Chapter 17 – Journey

Skirting the edge of a summer-dry field, the brown-haired boy looked every bit like one of the local farm boys. Ragged pants rolled just below his knees. An oversized jacket hung loose on his frame. A smudged farm sack was slung over over one shoulder, and a tattered straw hat was doing a poor job of keeping the sun out of his eyes.

The bag and hat were the only things that were real. The rest of his outfit — threadbare jacket and pants, dusty sandals — was just a mirage, a perfectly executed henge. He was something of an expert at disguises, after all. It was what had kept him alive and undetected all these years.

Katsuro pushed up the hat and wiped wet hair off his forehead. He made it a rule not to transform everything. Some things he added, just in case he needed them or if anyone stopped him. This time he looked the part of a farm boy, even down to the farm tools in his sack. They jangled softly as he shifted the bag for a moment to air out his sweaty back.

The off-kilter cadence of a small wooden cart echoed up the empty road long before it came into view. But Katsuro quickly summed up the old farmer pushing it and decided he wasn’t a threat.

A weathered old man approached him, bobbing a greeting from beneath his own battered hat. His wrinkled, brown face creased up with a quick smile. Katsuro smiled back and watched him closely, committing his interesting appearance to memory. He also studied his reaction to make sure there was nothing amiss. But he had no need to worry.

The man grunted something about the heat. Katsuro commiserated with a nod. Drawing up a saggy brown arm, the old farmer pulled down his hat and continued on without another glance.

Free from concern, Katsuro knocked back the brim on his own, comfortable now that he looked like one of the locals. It was the only person he’d seen all day.

He seemed to be constantly on the move now, traveling here and there for Itachi. And his disguises were always changing. But the tasks suited him. He’d rather be on his own anyway.

The growing presence of Akatsuki in the camp was unnerving.

Over time, things had subtly shifted in his group. They were not targeting merchants anymore as much as they were trying to influence some trade routes, tapping into the goods and money right from the source.  He knew the Akatsuki had tasked Itachi with pushing merchants into trade with the Rain Country. It directly benefitted their little group — it got him out of running petty ambushes at least, he thought with a laugh — but he didn’t know much else about it.

And he tried not to look too deeply. Which wasn’t hard. It seemed that whenever the Akatsuki were around, Itachi packed him off on another errand immediately. And he was happy to go.

The assignments never amounted to much. Sometimes he’d leave Itachi’s scroll or a little pouch of coin with their contact. Specific instructions as to which local businessman to influence. Or sometimes he’d pick up a scroll indicating which goods were moving where, and who they could count on in the future.

Once he’d finished his assignment he was free to do whatever he wanted for a few days. He had next to no money, but he relished his time away from the camps, the men, and the lingering Akatsuki members.

Itachi’s involvement with that group was deepening. Members where forever coming and going through the camp, and Itachi himself was gone more often too. But Katsuro never questioned his connections to the other volatile men.

Once, Katsuro had admitted to Itachi that the group made him uneasy. Though his hidden power was never spoken of, he had some suspicions that a few were on to him. Katsuro even suggested they break ties with them.

“I am surprised,” Itachi drawled. “I would have thought maybe you’d aspire to such an organization. They are all men of unfathomable power. Most shunned by their own villages, their own families…the ones who created them….” He let the statement hang in the air, waiting for a reaction.

Katsuro’s expression darkened, but he said nothing. If Itachi was trying to flatter him, then it wasn’t working.

“But you are suspicious of them,” Itachi continued. “Interesting.”

He was silent for a few moments, thinking.

“Well, maybe you should be suspicious,” he said crisply. “They are all monsters, not to be trusted. And you would be wise to remember that.”

Itachi stopped, an unkind smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“Because they all have their eye on the prize,” he said, pinning him with his black gaze.

Itachi’s words chilled him, but Katsuro was simply at a loss to understand. And they never spoke of Akatsuki again.

Katsuro did remember the warning, though. Even if Itachi was involved with them, he still felt that Akatsuki’s members were just as much a threat to him as Konoha. And he vowed never to be anyone’s weapon.

But none of that mattered out here. He was just another farmer. Hot, dusty, tired. On days like this, people didn’t even look up when he passed. He loved it.

He knew the easiest way to disappear was to look like everyone else, not hide in the woods or stick to the back alleys. And he felt safe as the roads between the little towns were normally desolate. But sometimes it presented unique challenges.

Katsuro’s stomach growled traitorously. He clamped his hand over his belly and grimaced.

Food supplies in the last town had been at a premium. He had several more days and very little money left. He hoped he’d find a crop of something edible along the way, but fields of golden, waist-high barley stretched out in every direction.

So he would just have to make it on nothing until the next town. Once there, he would scope out the fattest merchant and lighten his load of overpriced stock by one or two pieces. Fruit was easiest, but when you’re hungry it’s hard to be picky. And he was always hungry.

The heat bore down on him the more he walked, sinking through the hazed sky to sit heavy and thick on fields. He wiped his hand across his brow. Only the sound of crickets and the steady crunch of his sandals kept him company. And he had no idea how far it was to the next town.

Trees lined the edge of the fields, but their blue shade didn’t meet the road. At the next rise of land, Katsuro shielded his eyes and squinted into the distance. A dark structure jutted out between the road and a yellow crop, but it was still a ways away. A shrine or an old shed, something with a roof at least, he thought. He headed right for it to wait out the heat.

But the roof turned out to be more canvas than wood, and as he drew closer, he could distinguish an old woman sitting underneath, the shady spot filled with carts and tables full of produce.

No shade, and food he couldn’t afford. He sighed.

Scanning over the site, he could see she was alone, and it would be easy enough to pick off a few morsels. But this was probably all she had. His stomach growled at the mere thought of eating, but he knew he couldn’t steal from an old woman in the middle of nowhere. Her life was probably hard enough out here. He’d survive.

At that moment a younger, wiry man came skulking out from behind the decrepit shed. He was carrying a frayed piece of twine. The woman motioned at a flapping corner of the tattered old awning.

The man grimaced, grabbed the torn piece of fabric, threaded the twine quickly through some gaping holes and tied it to the pole. He drew it tight with a jerk, and the ripping of canvas was so loud even Katsuro could hear it as he approached. The old woman pulled her hands to her face in a cringe.

“It won’t work, Ma, I told you,” he yelled. The fabric snapped loose and hit him on the head. The hole was even bigger than before.

Katsuro cleared his throat.

The woman smiled brightly and waved him over. The son stalked back behind the building without even a glance.

Katsuro inspected the hole in the awning. Frayed pieces of twine dangled from the failed repair job. One of many, he could tell. But it was nothing that some sturdier rope and a few well-placed knots couldn’t fix. The son did more damage than good, he thought.

A movement drew his attention back. Beside him, the woman fanned her arms out over the table of fruits and vegetables. Locally grown, spotted and small, she had probably picked or dug each piece herself. Katsuro frowned and shook his head.

She held up a small peach, unblemished, and smiled broadly at him, pushing it at him from her stubby fingers.

He put his hand up to stop her, but she didn’t notice. She was too busy picking out another peach for him to inspect. She held it up, smiling encouragingly.

“No money,” he said clearly, shaking his head again.

Her face fell and she sat back in her seat. Wiping her forehead with a cloth, she glanced back down the lane. Watching her, Katsuro felt the emptiness of the road rolling away from him. He could guess what she was thinking, he was probably the only customer she’d see all day.

The light from the torn hole slanted hot and white across a tray of fruit, cooking it in the heat. Ruining it, he thought. Before the day was over it, the sun was likely cut across most of the table.

Remembering herself, she shrugged too and smile feebly back at him. As if to say it would be alright. She’d make it somehow.

Katsuro looked hard at her. She had not spoken to him. The whole time.

It occurred to him then that she couldn’t speak.

He took in the dismal fruit, the shabby stand, the small old woman suffering through the heat. And something had happened in her life that robbed her of that little piece of humanity, the ability to use her voice. A stab of sympathy went through him. She was chained to this life, and her slacking son gave her no help at all.

“I—” he began, but didn’t know what to say. He felt bad. She understood and smiled politely. As if understanding his sympathy and relieving him of any guilt.

She must get that a lot, he thought. But she was working hard, not feeling sorry for herself, not giving up.

He had no money for food, but he did have something else.

He dropped his pack and dug down until his hand caught the thin leather strap he knew was at the very bottom. He held it flat against his palm for moment before fishing it out.

Katsuro stood and turned toward the hole in the awning. The woman’s eyes went wide.

Shimmying up one of the building’s support poles, he gingerly reached out over the faded canvas. He caught up the fabric and slowly wove the leather strap between the two torn pieces. The sun baked his neck and arms while he worked, but eventually the mended pieces were sturdy enough to hold. He hopped down and tied the dangling ends of the leather strap to the awning pole. The old woman clapped from behind him as he finished. Katsuro turned back with a smile.

Suddenly she raised her hands as if she’d remembered something and disappeared beneath the table for a moment. When she popped back up, she held out two small, dingy bells tied to either end of a red ribbon. She pushed them at him, then pointed to the ends of the leather which he was just about to tuck in.

He nodded in understanding. She wanted him to tie up the old bells. He looped the leather underneath the red ribbon and tied it in a knot. Katsuro was about to let the two bells swing together, mildly curious if they even made a sound, when the fine detail around the center caught his attention.

Pulling it up quickly, Katsuro studied the intricate twining pattern that encircled the widest part.

“Temple bells?” he turned back to her, astonished.

She nodded. It was the same pattern from the huge old broken bells in the temple. He remembered it clearly. He let the bell swing gently down to it’s mate, and they both chimed with a lovely, clear ring.

His hunger, the heat, his mission, was all forgotten for a moment. He was happy. He had done something good, helped her, and he felt good for it.

A touch to the bells set them chiming again. One high, one low. Behind him the woman clapped her hands.

He turned to see her smiling broadly and couldn’t help but smile back.

Katsuro picked up his bag to sling it back over his shoulder, but she beckoned him over to the table. Thinking she might have another chore to be done, he stepped closer, still clutching the bag. But it was his turn to go wide-eyed. The old woman took the bag from his hands and began filling it with fruit.

She picked through all the fruits and vegetables, filling his sack with the very best, ripest ones, then handed it back to him, full of food. With a rough pat on his shoulder, she waved him on, bowing her head in thanks. He bowed back, feeling that he was the one who was the most grateful.

The bells chimed merrily as he walked away. Though the leather strap had been the only connection he had to her, he didn’t need it anymore. Better to put it to good use, he thought, something he could feel good about. After all that had been two summers ago.

The young rogue thought about her often, many times when he didn’t mean to. But there was always something to remind him. This time, it was the perseverance of an old woman. Things were bad all around her, but she didn’t give up.

Katsuro bit into an over-ripe peach. He saw things so differently now. And he knew it was because of her.

The long hot days after Sakura’s return to the village ran together in a blur. When she wasn’t helping clear debris from Orochimaru’s attack, she was either training or trying to log some hours at the hospital. But eventually, cooler weather broke the back of summer, and with the changing seasons came the new Hokage. Everything felt fresh and new, revitalized.

She was a powerful woman, one like Sakura had never experienced. And she seemed the perfect fit for the village now.

A former compatriot of the man who attacked Konoha, she was not to be taken lightly either. Some of the older shinobi and civilians traded colorful stories of her strength and strong will. Whether they were true or not, Sakura would not know. But the woman’s arrival had been baptized with bloodshed: More than half the team that went to find her did not return.

“Shinobis we could not afford to lose,” Kakashi said as they watched the thin procession file down to the Hokage’s tower.

Sakura began to think there was some truth to the stories. Tsunade looked like a battle leader through and through. Head high, blonde hair pitched back over her shoulders, she strode purposefully up the center of the village. A wave of determination rolled through the crowds that lined the street. Even the bloodied shinobis who followed behind her seemed proud.

“They have reason to be proud,” Kakashi said quietly, “I understand they had to fight Orochimaru. Even greatly weakened, he was a force to be reckoned with.” A tall white-haired man at the back of the procession drew her sensei’s attention, and he was off without another word.

But Sakura learned later the invigorating feeling that swept through the village did not reach all the way to the office of the Hokage. Sakura was surprised to discover the formidable woman was not adjusting as well as everyone assumed. And the village was in much worse shape than anyone thought.

Sakura chafed her arms lightly with her hands while she waited outside the Hokage’s door. It was the first truly cool day of Konoha’s mild winter season, and it made her wish she had worn warmer clothes instead of her dress fatigues. But she wanted to look her best, she thought, as she smoothed down her red shirt and pale over-skirt. After all, she had been invited by the Hokage herself to discuss entering into a fledgling med-nin program.

Sakura stilled her movements as another curse rang out. She was trying hard not to listen to the conversation that was drifting through the doorway, but it was awfully hard to ignore. Her poor sensei was taking a thrashing.

“And he is gone? Not a trace?” Tsunade’s voice boomed.

“Hai,” Kakashi said simply.

‘Who were they talking about,’ Sakura wondered. ‘Orochimaru or one of our own?’ She curled her hair behind her ear and gave up trying to be good. Leaning forward slightly, she bit her lip and strained to hear the rest of the conversation.

Tsunade’s voice was muffled for a moment, but the last bit came through perfectly clear.

How could the Sandaime let this happen?”

“It was all carefully orchestrated,” Kakashi said ruefully. “He timed it with the massacre. No one even knew until it was too late.”

“No,” Tsunade said firmly, “it wasn’t reported until it was too late. That damned orphanage. I want to see every scrap of paper on it. No one gets in without my express permission.”

There was the distinct sound of papers slapping onto a desk before she started up again.

“And I want to know everyone who is currently searching—”

“There’s a small group of us,” Kakashi interrupted. “And it has remained our highest priority”

“Yes,” Tsunade said softly, sounding placated. “I understand you have a particular obligation.”

Sakura didn’t hear him answer, only clear his throat.

“Give me a list of the names,” Tsunade rejoined. “And I don’t have to tell you not to breathe a word about it.”

“Hai,” Kakashi said, sounding like himself again.

“Assuming he’s still alive,” she muttered. “But anyone else knowing would put him in terrible danger. He would be a target for every nation.” Tsunade sighed. “And the consequences to us would be devastating.”

The Hokage’s assistant, Shizune, a slim black-haired nin with her own impressive past, rounded the corner. Sakura straightened up immediately. The clacking of her shoes drowned out the rest of the conversation in the office.

“Is she still speaking to Kakashi-san?” she asked politely.

Sakura was about to respond when Kakashi himself suddenly appeared in the doorway.

“No,” he said lightly.

“Shizune!” Tsunade boomed from inside the office. Kakashi stepped aside quickly, and the woman hustled through the door. Then, with no more than a tight grin and a brisk pat on the shoulder, Kakashi ambled down the hall. Sakura stood in the sudden silence, feeling like she’d been sent into battle unarmed.

Shizune poked her head back out the door.

“Sakura-san? She will see you now,” she said cheerily.

But the formidable blonde didn’t even look at the girl. Tapping her glossy red nails on the desk, she glared pointedly at her assistant.

Shizune smiled serenely back.

“Not yet, Tsunade-sama. You still have one more appointment. It would be unseemly—”

“The state of this village is unseemly,” she barked. “Now go get me a damn drink.”

Shizune disappeared quietly.

If Sakura was surprised at the outburst, then it never showed on her face. She simply straightened her shoulders and waited.

Tsunade swept her gaze over the girl in front of her, acting as if a woman demanding a drink from the highest ranked office in the village was a perfectly normal thing. She was reasonably impressed that the girl was not ruffled by a temper. A good sign, she thought.

“Haruno Sakura,” Tsunade she read from the topmost file on a large stack on her desk.

“I am interested in training kunoichis as med-nins.” She flipped the folder open. “You and Ino have some skill, I see…although she seems to have spent more time in class,” her voice trailed off as she scanned down through the file.

Something she read sent a look of surprise over her face. She glanced across the room to the Yondaime’s taped picture frame then back to the kunoichi.

Sakura blushed, but said nothing. She knew the Hokage was reading about the fight she’d had in this very room with Sasuke. He had goaded her that day, she threw a punch and missed, resulting in the broken picture frame and their “team-building” mission to monitor the old trade road. It was only that past spring, but it felt like a lifetime ago.

“Perhaps you didn’t study so much because you had other things occupying your time,” Tsunade said dryly. She returned to the file, but the quick perusal soon turned serious.

Sakura watched the change in her expression. She could only guess that the woman was reading about her abduction. Sakura folded her hands behind her back, fixed her gaze outside the window and waited in silence.

At length, Tsunade closed the folder and put it down. She sat back and surveyed the girl, drumming her fingers on the file, clearly deep in thought.

Sakura’s stomach flip-flopped under the intense scrutiny. She knew what was to come next, questions about the abduction, possibly reopening the investigation. She was the new Hokage, she would surely want to look into it. Sakura was just beginning to chastise herself on how foolish she was to think she could get away with such treachery, her dreams of med-nin training dashed before they’d even begun, her career as a ninja over, when Tsunade’s voice cut through her fears.

“Well,” she said finally. “Are you interested?”

Sakura was completely surprised. She blinked, opened her mouth and closed it once. She couldn’t believe what she’d heard.

The sound of Shizune’s heels echoing back up the long hall signaled the end of their meeting. Tsunade pushed the entire stack of files to the side, and went on speaking as if Sakura had already accepted.

“You will train with Shizune and myself, and we will see how you progress,” she pronounced.

Sakura remembered herself. This wasn’t a dream…or a nightmare.

“Hai,” she said with a grateful smile.

So with the addition of medical training to her regular duties, Sakura’s days stretched into weeks and months.

It was hard juggling the daily demands of required hospital hours and intervals of med-nin training, as well as keeping up with her own training and the infrequent missions of her team. She sparred a few times with Sai, but his schedule was as varying as hers. She and Sasuke simply didn’t speak.

However she balanced the workload tolerably well. If they had more missions, it would have been much harder, but really they weren’t sent on any. Which was perplexing.

On more than a few occasions Sakura overheard Tsunade mention what a “precarious position” the village was in. She spoke with Kakashi about some extra assignments, hoping he could fill some old requests. She lamented to Shizune that the backlog could be taken as a sign of weakness. And she muttered to herself that there were only so many excuses she could make to hide their shortage of shinobi.

So Sakura was surprised that her team was never picked for serious missions. Ever. They stayed within the village, running errands. Sai was often called away for work with ANBU, and Sakura certainly had a full plate. How Sasuke got on, she didn’t know. But it seemed like, for now, Team 7 was village-bound.

After some sleepless nights worrying about it, Sakura finally decided that their team still being genins had to be the reason they were consistently overlooked. With that thought, she understood how valuable reaching chuunin was. And how much she wanted it. She had to work together with her team to even be accepted. She could still hate them, but she had to get along with them, protect them and fulfill the mission.

So she churned up the warming days with harder training. When they were assigned missions together — usually mind-numbing tasks for merchants or civilians — she worked hard to function as a team. Sasuke grudgingly acknowledged it. Sai didn’t have much of an opinion, and she suspected that it was due to his involvement with ANBU. He was on his own already anyway.

But they strove toward a common goal, and found themselves at the beginning of summer accepted to participate in the chuunin exams. Privately, Sakura thought it was a fitting way to celebrate the year mark of her abduction. But she didn’t have much time to dwell on the past. She had to use all her skills to get her through the written exam. And their stilted teamwork carried them through the forest trials. Even if they didn’t work well together, they still managed to pull it off without a hitch.

But the arena fights were another matter altogether.

Leaning back in her seat she pushed her hair into a small ponytail. Only a few wisps were still too short to stay back, and those she curled behind her ears.

Both her match and Sai’s were fought to a draw. All that was left to do was wait for Sasuke’s matches. Looking around the packed arena, she guessed everyone else was waiting for it as well.

She did not cheer for Sasuke as he battled through his opponents; he didn’t need encouragement nor was he expecting any.

He seemed to sense that his name was literally in the air. The Uchiha pitched his head back, stared down his opponent, and with quick curl of his fingertips beckoned his adversary to engage.

What arrogance, Sakura thought, but no one else seemed to notice it. Around her, citizens and shinobi alike leaned forward from their seats, excited to see an exhibition of his skill. The tragic progeny of a nearly extinguished bloodline. Yes, this was high drama indeed, she scoffed inwardly.

Ninjas from all over had streamed into the village for the exam. Many had heard of the Uchiha, and openly pushed to test their strength against his.

But there was no one else fighting up through the ranks who had any hope of touching him, save one. And Sakura was sincerely hoping they’d disqualify him before he was pitted against Sasuke.

The candidate from the Sand was horrifying.

Though small for his age, Gaara had seen much more battle and much less care than the average 15-year-old nin. His black fatigues were ragged with overuse, and the white cloth that draped across one shoulder was filthy and smattered with blood.

Sakura was reminded forcefully of the children that sometimes passed through the hospital, ones that weren’t looked after as much as they ought to be. Their injuries usually stemmed from carelessness more than any outright abuse, but the faces of their family members always bore the guilt.

Choppy, blood-red hair fell limp and shaggy over Gaara’s forehead. His pale blue eyes were ringed with black circles. Insomnia, thought Sakura clinically, but he showed no signs of fatigue. He gazed out from the sidelines with an obvious hunger, continuously scanning for his next opponent.

The more she watched him, the more he looked like a wild animal than a neglected child. But he was neither, she told herself. He was a shinobi, sent here to fight. And that thought was chilling.

Gaara obliterated the nins in his chosen battles. His sand jutsu made him a killing machine. The brutal source of his power, the sand streamed out of the large gourd at his back like it was alive, encasing and crushing anyone who threatened the boy. No honor, no remorse, no mercy. It was simply inhuman.

She stole a glance around for his compatriots. Did they support him, were they proud of him? Was this how they lived in Suna? It was a village similar to Konoha, except hidden in the deserts of the Wind Country. Was it so depraved there that this was the type of shinobi they revered?

No, apparently not. She spied his teammates not far from where she sat — a dark-robed puppet master and a fan-wielding kunoichi. The look of unease was etched clearly on their faces.

And guilt as well, Sakura thought with some satisfaction. She had heard they were his siblings, after all.

Cheers errupted all around her. Sakura turned just in time to see a body fly backwards across the arena floor. Sasuke decided the fight with a punishing drop kick. The audience was wild with enthusiasm for the dark-horse champion.

But from the side, Gaara watched Sasuke as if he’d found a new prey. His pale eyes followed him everywhere. It made Sakura’s blood run cold.

All the shinobi’s were dismissed for a small break before the final rounds. But when she and Kakashi returned an hour later to watch the last tier of matches, a large number of officials filed into Hokage’s viewing area.

Sakura squinted at the fast-filling ceremonial box. When all the dignitaries were finally seated, they were two rows deep on either side. One half appeared to be from Konoha’s council, but she couldn’t account for the other people. They all donned brown cloaks, but since there was no other Kage present, she couldn’t guess where they might be from.

Beside her, Kakashi caught the puzzling look.

“They’re from Suna,” he said quietly.

“Oh,” said Sakura, still frowning.

“They sent a delegation, and Konoha responded in kind,” he explained.

“But that’s most of Konoha’s high council,” Sakura asked, motioning to the row of white-cloaked dignitaries that filled one side of the box. “I cannot remember them gathering for this event before. Actually, I can’t remember any of them ever attending…well, anything!”

Kakashi leaned closer and lowered his voice.

“The Sand has not yet replaced their Kage, so they are ruling by committee.” Sakura turned and raised her eyebrows at him. “A dangerous thing to be sure, but not unheard of,” he continued. “To level the playing field, the Daimyo ordered the council to attend the match as well.”

Sakura looked back at the very full box. Tsunade presided from an oversized ceremonial chair in the middle. Even from their distance, Sakura could see her drumming her fingers on the wooden arm of the chair. The clicking sound echoed effortlessly in her head.

“She doesn’t look too happy about it,” Sakura said quietly, never taking her eyes from the tense box.

“No, I’d say not,” Kakashi chuckled.

At that moment the final round was announced. The top opponents would face off. And Sakura’s worst fear was confirmed: The first match was between Sasuke and Gaara.

A knot formed in Sakura’s stomach. The more she thought about it, the more she knew with certainty there was something wrong with Gaara. Medically, physically wrong. It wasn’t just a strange jutsu or an unusual power. It seemed as if he was caught in the grasp of something. And that sand clearly had a life of it’s own, she thought with a shudder.

Sakura looked quickly to the Hokage’s box, hoping Tsunade had sense something too and would call it off.

But she didn’t. Tsunade nodded once, slowly, signaling the beginning of the final round.

A hush fell over the crowd, anticipating the next battle. Bedside her, Kakashi was deathly quiet. Eyes fixed on the arena.

Sakura was alone in her concern, and the match began.

Gaara and Sasuke circled each other, trading glancing blows, stoking each other’s fire. Sakura recognized the set of Sasuke’s jaw, his clenched fists. His dark eyes widened a fraction. She knew him well enough now to tell when the sharingan was pushing forward. He wanted this fight. Too much.

But one look at Gaara and she could see he was just toying with Sasuke. Sand licked out from the top of the gourd. His eyes flashed maliciously.

“Kakashi-sensei…” she began, but stopped. What would she say? Please tell them to stop? She didn’t like the looks of this guy?

From the other side of the ring, Sasuke was pulling up a sleeve, digging in his stance, gathering power and preparing to charge. His hand was glowing blue and an awful chirruping was filling the air.

“Don’t worry,” Kakashi said quietly, never taking his eyes from the arena. “I don’t think this fight will get very far.”

And no sooner had he spoken than a Konoha shinobi stepped into the space between the two nins and stopped the fight.

“Look,” Kakashi said, directing Sakura’s gaze back to the Hokage’s box. Just at that moment, a Suna dignitary was conferring with Tsunade.

“The Sand stopped their own fight?” she asked. Either Suna didn’t want to be beaten or they didn’t want to give too much away.

But Kakashi didn’t answer. He was already on his way down to the arena floor.

Sakura saw what spurred him: The two opponents were about to take matters into their own hands. Gaara was speaking lowly, eyes ablaze. Sasuke drew up one hand quietly, only to have it explode with blue light. The sudden charge of electricity sent a rush of air away from the two. Low murmurs rippled through the crowd.

Gaara’s face twisted into a feral smile. Sand shot from the gourd, as murky red as the boy’s hair. It licked the ground and began writhing to life around him.

Both Kakashi and Gaara’s siblings landed in the arena with seconds to spare.

“This fight is declared a draw, on the Hokage’s orders,” the moderating shinobi announced. “The next match will be….”

A rattle of disapproval drowned out the rest. As the blue light faded, Sasuke shot a look of unvarnished anger at the Hokage’s box before stalking out of the arena. But Gaara stood motionless in the ring, sand oozing back into it’s container. His eyes followed only Sasuke.

Sakura had a sinking feeling their fight had not been stopped, just postponed.

And in the space of a few hours, she was proved right.

Sakura had the good fortune to turn down a lane just ahead of Gaara’s sister, Temari. So she was not out of ear-shot when her brother Kankuro landed in a panic.

“He went after him. I couldn’t stop him,” the brother whispered desperately.

“I told you we should have left when we had the chance. Who knows what he’ll do now!” Temari snapped. “Come on, we’ve got to find him.”

Sakura immediately took to the roof and headed for the woods. It was the only place inside the village walls where they could fight without anyone noticing. If they were outside of the village…well, she didn’t want to think of that possibility.

“Come on. Fight me,” a voice snarled somewhere in the treetops in front of Sakura. “I want to feel it…taste it….”

She padded onto a limb in time to see Sasuke get flung past her. He crashed into a tree with a dull thud and slid down to the crook of a wide branch.

Sasuke was open. And Gaara wasn’t what he was cracked up to be. She could see now why the fight had been stopped.

Sakura took in the half boy, half creature perched in a tree opposite Sasuke. His arm was twisting into a sandy, mutated mess. A beast’s claw. It was the one which drove Sasuke into the trees with such force. And it was getting larger, consuming the rest of Gaara’s body.

With his other hand, the one that still retained it’s human form, Gaara dug his fist into his eye socket. A blood-red kanji scrawled onto his forehead flashed through his bangs. Then his face tightened, his arms tensed, and a dreadful growling ripped from his throat.

Sakura’s earlier feeling was right, there was something else at work here. And he was transforming before her eyes.

She flew through her options. Sasuke was still vulnerable, and this boy was in no way backing down. She couldn’t take him, but maybe she could calm him. Appeal to the human instead of the monster. It was a gamble, but it was something to go on, at least.

Gaara snapped his grotesque arm back to finish off Sasuke. She knew she’d never make it to him in time. So Sakura leapt straight in front to Gaara, yelling his name to draw his attention.

“Gaara-san,” she called loudly as she alighted. Sakura turned to face him in one fluid movement, hoping she could stun him into stopping.

It worked.

He stopped. But Sakura was horrified at what she saw. A black-tipped paw suspended above her, the boy was halfway gone. Sand distorted one side of him, bulging out into swollen nobs. Taking on the structure of completely different creature. While one eye still shone pale blue, the other throbbed yellow and darted every where in it’s disfigured socket. But both eyes suddenly fixed on her.

Sakura’s stomach clenched in fear. The preternatural response of prey to it’s predator. She ignored it.


The pale eye blinked at his name. Whatever was happening, the boy was still in there.

She pushed her fear of the monster away. This might be her only chance. Sickly yellow streaks of sand were already trying to consume the rest of his face.

“Thank you for traveling to Konoha to participate in the exam,” she said, mouth suddenly dry. “Please forgive my teammate’s haste for a rematch, Gaara-san.”

His human eye blinked again. The fingers of sand spreading over his face froze for a moment. The progress of the transformation appeared to have haulted.

“Let us save our next battles for inside the sparring ring,” she said with forced politeness.

But he seemed to be losing his battle. Gaara clutched his forehead with his pale human hand and laughed maniacally. It made Sakura’s skin crawl, but she was determined not to show her fear.

“On behalf of Konohagakure, we bid you safe travels to Sunagakure,” she said.

“Sakura,” Sasuke said through gritted teeth. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you,” she said quietly over her shoulder. Buying you time, dammit.

“Get out of here,” Sasuke yelled back at her angrily. “He’s gonna kill you!”

Sakura meant to call back at him, tell him to run, but was already too late.

Something inside Gaara snapped. The moment was lost.

Before Sakura’s eyes, the sand streaked across the rest of his face. Both eyes glared back yellow and beady.

In a blur, the sand arm shot toward her. She tried to leap straight up, jump clear of where she thought it would impact. But it was impossible to calculate how much larger it was.

Even as the arm hurtled toward her, his whole body was distorting, bulging, growing.

A huge claw of sand pushed her out of mid-air and slammed her high against one of the ancient trees. Sakura’s head snapped back against the rough bark with a crack. The sand clamped her like a vice, pushing the air out of her lungs. Dazed, she moaned against the pain.

At the edge of her consciousness, she could feel the sand seeping up her exposed arms and legs, sticking to her skin and oozing through her clothes. It was deep red, and stunk of gristle and old blood.

The scent hit her nose and jarred her to lucidity. This was the sand that crushed his opponents. She was drenched in the life blood of his other victims. And she was next. Sakura sunk her fingers into the gooey mess, trying desperately to lift her limbs and claw her way out.

But the sand constricted instantly, tightening everywhere against her, making her head throb with pressure. Every other sensation was lost to her, save one. She could still hear her own panicked heartbeat, her own relentless thrumming of blood. She was still alive, at least. Maybe if she could—

Sakura managed one more shallow pant before a final squeeze wiped the last of her awareness away.

“She means something to you?” the disfigured sand nin snarled at Sasuke. Sakura’s head suddenly drooped forward over the clutching sand. “Now you have no reason to hold back. I will kill her if you don’t fight me,” he roared.

“Dammit,” Sasuke cursed under his breath, scrambling to his feet to lunge after him.

Following the obvious sounds of fighting, Kakashi landed deftly on a branch but only just missed careening into Gaara’s siblings.

The two didn’t seem to notice him, however.

Kakashi was about to lash out at them for not keeping better track of their brother, but the words died on his lips as he registered Temari’s pale face, and followed Kankuro’s unwavering eye line.

There was Sakura, ashen and limp, pinned to a tree under a clamp of sand. Kakashi’s gut sank like a stone

“She still alive,” Kankuro uttered, astonished. “H-he never leaves anyone alive. Ever.”

“He? Who?” Kakashi mastered himself enough to snap at the siblings.

“Gaara,” Kankuro admitted. “He has control of the sand that’s around her.”

“Then he has to be stopped,” Kakashi said coldly, grasping the situation. He dispatched a clone for backup.

“You two are coming with me,” the silver-haired nin continued in a tone that left no room for argument.

As they took off towards the sound of fighting, Sakura’s sensei peppered them with questions.

“Why are you here?” Kakashi demanded.

The brother looked queasy. “We were sent to monitor Gaara.”

Temari shot him a stern look.

“We were sent by the council to participate in the exams” she said with diffidence.

“I see,” Kakashi said dryly. “And let me guess, Gaara was sent to challenge Sasuke?” They said nothing. But it was clear Kakashi knew much more about the true nature of their visit to Konoha than he was letting on. “Why is she involved in this?”

“She stopped it,” Kankuro said, not bothering to hide his disbelief. “She spoke to him, and stopped it. I didn’t know anyone could…I’ve-I’ve never seen him control it.” Kakashi prompted him to continue. “She told him he was a worthy opponent, that Sasuke had dishonored him. Called him Gaara-san.”

“And that’s it?” Kakashi snapped. This was getting him nowhere.

“She spoke to him with respect,” Temari clarified softly, “even when he was half-transformed. Treated him as if he hadn’t changed at all. She stood right in front of him and just talked to him. It must have given him some control for a moment.”

They tumbled onto the scene just as reinforcements were streaming in from other parts of the village. Gaara’s monstrous form was growing, breaking the treetops. Sasuke flitted from limb to limb, trying to escape it’s swinging claws.

They worked together to deplete his chakra. Gaara exacted a heavy toll before it was over, killing off several shinobi. But they persevered. Kakashi delivered the final blow, shattering the hold the sand had on the boy, and sending him to the forest floor.

Kakashi dropped down through the branches to stand over Gaara’s battered body. The gourd had tumbled beside him, and murky sand streamed from all over the ground, snaking back into the top on its own.

Standing above the fallen Sand nin, Kakashi blinked at him once. He knew what the boy was. And he knew that he could kill him now. Easily.

Kankuro landed softly on the other side of Gaara and looked nervously across at Kakashi. His thoughts ran along the same lines as the Leaf nin.

No one moved for a moment. Kakashi quietly dispatched a clone. It sped off in the direction where Sakura was held.

“I have every right to demand blood for this,” Kakashi said sternly to Kankuro.

“I know,” Kankuro replied. Temari dropped down behind him.

“He is our brother,” Temari said ruefully, “but he is also a monster.”

Kakashi didn’t want to hear it, though. He didn’t see it that way. And apparently neither did Sakura.

“If he can control it,” Kakashi said, pointing at Gaara, “then you have to help him. You both have an obligation to protect him from harm.

“Jinchuuriki’s weren’t meant to be slaves to their demon. Or to their village.” Kakashi stopped and gave them both a probing look. “I will tell you what was told to me many years ago: The role of the jinchuuriki is that of a protector. And it is your job is to protect him.

“Not everyone sees it that way,” he continued, hoping they gathered his underlying message. Not everyone was trustworthy.

Kakashi reconsidered. Maybe they were too young to understand village politics. Better to be blunt.

“Don’t let your council send him out to be their weapon,” Kakashi said firmly. Temari stared outright at him, Kankuro only nodded.

Kakashi watched them closely, let his words sink in. He hoped they proved more capable than he was at their age. After all, Kakashi had failed to protect Konoha’s jinchuuriki.

It was his job, his alone. He had been asked to be the boy’s guardian, and he’d failed to keep him from harm. Or rather, from those who would use him to do harm. Another misery he’d learned to live with, he thought with a deep sigh. Maybe he could keep these kids from making the same mistakes.

But kindness wasn’t the only reason Kakashi had to spare Gaara’s life. Killing their jinchuuriki would surely cause strife between the two countries. Sparing him placed Suna in Konoha’s debt. And Kakashi knew it was political maneuvering their village could use.

The silver-haired nin took a step back.

“The Hokage will make sure your council knows what happened here,” he said. “That we were attacked, and we have forgiven the blood debt owed to us.”

Kankuro replied in kind, straightening his shoulders respectfully and bowing his head. Glad that he didn’t have to go back with the body of his brother and explain how things got so out of hand.

“I will report as well on the attack, and your honor and mercy in sparing his life,” he said.

Kakashi stepped back another pace and let the Sand shinobi claim his brother.

“Thank you,” Kankuro added quietly.

Kakashi nodded quickly. Both leapt away from the spot. Kankuro and Temari carrying their unconscious brother, Kakashi to tend to Sakura.

The Hokage had seen better days. And trying to wrap her head around why her favorite student was involved in a dustup with a foreign shinobi, one that almost took her life, was not a day she wanted to remember.

“So your theory was right,” Kakashi said. “They did send their jinchuuriki to test ‘ours.'” He couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. “But at least we know now that the other nations believe Sasuke to be our jinchuuriki.”

Tsunade nodded soberly at the confirmation.

“Gaara’s goal must have been to draw out his strength,” Kakashi continued, thumbing distractedly at the pages of his romance novel. “And Sasuke was hot-tempered enough to take the bait. Yet in the end, Suna’s council didn’t want to face the possibility that their jinchuuriki might be beaten by ours.”

Kakashi shook his head and slapped the book down on the bedside table.

Sakura stirred — Kakashi and Tsunade turned automatically to the bed — but she didn’t wake. The silve-haired nin sighed and kicked his feet out in front of him, trying to get comfortable in the stiff hospital chair.

“And how exactly did she get involved in this?” Tsunade said, walking around the bed to stand at the window.

“According to Gaara’s siblings, she stood between them,” he said. “She was speaking to Gaara, apparently trying to buy Sasuke a little time.”

Tsunade rolled her eyes at the girl’s naivete. “Talking. She’s a ninja, she should know better. Talking gets you nowhere. They certainly didn’t send him to have a chat.”

But Kakashi shook his head. “No, I think Sakura had the right idea.”

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at him.

“Apparently, he was listening,” he continued. “It had even gone so far as to arrest the transformation. But something Sasuke said provoked it.”

“And what magic words did she use?” Tsunade quipped.

“The two from the Sand said she spoke to him respectfully,” Kakashi said. “Told him he was an honored guest of Konoha and that Sasuke was in the wrong. Wished him safe travels.”

Tsunade looked back over at the soft rise and fall of the bed covers. The bandaged head and the bruised eyes.

“Lot of good it did her,” she said quietly.

Kakashi cleared his throat. “She is the first person he has ever left alive.”

The Hokage shot him a clearly skeptical look.

“His brother said they didn’t think he could control it,” Kakashi explained. “But apparently he can. Or can if he’s encouraged. She must have understood that.”

“Then we are fortunate on many counts,” Tsunade sighed. “But we cannot keep our secrets forever. You saw firsthand how much power he held. And so young….”

She shook her head and folded her arms over her chest.

“That was just a ridiculous display by the fools from the Sand,” she said. “Running about headless without a Kage. To send their jinchuuriki to lure ours out,” she scoffed. “None of the other nations would be so reckless.”

Tsunade cast a sidelong glance at Sakura and walked back around the bed.

“But we would be the fools not to learn from their errors,” she said quietly. “There are other villages, other nations, waiting to hear of Gaara’s conquest. Waiting for news of our ‘jinchuuriki.’ We are still safe, for now, even if they do believe it is Sasuke — which I’m not in favor of, by the way,” Tsunade said emphatically. “He needs to live his own life. The council already has him gagged and bound,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

Kakashi couldn’t help but smile. But Tsunade turned more serious.

“Konoha may as well be built on a crumbling cliff. Ours is a village is without protection. Once it’s finally discovered…” her voice thinned.

“We must find him,” she whispered earnestly to Kakashi. “Everything depends on it.”

Sakura drew in a sudden breath. Her eyelids fluttered open. She blinked at Tsunade, then focused on Kakashi. Her sensei just smiled at her.

“Sakura do you know where you are?” Kakashi said. She nodded slowly. “Do you know why?”

“Gaara,” she said thickly.

Seeing she would be alright, Tsunade reached for the door handle, but Kakashi motioned for her to stay. He wanted to support his theory, wanted to believe that she had seen something different.

“Sakura, what made you decide not to engage…. How did you know to speak to him? Not to fight him?”

She cleared her throat.

“Half-monster, half-human,” she rasped. “Spoke to the human.”

“Weren’t you scared?” Tsunade asked skeptically, leaning a shoulder against the door frame.

Sakura nodded and swallowed.

“Faked it,” she said with a tired smile.

Kakashi just beamed. Tsunade laughed softly and twisted the handle. As the door slid closed, she heard Kakashi murmuring something encouraging to his student, then rhythmic burble of water pouring into a glass.

With a sigh, Tsunade walked back up the empty hall. They truly had been lucky.

But she knew it was only a matter of time before the village’s luck ran out.

Sakura’s recovery was swift, and she eased back into her training and med-nin duties faster than anyone expected. The sheen of her promotion to chuunin stayed with her all summer. Any day, she knew her team would be called for more important missions, the ones that would take them out of the village for days or weeks at a time. She foolishly even lightened her workload expecting them. But as the nights turned cooler and the days grew shorter, her hopes faded.

Then finally, one late-fall morning, any room for doubt was erased. Kneeling on the roof of the Hokage’s tower, flanked by Sasuke and Sai, Sakura watched in disbelief as the crisp brown leaves blew past her fingertips. They were kicked up in the wake of the other nins leaving for their missions. Sakura looked up in time to see the whirling edge of Tsunade’s green cloak as she turned to walk back inside the tower.

They had been left there. Unassigned.

Sasuke never even looked up. He pounded his fist into the ground, then with a wrathful noise he leapt off the tower without another glance back. Beside her, Sai blew out a long, low breath, then left as well, conspicuously heading in the other direction.

Alone, Sakura stood slowly and sunk her hands down onto her hips. Another breeze ruffled her hair and sent more dry leaves scuttling past her feet.

There seemed to be no end to the grating little assignments they had in the village. So many nuisance things that Sakura had lost count. She had begun to think Tsunade was just making up tasks for them to do to keep Team 7 out of her hair.

But she was certain now that they were being singled out. Left behind. She had dismissed it as their lower rank, her lack of experience or Sai’s near-continuous ANBU work…. But she was out of excuses.

Sakura rubbed a hand across the back of her neck and shifted her weight.

She thought of Sasuke, black hair tipped forward over his eyes, hands in tight fists on the ground. He knelt, but his fingers weren’t in taught readiness like the rest of the shinobi, like her, waiting for their assignment. Anticipating the need to launch off the ground at a moment’s notice.

He seemed to know they weren’t going to be assigned. He seemed to be waiting for it.

Sakura’s mouth fell open. Was he the reason? Had someone decided to bar him from missions, keep him in the village? Not let him out of their sight?

Sakura could not think who would hold him back. But she did know one thing for certain: The Hokage assigned all the missions. She would have known Sakura was being passed over as well.

Sakura kicked at a few leaves. She couldn’t help but feel betrayed. The one person who had taken such interest in her training was also the one who kept her back.

‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘it wasn’t Tsunade. It was Sasuke who was holding her back.’

She laughed out loud at the irony. Sasuke had truly become the dead weight on their team.

Sakura took a few steps and leapt of the roof. There was nothing for her to do that day but return to the hospital. Hope that her training and hard work would one day pay off. She’d faced worse, after all, she told herself. But it didn’t make her much feel better.

The winter days ticked by, gray and forgettable. She tried not to take it personally when they were passed over for big missions, but it still stung no matter how she looked at it.

Even her med-nin training was not as enticing as it once was. Sakura’s thoughts often swirled around their team problem while she was plodding through the dry medical research that made up half of her training. She couldn’t fathom why Tsunade would take such interest in her, yet hold her entire team back.

There was nothing for it, though, but to keep going. She wouldn’t solve the dilemma today. Or tomorrow for that matter. ‘Or ever,’ she wanted to yell in frustration.

Instead she sighed deeply and began clearing the examination table. When she started training in earnest, Tsunade moved the sessions to one of the scroll rooms at the bottom of the Hokage’s tower. There was more information available and less interruption by well-meaning hospital staff. And the privacy meant Tsunade could relax a little bit.

But their training was ending early that day because of Tsunade’s meeting with the council. It was a standing date, and the Hokage despised it.

“Damn the clans and their damned rights and regulations! This is a waste of my damned time!” she said as the door slammed behind her.

Most times she tried to get out of it. But this time, she couldn’t.

Sakura was just tucking away the medical scrolls when Tsunade strode back in with a small yellow folder. It had no label.

“Sakura, I need you to bring this to the meeting exactly 25 minutes after it starts. Come to the side door, not the main entrance. And be prompt. Any later and they won’t let you in. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” she said, perplexed, taking the folder. “But isn’t it a closed meeting, for clan members only?”

Tsunade nodded, a corner of her full lips hitched up in a smile. “Yes, that’s why I need this before the half-hour mark.”

“Hai,” Sakura said swiftly.

She counted down the minutes and was headed to the council door at precisely 24 minutes after the start. But fidgeting with the folder on the way down the hall dislodged a paper. It fluttered softly to her feet. Sakura intended to pick it up without looking at it, knowing it must be confidential. But the glaring red letters of “TAKE OUT” emblazoned across the top drew her attention immediately.

Horrified, Sakura snatched up the menu and slipped it back in the folder when the door in front of her opened. The ANBU on guard stepped out and a civilian bustled past.

Sakura crushed the folder to her chest. Had she set Tsunade’s folder down then picked up a different one by mistake?

“Are you here for Hokage-sama,” the ANBU asked.

Sakura thinned her lips and nodded quickly.

“I was told to expect you,” he said and ushered her in. The door lock clicked unmistakeably behind her.

Sakura stood for a moment and let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light. She had entered through a side door onto a broad ceremonial room. The council was seated around a horseshoe shaped table, with Tsunade at one end of it, the Fire Daimyo and his advisors making up the bulk of it, rounded out by the village’s two very frail looking elders. Across the room, beyond the expansive floor, several clan representatives waited in the shadowy darkness.

Sakura made her way unobtrusively down the side of the room to stand behind Tsunade. The woman held out her hand expectantly. Sakura grimaced but stepped forward, put the folder in her palm, then stepped back to her spot. It was clear that she was expected to stay there. Tsunade set the folder aside for the moment.

Man after man came forward before the council, aired their grievances or made requests, and the council render it’s verdict. It went on and on. Their troubles were petty, the demands were ridiculous, and Sakura’s feet were beginning to ache. She could understand why Tsunade hated it.

Sakura wondered distantly if it might be a punishment to make her stand here, until the last man came forward out of the shadows.

It was Sasuke.

Cutting an intimidating presence in his black fatigues, he looked as arrogant as ever. He stood in the center, directly in front of the Daimyo, and shot them all a hard look.

No one spoke. He made no request. In fact, it was almost like Sasuke was waiting on them. As if this were an inconvenience to him, not the other way around.

The men at the center of the table, however, were unfazed.

“Uchiha Sasuke, same as the last time,” the long-faced Daimyo drawled, “your request is denied.”

“It is my right as the head of my clan—” Sasuke demanded.

“You are still 16?” the man cut him off.

“Yes, but I turn—”

“Then you have not yet reached maturity,” he continued, almost bored, “and therefore are still a ward of the village.”

“You forget the role of the Uchiha in this village,” Sasuke said incensed, pointing a finger at the man. The Daimyo looked as if he wanted to roll his eyes. “I have the right to leave the village, go on missions.”

Sasuke ground his hands into his fists. Seizing on another thought, his voice turned low and deadly.

“My clan’s techniques are not a weapon to be used only when you see fit.”

“We have not forgotten your clan’s role in this village,” the man said condescendingly. “And we want to help you preserve the Uchiha’s esteemed techniques—”  But Sasuke cut across his words.

“By keeping me under lock and key?”

“By keeping you alive,” the Daimyo snapped. “You are targeted by other villages, not just by your….” but the man thought better of mentioning Itachi Uchiha in front of Sasuke. And he wouldn’t meet the young nin’s eye to see his mounting fury. Instead the man shuffled the papers in front of him in dismissal.

“You are suspended to D- and C-rank missions until we decide otherwise. And right now, those are all here in the village,” the Daimyo pronounced. “This decision stands, no matter how many times you come before us.”

The two ancient elders opposite Tsunade nodded their approval. How Tsunade felt about this, Sakura could not tell. But from behind her, she could see the woman’s arms were folded tightly. She was not pleased, Sakura knew that much for sure.

Sasuke pivoted and left the room, slamming the door behind him so hard it rattled the wall.

Sakura had not moved during the entire episode.

Over Tsunade’s shoulder, she watched her open the folder and circle a main entree and a few sides off the menu. She snapped the folder shut and held it up for Sakura to retrieve.

“Take this to Shizune. She’ll know what to do,” she said with a dramatic whisper.

She acted as if it was the most important document in Konoha. Sakura stared at the folder, confused. Was she missing something here?

She took the folder anyway, but Tsunade didn’t let go.

Tipping her face up in question, Sakura caught Tsunade’s glittering eyes. A ghost of a smile played on her lips.

It dawned on Sakura then that the whole thing had been a ruse.

The formidable woman had orchestrated a way for Sakura to be in the room, to see what was going on with her teammate, without ever having to tell her. In fact, Sakura knew these meetings were strictly classified. Tsunade probably was forbidden from even talking about it, as a concession to the cagey clan heads.

Sakura understood. Folder in hand, she stifled the urge to grin back.

“Hai,” Sakura nodded firmly. Then she turned and left the room with a ridiculously purposeful air, as if Tsunade’s take-out order for lunch truly was the most important document in Konoha.

Sakura picked up the overstuffed crate and stacked it beside the back screen door of a busy Konoha store. She wondered how unloading the teetering merchant’s cart classified as a “mission,” but tried not to let it bother her.

Attending the council meeting made all of the irritating village missions more bearable. She wasn’t being singled out by Tsunade. Sakura just had the misfortune of being paired with Konoha’s most closely monitored nin.

Not that it changed Sasuke’s attitude any, she thought as she heard him drop a crate a little too roughly.

“Oi,” the red-faced merchant yelled from the doorway. “There better not be anything broken!”

Sakura grimaced. She wished Sasuke would just try to get along with these people. It would make everything easier.

As it was, the only reason Team 7 completed most of their missions was because Sakura was left to smooth things over. Sai was away most of the time, and Sasuke…. Well usually it only took one cross word or an outlandish demand to send him storming off. Leaving her to apologize and finish the job.

But truthfully, Sakura was glad to see him go. It made everything easier.

At least he showed up for the missions, she thought, that was something. He did have some scruples about doing the job that was assigned to him. And it couldn’t be easy, she thought charitably, knowing it was the council holding him back.

She sighed, hoisted up another crate then set it gingerly down next to the others.

Sai had ANBU, but for her and Sasuke this was it. There was really no other outlet. The hospital work was just plain hard. And what good is med-nin training if you can’t get to a battlefield?

She stood and stretched her back.

As far as assignments went though, she thought as she dusted her hands, this one definitely sucked. But they were a team, and this was their mission. There were no others. So she stuck it out.

Closing her eyes for a moment, Sakura wiped the sweat off her face. When she opened her eyes she nearly jumped as she found two ANBU standing right in front of her.

One nodded at her. She nodded back, the familiar chill creeping in that they were here for her. Instead Sai stepped forward, said a brisk goodbye to his team, and the three were gone just as quickly as they’d arrived.

She breathed a small sigh of relief, but turned to find Sasuke staring blackly at the empty space, a full crate balanced on his hip. Something inside him snapped.

He threw down box with an oath, shattering the wood at one end of it. Broken shards spilled out with their wrappings, but he never even saw it. Sasuke turned on his heel and strode away, hands splayed at his sides as if trying to rid himself of something that clung to him.

Sakura looked at fragments of wood and porcelain that littered the ground — the irritated voice of the merchant was already carrying out of the store door, shouting about “broken goods” and “who’s going to pay” — then she looked to the unyielding line of Sasuke’s shoulders. He wasn’t turning around. Was he really going to leave her with this mess?

Sakura’s cheeks flushed with anger. She didn’t mind smoothing over his bad behavior, finishing things up on her own. But this was unforgivable.

Sakura dashed up the lane after him. She was not going to take the blame for his temper-tantrum. The screened door crashed behind her. Sakura cringed, but didn’t stop. The exploding voice of the merchant sent birds flying from the trees. But she didn’t turn back. She had a bone to pick with her teammate.

“Sasuke,” she yelled after him. He only turned his head slightly at his name but kept his brisk pace.

“We are a team, you can not leave a mission,” she said, closing the distance between them.

At that, he finally did stop. His rage had cooled a little. Sasuke turned on her with that arrogant smirk she knew so well.

“We are no team, Sakura,” he said coldly. “This is a waste of my time.”

“It was assigned to Team 7, we have to do it,” was all she could think to say. “Whether we like it or not.”

“No ‘we’ don’t,” he rounded on her. “Sai doesn’t have to do this. And I shouldn’t be. But you,” he sneered, “this is all you’ve got.”

It was so cruel it took her breath away.

“If you want to keep wasting your time here, trying to get into the Hokage’s good graces,” he narrowed his eyes knowingly, “then be my guest.” He turned to go, but said over his shoulder, “Just quit annoying me, Sakura. ‘We’ are no team.”

Without another look back, he turned and walked away, leaving her standing in the middle of the street.

Sasuke’s words hit her like a slap. She just stood there and watched him go. Leaving her to pick up the pieces. Literally.

He was right. This was no team. And her doing the bulk of the work was not teamwork. But some way, somehow, even though she knew it wasn’t true, he had made her feel like she was the one screwing it up again.

Sakura collected herself and numbly returned to the job. She didn’t hear the merchant shouting about how Konoha ninjas were good-for-nothings nowadays. She didn’t blink when he demanded she pay out of her own pocket for the whole crate of goods. She didn’t say a word when he threatened to report every last bit of this incident to the Hokage.

Several hours later she unloaded and finished the mission. By herself.

“Thank you for your patronage, sir,” she said tonelessly. “The Hokage will reimburse you for the damages.”

The screen door slammed in her face.

She sighed and bent a sore arm to tuck the mission scroll in her pocket. Then she slowly made her way to the Hokage’s office to make her report.

“Enter,” Tsunade said tiredly. Sakura founded her seated between two very large stacks of paperwork on her desk.

She sat back and sighed, pushing blonde wisps away from her forehead.

“I heard what happened,” she said, saving Sakura the trouble. “Sasuke’s already been by. Said he’ll pay for the damages.”

Sakura was too tired to be gracious, so she just kept her mouth shut.

But she scowled at the memory of his callous words. To have worked so hard, in spite of everything, to cultivate a team, only to have it thrown in her face?

”Bastard,’ she thought bitterly.

Her expression wasn’t missed by Tsunade.

“Yes,” she said dryly, “my thoughts exactly.”

Sasuke’s generosity was little consolation for sticking her with the blame and the work. Tsunade guessed there was more to the story, but she’d let Sakura cool off first before she asked what really happened.

Tsunade took up another sheet of paper from the largest stack, gave it a quick glance, then wearily plopped it onto the top of the smaller stack.

Sakura felt a little ashamed. Her problems with Team 7 seemed ridiculous compared to the duties of a Hokage. She had the care of a whole village on her shoulders. And these mountains of paperwork were daunting enough. How could one village produce so much documentation?

“Um, Tsunade-sama,” Sakura said hesitantly, “what is all this stuff?”

The Hokage recited all the possible things that could be in the highest pile — legal documents, ordinances, complaints, deeds, the list went on and on — then she laid her hand atop the smaller stack.

“And these are requests made to Konoha by anyone and everyone. Some just need an official, but some need an armed escort. Some are within the Fire Country and some are from bordering nations,” she said.

She drummed her red fingernails on the papers.

“But we simply don’t have enough teams available to fill these minor requests. I can’t justify it. And you’re team,” her mouth snapped into a frown at the thought. “As you well know, it’s just not an option.”

Irritated, she picked up a few more folders from the largest pile and flipped through them. One she threw in the trash outright, the other she slapped onto the mission request pile.

Sakura looked at the growing stack. She had overhead enough in the past two years to know it reflected badly on the village to let any requests go unfilled. Made them look weak. Tsunade would never say it, but Sakura guessed she must be doing everything in her power to keep up the village’s facade of strength.

“Just like her,” Sakura thought, glancing at the purple diamond on her forehead. The mark that controlled her chakra and kept her appearance flawless, even in midst of all this mess.

Shizune knocked quietly and pushed the door back, carrying tea and another stack of papers.

Tsunade groaned.

Sakura stepped aside, dug around in her hip pack and pulled out the mission scroll. Her filthy hands, her burning muscles were harsh reminders of the work she’d done today, alone. She dropped the scroll into the box of completed missions, beside the growing stack of requested ones.

Sakura thought about what Tsunade had said. Those missions required a single person, someone in an official capacity from Konoha, maybe as a ninja, maybe as a beast of burden, and she didn’t want to assign them to an entire team because the status was so far beneath them…. Well that sounded like everything she’d done for the last year. She was somewhat of an expert at nuisance jobs that she had to handle on her own.

And what difference would it make if was inside the village or out of it? As long as Sasuke wasn’t around, it had to be better. The thought of another mission with him after today’s episode made her stomach turn.

“Tsunade-sama,” she began again. “Would you consider these D- or C-ranked?”

“Yes, most of them,” she said, glancing at the pile. Shizune filled a small cup with tea, then set about trying to find a clear spot on the desk to put it.

Sakura cleared her throat and studied the dirt under her fingernails with a frown, thinking of how she could help.

Clearing her throat again, Sakura dropped her hand to her hip, shifted her weight and tipped her face toward the ceiling. A few solutions came to mind, but she’d have to put it to the Hokage….

Sakura was just tapping her other fingers on her chin when she happened to glance across the desk. Both Tsunade and Shizune were staring back at her. The teacup slanted at a dangerous angle from Shizune’s grasp.

Sakura dropped her hands immediately to her sides and cleared her throat again. Tsunade smiled, finding her student’s discomposure mildly amusing.

Sakura had been trying to find a delicate way to broach it — she’d never heard of nins requesting their own assignments — but maybe this time it was better to just be honest.

“Why couldn’t I do these missions? I mean, they sound like what I already do anyway. Nuisance jobs for ungrateful clients, right?” she said, rolling her eyes. “And I’ve been handling those on my own for a while now.” Her voice dropped a notch at the recollection, but she banished the errant thoughts. “So, these assignments would be no different really, just outside the village walls rather than inside.”

Tsunade’s small smile vanished. Shizune plunked the teacup down on top of the highest stack of papers, her mouth slightly open.

Sakura cringed. Maybe she’d been a little too honest.

“I-I can’t believe—” Tsunade said with a small gasp. Sakura shut her eyes.

“I can’t believe we didn’t think of this earlier. It’s perfect!”

Sakura’s eyes flew open to see Tsunade beaming at her.

“Really?” she said, not believing it herself.

Shizune put a hand to her mouth and laughed. Tsunade smiled with her, shaking her head in amazement at their good fortune, then looked back to Sakura.

“I guess sometimes the answer can be right in front of you, but you just don’t see it,” she said.

Sakura smiled too. It was the answer to so many problems. Tsunade’s requests were filled. Sakura could make a difference for her village. No more Team 7. No more Sasuke!

“Well,” said Tsunade, breathing deeply. “Let’s get to work, shall we?”

She pulled off the topmost folder in the mission request pile while Shizune scooped up the teacup from it’s precarious perch atop the other pile.

Sakura stepped forward to help sort through the files, picking out which requests she could plow through first. Her weariness from the day’s assignments was completely forgotten.

Before the week was out, Sakura already had her first two missions lined up. And three more were assigned for the following week. She couldn’t be happier.

Those first rounds of missions were a blur. Some were finished within a day, some required overnight travel. And the tasks ran the gamut, but most often she found herself delivering official scrolls or picking them up.

Sakura enjoyed being outside of the village, learning about the people and places of her country. She visited temples and political offices, chatted with merchants and healers. She found the diplomacy suited her. And she was growing more comfortable relying on her own strength and intuition to get her through. Though the assignments were never dangerous, each request was unique and presented its own special challenges and benefits.

As the weeks passed and more missions were assigned, it seemed sometimes Sakura was outside of the village more than she was in it. Tsunade mentioned more than once that she could slow down, but Sakura never did.

And Tsunade was quietly pleased. They were moving through the request pile faster than she’d hoped.

Winter gave way to spring, and Tsunade sent her farther afield on longer, more involved assignments. Instead of just overnight, Sakura would sometimes be required to stay several days at a time. She didn’t bat an eye. The missions were still within the Fire Country, but now her skill as a shinobi was required in addition to acting as an official emissary from Konoha.

In one town, Sakura was assigned to oversee a simple trade agreement in Konoha’s stead. The local officials were pleased and treated the her with every courtesy afforded a visiting dignitary.

But the request that was sent to Tsunade carried some confidential aspects. It asked for a shinobi to be sent as well, in case there were problems enforcing the agreement. Sakura filled both roles perfectly. And just her presence at the meeting was enough to ensure success.

Tsunade received glowing reports from the town. And since Sakura was perfectly willing and capable to handle the small risk of these types of missions, she let her field a few more. Each was a success.

So it wasn’t long before towns outside the country’s borders began petitioning Konoha as well.

They were the essentially the same requests, aid and possible enforcement of some trade regulations. But it was the fact that it was out of the Fire Country that gave Tsunade pause. There were inherent dangers out there, and different laws. Some areas did not smile on foreign nins, no matter how much their country paid for them to be there. Sakura would always have to be on guard. She would have to know when to be the smiling ambassador…and when to be the brutal ninja.

So one late-spring morning, tired of agonizing over it, Tsunade put the decision to Sakura.

The Hokage rolled the mission scroll in her hand, explained the request, what was expected of her, and what dangers she might face.

“I don’t care about these other countries,” she admitted after she’d explained every other aspect of the mission. “How they conduct their affairs is none of my concern. But our presence there, in a time of peace, strengthens our ties to these smaller countries. In short, Sakura, the benefit is not for money or Konoha’s reputation, it is political.”

Tsunade watched the young kunoichi closely. Sakura needed to understand exactly what was involved.

“Though the tasks are nearly identical to the ones you have already completed within Fire, there are any number of unknown dangers you might face in a border country.”

Sakura nodded soberly, but wasn’t backing down. Tsunade knew she wouldn’t

“Do you think you can handle it?” the Hokage asked one last time, for her own sake.

“Of course!” Sakura returned with bright self-assurance. She was sure she could handle it.

Tsunade was pleased. If there was any hesitation, she would have withdrawn the assignment. But seeing Sakura’s reaction, Tsunade knew she’d be fine.

So nearly overnight, Sakura’s mission roster changed from checking up on Fire Country needs to being Konoha’s armed emissary to other countries.

The summer days stretched out long and warm, and she enjoyed the travel. The first assignment went off without a hitch. And so had the second.

It was remarkable, she thought as she stood at the edge of a wood line and barley field, embarking on her third border-country mission, that she would be on her own, responsible, capable, and not a fear in the world.

The other two assignments had been interesting. The people she found were generally the same as her own countrymen, and the concerns were similar. She had yet to encounter any surprises. With any luck, this mission would turn out the same.

Letting the backpack sag off her hot shoulders, she scanned the road. Sakura seriously doubted she’d come across anyone out here who would pose a threat, but she knew how to handle it if she did. That old feeling, being vulnerable and alone, was a distant memory. After all, that had been two summers ago.

Sakura tried not to think about the rogue, afraid that somehow bringing him to mind would reveal something. But she wondered about him often enough when she didn’t mean to.

She saw things so differently now. The towns and the people. She always checked her surroundings, watched her back. Even as she smiled and said hello, she was constantly sizing them up. Did it as second nature. She knew how to protect herself. And she knew it was because of him.

Sakura hoisted the pack back up on her shoulders, and curled her hair behind her ears. Pink locks sat hot and thick against her collarbone.

On the other side of the field, a trade road shimmered with heat, blazing silver-white in the noonday sun. The glare hurt her eyes, but she knew that was the road she needed to be on.

She sighed and set off, tromping over the yellow fields, leaving the cool shade of the trees behind.

Sakura had walked quite a while in the midday heat without seeing another soul, when the off-kilter cadence of a push cart echoed up the lane. Sure enough, an old farmer came trudging up in the distance.

Good, she thought, she was getting close to a town.

The old man must not have been expecting to see anyone either. Her footfalls were silent by nature, but he happened to glance up the lane and was completely startled to see another person.

He nearly jerked to a halt. The cart wobbled precariously. Steadying it quickly, he smashed his hat to his head as if it were going to blow away. But not even the wispy tops of the golden barley moved in the thick heat.

He straightened some to get a better look at her, hat still crushed to his head. Sakura had to turn away to keep from laughing at him.

Good thing she was a medic, she thought. She nearly gave him a heart attack.

When Sakura looked again, the old man was hunched back over his cart, rapidly closing the distance between them.

His arms were weathered and brown, and wrinkles sagged out past his floppy sleeves. The cart was rustic, and contained nothing of real value. She could hear the flop-flopping of his sandals as he got closer. Just an old farmer, she summed up.

Sakura lifted her eyes to nod a polite greeting as she passed, but found his gaze absolutely riveted to her. The battered straw hat was knocked back, revealing a wrinkled leather face. But the intensity of his look made her uncomfortable.

Catching her eyes, he grinned broadly at her.

He wasn’t a threat, she thought, but maybe he was just an old pervert.

She nodded a greeting, but now with a much less friendly air.

She drew even with the old man and quickly shifted her eyes back to the road ahead. She didn’t see, so she couldn’t be sure, but she thought he didn’t look away from her as she walked by.

She thought he might have turned his head and kept watching her as she passed. That ridiculous grin still plastered on his face.

Weird old man, Sakura thought. He’s probably not seen a girl around here in years.

She was just chuckling to herself at the thought of that old man and how startled he was to see a pink-haired kunoichi, of all things, coming straight at him on an empty road, when she heard a crash a few paces behind her.

She thought she heard a curse, someone say “shit,” but when she turned it was just the old man.

He was standing beside his overturned cart, looking sheepish and rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.

“Miss?” he said.

Maybe that’s what she heard, Sakura thought, narrowing her eyes at him suspiciously.

“My back is so bad these day…. Do you think you could help me….” he said, motioning to the pile of junk with a knobby brown hand. His strange, raspy voice dissolved in nervous laughter.

Sakura frowned. What a weirdo. But she couldn’t just leave him there.

She glanced at the fields to either side of them. Wide and empty. Nothing else seemed amiss.

‘The sooner I help him, the sooner I’m on my way,’ she thought with a sigh.

So Sakura headed straight back up the lane toward the cart. He didn’t move, only rubbed the back of his neck, watching her approach.

This was testing Sakura’s patience.

Pushing the cart back up between them, Sakura bent to collect the strange assortment of items that had tipped out. An old rucksack, four or five pieces of fruit and a single cabbage, a few clods of dirt and old scraps of fabric, and a handful of old tools.

Sakura grabbed the things off the ground and dumped them back into the cart quickly. She was just leaning forward to drop the last tool in, a garden trowel that could have easily taken the place of a kunai, when the man’s calloused fingers wrap around her wrist.

She glanced at the hand on her arm, getting really irritated now. But it blurred suddenly at the edge of her vision.

Her eyes widened with panic. A henge.

“Sakura,” came a warm voice in front of her. She snapped her head up so quickly she nearly collided with the battered straw hat. But instead of the old farmer, she found herself looking into a smooth, young, very familiar face.

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