A Single Step — Chapter 2, Lost

He’d lost so much time already. But if she knew something else, then it was worth going back. Besides, he had to make sure she wasn’t gone too….

That decided it. Kakashi peeled off from the small recon group without a word and sped back to the village.

The boys had been gone three days. Their defection had been discovered quite early on — the night patrol had come across a weeping Sakura, and they pieced together enough of a story to have the first search team out by dawn. But the boys had made the most of their headstart.

Which told Kakashi that this had been planned.

But he wasn’t worried until he made another troubling discovery: Sakura wasn’t in any of the scattered search parties.

The kids’ classmates showed up, wanting to tag along with the jonins for the search and rescue. Kakashi remembered thinking it was probably because they didn’t want to be left out of the action rather than any strong feelings for the two.

Which made Sakura’s absence even more notable.

He grimaced at his oversight. He’d just assumed she would be part of the crowd. But as he paired with search parties, relentlessly scanning for any trace, he realized Sakura wasn’t among them. In fact, he didn’t remember seeing her at all.

Iruka had been the one to break the terrible news. And from then on, everything was a blur.

Kakashi’s mind had frantically leapt to the inevitable: She had fled too. Either chasing after them or as part of the plan. And he’d been too preoccupied to notice.

Kakashi pushed so hard off a limb it fragmented behind him.

What if he was too late? What if she was already gone….

He shook his head, banishing the thought. No, not her. Never her….

But if even Naruto left, then he couldn’t be sure of anything. Oh please, not her too….

Kakashi ducked his head into the wind and ticked up his speed. Around him, the vast countryside of the Fire country was reduced to a blur.

Hours later, Kakashi’s feet touched down soundlessly outside a tidy Konoha door. He knocked hard, shattering the nighttime stillness.

“Oh, hello Hatake-san. Any news yet?”

Sakura’s mother hovered in the doorway. Her round eyes brimmed with concern, but not panic. Kakashi sighed inwardly.

“Uh, no. Not yet,” he said politely. “Tell me, do you know where Sakura is? I’d like to have a word with her.”

She smiled lightly, opened the door and ushered him in, then disappeared upstairs.

By the time Sakura came downstairs, nearly 10 long minutes later, Kakashi had inspected every knickknack in the small living room to keep himself from bounding up the stairs and ordering her to come down. He was just beginning to pace like a caged animal when she silently appeared in the doorway.

The young kunoichi looked defeated.

Sakura’s eyes were bleary and red-rimmed. Pink splotches crept up her throat. She clutched her hands in front of her rumpled dress and bit her trembling lip.


She choked on the word, then burst into tears.

Kakashi instantly went to her and guided her to the sofa.

“Sakura, none of this was your fault,” he reassured over her cries until she seemed calm. “But tell me, do you know where they went? Do you know anything at all about….”

Her crying began anew. Clearly she did know something. Kakashi just patted her hand and waited patiently for the tears to subside.

“They— They left together,” she blurted out, wiping her nose. “I don’t know where they went. They just…left.”

“Naruto too?”

Sakura nodded pitifully before dissolving into more sobs.

Kakashi already knew this. Sakura had confirmed it to the patrol in the early hours of the morning. But seeing her crying at Naruto’s name, Kakashi felt there must be more to the story.

He sat forward and looked her steadily in the eyes.

“Sakura,” he said slowly, “tell me everything you know. Anything you can think of. What did they say in the days leading up to this? When was the last time you saw them?”

Cupping a hand over her mouth, Sakura shook her head. But fresh tears came anyway.

She wept bitterly.

Kakashi stifled a sigh. He sat back, deciding to just let her cry.

And eventually she was wrung out enough to speak.

“I saw them. I heard them talking.” Her voice dropped to a whispered, as if confessing something dreadful. She looked down at her lap. “They wanted to go. Sasuke wanted Naruto to go with him. And then Naruto wanted to go too. So they— they just left.” A dry sob suddenly escaped.

“I see…. Were they forced?” He sat forward suddenly. “Were they under any duress?”

Sakura shook her head. Her mouth crumpled, but she held back her tears.

“No. They were excited. Sasuke said it would be an adventure. They’d do it together.”

Kakashi slumped back against the couch and blew out a long, low breath. Sakura didn’t need to explain any further. He understood their dynamic completely. Naruto would never have said no.

Now he felt as defeated as Sakura did.

At the edge of the sofa, Sakura sat with her head bowed. She looked down and picked at her nails. A tear pattered onto her hand.

“I understand,” Kakashi said softly, sitting forward again. “Did Sasuke say where they were going? Who—”

Sakura shook her head.

“And Naruto….”

Her shoulders jerked with a quiet sob.

Kakashi frowned. What was it about Naruto—

“Sasuke said the village had failed them. Both of them. That they were the same. He said— He said—” She scrubbed a hand over her face and spoke through her tears. “He said you were a babysitter and I was a dead weight. And Naruto…. Naruto didn’t say anything. Sasuke said they’d always be there for each other, and then they were…they were…gone,” she said with a breathy cry.

Kakashi raked a hand through his hair. This was the burden that was weighing on Sakura. He couldn’t blame her for being upset.

But confessing it finally gave Sakura the courage to carry on. The words all tumbled out in a teary rush.

“I don’t understand, Kakashi-sensei. I thought maybe Sasuke would try to go after Itachi, that he might leave. But not Naruto. Never Naruto.” She sucked in a breath. “I think maybe Naruto went to stop him. Like I was going to. But instead, Sasuke asked him to come. And then, he left!” She threw her hands up. “He didn’t want our team or our village…. He didn’t want you or me…. He just left!”

Kakashi looked at the floor. He had no answers for her. But he understood. Naruto’s defection felt like a betrayal, whereas Sasuke’s somehow…didn’t. It was probably because of all the kids, Naruto seemed the most loyal to the village.

But maybe that loyalty was the problem.

Kakashi stood up suddenly. He’d gotten what he came for. Sakura was safe. And he had a clearer picture of what happened. Unfortunately, the new information made retrieval that much harder.

But he was wasting precious time. Kakashi shut off his swirling thoughts and plastered on a calm facade.

“Don’t worry, we’ll bring them home.” He patted her shoulder roughly. “It’ll turn out ok. You’ll see!”

Kakashi shot her a quick, overly bright smile — one she didn’t return — and then was out the door.

But outside, the smile evaporated.

Kakashi’s thoughts raced as pounded over the village and out across the forest.

Both boys were immature. Powerful, but immature. And if they were dead-set on leaving the village, both of their own choice, then finding them would be nearly impossible.

Revenge, power, adventure, friendship…they were all strong motivators. Sasuke was driven by revenge. Naruto by loyalty.

Sasuke wanted to find Itachi. But Naruto? He was still coming to grips with hard truth of his power, the Kyuubi.

And Kakashi couldn’t answer his questions: He was forbidden to. The elders had decided that they would formally instruct him after the chunnin exams. Kakashi suspected Danzo was pulling some strings, hoping to fold Naruto into ROOT. Then the boy really would become a weapon.

Kakashi had hoped for enough time to form a cohesive team, to get them bonded. Then no matter what happened, no one could harm them. They’d always have each other to rely on.

But now it was all over.

Kakashi swore viciously and pushed off a branch, leaping in a blur through the trees.

If Naruto left with Sasuke, of his own accord, then Danzo would surely have his way. They’d keep Naruto under lock and key after this. And for Sasuke, the sympathy since the massacre would dry up. The old distrust of the Uchiha would be resurrected.

They were the same, Sasuke got that right. Life had never been easy for either of them. But this stupid choice just made life a lot harder.

Kakashi barreled toward the last jonin check-point. He hoped and feared for any news.

But whatever the outcome, over the long trek out he’d concocted a last-ditch plan to protect them: He’d take the blame. Kakashi decided he’d weave some story about the boys listening to too many embellished stories from his youth. They took them for truth and set out to have their own similar adventures. At least then the anger would be directed at him.

But upon reaching the rendezvous point, those wildly ridiculous plans were torn through.

Kakashi landed on a branch. The handful of men standing around went quiet. A few even looked away.

For a heart-stopping moment Kakashi thought one of the boys had been killed. But then he saw Genma. The jonin glanced significantly up the branch towards the enormous tree trunk. Whatever had happened, it was there.

Kakashi walked slowly up the branch, passing a few more men. He frowned suddenly. All of reconnaissance team was assembled.

If they were all here, then who was searching? Why wasn’t anyone looking—

Iruka stood at the end of the branch, next to the old tree. Hand propped on the trunk, he stared out into the dark woods in unsettling preoccupation. Searching….

A knot formed in Kakashi’s gut.

At the sound of approaching footsteps Iruka turned slowly. The boys’ former teacher gave a long, mournful look at their current sensei. Then he stepped back.

Kakashi’s blood went cold.

Two shinobi headbands were staked to the tree with a kunai. The black ribbons fluttered, and the silver plates still shined like new. They practically were. Except now there was a jagged line through each one, cutting across the Leaf insignia like a wound.

Kakashi shook his head slowly. Iruka looked away.

With that one cut, the boys had renounced their allegiance to the Konoha. They’d left the headbands at this far check point as a message to anyone foolish enough to look for them.

Now he understood why everyone had stopped searching: It was over.

The boys were nukenins.

They may as well be dead.

Sakura stood at her window and stared at the dark lines of the village. She had never felt so empty.

They were gone. They had been for weeks and weeks. It was a nightmare she wasn’t going to wake up from.

Kakashi had dropped by with some words of encouragement. They were close, don’t give up hope, and other things she knew weren’t true.

But Ino had already let the truth slip out.

Her blue eyes were big, and she covered her hand with her mouth apologetically. But Sakura wouldn’t let the slip go until she knew the whole story.

Now she thought if she could do it again she would just smile at Ino and say “It’s nothing. More tea?”

Not beg her to tell. Not promise that whatever it was, it couldn’t hurt her. That she was prepared for the worst. That she’d be grateful just to know something…anything….

“Two headbands were found,” Ino said haltingly. “They were new…. No sign of fighting. I mean, no blood or anything…but….”

Sakura went numb. There were no words. And the tears wouldn’t come. So she sat still. Very still.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I should never have said anything….” Ino squeezed her cold hands.

“It’s ok.” Sakura smiled wanly. “It’s ok.”

But they both knew it wasn’t.

Sakura could see the line in her academy book. Bolded to emphasize the point. It was a lesson all academy students learned. Even Naruto and Sasuke.

A shinobi only parts with their headband if they’ve died or defected.

The message was clear: If you defect, then you’ll wish you were dead.

Ino worriedly clasped her hands. But there was nothing more to say. The silence in the room grew painful. Soon after, Ino hugged her friend and left.

After that, the few friends who dropped by crept around the topic of her teammates like the two had died. More than once, her classmates even offered sympathies.

Kakashi was hopeful, but Sakura knew the truth. No matter what he said, she could see in his haggard expression that he no longer believe his own words.

Sakura gave in to the hopelessness of it all. She asked her mother to tell everyone else that she was sick. Her friends caring words only made her feel worse.

How could they understand. They thought she was heartbroken – and she was— but it was more than that.

She had cried until she couldn’t cry anymore. She cried for them…. And she cried for herself.

When they left, they took her world with them.

She didn’t join the search. Why should she? She knew what they thought about her. Maybe someone else could convince them to return. But it wouldn’t be her.

She didn’t respond to the general call for mission assignments. Why would she get a mission? She didn’t have a team, and there were no vacancies on the other teams. Now, she really was a dead weight.

She didn’t go out anymore. Not even to the market with her mother. The simple chores of her life before just seemed too painful.

So she hid out at home. And their words haunted her like a ghost.

If she were a better shinobi, she would have reported them immediately. Not cried for hours more, then trudged home, ashamed that their words must be true.

If she were a better shinobi, she would have searched for them. Maybe even led the others.

If she were a better shinobi, she would have faced this uncertain future with bravery and resilience.

If she were a better shinobi…. Then maybe they would have stayed….

Sakura puffed out a breath. It momentarily fogged her bedroom window. Some nights she watched the village rooflines for so long she thought she saw silhouettes. But it was fantasy. They were gone. Forever. And Sakura didn’t know how to go on.

So she stared out into the darkness, letting the tears streak in twin silver lines down her cheeks.

Weeks rolled into months. The seasons changed around Sakura, passing her by. And she accepted that she’d been left behind. She stayed at home, only occasionally running quick errands for her mother. She ignored the calls for missions and turned her back on the shinobi world.

Only the official summons from Tsunade, threatening a court martial, drove her out one bitterly cold winter day.

Which she supposed was good. There was no one to see her. No one to frown and tell her how very sorry they were, then shake their heads in pity as she passed. She could always feel the whispers in her wake. She had grown to hate it.

The steel grey sky was threatening, and the freezing wind clawed at her face, but she was left alone. She was grateful for that, at least.

If she had been spotted trudging to or from the Hokage’s tower, then the whispers would no longer carry sympathy. They would say that she was in trouble. That she must have finally been kicked out of the shinobi corp. That she really was a dead weight after all….

The wind stung her eyes. Sakura ducked her face down into her scarf and kept going.

But inside the warm office, Tsunade’s face held no trace of sympathy. Or patience.

“This is shameful. You know that?” She slapped a file labeled “Team 7” on the desk. “You are a shinobi of Konoha. And that means something no matter what happens to your team.”

Sakura didn’t move. Hands at her sides, she stared impassively over the Hokage’s shoulder, out the window at the colorless expanse of Konoha.

“Do you think you’re the only one in pain?” Tsunade said icily. “Do you think you’re the only one to lose teammates? No.”

Kakashi slipped in the back of the room, letting the door glide shut behind him. Tsunade spared him a quick glance then resumed her tirade.

“Most of us lose teammates because they die beside you or in your place…or right beneath your hands.” Her voice shook with earnestness. “But it’s the living who have it harder. We are left to bring their bodies home. We are the ones who have to go on.”

Sakura blinked once. She knew she should feel ashamed, sad, inspired…something. But she didn’t. Her shoulders rose and fell with a slow breath, but that was it. Her face was still an impassive mask. And inside she was still numb. She felt as frozen as the world beyond the window.

“You’re not allowed to just curl up and die because your idiot teammates ran away,” Tsunade said scathingly. But it didn’t faze the girl.

Tsunade scooped a few other team files, nearly crushing them in her fist she was so angry.

“I’m finished entertaining this, Kakashi.” She spread out the folders on her desk. Each was labeled for various teams. “I have given her more time to come around because it was so unique. But now I can see it is pointless.”

Kakashi shifted, sighed audibly, but said nothing.

“Sakura Haruno, you will be assigned to a new team. And with this behavior, I’m seriously considering slapping you back on a fresh genin team….”

Tsunade shot a challenging look at Kakashi. He tipped his head and frowned slightly, silently pleading for the girl. Tsunade rolled her eyes.

“But right now, you still have the right to speak.” She waved a manicured hand over the folders fanned out in front of her. “So tell me, is there any team that you have a preference for?”

She finally looked at Sakura, completely expecting more mulish stubbornness. But a small frown had cracked that blank facade. Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

“There are plenty of teams that would be happy to have you in a support capacity.” The more she spoke, the more Sakura’s frown deepened. “And I can speak to their sensei, to see if they would accept you. Of course, you would only be called as needed, or if one of their squad died, but you would be expected to train and maintain your shinobi standing with them as well as—”

Tsunade stopped. Sakura was glaring at her, looking downright angry. Even her cheeks were growing pink.

“Is, uh…. Is there a problem Sakura?”

“I have a team. I do not want another,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “I am on Team 7, and I have no desire to transfer.”

As if to emphasize her point, Sakura plopped her hands on her hips. She shifted her feet into a wider stance. Without realizing it, she moved into a battle position. She was ready for a fight.

Tsunade face went slack with frustrated disbelief. And to add to her mounting frustration, over the girl’s shoulder, at the back of the room, Kakashi’s face broke into an enormous grin.

“They left. I did not,” Sakura said, sounding more sure of herself with every word. “They made their choice, free and clear. You asked my mine? Well this is it. I have no desire to leave Team 7.”

Tsunade rubbed a hand over her eyes.

“Yes, but you cannot have a team of one.”

Across the room Kakashi delicately cleared his throat.

“Or two,” she grumbled, glaring over her fingers at him.

But Tsunade understood why Kakashi had shielded her. This was different than the normal dissolution of a team. Sakura’s grief was different. Her teammates hadn’t died…they had abandoned her.

Tsunade sympathized. She knew how it felt to be so wrapped in grief you could barely move. She knew it too well….

She stamped out the intruding memories. Her medic instinct recognized the best course of action for the girl: That anger would pull her out of this slump.

“Fine,” she snapped. “Stay in Team 7. But don’t expect it to be easy.”

Tsunade pushed back the folders to find the one labeled “Team 7.” She opened it, flicking her gaze to the girl. There was a ghost of a smile on her face now.

Kakashi had stepped forward in solidarity. He stood beside Sakura and nodded his approval and willingness to participate. Tsunade shrugged, then began writing out her new orders.

“Sakura Haruno of Team 7, because of your unique situation, you will serve at the pleasure of the Hokage. I will assign you to assist teams and support missions as I see fit. I will require you to train in stealth to carry out classified solo missions when the need arises.”

She stopped and looked over the girl’s profile. “You are skilled in chakra skill….”

“Her talent is second to none,” Kakashi interjected. “In fact, if you were to test her I think you would also find—”

Tsunade waved a hand. “I see where you’re going with this, Kakashi. Perhaps medic nin training is in her future. She certainly has the make-up for it. But only time will tell….”

After amending the file and receiving new orders, they were dismissed.

Outside the Hokage’s tower, Sakura felt like she’d stepped out of a whirlwind. She blinked up at the sky. Quiet sunlight was just breaking through the cloud cover.

Kakashi patted her shoulder hard.

“Good job. You proved yourself in there today. You don’t give up. You’re a true Konoha shinobi.”

Sakura gave a weak smile. But for the first time in a long time, it didn’t feel like Kakashi was lying.

“I don’t really…. I….” She stopped. She didn’t know how she felt.

Kakashi beamed. “Remember what I’ve always said, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!'”

She frowned in question, not really remembering him ever saying that. But Kakashi nodded sagely and tapped the dog-eared book in his back pocket.

Sakura just rolled her eyes. Now she knew he was lying!

He grinned broadly at his little joke. He told everyone else the book-shaped bulge in his back pocket was the Tao Te Ching. But she knew the truth. And all because they were on the same team. Kakashi preferred trashy romances to Lao Tzu, any day of the week.

A small smile tugged at the corner of Sakura’s mouth. She wasn’t happy, not truly. But she felt better. And each brush with these familiar things — not just the stupid jokes, but being part of something larger than herself — pulled her slowly out of that grief-stricken limbo.

It felt like she’d taken a step. She didn’t know where it would take her. But it was a step. That was something, at least.

“Well, you and I are going to have a lot of work to do! We better get you back into regular training. Meet you tomorrow at the training field at dawn?”

Kakashi was already sauntering off without waiting for an answer. Sakura watched his back, slow questions raising in her mind. Things she’d not cared about for months now, since before they left—

Kakashi stopped suddenly. “Actually, better make it 10.” He flashed back a knowing grin.

Sakura understood. His secret was out. Now that it was just them, he didn’t need to keep her waiting. A smile broke across Sakura’s face. She couldn’t have stopped it if she tried. And it felt good. It was her first real smile in a long, long time.

She turned for home, feeling the warm sun on her shoulders in spite of the winter chill