25 Nov 2020 10 Comments
They worked through the year, but they still were not a team. The chunin exams were approaching, and Kakashi warned them if they didn’t figure it out they wouldn’t make it through the exam. They would most certainly be killed.
But even his most stern warning didn’t get through.
And after a small mission went awry and they’d nearly gotten killed — where Kakashi had to save them all from their attackers and from each other — Kakashi had finally had enough.
The walk back to Konoha was silent. Team 7 finally seemed obedient. It was almost like they could sense that they had crossed a line with Kakashi.
But once back inside Konoha’s gates, Sakura, Sai and Sasuke thought they might get off easy. They were exhausted, dirty and bruised, and it was clear they hoped their leader’s prolonged silence meant that they would just be dismissed. They were wrong.
Kakashi’s voice rumbled to life. “Meet at the bridge. At dawn.” He met their surprised eyes and answered their unasked question. “No rest,” he said emphatically.
He usually gave them a day off after missions.
“If you all can’t get it right, then I’m sending you back to academy.” Sasuke scowled and Kakashi doubled down. “All of you. And not just for a visit. You will each have to start over again. From the beginning!”
The angry timbre in his voice, the finality of his words shook them all. It was the only thing keeping Sasuke quiet.
Kakashi leveled a hard look at him for a moment, and Sasuke understood the perilous position he was in. Kakashi held his entire fate in his hands. They both knew what Sakura and Sai and the rest of their classmates did not: Sasuke was under observation by the council.
As the last member of his clan he was entitled to certain rights. But first he had to prove himself.
Kakashi was no longer in the mood to keep that secret.
“We’re going to do more teamwork training tomorrow,” he looked at Sasuke as he spoke, “and I’ve invited the council to come see how much you’ve progressed.”
Sasuke’s mouth fell open in shock. Sakura and Sai glanced between them, not fully comprehending the exchange but understanding that it couldn’t be good.
Kakashi waited for Sasuke to lose his temper, but it took every shred of restraint Sasuke had not to take the bait. Sasuke knew he couldn’t go against Kakashi.
“Right. Tomorrow morning then.” Without another word Kakashi flash-stepped away.
The next day they showed up at dawn, expecting him to be late. But he was there, waiting for them. That was not a good sign.
Kakashi did not greet them. Instead he pulled a large roll of red ribbon from his pocket and began to unwind it.
Sakura recognized it as the ribbon from their school days. It was part of her favorite game.
Wanting to break the tense silence, Sakura went to speak, but Kakashi raised a hand, stopping her.
“I know what you are going to say,” he said, never looking up, “and you are, of course, correct, Haruno. This is from the academy.”
Sakura fidgeted, feeling like she hadn’t helped things at all. Sasuke shot her a mean look for speaking to him.
Kakashi slowly unrolled the rest of the ribbon. “Although it’s true Team 7 has passed its D and C missions, I have a feeling that the little old ladies of Konoha are happy to have their cats back no matter how it gets done.” He looked at Sasuke, “With visual tracking,” then to Sai, “or ferocious drawings,” then to Sakura, “or process of elimination.” The last of the ribbon wound out. “And of course a fair amount of luck.
Kakashi looked at the three before him. It wasn’t lost on him that any time they stood together, Sakura and Sasuke always put Sai in between them. But that was a problem for another time.
“If I hadn’t been your sensei, you would be dead right now.”
Sasuke couldn’t hold back his anger any longer. “Or we’d have a better teacher and a better team—“
Sakura gasped. Even Sai angled away as if Sasuke had just lit a fuse. But Kakashi didn’t blink.
“I am the best teacher you three will ever have,” he said, steel in his voice. “Any other teacher would not have known what to do with you.”
The observers from the council were approaching. Sasuke silently bowed his head.
“But a better team…. Now you’re figuring it out, Sasuke.” He spoke louder, so that the observers could hear him too. “I have let you all go on for too long without understanding the real value of teamwork. It could save your life. That bond is more important than your skill, more important than any weapon—“
Safe from view of the observers, Sasuke rolled his eyes. Kakashi had delivered this speech many times. It never worked.
Irritated, Kakashi stopped.
“If you three can’t work together as a team here, then you’ll never make it to the chunin exams.” He smiled suddenly. “But I think I’ve figured out a way to see if you’re ready.”
He took the ribbon and tied it around first Sakura’s wrist, let a length fall between them, then Sai’s wrist and let the length fall, then he stood in front of Sasuke. Sasuke didn’t move.
Kakashi had a devilish glimmer in his eyes. “Remember,” he said quietly, “you have guests….”
Sasuke shoved his arm forward.
“Now…. The more you work together, the more freedom you have. The less you work together, the less freedom you have. Understand?”
They looked at him in shocked silence.
Sakura rallied first. “T-This is not at all the game we used to play—“
“Good!” Kakashi said it in a way that didn’t sound good to them at all. “I was hoping you’d remember this game! Sakura, please explain it to us!” She didn’t want to answer. “Go ahead!”
Sakura mumbled her way through the explanation that they already knew. “We have to follow each other, no matter what, and not let go of the rope.”
“Ah, yes. Such fun! And you say you loved that game, Haruno?”
She nodded miserably.
“Well, good. Chin up! Hopefully you’ll come to love this one just as much!”
She frowned. She was sure she wouldn’t. Sasuke scoffed. Only Sai, standing in between them, looked out with an emotionless face.
Kakashi leveled a hard gaze at him, then at the other two. He wondered just how long it would be till they cracked. Sai would probably be the last one. But he’d break. They all did.
“Alright!” He clapped his hands together. “New rules for the ribbon game! You have to pass each mission I set out for you successfully. If you do, you get more freedom. If you don’t, you will only get closer together—“
Sai’s emotionless facade didn’t waiver. Kakashi couldn’t help himself. He reach out and grabbed Sai’s face, “Until the two of you are—“ he squeezed Sai’s cheeks together as he spoke each word— “smushed right up next to Sai!”
Kakashi let go, and Sai blinked, his face falling back into its impassive mask. But he was pleased to see that an irritated crinkle was beginning to twitch at the corner of Sai’s eye.
Sakura and Sasuke leaned away from the display, looked horrified. Sakura did not want to be next if Kakashi was giving out smushy-faces, and Sasuke looked like he was about to blow his top, but Kakashi stopped him—
“Ah-ah-ah, I’m not finished. Last rule. You may not speak to each other. Or to me. At all.”
They gasped. Even Sai’s calm veneer looked like it was cracking.
“Okay, okay,” Kakashi said, smiling, “maybe that’s a little too rough. Sometimes I get carried away and go too far. How about this…. You can speak. But, you can only say ‘We move as one.’”
Sasuke couldn’t take it. “What?!?”
Kakashi put a finger to his ear. “I couldn’t hear that? What did you say? Already disobeying orders then?”
He stepped forward to grab the red rope as if he was going to make good on his threat and tie them a little closer.
Sakura shook her head fiercely, even Sai looked nervous. They both pulled their arms back. Only Sasuke defiantly left his arms out, daring Kakashi to tie them closer.
This time, Kakashi did not. But only this once. He turned away, speaking as he did. “Your mission today is the bell test—“
Kakashi whipped his head back, but they were immediately silent. He looked at them all for a long moment before he continued. “I’ll go easy on you, though. You just have to put one finger on it. Not take it.”
He pulled out a timer. “Alright,” he said, gaze moving to each of them. The timer clicked loudly in his hand. “Off you go….“
They looked at him, stunned. Thinking quick, Sasuke stepped forward to touch the bell, his face turning smug when the first jingle filled the air—
Kakashi exploded under his fingertip.
They were shocked. Kakashi appeared at the tree line, waving. The observers laughed at the deception.
Sasuke’s face burned red, and it was clearly taking everything in his power not to shout at Kakashi or the observers. But he didn’t.
They moved together, jogging in a spread-out line to the woods after Kakashi, but he evaded them. Finally, out of sight of the council and their clipboards, Sasuke whispered “How are we supposed to do this if we’re shackled together?”
Kakashi appeared and clicked his timer. “Not even two minutes.” He shook his head. “That’s a record. You all are officially the worst team.”
He pulled the ropes closer between them, making them move a step closer together.
Sasuke was about to mouth off, and Kakashi paused his hands to look up at him, daring him, when Sakura interjected. “We move as one!”
It was more of a panicked shout than statement, but it made Kakashi chuckle.
“Now you’re getting it.” He pulled out the timer and pressed it. “Alright, start again.”
They started again, this time making it seven minutes before Sasuke jerked hard on the ribbon, pulling Sakura into Sai with a loud, “Ow!”
Sasuke defended himself as their self-appointed leader. “Well if you would listen to what I say and follow me, then—“
Sakura fired back, “If you would just tell us first, then we could—
Sai pushed Sakura off him, and looked up soundlessly as Kakashi clicked his timer.
Sasuke and Sakura froze when they realized their error.
Kakashi bit down his smile as he pulled them a step closer. Then he stepped back. Sai looked put upon. Kakashi said, “You know what’s next, don’t you Sai?”
But Sai, who had been trained in Root, was too smart to fall for that trick.
“We move as one.”
Kakashi laughed. “That’s right. It probably won’t be Sai that gets you all cheek-to-cheek.” He glanced at Sai. “Although every shinobi has his breaking point.”
Sai shifted uncomfortably.
Pleased that he got a response, Kakashi smiled as if he was really enjoying this. He clicked the timer and disappeared.
They started again. Coming to a fork in the trail, Sasuke gave a hard jerk on the ribbon to make a turn and was about to speak when they didn’t immediately follow him, but he caught himself. Teeth gritted, Sasuke said, “We move as one,” then pitched his head toward one side of the trail.
Sakura disagreed. On the opposite side of the path, Sakura tipped her head toward the other fork. “We move as one,” she said, not as sternly, but no less certain.
There was an impasse. Sasuke wouldn’t repeat himself, and Sakura wouldn’t budge. She said it again. “We move as one,” then jerked her head to her side.
It dawned on them at the same time that they had a tiebreaker standing between them. Sai.
He looked at both of them, then, without a word, nodded in the direction on Sakura’s side. Sasuke was put out, but he went along.
From the shadowy canopy, Kakashi nodded. Sasuke yielding to the group was their first stroke of true teamwork. Without a sound, he leapt from limb to limb, followed their backs.
Sakura picked up on Sai’s communications immediately. Kakashi supposed it was cheating to put a trained shinobi in their mix. He was, in fact, looking forward to wrapping their hands together and making them really hate each other. Sai might ruin that. But Kakashi hadn’t yet given up hope. There might still be time….
They wound down several more trails, more or less successfully. Some of them, however, were certainly not on the map as Kakashi knew it. He considered this as the three crept underneath him, looking everywhere. The training forest was leading them in circles. It must have sensed their frustration. Kakashi smiled deeply. Now the forest was toying with them too.
When they finally came to another split in the trail that Kakashi recognized, he settled down to watch. This one should be interesting….
Sakura and Sasuke stood at either ends of the ribbon, with Sai at the mid-point, all three looking for a sign of something familiar. A hint that one path was the ‘right’ path.
Sasuke stepped forward to peer down one sunlit path. Behind him, Sakura nodded significantly to Sai. She beckoned him, waited for him to acknowledge, and when he didn’t, she tapped his arm. Sai looked up. She pointed from Sasuke’s path to a shadier, winding path beside them, then up toward the sky. He immediately understood. Using little hand signals, they began working out the angle of the sun to chose the best direction to go.
Kakashi was pleased. They were moving faster than he expected, at least. Silent communication was imperative for them to stay alive, as long as they worked together— But maybe he’d spoken too soon—
Sasuke decided their course and stepped forward onto the broad, sunny path, pulling them all behind him. He wasn’t speaking, but he also wasn’t yielding.
Sai resisted. Kakashi knew why. In the middle of the seemingly empty path was a glistening razor wire. Really, it was only a rounded trip wire. It wouldn’t hurt as much, but the scare would be the same.
From where he stood, Sai caught sight of its glinting flash. But Sasuke was too close. It would have been impossible for him to see it until he was upon it. It wasn’t deadly, but if he was going to avoid it, then he would need his teammates’ help.
Sakura might have seen it too and been able to alert him, but she was too busy tugging them in the opposite direction. What she could not know was that the fallen log at the first corner of the path concealed a paper bomb. Just like the razor wire, it was only a trick, a simple flash bomb. It wouldn’t hurt them, just scare them.
Sai immediately looked at the fallen log and frowned. There were no fallen leaves on top or at the sides, so it was recently placed there. No doubt it was a trap too. Trained shinobi that he was, only Sai would have been taught how to notice out-of-place items in the forest. Not Sasuke or Sakura. But if Sai didn’t help out his teammates then they were in just as much danger as if he wasn’t there at all.
Sakura tugged them towards it, while Sasuke pulled the other way. The ribbon between them was straightening. Sai refused to move in either direction, but their silent skirmish was pulling him forward, closer to the edge of the path.
Behind his mask, Kakashi’s mouth curved up into a wicked grin. This was just what he was hoping for….
Sai’s eyes went wide. He just realized why the square patch of leaves in front of him looked so strange—
But Sasuke broke their fragile teamwork first. He opened his mouth to yell back at them but stopped himself at the last minute to growl instead, “We move as one,” then yanked hard on the rope. They tumbled forward into him.
Catching sight of the shimmering wire, Sakura immediately started dragging them back from danger, pleading, “We move as one!” but Sasuke couldn’t understand.
Sai stumbled backwards with her, catching sight of the log over she shoulder. He shook his head. It wasn’t a viable option either—
But Sakura was still pulling, then Sasuke jerked harder back, forgetting where they were and intent only on winning the tug-of-war. Sai lurched forward suddenly, and got a clear view of what was waiting for them if they kept this up—
Kakashi’s last trap, a pit covered with leaves just off the path, just out of the angle of sight. If he fell in, he’d drag them both in on top of him—
Sai tried to stand and warn them, another hard tug sent him stumbling right for it—
That was the last straw. “Stop it! Both of you!”
It echoed off the trees, but it worked. Both stopped, eyes blinking, shocked at his outburst.
Slow realization broke over Sai’s face. He was the one to disobey orders this time—
Kakashi landed on the path. All three were caught.
“We move as one,” they said in breathy unison.
Kakashi laughed mirthlessly. “A little late for that, I think.”
But instead of pulling them even more tightly together, Kakashi slid the rope from their wrists and pocketed it.
“That’s enough for today. I’m starving and I don’t want to babysit you three all night. Be at the bridge at dawn.”
None of them were relieved. They knew enough of Kakashi now to be concerned.
“Sasuke, I dismissed your observers long ago. But they’ll be back.” He wasn’t joking, and Sasuke didn’t laugh.
With a single salute, Kakashi left in a flicker. The rest broke off, going their separate ways without a sound. Sasuke went first as if he couldn’t get away fast enough. Sai turned back to the forest to retrace his steps, identify his moment of error and remedy it for future assignments. And then it was only Sakura, who was left with nothing to do but watch their backs as they left.
She knew if they were really a team, then they would have talked about tomorrow, about what Kakashi might have planned, and about how they could succeed. Or succeed at thwarting him.
But they didn’t. She went home too.
At dawn they were there, and not long after was Kakashi. That wasn’t a good sign.
He made them all stand on the bridge. Sakura always put Sai in between her and Sasuke. She thought for a moment that Kakashi might have forgotten about their last infraction the day before because there was so much length on the rope between them. But he wrapped their wrists together, hands back to back, taking in all the space from yesterday. He didn’t forget.
Kakashi walked them to a nearby garden plot. “D-ranked mission. All week. No talking, except for what I’ve told you you can say.”
“And that is….”
“We move as one,” they said obediently.
“Each time you speak, each time you break my rule, you have another week of D missions, just like this.” They were aghast. He didn’t care. “Plant all the crops. We’ll break for lunch.” Then he waved a hand and flash stepped away.
They stood there a moment, looking at the wheelbarrow full of seedlings. There were three small shovels and three straw hats. Sai was starting to angle over, and Sakura would have been right behind him, but Sasuke didn’t move. The muscle at his jaw jumped as if he were holding back saying something. Something mean—
“And just because you can’t see me,” Kakashi’s deep, disembodied voice suddenly filled the air around them, “doesn’t mean I can’t see you!”
They jumped, and immediately started to work without a sound.
They worked the rest of the week, first saying the words to get each other’s attention. But by the end, they were both as diligent as Sai. Kakashi watched them closely. They were aware of each other’s movements, needing only a gentle movement to communicate what needed to be done. They nodded, pointed, and worked their arms and legs together in synchronicity. They truly moved as one.
At the end of the week, Kakashi leaned against the garden wall and secretly observed the last rows of their work. They had stuck it out and managed to plant a full garden plot of evenly spaced crops. He smiled, pleased with himself. This had been a valuable lesson.
He came around the corner suddenly and surprised them. But they didn’t respond.
He greeted them by name, but even then, they didn’t speak.
He asked them some leading questions, but they either pointed or shook their heads.
He leaned over Sasuke’s last plants, pretending to be interested. “We both know this is beneath someone with your abilities,” he said quietly, letting the thought hang in the air.
Sasuke’s hand tightened around a reedy young plant for a moment. But he released his grip and tamped it down into the soft soil. “We move as one,” he ground out, never looking up.
Kakashi chuckled. He made his way down the row and ambled to the other side, where Sakura was working.
“And Haruno,” he whispered, voice dripping with false sympathy, “were you able to keep up with them?”
He hoped to provoke a flash of anger so she’d forget herself. But Sakura didn’t fall for it.
“We move as one,” she responded placidly.
He didn’t miss the look Sasuke cut at her. Well, there was still room to improve. But even Sasuke had learned the value of silence.
He looked at Sai, Sai looked back and nodded obediently. Kakashi smiled, and Sai went back to work. He didn’t have to test him. Kakashi knew that Sai’s one slip up would never be repeated, no matter how crafty he was.
But this little experiment had forced them to work together as a team.
He stood up and dusted his hands. It was time. They were ready.
“Alright Team 7. You’ve worked hard. You deserve a break. Tomorrow, take the day off. But the next day….”
They looked at him waiting.
“Meet at the pitch. Dawn. Time to retake the bell test!”
They said nothing.
“Well, what do you say? Don’t you think ‘thank yous’ are in order for getting you out of all this work?”
They looked at him, then each other, clearly unable to decide if it was a trick or not. They went with the safer option. “We move as one,” they said in discordant, uncertain voices.
Kakashi laughed deeply. “Can’t fool you!” He left them to their work, saying over the wall as they strolled away. “Bell test! Day after tomorrow! Third time’s a charm!”
Sakura looked down at her hands, noticing that they were still attached. She narrowed her eyes where he was walking away. Sai had watched him leave as well, but then returned resignedly to the last plants. On the other side of him, Sasuke stabbed the shovel in the ground, focused only on finishing the task.
It felt like the ribbon “game” was over — Kakashi even hinted that it was — but they were still tied.
They didn’t need to speak to come to an agreement. They were all too wary of their teacher now, too alert to his tricks. They finished in complete silence.
They moved as one, patiently waiting till each other stood. They retrieved their farm tools, the empty seedling pouches and straw hats, and walked single file back up the newly planted row. Only after the last hat was pitched in the wheelbarrow and they straightened and looked at each other did it become apparent they had a problem.
They were still tied. And Kakashi was no where to be found.
They looked at each other. It was Sasuke who took the plunge. He lifted up his hand and opened his mouth to speak, and Sakura’s stomach tightened, expecting Kakashi to come jumping out of the woods, bellowing at them for breaking the rules and threatening more work or worse—
But Sasuke surprised them all with a quiet question. “We move as one?”
Sakura understood. What do we do now? Sakura shrugged. “We move as one….” I don’t know….
They both looked at Sai, standing in between them. Sai looked uncomfortably between the two, then fixed his gaze on a distant point down the road. His shoulders rose and fell in a single resigned breath. “We move as one.” We wait.
Sakura and Sasuke nodded tiredly and turned to look down the road. They would wait, for something to happen, or someone to show up, and tell them they could take the ribbon off—
“Excellent!” A grinning Kakashi popped into the space directly in front of them.
Startled, they each jumped. Kakashi leaned forward, delighted, looming into each of their astonished, dirt-smudged faces.
“Great job Team 7! You have performed so much better than I expected at the ribbon game! So what do you think Sakura, still your favorite?!”
She uttered a noise of despair and confusion and might have shaken her head, but Kakashi didn’t care. Her response was drowned out by his laughter as he untied her hand from Sai’s.
“Good job, Sai. As expected. You performed admirably, and it will be duly noted to your handler.” He moved to Sai’s other hand and began untying Sasuke’s.
“And you as well Sasuke, your friends on the council received glowing reports of your performance. That should keep them off your back, hopefully.”
Finished, Kakashi slid the ribbon from their hands and wrapped it around itself to pocket it. The three rubbed their wrists, each feeling strangely like a weight had been lifted. Or that a gulf of air had opened between them, even though none had stepped away yet.
His voice turned serious. “If this had been a mission, then it would only be considered complete when the last transaction occurred. I know Iruka covered all this with the dummy scrolls. But the truth is, it’s not always scrolls. Sometimes it’s people. Sometimes it’s things. You never know what you are protecting or delivering or transporting. Your job is to stay together, to work as a unit for the good of the mission, until the mission is complete. No matter how anyone tries to throw you off that path. Your mission was the not finishing the garden plot. It was the ribbon game. Your mission was work together until you finished this task.” He pointed to the rows of crops, casting long shadows across the garden.
“Understand?” They all nodded, each predictable in their response. One thoughtful. One respectful. One who didn’t appreciate being lectured to—
Kakashi laughed. “Alright team. Good job. Bell test is up next. Off you go….”
There was a conspiratorial glint in his eye as he said the last, and they looked to each other and back at him, unsure if they could really trust them. He laughed at his own weird sense of humor, then said “Shoo, Shoo! Go home!!”
And it wasn’t until then that they started to leave, but still in complete silence. Sakura glanced back over her shoulder a few times, just to make sure it wasn’t a trick. Kakashi smiled and waved.
“Enjoy your day off,” he called after them in a sing-song voice.
Team 7 left the civilian district in silence. They walked together down the now-dark streets, not even realizing that they were timing their leg and arm movement to each other. (Well, perhaps Sai knew, but he didn’t stop himself from falling into sync.)
Sakura’s fingers fidgeted. She was thinking, turning over everything that had happened in her mind. Something was wrong, but she just couldn’t figure it out. Ahead of them was the last intersection before they split and went their separate ways. She was running out of time—
At the roads, Sasuke nodded but never looked back. Sai did the same. They split off, leaving Sakura standing in the middle. She gulped. Something was wrong. She couldn’t let them leave—
She grabbed Sai’s sleeve and hauled him back, then lunged for Sasuke. Both made noises of discontent, shuffling feet on the gravel, and Sasuke looked like he might have been ready to fight off an attacker, but Sakura immediately shushed them with a finger to her lips.
It worked. They stopped. Alert and waiting.
She held out her hands, trying to mime, “What if we’re wrong?” or “What if this is a trick too?”
But neither understood.
She pointed back to the plot, to the pitch, to the three of them. None of it worked. She fisted her hair. Sai waited, but Sasuke was finished. He swatted her attempts at communication away and turned on his heel.
She looked at him, panicked. She looked to Sai, who just shrugged, then back to Sasuke. She had to stop him.
“We move as one!!” Her voice echoed off the buildings around them. A light flipped on. A dog started barking.
Sasuke stopped, he looked back to sneer at her in his best I-think-you’re-crazy way.
She patted her pockets, looking for a scrap of paper— She found a receipt from the market, dirty but it would have to do— But she didn’t have a pen.
In front of her, Sai’s hand appeared with pencil and a torn piece of clean paper. She blinked up at him, smiled and nodded thanks.
She scribbled fast, her normally neat cursive letters smashing together. She was pleased to see Sasuke’s feet appear in her vision beyond the edge of the paper. She held it up to them.
“What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t over?”
Sasuke scoffed and ripped the paper out of her hands. “Don’t be stupid,” he wrote, his angled handwriting just as sharp and dark as his words. “Of course it is. He said so.”
But Sakura gave him a flat look. She glanced at Sai who wore an equally unimpressed expression. They both thought the same thing: If Sasuke thought it was over and that Kakashi wasn’t going to pop out from behind a tree at any moment, then why wasn’t he speaking?
Sasuke rolled his eyes. He picked up the pencil again, started and stopped a few times, scribbling through the lines and using up more of the small torn page before finally settling on, “I’m not gonna be the one who makes us do more work!”
He shoved it back into Sakura’s hands and looked at her as if it were a dare. She shook her head. This wasn’t helpful.
Sai produced the pad it was torn from. He took the pencil from Sakura’s hand. “Why do you think we’re wrong?” His writing was neat, evenly spaced and efficient.
Sakura responded. “I don’t know exactly. But it feels like it should be a trick.”
Sasuke tugged the pad toward him, then made an even bigger show of rolling his eyes at her response. He grabbed the pencil out of her hand. “It’s over!! Go home!! You just don’t know how anything works—“
Now she rolled her eyes, and grabbed the pencil back, but Sasuke had a tight grip on the pad and he wasn’t letting go. Their tussle might have erupted into a fist fight if Sai hadn’t put his hand firmly on the center of the pad and leveled an angry look at both of them that promised pain if they didn’t let go. Surprised at the rare display of emotion from their teammate — and anger, at that — they remembered it was actually his property and both let go.
He took it, smoothed out the crinkled corners, then looked to Sakura who still held the pencil.
She nodded, promising silently she’d be more careful, then accepted the pad and started writing again.
“Something he said…. He was too happy for us—” Sasuke shook his head, but she kept writing, finally finding the thing that stuck out. “He told us to have a nice day off. Why would he do that? He’s never given us a day off!”
They read it, and paused, thinking too. Feeling like she was finally on the right path, Sakura continued. “If he wanted us to take a day off, then it probably means were supposed to be doing something else—“
Sasuke took it and reread it all again silently. He was still not convinced, yet he wasn’t leaving. He passed the pad to Sai. She looked to each of their faces. They were thinking too.
What else would Kakashi expect them to do?
Sakura wracked her brain, running through his words, the bell test…and the day off….the bell test….
The bell test! This was still about the bell test!!
Her eyes shined in the darkness. She replayed his words. She’d figured it out!
Sakura grabbed the pad from Sai and began scribbling. They moved to either shoulder to read and, for a moment, looked very much like a team, until Sasuke backed up a step. He glanced around. Standing there, so close, made it feel like they were all part of some chummy group. They were not.
But he tipped his head to follow her words just the same.
“If we were on a mission, just like he said, and we had been given extra time, then we would be expected to get ahead. Scout out. Look for shortcuts or traps. Or plant them.”
She looked up. Sai nodded definitively, confirming to her she was on the right track.
“We would make a plan. So, then tomorrow, on our day off, for the bell test—“
Sasuke disagreed. He took the pad. “The test won’t be the same though. We won’t have our hands tied together, and Sai and I already know we can get it. It’s you who needs the practice—“
Sakura took the pad back, gently however, not ripping it out of his hands even though she might have felt like it. “We don’t know that. He might try the ribbon game again. But this way we can make a plan.”
Sakura continued. “If I’m wrong, then we just had some extra practice. If I’m right,” she let the pencil rest on the page for a moment, “then it’s what Kakashi would expect a team to do.”
The last line suddenly struck her as harsh. She scribbled quickly, “I guess,” at the end. But it didn’t make it any less true.
No one commented on it. They weren’t a team, and they all knew it. Their crazy teacher was forcing them to get along—
Sai took the pad next and scribbled in his neat lines, “What do you suggest? Should we meet tomorrow?”
Sakura nodded, writing, “Meet at the bridge, at dawn?”
Sai nodded immediately before reaching again for the pad. Sasuke looked around, considered it, clearly feeling it was unnecessary, but finally shrugged one shoulder in acceptance. He shot Sakura a mean look that he knew she’d understand. Of course he would be there. It wouldn’t be him that messed it up for the group.
She ignored him.
Sai flipped the pad out towards them again.
Sakura read Sai’s clean handwriting. “Should we speak tomorrow?”
She understood. The ribbon game was technically over, but if they were taking Kakashi seriously, then maybe he was expecting them to continue in silence….
Sakura took the pad and pencil. “I don’t think so—“
Sasuke snatched the pencil out of her hand and scribbled down the side of the page. “Scared?”
Sakura bit her lip, stopping herself from yelling into his taunting face. She grabbed the pencil back—
“Says the one who just wrote it!!” She underlined ‘wrote’ several times to make her point—
Sai had apparently been pushed to his limit. He yanked the paper and pencil back, and shoved them in his bag. He turned and left without a word.
Not wanting to be alone together, Sakura and Sasuke both left immediately, going fast in opposite directions.
Their day off was one of their most tiring days together. They spent the whole day in the training forest, not speaking, and trying not to kill each other.
When they weren’t going in circles, they were scouting short-cuts to get around in front of Kakashi, testing branches where they could ambush their teacher and hunting for traps that might catch them and waste valuable time.
And they looked at everything in terms of three, just in case Kakashi surprised them and tied their hands together again. Could the short-cut conceal multiple people? Could the branch hold the weight of three creeping shinobis instead of just one?
None of them spoke. Each of them carried their own notepad in their pocket and used some rudimentary hand signs. At no point did any of them feel the need to say “We move as one,” as Kakashi had drilled into their heads.
But they did move as a single unit anyway.
By the afternoon, when they had exhausted all the planning they could, Sai suggested they try to coordinate their skills. Sasuke shrugged. Sakura said nothing. She had nothing to offer like they did.
But she guessed correctly that this was some of the strategizing Sai was trained in. She had started to observe him (and she was sure he was aware of it), when he chose a path or inspected a branch. He said nothing. Even if he was alone, he would be absorbing every detail. This wasn’t a personality quirk. He was trained to do this.
Sasuke did not. He approached every path as if it was going to kill him, and he was going to beat it. He looked suspiciously at his surroundings, stopped at any sudden movement, then proceeded confidently once the threat had been neutralized.
The two of them began clearing the area of traps, but they worked independently, doing things their own, proven way. Sakura saw that if they combined their abilities, they could get twice as much done. But neither seemed inclined to do so.
Sakura watched Sai paint out small ink creatures to dart up the trail, tiny mice who sniffed at every odd leaf, frogs who hopped down the center looking for wires.
Sasuke didn’t wait. He saw the wire sooner and shot out a blue bolt from his hand. It burned up the edge of the path, exposing the wire…but also exposing them to anyone they were trying to sneak up on.
Sakura shook her head. She wrote on her notepad, “It’s not a competition!” and shoved it at Sasuke. He pushed it away and walked out to inspect what he’d done.
Little black creatures were scurrying back toward Sai. He leaned down with his calligraphy brush to absorb the animated ink back in, but some of them grew more frantic when they got to Sai. Understanding, Sai looked up suddenly—
Sasuke was walking into another hidden trap.
Sai stood to call out, remembered he couldn’t, then lobbed a stick at Sasuke’s back. It connected. Sasuke turned around in a rage. Sai pointed just beyond him to the wire. The branch it was tied to had paper bombs all over the underside.
Sasuke smirked and burned the whole thing up with his fire katon. Sai shook his head at the waste of energy, then continued creating his ink creatures. They were slowly, methodically, going over every inch of the woods.
Though Sakura had neither of their unique and, though she’d never admit it to Sasuke, awesome powers, she could see that they weren’t going to get very far working like this.
Sai was never going to finish. And Sasuke was just going to burn everything up.
She might have mentioned it if either of them had been closer. But Sai kept making more animals and Sasuke kept shooting out flame blasts— From where she stood she could see where it was headed before they did.
Sasuke turned and shot a blast straight down at a flash on the ground…which turned out to be Sai’s ink animals. They sizzled up with the leaves.
Sai frowned. Sasuke looked back, lifting a shoulder in apology. But he walked back and scribbled on the pad. There was a moment where Sakura thought Sai might be mad enough to refuse to read it. She almost hoped he would— But it didn’t happen.
He read Sasuke’s pad and nodded in agreement to whatever was written there. Then Sai was sending the mice, frogs and snakes ahead and alerting Sasuke, who then shot down his katon with surgical precision.
Their devised plan worked, and worked well. And Sakura, the self-proclaimed ‘normal one’ in the group without the strange and terrifying powers, was left to just wait for them.
When they were finished, they walked back to where Sakura stood.
Sasuke looked triumphantly at her, as if this moment proved everything he’d said was right. His message was clear: She didn’t belong.
Sai glanced over, but wouldn’t meet her eyes. Strategically, his opinion was the same: She was a liability.
Refusing to be the one to blow their hard work with an angry outburst, Sakura took out her notepad. She couldn’t hide her shaking fingers or her furiously slanted writing. But she could make herself be heard.
“So what if I don’t have insane powers! My chakra control is better than anyone’s! They tell me so at the hospital all the time—“
Sasuke took out his pencil and wrote beside her words, “Don’t need a medic! We need a ninja—“
She pulled it away so he couldn’t write. “You need a look-out!” she scribbled beneath his sentence. “Doesn’t matter how many traps you clear if you still can’t see Kakashi coming! You need to know what he’s doing, then make a plan to catch him. ”
She pointed to her feet, and then to a nearby tree branch. Sai followed her movements and nodded. Sakura continued writing. “I can cover the canopy, then report back where I see him—“
Sasuke pulled out his own notepad. “How!?” He gave her a look of disbelief.
“With hand signals—“
“What if you’re too far away?”
She thought and thought, tapping her pencil. Then she brightened and pointed to Sai. “His animals!”
Surprising her, it was Sai who disagreed with her this time. He shook his head then took out his notebook.
“I only create mice and snakes. Small forest creatures. Too small.” He pointed his pencil up. “Canopy too big. Won’t make it—“ He scratched that out. “Inefficient use of time and resources and—“
Sakura shook her head and wrote in her own pad, “Draw a bird then!”
Sai looked stricken. Sakura was utterly confused.
He started and stopped writing several times. But finally he pulled his thoughts together.
Sakura stared up at him as if he was crazy.
Sai looked like he’d swallowed one of his ink frogs. It was clear Sakura wasn’t going to give up till she had an answer. Sasuke stepped forward to look at him questioningly as well. It was the first and only time they’d been united in anything.
Sai grimaced and repositioned his pencil. “Can’t draw birds.” His small, neat writing had suddenly become even smaller.
Sakura had to reread it a few times to make sure she understood. She scanned the tree branches, trying to see if birds were really that complicated—
Sai’s pencil started moving again. “I can draw them. But,” he paused here, holding his pencil as if he were hesitating on some deep shame. “They won’t fly.”
Sakura threw her hands up in the air. Sasuke stalked away, mad that he’d wasted his time and concern over something so trivial.
Sai looked down, avoiding their reactions. Sakura stood still, looking at the canopy, the sky, the network of paths around them, then suddenly scribbled fast and shoved her own notepad over his.
“Don’t worry about that. You draw them. I’ll make them fly.”
He looked up at her completely confused. But she smiled as she wrote, “I’ve got a plan!”
The next morning, Kakashi strolled up to the bridge. He was only a few hours late. But they were expecting it. They had spent the rest of the morning going over their plan.
They didn’t all believe in it, but they were in silent agreement that it was the best they had at the moment. They still weren’t speaking, and they didn’t know if Kakashi was going to tie their hands together.
Kakashi was going to tease them a little, maybe even act like he might retie their hands. But seeing their serious demeanor, he decided not to. He said nothing about their silence, and he did not ask them how their time off had been.
They walked across the pitch in silence, then to the training forest. They turned in unison and looked to Kakashi. Mildly intrigued, he pulled out his timer. He glanced up — they were waiting on him — and without a word, he clicked it. They scattered in different directions in dark streaks.
Kakashi had been planning to read the dog-eared book in his back pocket, but now he had second thoughts. These kids were up to something….
He made several clones and set them out to search the forest.
Hours later, the team had popped all of them.
Kakashi was surprised. He created another clone, this one with a much closer chakra signature to his own, and sent it into the woods to creep up on them. From the canopy, Kakashi pulled his headband up and opened the scarred, swirling sharingan that was hidden there.
They might never know, but it was a compliment that these kids could make him not only put down his book, but actually unmask his sharingan just to see what they were up to—
It wasn’t long till he found them.
Sai had mapped out a network of logs, tree trunks, shrubs and rocks, and was using them as cover while he drew ink creatures by the hundreds. Each of them was a little sentinel reporting back to him.
Impressive, but Kakashi knew the range wasn’t far. So Sai couldn’t be working alone if he was stopping his clones.
That meant that Sasuke was lurking somewhere nearby—
Kakashi’s sharingan eye found him, noiselessly stalking his clone. He was close, but not close enough to be certain of his target. Sasuke’s hand was raised for a katon, but he waited.
If Sasuke was alone in a foreign land, that hesitation could be a fatal mistake…unless he had more knowledge than it appeared. He might have been working with Sai, but Sasuke was now too far out of range of his little creatures to be useful—
A black mass swooped down from a tree, startling Kakashi. But Sasuke seemed prepared. Without a word, he moved to intercept it.
The black bird righted itself in his hand, then pointed in the direction that Kakashi’s clone was moving through the trees, and bowed its head once, verifying there was only one human. Sasuke’s target was alone.
Without a sound, Sasuke set the bird down on the ground. Kakashi could see its inky wings, flapping uselessly as it disappeared into the woods, probably running back to its creator.
That was another liability. It could be tracked back to Sai by an opponent. But when Kakashi looked to the high branches where the bird had come from, moving his head to get a better angle, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing—
There, creeping through the canopy, was Sakura. She was moving slowly, arms out, swaying a little, as gently as tree limbs. On her outstretched arms were three remaining birds.
With his sensitive eye, he could detect the delicate tracks of many, many more birds stamped onto her shoulders.
Kakashi had to stop himself from laughing out loud. This was too much.
She must have looked like a scarecrow up there, waiting for her assailant with birds sitting all over her. There were even a few marks on the top of her head, so one must have hopped up there for a while.
She moved oddly, legs still, but her arm was pulled back as if to throw a kunai. Except, there was no blade. One of the birds darted down her arm and hopped into her hand. Once it was in position, her fingers firmly around it like a giant black dagger, she thew it into the air, keeping the rest of her body perfectly still to absorb the thrust. It soared downward, wings back and opened them only to stop itself from colliding with the ground.
This one was a little clutzy, and rolled a few times before it stopped. These were definitely the last ones of Sai’s creations, so they weren’t as good. Another liability, no matter how funny it was. Kakashi bit down on his lip to keep himself from laughing.
Sasuke picked the bird up by a leg, waited till it righted itself in his hands, then followed the direction it pointed.
Kakashi understood it all now. Sasuke was on point, assigned with catching their target. Sai was sweeping the back, making sure they were flushing their prey out and that they were not snuck up on from behind. And Sakura, like the trained medic that she was, was exploiting her greatest skill: She was working the big picture, moving through the canopy and passing back information to her teammates.
It was ingenious. He was really impressed. They still had a lot farther to go, of course. Any mid-level shinobi could wipe them out. But there would be time to correct those lapses in safety.
Kakashi’s clone popped. The sun was beginning to set.
There was no way they’d catch him this time. But that was okay. He went back to the training poles to wait them out. He nodded at the three people sitting on a long bench off to the side under the shade of a tree.
Unfortunately for Sasuke, his observers from the council had not been shaken off so easily. They arrived late in the day and seemed prepared to wait as well. They gave a friendly wave to Kakashi as if they might have liked to speak to him some more about Sasuke, but he pretended he didn’t see them and stayed put where he was, leaning against the pole.
An hour later, when it was nearly dark, all three came out. He was deeply proud. They didn’t abandon each other. Even in the face of failure.
They were tired. Sai had ink all over his hands and spots on his face and chest. Sakura had black marks all over her shoulder, as if a thousand birds had been sitting on her. And Sasuke had several burn marks in his fatigues where he’d let his katon get out of control.
They were exhausted. But he couldn’t be more pleased with them.
They couldn’t see well enough in the dark to be sure, but his voice sounded like he was beaming.
“Excellent Team 7! Well done!” They shifted, spirits rising despite being tired. “You would, of course, all have been killed, at many different intervals—“ Their shoulders dropped. “But you’ve done so much better! You would have lasted so much longer before you were picked off by enemy nins!”
He was smiling, they could hear it in his voice. They looked at each other, unsure if he was joking or not. No one spoke.
There were a few chuckles from off to the side, and a scratch of pencils on clipboards.
Sasuke noticed them. Realizing who it was, and who they were there for, he quickly turned away with a scowl. The observers were satisfied with Kakashi’s praise and began gathering their things to leave, but when Kakashi started speaking, they respectfully sat back down.
“I won’t go over the parts you got wrong — there were many errors, and experience will be your best teacher to remedy those — so I will talk about the parts you got right. Your teamwork far surpassed anything I expected from you.”
He looked at them for a response, but got none. He had to stop himself from cracking into a huge smile.
“Uh…Anything you’d like to add?”
They couldn’t escape it now.
They looked at each other nervously before mumbling a dispirited, “We move as one.”
He tucked away his smile and took them seriously. He gave them a shrewd look. “Good job. You may speak again.”
None of them did.
Excellent, he breathed. He was truly pleased with them. “Your mission is complete,” he said firmly.
They visibly relaxed.
“Now, tell me how this all came about.”
They glanced at each other, but it was Sai who took the plunge.
“We divided up our abilities and our most efficient use of the skills that benefited the group, then we devised a communication system—“
“Stop,” Kakashi said, but it was not mean. “I understand why you did it. I want to know how. Plainly. This is not your anbu team, Sai. Speak as if you’re on Team 7.”
Sai cleared his throat. “We decided to prepare for today, since you’d given us the day off.”
“And how did you come to this decision?”
Sai answered automatically. “Through a process of non-verbal communication and—“ Kakashi put his hand up. Sai paused, then added, “We wrote notes.”
“And when did you work all this out?”
Sai remembered to speak plainly. “We took our day off to get ahead. To work in unison, to make a plan.”
Kakashi nodded, satisfied. “It worked. Good job.”
He narrowed his eyes. Sai may now be their appointed speaker, but he doubted he organized it. And Sasuke would rather not have been there at all. That left only one.
“And who decided not to speak?”
After a moment, Sai answered. “Uh, we all did.”
“And who decided not to take the day off?”
This time, however, Sai glanced at Sakura.
Kakashi knew they’d worked out something amongst themselves. He’d watched them. He’d seen Sasuke nearly storm away, and Sai stay neutral. It was Sakura alone who called them back and made them come together.
“I did.” Her voice sounded rusty and small in the the darkness. She cleared her throat. “I did,” she said firmly.
He looked at her as if she’d done something wrong. “Continue,” he said.
“You said that the mission wasn’t over until the task was complete—”
“A-And that we should look underneath the underneath.”
Kakashi’s face broke into a quizzical expression. Sasuke scoffed quietly.
She glanced at Sasuke, but she stood her ground, refusing to let her confidence crumble.
“So, then, I thought that the mission was not about the old woman’s garden. Nor was it the D-rank mission, or even this bell test. We never completed the first bell test. That was our mission, the one you set out for us at the beginning. The one we failed.”
“Ah yes, seeing the big picture Sakura.” He was silent for a long time, enough to try to rattle her. “And you’re sure about this—“
Sai and Sasuke were looking at her as if they had no idea what she was talking about. Sasuke’s expression carried a warning for her to not screw it up.
She glanced at them, but it made her nervous, so she turned back to Kakashi and said quickly.
“Yes. Because you said the same thing both times. When you started the bell test and when you started the second one. You even said the same words, “off you go,” in the same tone at the beginning. Everything was the same.”
He nodded at her to continue.
“So if this was a mission, then it was a single mission: The bell test. And the ribbon game, the D-rank mission…even the day off, those were all just a distraction.”
Kakashi was smiling beneath his mask. Sai tipped his head nodding at this new information. Sasuke’s mouth had opened once in surprise, but he quickly closed it again.
“And if the ‘rules’ were really mission constraints in disguise” she splayed out her fingers, “then the constraints were first, take the bell test; second, don’t speak; and third, take the bell test again. That was only mission. Not to get the bells, but to finish the bell test as a team. It was always the same mission.”
He smiled broadly. “Mission accomplished.”
For the first time in days, Sakura felt like exhale.
“Well done, Sakura. Your medic training has taught you to see the big picture, then zoom in on the finest details. You are learning to pick out what matters, and what doesn’t. You two could learn something from this,” he said, looking at the two boys. “It will make you better shinobi.”
Sai nodded, but Sasuke’s arms were folded over his chest as if he didn’t believe Kakashi.
“The three of you, as a team, work together as a single weapon. Each brings his or her own unique piece, and together you are infinitely more powerful than apart. But it only works if you fit together, you move together, seamlessly. You move as one. One team, one weapon. You understand each other’s strengths and weakness, as if they were an extension of your own. You know what your teammate is going to do, how they are going to react, sometimes even before they do. From now on, I want you to think of Team 7 as a single weapon, working in complete unison for a single goal.”
Sakura took it to heart, Sai was nodding in understanding, and even Sasuke seemed to have relaxed a little, like all of this work might have been worth it—
“So then,” Sasuke began. “This means you’ll sign for us up for the Chunin exams?”
“Oh heavens no!” Kakashi laughed. “You’d all be killed in the first 10 minutes!“
Sasuke sounded like he was choking. “What?!” His self control evaporated. “Why—? How could you—?” Deep, unshakeable anger descended upon him. “You— “ He growled, pointing a finger up at Kakashi. “You’ve lied to us every step of the way! You were never going to let us go, and this whole thing was just another lie!! What a waste of time—“ he muttered, running his hands through his hair. “Why did I get stuck with you— with all of you—“
He looked up suddenly, hair sticking up everywhere like a madman, remembering that the observers were there. But it was too late. They were already going back to their clipboards, some jotting new notes, others erasing and rewriting old comments.
For a moment, Sasuke looked like he wanted to cry, like he knew he had ruined it for himself and there was no one else to blame.
The observers stood and left without a word.
Sasuke’s watched their backs disappear into darkness, his face twisting into a pale rage. Once they were out of earshot Sasuke turned on Kakashi with vicious anger.
“You have no right to hold me back—“ His voice was low and trembling.
Kakashi shook his head, disappointed that they seemed to be losing all the ground they’d gained.
Sasuke looked around desperately like he still wanted to blame it on something else…someone else—
He pointed suddenly at Sakura—
“This is all because of you!”
Sakura gasped and frowned back at Sasuke.
But Sasuke no longer saw her. “It’s her who would get killed. Not me!”
Kakashi tipped his head, considering it. He didn’t disagree. “That’s not the point….”
Sakura turned her frown at Kakashi, shocked and a little hurt.
“You’re a team. You move as one.” Kakashi continued. “The chunin exam is designed to isolate you from your group and expose your weaknesses—
“She’s the weakness!” Sasuke was almost yelling now. “Wouldn’t it be better to eliminate that weakness, before she becomes a liability?”
Kakashi was getting frustrated. “That’s not how it works. Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said? The chunin exam is like the bell test. It must be completed as a unit. You can only survive it as a team—“
“There is no place on our team,” he pointed between himself and Sai, even though at that moment Sai was edging away from him, “for someone who like her—“
Sakura’s cheeks were burning and tears were stinging her eyes at being spoken about like she wasn’t there. Like she didn’t matter. Like this boy could override everything, even her teacher, and tell her what she could and could not do—
But it was Kakashi who finally snapped.
“Are you saying I made a mistake in choosing my team,” he roared, leaning into Sasuke’s face, daring him to keeping going.
Sasuke looked around nervously. “Uh, no. Kakashi-sensei.”
Kakashi stood, pleased to see Sasuke fall back into line.
But Sasuke kept on. “It’s just that, there are other shinobi teams. Put her on one of those—“
“No more!” Kakashi’s stern voice echoed off the trees. “I’ve already made my decision! It’s over. You’re not ready!”
They were all shocked into silence.
So Sasuke’s last plea came as a surprise.
“But I— I need to get through the chunin exam.” Desperation was seeping into his words. “I’m falling behind—“
He stopped himself. He looked like he’d let out a secret.
Neither Sai nor Sakura understood. But Kakashi did.
“It doesn’t matter when he took his exam,” Kakashi said quietly. “You are not falling behind. You need your teammates. Both of them.” Kakashi was careful to keep all emotion from his voice. He didn’t want it to sound like sympathy. “You have the right to live your life, and if you ever decide to face him, they can help you when you do. But that choice is yours—“
Kakashi let out a tired sigh. Sasuke had contorted his words anyway.
“You have no right—“ Anger and exhaustion were warring within Sasuke. “They can’t help me! And especially not her!”
“After this episode, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sandaime doesn’t want to see you in his office.” Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck, deciding that wasn’t a half-bad idea. “Let him sort out the problem,” he said to himself.
Sasuke cut his dark eyes at Sakura. “I understand what the problem is—“
“That’s enough,” Kakashi snapped. “We’re finished here. Go home. Team 7 is dismissed.”
That night, Sasuke began making plans of his own.
Four days later, in the Kage’s office, during what should have been a routine check-in with Team 7, Sasuke tried to get Sakura thrown off the team.
Less than a week after that, during a “team-building” mission on foreign soil, Sakura was abducted. Though her team was with her, it did not help her. In those life-changing minutes when she left to collect herbs, Sakura was alone.
Sakura had a better perspective on those memories now. It had to happen — all of it — to get to where they were now. It took her a long time. It took them a long time. Many many years of getting it wrong before they were able to work together and truly move as one, as Kakashi reminded them for so many years growing up. But eventually it clicked.
Team 7 fit together like a single, powerful weapon, just like he’d said.
And now, moving through the desert, not speaking at all, just communicating through head nods, finger points, and reading body language, Sakura saw the value of all those long hard-earned lessons.
This was why Kakashi asked them. They were a team. They moved together in a single ribbon over the landscape, either single file or fluidly in relation to each other. And when they couldn’t — when they had to separate to maintain speed — they coordinated their movements into a single cohesive unit.
Sai ran wide on the left flank, tracking out with his ink creatures. Sasuke took the right flank, scanning the right and keeping his arm to the outside, ready with a bolt of blue lightning with his right arm. Sakura was the eyes and ears, holding it all together in the center. Sometimes she took the lead and they ran in an arrow formation; other times she swung to the back while Sai and Sasuke closed in the center.
No matter where they were, together or apart, they timed their footfalls together without even thinking about it. This way, they accurately gauged the time and energy needed to get to one another in case one needed cover.
They ran down sandy ridgelines, their feet making deep wells behind them. They covered ridge after ridge, running down then up, then down again. What she had thought were high mountains were mere mirages. They ran over the endless waves, the sun pounding on the shoulders and blinding their eyes.
But one of the mirages on the horizon was not quite melting into the sand. It was due west, and two dark shapes hung on stubbornly in the shimmering heat. They were rising steadily, growing darker and taking shape. And just when Sakura thought they might be where the were headed, Kakashi raised his hand from the front.
They stopped, uncertain. This didn’t look like a destination. It was just another crest of land—
But ahead on the horizon, they saw what he saw. A lone figure drifted like a ghost on the ridge. Ragged white robes billowed out behind it, and a sand head covering, wispy and threadbare at the edges, floated up then resettled.
The fabric and the person wearing the cloak were a single color — an almost transparent grey. They seemed to hover between the blue sky and the yellow dune, without discernible legs in the wavy heat.
Even in the hot sun, the sight gave Sakura a chill.
“K-Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura whispered. “Am I seeing things? I-Is that…a ghost?”
Kakashi’s mirthless laugh was snatched by the wind. “Might as well be,” he growled. “If it is who I think it is—“
As if hearing him, the ghost whipped its head around suddenly in their direction. There was no where to hide. They were exposed.
They froze, watching the ghost watch them.
Sakura wanted to slink backwards down the dune. But Kakashi still wasn’t moving.
“Kakashi, what do we do—“
There was a flicker of movement, a glinting from its hands, and Sakura thought it may not be a ghost after all, when the figure suddenly shrieked and flew straight toward them.
“White Fang!!!! I’d know you anywhere—“
Kakashi narrowed his eyes. “Chiyo of the Red Sand….”
And Sakura saw now that the figure sailing towards them, moving over the dunes as if she were a sail, was in fact a woman. A very, very old woman. Her skin was a pale as her garments, and her wispy grey hair hung out from the sides of her head covering, making it look threadbare.
“You owe me a life, and I intend to take it!” Her voice carried a strength that she did not look like she had possessed in several decades. She hurled more threats at their teacher, calling him ‘White Fang’ over and over as she rushed toward them. The team instinctively stepped back.
Kakashi didn’t back up with them. Instead he rubbed the back of his neck, almost like he was embarrassed—
“Sorry, you have got it all wrong—“
“I will stop you this time—“
“I’m not who you think—“
“White Fang! This is the end!!”
She was upon them, red spots on her papery cheeks and sweat on her brow. She threw back her Sand head covering. It circled her neck like an old gauze bandage. She rose her hand, revealing a weapon— except it wasn’t a weapon at all. Just a rough-cut shard of metal, glinting silver-black from her fist.
Panting, she raised it and peered at Kakashi, her sharp eyes calculating everything.
“White Fang— It’s you, I’m sure of it. But you haven’t aged….” She raised her makeshift dagger. “Are you a ghost?!”
Kakashi laughed gently. “No ma’am. I am no ghost. And I’m not White Fang either. I am his son—“
She laughed suddenly, girlish and high-pitched. The dagger disappeared in her sleeve. Her focus softened to take them all in.
“Ah, how silly of me, I forgot! The Great Copy Ninja. Stories of you travel far, even here to the Sand.” She waved her hand as if a great city were behind her instead of desolate desert.
She softened her focus. “And who are these urchins?” Kakashi’s gaze lingered on her for a moment, confused, before laughing uncomfortably. It was clear on his face he was wondering if she had slipped a notch in her older years.
“This is my team, Lady Chiyo.” He bowed deeply when he said her name. The team did the same, but did they not speak or move forward. The flattery seemed to please her, because she tipped her head and giggled a little more.
Kakashi took the distraction to sweep his gaze over the horizons. They were alone.
“This is a hot, vast land.” He wiped his hand over his head. “But are you out this far unescorted, my lady?”
She snapped her eyes back to him before smiling in a grandmotherly fashion. “You are much kinder than your kin, son of White Fang.”
“I have learned a few things that I think my father did not—“
She giggled again, like they were sharing tea in some shady Sand Village garden.
Sakura and Sasuke glanced at each other, completely uncertain of what was happening. It seemed like everything they said had a deeper meaning. If it did, then Kakashi was smiling along with her, keeping up the charade
They knew this was not how exchanges with foreign ninjas went. Even old, possibly crazy ones.
Kakashi said, squinting at the sun. “May we assist you to some shade, my lady? It is nearing the hottest part of the day—”
Sakura knew now something was off. Chiyo was from the Sand. She would know better than anyone about the dangers of heat exhaustion in her own country.
She didn’t know what they were there for, but she was certain that helping little old ladies was not it.
“You know something of lurking in shadows, don’t you, Leaf shinobis.” Her tone was suddenly calculating. Kakashi’s eyes tracked hers. “Which reminds me, you are very far from home out here….”
Chiyo was still smiling and Kakashi was still relaxed, but to Sakura it felt like there was a shift in the discussion.
“It is a beautiful nation, is it not?” Kakashi smiled grandly and swept the horizon in front of them again.
Chiyo grinned into the sun, squinting her eyes a bit. “It certainly is.” She took the moment to copy Kakashi and sweep the horizon behind them.
Sakura caught it — they were both dodging each other’s questions, and both using the moment to scan their surroundings.
Sakura had some experience with Sand formality. This was not it.
Kakashi cleared his throat, coming to some decision. “Actually, Lady Chiyo…. We are out here by special invitation. We are searching for someone.”
“How strange, I am as well.”
Kakashi paused, looking at her closely, weighing how much to disclose.
“We are here by the express invitation…from the Kazekage.”
Sakura had a feeling this was a lie. Kakashi had never once mentioned Gaara. But he watched Chiyo as if that information should matter to her, as if saying his name should impact her—
Chiyo said nothing. Her face was inscrutable. If knew something about her young leader, then she didn’t reveal it.
The grey robes flapped around her in a sudden buffeting wind, and the scraggly hair escape her head covering whipped her face, but she didn’t move to brush it back. She didn’t move at all. Neither did Kakashi.
Her weathered face suddenly cracked into a wide grin. “And here I thought you were just out for a stroll! Like me!”
Kakashi barely hid his disgust at her toying with him and turned away.
Her voice unraveled into a sing-song. “Out for a walk, following the birds… here and there….” She wiggled her bony fingers against the blue sky and watched them rise higher as if they might detach and take off.
Kakashi cut his eyes back at her suddenly. “Birds?”
Sasuke, Sai and Sakura looked at each other. There were no birds out here.
“Mm-hmm. Going to and from his nest, which I cannot seem to find….”
“His nest….” Kakashi repeated softly. “This might be the ‘friend’ we are looking for then. He had an interest in birds.”
“Hmmm….” Chiyo’s interest was drifting back toward the horizon.
“Perhaps we could accompany you Lady Chiyo. See if we can find your bird while you look for its nest.” Kakashi added on, leaning forward as he spoke. “It is, of course, a safest place to hide such a,” his voice dropped a notch, “precious vessel.”
Sakura had to stop the exasperation from being clear on her face. Now they both sounded crazy. Was Kakashi talking about an egg?
Kakashi’s eyes were riveted to the old woman, however, proving he was deadly serious.
Chiyo must have understood. Sharpness returned to her features as she weighed everything he’d said.
Kakashi opened his palms and softened his tone. “If we go together, we will both have more luck in finding our respective quarry.”
He was offering himself as an ally. Sakura thought it was the first honest thing he’d said.
Chiyo judged him through eyes that had narrowed to slits.
“Perhaps you are right, son of White Fang.” She jutted her head to the side, toward the team. “And what of your pups? Can you find a rock or something to tie their leashes to while we search—“
Kakashi laughed gently. “No, they come too, Lady Chiyo. They are very talented trackers in their own right. They will help us.”
The team stepped forward, sensing this was their cue.
Kakashi introduced them “Sai.” Chiyo nodded. “Sasuke.” Chiyo looked hard at him for a moment before saying “Uchiha,” when she put the name and the crest on his sleeve together. “And Sakura.”
Chiyo had given Sakura the same disinterested nod as Sai and was moving on when Kakashi added, “Sakura is a shinobi and a medic. She is also apprentice to Tsunade, our Kage, whom I think you know—“
Sakura looked at him in surprise, just as Chiyo turned to her in surprise.
Kakashi was overstating things. She was barely a medic anymore, and as for apprentice…well, she wouldn’t call it that. There was nothing formal between them. The few things Tsunade had taught her had been years before. Kakashi was simply mistaken—
But Chiyo was appraising her more thoroughly, taking in her odd hair and inspecting her distinctive green eyes.
Sakura wouldn’t correct Kakashi in front of a foreign diplomat, no matter how daft the old woman may seem.
“So…the Slug Princess has taken a student?”
Sakura coughed, thoroughly confused. Was she calling Tsunade a slug? “Well…. I, uh…. I’m trained as a field medic, but—”
Kakashi interjected, misinterpreting her stumbling words as modesty. “Sakura passed the field medic exam her first year out of academy,” he beamed. “Tsunade chose her specifically—“
“The Slug Princess and I know each other very well.” Chiyo’s voice was hard, but this time it was lucid and clear. “If she’s chosen you as her apprentice, then that says a great deal about your skills.”
Sakura had the distinct impression that this was the first honest thing Chiyo had said.
What a strange woman, Sakura thought as she bowed her head. But then she remembered the little old couple at the market and the granny in the woods. And now, a daft old grandmotherly type from the Sand. Tsunade apparently knew a lot of strange people.
Sakura put on a smile. If acting the role of medic got the mission done, then she’d do it. “I’m happy to assist in any way I can.”
Chiyo had already turned away. “Let’s go,” she said to Kakashi, suddenly sounding as commanding as a general. “Last I saw your bird he was headed that way.” She pointed to collection of cliffs at the horizon. Out of the shimmering heat came two tall spires that Sakura realized looked very much like Sai’s drawing.
Kakashi nodded to her, letting her believe she was in command, and turned back to them with a ghost of a smile and beckoning them to follow. Tucking away their own bemused smiles, they followed their sensei.
They walked for quite a while in silence. All of them were wilting in the heat, but Chiyo seemed to be bearing it quite well. Sakura decided it must have been that someone who grew up in this hot arid country was more accustomed to it, no matter what the age.
Ahead of them, the sand dunes were shrinking, revealing islands of rocky mountains rising out of flat valleys. Beneath their feet, the fine grit was giving way to rocky gravel as the dunes rolled closer to the scattered outcroppings. It was an oasis of land in the middle of a sea of sand.
The spires were still off in the distance, but Sakura guessed these must be the ones in Sai’s drawing. She was just wondering how he knew about it, deciding it must have come from secret intelligence from anbu— when a white shape shot up out of the desert from behind one of the cluster of dark mountains. It looked like a giant white bird.
Since they were a large group, Team 7 automatically ducked to lower their visibility. All except Chiyo. It seemed that she stood up even taller than before. Over the edge of the dune they could see the bird had a rider. Chiyo immediately began scanning the horizon, trying to find where it came from.
Kakashi pointed to the towering rocks. “There. That’s it. The nest—“
“You better hurry if you want to catch your bird,” she said over her shoulder to Kakashi. She did not take her eyes off that point in the landscape.
Kakashi stood next to her, watching the wings of the white bird grow fainter in the shimmering blue sky.
He glanced back over his shoulder, knowing he didn’t have to openly ask Sai to create some way to track the creature. Because of their years of training for situations just like this, Sai had already anticipated Kakashi’s request.
Sai confidently swished his brush, and three black hawks shot up into the air. Chiyo looked around suddenly, frowning, looking to find the source, but was disappointed. All she saw was Sai rolling up his scroll. Even his paintbrush was gone.
Sakura smirked. That was Sai, deeply cautious about revealing his abilities to anyone that was not known to him.
Sakura watched them with deep admiration. After spending so much time with those birds during the bell test, she could see the hard work he’d poured into every feather stroke, from tail to wing tip. He didn’t just study birds, he studied the mechanics of how they flew. It was a marvel to watch, even for a moment. The birds hooked their wings back and rose up, spinning around each other in ribbons of increasing speed, hiding their numbers as they soared, until they were high overhead. Using the blinding sun as cover, they spread out immediately and Team 7 quickly lost sight of them.
“Beautiful, Sai,” Sakura whispered. He didn’t smile — he never smiled — but the closest approximation of pride ghosted across his lips for a moment.
“Let’s get going,” Kakashi said to the team, but stopped when his eyes hit Chiyo’s ghostly profile. His thoughts were clear. He wasn’t sure if they should leave her out here, alone. She was very old. If she died, the Leaf might be held responsible. Perhaps even blamed for it—
“Lady Chiyo, perhaps it would be wiser if we stayed together—“ She looked at him askance, as if he had some nerve just asking. He relented. “Or perhaps let someone escort you, at least to the shade—“
“You forget you are in my country, Son of White Fang,” she said thunderously. “It is you who need my assistance, not the other way around! We split up from here! But…since you’ve offered,” she added, “I’ll take the medic.”
Kakashi was visibly surprised.
Chiyo looked at him, setting her jaw, daring him to defy her. Laws and alliances meant he had to obey, and they both knew it. She was an elder of the Sand Village. It was a command. He could be thrown in prison for even delaying this long in answering a direct order of one so high up in a host nation.
But Kakashi did wait. The hawks flew farther away, and Chiyo looked more and more arch at his defiance.
Sasuke frowned deeply and was about to discreetly roll his eyes at Sakura…when he saw the look of determination her face.
He knew that look. The sharp focus of her green eyes. It used to frustrate him so much when they were younger, especially when she’d figured out a course of action and wouldn’t let it go until they saw it her way. Now, he relied on her instincts like his life depended on it.
But there was no way…. She couldn’t be thinking of—
“It’s okay. I’ll go,” came Sakura’s firm voice. She’d made her decision, and she wouldn’t back down from it.
Chiyo didn’t even look to Kakashi. She simply nodded at Sakura and set off down one side of the dune toward the mountains.
Turning back, Sakura recognized the dark look blooming across Sasuke’s face. What she once would have mistaken as anger, she now recognized as concern, perhaps even fear.
“I know what you’re going to say,” she said calmly. “But if Tsunade knows her, then I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Kakashi agreed with her thinking. “There may be a need for your help. But maybe not. Just be careful.”
Sai nodded farewell to her and they began to head down the sand in the opposite direction.
“No!!” Sasuke’s voice stopped them, desperate to keep them from separating. “We shouldn’t just split up when we come across—“ he dropped his voice to a harsh whisper, “some crazy woman in the desert! Sakura shouldn’t go with her, alone—“
Sakura shook her head and explained more. “Tsunade has had me meeting all sorts of strange people lately. Really strange people. But if they’ve known each other for that long, then she’s probably safe. No matter how weird she seems.”
He didn’t seem convinced. So she said what they all already knew. “Trust me, this is the best plan.”
Her confidence sealed it. Kakashi and Sai continued on, but Sasuke didn’t move.
Sakura spoke quietly, just to him. “It will be fine. She’s just a little old woman.” She turned to see Chiyo waiting impatiently for her. Sakura smiled and waved while she said under her breath, “Besides, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing she could throw at me that I couldn’t handle.”
Sasuke laughed, a little.
If he felt better, then she felt better. They could leave it like this.
It must be the healer in her, she mused, that wanted to ease the concerns of someone so powerful, someone who had so little to fear.
Kakashi and Sai had now stopped.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said, curling back the flyaway hairs that whipped the edge of her face. Impulsively, she added their team mantra, just to reassure him. “We move as one.”
They didn’t graze hands or do anything that gave away so much of a hint at how much closer they were now. They never did.
If Kakashi or Sai were even aware of it, they didn’t let on. In a way, Kakashi’s ribbon game had been the best lesson for their team. It bound the three of them together over the years, until she didn’t know where she stopped and her teammates began. But the biggest change was in Sasuke and Sakura. Nothing came between them now.
Sasuke looked at her whole face for one long moment before nodding slowly once, as if accepting her words. Sakura heard his voice in her head. “We move as one.” Then, they broke apart.
Only their blue shadows lingered, the watery edges touching a moment longer, before they too split and drifted steadily away in opposite directions off the dune.
Sakura and Chiyo walked in silence toward the rock escarpments. The valleys were hard beneath their feet, and the brown cliffs slashed upwards around them in great broken-off wedges. They passed mountain after mountain, moving from pools of shade to baked yellow sand, but the spires still seemed so far away.
Under hooded eyes, Sakura watched Chiyo for signs of exhaustion, but detected none. She was amazed the old woman had held up so well for this long.
Chiyo must have been thinking along the same lines. “You have done well this far away from your trees, Leaf girl.” She giggled suddenly, her voice warbling a little in a pleasant grandmotherly way. “Or should I call you flower girl?” She continued laughing at her own joke. Sakura merely smiled.
“You name was Hana, Hama—“
“Sakura,” she said patiently.
“Oh yes, I remember now. Sa-ku-ra. Apprentice to the Slug Princess—“
Sakura started to interject, “Uh, well, more of a student than an actual, uh, apprentice, in a traditional sense—“
But Chiyo didn’t hear her.
A few rocks suddenly broke loose from the cliff they were approaching and crumbled down in front of them.
Sakura jumped in front of Chiyo, kunai drawn. “Just stay behind me, ma’am. I’ll make sure nothing happens to you—“
Sakura’s gaze swept the rock wall. It didn’t seem to be the work of enemy nins. “Just a few rocks,” she said. But she kept her kunai ready just the same.
Chiyo scoffed. “Oh no need for all that,” she said, walking past Sakura’s shoulder. “My chakra is weapon enough.”
Sakura kept her eyes fixed on the cliff-top as they walked. “Chiyo-sama, it’s probably best to stay behind me until we’re past this area—“
Chiyo moved ahead of her confidently and began directing them toward the spires along a more circuitous route. She pointed them to the strip of shade at the base of the cliffs, staying out of sight from approach. There wasn’t much more Sakura could do than follow and stay alert for any more rockslides.
Watching Sakura reholster her kunai, Chiyo spoke.
“That is not the way of the Sand,” she said with a sniff. “We use puppets. It’s similar to healing, except you’re using the body in a different way. A wooden body,” Chiyo added, laughing at her own joke in way that reminded Sakura of Kakashi’s morbid sense of humor. “But the real skill is in the chakra, not in the vessel.”
“I see,” Sakura said, nodding. “So the chakra gets applied to the whole system simultaneously, not just treating an isolated segment.”
Chiyo watched her reaction and was pleased to see that she processed it. “Exactly. It’s all in how you use it. You Leaf nins stick it to everything, slathering it on like glue. So clumsy and reckless— You will not make it long in the desert wasting your chakra like that. In the Sand you’re taught to make every drop count. You coat your weapon in a thin layer, giving away as little chakra as possible—“
“B-But that’s how I do it—“ Sakura stopped herself, shocked that something she considered a flaw might actually be a ‘technique.’
“Ah, so you are different. I knew there was something special about you, from the moment I saw you—“ She added softly to herself, “She must have seen it too….” But Chiyo refocused. “Continue, Sakura of the Leaf. Tell me more about how your chakra works.”
Chiyo watched her from under hooded eyes, as if curious to see if Sakura would even answer her.
Normally, Sakura would never reveal so much to a stranger, let alone a foreign shinobi, But if Chiyo and Tsunade knew each other, then she was probably another one of Tsunade’s weird old healer friends. She could be trusted.
“In school,” Sakura started slowly. “I was never able to fuse my chakra to a weapon like the other students. So after I learned to heal, I tried the same technique on my kunai. I wrapped it, like the medics do, so thin that no one saw it—“ Chiyo was listening closely to every word. Sakura shrugged. “It might be wrong, but to me, it just…works better.”
The older woman looked smug. “You’re not wrong. And you know it because you can feel it. It’s a more efficient use of chakra.”
Sakura brightened. “Exactly!” She continued, happy that someone finally understood. “It moves faster over the surface than it does internally, and you can direct the outcome in a more precise way than getting slowed down by inner mass. It’s the same principle, whether it’s a body or a metal weapon.”
Chiyo nodded, then leaned close, wrapping a hand around Sakura’s forearm for stability. “I’ll tell you a secret.” Sakura was so intent on listening, she was only distantly aware of how warm Chiyo’s hand was where it closed around her arm. “What you just described is exactly how the Sand’s puppetry works too. Chakra thinned down farther than you even think possible.” She watched Sakura’s green eyes as she spoke, as if reading them. “Thinner than the finest spider’s silk. If you work it right, you can form a net of chakra that’s invisible even to the most skilled sensor type.” She added with a whiff of pride. “Only the best chakra wielders can do it. The best of the best.”
Sakura looked at her, slightly in awe. “Chakra wielder?”
Satisfied, Chiyo stepped back and let go of her arm. “Of course. A wielder. Someone who uses their chakra for something other than healing.”
Sakura frowned. There were healers, and there were shinobi. There was nothing in between.
“But surely Tsunade has taught you about this?” Sakura’s answer was clear on her face. “The old slug certainly needs to better educate you about the gifts of your power,” Chiyo muttered. “At least she told you about her history? About how she learned? Where she trained?” She cut her eyes at Sakura. “About me?”
Sakura shook her head, hoping she wasn’t hurting her feelings.
Chiyo looked off at the hazy horizon, thinking over her words for a long time before turning back to Sakura with a grandmotherly tip of her head.
“Tsunade and I have known each other a long time. A very long time.” She paused, remembering some connection before adding, “We had the same teacher.”
Sakura nearly tripped. “Uh…what?”
“Well, I suppose she always did keep to herself,” Chiyo said with a laugh, but Sakura thought it held a bitter edge.
Sakura tried to smooth it over. “I wouldn’t expect her to talk to me about— That is to say, the Hokage knows a lot of people she never tells me about—“
“But what about you? Why did she choose you as her apprentice….” She let the word hang in the air, the end of it sounding like a hiss. “You must be a half-decent healer— Or at least have exceptional chakra control—“
Sakura smiled and opened her palm to reveal a pool of chakra. It glowed brilliantly in the shadow.
Amazed, Chiyo leaned closer.
Sakura’s cupped hand spilled over with emerald light, as if it was water carried from a desert oasis. Luminous green reflected up onto the cliff wall and lined Chiyo’s face, making her wrinkles look even deeper. It swirled and moved, disappearing at the edges and bubbling up again from the center of her hand.
Chiyo was stunned. Sakura caught her staring, eyes wide in disbelief, but the woman quickly shuttered her surprise and shot Sakura a skeptical look.
“You’re carrying quite a secret around with you,” Chiyo said. Her pleasant, grandmother voice was long gone. Now it was as hard as the desert ground beneath their feet. “You are much better than you let on.”
“Best in my med-nin class,” Sakura said. “But…” Another memory stopped her. She ended with a shrug. The glowing light was gone.
As they resumed walking, Chiyo cut her eyes over to her. “Let me guess. Too easy? Figured it all out on your own? Maybe some of the others were even a little…jealous?”
Sakura nodded, surprised. “Yes, exactly.”
“And yet…you never asked Tsunade for more help? Didn’t she ever offer to teach you more?”
“Some things, here and there. Healing techniques and a few herbal remedies. But,” Sakura amended quickly, “I didn’t ask. The Hokage encourages all shinobi to pursue what they want. She doesn’t force them. I chose to focus more on the shinobi side than the healing side. So perhaps that’s why she never felt the need to share more…. Because I’d rather be out here, not cooped up in a hospital.
“Bah, Tsunade always did have romantic ideas about ‘the way things should be.’” Chiyo swatted the whole notion away. “Pointless,” she muttered. “When there is so much more to controlling chakra than healing. Much, much more….” She threw her arms wide for a moment, as if encompassing the whole world.
Only then did Sakura realize that their circuitous route had brought them out almost directly in front of the two wind-blasted stone spires. Beside them, at the base of the mountain, was large shadowy crack. Chiyo pointed them toward it.
“In the Sand,” the old woman said quietly, resting her hand on the wall with each step, “a skill like yours is refined and honed. It would never be allowed to go to waste in a hospital.” Chiyo said the word as if it left a bad taste in her mouth. Sakura glanced at her. “Don’t misunderstand, medics are, of course, necessary. But those healing techniques…those are only the beginning….”
They stepped inside the shadowy stillness of the cave. Wind was moving past them, drawing in like a breath, hinting that there was a bigger space hidden ahead of them in the dark.
Chiyo knelt down and flattened her hands on the silty ground. She peered ahead, as if listening to the darkness.
Her mouth curled up into a smile. “I knew it,” she said under her breath.
She stood, dusted her hands softly against her grey tunic, and walked a few more steps before she said in a whisper, without looking at Sakura, “Who knows, maybe I can even show you a few things,” her voice had an edge to it, “since the Slug Princess is obviously too afraid to show you what real power is—“
Sakura would have thought it was funny — Chiyo sounded like every weird old healer she’d ever met — if there wasn’t such a strangely sinister tone to her voice—
Suddenly Chiyo opened her arms and spread her fingers. She pulled inward, as if dragging in a giant net from behind her. Outside, in the distance, a quiet rumbling was beginning. Growing….
Hearing it, Chiyo tucked her arms back into her deep sleeves and continued walking into the darkness, humming softly to herself.
Behind them, outside the cave, the rumbling was drawing closer. Sakura glanced back and gasped. The shadow of something large was falling, blotting out the light at the entrance, followed immediately by a rolling, thunderous explosion.
Sakura grabbed the old woman and tried to drag her away, but it was too late. Rocks the size of houses cascaded down onto the opening, collapsing it and cutting off all light in an explosion of choking dust.
Across the sand, the blast from the cliff face knocked Kakashi and Sasuke to their knees. Sasuke turned, dry panic rising up inside, seizing him, and started to run back—
Kakashi grabbed his shoulder—
“Sasuke!” His voice was sharp. “We can’t—“ He jerked hard, rocking him physically to get through. “We can’t go back!”
Sasuke’s face twisted in anger. He pulled back to wrench away when Kakashi continued.
“This might be our only chance to find Itachi!”
In that moment, Sasuke realized he had forgotten about Itachi, about his revenge, about his promises to his dead clan, all of it—
Sasuke shook his head, making a choice. “I-I don’t care. I don’t care about him—“
A second shockwave of dust hit them, but before Sasuke could push away, Kakashi went on.
“This is our mission and we have to finish it. No matter what. We have to get a lead on Itachi. That’s why we’re here. We haven’t seen him in years— We’re running out of time—“
Sasuke jerked free of Kakashi’s grip.
“You’re running out of time,” Kakashi yelled at Sasuke’s back. “I know what Itachi’s after! I know about the prophecy, and— I know about the curse!“
It was the only thing in the world that could have stopped Sasuke at that moment. And it did. He stumbled and looked back, face pale.
“H-How could you know? That was the clan’s most guarded secret—“
“Obito’s father. He told me a lot about the Uchiha after….” Kakashi stopped. “But it’s a story for another time.” He stepped back, beckoning him. “Come on. We have to go. This might be our only lead.”
The giant bird was circling back. A figure was standing on its back, but the details were lost in the glare. They were coming around to get a closer look at the collapsed mountain. It swooped several times over the plume of yellow dust.
Kakashi dashed forward a few steps and knocked back the headband from where it covered his eye. The sharingan hidden underneath was never closed. It spun into action, focusing with laser-like intensity on the figure, tracking it, anticipating its moves.
Kakashi’s eye saw the subtle shifts of the body like a shadow before it happened. It repeated the same movement of the head peering over the side, searching and searching.
Something was in that mountain. Something that person wanted.
If Kakashi had to guess, it was probably the body of the kidnapped Kazekage. There was little hope the young man was still alive. There might have been a chance to save him if the bickering Sand council had asked for help from the start, instead of hiding the abduction for days. But it didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t the Leaf’s problem.
That boy wasn’t the one he was looking for.
The bird circled again. The figure on its back stood out in stark contrast against the white wing for a moment. Kakashi focused harder, straining his sharingan to its limit. An Akatsuki cloak. Blond ponytail. The man shot him a hard look, then turned, angling the bird toward the horizon and the direction of the Sand village.
Kakashi blew out a frustrated breath. It wasn’t Itachi. This was the one called Deidara.
He shelved his disappointment. Hope wasn’t lost. If they caught him, he’d could still pry any information out of him with his bare hands—
Kakashi was returning to where Sasuke stood just as Sai flashed a sign from several hills over. His hawks had spotted something on the ground. People approaching— A small search party, from the Sand.
“I know— I know how you feel,” Kakashi growled, pulling his headband back down. “I’ve been chasing Itachi for longer than you can imagine. And that man up there knows where he is. We can’t stop. Not now, not when we’re so close—“
But a grief-stricken Sasuke turned back to the devastated landscape. The dust cloud was just beginning to settle at the top of the rubble pile that used to be a mountain.
“It’s because she was alone— I can’t leave her there—“
Kakashi faced him, speaking quickly but firmly. “Listen to me. Chiyo of the Red Sand has managed to stay alive as long as she has because she’s cautious. Paranoid. You don’t make it that far in life by letting minor things like exploding mountains take you by surprise—“
“That crazy old woman?”
“I’m afraid she might not be as crazy as she seemed. My bet is they either avoided it or she set it off herself. Either way, I feel certain Sakura is safe.”
Sasuke didn’t believe him.
Kakashi’s expression softened. Sasuke’s fear was a sign of just how much he’d changed. “You all are my team, and I would never leave any of you behind if I thought you were in real danger. Not ever. She’s been through worse than that—“ he nodded at the rubble.
In the settling dust, the cause of the explosion became clear. One of the wind-blasted spires had unexpectedly toppled in front of the cave opening, right where they were headed. Now in the clearing, only the single spire stood. The rest of the mountain was still there, but the entrance had been completely blocked.
It was clear it wasn’t an accident. Kakashi nodded at it, and Sasuke conceded he was probably right. They would have avoided it. Maybe. Hopefully.
But Kakashi didn’t leave room for speculation. “Sakura’s a fighter. Trust in her strength to carry her through.” His voice turned decisive. “We’ve got to keep going.”
Sasuke knew Kakashi was right. He had to trust Sakura. If anyone could pull through something like that, it was her.
That thought was the only way he made his feet keep moving.