the greatest pretenders @snowyseas
Clandestine

A/N: It has just been pointed out to me in a review that Kakashi no longer has his sharingan eye in canon LMAO and that I lowkey fucked up, which I obviously forgot because I am a goldfish. Never mind, though! I hope you guys don't mind that I am going to carry on as though his original eye wasn't replaced by Naruto, and that he still has the sharingan, just for the purposes of plot! Enjoy reading xx


the greatest pretenders

Chapter Nine: Clandestine


The skies were still dark when Sakura reached Konoha's gates.

She propped herself on the bench that was closest to them, remembering the night she had begged Sasuke to take her with him on his journey. She had told him she loved him, and it seemed like one of those memories she wished she could laugh at, but instead, her chest felt hollow at the image of Sasuke's indifferent expression before he uttered to her, 'You're annoying', and subsequently knocked her out. Of course, she woke up only a little while later, on the very bench she sat on, confused and heartbroken. She shook her head, willing the memories to go away, at least for a little while longer.

Looking at her surroundings, her mind began to fill with anxiety at the prospect of going on her first S-ranked mission in over a decade. Although it was a simpler mission than she knew she was making it up to be, it was only the first step to understanding utsushō. Even if she didn't find a treasure trove of information, she knew there was something wrong in Kirigakure, especially with official reports from Sai that there were outposts established there.

If outposts existed, that meant that something was being produced, and if utsushō was a catalyst like she was suspecting, that meant that the operation was much more underground than it seemed. That made it so blatantly dangerous that it caused goosebumps to run up the kunoichi's spine.

Still, Sakura knew she didn't know enough. Not yet, anyway.

Sandals slapping against the stone floors were heard at a close distance until her eyes caught sight of a tall frame wearing a familiar white cloak that draped his body. As he came closer, Sakura noted the dark circles under his eyes and couldn't stop herself from frowning. He ran a hand through his blond hair and sat beside her, letting out a deep breath.

"Yo," he said quietly, "are you excited?"

"More nervous," Sakura answered honestly, noting how close his leg was to hers, "but that's normal, right?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"What it is you're looking for, I guess." Naruto shrugged, then sniffled. "Are you nervous about that?"

The kunoichi hesitated and shifted in her seat, but when she felt the Hokage turn to look at her, she cleared her throat in earnest. "What I already know is bad enough, but I don't even have the full picture yet."

"When you do," Naruto encouraged her, "I have no doubt that you'll know exactly what to do."

"Could you not put so much faith in me?"

"Why not?"

"It's… it's too much."

Neither of them said a word, nor would they look at each other. Sakura wasn't technically lying when she said that it was too much, but God knows why. There had been a time that she was perceived as one of the greatest kunoichi after Lady Tsunade, but even titles and reputations such as those eventually die. She was an inheritor, sure, but so were a lot of the others. The pressure that she underwent while training under Lady Tsunade was nothing to the pressure she was putting on herself now, but she had to admit that it was a little hard to see through the fog.

"Why are you doubting yourself?" Naruto asked finally, his voice low.

"I've failed before."

"And you picked yourself up and kept going."

"That was when I had nothing to lose." She pushed a lock of pink hair behind her ear. "Now, it's different, because not only do I have something to lose, but there's also the possibility that I could let people down."

"What people?"

She bit her lip. "The families of the victims. My own daughter. Kakashi-sensei. You."

The blond snorted. "None of those people would be disappointed if you didn't do things perfectly. You're doing something about it, and that counts for a lot, y'know."

"And what about you?" Sakura chuckled. "You're the one who assigned me this mission, so if I come back with nothing… how am I gonna look at you in the eye?"

The words had left her lips before she realized that that was probably not an appropriate thing to say. Frankly, she wanted to kick herself for saying something so vulnerable to someone she was no longer close to. There had to be boundaries, but it seemed as though no matter how much she accidentally spurted things out of her mouth, the less boundaries there seemed to be. She felt closer to him in these instances, but a part of her knew that familiarity was a dangerous feeling.

"I've gone from trying to protect you," he said slowly, his eyes looking away from her, "to being protected by you. You couldn't ever let me down, Sakura-chan, and you never will, y'know."

When spearmint eyes turned to look at him, they found that he was smiling her favorite smile, and it was all Sakura could do to hold back tears of gratitude. She blinked the tears that threatened to fall down her cheeks, and gave Naruto an appreciative smile. Her mind lingered on the ease with which he said her name, and she couldn't help but kick herself for finding it hard to say his name. That's what fifteen years of pushing people away does to you, she thought bitterly to herself.

"Kakashi-sensei sure is late," Sakura sighed, "but I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"Maybe he overslept," Naruto chuckled, "like he's done a few hundred times."

"Speaking of sleep," she said cautiously, worrying that she was crossing some kind of line, "are you doing it?"

She had forced herself to look at his face and waited for him to look at her, but Naruto merely moved forward and rested his elbows on his lap, his eyes averted to the ground. His sudden silence made Sakura's chest feel hollow, like suddenly, she was talking to a stranger she knew nothing about. Maybe it was partially true, but the fact that he found it difficult to look at her spoke volumes about what secrets he kept from her. Maybe there were more. Surely, on her end, there were many more.

Parting her lips to gently call for him, Naruto finally took a deep breath and looked at her, the look in his eyes dull. "I'm trying, but it's gotten hard."

"Gotten?" Sakura blinked. "Has it been this way for a long time?"

"No, no," he shook his head and waved his hand, "just for the last couple months."

"That's a couple months too long, Naruto," she breathed, "and it's not good for you. You're not getting treated for it."

"I'm just making sure things are always going smoothly," he replied, "since I'm the Hokage now. It's my job."

"It's also your job to stay healthy for your people, so that you can lead properly."

"I rest," Naruto said stubbornly, "and when I do, I make sure there's at least two shadow clones doing work for me."

The kunoichi couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Look, do you need something for it? When we get back, I can give you something, if you want."

"Nah," he shook his head, "it's probably just because of the nightmares I've been having."

Sakura frowned, noting the lilt in his voice had dropped slightly. "What kind of nightmares?"

"About my parents."

There were a number of times while they were still friends that Sakura was at a complete loss for what to say whenever he confided in her. Ironically, this was one of the times that she felt completely powerless in trying to support him, even though he always saw her as a tough person. Her fingers itched to touch his shoulder, to show sympathy and compassion in some kind of way. She lifted her wrist and hesitantly grazed her fingers upon his shoulders, half hoping that he wouldn't feel it, but when he lifted his eyes from the ground to look at her, she felt her heart thump.

Shit, she thought to herself.

"Don't worry about it," he said to her, smiling as genuinely as he could, "you have other things to worry about."

Just as she opened her mouth to protest, Naruto quickly looked away and Sakura followed suit to see their old sensei walk up to them, his gait as laidback as ever. He still wore a mask over his nose and mouth, despite the fact that people would surely still recognize him if he left Konoha that way. Raising a hand to wave, Naruto took that as his cue to stand up, straightening his pants as he smiled at Kakashi.

"Someone's late," he joked, "did you oversleep?"

"No," Kakashi responded casually, "was just double-checking that I had everything."

The older man glanced at Sakura. "It's been a while for me, too."

"Are you going to wear that the entire time we're traveling?" the kunoichi asked, her tone worried. "Even though you're not the Hokage anymore, you're kind of hard to miss with that mask."

"And that Sharingan eye." Naruto chimed in.

"But mostly the mask," Sakura said, "since it's not really commonplace anymore."

"Relax," Kakashi said, raising his hands as though surrendering, "I'll take it off when we're on the way there. You know the route, right?"

"Well. Yeah."

"Away from the public eye?"

"Until we get to the port," Sakura nodded, "but why do you want to wait?"

"People won't recognize me as a previous Hokage once I take off this mask," Kakashi replied calculatedly, "because they'll be too focused on what I look like."

Sakura blinked, confused. "And that's a good thing?"

"Trust his judgment, Sakura-chan," Naruto said encouragingly, "he's never led us somewhere that was dangerous on purpose."

"You'll see later," Kakashi winked, "and then you'll believe me."

"Please don't wink at me," Sakura cringed, while Naruto laughed good-naturedly.

Now that they were all older, Kakashi had become much more lax with the jokes he made. Sakura had to admit that they were funny, but funny in that way that was also cringe-worthy, because he had been their sensei. While Naruto would find these jokes hilarious, sometimes Sakura found herself rolling her eyes at how bad these jokes were. Sakura stood up and gestured towards the gates with a head nod. The three of them walked together, with her in between the other two. It didn't matter how many years they were apart, because she felt as though she was reverting back to when she was sixteen years old.

Perhaps that feeling would never change whenever she was with them.

"So," Sakura said as the gates were pushed open by Kakashi, "we'll be gone a few days."

"Yeah," Naruto replied, "remember to stay safe."

"We will. We'll send word if anything's changed or urgent."

"Good."

The kunoichi turned her shoulder and began to walk out the gates, following their sensei, but a heavy feeling settled in her stomach. Taking a deep breath and expelling it through her mouth, she turned around to face Naruto, whose eyebrows were raised when she looked at him. Her eyes studied his face and noticed that his jaw was shivering just the slightest bit, but he still maintained his warm, encouraging smile that she forgot how much she loved. Offering a smile of her own, she decided then and there that she would be there for him as much as he had been there for her.

"When I come back," she said, "you can tell me everything."

Naruto's eyes widened, the vibrant blue as lively as ever. They faded into a range of emotions, before he processed her words properly, and he tilted his head in question. "Everything?"

"Your parents," she said quietly, "your nightmares. Everything."

Naruto cleared his throat and averted his eyes to his feet. She wanted to ask, wanted to know, why he suddenly looked away, but she kept her eyes on him and bit her tongue.

"Sure," he said finally, "maybe over a bowl of ramen?"

Sakura smiled, feeling as though her heart was settling in her chest. "Obviously."

Raising her hand as she waved goodbye, she quickly made her way through to where Kakashi stood waiting for her. Not uttering a word, Kakashi motioned for her to walk alongside him, but not before they both looked back towards the green gates that were now closed. Sakura's face softened as her steps fell into the same rhythm as Kakashi's, and allowed the silence between them to sit in the air. It was easy and it was familiar, but in an entirely different way that things were familiar with Naruto.

As they made their way towards the path that they often ventured in their earlier days, Sakura looked up at the winter skies and smiled to herself. Normally, awakening to a new dawn made her bones ache with the notion that she didn't quite fit into herself, but for the first time in over a decade, she felt as though she was right where she was supposed to be.

Everything, she reminded herself with a heaviness in her chest, he can tell me everything.


Although neither she and Kakashi had been on an S-ranked mission in an incredibly long time, it seemed that once they set out, their bodies remembered the physical intensity of being a ninja. They started out merely walking, but at some point, they both let out an exasperated breath before they made their way in between trees, using the chakra in their feet and hands to aid them. Though they were mostly in Konoha in their daily lives, there were ways to ensure that their techniques and skills didn't become rusty.

Stopping at a lower branch of one of the taller trees, Kakashi turned to look at Sakura and raised a hand to his mask. Stopping one tree behind him, the kunoichi shot him a questioning gaze.

"We're almost at the port," he said, his voice low, "but there's a lot of people."

"Travelers?"

"Looks like a mix."

"What do we do, then?" She asked, her tone confused. "If there's a lot of people, we can get through easier."

"They're doing ID checks," Kakashi replied, "and it doesn't look like these people are going to Kiri for some sightseeing."

Sakura felt the veins in her body turn cold. "What does that mean?"

"It's hard to tell, but we have to stay low for now."

All she could do was stare blankly at her sensei, who maintained his gaze on her so that she understood what needed to be done. She gulped and slowly nodded, though she was worried that they wouldn't be able to use the rest of the day to get to Kirigakure. Taking a deep breath and softly clearing her throat, she nodded at Kakashi, who proceeded to gesture that they needed to get down from the trees. His feet dropping to the forest floor was silent, and no leaves rustled as he landed, with Sakura following suit.

Once her sandals touched the soft earth, she re-adjusted her winter coat, pulling it tighter around her before she started to shiver from the cold air again. They were closer to the ocean now, after all. When she raised her gaze to look at Kakashi, his hand was still on his mask. Spearmint eyes widened in surprise.

"Now?" She asked.

"There's no other time to do it."

Long fingers pulled down the mask that covered his nose and mouth, folding it carefully and hiding it in his shirt that he wore under his coat. He ran a hand through his silver hair and ruffled it, teasing the tips, making himself appear more disheveled. Sakura watched in awe, studying his features and thinking that the rumors that he had left a trail of broken hearts was most definitely true. His sharp jaw and nose were definitely prominent features, and he had a beauty mark near his lips which were surprisingly plump and appeared soft. Hatake Kakashi was almost like an entirely different person. Sakura nodded to herself, as though silently approving of what she saw.

Kakashi looked up at her with an indifferent gaze. "What?"

"Nothing," Sakura replied, her voice coming out higher than she would have liked, "just, uh. Wondering if all those rumors we heard about you were true."

"What rumors?"

"That you were a heartbreaker."

He snorted. "Hardly. I think people read too much into it."

Sakura shrugged and smiled at him. Pulling the straps of his backpack tighter over his shoulders, he nodded towards the port town with a solemn expression. They walked side by side, and Sakura made a mental checklist of all the kunai she kept in her coat, and as they stepped into the area, she noted the number of herb shops that surrounded them. There were crowds of people around them looking around and shopping for seafood, which the area apparently specialized in.

"Are we heading to an inn first?" She asked loud enough for just Kakashi to hear.

"Probably just a tea shop first," he replied, "don't want to attract too much attention when there's this many people."

They made their way through the alleyways in an attempt to dodge shopkeepers who were too good at marketing their products, but every now and then, Kakashi would be stopped by younger women who seemed to be escorts looking for clients. Sakura wanted to laugh every single time her sensei made an attempt to politely turn them down, especially because the women were so persistent. Eventually, they had to avoid the alleyways, too, and just had to put up with lively shopkeepers and hope that they weren't too suspicious or conspicuous.

Before long, they reached a tea shop that seemed to fit Kakashi's taste, and they stepped inside.

It was packed with people, some of whom were obvious travelers such as they were. Spearmint eyes cautiously examined the other customers who made up the majority of the shop, who seemed to be citizens of the port town. They were smiling and laughing, giving the impression that things were normal around here, but there was some kind of aura in the atmosphere that caused Sakura's nerves to be on edge. Her eyes flitted to a hostess wearing a lovely kimono who approached them, her smile soft and demure.

"A table for two?" She asked, her voice as soft as silk.

"Yes, please," Kakashi nodded, "could we get a seat near a window?"

The woman nodded and held out a hand to gesture the direction she was leading them. Sakura only caught a quick glimpse of her hands, since the floral pattern of her furisode sleeve was quite attention-grabbing, but she was surely not mistaken when she saw an intricate tattoo on her palm. Feigning a smile at the hostess, Sakura placed herself between Kakashi and the other woman in the hopes of getting a closer look at the tattoo. The hostess, whether aware or not, kept her hands skillfully hidden by her sleeve.

"Your table is here," she said eventually, gesturing towards a square table, "please do look through the menu and call for me when you are ready to order."

"Thank you." Sakura smiled as the hostess bowed and walked away, disappearing into what she could only assume was the kitchen.

"Something funny about this place?" Kakashi asked, his voice low as he flipped through a menu.

"It just feels weird."

"You talking about the atmosphere?"

"You feel it too?"

"Of course," the older man replied, glancing at her, "and I bet it has to do with those merchants at the port."

"She has a tattoo," Sakura whispered, "on her palm, but it doesn't look like it's just for show."

"Like something to identify her?"

"Yeah," she nodded, "it seems too weird to be a coincidence. If there's an outpost in Kiri, this port town is close enough to it for utsushō to be smuggled in and out."

Kakashi had kept his Sharingan eye closed the entire time that they were walking through the shops, but at Sakura's words, he opened his other eye and discreetly looked around them. Even without saying a word, the kunoichi knew that he was studying the behavior of the other customers. Of course, he didn't need the Sharingan to study them, but she understood that her sensei liked to be cautious and would interfere, in the event that he had to. Her fingers lingered at the edges of the pages of the menu, and she idly made conversation the drinks and food as Kakashi kept his gaze low enough to keep observing.

"It says the hōjicha is really popular here," Sakura feigned enthusiasm, "do you want some?"

"You know I hate hōjicha."

"You want to stick with matcha?"

"Of course," Kakashi replied, looking at her and forcing himself to smile, "so while you order, I'm gonna head to the restroom."

Sakura nodded and raised a hand to call for the hostess. "Excuse me, we would like to order!"

"Could you also point me in the direction of the restroom?" Kakashi asked politely, his left eye already closed before the hostess even reached their table.

"It's back there and to the right," the hostess gestured towards the kitchen, "it's hard to miss."

As Kakashi stood up, he shot Sakura a quick look before disappearing and the kunoichi cleared her throat and offered the hostess a smile. "One hōjicha and one matcha, please."

The hostess nodded and bowed, a lock of black hair falling from her done up hair. "You will receive your order in a few minutes."

"Can I ask you something?"

Dark eyes looked upon Sakura, and something about that gaze was no longer friendly, but instead it was incredibly guarded. As though she was keeping something secret. "Of course."

"My partner and I have never been here before," she lied, "but we heard that this area is an up-and-coming port town."

The hostess visibly relaxed and smiled. "Merchants have been doing a lot of trade here in Suiren, and it's really helped a lot of shops like this one to stay in business."

"Merchants?"

"Yes," the hostess nodded, "they come from Kirigakure and travel here often, kind of like business trips."

Sakura tilted her head. "Business trips for merchants?"

"That's what they call them," the hostess shrugged, "but… it's gotten harder for people to come and leave Suiren, lately."

"Why's that?"

"Don't know," she said, her tone uncertain, "but it's good for the citizens here."

If she was being completely honest with herself, Sakura could sense that the hostess of the tea shop simultaneously knew something, and didn't know something. Glancing near the kitchen where she saw Kakashi walk back towards the table, Sakura leaned closer to the hostess and lowered her voice.

"Does that tattoo have anything to do with the merchants?"

The hostess' eyes widened at the question and she gulped, looking around her in a panic. Before she could walk away, Kakashi stood behind her and asked her to stay still.

"You're not in trouble," he whispered, "we just need to know what's going on."

"I don't know anything," the hostess replied, her voice trembling, "I swear."

"That tattoo suggests otherwise."

"It's just a tattoo."

"It's a tattoo that was typically used by Kiri nin to mark blackmailed targets before the Fourth Shinobi War," Sakura explained calmly, "which means that someone is holding your life over your head if you're not doing something for them."

The atmosphere in the restaurant had not changed, but rather, it was buzzing even more than it was before. Customers were still laughing, still enjoying their meals and their drinks, but the hostess' demure aura no longer existed, and it was the first time that Sakura saw bloodshot eyes that were beginning to panic.

"We're not going to hurt you," Sakura said gently, "we promise." She signaled for Kakashi to sit down as though they were still ordering their food, and the hostess took a shaky breath and glanced at both of them with fear.

"There's… this drug… and a lot of the shops here," she began, "were threatened."

"Why?" Kakashi asked.

"If we didn't put a specified amount of it in our foods and drinks to serve our customers," she whispered, averting her eyes to the floor, "they would kill us."

Sakura frowned. "Who's 'they'?"

"The merchants."

At that exact moment, the crash of glass was heard when a cup of hot tea fell to the floor, startling the entire shop. Sakura and Kakashi gave each other a look. Two customers, who were sitting together, stood up and began beating each other up. One of them was thrown onto the table and was punched hard in the face, and Sakura could see blood on his knuckles. Kakashi stood up immediately, making his way over to the two customers, pulling them off each other.

"What happened here?" he asked, his voice hard. "You're in a public space. Have some respect."

"He knocked over my drink," the first man - the one with the bloody knuckles - responded, "and I just… lost it."

"Are you drunk?" Kakashi asked simply. "It's just a cup."

Sakura glanced at the hostess, whose expression held guilt. While her sensei attempted to calm both of the customers down, the pink-haired woman stood up to face the hostess, who would no longer look her in the eye. Tightening her fists and her jaw, Sakura reminded herself to take a deep breath and to calm herself down. The other customers in the tea shop had resumed their previous activities, almost the same as it was before.

"Did they just have some of that drug?"

The hostess hesitated, fiddling with her sleeve. "Yes."

"What's your name?"

Dark eyes looked up at Sakura, still as bloodshot as they were before. She couldn't help but feel sorry for the woman, except that she, whether or not she understood it, had aided smugglers and merchants who were illegally selling drugs. Still, Sakura knew that part of her job was to protect those who were defenseless. Surely, the situation was a lot more in the grey area than she had anticipated.

"Rena."

"Okay, Rena," Sakura started, "I need you to tell me which stalls are also drugging their customers."

The woman winced. "When you put it like that…"

"That is what this tea shop was doing," Sakura said sullenly, "but I understand that you were scared." She tucked a lock of pink hair behind her ear and frowned. "We all do things we regret later because we were scared."

Rena nodded and took a deep breath, her eyes suddenly exhausted and fatigued. From the folds of her kimono, she pulled out a small note pad and began writing a list of names. She then ripped it from the pad and handed the piece of paper to Sakura, looking her directly in the eye.

"These are the shops around here that are also like us," she began, "and they currently have more of that drug than we do, because of the festival tonight."

Sakura nodded slowly, processing her words. "What festival?"

"The Oniyo festival."

"Is that the one with all the fireworks every single winter?" Kakashi chimed in, taking his place next to Sakura.

"Yes," Rena nodded, "and it's when a lot of the people here buy that drug from merchants."

Sakura found herself staring at the woman before her, and a sense of uneasiness settled onto her shoulders. "Rena… how long have you been taking utsushō?"

The dark-haired woman blinked in surprise. "I never said it was."

"You didn't have to," Sakura said sadly, "I can tell."

The two women exchanged a glance and Rena sighed, her eyes tearing up. Still, she tried to smile through her tears and reached for Sakura's hands, pretending she was handing her something. Frail hands felt even more so as Sakura held them, and when she looked down, she noticed that Rena's palms were upturned, revealing the intricate tattoo that looked far from painless to etch into her skin. Grazing her fingers upon the dark ink, Sakura frowned when Rena drew in a sharp breath, still clearly traumatized by the sheer act of the symbol being carved into her skin. Without question, someone had done it to her forcefully.

"We'll do something," Sakura whispered softly, "I promise."


Plans to go to Kirigakure were in no way delayed, but Sakura knew that she couldn't stay in Sensui knowing that there were people like Rena who who were being blackmailed. On top of that, there were people who were so deeply entrenched in taking utsushō that they likely didn't remember crucial details about their own lives. Sakura thought back to the two men in the tea shop that Kakashi had to get in between, and the uneasiness she felt only doubled. Noticing her tense shoulders, Kakashi cleared his throat, catching her attention.

"What?" Sakura asked casually. "You see something?"

"No," Kakashi drawled, "but something's bothering you. What is it?"

"You don't typically get in between people who are fighting," Sakura sighed, "especially if it attracts attention. Why did you break those two people up?"

"The bloodlust was too heavy for me to ignore," Kakashi replied simply, "and I didn't want potentially corrupt authorities to show up. That would've been trouble."

"He said he lost himself."

"He did."

"He must've been taking utsushō for an extended period of time."

"Are those the side effects?" Kakashi asked curiously.

"One of," Sakura nodded, "before they go completely insane. But even that takes a long while, and a lot of exposure."

Kakashi didn't utter another word as they made their way through the town again, looking for the names of the shops that Rena had listed down for them. Since the stalls were in such close quarters, it was actually harder than it was easier to find the ones they were looking for. Some of the overhead signs were faded, while others had missing kanji. Thankfully, Kakashi was able to read most of the signs with ease. Spearmint eyes looked at the harbor, where people were still being ID'd before they were let on or off a boat. They were going to lose daylight, that was definitely a certainty.

"I feel bad that we can't fix things here right now," Sakura whispered as they approached what looked to be the fifth and last shop on their list, "even though the immediate danger is right before us…"

"You've always been that way, but it's not a weakness."

"You've always said that."

"Because it's the truth," Kakashi reassured her, "and you know that once we find more information in Kiri, then you can use that to change things. And we'll all be here to help you."

They stood at the genkan of the shop when Sakura turned to look at him with widened eyes. The older man smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "Don't sell yourself short yet. We're only just starting."

He went ahead of her and ducked his head, stepping inside and Sakura heard the booming 'irasshai!' from what could only be the shopkeeper. It was an izakaya, but it wasn't as packed as it was at the tea shop they were at earlier. Sakura watched as Kakashi approached the cashier where an older man stood, his expression cautious. She looked around, wondering if the customers being quieter in a place with alcohol was normal or not. Any time she made eye contact with a customer, she would stare at them hard enough until they turned away and resumed drinking, intimidated.

Drawing in a deep breath, Sakura stepped forward and stood beside Kakashi, who had been asking the old man whether officials had come by to his izakaya often.

"They only come here every once in a while."

"How often?" Kakashi pressed. "There has to be a reason that they come by here, no?"

The old man, whose eyes were bloodshot, but not as much as Rena's, glanced at Sakura and pursed his lips. "Who are you, exactly? Bounty hunters?"

"No," Sakura chimed in before Kakashi could open his mouth, "just some passersby looking for some information."

"What's it worth to ya?" The old man asked, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.

"Judging by the atmosphere of this place," Sakura glowered, "and by your bloodshot eyes that people mistake for being too dry from the cold, you know something about some drug smugglers."

"Wha-? Bloodshot eyes?"

"Listen," Sakura whispered, bringing her face closer to his, "I know for a fact that you were forced to drug your customers with utsushō, because your life and your family's lives were threatened."

The old man, whose lines had sunken into his face, wore the same expression of fatigue that Rena and the other four people wore. Perhaps they weren't getting enough sleep, or they were having nightmares, but either way, Sakura knew from research that it was difficult for people to live their daily lives without having even just a little bit of utsushō. In that way, she knew that she may have come off as forceful, or even unkind, but in the long run, she knew she needed more answers and solutions than problems.

Reaching for a key in a drawer, the old man, who never revealed his name, sighed and motioned for Kakashi and Sakura to follow him to a back room that he unlocked. The two hesitated at first, but after the man insisted that they come inside, they merely left their guards up in case it was a setup. They sat down on one of the plush sofas and watched as the old man closed the door and sat across from them, his demeanor entirely different from when he was at the front desk.

"I apologize for being crude," he began, the sound of his voice reminiscent of the creaking of old wooden floors, "but someone is always listening."

"That's understandable," Kakashi nodded, "so can you tell us what you know?"

"What have the other shops told you?"

"That there's one guy who oversees the operations here, and makes sure that shops like yours are lacing food and drink with the drug," Sakura responded calmly, "but none of them know his name because he never actually shows up to their shops."

"But they say he shows up to yours," Kakashi added, "which I find strange, unless there's a special reason he comes here."

"His name is Shin," the old man began, "and he comes here because this is where he keeps a large stash of utsushō. He has a close relationship with our cook, but because I own the place, I'm the only other person who knows about it."

"Is the cook also being threatened and blackmailed?"

"Yes," the old man nodded, "so he also has no choice."

Sakura paused and glanced at his hands, which he kept folded neatly in his lap. "May I see your tattoo?"

Milky eyes looked up at her, hesitating.

"It's okay," Sakura assured him, "I just want to see."

Raising a trembling hand and overturning it so she could see the same mark that she saw on the other, Sakura extended a hand, silently asking if she could take a closer look. The old man nodded slightly, and allowed her to examine it, turning his hand this way and that, before she sighed and looked at him with a worried expression on her face.

"How did they do it?"

"What do you mean?"

"The more I look at it… the less it looks like a tattoo."

"It's not."

Sakura and Kakashi raised an eyebrow in surprise. "But it's the same technique that Kiri shinobi used in the past-"

"Those were tattoos, yes," the old man nodded, "but these… are like when you brand an animal with hot metal."

At the choice of his words, Sakura felt her entire body tense. She pictured the heat being pressed into their palms, or what was more likely was that the hot metal was shoved into their hands as a fear tactic. Her breathing began to quicken at the images, at the amount of blood there surely was, and tears began to form in her eyes. When she had figured that they were tattoos, it meant that victims were knocked out and their marks tattooed onto them, so they only felt it when they awoke, but this was an entirely different deal.

She was filled with an indescribable rage, something that made her unconsciously focus chakra into her fists, and it was only when Kakashi held her wrist that her breathing calmed. She looked to her sensei with tears still in her eyes, and he nodded at her, acknowledging her emotions.

"Sir," Sakura whispered, "do you mind if I try to alleviate the pain a little bit?"

"Sure," the old man replied, "there's some herbal shops nearby-"

The pink-haired woman still held his wrist in her hand, and she slowly raised her other hand and hovered it over his wound, allowing her focus to manifest into the form of healing chakra. She let it stay there a while, looking to the old man's expression as her cue when it no longer hurt as much as it did before. When she saw that the mark would not go away, she frowned, but gently placed his hand on his knee, and retracted her own hand.

The marks were permanent, like tattoos.

But the incredulous violence that was inflicted upon innocent people was what was getting her blood boiling. She leaned back in her seat and looked at her hands in her lap.

"If you don't mind me asking," Kakashi said to the old man softly, "how did you know about the tattoos that the Kiri shinobi gave their victims?"

"My dad had one on his hand."

The silence that filled the small room was profound as both Kakashi and Sakura stared at the old man, completely at a loss for what to say to him. That meant that it was very likely that his father was killed, or that the Kiri nin who had branded that tattoo unto him was killed first.

The latter was less likely.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kakashi said finally, "that must have been tough."

The old man nodded. "If you need to know where Shin is, he hangs out around the harbor. Those guards you see that are checking for ID are his, but there's an inn nearby that he stays at."

"Is there heavy security?"

"Yes," the old man nodded, "but surely you can come up with something."

"We can," Sakura reassured him, "so thank you. For everything."

"Thank you, ma'am," he offered her a smile, "my hand hasn't felt like this in years. I hope you get him, so we can all go home without having to worry that we'd be killed the next day."

Sakura had gone out ahead of Kakashi, standing outside the izakaya and was breathing heavily. No matter how many years she spent looking at wounds and blood, there was always a limit. She drew in a deep breath and blinked away more tears that threatened to spill from her eyes, but more than anything, she was feeling that same rage that she felt earlier, if not amplified.

"Sakura," Kakashi called out to her when he stepped outside, "I know how you feel, but let's go get him. That's what Team Seven does best, isn't it?"

The pink-haired woman scoffed. "Half of Team Seven isn't even here, and I'm starting to doubt why Naruto ever put me on this mission."

"Because even through your tears of anger, he knows that you'll pull through."

"He puts too much faith in me, Kakashi-sensei," she retorted, "I can't do this."

"When you thought no one believed in you," the older man said calmly, "he was your number one supporter. He knew you wouldn't let him down."

The same words that were uttered by Naruto that very morning were echoing now, resounding in her head as though it was to serve as a mantra for her to get through this. She didn't remember how she ever did her missions without feeling this way, but she knew deep down that she had to cut herself some slack. This mission was different. This mission could potentially harm those closest to her, yet again. She took a deep breath and looked towards the harbor, resolving to knock down doors to find this Shin who preyed on innocent people. Grinding her teeth in anticipation, she turned towards Kakashi.

"Let's go," she said with triumph, "we don't have a lot of time before the last boat."


The plan was set: Kakashi would be the decoy, and Sakura would sneak in through a window.

Surely, with so many guards stationed around the perimeter, the pink-haired kunoichi could do something from the inside. It was likely that the staff that worked inside the inn would alert Shin or his guards that there were intruders. As Sakura made her way to the back of the inn, she ran through the plan inside her mind, knowing that Kakashi would be buying her time to get to the receptionist's desk and figuring something out that didn't attract attention.

"I'll act as a prospective buyer," Kakashi had told her, "and then I'll put them under a genjutsu."

"In that time, I'll figure out what room he's in."

"Be careful," he had told her with a worried tone, "never let your guard down."

"I never do."

Making her way to an open window, Sakura used her chakra to scale the walls and gently coaxed the window all the way open for her to fit through. So far, in her scope of sight, there was no one around, which either meant that there was hardly anyone in the inn, or everyone who was in it worked for Shin. There wasn't really any way for Sakura to tell which one was more likely, and so she quickly pulled a kunai from her coat and hid it in her hand as she approached the front desk. A receptionist sat there, sifting through what looked like financial records, before she finally looked up at Sakura and offered a smile.

"Welcome to the Suika Inn," she said in a rather singsong voice, "would you like a room?"

"Actually, I'm just here to pay someone a visit."

"Sure," she replied earnestly, "could I have the name of the guest that you would like to see?"

"His name is Shin," Sakura noted the slight fall in the receptionist's smile, "but he didn't give me a room number."

"I'm sorry, Miss," the receptionist said, "but I need to check with him first that he is expecting you. Safety measures, after all."

"Of course," Sakura nodded and smiled, "I can wait here."

Hesitantly smiling, the receptionist stood from the front desk and disappeared into a back room. Sakura was aware that she didn't have much time, but she quickly went behind the counter and found the roster with the guests' names inside. Skimming through the names in a haste, she quickly found the name Shin and retreated, pretending to pace back and forth and look at the art that hung on the walls around her. By now, Kakashi should have been done with the guards at the other entrance.

Sakura was gazing up at artwork of floral design when the receptionist came back from the back room and feigned a smile. "Excuse me, Miss. May I ask for what purpose that you would like to see Shin-san?"

"Ah," Sakura said, feigning politeness, "my partner wanted to discuss business with him, and said that he had an appointment today. He wanted to purchase something from this Shin."

"Of course, I understand," the receptionist said, "give me just one moment."

As she disappeared once more into the back room, Kakashi came from the other side of the lobby, barely ruffled up from his encounter with the guards outside. He swaggered over to Sakura, his expression unfazed. When he was close enough for him to lower his voice and still have her hear him, he stopped.

"What did the receptionist say?"

"I think she's checking with him that she can let us in," Sakura whispered back, "but I already figured out what room he's in, just in case she won't tell us."

On a busy day such as the Oniyo festival, surely a drug smuggler such as Shin wanted to make as much profit as possible. The whole concept of 'high risk, high reward' was at major play here, and Sakura wanted to use it to her advantage. They waited patiently for the receptionist to come out again, and when she finally did, her expression was less friendly, and was more frantic, instead. She bowed forward, her expression apologetic.

"I am so sorry," she uttered with her head still bowed, "but Shin-san isn't seeing anyone today. Perhaps you can come another day?"

"We understand," Kakashi nodded, "though it would have been nice to see him today, what with the Oniyo festival being tonight."

The receptionist's eyebrows shot up slightly in surprise at Kakashi's words, and just as the two were about to walk away in feigned dejection, she called out:

"Wait!"

Reaching into a drawer, she pulled out a key that surely led to Shin's room, and motioned for Kakashi and Sakura to follow her. The presence of her silence made the air around them astoundingly cold, which was a stark difference from her personality while she sat at the front desk. Eventually they came upon a hallway that was somewhat more secluded, and she rapped three times on the last door.

She turned to give Kakashi and Sakura a meaningful look. "Since it's for the Oniyo festival, I'm making this exception for you to see him." Bowing again, she bade them farewell and walked away, the sound of her swishing kimono the last thing they heard from her before she disappeared.

"Remember," Kakashi said, "we have to do this quick if we're gonna get onto a boat without his people checking us."

"What's important is the outpost," Sakura said, a smile spreading on her lips as she heard footsteps approach the door, "which means we have to get some information out of him, no matter what."

The door slowly creaked open, and Sakura took a deep breath to calm the thunderstorm that was brewing inside her.


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