Chapter 1 – Taken

A Voice in the Wind

For years, copying other people

I tried to know myself.

From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.

Unable to see, I heard my name being called.

Then I walked outside.


Chapter 1 – Taken

The trade road hurtled down the arid mountainside, unraveling like a ribbon of gold off a teetering merchant cart. It looped wide, careening out to the dusty cliff’s edge, then snagged on crumbling rocks and folded back in on itself, over and over, until it disappeared into the green valley far below.

Beneath the leafy canopy, the road trailed over hills, dipped into streams and swung around massive moss-covered tree trunks. Ancient trees arched overhead, intertwining their limbs. Their deep green shadows softened the rocky edges of the old road.

By this time of year, dusty sandals should have tamped a well-worn path down the center. Carts should have been bobbing and swaying through its ruts. And birds should have been chattering indignantly at the relentless shuffle and clang of interlopers through their forests.

But neither weary merchants nor rattling carts would trespass through this suffocating summer heat. Even the birds were a distant memory. Save for a warm breeze rippling through the trees now and then, the air was heavy and soundless.

The unseasonable temperatures had driven all creatures away from the old trade road — all except them.

Wiping sweat from the back of her neck, Sakura tucked an errant strand of pink hair behind her ear and tried to stretch her stiff limbs around the knobby roots. She dropped her chin into her hand, elbow sinking a little in the black dirt, and drummed her fingers across her cheek. It was getting hard to keep her eyes open. She sighed deeply.

A rustle in the branches nearby caught her attention, and she pulled back a limb from their makeshift hideout to peer out into the unusually silent woods.

A single leaf drifted lazily to the ground.

She sighed again. Nothing had changed. The branch eased back into place.

Sakura drowsily studied the jagged-edged leaves in front of her nose. She had memorized them all. If they stayed there much longer she was going to start naming them.

The three teens had been huddled under the bush for the better part of a week. Their mission was simple: run surveillance on the abandoned road.

“A teamwork exercise,” her sensei had said. “The Sandaime suggested it.” Kakashi shrugged, but Sakura was beginning to think the old man was as daft as her silver-haired instructor.

Lying there in the dirt, oppressed by the heat and silence, she was beginning to think differently about a lot of things.

Sakura pushed limp hanks of hair behind her ears again. She was seriously questioning the wisdom of cutting her short.

She managed to keep the distracting strands out of her eyes, but she couldn’t stop the short ends from curling up in the humidity and tickling her cheeks and neck.

She’d turn her head and a few hairs would graze her skin. Panicked, she’d swat away at what she thought was a bug, only to realize in frustration that it was the product of her new hair style.

Sakura had cut her hair before this mission, excusing the drastic change to those around her as a necessity, but telling herself it would be a mark of a turning point in her life. As she watched the long waves fall to the ground, the pale pink hair she had cultivated since childhood, Sakura envisioned a transformation that would seep into all corners of her life.

She would look more like a ninja. Snip.

She would look more like a medic. Snip.

She would be taken seriously. Snip.

And for a little while she was transformed. She did feel different. She relished the way her “new” hair became unruly at the edges, floating and moving with a freedom she’d never had before. Sakura saw this change in the mirror as one she could have in her life too. Carefree yet confident, she thought, admiring her new look with a smile.

Sakura delighted in imagining the marked difference between her and her best friend Ino’s hair. ‘So long and flowing,’ she used to think with a sigh as she watched Ino preen. ‘So impractical,’ she would amend her thinking now. Flush with the wisdom and maturity that accompanied her new hairstyle, Sakura thought this must be how a real kunoichi felt.

Frowning at the memory, Sakura jerked suddenly to bat away a nonexistent “bug.” But all she managed was to lurch up into the branches over her head. She reached up to dislodge those “carefree curls” from the limbs over her head. But one hank was still mercilessly entangled.

She scooted up on her knees, dingy boots digging into her calves and smudged skirt stretching over dusty black shorts, and reached back with both hands to free the snagged hair.

‘A real kunoichi,’ she thought darkly tugging the lock free, ‘a real kunoichi doesn’t get their hair caught in bushes.’ She brushed the dirt off her red top, but it too was hopelessly filthy from lying on the ground.

A buzz sounded at her ear. She swatted hard, knowing this for sure was a real bug. But her hand went flying into her teammate’s face. She stopped her hand just inches from his nose and winced. He huffed indignantly and scooted toward their other teammate, widening the gap between them by only a few inches. But his message was clear.

Sakura glared at him a moment before wriggling back down to her lookout.

But she stared out at the forest with unseeing eyes. She didn’t need to be reminded…. His words still stung her, weeks later.

Sasuke had called her useless. A burden. A dead weight. Then he went so far as to request her removal from his team. She tore off a thin branch and poked the ground with it.

His team. She grit her teeth at his arrogant presumption and snapped the twig in two.

Sakura had tried to hit him when he said it, but the punch never connected. He gracefully sidestepped, and she planted her fist into the hokage’s wall instead. The smiling face of the Yondaime still looked handsome in the picture frame, even as it hurtled across the room. She closed her eyes and exhaled angrily at the memory, sending the leaves in front of her shivering.

So here they were, forced to work together in the tightest space possible, monitoring a desolate road in stifling heat for any sign of criminals. She’d have been happy to sweat it out under the bush for a week if they’d just sent her on her own. No, it was the fact they had to be punished as a team that really burned her.

She opened her eyes again to survey the road. Still nothing. Shifting her hand, she broke the remaining twig pieces in half again. They thudded one by one into the dirt.

A spate of ambushes earlier in the summer had sent several merchants to Konoha begging for assistance. Dispatching a genin team to stake out a corner of an enormous forest was at best a kind gesture. They knew there was no hope of seeing anyone in this weather. But the merchants would be happy, and troublesome Team 7 would be out of the way.

The only goal now is to keep from killing each other, she thought, picking up one of broken twigs and aiming at a gap in the leaves. She missed.

Maybe they would get lucky and some enemy nins would appear, she snorted to herself and pitched another twig. It hit a leaf and bounced back at her. Foreign nins, bandits, ruffians and rogues were usually the kind of action she hoped to avoid. But anyone would be an improvement over him, she thought, feeling around in the dirt for the twig.

She pinched this one between her fingers like a dart, bit her lip and squinted at the target. She was sure this one would make it.

“Sakura,” a low voice punctured the silence.

She froze, green eyes wide, arm raised, elbow covered in black dirt, twig poised to fly. Slowly, she lowered her arm and waited for his rebuke.

“Go collect your plants. You have fifteen minutes”

Sakura blinked in surprise, then frowned deeply at his commanding tone.

But when the she turned fully, ready to remind him that he was only their captain not a kage, she found he was already scooting backwards. Face concealed by glossy black hair, he was pushing the branches back so she could exit the makeshift hideout.

His movements were as confident as his words were dismissive — he knew she would comply.

‘Jerk,’ she huffed petulantly to herself. She hated to obey him and give him that satisfaction. But the opening beckoned. A chance to escape her close quarters with him was just too good to pass up.

She bit back her retort, rocked onto all fours and climbed over the roots toward the opening.

Sakura edged past Sasuke. She was so close to freedom, she could almost feel the fresh air on her face, when a snide voice at her ear broadsided her.

“Don’t screw it up.”

It hit her like a physical blow, and she lowered her head for a moment. Sakura didn’t need to see him to know what he meant: It was the same jab at the Hokage’s office. He still dismissed her as useless.

Swallowing hard, Sakura collected herself and moved forward again when a low root snagged her toe. She stumbled and pitched forward. Off balance and with nothing to grab onto, Sakura crashed through branch-covered entrance and landed on her stomach, half out of the hideout.

Caught up in the melee, Sasuke tumbled out sideways. But he recovered gracefully and landed in a crouch outside the hideout where he waited for her to get up.

Sakura stifled a small, angry sob and forced herself up, pushing back against the single branch that covered the entrance. She righted herself and held the thin limb back in tension for him. Sasuke rocked forward and crawled back inside the hideout, not even sparing a glance at her.

‘Damn him,’ she thought, watching his retreating form filling up the opening. ‘Damn him for thinking everything revolves around him.’

Sakura closed her fist around the branch, crushing leaf and wood under her fingers. But a sudden thought buoyed her emotions.

Sakura’s mouth curled into a wicked smile. She slowly pulled the pliant bough taut…then let it fly.

The branch whipped soundly across Sasuke’s backside with a loud pop.

Curses streamed out, and the commotion he made wheeling around to get after her made the bush look as if it had come alive, but Sakura didn’t linger to see the fruits of her labor.

Sasuke disentangled himself and lunged back out trying to catch her, but she was already gone. Distant laughter filtered down through the canopy. His normally pale cheeks were ablaze.

“She’s such a useless, pain in the—” he growled, scanning the trees and rubbing his backside. His face crumpled into a scowl as he realized the truth of his words.

Silence settled thickly over the forest again.

With one last glare, Sasuke ripped the branch off the entrance, throwing it to the ground,  and disappeared into the hideout.

Boyish laughter rang through the treetops.

“Shut up!” The captain shoved the young shinobi beside him hard. “Perfectly concealed chakra only to be given away by your foolishness.”

The younger ninja sobered quickly. “Sorry, taichou.” He knew this was important and didn’t want to screw it up.

They pushed off the branch and moved fluidly through the leafy canopy, shadowing the girl.

When she stopped at a green clearing with a few flowering shrubs, they watched closely to assess her skill. The kunoichi paused, pulled a square cloth out of her waist pack and inspected one of the plants.

“Med-nin,” said the younger ninja, settling his smaller form into a crouched position on the branch. “She’s our target.” The captain remained standing beside him but nodded his agreement.

The young man skimmed his fingers along the smooth bark at his feet and mentally ran through his paces: If she’s a medic-nin then she’ll certainly have information about her village. Plus she’ll have a skill that can be leveraged against her. She can treat their wounded when they are so far afield with lofty promises of safe release in return.

He ran his hand absently over a cluster of leaves growing beside his foot, plucking off a particularly green leaf. The leathery surface was cool beneath his callused fingers.

He knew this was a standard procedure when abducting enemy nin for information — always pick the mid-level shinobi with easily recognizable skills. The lowest level ninjas never had information; highly skilled ninjas probably knew more, but they were completely unpredictable. They could unhinge your entire mission. Medics were always mid-level. She was just right.

‘Plus,’ he thought as he stood, replaying the moment in his mind when her downcast face brightened with the thought of intended harm on her teammate, ‘she looks like fun.’

He tore the leaf in two and set off.

Sakura stopped in a natural clearing between the trees. The sun streaked down, illuminating a cluster of flowering shrubs in the center. Heart-shaped leaves…these were the ones she was looking for.

Sakura swiped the back of her hand over her damp forehead and walked through the waist-high bushes, inspecting each one before settling on the best specimen.

As she leaned down to pluck white flowers away from the plant, a warm breeze danced around the kunoichi, ruffling the fringe of pink hair that hung just past her jawline. Leaves rustled somewhere in the canopy above her.

She paused at the sound and lifted her head for a quick glance around, half expecting Sasuke to appear. But the breeze rolled through and, seeing no cause for alarm, Sakura bent back to her work.

Sasuke could really unnerve her. Even after all their time together on their genin team, she still didn’t feel like she belonged. She tried so hard but it was never enough.

Sakura pulled back the leathery leaves to find more white buds underneath hiding from her. Suddenly frustrated, she ripped the largest leaves away to expose the small blossoms. She swept up great handfuls and dropped them into her makeshift pouch.

After her anger was extinguished and the limb stripped bare, she moved around the plant, sighing and reminding herself that it wasn’t all her fault. After all, how do you work with a ninja who doesn’t need a team?

His brilliance was undeniable. And he was her partner, she had that pride of place at least. But that was where it ended.

Her childhood friend, Ino, still gave her a little glare now and then about being paired with her longtime crush, but in reality the camaraderie Ino shared with her own team was more than Sakura had ever felt with any of the shinobis she graduated with, let alone the two she was assigned to protect. Ino’s team looked like an oasis from her vantage point. And while she had flourished, Sakura had floundered.

She broke off another strand of blossoms, tucked her wayward locks back behind her ears again and blew out a breath. Sakura had to admit it wasn’t just about the team…she was disappointed with herself as well. She knew better than to give in to Sasuke’s goading. She shouldn’t have tried to hit him, in the Kage’s own office no less, even though she thought it would make her feel better. Which, she discovered belatedly, it didn’t.

But his snide remarks had hit their target. She’d thrown the punch that landed them on this mission. And now they all had to suffer. And it wasn’t like they weren’t all suffering enough from being bumped from the chunin exams.

Kakashi had broken the news matter-of-factly that they were not to enter this year. Sasuke scowled, Sai was silent, but Sakura listened. Kakashi simply said it was for the best. If they couldn’t work together to survive, then they’d certainly die together. They could try again next year. It hurt her pride, but Sakura saw the wisdom in it. They were as far from a team as she could imagine.

Sakura shook her head then straightened and opened the pouch to examine her work. She had been so preoccupied she’d almost neglected the task at hand.

Gathering herbs from these woods was not technically part of a hospital medic’s job — this request was from a village herbalist — but since it earned her a much needed break from Sasuke, she acted as if the Kage himself had ordered it. Which wouldn’t matter to Sasuke. He would still look down his nose at her medic training.

Sakura sighed. And this was the one area where she felt capable. It was nothing special, just the basic training for those with an aptitude for chakra control, but she was catching on quicker than the rest. Even her instructor said she really had a talent for it. She was beginning to think this might be her niche as a Konoha shinobi. A Med-Nin, she thought dreamily. Well, maybe someday…when they finally got back to Konoha.

Sakura bit her lip, made a quick judge of the weight and sifted through the petals for any wayward bugs. Shaking everything back to the middle of the little square, she caught up the corners of the fabric and gave the pouch a little twist, pinching the folds between her fingers to keep it closed.

Satisfied with her work, she silently made another resolution to herself, one more atop an admittedly ever-growing pile of resolutions…. After this farce of a mission was over and they returned to Konoha, she would try harder. She would push on with her medic training. No matter what snide remarks Sasuke threw at her. She wouldn’t let it deter her. She may feel bad, but she wouldn’t give up.

Sakura let out a little snort under her breath. Not give up? Some days it feels like that’s the only thing I can do.

She took a final look at the plant in front of her, still resplendent with its glossy heart-shaped leaves. But the desirable flowers were gone. Sakura frowned a little at the picture it presented. She didn’t want to be like this plant, only useful in someone else’s more skilled hands. Just like she didn’t to be the weak link on Sasuke’s team. She wanted to be a strong kunoichi in her own right.

Sakura curled a short lock behind her ear and closed her hand around the small sack. She was ready to move on, away from this self-doubt, this mission, all of it. Yearning to feel the physical movement of leaving it all behind, Sakura turned quickly on her heel—

Just as someone rose up directly behind her, blocking her only path out of the clearing. She didn’t know how or when a body had materialized there, but the shock of it threw her into a true panic.

She knew she was face to face with another ninja.

A shinobi dressed in drab greens and browns peered at her through scratched goggles. Thin strips of cloth covered most of his face and hair, completely disguising him. They were only left loose at the mouth and nose for breathing. Wide-lensed green goggles tamped down the fabric around his eyes.

Another taller shinobi dropped from a tree to land squarely behind him, dressed in the same manner.

She did a split-second summary, just as she’d been taught in academy. They were shinobi for sure. They moved silently. The masks looked like those of Mist or Rain nins, but the forest-colored fatigues did not. So, no known nation and no visible hints to skill or affinity. She turned her full attention back to the immediate threat.

Black eyes glinted behind the scraped lenses, watching her work through her situation. Only the telling crinkle at the corners betrayed his unseen smile. He didn’t move, but Sakura knew she was caught.

She hadn’t sensed anyone around her!

But as she watched his eyes move interestedly over her face, she grew sickeningly aware that if she didn’t act fast, she was going to die here.

Sakura suddenly flung the sack of petals high into the air as a distraction while she reached for her kunai. She dug into her stance and grabbing for it, already planning her next moves, feeling the weapon and her salvation so close, just beyond her fingertips—

The rogue ninja advanced a pace and caught her wrist, never taking his eyes off of her.

He was perfectly prepared and read her movements effortlessly. The unknown nin leaned in close and said something…. She didn’t catch it but knew instinctively was threatening.

Sakura was burning through her options. The captured hand grasped at air, and she swung the other into a desperate backhand. But it was the work of a moment for the ninja to block and hold the other one.

Using his solid stance, he halted her momentum and drew her hands together, bringing her up in front of his face. Piercing black eyes bore into hers.

Everything froze for a split second. Pink tendrils floated weightless in front of her eyes. Petals hung in the air around her. Even the unyielding gaze of the rogue nin seemed to pause. Then the world restarted as if it had never stopped. Sakura reflexively drew in a breath.

Pushing the disorienting moment away, she jerked back, trying to detangle herself from the nin who was suffocatingly close…. When she sensed something was different….

Something was wrong.

The blossoms were falling around her like snow. Sakura turned her head slightly and saw the white cloth fluttering in a wide slow spiral downward. She forgot she was fighting.

But the petals began clotting strangely. Dangerously. Her gaze swung in slow motion back over the nin’s shoulder. The woodland around her shimmered and swayed as if caught in a winter storm. The green leaves flickered out of existence behind the smothering white flurries.

The second shinobi advanced on the pair. His dark figure cutting through the streaks of white, coming straight for them.

Sakura watched in horror as his silhouette distorted and leaked like spilled ink across the rippling scene. It blotted out her vision and plunged them all into darkness.

She jerked back, but her hands were held fast. She tried to scream a warning to her team, but the sound died on her lips.

‘No,’ she pleaded soundlessly into the void. ‘No….’ She had let her guard down, let everyone down.…

The darkness splashed across her thoughts and wiped everything else away.

“A little preoccupied?” he had said.

He couldn’t resist the taunt before he applied the genjutsu. He caught her wrist easily, blocked and held the other hand, then shifted his dark eyes back to hers for the finishing touch to the illusion. He watched his handiwork play out across her face: Her eyes went unnaturally wide with fear, her mouth opened slightly with what he assumed was a last-ditch effort to scream, then her face went slack and her eyelids slid closed.

‘Bingo,’ he thought lightheartedly.

“You cut that one too close,” the captain grumbled behind him. “Next time, just stick to the plan.” He turned smoothly and lunged back into the canopy of the trees.

“Hai” the younger nin said, but he shot a frown of disagreement at the older man’s back before hoisting the kunoichi onto his shoulder. He took two steps and retrieved the white cloth, then lunged up into the tree and disappeared.

Another light breeze stirred the last bits of blossoms aloft in his wake. They fell softly to the ground, leaving no hint of disturbance in the quiet, sun-dappled glade.

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