted a glance at him and then quickly away.

"Or that somebody would force it out of you, at some point." Naruto opened his mouth and Sakura interrupted before he could speak. "Don't tell me nobody could get it out of you. You're not immune to torture. Or interrogation. Or friendly 'evaluations'."

Naruto closed his mouth. "That wasn't what I was going to say," he muttered.

"So it was pure self-preservation?"

"No. What I said about not wanting you to ask what your family looks like… that was true. I didn't want to hurt you."

Sasuke looked at her a moment longer and then glanced at Kakashi. "Aren't we late?"

Without looking up from his book, he said. "Definitely. But only by fifteen minutes or so."

Sasuke turned back to Sakura. There was a sense of evaluation in his gaze, like his internal scales had tipped some way or other. "…Okay."

A muscle in her back jumped with tension. "Okay?"

Sasuke snorted. His eyes were still dark and cold. "I have more questions, of course. But yes, okay. For now."

Sasuke and Kakashi continued towards the Intel unit and Sakura breathed out slowly, the knot in her stomach loosening even though she wasn't sure if she really had got off scot-free.

Naruto dragged her to an ice cream stand as they waited for Sasuke's return. It was a warm afternoon, edging into evening and the cool ice cream accompanied by Naruto's cheerful prattle did settle her mood somewhat. Her first time co-leading a mission, she couldn't afford to be this jittery about personal stuff. Professionalism was key.

As the sun was setting, Sakura spotted Sasuke stalking towards them. Naruto waved at him like all was right in the world and Sakura's could feel her shoulders relaxing when the glance Sasuke threw her was neutral instead of angry. He didn't look worse for wear, like she and Naruto had after the evaluation, but Sakura couldn't bring herself to ask how he felt.

Naruto had no such compunctions, of course.

"You don't look grilled at all."

"Grilled?"

Naruto explained his grilled salmon simile and made up for Sakura's silence with boisterousness. Sasuke glanced her way occasionally, but she couldn't read him properly.

Naruto went to get more ice cream and gestured at them to talk already.

When Naruto was out of earshot, Sasuke leaned forwards over the table. "Sakura, I'm not going to bite your head off."

"Or punch me again?"

Sasuke looked at her coolly. "You earned that punch."

Yes, she probably had. "I can't deal with this right now."

"We should talk after the mission." Sasuke paused, poking his green tea ice cream with his spoon. "I'm still angry, but even if all your motives for keeping this giant fucking secret from me, from us, had been selfish -" He paused again and Sakura worried at her lip as he thought. "I think I would have forgiven you anyway, eventually."

"Really?" she said, making an effort not to sound doubtful.

"…Are there any here?"

Sakura looked out among the people passing them. There was just one in her field of view, a man impaled by a metal pike in an alley across the street. She nodded.

Sasuke followed her gaze with his eyes, squinting into what for him was just an empty alley. "What does it look like?"

Sakura described him: his open scowling mouth, the blood coming out of his back where the tip of the pipe had penetrated him, his wide-open eyes. How she could faintly hear him screaming. The more she talked, the more she realized that it actually sounded more horrible than it felt to see him. It was an awful truth to realize, but she was so used to seeing ghosts by now that they didn't always register in her mind the way living people did. It was some kind of callousness, or prejudice even, on her part. Living people were the real people and the dead were just a backdrop if she didn't have cause to focus on them.

That's not how she wanted to think of them. That's wasn't how she wanted to be.

"Stop."

When she looked over, Sasuke's his mouth was a sour twist in his pale face. Sakura quieted. She hadn't meant to go into such detail.

"I didn't realize what having this ability must be like for you," Sasuke said slowly, still staring into the alley. "Even after you told me. I should have considered…" he stopped there, letting the half-finished sentence hang in the air.

Sakura stirred the melting ice cream with her spoon. He had undoubtedly been focused on having some part of his family back and she couldn't blame him for that. "I should have told you. I should have explained properly."

Sasuke glanced at her. "Yes, you should have. But… I understand your reasoning."

Naruto returned, peering at them carefully before smiling. Sakura wondered how well he could read them. Better than she assumed, probably.

"I spotted Shikamaru. He's on his way to the gates… verrry slowly." Naruto paused for a moment, taking a bite of his new ice cream. "I wonder if he starts walking hours before he needs to be somewhere because he knows he walks a slowly as a snail, or if he runs half the way and then snail-walks the other half?"

"Neither, idiot," Shikamaru drawled, moseying over the threshold with a listless frown. "I was here an hour ago and decided to stock up on supplies."

"Hello, Shikamaru," said Sakura, poking Naruto in the ribs before he could make a retort.

"Hey. How's everything?" he asked, looking her up and down lazily. His eyes caught on the scar on her chin. "You haven't been back to play shougi or go."

There was a flutter of nervousness in Sakura's chest. "I'm not as interested in board games as you are."

Shiranui Genma stuck his head in. "Nobody is as interested in board games as the Nara, little bird. Shikamaru, that's not how you woo a lady-friend."

"He's not wooing Sakura!" said Naruto loudly as Genma pushed Shikamaru forwards so he could enter.

He looked amused, the senbon clacking against his teeth when his grin widened, and Sakura felt a headache coming on. The last thing they needed was for Shiranui to work Naruto into an argument on her behalf.

"How do you know?" Shikamaru said, pushing his hands out of his pockets. Because she recognized that lazy curl of amusement on his lips, Sakura felt safe in ignoring the words. He was clearly just trying to wind Naruto up.

"Didn't expect a rival, did you?" said Genma and laughed when Naruto scowled at him.

Sasuke broke up the fight by dragging Naruto back into his chair.

"Unless somebody else already has you well in hand?" Genma added, waggling his eyebrows. Naruto turned his head with a huff of irritation and Sakura thanked the spirits for that. Sasuke's ears had reddened faintly, and he too had turned his head away.

"Chouji and Ino aren't coming," said Shikamaru after a beat of silence. He rolled his eyes when Sasuke raised an eyebrow and elaborated, "Ino's started making poisons. She and Chouji managed to poison each other during training this morning."

Naruto frowned. "Are they okay?"

"They're fine. It was some low-level drug to cause 'flu-like symptoms' or something. Scared the shit out of me at first. So troublesome."

"Who else is coming?" asked Sasuke.

"Me and Izumo," said Genma. "Some other chunin too, I think. Izumo is probably waiting at the gates."

They made their way to the gates in a chaotic little troop. Genma kept trying to rile up Naruto, Sasuke kept shooting her glances and Sakura wished she'd packed stronger painkillers. This was going to be a long trip, she could just feel it.

"Why exactly are we leading the mission when you and Izumo are here?" Shikamaru asked as they spotted the other adult shinobi waiting at the gates.

"Who knows?" said Genma, raising an eyebrow.

'Oh. Him,' Sakura thought as the examiner in the chunin exams' first test turned around to greet them. A wave of ill-feeling took a hold of her briefly and she shook it away. It had been a test and they'd passed. They hadn't tortured anybody and Izumo hadn't actually wanted them to hurt Sasuke.

"Hello, sugar," Genma said and slung an arm around Izumo's shoulders. The other man rolled his eyes and gave them all a long-suffering look. "Let me introduce you!"

"We know who he is," said Naruto quietly, grimacing.

"Ah, hello again." Izumo shifted out from Genma's grasp and gave them an ambivalent smile.

"Something the matter?" Shikamaru asked. Naruto shook his head.

"Who is the last member of our team?" Sakura asked, trying to force past the awkwardness. Izumo looked subtly different from that time they'd met in the library, more sharply defined. The more recent negative memories she had of him were most likely influencing how she saw him.

As though summoned by her question, a middle-aged woman stomped up to their little party.

"Is this the team heading to Suna?" she asked. Her face was so badly scarred that she could barely move her lips and her heavy-lidded white eyes scanned them perfunctorily before she sketched a short bow. "My name is Hyuuga Den, medic. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

'We're heading to Suna?' Sakura thought as greetings were exchanged and turned to glance at Shikamaru. Apparently he understood her expression, because he handed her the mission scroll.

Sakura skimmed it and when Naruto leaned over, she summarized, "We're going to press for reparations for the damages incurred during the invasion. We have permission to use the Kazekage's children as leverage."

"Oh, right. I forgot that we still have them." Naruto frowned. "I hope they're not being treated too horribly. They were just kids."

Sakura smiled faintly. 'Never change, Naruto.'

"They haven't been harmed," said Izumo. "I think a Yamanaka dove into them and had a look-see, though. Still, no actual damage. They wouldn't make for very effective leverage if we'd driven them insane."

Naruto frowned, looking a little like he would rather not have heard that.

Genma clapped his hands together. "Alright, baby mission leaders. Shall we set out?"

Sakura and Shikamaru exchanged a glance and nodded. Sakura added, "We'll stop before we reach Suna to discuss tactics."

Genma grinned like she was a puppy who'd successfully performed a trick. Sakura snorted at the expression, irritated despite herself. She wouldn't allow her first mission as a co-lead to be screwed up by intra-team antics.

Shikamaru straightened. "Let's go."


A/N: Sorry for the long wait, college is eating my free time. Also, writer's block is the devil. So this is where I'm at right now: 2.000 words written for the next chapter and the chapter after that one is almost completely done. I had originally planned to post this chapter and the next in one go, but I figured you'd rather I post what I have instead of waiting even longer for the next chapter to be done. Oh, and as noted above I've changed my username to "romanescue".

For those of you who are into horror, I uploaded a Lovecraftian Naruto one-shot a while back.

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, to those of you who celebrate it! I hope you all have a wonderful time.