Sakura held onto the skull tightly and looked from her sensei to the ground as she sought the words to explain. On the one hand, she knew that Kakashi was her sensei and therefore directly in charge of her. But on the other she knew that Hokage out ranked him. And if she had been given a mission to Sakura and he was not informed, then the Hokage must have her reasons, right?
Kakashi-sensei always stressed teamwork. And keeping her team out of the loop had already proven dangerous. Besides, if she had their help then she wouldn't have to worry about a repeat of tonight's mishaps. She looked up at her sensei and saw his eye locked on hers.
Something nagged at her. Hokage had said they were trying to keep things under wraps so did that mean that included the ninja of Konoha as well? Had Hokage specifically not informed Kakashi that she was giving her a side assignment?
Sakura's hands gripped on the skull and she was shaking her head without even realizing it. Kakashi stared for a few more moments, letting the silence stretch for as long as possible. But suddenly there was a bell ringing and the fire brigade was rushing towards the smoking garden.
Without a word, he signaled their retreat, bringing them back to the inn. Naruto and Sasuke followed wordlessly but Sakura paused for a moment, letting her eyes stall on the house before she took off, following them.
"Sakura-chan didn't tell us that the old hag gave her a mission?" he continued. "Why not?"
Kakashi sighed and settled into a seat. "Hokage-sama may have said not to." He frowned slightly at thought but let it pass.
The water in the bathroom was cold but Sakura used it none the less. The black debris from the blast washed away but it only made her look pale. She really didn't want to go back outside and face the questions of her team.
There was a knock on the door and Sakura blinked the last traces of water out of her eyes. Time to face the music.
The door opened and Sakura took in a deep breath. Sasuke returned to his seat on the floor from knocking, a bored look on his face that was not present in his eyes. Naruto sat on the bed arm crossed, his face a contortion of emotions. Kakashi sat on the other side of the room, legs crossed but hands free of his ubiquitous book.
Sakura took the only chair in the room and sat down with her hands folded in her lap. No one spoke a word at first, as if each side was waiting for the other to break first. However, Sakura had no doubt in their mind who would speak first.
"I still don't get it," Naruto spoke up. "Why didn't you say Hokage-sama had something else for us to do?"
Sakura tightened the grip on her dress. "Because it wasn't for us to do. Hokage-sama wanted me to do this."
"Do what?" Naruto asked. "Why were you there in the first place?"
Sakura looked at him but was silent. She couldn't tell him. Hokage had wanted to keep this quiet.
"You won't tell me?" Naruto continued, looking somewhat hurt suddenly.
"Or you can't tell us," Kakashi added. "Did the Hokage forbid you from telling us?"
Sakura looked at him and wanted to tell him that was true. Even though Hokage had never said not to tell them what she was doing, she had also said she didn't want many people knowing. So Sakura just stayed silent.
"It's obviously something to do with the girl we found last week," Sasuke said suddenly, ignoring her while he talked to the male team members. "So was this another girl?"
Sakura looked at him, her Sasuke-kun and bit the back of her lip. Inside a tiny voice was telling her to just answer her question. To have him nod and tell her that it would be okay. That now they would all work on things together and they would make sure she was okay.
That's what she wanted wasn't it? To be protected by them. To make sure she didn't almost blow herself up. To keep the nightmares away. That was it, right?
But instead she just stared at him, not answering his question, controlling the emotions on her face until his own flashed annoyance and he turned away. "You had to know about this," he addressed Kakashi.
But Kakashi shook his head. "I was just ordered to bring sake back for Hokage. But if she did give you a mission, she must have wanted us to know."
"I don't know," Sakura answered.
"Hokage is very busy, she probably didn't have the chance to tell me before we left."
"But she gave the scroll to me," Sakura replied, feel a bit more sure of her answer. "And she told me to open it when I got there."
"Sakura-chan," Kakashi said, his voice a mix of firmness and teasing. "You know that as your sensei I should be in charge of your missions."
Sakura looked at him for a moment before she replied. "In the stadium, at the end of the chuunin fight, you told Shikamaru to go with us but Asuma-sensei wasn't there to agree. So wouldn't this be the same thing?"
Kakashi looked at her for a moment before sighing. "That was an emergency situation. And besides, I told Asuma the moment I saw him."
"So..." Sakura started, her voice wavering a bit. "When we get back, Hokage will tell you."
Naruto and Sasuke looked at her, mild shock against their face. She had just completely ignored her sensei's request.
"Sakura," Kakashi said again. "This is your last chance to tell the truth. Otherwise I will have to report this as disobedience."
Sakura kept her hands in her lap and slowly nodded, knowing that he was serious. But she still stayed silent.
"All right then," he said. "You two can go to sleep," he said motioning to the boys. "Sakura, you'll stay up with me as I write my report. When I'm done we'll head back to Konoha and you'll be carrying the cargo by yourself."
Sakura looked up at him and then at the two huge caskets of sake in the corner. He couldn't really mean that. But looking at him, she saw in the one eye that he was very serious. The voice in her mind tried one more time to break her resolve but instead she looked at him and remained silent.
But she still stayed silent. Somehow, in the course of her interrogation and even this humiliating punishment, she had come to a firm conclusion. Hokage probably wouldn't have punished her if she told her teammates. Sakura could have even argued that it was an oversight on her part for not being specific enough. But in the end, Hokage would have just sighed in a way that meant that Sakura was too young and too unskilled to understand why some things were better left unsaid.
And somewhere on the road, Sakura realized that that was why she remained silent. Even if the Hokage told them everything the moment she walked in the door, it still meant that Sakura had never broken an order, even if it was an unclear one.
The Hokage's office loomed in front of them and Kakashi dismissed her teammates and lumbered forward, not bothering to give her a hand as she trudged up the stairs and deposited the cargo at the desk.
While she explained what they were, he still continued upwards towards Hokage's office. By the time she was finished, she had to run up the stairs to catch up with him. Shizune eyed her as she approached, obviously unhappy again with her state of disarray. But instead of commenting, she just waved the two of them in.
"Welcome home," Tsunade said, from her desk. "I trust my cargo has returned unharmed."
She looked up from her paperwork and finally got a good look at the young genin in front of her. "Sakura, why don't you go home, wash up and come back in a bit."
"But," Sakura started, her words almost lost beneath the labored breathing. "I have something..."
"It can wait," Tsunade said. "For an hour at least."
Sakura looked at her and slowly nodded. She turned on her feet and walked out the door, not sparing her sensei a glance. As soon as Shizune closed the door, Kakashi let out a sigh.
"Do I get to know why my student probably won't speak to me for a week?"
Tsunade let out a sigh. "First things first. Let me see your report." Kakashi handed her the scroll and she began to read through it, pausing only what she got more then halfway through.
"An explosion note?" she asked.
"Set to trigger if someone disturbed the body. Which was hidden under a layer of mud in the koi pond, by the way. It's probably why the hunter-nin never found it."
Tsunade frowned. "I hadn't expected something like that."
Kakashi shrugged as he took a seat. "It's why I was there."
Tsunade nodded and continued to read through the report. "So she never told you what she was looking for? Even when the Uchiha kid asked?"
Kakashi shook his head. "I'm still unsure of what this was all about. I could understand giving her an assignment and letting her carry out while I just watched, it would be good practice for her. But why did you want me to catch her in the act? And why the little interrogation afterward?"
Tsunade put the scroll down. "I want to see how she would react when the pressure was on."
"I work hard to keep them as a team," Kakashi stated. "So it is important for me to know why you wanted to tear them apart."
"I didn't want to do that," Tsunade replied. "I wanted to see if she could understood the basics of keeping a secret."
Tsunade looked at him and sighed. "It's been bothering me for a while. Here was a genin that managed to piece together a murder case that only the hunter-nin have known about. She has to be intelligent to do that but at the same time, it's not the same intelligence as say, Shikamaru who will probably be a great Jounin general someday."
"Sakura's intelligent," Kakashi replied. "We've always known that. She just lacks the physical prowess that some of the other genin had."
"And she is weak emotionally sometimes," Tsunade replied. "But her mental resolve, once tested, is probably stronger then any of the rookies. Against Ino, she broke a mental hold that most Jounin wouldn't have been able to counteract."
"True," Kakashi replied. "But I still don't see the point. Why subject her to having her teammates angry at her? Why threaten her with punishment and then humiliate her in the end?"
"Did she cry?" Tsunade asked.
Kakashi paused and thought back through the past day's event. "No, she didn't."
"A younger Sakura would have," she replied. "A less experienced Sakura would have begged for help, broken down the minute one of you asked what was going on. But she's grown up a bit. She may not be a chuunin physically but in other facets, she's already reached the level."
"So what now? More training?"
Tsunade nodded. "Yes but... not from you." Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "That was the second reason for all of this. I know Jiraiya is training Naruto while you concentrate on Sasuke. Neither of you could really teach Sakura anything beyond the basics as it is. So I approached another jounin and he agreed, tentatively, based on the results of this little test."
Kakashi paused, running through the list of jounin before he realized who it might be. He looked at the Hokage, eye narrowed a bit as he formed the question. "Who?"
Sakura clutched the parcel to her chest, momentarily forgetting it was the remains of another human being. Reaching the Hokage's office, she bounded up the stairs, no longer tired but determined to show what she had found to the Hokage.
Shizune stopped her at the door so Sakura took a seat. Glancing at the clock she realized that she had made it there in record time. Hokage must still be in there with Kakashi-sensei. Curiosity got the better of her and she tried to edge forward towards the door to listen in.
She backed away quickly, confusion over her face. She could have sworn she heard Kakashi-sensei raising his voice but he never did that unless he was very angry. Sakura swallowed the lump in her throat as she worried if he wasn't upset at her.
Suddenly there was the tell tale sound of a smoke plume and she knew Kakashi had left. Looking over at Shizune, the other woman sighed and motioned her inside. Sakura ran inside, looking at the Hokage as she tried to ignore the last wisps of smoke.
"Hokage-sama," she bowed as entered.
"Good evening Sakura," the Hokage replied, fatigue lacing her voice. "Is that the skull?"
Sakura balked a bit as she handed it over. "Kakashi-sensei already told you."
Tsunade nodded as she worked the knot of the fabric. "Yes."
Sakura paused and looked at her. "And he knew that I was going to the house to look for more clues." The older woman nodded. "Oh..." Sakura finished sounded disappointed.
Tsunade looked up. "He did know but he was also under order to not tell you he did."
"Why?" Sakura asked.
"Why didn't you tell him?"
Sakura paused and looked at her. "I thought... maybe you didn't want them to know. You said you were keeping all this from the villagers. So I thought maybe you didn't want the rest of the ninja here to know as well." Sakura frowned. "I don't understand..."
"You will," Tsunade broke in. "Soon enough. Sakura, I know you haven't had that much practice lately..."
Sakura panicked slightly. "I'm sorry about the explosion note! I should have remembered to look..."
Tsunade waved a hand to stop her. "That's not why I'm bringing this up. I just think it's time that you had another instructor to help you."
"Something like that," Tsunade replied. "But it can't interfere with your work with Kakashi and your teammates. So you'll need to come here first thing tomorrow, before the sun has risen."
Sakura nodded, trying to hide her excitement. Another instructor, just for her? "And the skull?"
"I'll have some of the hunter-nin look at it," Tsunade replied. Noting the disappointment in Sakura's eyes, she quickly added, "and once they've given me a report, we'll go over it."
Sakura nodded happily and bowed as she left. Running down the streets to go back home, she could hardly contain her excitement. It would be hard to get to sleep tonight, she thought, but the moment she reached her bedroom, the physical stress from the day before hit her and she quickly passed out on her bed, falling into a dreamless sleep.
Shivering a bit at the thought, she quickened her pace until she got to her destination. There were a few jounin there but none of them approached her. She thought about going to the Hokage but she had heard the rumors of how much the Hokage liked her sleep. Instead she took a seat and waited.
Fifteen minutes later, against her better wishes, she had fallen asleep. A strong hand gripped her shoulder and gave it a shake, jolting her awake. She stood up quickly, apologizing before she fully woke.
"Oh..." she said, her eyes suddenly catching up to her brain. "Ibiki-san... I thought you were someone else."
"Your new sensei? Well, then, you were correct to apologize for falling asleep to me."
Sakura eyes widened a bit. She looked at the man in front of her, the tattered body of the infamous jounin interrogation and torture specialist. He studied her face and let out a low sigh.
"I take it that Hokage did not tell you who to expect."
Sakura shook her head and quickly gathered her senses. "She just said to meet here at this time, Ibiki-san... eh... Ibiki-sensei."
Ibiki paused. His eye locked on her like a fox waiting to see if a rabbit would bolt. But even though there were traces of panic in her eyes, she was not bolting. "All right, then. Let's go."
Sakura nodded, trying to maintain her calm exposure. She wasn't sure if she was more shocked or terrified but either way, she managed to get her feet moving. Hokage had really given her over to Ibiki-san for teaching? Or was this another form of punishment?
And suddenly it hit her. Everything that happened yesterday suddenly made sense if she looked at it as coming from Ibiki. His performance at the chuunin exam already proved that he knew how to manipulate them mentally. Had it all been a test? Did his agreeing to teach her mean she had passed?
For a moment, Sakura was mildly proud of herself. She had once again beaten the dodgy old jounin at his own game, take that.
And then she realized exactly where he was taking her. The most dreaded place in Konoha, one spoken only in whispers, the Interrogation chambers. The small child inside of her screamed in terror and ran away. Inner Sakura even cringed before bulking up and declaring she could conquer anything.
Outer Sakura wasn't as sure. But she just followed, silently behind her new sensei. They paused only briefly at the main door, the jounin on guard there barely sparing her a second glance as he unlocked the door to let them in.
It was everything people claimed it was. Cold and dank, with long steps leading into the darkness. The only sound was their own feet echoing as they moved deeper into the complex.
He stopped the third floor and walked down a long hall. By now, however, the place was beginning to look more normal, like the offices in any other Konoha administrative building. The entrance must just have been for effect.
Ibiki stopped and opened the door, ushering her inside. She peeked in, expecting to see instruments of torture but instead found herself face to face with walls of filing cabinets. She looked up at him in confusion.
"These are our case files for ninja of the village," he explained quickly. "Not as complete as the hunter-nin's but good enough for what you need." He pulled out a watch and eyed the time. "I told Hokage this would not interfere with your primary sensei's teaching so you have until your meeting time with him to find what you need. Consider it your first assignment."
And with that he turned away, leaving Sakura without letting her ask exactly what she was looking for.
With any luck, he'd swing by in a few hours and find her asleep on the stacks. That would be a reasonable excuse to tell her she wasn't cut out for this sort of training. Besides, they usually waited until they were a bit older, at least chuunin, before offering them a chance to train here. Why Hokage had thought that this bubbly, cheerful child would be of any use to him was something beyond him.
She might be intelligent but there were few who could do what he did. He didn't see her as the type to be able to torture anyway. But the Hokage had pointed out her ability to collect information and that was important here too.
The sun rose somewhere. Though there were no windows in his office, Ibiki knew that morning had come. He stood up and wandered back to where he had left the girl and opened the door slowly so as not to wake her.
Instead, he was awash in light. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust before he realized she must have turned on every light in the room. And more so, the girl herself was a bundle of energy as she moved up and down the ladders, carrying armloads of folders.
He cleared his throat to get her attention and two green eyes shot up in surprise. She looked a bit afraid but it wasn't because of him. It was more likely because the entire room was in disarray.
"Ah..." she started looking very nervous. "I was just trying to narrow down the list," she started rambling. "So I decided to go by date, picking missing nin who left Konoha just a few years around the first murder. Only everything here was alphabetical so it took some searching to find what I needed. And I know it's a mess but I'll clean it up as soon as I'm done. Though I think that maybe you should have some sort of way of telling what year they were listed as missing, maybe colored tabs on their file instead of just all plain ones."
Ibiki stared at her as he began to see what the Hokage may have been talking about.
"Indeed," he finally settled on, walking towards where there were a couple of dozen folders stacked neatly next on a desk. He eyed the scroll that she had been taking notes on, waiting as she quickly got up and bounded over to where he was.
"I narrowed down the years then based on whether or not the ninja had been caught," she said. "Then based on weaponry that they used and finally...umm... I guess on their mental stability."
"What do you mean by that?"
Sakura sighed. "Well, you know there was a pattern in the killings, right? So I figured that whoever was responsible had to have some serious issues related to blonde girls." She frowned as she picked up three folders. "And these are the three I came up with."
Ibiki took them and started to read. Sakura watched nervously as he did, looking for any sort of reaction on his face. After a while, she determined it was impossible to tell anything from looking at him.
"Interesting," he said suddenly. "Why did you pick this one?"
Sakura looked at the file with a frown. "It fit everything I was looking for, only... he would be a bit young still."
"I thought they needed to have 'serious issues' with blonde girls."
Sakura nodded and bounded away, picking up a file and returning it to him. "I didn't think to look at first but it said that one of the reasons you suspected he fled was because of the death of a teammate. And when I saw the picture of her..."
Ibiki looked at the photograph in the folder. The young girl there smiled at him, blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and gray eyes smiling. Ibiki frowned and Sakura took the folder away.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I guess I just got a bit carried away with all the searching."
"No," Ibiki said suddenly. "You're right. This was one of the missing nin on the list of suspects."
Sakura smiled a bit. "When I saw her, I just knew he had to be. Only... there was one thing I didn't understand." She took the folder and flipped through it until she got to the right page. "See, here it says he went missing right after the girl died. But it says the third teammate was sent to Yasumi Dokoro." She frowned. "A haven of rest... does that mean he's dead?"
Ibiki closed the folder and looked at her. "No... Yasumi Dokoro is..." He trailed off and eyed her. His eyes flicked at the folder as if he still wanted to believe that the Hokage had been wrong about Sakura. But this was proof enough that she was as smart as they said.
"Yasumi Dokoro is something you will need to see for yourself," he said. "Come with me."
Sakura blinked a few times before she realized where they were. The big mountain that loomed in back of them must have been the same mountain with the Hokages carved into it. Only now, they were on the other side.
The place was deeply wooded and Sakura felt a certain peace settle over her, despite the sharp stone walls that encircled the area. In the middle was a clearing and a beautiful house that stood amidst landscaping.
A young woman in a plain kimono shuffled out quickly to greet them, bowing to Ibiki as he explained who Sakura was. The woman nodded and ushered them inside, watching to make sure they took off their shoes.
They walked inside, passing by countless rooms with people in them. Some were just children, other were clearly nearing the twilight of their lives. After awhile, Sakura realized that they all shared one thing.
"Here we are," the woman said, stopping by a room and sliding opening the door.
Inside, there was a simple bed with a desk and chair by the window. In the chair sat a young man. His long brown hair tied at the nape of his neck. At the sound of people entering he turned slightly, facing them for a moment before turning away.
It was the same, Sakura realized. The same dead look she had seen on the rest of the inhabitants' faces.
"What's wrong with him?" Sakura whispered under her breath.
The nurse turned and looked at her sadly. "He's been like this since the death of his teammate several years back. Staring out the window, barely speaking." She sighed. "Sometimes, the children are not made for their lives we ask them to lead. Sometimes, they break under the stress of it all. "
"Then this place..." Sakura started, looking at Ibiki and the nurse.
"It's a sanatorium dear," the nurse said. "Where we take care of the ones who were not strong enough to endure the life of a ninja."
There was laughter and Sakura realized it was coming from the boy at the window. The nurse reacted quickly, rushing towards him.
"Kanaye-san, please calm down," she said, softly.
"Why are you here?" Kanaye laughed. "Come to see the remains of failed ninja like the rest?"
Sakura bit her lip. "No," she said softly. "We wanted..." she paused looking at Ibiki and then the nurse. Neither seemed to want to stop her. "We wanted to ask you about Nozomi."
Kanaye stopped laughing. His eyes glazed over and he looked out the window. "You want to know how we failed her," he said softly. "How Kin and I let her die." He stopped talking and looked out the window.
And then, he started speaking again, telling them the story from so many years ago.
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