Arc 2: Konoha

Chapter 3: Testing

For the sixth time that hour, Sakura sighed. Naruto was busy working himself into a fit over by a tree, cursing out their teacher very loudly. Sasuke hadn't once moved from his position on the bridge, despite the high probability he was forming a knot in his back. Sakura herself had taken to sitting in the dirt, rolling a few cherry bombs in front of her.

Of the three of them, she had been waiting the longest—the flimsy grasp on sleep she had last night ensured she was up at the crack of dawn, and seeing nothing else worthy to do, prompted her to find their team meeting spot two hours earlier than the set time. Sasuke had found her quietly fiddling with gunpowder at o-seven-hundred on the dot. Naruto arrived half an hour later to see his two teammates silently ignoring each other. He had tried to get them to talk, but with the realization he had been put on a team with two brooders, Naruto turned to practice messy punches on the tree he was currently angrily circling.

They were now approaching the two hour mark for Kakashi's lateness. Sakura had long since finished casing her small bombs and was slowly feeling annoyance creep into her face. She rolled over to revive her numb bottom, quickly palming her bombs as she turned and slipping them into her pouch.

The motion flashed her red hand tattoo, which caught Naruto's attention, who for the first time took a minute to look at his teammate's uniform.

"Uh, Sakura-chan… Why are you wearing a uniform?" Yesterday she had been wearing a pair of black shorts and a tight red t-shirt, and now she had a very unflattering pair of high-waisted black tactical pants that were tucked into her tabi and a mesh top with a black bandeau to cover her chest. Her hitae-ate covered the scar that ran across her forehead, and the only jewelry she wore was that matching bead bracelet she shared with Kiba. It didn't look like any typical Konohan uniform set he had seen, but Naruto knew the boring, utilitarian clothing couldn't have come from a shinobi boutique.

"It's an old spare set Rumi had," Sakura answered without looking up from the ground. The pants were straight pre-war Iwa standard, and in her opinion more comfortable than the skinnier version Konoha made.

"And that huge bag?" Naruto asked, staring at the enormous beige gear satchel resting on the small of Sakura's back. She wasn't wearing a leg holster or flak jacket, so all of her gear probably went into it. 'But it's big enough to hold my head! What's she keeping in there?'

Sakura realized with that statement that neither of her teammates knew about her offensive specialty. 'Should I bother telling them?' she wondered, letting her cheek press into the dirt. 'They'll find out once we start training I guess. Is it even on my file? I never brought it up to Iruka-sensei.' As Sakura contemplated how deeply the Konoha Academy information network ran, their extremely tardy sensei appeared in a swirl of leaves.

"Yo!" he greeted with a casual hand wave. Sakura pushed herself off of the ground, brushing dust from her face. "Taking a nap, Sakura-kun?"

"She could of with how long you were gone!" With a very irritated finger point, Naruto yelled at their instructor. "You were late for like three-HUNDRED hours! It's nearly time for lunch!" Sakura and Sasuke chose to keep quiet. Kakashi could tell though that Sasuke was quite annoyed, while Sakura kept a straight expression.

'Ah, she has her father's poker face,' Kakashi noticed, Naruto's incessant complaint a mere buzz at the back of his mind. His eye slowly looked over each of his students. 'What a mess.'

"Now that you've wasted hours of our time, can we get on with this stupid test of yours?" Surprisingly, Sasuke spoke out, most likely to partly vent his anger and to shut Naruto up. The other boy shouted in agreement, and went back to heckling Kakashi with different complaints.

"Well, if you're so excited to begin…"

Sakura sat in the crook of a tree branch, watching with disappointed eyes as her two teammates successively attempt to battle their new sensei and lose. Naruto had already launched two separate attacks and now hung by his foot from a tree branch after falling for a hunting trick, and Sasuke had made a quick retreat when a surprise attack following Naruto's onslaught didn't work out.

'For two ninja that grew up in the kindest shinobi power in the land, they sure are quick to turn on each other,' Sakura thought. She was honestly a little confused by how easily her two teammates had been tricked into splitting up. 'The strength of a team is the fact it is a team… The best way to get the two bells is to attack as a unit, but maybe Kakashi's goal isn't to see how we stack up as a team?' While Konoha wasn't the only village to keep its genin in groups, it did tend to keep the group mentality through every stage of the ninja career, focusing on crafting their genin teams into efficient chuunin squads.

In fact, it was unlikely that she and the rest of her team would stay together after graduating to chuunin. From what she had understood from asking around, purely assault based teams like hers were made up from the stragglers after crafting specialized teams like recon or pursuit, and after geninhood promising assault nin were taken and shuffled around as physical support for teams that lacked heavy firepower.

'So since Kakashi-sensei knows we already understand why genin cells are made, he wants to focus on our personal abilities? The boys already realized that pushing us to work as a team would be redundant of him and just reiterating our Academy lessons, and moved on to something less obvious, I suppose.'

While she was reclining in contemplation, Naruto managed to free himself from his awkward position. Sakura's thoughts broke when he fell into the same trap again, merely a few yards away from where he stumbled the first time.

'We'd never be able to get the bells by ourselves, so maybe it's just a fake incentive to make us try to fight him with our full strength? If there's a chance that he'll send one of us back to the Academy, even though that is completely ridiculous and could never happen, we could possibly fool our own brains into living the lie and imitate a real-world version of a battle with real consequences… Wow, that's a lot more complicated than I thought.'

"Kakashi-sensei is impressive," Sakura muttered to herself. To go beyond their expectations and create a situation in which they could fool themselves into thinking it would be possible to best the legendary Sharingan Kakashi, even if just for a moment… "Only a jounin could control the situation that well."

"Control what situation, Sakura-kun?"

To her credit, Kakashi saw Sakura only jump a fraction. His student turned around on her branch to face him, strangely at ease in his presence. 'Is she not taking this seriously?'

"Hatake Kakashi-sensei," Sakura greeted. The man's silver eyebrow creased up at the use of his family name. "I was thinking about the reasoning of this test. You're very crafty."

"Oh?" he intoned, a little confused by the earnest, open look to Sakura's face. He expected her to be a little more on guard, or even attempt to distract him while going for the bells. Perhaps she didn't want to be a genin? He knew that she suffered psychologically from the civil war after reading through her thick file, but there hadn't been anything mentioned about a lack of desire to graduate. "What do you think of it?"

"In order for you to make us believe we could ever beat you one-on-one, you produced an incentive to allow us to trick our logic," Sakura explained. Kakashi hid his smirk behind his hand when he heard the distinctive Iwa accent; also to hide his growing confusion. What was she talking about? "You wanted to test our individual ability. You had to give us a reason to avoid fighting as a group, as teamwork is obviously the best way to get bells. But you also knew that we'd never think ourselves capable of defeating Sharingan Kakashi, so you created a situation where we could forcibly make ourselves fight earnestly by using the consequence of 'demotion'."

'She completely misunderstood,' Kakashi realized. 'She thinks that teamwork is too obvious an answer to the solution. She thinks that I wouldn't create a situation where the goal is to test teamwork, and that my goal is to prevent it…' He nearly palmed his forehead as everything fell into place in his mind. 'She honestly thinks the boys have thought it out that far and actually totally understand the value of team play, and are on the same track she is.'

Kakashi sighed and massaged the lower half of his jaw. How to deal with this accordingly? By the standard of the test, it was obvious Sakura already knew that teamwork would be the real way to get the bells from him, and was simply moving on to what she thought was the next logical conclusion. It also sounded a lot like she understood the great difference between their power levels, and that he really couldn't send them back to the Academy. This test wouldn't really do much for his foreigner of a student. 'Maybe that's why she… kind of saw through the test. It wouldn't be logical for a jounin of Konoha to actively sabotage the one of the village's main traits, at least to someone who has to focus on those aspects more consciously than a native.'

"You've done a lot of thinking on this. Can you tell me why I would want to test your own abilities when the Academy has a dossier outlining your skills?"

Sakura rolled her shoulders. "You're not the kind of man who relies on a report only." She easily fell from their perch to the open clearing below, where Naruto was just finishing up treating the rope burn on his ankles.

"Oh, Sakura-chan!" he greeted happily. "How long have you been there?" Kakashi landed beside his pink haired student, and Naruto screamed. "AH! Pervert-sensei! Get away from him, Sakura-chan!"

Sakura ignored Naruto and turned to face her teacher. "You have not yet tested me. I will try to fight sincerely." Kakashi raised a brow.

"Oh, so you still want to try to get a bell?" To be honest, he was very interested in how Zero-Chakra Daisuke's daughter had turned out after so much tribulation. He would have to visit her house to see how his title-rival was doing after the civil war.

Sakura flung out a series of projectiles from her pack instead of answering. Kakashi watched with growing interest as he recognized the small black spheres.

"Smoke bombs, huh?" he asked as they exploded, covering the area in a dense white smoke. There would be no need to use Icha Icha to trick Sakura into being irritated, but he had still wanted to finish his chapter. Quickly Sakura's leg flew at him from the smoke, and the two were captured in a small bout of basic hand-to-hand combat. He recognized the emphasis Sakura used on her legs, as was traditional for an Iwa style. There was a small bit of Konoha hand work in there too, but the strength behind her kicks was much greater.

"You're not that bad at taijutsu," Kakashi commented as Sakura kept her face focused. In a surprise move Sakura kicked her leg out in a very high round house kick that had her balancing on the ground with her fingers. Kakashi blocked the hit easily with an arm, and prepared to retaliate the follow up kick. A second passed as Kakashi realized Sakura had changed momentum and used a hand spring to gain distance between them. He lost sight of her in the smoke quickly, but had just enough time to see her make a one-handed sign.

'What jutsu could she know that uses one-half hand sign?' Kakashi wondered. Very instantly there was a great swelling of chakra under him, and in a short span of time Kakashi looked down, saw the large clay orbs by his feet, and performed a speedy replacement with a rock. The moment he flicked back into existence the clouded area he was just in exploded in a tight burst of flame that also ignited the smoke. Naruto, who had stayed around to watch the spectacle, leaped back to the tree line in fear.

"Holy shit that was an explosion!" he cried, hastily brushing off burning embers from his jacket. "Right in front of my face! An explosion!" Sakura must have planned it from the start, since the blast radius barely reached out from the center of the clearing and the smoke had quickly burned up before coming into contact with any of the trees.

"You know, you are spot on with those reports being useless!" Kakashi called to Sakura, who stood stiffly at the other end of the clearing. He didn't want to admit it, but Sakura had used the element of surprise very well against him. Kakashi had never expected one of his students to take up explosives as an offensive strategy, but it wasn't surprising it was the refugee from Iwa that did. If she had faced someone with slower reflexes, Sakura would have blown them to bits.

Sakura raised her hand, palm out, to him. "I concede," she projected across the clearing.

"What!" Naruto looked at Sakura like she had grown another head. "Did you see him, Sakura-chan!? You totally had him on the rocks there!" The blonde shivered when Sakura turned and looked at him with a stare normally reserved for a bad student. "You, uh… You didn't have him...?"

"On the contrary, she did," Kakashi chirped as he brushed off some lingering smoke smell from his clothing. "The problem is that Sakura realizes that she only had one chance to really surprise me there, and now she's out of options to stand a chance to get a bell."

"But she could totally try again…" Naruto attempted to reason, but Kakashi shook his head resolutely.

"I believe Sakura-kun is the type of person who would rather retreat from a battle and try to come up with a new plan than waste her time and resources fighting the same fight again and again, Naruto."

"But isn't that just losing?" Naruto asked, intently watching thin wisps of smoke rise from the star-patterned mark left on the ground.

"No," Sakura answered. She kept her hands on her thighs as she walked away from the blast zone. She nearly yelled so that her teammate could hear her, "It's called strategy." The two males watched her walk away silently.

"…Why is she walking away?" Naruto asked evenly just as the bell ringer went off. "Oh shit!" he cried, and desperately lunged at the bells hanging on Kakashi's waist.

"Nope!" Kakashi teased as he easily stepped out of Naruto's reach. "And now that you've cheated twice by trying to get a bell both before the time limit started and after it ended, you'll have to be punished!"

"You're cruel, Pervert-sensei!" Naruto huffed as he sprinted away from his demonic teacher. A firm grasp on his collar choked the air from him and he struggled to breathe.

"Oh, Naruto, I'm sure you'll learn some respect eventually."

"Naruto's impressive tenacity has ended up with him getting the best seat in the house," Kakashi teased as his blonde student struggled against the ropes holding him captive to a training post. Sasuke refused to look at him, intent on focusing to the far east. He probably hadn't appreciated the burrowing technique Kakashi had used on him earlier. There was still a considerable layer of dust on his clothing, and his white pants looked like brown camo.

Naruto's legs nearly hit Sakura square in the jaw with the force he flailed at. "Pervert-sensei, I'm reporting you to the Hokage! What the fuck is with this situation, poking your fingers into my ass and then tying me up three different times?! This has to be illegal!" Sakura scooched away from her teammate, marginally concerned for her nose.

Kakashi merely smiled and presented the two other genin with lunch boxes. "No one got any bells, which means you guys fail. Failures, the lot of you."

"Don't you dare," Sasuke growled, his face pinched at the eyebrows. "You won't keep me from becoming a genin!" In a flash of movement, the Uchiha boy lashed out at his teacher in a move Kakashi thought was pure stupidity or arrogant pride. He decided it was a mix of both as he easily redirected Sasuke's attack and used the momentum of his student to pin him to the ground, with only one foot. The box lunches still rested lightly in his hands.

'Too easy.'

"…" Sakura stared at her black-haired teammate, who had taken up the mantle in squirming since Naruto had relaxed and concentrated on the scuffle instead. 'Is the test still going? Why did Kakashi say we've failed? What else is he trying to push out of us?' If she had assumed correctly, then Kakashi's use of the Bell Test had been metaphorical and not actually owning any real consequence. But here he stood, stepping on her teammate's head and talking about their lack of skill as ninja to 'look underneath the underneath.'

"You guys don't understand how the ninja world works," Kakashi told them. He shot a look at Sakura, who watched him with a critical eye. "Well, maybe only you two. Sakura, have you ever been in a hostage situation?"

Sakura thinned her lips and tried to ignore the solemn lesson Iro had given her all those years ago in the midst of the war. His voice had been so empty, 'Sakura, you're not worth anything to the other side if you're caught. No skills, no position, no big clan name. If you're ever kidnapped, it'd be better just to bite off your own tongue—'

"No," she answered before the memory could become louder in her ears.

"What are you getting at sensei?!" Naruto asked, watching the older man with a frightened expression. Kakashi glanced at Naruto and sent a kunai toward the dirt in front of Sakura's legs. Naruto looked at the blade, and slowly began paling.

"Sakura, kill Naruto and I'll let Sasuke go." Kakashi almost winced at the steely look Sakura gave him. She probably wasn't one to get swept up in Konohan dramatics.

"Hatake Kakashi-sensei, your goal is unclear," Sakura flatly said, her expression growing more and more dark with each syllable. "Please explain." She left the blade firmly planted in the dirt.

Kakashi sighed theatrically and let Sasuke out from under his heel. The boy scrambled back to his teammates, expression thunderous. Naruto deflated, and the jounin idly wondered if the boy thought Sakura would have really cut his throat. "While you all failed to get a bell, I saw some promise in Sakura and Sasuke during the test. Don't give Naruto any lunch, and we'll talk in an hour about you two continuing in the program." He body flickered away far enough to keep an eye on the genin while remaining out of their sensory ranges.

Sakura looked very bothered by the turn of events, having not even opened her lunch yet. She must be trying to work out how her theory had failed, with how severe her focus was on the lid of the box. This was an especially cruel trick to play on her, since it was apparent she was having a hard time seeing where her acquired Konoha sensibilities had failed her in analyzing the situation. Kakashi could easily see her becoming a squad leader who made plans after accounting for every little variable. Of the three of them, she was the most well equipped to be on the field. If he understood correctly, she had essentially spent three additional years in the Konoha Academy when in Iwa she had been ready for dispatch into ranks. The only reason she'd been held back was the Appropriate Age Act, installed to keep students in the Academy for the full term, no matter the skill.

Sasuke himself had begun poking at the simple lunch provided to him, physically fuming at the disgraceful show he had put on. The Uchiha had graduated at the top of the class for a reason, and his skills were well polished and his reflexes sharper than his kunai, but his impatience and unwillingness to even communicate with his teammates was a huge hurdle. Kakashi saw a lot of his younger self in him, and wondered if it would take Sasuke as long as it had taken him to realize the importance of comrades. Probably, considering his dramatic flair and desire to off his brother as soon as possible. If they figured out how to pass the test, he would be sure to force the Uchiha into situations to become closer to his teammates. He didn't need Sasuke doing something ridiculous like leaving the village to follow his brother because he had no support or anything like that.

Poor Naruto slumped in between the two, his stomach audibly gurgling. He was putting up a valiant effort to ignore the food in front of him, but there was drool forming at the side of his mouth. Naruto had the raw strength and gusto to become a terrifying force on the field, but his absentmindedness kept him from noticing things like rabbit traps. His impatience kept him from honing himself into a decent fighter, and all he was left with was overwhelming guerilla tactics that relied too much on his one good jutsu. His marks at the Academy had been horrendous, but Iruka had always spoken fondly of his perseverance and will power. The Will of Fire was an important mental tool for last minute table turners, but a ninja's goal was to avoid trouble. Naruto and his burning will and lack of discretion attracted problems like a magnet. Sakura would be good for him. Her Iwan steady rhythm and calm mind could help his Konohan exuberance slow down, maybe enough to get him to learn how to think through his actions.

Kakashi had watched them for ten minutes before Naruto's strong front broke down. "Aah!" he wailed. "I'm so freaking hungry! This sucks!" Sakura glanced up at him from her closed box (she had been concentrating for that long, what dedication) and then looked at Sasuke. The other boy rolled his plum in his mouth thoughtfully and then, in a move that surprised even Kakashi, thrust his box in front of Naruto's face.

"Eat it," he said through his mouthful. Naruto shook his head and pulled away from the food.

"No way! You'll fail if I do! I'm not letting BOTH of you fail because of me!" Sasuke merely continued on, looking smug at the panicked expression on Naruto's face. He was enjoying this semi-torture, obviously.

"If we're going to take him on, we need all of us to beat him," Sasuke explained. Naruto's nose drew him closer to the food, unable to stay away any longer. Sakura then offered her plate forward as well, but to both boys.

"I ate breakfast," she said as way of explanation. Sasuke gave her a smirk that Kakashi assumed was the closest he could get to a smile. Naruto's eyes watered up, the genin touched by his teammate's kind gestures. Sakura at long last pulled the kunai from before out of the ground and used it to free Naruto from his cage. The blonde crumpled to the ground and reached out his hands, looking like the gods themselves had given him that meal.

Kakashi saw their actions and was pleased with the tiny show of solidarity. It wasn't much, but in that moment as the three genin's eyes met, Kakashi could see the beginnings of a great team. 'But they did break my rule, so I'll still scare the shit out of them.'

The jounin purposefully chose to appear in front them right before Naruto could take a bite. He cast a simple area genjutsu he copied from Kurenai during a drinking night, and dropped his voice low, like thunder. Naruto balked and dropped his chopsticks as Sasuke and Sakura moved to flank him more properly.

"YOU GUYS!" Kakashi bellowed, watching delightedly as the three of them shrank back slightly, "…Pass!" He inverted the genjutsu and cancelled it, reveling in the completely shattered looks of his students.

"WHAT." Naruto, of course, would be the one to break the silence. Sakura let her shoulders drop and leaned into her lap, her hands gently cradling her head.

'She must be so confused,' Kakashi gleefully considered. He had decided some point between their fight and now that he wanted to see his title-rival's daughter break face. She was a good ninja, but she still needed so much help letting go of the war's effects. Naruto would probably serve that purpose very well.

"The rules…" she trailed off, rubbing her thumbs into her cheekbones. Kakashi's eyes crinkled up at the words.

"You see, this was all a test of your teamwork!" he chirped. He almost snorted at the stricken look Sakura gave him. "I know, I know. But not everyone here understands how important one's teammates are." Kakashi stared at them one by one, a serious glint replacing the amicable curve of his eyelid. "Teammates who abandon their teammates for a mission are less than trash!"

He started by pointing at Sasuke, the first in line. "Sasuke! You should have known better than to assume your skills alone would have been enough to get bells from me, especially after I lasted from two different surprise attacks by you and Naruto. You need to understand that your teammates also have something to contribute."

Naruto's blonde head was next. "Naruto! Your rashness got you close to getting a bell, but then you messed it up by getting caught in traps meant for rabbits! Rabbits, Naruto. There's more to being a ninja than just fighting a lot."

Sakura was still giving him a stink eye, understandably. "Sakura! Your performance was solid but you got caught up too much in analyzing the test. Sometimes you need to take action and think about reasons later. You, conversely to Sasuke, need to not overestimate the skills of your teammates."

Sakura was the only one who physically appeared to consider his words. Naruto looked like he wanted to say something, and Sasuke glowered in a broody fashion.

"None of you even bothered to try to talk to one another once," Kakashi informed them. He sighed and looked off to the direction of the Memorial Stone. "Did you kids know that there's a stone by the Hokage Mountain that honors Konoha's heroes?"

"There is?!" Naruto excitedly asked. He face had brighten up considerably. "I'm definitely gonna get my name put on that rock, then! I'll be the greatest hero Konoha's ever seen!"

"It's a memorial," Kakashi said, looking at Naruto seriously. "All the people on that rock died in action." Understandably Naruto's face fell. "I know people whose names are on that stone because their teammates focused on the mission objective and not the importance of life. You three need to become ninja that can not only completely a mission, but also watch each other's backs." His three genin looked at each other, considering the people they were entrusting their lives to. Sakura obviously flashed back to something at the way she immediately closed herself off.

"Sensei, I'm going to protect everyone!" Naruto exclaimed after a moment of reflection. "There's no way I'm going to let anyone get hurt… I'll be strong enough for everyone!" Sakura's eyes flit to the blonde genin, too harrowed for someone that young.

"Tch, I'm not going to need your help anytime soon, deadlast," Sasuke huffed as he stood. "I'll probably be the one saving your ass." He slowly started walking away, fists firmly stuffed in his pockets.

"What did you say?!" Immediately Naruto was hot on his feet, rushing to teach Sasuke a lesson in who was really stronger.

"Practice starts at seven sharp!" Kakashi called to them, cupping his mouth for extra gain. Naruto shouted something back in response, and the jounin shook his head at the two boys. Sakura was still regarding Naruto and Sasuke with an expression that was difficult to place. Pained, somehow.

"They don't understand," Sakura started, sounding a little scared. "They don't… Sometimes, things just happen, and sacrifices have to be made." Kakashi glanced down at her pink head. Sakura's fingered were dug into the grass.


His student glared at him. "Why say that? Why not tell them how it really works?" Kakashi hummed, reaching out a hand for Sakura to take. Despite her anger, she clasped his wrist and used his weight to pull herself up.

"They'll find it out on their own," he answered. Sakura started walking, and he followed next to her. "I'd rather have them focus on optimism, you know." She took a deep breath after his words, letting it exhale slowly. When she finished, Sakura was once again composed.

"I understand." She took a left when they hit the first intersection, Kakashi following diligently beside her. They remained in silence as they walked to her house. As they got closer, Sakura pursed her lips and furrowed her brows. "Do you live in this sector?"

"No!" Kakashi cheerily answered. Sakura sighed as she realized her teacher was following her home.

After another minute of walking, Sakura presented her sensei with her front door. Kakashi appraised the store front approvingly, tilting his head at Sakura when she held the door open for him. At the counter was a man with a dark complexion tending to the register. He was lean in the way shinobi were, with heavy callousing on his fingers.

He looked up at them when the bell rang on the door's close, smiling gently. "Oh, Sakura, welcome back. Hatake, it's nice to see you doing well for someone so active in the Bingo Books." Sakura walked past the two of them to deposit her shoes at the bottom of the staircase and then continue upstairs, stopping quickly to greet the man with a kiss. At least that meant the man was someone Sakura knew.

Kakashi watched her go before smiling quickly at the man before him. "You know how it is, I'm sure. Sometimes things get out of hand when you don't mean it to." The man stood up shakily, reaching for his cane. A simple affair, dark brown wood with a nice polish. His leg was injured it seemed, and considering his student's background it wouldn't be too far to assume it had been war damage.

"Morimoto Iro," the man said as he reached out a hand. Kakashi took it and was surprised at the firm shake. "You're teaching our Sakura, correct? How is that going?"

"Ah, well," Kakashi began, taking his hand from Iro's grasp and moving it to scratch at the back of his head, "I'm very impressed. Surprised, too. The Academy dossiers didn't say anything about Sakura-kun's explosives."

"Mmm." Iro had told Sakura to purposefully keep quiet on the subject. He didn't know how much Konoha was open to varied combat styles, but he had never heard of a Konoha ninja using explosives as a main weapon. He wouldn't be surprised if Sakura was banned from using them on account of all the trees. "Ah, excuse me, but 'Sakura-kun'?"

"I've known Sakura since she was young, you know. I was even there for one of her birthdays," Kakashi explained. He often found loopholes in his missions to Stone to visit his rival, and ended up popping into their house every few months. On occasion Daisuke would be away those times, and he'd spend the time chatting with his housewife and playing with little Sakura.

"You were Daisuke's rival or something, right?" Iro asked quietly, the friendly smile dropping from his face. "Something about a title in the Bingo Book?" Kakashi could tell from the change in atmosphere that things had not ended well for his somewhat-friend.

"Yeah, Zero-Chakra Daisuke and Sharingan Kakashi, who was the man who could really perform more than one thousand jutsu?" Kakashi chuckled. "Honestly, I always thought Daisuke won that fight. He had to work harder than I did to learn all of that jutsu."

Iro hummed thoughtfully. "Well, I'm glad Sakura has such a decorated jounin as her teacher. Would you like to have some lunch? Honestly, I'm a little surprised at how early Sakura came home today."

"Oh, I guess," Kakashi shrugged. "We held the Squad Tests today, and—"

Iro laughed in the middle of his sentence. "The infamous Konoha Squad Tests? The ones with impossible goals that are known throughout the elemental nations as the most frustrating test for a genin?" Kakashi just chuckled awkwardly, having not honestly known that the tests had that kind of reputation. Iro corralled Kakashi upstairs to the main living space, still finding mirth in the idea of his seriously minded Sakura taking such a convoluted test.

Kakashi took in the living room. It was well furnished, clean, and the incense burning from the shrine at the other end of the room made it smell like gardenias. Sakura was kneeling in front of the beautiful memorial. Most home shrines he had seen in Konoha featured simple floral arrangements. Theirs had a symmetric style in the placement of the pictures and incense burners, and was decorated with all kinds of things: a glass wind chime, sparkling crystals, bowls holding candles of varying sizes, tiny ceramic sculptures, and one floral bouquet pinned to the side of the case. It was a very personal feeling he got from the array.

His heart felt heavy when he saw the contents of the pictures over Sakura's head. Both of the Haruno adults were smiling happily at each other, candle flames creating dancing lights around them. Portraits of two boys he remembered meeting once sat around the cluster of photos of the Haruno pair, smiling at him. The photo of the blonde boy was surrounded by tiny little ceramic animals, hand painted with delicate geometric designs.

Kakashi waited until Sakura was finished with her prayer. She glanced up at him, searching what she could see of his face for anything to read. The silver haired man simply smiled and shrugged at her, taking her place when she left into the adjoined kitchen. Kakashi kneeled, regarding the man and woman he'd come to know through a childish rivalry. Daisuke's green eyes stared at his own black eye, almost feeling like they could pierce his hitae-ate and look into his Sharingan.

'Sorry it had to turn out this way,' Kakashi sent as a prayer to the shrine. 'I hoped that the lack of parents in Sakura's file had been a fluke, but… I'll watch over her for you until she can watch over herself. Thanks for letting me have dinner that last time. I'll treat your daughter as repayment.' He stole a glance at Sakura preparing a familiar Iwa-styled afternoon snack, reminding him of Daisuke's wife. 'Please, rest easy.'

"I'm home!"

"Oh, Rui! It's a surprise to see you so early."

"Oh, is Sakura home too? Hi, Sakura!"

"Ho ho, is this a boyfriend, Sakura-kun? You like the dark deep-voiced type? Oh, he's… Hm, ah. Yes. Sorry, miss. My apologies."