Chapter 2 – Perseverance

Grey mist covered everything, only languid streams of light filtered down through lacy branches to reach the base of the giant tree. The air had a pungent tang of wet earth and wood, save for a faint thread of smoke wafting from some unseen fire.

Sakura cracked her heavy eyelids open, but could not fight off the grogginess long enough to identify her surroundings. Thoughts slurred together, and she drifted back into thick sleep.

What felt like hours later, Sakura’s eyes were driven open again, this time from a pain shooting up her side. She gasped, but clung to the awareness it afforded her, blinking her eyes hard to keep from sinking under again.

She aligned her thoughts to her environment: a forest, a smoking fire, moist earth clinging to her cheek and the incredible pain blazing along her left ribcage.

Trying to move, stretch her limbs and get out of the dirt proved to be impossible: her hands were tightly bound behind her back. Sakura could guess the throbbing ache along her side was the result of being dropped among the roots of the ancient tree.

Relenting, she laid her cheek back down in the soft dirt and mentally picked through what she remembered of the previous day. She was with her team, then collecting herbs, but the rest were incoherent fragments. She worked over it all again. Finally out of the murkiness, some memories rose full-formed to the surface. The image of the blossoms, unnaturally white and somehow falling like snow merged with a threatening image of dark eyes. She remembered now — she had been ambushed.

Sakura squeezed her eyes against the snapshot memories and blew out a long, low breath, trying to quell her panic.

If she had been caught by some unknown group, she told herself calmly, then her first priority would be to make an escape plan.

Moving slowly, hoping not to draw any attention to herself, the kunoichi craned her head a little to get a better look at her surroundings. From her vantage point, she could see into an encampment of some kind. There was a slight clearing where a fire was indeed smoking itself out, and beyond were several tents, most small and hastily thrown up. Farther beyond, past more large trees, Sakura could just make out a few larger campaign tents as well.

These must be the ones ambushing the merchants, Sakura summed up quickly, bandits or rogue nins probably looking for a little money for her safe return.

Birds chirped brightly in the canopy overhead. A good sign, she thought. It meant that she had been left alone for a while. Sakura silently pushed herself off her hurt side to prop up on her elbow, pink hair falling away from her cheek and dragging in the dirt as she rocked herself forward. Squinting, she could just make out some figures past the largest tents, but couldn’t discern anything else.

A sudden rustle nearby ended any hopes of a quiet getaway, though. Her movements had not gone unnoticed.

“Oi, the girl’s waking up,” a deep voice sounded through the trees.

A large figure in brown fatigues appeared above Sakura, grabbed her exposed elbow and hauled her swiftly into a sitting position.

For a moment, the trees actually swam in front of her, and the sky bloated oppressively heavy overhead, as if an onslaught of water was being invisibly held back. Her stomach lurched. Squeezing her eyes against the vertigo, she forced bile back down, refusing to allow the involuntary push to vomit.

Genjutsu, she realized. And it had been powerful, too.

“Hey, don’t do that. She’ll get sick,” a different, clearer voice intoned somewhere above her head.

The kunoichi leaned her head back against the tree, face pale and skin clammy, and waited for the nausea to pass.

As if reciting from one of her academy books, Sakura recounted to herself the symptoms of genjutsu sickness and recovery time. Since it wasn’t too deep, she thought, pausing to swallow then take a steadying breath, she should be feeling better shortly. She swallowed again and concentrated on the rhythm of her breathing and listened to the sound of heavy footfalls receding across the forest floor.

Then, just as suddenly as it had come on, the pressure around her abated. She cracked her eyes and looked up to see the trees and sky behaving as they should. She exhaled in relief.

“Better?” the same voice asked softly beside her.

Sakura blinked and slowly rolled her head towards its source. Perched on a root beside her was another man in brown fatigues. He wore the same face concealing wraps as the men who ambushed her, but this one had jettisoned any eye coverings.

The man, squatting nearly at her eye level, leaned forward on his knees and scanned her face intently. He was obviously watching for signs that any vertigo was fading, but he seemed to have a keen interest in her, studying her face as if memorizing it.

His gaze traveled over her her hair, her cheeks, lingered at her mouth (she frowned at that), then flashed back to her eyes. He tilted his chin thoughtfully, but didn’t take his eyes from hers.

Railing at the uncomfortable intensity of his look, she decided she wouldn’t buckle if he was trying to intimidate her. Instead she tried to mirror his action, scrutinizing his face for anything even remotely traceable, memorable. But she found nothing. Even his eyes were unremarkable. No highlights, no deeper tones, just brown.

“Feeling better?” he asked again.

She knew he had been waiting for her to either recover or empty the contents of her stomach.

He looked at her meaningfully and nodded — he was also waiting for for her to speak.

“Yes,” was her curt reply.

“Good” he said, then hopped to his feet. “Because you’ve got work to do.”

In short order she was on her feet being escorted toward the knot of tents beyond the large trees.

As she walked, she stole a glance at her warden. He scratched distractedly at a pair of goggles pushed onto the top of his head. Sakura narrowed her eyes.

She did know one thing for certain now — she had already met the man who walked next to her. After that genjutsu, she thought meanly, she’d probably recognize those damn scuffed up green goggles anywhere.

They passed a loose cluster of tents. Two men paused from sharpening kunais to nod deferentially to her escort. Not bothering to conceal their interest in the new addition to the camp, they eyed her with curiosity. Sakura had a chance to size them up as well, but since they all wore the same garb, including head covers of some kind, identifying personal traits or even a nationality was impossible.

Some of their wraps reminded her forcefully of a rogue nin from the Hidden Mist her team had gone up against in their genin days. Could these bandits be defects from Kiri, she wondered as they walked.

The clusters of small tents became tighter, and Sakura and her escort had to weave through a maze of canvas flaps, ropes and pegs before reaching a large dusty fire circle. Several more men, all in the same fatigues and face covers, were settled around the circle, reclining on benches or lingering at large, flat boulders.

Across the dusty expanse, past the circle and it’s tenants, Sakura could see a wall of large campaign tents standing silently. There seemed to be more rows of them, indicating perhaps that this was a headquarters. The large tents were neatly organized and ominous. It made her breath catch in her chest.

This was no band of desperate ambushers, she thought. This was an organized group with a military command center, not unlike Konoha’s field garrison she remembered studying in her academy days. Sakura’s eyes darted around the circle. And these men were going to great lengths to conceal their identities.

The kunoichi didn’t have time to draw any more conclusions as she was parked unceremoniously on a long wood bench near the guttering fire. Her escort left her briefly to speak in hushed tones to another man standing at the edge of the circle. The other man nodded, then disappeared into the thicket of little tents.

“You’re a medic nin, right?” her warden said, walking back over to her, eyes glinting as if he already knew the answer.

She turned her head away and set her chin. She’d give him no information.

“Right,” he filled in for her firmly. He moved closer to get a better look at her face, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “Or were you just out picking flowers to bring back to your teammate?”

Her stubborn expression yielded for a moment, but her escort had the confirmation he was looking for.

“You’re not very good at this, are you?” he said, an obvious smirk stretching the face wrappings around his cheeks. He couldn’t resist taking her down a few pegs. Folding his arms over his chest, he began again. “You’re in luck. We are in need of a medic. So if you’re better at healing than you are at subterfuge, you might make it out of here.”

“That’s all you need — a medic?” Sakura hissed. “Why didn’t you just get one in the local town? You can’t be more than a half-day from a village.”

He laughed at her. “Why do that when you made yourself available?” he said, ignoring her other questions completely. She’d get no information out of him.

“No more talking. Time to work,” he said and removed the ties on her hands.

She rubbed her wrists and looked around, gauging at the same time if he wanted her to move and if there was a chance she could escape. She could see a group of men approaching the bench, accompanied by the man her escort spoke to earlier. She sighed.

‘Best to go along with this for now,’ she thought.

“Here?” she asked her warden, who was now standing directly behind her. He nodded once in confirmation, and she turned to receive her first patient.

The man had a litany of minor wounds, scrapes, aches and pains. Green light cloaking her hands, she shot a glance back down the line.

‘Probably all the same,’ she thought.

But that was alright with her, thought Sakura, as she focused on the task at hand.

She was fortunate that this bunch was not in need of real medical aid. Though she had been in med-nin training for well over a year, but she was far from proficient. Anything above standard wounds and basic field first-aid was out of her grasp. Not from lack of skill — she simply didn’t have enough time for training. Grinding missions with her team left little space for anything else. She was happy to have finally found something she excelled at, but there wasn’t really a place for a med-nin on their team. And after this she would be woefully behind in her training. She bit her lip at the thought and finished sealing a cut. Sometimes she felt like she was doomed to fall behind.

Sighing, she resolved to put these thoughts away, she knew she couldn’t let her spirits flag. As it was, she happened to be very good at treating minor injuries, and these men were rife with them. Sakura told her patient he was finished and waved over the next man to sit down.

The day dragged on, and minor lacerations and kunai wounds blurred together under her glowing hands. But the sheer monotony began to prey on Sakura. If this was what they brought her here for, then how long would she last in their camp? How many bandits needed to be healed? Would it be enough for time for her team to find her? And once they had no use for her as a medic… well, she didn’t want to think of that.

The last thought gave her a measure of clarity. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad to be working on minor ailments, she thought as she looked down the long line.

Sakura waved the next man on, testing out whether she could heal and inflict injury at the same time. A small flick of her hand sent the chakra bending in ways she knew it shouldn’t. The man flinched immediately.

Sakura cooed, “Oh sorry, I should have told you this might pinch a little.”

She let the chakra from her hand ebb and he felt better, but the damage had been done. And now she knew how far she could go. She patted him on the back and waved on the next man.

Sakura plodded away healing but always reserved enough chakra to inflict her own wounds on the rogue. With a little pressure she gave them all parting gifts, mostly internal lacerations, which would require her attention in the days to come.

Whatever plans they had for her, she was at least building in her usefulness.

‘It’s better to be needed than to be dead,’ she thought darkly.

Several of the men stood around and watched after they received their treatments, obviously having nothing better to do. The kunoichi resented the audience, especially with what she was trying to accomplish, but there was nothing for it.

She continued on, treating an injury then inflicting an injury, but eventually she could feel the first effects of chakra depletion kicking in. Sakura tried her best to remember ailments and inflict injury that corresponded to the spot, but a few times she forgot.

One of the men pointed out that his injury was on his arm, not so close to his collar bone as Sakura had moved. She coughed, moved her hand smoothly away from the spot and put on her best doctor’s voice.

“Of course, I’m just making sure there’s no extenuating damage,” she said. The injured man seemed placated with her excuse. She finished healing the area he had pointed out to her.

‘No extra injury for him,’ she thought.

When he stood, she wiggled her fingers and stretched her arms as if tired, buying herself some time to check out the cluster of men loitering behind her. She recognized them as about a half-dozen of the men she’d already treated — some she’d injured again, some she’d spared. She glanced face to face quickly, then skimmed over body language, careful never to let her gaze rest on one spot too long. She saw nothing to cause her alarm. They seemed just as shiftless as ever, standing in little throngs, hands on hips, muttering to each other and grimacing at the world. Apparently her exchange with the last man had gone unnoticed.

She let out a small breath, gave her neck a final exaggerated stretch, then nodded to her warden. Shifting his stance lazily, he waved on the next man, obviously bored by the whole thing. Sakura felt better, but stuck to healing only on the next few men just to be safe.

Finally, to Sakura’s relief, the line dwindled. She was beginning to worry her chakra reserves would run out before the line did. But as her last patient stood to go, and no more presented themselves, she drew in a deep, tired breath. She felt like she’d been the only doctor on duty after the hospital’s busiest day.

“Am I done?” Sakura said, stretching her back. This time she didn’t have to fake it.

“Looks like it,” said her escort, stifling a yawn behind her. “Give me your hands.”

Sakura defiantly put her hands in front, certain he meant to tie her hands behind her back again, but he pulled her wrists together and bound them in front without any heed. He pulled her up and the walked to the other side of the campfire were several of the recently healed shinobi were lazing. He parked her on a stone knowing she couldn’t get far from any of them, disappeared between the tarps then reappeared with two apples in his hands.

“Here, eat,” he said, shoving the apple into her bound hands. “You need to keep your strength up.”

She looked at the apple wedged between her fingers. Heal their men and gathering information served her purposes, but eating their food by their orders was nearly traitorous, no matter how hungry or chakra depleted she may be.

She dug her fingernails into it’s red skin.

“Don’t worry about my strength, I won’t be staying long,” she said flatly to her jailor shinobi. He had loosened the concealments around his mouth enough to eat and sat beside her happily crunching his apple.

“Huh?” he responded mid-bite.

“My partner is the best ninja in Konoha, and he will stop at nothing to find-” she was doing her best to sound threatening, but it was buried under the laughter that erupted beside her. A few of the shinobis seated on the ground nearby looked up.

“You mean the one you whipped before you left your little ‘hideout?'” he said exuberantly, pointing his half-eaten apple in her face. “Yeah, he’ll be right along after you, I’m sure.”

A few more of the men had looked over, and her warden, seeing he had an audience, related the kunoichi’s prank on her teammate. She was stony, ignoring the chuckles and his obvious goading, feeling very much like a mouse being toyed with by the cat before it meets it’s inevitable demise.

Some of his teammates though did not see the humor, snorting and hurling a few under-breath insults. She turned her head a fraction to catch some of the dissenting voices.

“Another foolish prankster with nothing to offer,” was followed by “Yeah, like we need another….”

These were obviously directed at the man beside her and, if the half-eaten apple now skidding past her feet was any indication, she could tell they’d found their mark. He was already up, fists clenched and feet planted sturdily beneath him, ready to retaliate. Most of them dismissed his angry response, but a few looked up challengingly.

Sakura took note of the strife in the group, it may be something she could use to her advantage later.

Her warden took a step away from were she was sitting and was clearly considering taking on a few of the grumbling men, when a shift in the air sent almost all of them into a more alert stance. The rogues sat or stood quickly, jettisoned whatever time-wasting occupation they had, and adopted the closest appearance of a band of soldiers she’d seen from them yet. But there was something a little cowardly in their expressions they couldn’t quite hide.

The man beside her registered the chakra change as well but was not so quick to jump to attention. Lazily retracing his step to resume his position beside Sakura, he had apparently decided not to settle his troubles with his teammates. Though the rest of the bandits reminded her forcefully of errant school children about to be disciplined, the one beside her was not distressed at all. He resigned himself to waiting and watching the space between the large tents, hands shoved carelessly in his pockets.

She set the apple aside and followed his gaze, curious to see who could illicit such a response from this bunch. She was not disappointed.

With a grace that was rare among shinobi, a man fluidly rounded the corner, black cloak rippling at his calves as he walked. He padded so smoothly across the dusty ground that his shoulders and limbs were nearly motionless, giving him the disconcerting appearance of gliding. Skilled in stealth, Sakura was just summing up, but stopped suddenly as his face came into clearer focus.

The features were horribly familiar: pale skin, flat black eyes, glossy dark hair. His face had a pallor which gave him a menacing air and offset the elegance of his movements.

Sakura flattened her hands nervously in her lap. This man was a nightmare version of her stormy teammate.

Black eyes swept over the group — the flicker of a frown told her that this scene was not what he expected — and landed back on her companion momentarily. He nodded at the man beside her, black wisps dancing along his face, then shifted his emotionless gaze a fraction to settle on the her.

A long dark ponytail trailed down his shoulder as he tipped his chin to assess her.

Sakura quickly focused on the ground past the edge of her shoes, and prayed she was wrong about his identity.

Beside her, the silence was punctured by the sound of gravel crunching as her warden shifted his stance again and sighed. He was clearly unflustered by the scrutiny. Sakura however sat frozen on the stone, trying to keep her palpable fear concealed as long as possible.

With barely a whisper preceding them, the tips of two black sandals came into line in front of her feet and stopped. The fabric of a his cloak curled into the space between them. Sakura swallowed involuntarily.

“What is your name,” she heard a low voice addressing her as calmly as if she were a child who had wandered into their camp. But Sakura would not trust his smooth tones. Her only response was to look at the ground.

“Are you a teammate of Uchiha Sasuke,” he asked again patiently, but she kept her vision fixed on the dust at their feet.

He paused briefly, then began again, “Do you know who I am?”

Sakura sat painfully still, not wanting to give away her suspicion that in front of her was one of Konoha’s most dangerous nukenins, the one who slaughtered his entire clan save one.

He squatted down in front of her and steepled his fingers. Never changing his voice, the raven-haired man moved directly into her eye line. Sakura’s only response was fear driven: She knew what was coming next and shut her eyes.

“You may open your eyes,” he said, clasping his hands together. He was still speaking to her as if she were a child, but instead of a compassion there was an edge belying the obedience he expected. “I understand you’ve had some experience with genjutsu, but it will not be necessary today. Open your eyes please,” he ended firmly.

Sakura took him at his word, truly afraid of the consequences if she didn’t, and opened her eyes to focus on the ground just past his shoulder.

“Good girl,” he drawled. Even if she tried, Sakura could not have stopped her lips from pressing into a thin line at the condescending remark, and she flicked her eyes involuntarily to his face.

He nodded almost imperceptibly, signaling that she had given the desired response to his provoking remark.

“Sasuke is my little brother, and I have an interest in him,” the man continued on as if they had resumed their pleasant conversation. “I would like to know how he’s doing, how his skills are progressing. You and I are from the same village, I am sure we will find we have many things in common. Think about what I’ve said, and we will speak again later.”

Sakura swallowed again hard and returned her gaze to the ground where he was seconds ago crouching, her body frozen in disbelief at the confirmation, her thoughts a whirlwind. Uchiha Itachi. This was no ambush for ransom, this was a targeted attack by one of Konoha’s most feared rogue nin. Sakura forced her expression to go blank, trying to mask the horror that was bubbling up within her.

Itachi directed his attention to the man standing next to her, issuing orders but, she noted, with a measure of respect.

“Katsuro, make sure she eats. If the apple doesn’t suit then find something that does. And don’t waste any more of her chakra on them,” he motioned with a careless flick of his long fingers to the men across the fire circle, each one alert to the little nuance as if his life depended on it. “She is now your responsibility. Make sure she arrives safely, it is of the highest priority.”

Her captor, this Katsuro, agreed, and Itachi strode back to the large tents, disappearing completely into the shadows.

“Come on,” yawned her warden.

In shock, Sakura blindly followed him, putting one foot in front of the other but oblivious to everything else. Instead her mind was racing: Why was Itachi here, what he could want to know about Sasuke and what information could she possibly provide him? She couldn’t trust any of his little speech. He didn’t want to talk with her, he was a murderer. This was really bad.

Pushing down fears which threatened to leap out of control, Sakura decided she needed to come up with a new plan-

“Here we are,” a voice interrupted her train of thoughts. It took her a moment to register that they were quite a ways from the main camp now.

“These will be your accommodations while you’re with us,” her captor said and fanned his arm out toward a clearing. There was a single tent and a miniscule fire site situated at the base of a few large trees. She took it all in, analyzing the campsite, before she realized that he was pointing to the trees.

“What?” she said in confusion, but it quickly turned to ire. “You’re going to tie me to a tree?” she said indignantly.

“Yup. Take your pick,” was all she got from him in response. He dropped his pack onto a log as they passed the fire circle. “Can’t just have you hanging about the camp while I’m gone, now can we.” His cheerfulness grated on Sakura, but she held her retort in check.

“And where are you going,” Sakura changed tack, posing the question innocently.

He uttered a low laugh, then walked to a tree nearest the tent, backed her up to it and began wrapping a rope loosely around from the back of the tree.

“You might want to have a seat, I don’t think standing for a few hours will be very comfortable,” he said.

“What?-” she was going to complain, but he cut her off with a rope across her midsection and a hand on her head.

“Sit down,” he said again, and pushed his hand down on the top of her head to force her into sitting. He readjusted the rope and wrapped it a few more times.

Sakura, thoroughly humiliated, sat without a word.

When he finished with that task he unwound the bindings from one hand then walked back behind the massive trunk again.

“Ok, now reach your arms behind you and give that tree a hug,” he said brightly from somewhere behind the tree.

His chipper mood only served to irritate her more. But he chimed in again before she had a chance to tell him off.

“Do it now, on your own, and I won’t tie it too tight,” he warned her. “Trust me, that’s the much better option,” he laughed lowly.

He was right, there weren’t too many options here. It went against the grain, but thinking that she could better strategize in comfort than in pain, she slowly lifted both arms behind her and wrapped them around the tree, palms flat against the bark.

“There you go,” he said, obviously pleased that he’d coerced her. His tone almost made her pull her hands back out of spite.

He tied them back behind the tree as loosely as possible, so there was some freedom to flex her arms a little, though not enough to escape.

Walking around front again he squatted down and reassured her, “Don’t worry, I won’t be gone long. But you can stay like that for a while and still be OK. Believe me, I know,” he said, eyes twinkling.

He stood and impetuously reached out a hand to tousle her hair, thinking wickedly it would make her mad. Not disappointed, she jumbled curses at him and wrenched her head away, pulling her hair with her. He relaxed his hand, distantly aware of the coolness of the strands as they slipped through his rough fingers.

“Be good,” he said cheerfully, before he crossed the clearing and ducked under the tent.

Sakura was left alone with her anger and her fears.

‘That is probably what they want,’ she thought darkly, ‘we are our own worst enemies.’

So instead she tried to use her time to strategize her way out of the situation. But she soon found that thinking about Itachi drew a near insurmountable level of fear, so Sakura opted to review everything she’d learned, names she’d heard, the size of the camp, how many tents there were, the food they ate, and commit it to memory. She was on her third round of repeating the same data, when the man — Katsuro, she thought robotically, my height, brown eyes, bad sense of humor — emerged from the tent.

This time, though, he had traded his brown fatigues for a more pale attire, as well as what looked to be a traveling cloak. When he turned fully, checking a few things, she got a better glimpse of his head covering. Instead of the cloth that draped over the top and back of his head, the fabric covered fully half of his face and was positioned with a Suna headband. The goggles were discarded completely, although the wraps still concealed his facial features.

‘Sand,’ Sakura thought to herself. ‘They’re disguising themselves as other villages.’ But immediately Itachi’s involvement sprang to mind, toppling any theories as to why they were there. It seemed unlikely that he would be part of a gang ambushing lowly merchants, if that was what they were doing.

Katsuro saluted her briskly then was off, bounding up into the tree and leaping from branch to branch back toward camp.

Sakura was left alone again.

After what felt like hours of repeating the same information, the steady chirp of a nearby bird distracted her.

“Birds,” she said, just to hear her own voice. Where her team had been situated there had been no sounds at all. Every creature had decamped in the heat. Where was she, exactly? She set to studying her surroundings to keep her mind occupied.

The trees around the camp were no different than the ones along the old road. But the air here, though still warm, was not as stifling as it had been the past several days, and the landscape was rolling and hilly. This meant that she had traveled quite far from her team, but could not discern whether it was farther north or higher into mountains.

She leaned her head back against the tree and blinked dully at the empty campsite. It was so far from the rest of the tents that she couldn’t even hear the group. But maybe they’ve all gone, she thought. She looked longingly at the undisturbed woods beyond the little tent. Light slanted down through the trees, gossamer spiderwebs glistened in the branches, and tiny insects took to the air, their wings illuminated in the late afternoon sun. Her freedom was right there in front of her, but she could not take it.

More slowly than she ever thought possible, the sun sank below the hill and took all the colors of the forest with it. Sakura felt her spirits slipping away with the dying light.

The circus of creatures around her retired, and the nighttime forest rattled to life. Crickets and tree frogs chirped a riotous chorus, which was only drowned out by the steady buzzing of an occasional insect at her ear.

Sakura strained her eyes for as long as she could, willing the forest scenery to stay in front of her, memorizing the edges of trees, praying those would not dissolve into the murky, misty darkness that was fast descending on her. But eventually it did.

Tipping her head side to side and rolling her shoulders, Sakura closed her eyes and breathed in the cool air, but when she opened them there was simply nothing left to see. The dense forest canopy had smudged out even the moon and stars

Hanging her head tiredly in front of her, nothing to focus on in the darkness except her own predicament, Sakura’s resolve slipped away entirely.

She began to ache for her home, regret her decisions, doubt her abilities, and wish for her teammates to come.

They wouldn’t want to, she knew, and would only do it out of obligation. Sasuke was sure to demand retribution after this scrape, especially since she whipped him so soundly in the forest, she thought, cringing at the memory. But she’d be happy to take all of their anger and punishment now, just to be with people she knew and on her way home.

Sakura blew a steady stream of air up the front of her face, fanning her hair and blowing insects away, but the buzzing began again momentarily. Shaking her head hard, she flexed her arms frustratedly against her bindings.

If it had been Ino tied to a tree instead, Sakura thought petulantly, her teammates Chouji and Shikamaru would have stopped at nothing to get her. A mental rundown of the other teams showed Sakura the same bond that she was never able to attain with her own team. It wasn’t about fighting well together — they were willing to go through hell for one another.

But now, utterly alone, in enemy hands, facing the horror of betraying her teammate to the man he hated most in the world, doubt was nagging at her.

What if they didn’t come for her, she thought sickly. If they believed she had been ambushed, and they were on their way home to get reinforcements, help might not come for days. And she didn’t think she had days to wait for them.

She tried to imagine them sprinting through the canopy, searching desperately for her. The image rang false, though.

Sakura bit her lip. Then was the alternative true? Would her friends really abandon her? Were they right now, on their way home… without her?

She shook her head ruefully at the thought. Sakura knew she’d already hit upon the truth: These weren’t her friends. They were barely teammates. And she had no guarantees.

Her sensei had always harped about bonds. But now Kakashi’s words hit home — that bond was not for the good times, it was for the bad times. It was something to cling to in a time of danger.

Sakura hung her head and leaned forward against her bindings. She remembered what she’d been taught at academy, sitting in neat little rows in that sun filled classroom, about the beauty of the Konoha fighting strategy. She could hear her sensei’s inspiring voice, filling up every corner, “you are bound to someone who would go to the ends of the earth for you, to protect you or to save you.”

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, not wanting to remember anymore. Because it was clear to her now, what she had waited for, hoped for, was never there. For all her team’s genius and skill, that vital strategy — the bond of friendship — had never been developed.

A few tears streaked uncontrollably down the sides of her cheeks as she understood too late the precious value of that camaraderie. It could be the difference between life and death.

Wet drops pattered on her knees, the cold feeling reminding her she still had legs somewhere under the clinging darkness. Sakura squeezed her hands to keep the feeling in them. The bindings creaked like mooring ties, anchoring her mercilessly to the old tree.

She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. Another tear slid down. There was still hope, she thought with morbid humor, maybe Ino’s team would come for her.

Far and away, across the dark forest floor, among the roots of another ancient tree, dry leaves crackled and branches eased back into their natural position.

Backpacks were hoisted on.

The momentary whisper of fabric on fabric was replaced by a rhythmic crunch of footfall on gravel, retracing steps back down the forest road.

Silence descended again over the woody shrub which until recently served as a shelter. It’s single broken branch, now discarded carelessly, lay wilted and dying.

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