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Avenger's Destiny

Prologue- Memory.

She heaved a sigh as she neared the bridge. The bridge where they used to meet.
Feeling the gentle breeze caress her rosy cheeks and pink locks, Haruno Sakura leaned
against the railing, staring at the clear still water. The smooth pebbles at the bed of the
stream shimmered in the sunlight; her reflection stared, blankly, expressionlessly back at
her from the surface of the water. Sakura let her thoughts drift.
How long had it been? She'd lost count. She hadn't seen him in years. Long enough for
memories to fade, but never, ever long enough to heal, or to forget.
Everything had started to crumble ever since he left. It had taken so much time, so much
courage for her to be able to stand upright and walk through those two dreaded places
again without crumbling from emotion.
Emotion. Her greatest weakness, huh? It hurt to know that. Even if emotions were what
made people human, there was no room for emotion in a shinobi's life.
Becauseeverything could be taken away in a split second, because nothing lasted.
Relationships only distracted you from your mission, your goal.
The cherry blossom was so caught up in her own train of thoughts that she hardly
noticed when her former sensei walked up and stood right beside her, watching their
reflections in the gently rippling water.
"Sakura," he said her name quietly, sticking his hands in his pockets.
"Yes, Kakashi-sensei?" the girl said absently. She didn't jolt. She was used to his sudden
appearances, and she wasn't the Hokage's apprentice for nothing.
"You're thinking about him, aren't you?" he asked simply, leaning against the railing as
well.
She nodded, looking downwards.
"Hai, sensei,"
Silence reigned as the non-verbal understanding of loss bonded both student and teacher
together. Loss of a comrade, a person they cared for.
"You know, you should really stop calling me 'sensei', Sakura," Kakashi said suddenly.
"You're a chunnin now and I've stopped teaching you guys a long time ago"
"It's a habit, actually," Sakura admitted, before adding slyly. "So what d'you want me to
call you? Ojisan? (1)"
Immediately the colour of Kakashi's face changed, even if it was just slightly.
"I- am not- old!"

The pink-haired girl grinned. Annoying Kakashi was always fun, because he was
usually infuriatingly calm.
"Prove it," Sakura challenged. "With that mask of yours, you could grow a beard in there
and I'd never know," she said nonchalantly, not really expecting him to meet her dare.
After all, what lay under Kakashi's ever-present mask had been Team 7's mystery ever
since they met him.
Kakashi stood still for a moment, contemplating his next move.
Then wordlessly, he pulled off the blue, ever present fabric on his face, and pulled up his
Konoha headband to reveal his whole face to Sakura. What had he to lose?
"There. I'm not old," Kakashi retorted indignantly, glaring at his student. It had become a
game between them, this kind of pointless banter. But even though he wouldn't admit it,
Kakashi enjoyed these moments. He didn't have to worry about life when he was with
Sakura and Naruto all he had to care about was his pride. Those two could deliver
painful blows to his ego with words.
Silver spikes fell over his ebony eye, his red Sharingan seemed to glisten in the morning
sunlight. His face was slightly long; his smile was warm despite his earlier retort. His
features were handsome, his profile remarkable.
"Yes, you're not," Sakura admitted with a sad smile before falling back into silence,
staring into the water once again.
The slim, green leaves of the bamboo trees by the bank of the river swayed in the
breeze, making pleasant swishing sounds. The sakura trees let their beautiful pink
blossoms fly, each as soft as felt, caressing Sakura's cheeks gently before falling onto the
water and floating towards the unknown beyond.
"Why don't you move on, Sakura?" Kakashi asked another question, staring down into
the water as he fingered his gloves. "So many boys are after you, despite your big
forehead myself included," Kakashi grinned as he said the last part.
Sakura rolled her eyes, knowing that he was joking, yet longed to give him a longawaited facelift for the comment about her forehead. But she stayed silent.
"Why don't you give them a chance?" Kakashi added in a quieter tone, leaning lazily
against the bridge railing. "You can't always be alone, you know he isn't coming back,"
Kakashi felt her stiffen as he mentioned 'him'.
"Because, ojisan, I don't feel anything for them," Sakura finally said, a hint of sarcasm in
her voice. "And you?" she added in a softer tone. "Why don't you ever show your face?
Don't you want to get a girlfriend? Even Asuma and Kurenai are openly dating now, and
ugh, I can't believe it, but even Gai-sensei, of all people, claims to have an admirer
where does that leave you?"
"The people I love died a long time ago, Sakura" Kakashi spoke, his tone low. He
seemed so nonchalant about it, but Sakura could tell that he had always missed them
and he always would.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei,"

Kakashi suddenly brightened. "Anyway, I hate girls fawning over me like that Ayame
girl at Ichiraku's man I've avoided that place ever since. No thanks to you guys," he
said dryly to Sakura.
Sakura laughed lightly. "Yeah, we were trying to see your face then but Ino-pig popped
up and ruined everything,"
"Poor Sasuke, though," Kakashi added, not thinking.
Sakura fell silent. Kakashi mentally slapped himself, but could find no words to lighten
the blow of the memory.
The pink-haired kunoichi tried her hardest to keep her emotions in check, quickly
changing the awkward topic.
"Eh, where's that little orange book of yours?" Sakura asked slyly, referring to his
beloved series of Jiraiya's perverted books.
"Dumped it," Kakashi said simply. "Got boring after awhile, reading the same thing over
and over again"
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "And it took you five years to come to that realization?"
"Eh I heard that Jiraya-sama's publishing another book called" Kakashi didn't give in
so easily.
"I don't want to know," Sakura groaned, stopping him.
"I'm kidding!" Kakashi punched her lightly on the arm.
Sakura smiled, a genuine smile. Rarely had she seen Kakashi this relaxed around
anyone. But then again, being a Jounin, a former ANBU member and all he couldn't
afford to let his guard down.
Then, as silence once again reigned, Sakura allowed herself to delve deeper, into the
long hidden depths of her mind, to search for memories from so long ago
N
# Flashback
"But- Hokage-sama-" a much younger Sakura protested before the Godaime, pleading
for a chance.
"No buts, Sakura. You can't handle this. I've assigned this task to Naruto and his team
and you will not get involved. Do I get myself clear?" Tsunade stood firm with her
decision. It was tough, being Hokage. She barely had the heart to turn Sakura down, but
she had to do it.
Defiant as she felt, Sakura could see no way around the Hokage's authority, and nodded,
somewhat dejectedly.

Tsunade's expression softened considerably as she walked out from behind her desk,
grasping the pink-haired kunoichi by the shoulders, feeling something... overwhelming in
her.
"It's never easy to let go, you know? I've been through it before... but our duties... they
must be fulfilled. Sasuke has chosen his path. You must choose yours,"
N
Sakura strode homeward, her feet dragging along the pavement as she walked. Her head
was bowed, her eyes stared at the dull, grey ground. Her heart was heavy; a churning
feeling remained constantly in her, the nagging feeling that something was wrong. Yet
she could register none of those warning signals. She could only think about him, his
leaving, his words.
She felt so useless.
It was spring, and Konoha was in all its glory. Cherry trees blossomed by the roadsides,
the gentle breeze blew the felt-like petals resembling showers of blossoms off the
branches. People laughed and children played. Peace was beautiful. But none of these did
anything to lighten Sakura's mood.
Sasuke had left, just hours ago. A retrieval team had been sent after him- without her.
She wanted so badly to go... she had to get him back. She didn't want to think of him as
a missing-nin. She didn't want him to be seen as a traitor to their village. He was her
teammate, her comrade. She didn't want to let him go.
'Naruto... please, get Sasuke back... I- I couldn't do it..."
"I'll bring him back, Sakura-chan! That's a promise of a lifetime!"
A promise of a lifetime. Naruto's determination.
Why? Why did Sasuke have to hold on to revenge so much? Why couldn't he let things
go? Why couldn't he forgive, and forget?
Her heart held a silent whisper.
'I don't understand, Sasuke-kun...'
A scream pierced through the air, breaking Sakura out of her reverie. With a jerk of
horror, she realized where the heart-wrenching sound was coming from.
Her house!
N
Terror gripping her, Sakura sprinted homeward, eyeing the ajar front door and items
strewn all over the place with a rising feeling of dread swallowing her. Her body shook
uncontrollably, fear overwhelming her from within.
What was happening?

Without a second thought, the pink-haired Haruno bolted into her house.
Only to be met by a grisly sight.
Her mother lay, unmoving, upon the floor. A kunai was struck right through her heart.
And her father, covered in bloodied wounds, was desperately trying to protect her
mother's body. A gang of rough, notorious Sound nins, probably robbers, were attacking
them, continuously, without mercy.
Sakura knew her father's fate.
Haruno Heian (2) was never a ninja. Named after peace, he despised fighting, even
though he was descended from a line of some of the greatest Konoha shinobis. He had
always discouraged Sakura from choosing the path of a ninja, but with the Haruno blood
running through her, she was irrepressible. And if that wasn't enough, her grandfather
and mother backed her a hundred percent.
So Sakura got her way. Heian always seemed to be displeased with her, no matter how
hard she tried or how high she scored her exams, she could never hear a word of praise
coming from his lips. Just as Sasuke yearned for his brother's acknowledgement and
Naruto for the village's, she yearned for her father to recognize her, not as a ninja, but
as his daughter.
She was disappointed, and at a point in time, she simply stopped trying. She didn't tell
him about school, about the academy. Nothing. It was as if they had lost touch, lost the
thread that connected them as family.
Now, Sakura stood there, unmoving and unspeaking. Pure terror whipped through her
soul like a tornado, jumbling her usually calm mind. What could she do? Stare Stand and
stare.
One of the Sound nins suddenly noticed her, standing rigidly in the doorway.
"Your daughter, Haruno?" he mocked Heian. "What a pretty face why don't we kill this
pathetic idiot and take her instead, eh?"
"Why not?" Another one leered, advancing with a hungry grin in his eyes. Sakura
subconsciously backed away.
"But that forehead spoils the looks, though so big" a comment was heard from the
other side of the room, sneering, drawing laughs from most of the ninjas.
Something within the cherry blossom snapped.
If there was one thing Sakura would not tolerate, it was comments on her forehead. She
was suddenly jolted back to her senses. Her courage built, even though her knees shook
beneath.
'You're afraid' a voice mocked from the back of the head.
'I'm not!'
'You are admit it'

'Dammit! I- AM NOT- AFRAID!' Sakura screamed into the empty vertex of her mind, and
the voice left her alone.
"Back off," she snarled loudly at the ninjas, flipping two kunais out of her pouch and
holding them in a cross formation before her in a defensive stance. She knew she didn't
stand a chance against them, but she couldn't leave now. Not when they had done that
to her parents.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk" one smirked. "What boldness in your daughter, Haruno haven't you
been teaching her manners?"
"Leave my father out of this," Sakura's voice was soft and dangerous, a hard fist flew up
and grazed the man's cheek in a painful swipe, and he staggered back in surprise.
"Aww isn't that sweet?" A sound nin with a scarred slash across his left cheek kicked his
fallen comrade aside and approached Sakura, his dirty blond hair in spikes. The
expression in his queer blue eyes lingered upon her face as he lifted a finger and traced it
across her jaw. "It's eight on one, honey; do you think that's fair? Let's just say you
come quietly and- AARGH!"
He grasped his bleeding wrist with his right hand. While he had been busy leering at her,
Sakura had driven her kunai into his wrist out of pure rage, her emerald eyes fiery.
"She isn't alone,"
A deep male voice suddenly rang out. Everyone in the house whirled around. Sakura felt
a slight wave of relief when she saw a familiar brown-haired kunoichi enter.
Tenten barged in, two kunais in hand that went straight through the heart of two nins
that tried to block her. In a split second her katana and shurikens were at hand, too. Ino,
Hinata and their fathers followed swiftly, Kakashi taking up the rear. They had heard
Tsume's scream.
Surprise was clearly etched upon the Sound ninjas' faces.
"Ino, Hinata, help Sakura and Heian-san," Hyuuga Hiashi directed forcefully. "Tenten, get
the Hokage-sama and backup immediately! Three of us can hold the fort here. GO!"
Ino and Hinata knelt down beside the sobbing Sakura, who was holding her father's hand
so tight, it was white. There was a big gash on his abdomen that was bleeding profusely.
Already Heian's face was completely pale. His breath was ragged; life was leaving him
quickly.
"Sa-Sakura" he breathed, with obvious difficulty.
"Hang on, chichioya (3)" Sakura whispered. "You're gonna be alright"
"No, Sakura. Listen to me Tsume wanted me to tell you that she loves you she
wants you to know that - she will always watch over you" the head of the Haruno clan
said weakly, stopping as he coughed up blood. "I finally - understand what it takes to be
a ninja, Sakura courage to stand, even when on the brink of defeat undying loyalty
and willpower and the strength that I had failed to summon"
Hot tears streamed down Sakura's cheeks. How could she have ever thought that her
father did not love her? It was all because of his pride that he kept his praise for her in

check. All this while he had been guilt-ridden, unable to pass on any clan secrets to her
because of his refusal to learn them before.
"Revive our clan's secrets, Sakura you're the only one left and you will be a great
ninja someday promise me" Heian smiled weakly as he gently pressed a scrap of old
parchment into his daughter's palm.
"Yes chichioya I promise"Sakura whispered, resisting the urge to scream, to murder
every last one of those pathetic killers who had taken away the last of her family.
"I love you, Sakura my daughter" Haruno Heian smiled for the last time, closing
his eyes.
N
Hiashi felt murderous. The Harunos, some of his oldest and closest friends, were dead
because of these bastards. He made every hit count, sealing up their chakra points with
such intense fury that the mediocre Sound nins never stood a chance. If he didn't kill
them, he made sure that they would never be of any use on the battlefield anymore.
On the outside, the Hyuuga head looked perfectly calm and composed, as any ninja
should be in battle, but his insides were boiling with rage. He would never forgive those
who killed his friends, who destroyed a comrade.
He hadn't been in time to save Haruno Heian and Tsume. He had failed as a friend.
N
Luring several ninjas outside, Yamanaka Inoichi sent his Fuuma Shuriken slicing through
the air at the sound nins. His long blond hair swayed to his movements, his clear, sky
blue eyes burned with anger as he battled against the sound ninjas.
How had they gotten into Konoha, and what did they want from the Harunos?
N
Kakashi remembered the look on Sakura's face as his Sharingan copied the Sound's
jutsus effectively and easily, enabling him to use their strength against them. The sound
blasts produced hit the ninjas square, each stronger and more destructive than the last.
Memories of Obito and Rin, his long gone comrades, resurfaced in his mind, the people
who had killed them
His eyes narrowed, he attacked with renewed fervor as his famed Chidori sizzled and
sparked in the palm of his hand.
N
By sheer luck, Tenten found a whole group of Jounins just back from missions and being
debriefed in Tsunade's office. Without bothering to knock, or to heed Shizune's call
behind her, the weapons mistress barged in, only to see half the Jounins already poised
with their weapons in hand.
"Tenten, what is the meaning of this?" Tsunade barked dangerously, stepping up to
confront the brown-haired kunoichi. She hated interruptions.

Panting and sweating profusely, Tenten spoke in between breaths. "Gomen, (4) Hokagesama! But several Sound nins have broken into Haruno-san's house and killed Haruno
Heian and Tsume!"
There was a moment of stunned silence.
"What?" Tsunade said in a strained whisper, staring at her in disbelief. Sound nins how
on earth had they gotten in, hadn't the security at the gates been tightened? It was
several moments before she regained herself, and grabbing Tenten by the arm, she
dashed, very un-Hokage like, out onto the streets of Konoha.
N
When Tsunade, Tenten and the group of Jounins arrived at the Haruno residence, Hiashi,
Inoichi and Kakashi were still fighting ferociously, the last few of the Sound nins left were
undoubtedly the more skilled ones. Already a crowd had gathered, but not being ninjas
themselves, they knew better than to get involved.
Sarutobi Asuma, standing behind Tsunade, narrowed his eyes as he lunged forward and
caught a Sound nin by the cuff of his shirt. Yuuhi Kurenai, Maito Gai and the rest of the
Jounins tackled one ninja each, and soon Tsunade had the man with the scarred face and
dirty blond hair by the neck. Seemingly, he was the leader.
No one had ever seen Tsunade this mad before. With unbelievable strength, her slender
frame lifted the man's bulk and slammed him against a nearby wall, demanding in a
dangerous tone that indicated clearly: I. Want. Answers.
"Who sent you? Who told you to kill the Harunos?"
N
"Orochimaru-sama wants their family secrets, lady" the man said in a sneering fashion
as he eyed Tsunade hungrily. "In the meantime, why don't you and I-"
Before the man ever completed his sentence, Tsunade punched the living daylights out of
him in one powerful swipe.
N
Sakura kneeled before the monument set up in honour of her parents, flanked by her
sympathetic friends. The rest of the village stood behind them, Tsunade in the lead, with
the heads of the largest clans in Konoha behind her.
Heian had been a well-respected man despite his opposition of the ninjas. It was only
now that Sakura realized what a man her father had been, how he always visited the
poorer streets of Konoha and offer help to the helpless, how he always lent a hand in
every situation, how he cared, how he nurtured.
The whole of Konoha was gathered to pay their respects to the dead. Dressed in black,
the pink-haired kunoichi's tears had already dried upon her cheeks. Her mind, usually
whirling with thoughts and ideas, had gone blank. Her startling emerald eyes had lost
their glow, it was glossy and empty, haunting. She thought of nothing. Words of
consolation failed to console.

She finally understood how Sasuke felt. She finally understood his absolute need for
revenge, the boiling anger bottled up within. In a way, she had had her revenge, the
Sound nins had been either killed or caught, but strangely, she felt no satisfaction.
Revenge was not hers. She did not kill them, even if she wished to. She felt no pleasure
at seeing the ninjas dead, it reminded her too much of her parents.
Revenge, she learnt, is not sweet. It simply deepens the bitterness in one's heart.
Silence was vital to her. No more wailing, no more crying, no more mourning. She
wanted silence.
And that very night, as she lay on the bed in Ino's house with Ino, Tenten and Hinata
surrounding her with pity etched in their faces, Sakura got what she wanted. Complete,
absolute, silence.
And she cried into the arms of her friends, not stopping, not ceasing, listening to the
mournful echoes of her pitiful sobs throughout the long, dreary night.
N
The next morning, before anyone else in the house, or in the village, for that matter,
Sakura woke and dressed quietly. Her face was expressionless. She still felt nothing.
Numbness flooded her soul.
She did not dress in her black mourning dress, as was the tradition. People would talk,
but she didn't care. She had promised her father she would be a ninja, not an orphaned
girl whose only occupation was to cry. She would move on.
Quickly descending the stairs, Sakura slipped quietly out of the house, leaving a note
behind her, so that her friends wouldn't worry.
Tilting her head up to look at the hues of dawn against the blue sky, Sakura set of
towards her destination- the Hokage Tower.
N
"Come in, Sakura," Tsunade's voice rang out even before the cherry blossom's fist
touched the impressive mahogany door. Taking a deep breath, Sakura entered, feeling
meek.
For once, Tsunade's sake bottles were nowhere to be seen, the room smelled pleasantly
of the cool, fresh morning air. The Godaime Hokage looked tired, but alert.
"What do you want, Sakura?" Tsunade asked quietly. There was a hint of motherliness
and kindness to her tone, immediately reminding Sakura of her own mother. Quickly
shifting her thoughts, Sakura blurted out her request, her knees shaking beneath her.
"Can-can you- make me your apprentice, Hokage-sama?"
Tsunade looked slightly taken aback, and for a split second, Sakura was afraid that her
request might be turned down. But then, her hopes rose again as a smile slowly spread
upon the older kunoichi's face, despite her efforts to look stern.
'This girl has guts. I like her,' Tsunade thought. Out loud, she set her rules for Sakura.

"I'm warning you right now. Normally, I don't accept students, but since Kakashi says
that you have perfect chakra control, which is vital for a medic nin. I'm making an
exception. Consider this a favour,"
Sakura nodded quickly as the Hokage continued.
"I will not go easy on you, and I will not tolerate complaints, unpunctuality, disobedience,
and most of all, I will not tolerate crying. Are you clear?"
The pink-haired girl nodded again, a wave of confidence filling her slightly. Tsunade
smiled inwardly.
"Are you sure you're ready? Like Shizune once told me, there's hardly any 'life' of your
own once you become my apprentice,"
Sakura looked suddenly determined. "I'm ready."
"Good," This time, Tsunade smiled at her. "You start- tomorrow,"
# End of Flashback
N
"Eh, Sakura," Kakashi's voice snapped her out of her reverie. Once again, she was her
present self, her memories behind her, standing on the bridge with her sensei.
"Huh?" Sakura questioned his interruption.
"Sorry to break you out of that 'temporary coma' of yours, but Tsunade just called with a
mission for you,"
"Mm thanks. Are you coming?" the pink-haired kunoichi asked, straightening and
stretching.
"Apparently, I'm on the 'wanted' list, too, so, yes. See ya," Kakashi grinned, disappearing
in a puff of smoke.
Sakura smiled, turning to walk away. Kakashi liked moving fast, (though she couldn't
understand why he was always late) but she preferred the good old method of walking to
get to places.
Turning back for one last look at the beautiful bridge, Sakura let her past wash over her
again, so distant, yet so unforgettable.
Five years had gone so fast. From that smart, easily frightened girl of twelve, she had
evolved into a lady of seventeen.
Strong. Capable. Patient. Loyal.
Those were the values she prided herself for. She could've made her father proud.
Sakura tilted her head skywards, to be met by a shower of cherry blossoms. Watching
the cloud formations, the kunoichi knew her father was watching over her, with her
mother. Somewhere up there.

Smiling gently, Sakura whispered. "Chichioya okasan (6) you're proud of me, aren't
you?"
She had lost three precious people on that fateful day that had changed her life, her
reasons for living. And she remembered one thing.
Ever since that night, she had never let another tear glisten in her emerald eyes.

Chapter 1- Missions?

Shizune led Sakura to Tsunade's office door, knocking as both entered.
The pink haired kunoichi was surprised to see nearly all her friends lined up in her
shishou's office, and felt a slight pang of guilt for being late- it was obvious that everyone
was waiting for her.
"Ohayo, Tsunade-sama," Sakura greeted.
"Ohayo, Sakura," Tsunade smiled at her student, waving off Sakura who was about to
apologize for being late.
Sakura smiled thankfully and took her place between Naruto and Neji, with Ino, Kiba,
Shikamaru, Tenten, Hinata and Chouji surrounding them. For a moment, Sakura
surveyed her friends proudly. Neji and Shikamaru were already jounins in their own
right, the rest were Konoha's top chunnins, and she, Naruto, Kiba and Tenten were due
to take the Jounin exams in two months' time. Sakura had felt elated when she was
selected as a chunnin after the exams. She could finally feel the pride of being a ninja
The cherry blossom observed all the others in the room. It seemed that all of Konoha's
elite were gathered here, in Tsunade's office. Kakashi-sensei stood behind Tsunade,
Umuino Iruka, Sarutobi Asuma, Yuuhi Kurenai, Maito Gai and others flanking them.
She was brought sharply back to earth by the sound of the Godaime Hokage's voice.
"All right! Now that everyone's assembled-" Tsunade turned to Gai questioningly.
"Where's Lee?"
"Lee was needed at home urgently, Hokage-sama!" Gai stiffened like a statue and
saluted, his bright smile nearly blinding everyone in the room.
Tsunade suppressed a laugh at Gai's infamous pose, but Sakura caught her, and smiled
inwardly. "It's all right, Gai, He's going on a mission with them, you can send him to me
later and I will brief him," there was a slight twinkle in her eyes as Tsunade glanced at
her apprentice, a knowing look between them.
"Your mission first," she then faced the rest of the chunnins, leaning against her desk.

Everyone around her, Sakura noticed, seemed to stand a little straighter.


"You have a ten-man team. I have included almost everyone around your ages because
it seems that you and your abilities work well together," Tsunade began.
Kiba raised a hand. "Hokage-sama, Shino"
"Shino and his father have a mission elsewhere," the fifth Hokage explained. He will not
be joining you. But for now- back to the mission. You will be travelling west to the Wind
Country to source out Deidara,"
"Man, does it take ten of us to tackle that one guy?" Naruto complained loudly. Kakashi
and Iruka shot him death glares, which, unfortunately, the hyperactive ninja failed to
notice.
Tsunade, used to Naruto's boisterous behavior, continued calmly. "It's rumoured that
Deidara is after some secret scrolls that used to belong to one of Konoha's clans,"
"Which clan, Hokage-sama?" Ino asked, suddenly interested.
"Of that we're not sure," Tsunade answered. "But those scrolls must be retrieved. They
contain the secrets of a special technique that can be horrendously destructive if used in
the wrong way. And-" Tsunade turned to face Naruto. "To answer Naruto's question, our
sources tell us that Deidara has an unidentified companion,"
Naruto looked confused while Sakura rolled her eyes. That guy really needed to use his
brain more
For awhile, Tsunade's office was silent, and only the sweet chirping of birds just outside
her window trilled through the silence. Tsunade reached across her table and retrieved
two scrolls perilously close to the edge of her overcrowded table.
"Neji, Shikamaru," she commanded. The duo mentioned stepped forward tentatively.
"Both of you will be co-leading this mission as jounins. Your team consists of two
Byakugan users, one taijutsu specialist, a weapons mistress, a soul-switcher, an animal
specialist, a lazy genius, an Akimichi heir, my own apprentice and last, but not least, the
loudest ninja in all of Konoha,"
"Not to mention the loudest ninja anywhere else," Kiba commented under his breath.
Fortunately, Naruto had failed to hear him, otherwise hell would've broken loose.
Tsunade did not notice Kiba's remark, either, and continued, smirking, to the two jounins
in front of her. "You should have no problems with your team right?"
Shikamaru and Neji sweatdropped. Tsunade tossed the scrolls towards them, beckoning
them to open it. Eagerly, the rest of the team crowded around to see its contents, with a
loud brawl in between as Kiba and Naruto fought to get a better view of the scrolls.
Kakashi and Kurenai exchanged pained looks at their students' childish antics, while
Asuma chuckled between them, chewing on his cigarette.
Sakura, now with a vein throbbing in her forehead, grabbed Kiba by his hood and Naruto
by his collar and lifted them easily. "Get off each other and shut up already," she said
through clenched teeth. Everyone was staring.

Kiba and Naruto replied meekly. "Yes, ma'am," Akamaru shook inside Kiba's shirt,
terrified of the kunoichi. Sakura placed Naruto at one end of the room and Kiba at the
other.
"Stay there. And. Do. Not. Move."
Her voice was warning enough. The two bickering boys had to be contented with glaring
at each other from opposite ends of Tsunade's office.
'I can't believe they're actually seventeen,' Sakura thought viciously as she joined the
rest of her team.
Tsunade observed her student's handiwork with a smile. She'd taught Sakura well, after
all
Breaking out of her reverie, Tsunade approached the group. "The two scrolls one of
them is a map. The other is a permit to enter Sunagakure. The Kazekage knows of this
mission and he is prepared to help. Your objective for this mission is to retrieve the
scrolls before Deidara, and according to the information we've received, the scrolls are
hidden in a cave, somewhere up North of the Wind Country. Your second objective is to
collect information about Deidara's companion. He seems to be a formidable enemy, at
any rate,"
The group of chunnins nodded silently. Sakura's hand went up.
"Yes, Sakura?"
"Will there be any possibility of us meeting Uchi-" Sakura stopped mid-sentence, not
wanting to mention the name at all. "Will there be any chance of us meeting Itachi?"
Many expressions hardened at the mention of the traitor's name, but Tsunade simply
looked nonchalant. "No, Sakura. Itachi is supposedly in the Rock Country sourcing out
another jinchuuriki, and Deidara's companion is not Itachi. If there were even the
slightest possibility of him being anywhere there I won't send you alone. Any more
questions?"
This time, Neji spoke. "Hokage-sama, since Deidara is part of Akatsuki, and we have not
identified his companion what about Naruto's safety? How do we know that this is not
part of a ploy to capture him instead of getting the scrolls?"
"We cannot know for sure, that is a risk we'll have to take. But- I trust Naruto can
protect himself," Tsunade said with a knowing smile. "He isn't one to give in at least,
not until he achieves his 'dream' of sorts"
"You bet!" Naruto cheered from his corner. "I'm gonna live until I become Hokage!"
'Really can't underestimate that boy, can I?' Neji thought with a twitch to his lips,
glancing at Naruto.
"Now, if you have no more questions you may be dismissed for your own briefing and
equipment check. You leave at 4 tomorrow morning," Tsunade waved a hand, and the
young ninjas filed out, murmuring amongst themselves.
N

Nine ninjas gathered outside the Hokage Tower, forming a circle surrounding Neji and
Shikamaru.
"Okay, guys" Neji began, but stopped when Akimichi Chouza, Chouji's father,
approached the group with a nervous smile on his chubby face.
"Ohayo, Chouza-san," the group greeted respectfully. The large, red-haired man greeted
them back, while beginning to speak.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but I need to borrow Chouji for a moment," Chouza began. "It's
very urgent,"
Everyone nodded, and the brown-haired shinobi followed his father a little further off,
where Chouza said something in low tones to his son. An inexplicable expression spread
over Chouji's face as his father spoke, a combination of controlled worry and slight panic.
Nodding quickly to his father, Chouji joined the group again.
"Sorry, guys seems like I can't join you for this mission I've got some serious family
business to attend to. Don't worry, my father will do the explaining to the Hokage later,"
Chouji apologized quietly, looking not very much like his usual self.
The group nodded understandingly. "Bye, Chouji hope you solve your problems soon,"
Shikamaru clapped a hand on his best friend's shoulder comfortingly.
Chouji waved his goodbyes as he left with his father.
As usual, Ino was her over-excited, extravagant self, jumping and waving to her
teammate. "Goodbye and stay safe, you fat-"
Immediately Shikamaru's hand slapped over Ino's big mouth.
"INO! What did I say about that word?" he glared.
Ino shrugged sheepishly.
N
Sakura finished packing the last of her equipment and stuff into her light brown
backpack, zipped it up and plopped down onto her soft bed in her own room. She sighed
as she thought of leaving Konoha for the upcoming mission; there was still plenty to do
at the hospital, patients waiting to be cured. People who counted on her. To be actually
put in charge of something it was a first for Sakura back then. She used to be the loser,
the one who tailed behind instead of leading. Tsunade had given her a whole new lease
of life when she offered Sakura the post of head-medic.
'One thing good about leaving though Tsunade-sama will have to manage her own
paperwork for awhile,' Sakura thought smugly, slightly elated at the thought of escaping
her shishou's paperwork.
"Hey, Sakura! Are you coming or not?" Tenten knocked on her room door. "We promised
to meet Ino and Hinata, remember?"
"Yeah, in a moment, Tenten," Sakura jumped up with another sigh, reaching for the
hairbrush on her dresser to comb out her messy tresses while pulling open her wardrobe
door to retrieve some fresh clothes.

When Sakura had finally managed to get over her phobia of returning to her own home,
Tenten had volunteered to move in with her. After all, the Haruno residence was no small
place, and besides, Tenten was living alone as well. With her friends had hand, Sakura
found it much easier to handle her haywire emotions, and soon the Haruno residence
became a popular meeting place for the four close friends and other Konoha shinobis.
Sakura stepped out of the room, dressed in her usual red sleeveless uniform. Her
emerald eyes eyed both the long staircase and the banister critically, before she took a
running leap and swung over the banister, landing in a perfect crouch at the bottom
floor.
"Geez, Sakura stop being such a daredevil!" Tenten smiled at her friend. "You're gonna
break a lot of bones someday"
Sakura laughed. She never took Tenten seriously when the weapons mistress said these
things; both knew that a kunoichi was perfectly capable of doing that without getting
hurt. Sakura beckoned to Tenten enthusiastically.
"Let's go! I want to buy some flowers from Ino's place,"
N
Hinata and Ino were already waiting outside the Yamanaka Flower Shop, the former
watching some kids at play with a shy smile while the latter was tapping her foot
impatiently and complaining loudly.
"Man, Ino have some patience! We're not even late!" Sakura laughed as she walked
into the shop, greeting Ino's pretty mother with a smile.
"The usual, Sakura?" Ino's mother asked.
"Yes, Yamanaka-san," Sakura visited the shop often, to get all kind of flowers for her
patients. Sure, she had to splurge a little, but her salary was sufficient and she liked to
see their smiling faces. But Ino's mother knew today's occasion and the exact flowers
Sakura wanted.
Swiftly she handed Sakura a beautifully arranged bouquet of white lilies, Heian's
favourite flower, and roses, Tsume's absolute weakness. She had been prepared.
When the pink-haired kunoichi offered payment, Ino's mother immediately rejected.
"Treat it as a gift from us to your parents. Besides, you're a regular customer here" the
woman smiled, retorting as Sakura made her accept the money. "Eh- I said no payment,
or I'm going to chase you out with my trimming scissors!"
"Arigatou!" Sakura thanked her happily, walking out to join her friends.
Today was the fifth anniversary of her parents' deaths. Every year, all three of her
closest friends would accompany Sakura to her parents' graves to pay their respects. And
every year, Sakura left those very same flowers for them.
Before their graves, Sakura knelt and placed the flowers on the small altar.
"Chichioya Okasan I've got so much to tell you"

N
Sakura walked down the peaceful streets on her own. She'd spent about two hours at her
parents' graves, and then Tenten left for sparring practice with Neji. (At least, that's what
they called it) Ino had promised to help out at her family's shop as her parents were
going out that night. Hinata was going to a fair with her sister, Hanabi, at Naruto's treat.
And so she was alone.
Alone that sensation was always familiar to her now. Oftentimes, she would feel the
pang at her heart when she saw her friends hanging out with the boys. They asked her to
go along, in the name of politeness, but she refused, knowing that she wouldn't really fit
in. She wondered if this was how Sasuke used to feel. If so it was painful.
Suddenly, Sakura spotted Konoha's Green Beast walking dejectedly in the opposite
direction, his coconut head bowed and his thick brows furrowed.
"Hey, Lee-san!" she called after him. When the taijutsu specialist saw his childhood
crush, his face immediately broke into a grin.
"Sakura-san!"
"Hey" Sakura greeted back. "Have you been to see Tsunade-sama yet?" Sakura
questioned, remembering Tsunade's request.
"Yes!" Lee saluted. (exactly like Gai at that) "I have met the Hokage, and I have heard
about our mission. However, I am disappointed as Gai-sensei has refused to train with
me today. He says that he has to bid his 'beautiful flower' (Sakura assumed this was
Gai's secret love) a most emotional and painful goodbye before he leaves for his
mission he assures me that my 'flame of youth' will not wear out just yet, but I am
doubtful" Rock Lee said dolefully.
Sakura resisted the urge to laugh; it would be really unkind of her. "It won't, Lee-san
trust me. You're one of the most energetic people I know, after Naruto-kun,"
Lee brightened.
"Arigatou, Sakura-san! Oh, and Kakashi-sensei wants you to meet him at 'the place'. He
says you would know what it means"Lee said, slightly confused.
"Yes, I do, Lee-san. Arigatou!"
Happily, Lee struck his 'good guy' pose, complete with thick eyebrows, shining teeth,
thumbs up and all.
N
Sakura made her way through the thinning forest; her only source of light was the
dimming sunset in the horizon. Stepping out onto the clearing where they had first
trained with Kakashi, Sakura sighed. She remembered the first morning so well
She'd never been a morning person then. She remembered how she'd dragged herself
all the way there while Sasuke looked as fresh as the morning sun. (A
rather grumpymorning sun, though) She smiled slightly and looked around her.

That Jounin sure lived up to his name. Late, as usual, as always. Sakura vaguely
wondered what it would take to get him anywhere on time. She watched the last golden
rays of the sun glaze the green leaves, feeling the pinch at her heart as she remembered
every tree their weapons had struck on, the bushes they used to hide behind, the rocks
they'd blasted apart, and the visible parting of the ground that she'd created, during
their second bell-retrieving mission with Kakashi.
Sakura closed her eyes and smiled but it wasn't because of the memories.
"You can come out now, Kakashi-sensei I know you're behind the second tree to my
left,"
Sheepishly the Copy Ninja stepped out, a sweatdrop forming behind his head. "Looks like
you're really good," he said, laughing nervously. "I even took the trouble to conceal my
chakra presence,"
"Face it, Kakashi-sensei you're getting old. Besides, I'm a medic nin, chakra is my
specialty," Sakura smirked, leaning against a tree with her arms crossed. "But seeing
as you're only fifteen minutes late I'll call that an improvement,"
"Thirty-one isn't old," Kakashi said dryly.
"For you it is," Sakura retorted.
N
"I'm going on an S-rank mission tomorrow" Kakashi explained seriously as both teacher
and student sat against a tree, gazing at the brilliantly lit, starry night. Sakura's gloved
hands were wrapped around her knees, her pink hair grazing the sides of her cheeks. "I
get the feeling that I might need your help," he explained his purpose for calling her.
"You do remember that I have a mission of my own, or is your thirty-one year old brain
not very capable of that?" Sakura teased, trying to keep her face straight.
Kakashi chose to ignore the later remark. "You're quite close to my destination, if you
ask me,"
"So, basically, you want me to abandon my team in the middle of nowhere and come
running to save your sorry butt," Sakura shot back at him.
"That's a tad too harsh, Sakura. I may just need some help,"
Sakura snorted. "Some help? From your student? Kakashi-sensei, have your skills
deteriorated that much already? Seriously,"
"Hey, hey hear me out!" Kakashi smirked.
"How are you going to contact me, at any rate?" Sakura continued asking skeptically.
Kakashi smiled a knowing smile. His gloved hand held up a crystal locket on a silver
necklace that reflected the moonlight beautifully. Sakura looked incredulous.
"Please. Tell me you're not considering the Binding Seal Jutsu,"

"Uh well I am considering it," Kakashi said sheepishly. "This locket is bound with my
chakra, so when I'm stuck in a desperate situation and need your help, I can just send
out a wave of chakra and the locket will react please? You know I can't trust Naruto or
anyone else with this, besides, you're like my little sister"
"Since when did you start begging? 'Little sister' haha." Sakura said dryly.
Silence.
"And do you have permission from Tsunade-sama to do this?" Sakura demanded. The
Hokage was her guardian; Kakashi would have to go through her before anything else.
"I'm not such a rule-abider nowadays, Sakura Obito gave me a part of him when he
gave me the Sharingan," Kakashi grinned mischievously. "Which means being late and
not abiding by rules,"
Sakura rolled her eyes. Her sensei could be so irritating sometimes.
"Obito's legacy, huh? I'll take that as a 'no',"
"I have Tsunade-sama's permission, Sakura" Kakashi sighed in defeat. "She's your
guardian and you're her favourite student she'd skin me alive if anything happened to
you,"
"Swear?" Sakura eyed him cautiously.
"Cross my heart and hope to die," Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Man, this is childish,"
"Okay, fine," the pink-haired kunoichi sighed. "Just remember that Tsunadesama won't just skin you alive, she'll boil you, quarter you and feed you to the dogs if
anything happens to me. I'll make sure of that," she threw him a sidelong glance.
A large, animated sweatdrop appeared behind Kakashi's head. "Got it," he said quickly.
Removing her black gloves, Sakura grasped the locket in both hands, bracing herself for
the searing pain to come.
"You ready?" Kakashi asked.
Sakura nodded quietly.
"Azarashi no Jutsu!" (1) After completing a series of complicated handseals, Kakashi
clapped his own gloved hands over hers and a burst of chakra enveloped their hands.
The crystal locket glowed red-hot within the confines of Sakura's hands, burning its mark
into her palms as a searing pain ripped through her arms. Sakura hissed from the pain as
she opened her hands. The outline of the locket was imprinted deeply into both palms.
"You'll be fine by tomorrow," Kakashi assured her as Sakura hung the locket around her
neck.
"How am going to tell when you're in trouble?" Sakura asked, standing and flexing her
fingers to ease the pain.

"You'll get the same sensation you just felt,"


"Oh, great," the cherry blossom groaned. "So, if I'm in the middle of battle and you
suddenly get it into your head to call for me, then I'm dead meat,"
Kakashi smirked. "The Sakura I know is a lot stronger than that,"
Silence ensued. Sakura carefully examined the embossed seal on her palms, fingering
her fair skin as her thoughts focused on nothing, nothing at all. Just... blissful relaxation.
"Hey, you game to go out for dinner?" Kakashi suddenly asked his student.
Sakura glanced at him questioningly. "You mean- as in- a date?"
"If that's the way you want to see it..." the jounin said coyly, his one visible eye
twinkling.
"You have got to be kidding me,"
"I'm not," Kakashi faked a serious face, but immediately gave up the idea at the sight of
the kunoichi's face. "Fine, as teacher and student, then. My treat,"
"Of course it's your treat. Did I say anything about paying?" Sakura glanced at him, a
smile tugging at her lips.
Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Where d'you want to eat?" The former ANBU member stood up,
ready to go.
Sakura jumped up beside him. "I was thinking of Ichiraku's... after all, Ayame's there..."
she looked at him slyly.
Her sensei stopped dead in his tracks. "There's absolutely no way-"
"Hey, chill! I was kidding!" Sakura laughed, seeing his expression. "Your face
was priceless,"
"Hn,"
"Let's go to the fair, then... since Naruto's there with Hinata and Hanabi,"
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "He finally asked her out?"
"Her little sister's tagging along. It's not even a real date, for goodness' sake," Sakura
said dryly.
"Does that make a difference?" Kakashi's eye twinkled.
"Just keep quiet and be thankful that I haven't decided to invite Ino-pig's team along..."
Sakura shot at him. "Chouji'll eat your money dry, you know..."
Kakashi shut his mouth.
N

When Kakashi and Sakura arrived at the Haruno residence after dinner, Neji was just
walking Tenten home. The Hyuuga genius raised an eyebrow at seeing the duo together.
"You're going out?"
"No, she's going in," Kakashi said sarcastically. For some reason, he loved to irk Neji.
"As in, dating," Neji glared at his senior Jounin.
"We're just friends," Sakura said with a perfectly straight face. "Don't you start making
assumptions, Hyuuga Neji... I haven't forgotten the time I beat you flat in sparring and
carried you like a rag doll over my shoulder to the hospital to heal your wounds..."
Neji flushed and was about to retort when Tenten stopped him. "Quit it already, Neji...
they're just friends,"
"Hn. Right," the Hyuuga snorted, turning on his heel with a slight smile after Tenten had
given him a quick peck on the cheek. He walked off with his hands in his pockets, with a
backward glance. "G'night, y'all..."
Kakashi grinned at Sakura, motioning slightly to her locket before disappearing.
Once they were inside the house, Tenten pounced on Sakura, laughing.
"All right, spill. Is there anything going on between you and Kakashi-sensei?"
"No! We're just friends!" Sakura wriggled out from her friends grasp and took off to her
room. Tenten laughed, knowing that the cherry blossom was telling the truth, but could
not resist a bit of teasing.
"Don't think you'll get off so easy again next time, Haruno Sakura!"
In her room, Sakura smiled. "Geez, get off my case already!"

Chapter 2- The Start of A Journey.


-
Even before the sun was up, nine of the Konoha shinobis were already assembled at the
village gate, conducting last-minute checks on weaponry, equipment and provisions.
Everyone looked fresh and alert, as expected of any ninja before a mission, and Neji
thankfully noted that no one had chosen to get drunk the night before.
"Hey, Sakura," Ino spoke in a low voice to the pink-haired kunoichi beside her.
"Yeah?" Sakura asked absently as she went through Kiba's backpack to make sure he
had everything they needed.

"Who d'you think will replace Chouji? Tsunade-sama did say a 'ten-man team'" the
blonde asked curiously, pretty certain that the Hokage would have told her apprentice.
Sakura laughed lightly, moving on to Hinata's pack. "I know what you're thinking, Ino I
haven't seen shishou since yesterday's briefing and I really don't know"
Ino looked crestfallen and was just about to say something when a voice sounded.
"Okay, everyone!" Shikamaru ordered. The chatter softly resounding in the quiet
morning fell into silence, everyone turned to look at their co-leaders.
Just as Shikamaru was about to speak, Tsunade strolled up casually, smiling at the
youngsters' energy. A familiar figure stood behind her, but with the slight mist hovering
around, they could not define who it was.
"Ohayo gozaimasu, Tsunade-sama," everyone greeted, bowing respectfully.
"Ohayo" Tsunade smiled. "Since Chouji is unable to join you mission, I have found you
a replacement. Sai will be joining your team for this mission,"
The team's reactions were varied. Ino smiled broadly, Shikamaru frowned at her, Sakura
smiled slightly while the rest simply looked indifferent. Naruto, however, had to make a
statement.
"WHAT?" the hyperactive ninja yelled, fuming. "That-that-"
"Now, Naruto, hasn't anyone taught you that it's rude to point?" Tsunade mocked,
winking at Sakura.
The cherry blossom laughed. Ino was already sashaying up to Sai.
"Sai-kun! It's great to have you with us!"
Meanwhile, Shikamaru boiled.
N
Neji explained the formation. As one of the leaders and with the Byakugan, he would be
first. Tenten came next; her long range attacks could disable the enemy before they
came close. (Even so, the male members of the team doubted that was Neji's real reason
for putting her there)
After them came Sakura, then Naruto, strength and hyperactivity forming a powerful
defense. Kiba followed with Lee trailing behind. Ino and Shikamaru, ever the bickering
pair, came after. Hinata was next, another Byakugan user, with Akamaru by her side to
convey Hinata's danger warnings to Kiba up front. Sai brought up the rear, mainly to
keep the Hyuuga heir from harm.
The team suddenly found Kiba and Naruto having a heated argument over why Naruto
came first in the formation. Neji fought to keep his aggravation in check, contemplating
all the ways he could murder and bury those two even before they started off on the
mission
'Should've separated those two why didn't I think of it earlier? Dammit!' Neji cursed
inwardly, pulling the duo apart.

"Sakura, may I have a word?" Tsunade quietly beckoned to her student in the midst of
the chaos. Nodding, the pink-haired kunoichi quickly followed her shishou to a far corner,
wondering what Tsunade could want.
"Listen, Sakura, I have to make this quick. Remember the objective of your mission?"
Tsunade asked.
"Yeah" Sakura said hesitatingly. "Retrieve the scrolls before Deidara?"
"Yes. And to which clan do those scrolls belong to?"
"You said no one knew,"
"Exactly. But I just got information from the ANBU spying on Akatsuki" Tsunade
glanced at the still-chaotic group, not far off.
"So? Which clan owns the scrolls?" Sakura asked excitedly.
Tsunade turned to look at her slowly, a pause in her voice. "The Haruno clan,"
The cherry blossom was shell-shocked, her emerald eyes wide.
"M-my clan?"
Tsunade nodded, looking at her apprentice worriedly. "You are the key to the scrolls.
Akatsuki wants you,"
Sakura was silent, desperately trying to make sense of the Godaime Hokage's words.
The Haruno clan's scrolls? Akatsuki wanted her?
The older woman took her by the shoulders. "Look, Sakura, I understand if you don't
want-"
The kunoichi snapped out of her trance suddenly, stopping the Hokage mid sentence.
"No, Tsunade-sama I have to get those scrolls myself I- made a promise to
chichioya I will revive my clan's secrets, and if Akatsuki wants me- they can come. I'm
not backing down. Not ever,"
Tears slid down the Sannin's face. Without warning, Tsunade gathered Sakura into a
warm embrace, a first in many years. "Sakura you've grown"
Sakura hugged her shishou back. "Tsunade-sama you never worried about Naruto
being Akatsuki's target before so don't worry about me,"
"But Naruto's different,"
"He isn't, shishou," Sakura said gently. "No one's different. You trained me. Please, put
your faith in me. I've been waiting for this moment ever since that day I have to fulfill
my promise. I'm strong enough, and you know that,"
Tsunade released Sakura, surveying her student with pride shining in her eyes. "So, I'll
say it again, Sakura you're already better than me"

"No, but arigatou, Tsunade-sama," Sakura smiled slightly.


Tsunade returned the smile, wiping all traces of her tears. "Go get 'em, girl"
"I will, shishou. I promise I will."
N
The Godaime Hokage gave the team a last-minute run-through, not showing any sign of
the former incident with Sakura. Thankfully, no one had noticed their absence.
As Sakura listened half-heartedly, her mind racing through the sudden change of events,
she spotted Kakashi, with Pakkun by his side, starting into the lush green forest, and
gently fingered the embossed marks upon her palms.
" and please, come back alive as a team- all of you. I don't want to see anyone
missing, got it?" Tsunade finished, catching Sakura's eye, indicating that this plea was
especially for her. "I place full confidence in every single Konoha shinobi here,"
"Hai, Hokage-sama!" Naruto saluted, a big grin on his face.
N
All was silent, except for the slight rustle of leaves as the ten Hidden Leaf shinobis leapt
agilely from tree to tree, not speaking, each thinking his or her own thoughts, own
predictions for the days to come.
Neji's Byakugan penetrated to their surroundings, checking for traps and hidden
enemies. 'So far, so good,' Neji thought absently as he stared ahead, before spotting
something in the distance, and smirked. 'Perhaps I spoke too soon,'
"Neji nii-sama! A trap up front!" Hinata called out from behind.
"Stop!" the Hyuuga prodigy halted his team from progressing. "Yes, Hinata, I saw it"
"What is it?" Shikamaru called form the back, stepping forward to get a better view of
whatever it was that was blocking their path.
"You can't see it," Neji told his co-leader. "It's an invisible chakra web, extremely strong
by the looks of it," Neji told him bluntly. "Got any ideas?"
"Well, the least troublesome way would be to find a weak spot are there any?" the lazy
genius questioned.
Neji shook his head. "It stretches right across the path, as far as my Byakugan can see,
and it goes way up high, too "
Tenten piped up. "What level is this chakra web at?"
"Level four. The strongest kind," Neji replied. "It sucks up all the chakra of anyone
trapped in it and transfers it to the creator of the web.
"Geez looks like someone really wants to stop us," Kiba sighed.

By now, Shikamaru was in his thinking position, crouched on the ground with his fingers
locked in the shape of a circle.
'Shino's not here his bugs might've helped Taijutsu does nothing Naruto and
Sakura aren't much help either nor Kiba and Akamaru' Shikamaru thought, eyes
closed.
"Sai, try one of your inked animals on the web," the Nara genius ordered.
Swiftly and silently, the ANBU Root member took out a scroll, performing a handseal. A
large, beautifully inked phoenix materialized and swooped towards the web, dissolving
into nothingness.
"It doesn't work," Sai said simply, pocketing the scroll and stepping back.
"Neji, Hinata what about that chakra cutting technique?" Shikamaru turned towards the
two Hyuugas.
"I taught it to you last week, Hinata can you do it?" Neji asked his shy younger cousin.
Hinata nodded, flexing her fingers.
"Ready?" Neji gave her a sign. Hinata braced herself.
"Harichakra!"
Small, sharp needles emerged from the tenketsu on the tips of their fingers, and both
cousins hurled themselves at the shimmering web, Byakugans activated.
"We did it!" Hinata let out a soft, victorious whisper as she saw the web begin to tear.
And then she gasped, feeling an overpowering force dragging her towards the glowing
web.
Neji pulled away in the nick of time, but Hinata was trapped, struggling on the web, her
chakra draining.
Instinctively Sakura and Tenten reached out to grab the struggling girl, but Neji's voice
rang out sharply.
"No! Don't touch her! You'll get trapped as well!"
"So? You want to leave her there?" Naruto yelled back fiercely.
"We can't do anything!" Neji argued, hardly believing the words coming out of his mouth.
"Yes, we CAN! She's your cousin, dammit!" Naruto roared, sprinting forward and
reaching out to grab both of Hinata's hands, before he felt a strong grip pulling him back.
The jinchuuriki was ready to turn back and give Neji and facelift but halted when he saw
that it was Sakura, not Neji, pulling him back.
"Sakura-chan?"

"I'll do it," the pink-haired kunoichi said grimly. "I've got a better chance of getting her
out. Besides, having you drain your chakra into the web is probably what the creator
planned,"
Not waiting for a response, Sakura reached out, flowing tiny bursts of chakra into her
hands to increase her strength; and grabbed the Hyuuga heir by both hands.
Immediately Sakura felt the strong, pulling sensation shoot through her body, extracting
her energy and what felt like her life force right out of her body. Gritting her teeth,
Sakura shut her eyes tightly and yanked Hinata out of the web- only to be pulled against
the web herself.
The rest of the team watched in horror while Naruto and Tenten helped Hinata stand.
Unlike Hinata, Sakura didn't struggle and focused on containing her chakra to the centre
of her body.
"Neji- seal- my- chakra points!" Sakura blurted out with difficulty, straining from the
effort to keep her chakra focused.
The Hyuuga genius faltered this time. "I can't do that,"
"Do it, Neji! You've got my permission!" Sakura choked, perspiration trickling down her
cheeks.
"It'll hurt you, seriously!" Neji protested.
"This hurts more! Do it!" Sakura clenched her jaw.
"I won't!"
"JUST DO IT, HYUUGA NEJI!" Sakura hollered.
Hesitatingly Neji stepped forward, nudged on by Tenten and Hinata. Sighing, he braced
himself to perform the Sixty-Four Hands of Hakke on his teammate. He watched her
wince in pain as he hit her chakra points, and after eight of them were sealed, she asked
him to stop.
"That's enough, Neji-san" Sakura breathed, her face pale. Letting her chakra out in one
big burst, Sakura broke free of the web and fell painfully to the earth, gasping for breath.
She refused his outstretched hand, and instead asked a question.
"Can the chakra web expand?"
The Hyuuga prodigy shook his head, incredulous at Sakura's response to his offered help.
For a moment, he could've sworn that a smirk had crossed the pink-haired kunoichi's
pretty features.
"Stand back, please" Sakura stood shakily on two feet, gathering her remaining
chakra in her hands.
In a flash, Sakura slammed two fingers onto the ground, sending up a violent spurt of
dirt and overturning trees. Everyone watched in awe. To this day, Sakura's inhumane
strength never failed to impress them.

As the dust cleared, Naruto spotted Sakura collapsing from exhaustion and dashed up to
catch her. Before them lay a crater that stretched far across, under the chakra web.
Sakura had just created a way through for them.
Neji and Shikamaru smiled slightly at each other, both thinking the same thing. 'She beat
us this time'
"So, what are our plans?" Ino asked as she knelt beside Sakura, feeling her friend's cold
hands.
"We cross, and camp over there," Shikamaru spoke, looking to Neji for approval. "It's
only midday, but everyone's exhausted and we've got an unconscious member,"
Everyone murmured in agreement. Naruto hoisted the kunoichi's limp form onto his back
and started down the crater, Ino, Shikamaru and Kiba close behind. Sai and Lee
followed, carrying Sakura and Hinata's backpacks, while Tenten and Neji supported
Hinata between them.
Slowly, the group tread across the crater, headed for the opposite end.
N
When Sakura stirred awake, the sun was setting in the distance. Through half-closed lids,
she watched the birds fly home to their nests, the majestic sun casting shadows beyond
and felt a wave of sadness wash over her.
Suddenly, an absolutely familiar, loud voice rang out.
"Sakura-chan! You're awake!" Naruto yelled gleefully, running up, grinning madly.
"How could you tell" Sakura groaned. Her moment of peace had been totally ruined.
"Oi!" Ino waved at them from a distance. "Dinnertime, forehead!"
"Coming" Sakura called back, rubbing her eyes.
"Geez, and they call this keeping a low profile," Kiba muttered to Akamaru.
"D'you think she's strong enough to move? She used up a lot of chakra back there"
Shikamaru said quietly to Ino, who was stirring some food in a pot over the fire.
Ino didn't reply as Sakura had just sat down beside her.
Hinata started to serve the food but Neji stopped her. "You girls cooked. We'll do the
serving,"
The younger Hyuuga nodded, stepping back. The guys stood to help out.
"Before that- " Neji halted everyone. "Sakura thanks for finding us a way through,"
Sakura's cheeks reddened as everyone smiled. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned.
Hinata was behind her, smiling shyly at the cherry blossom. "Arigatou, Sakura-chan for
saving my life"

"No problem," Sakura assured her, smiling as well. "Okay, this is totally embarrassing
me can we get on with dinner now?"
Everyone laughed, the girls huddled around Sakura while the guys set out the food.
"What happened after I split the ground?" Sakura asked her friends. "I can't remember
anything"
"You conked out, naturally," Ino smirked.
Tenten grinned. "You've got some guts, asking Neji to use the Sixty-four Hands of Hakke
on you,"
Sakura smiled ruefully. "It was the only thing I could think of tell Neji that
it seriously hurts"
All four girls laughed.
Meanwhile, Sai was contemplating how he should act 'nice', as all these people called it.
He still couldn't get used to referring to them as his teammates; he was too used to
flying solo on missions.
Sai's attempts to be nice towards the guys didn't seem to work. He remembered
(painfully) how two boys had reacted to his words.
N
(Flashback)
Sai stood beside Shikamaru as the latter erected a tent in the clearing.
"Eh, are you going to help or not?" Shikamaru demanded gruffly.
Sai immediately picked another tent, hoping to get his leader into a good mood. Seeing
Sai start to work, Shikamaru turned back to his own unfinished job. However, the
former's next sentence made the Nara genius turn sharply.
"Ino is really pretty, isn't she?" Sai smiled, unaware of Shikamaru's building anger.
Out of nowhere a fist came flying and crashed onto a very confused Sai's head, and
Shikamaru stalked away, huffing.
(Later)
Neji leaned against a tree watching Tenten train, observing his girlfriend's undeniable
skills with a secret smile to his face. Usually, the team didn't bother the
duo, especiallywhen Neji was watching Tenten, but of course, Sai didn't know that.
Finding nothing to do, Sai strolled up to Neji and tried to start a conversation, his ever
insincere smile plastered upon his face.
"She's very good, isn't she?" Sai asked casually.

"Hn," Neji nodded slightly, not sparing the shinobi a glance. Sai was oblivious to the
Hyuuga's reluctance to continue any form of conversation with someone he barely knew.
"Tenten is so pretty and skilled I really adore her" Sai continued.
The moment Neji's famed, 'what-did-you-say' death glare fell on him, Sai knew he'd said
the wrong thing.
Again.
(End of Flashback)
N
Breaking out of his semi-trance, Sai decided to try his 'charm' luck with the girls. Holding
two hands, he approached Ino and Sakura, smiling politely.
"Your dinner, Ino-chan," Sai said smoothly, not realizing that he actually looked like he
was trying to flirt. "You have a very pretty face, Ino-chan," he added after second
thought. It always seemed to work on her.
"Arigatou, Sai-kun!" Ino giggled, accepting her plate.
Sai mentally congratulated himself on his one success and turned to his temporary
teammate.
"Sakura-chan" he offered her the plate of food.
Quietly the kunoichi smiled and accepted the plate. "Arigatou,"
'Say something about her appearance!' his inner conscience hissed at him.
"Uh Sakura-chan" Sai started.
She looked up expectantly.
"You have a very big forehead," he smiled.
Sakura smiled back sweetly.
And before the poor guy knew what was happening, he found himself flying (painfully)
backwards, courtesy to a power-packed punch from the pink-haired kunoichi, who now
looked furious.
Everyone sweatdropped.
Ino prodded Shikamaru, who was standing beside her.
"Uh you know what, Shika? I think Sakura is perfectly fine"

Avenger's Destiny
Chapter 3- New Enemies!
-
Ten silent Konoha shinobis greeted the fresh morning, moving silently and keeping their
eyes, ears and noses open for anything faintly suspicious. Their movements were
rhythmic, soundless, hardly rustling a leaf or startling an animal.
Above them, colourful birds chirped cheerfully, swooping around looking for food to fill
their nestlings' open, noisy beaks. Insects crawled across the branches with ease,
searching for prey or hiding from predators.
Sakura watched Mother Nature at work and remembered what Tsunade had told her. Her
heart felt like it was being wrenched out, the fear that overwhelmed her within did not
show upon her face. Was this how it felt to be hunted? To be the keeper of a family
heirloom that everyone was after?
The cherry blossom could finally comprehend how her hyperactive teammate felt. To
know that his fate was to always be a target of hunters, to hold a power so great people
feared him. To know that he could unconsciously destroy everything around him, his
home, all the people he loved.
But Naruto was brave. He was used to it. She was still numbed from the shock, hardly
feeling anything. Only fear. Fear of what tomorrow would bring for her, her uncertain
future being the key of her great family secrets.
And, ironically, she didn't even know what kind of secrets those were.
Forcing herself to get a grip, Sakura focused her attention on travelling. She was still in
top notch condition, capable of completing this mission safely and successfully, as she
promised her shishou.
At least, that was what she hoped.
N
Sai had several of his inked falcons swooping around them, detecting any sudden
movements around the team. Both Hyuugas had their Byakugans activated, keeping
watch. Kiba and Akamaru traced faint scents in the air, looking for anything unusual.
Akamaru suddenly whined, softly. Kiba halted.
"Stop!" he hissed at the others. "Something's bothering Akamaru!"
"Yeah, something's not right about this place" Ino shuddered, subconsciously huddling
closer to Shikamaru.
"It has a kind of smell" Lee said cautiously, not quite able to place it. Someone spoke,
suddenly and quietly, from behind him.
"The smell of death,"

Everyone turned around in surprise, only to see Sakura standing there with her brilliant
emerald eyes glazed over, a faraway, empty expression on her face.
"Yes" Neji agreed softly. "Like when my father" he trailed off, not completing the
sentence. Hinata's face fell slightly as she looked away, embarrassed. Neji shook his
head slightly at her, indicating that it wasn't her fault.
"So? Let's go!" Naruto exclaimed impatiently, confused by the silent emotion going
around, not having the slightest notion of what was going on. Sakura sighed inwardly.
Sometimes, that jinchuuriki could be as clueless and unfeeling as Sai.
"Be careful, guys" Shikamaru cautioned as they stepped forward.
A village was in sight. Dull, dirty roof tiles could be seen covering once beautiful houses;
eerie silence filled the air as they moved on. Nothing seemed to be alive, even the air
was cold and still around them.
"Strange" Neji muttered. "It's a village, but my Byakugan can't see- no" his sentence
ended in a harsh whisper, his opaque eyes widened in shock.
Neji halted in his tracks, stopping everyone else. Tenten looked at him questioningly, but
he looked away forcefully. He couldn't show weakness now, not in front of his team.
"Hinata, stop your Byakugan," Neji ordered, face devoid of emotion.
"Why?" Hinata asked, standing taller, not obeying her cousin.
"Just do it!" he snapped, so irritatably that everyone was taken aback. Naruto looked
indignant and was about to retort on behalf of Hinata when the younger Hyuuga stopped
him, shaking her head slightly. When Neji used that kind of tone, he was serious. She
deactivated her Byakugan.
"We're not going through the village," Neji commanded. "Go around it,"
Everyone murmured.
"Look, Neji, we respect your decisions, but can't you at least give us an explanation?"
Tenten rationalized with him, touching his shoulder lightly with concern.
To her infinite surprise, she saw a flicker of emotion across his face as he turned away.
"You- you don't want to know,"
At this moment, Naruto burst forward impatiently. "What is it already?"
He stopped dead in his tracks. The jinchuuriki had plain view of the silent village; an
unreadable expression crossed his face.
The rest of the team crowded around Naruto. Immediately everyone fell silent. Nothing
could be heard, nothing was said. Uncontrolled emotions floated to the surface of their
minds, shock, anger and sorrow all merged into one unbearable, painful feeling within.
The village was grisly. Blood was spattered everywhere.
Dead bodies lay everywhere.

Sakura was the first to react, and step onto the streets of the dead village. Her body
shook, but not a tear escaped her eyes.
She stepped around the bloodied bodies, trying not to picture how they must have died.
How their screams of agony must have filled her air just hours before. She kept herself
upright, not willing to collapse, to give in to the pressure of her haywire emotions.
Shinobis must never show emotion
She hated the smug voice of her inner self. Forcing the annoying voice to the back of her
head, the pink-haired kunoichi let her mind run through all the questions she wanted to
scream out. Who why? Why them? She bit her lower lip so hard, she was able to feel
the rusty crimson blood leak into her mouth.
Ino was shaking uncontrollably, supported by Shikamaru. The usually happy, flirtatious
girl was not used to death, unlike Sakura, who saw deaths often at the hospital. She
couldn't comprehend the kind of emotion death brought, and it overwhelmed her.
"Sh- Shika- t-take me away I- I don't- " She broke down in uncontrollable sobs.
Hinata buried her pale face in Naruto's back, tears cascading down her cheeks. "NNaruto-kun"
Neji felt Tenten's grip on his arm tighten as they walked through the village. He turned
slightly to look at her; her face was pale and her bright chocolate eyes were brimmed
with tears. He knew what she felt. He always knew. Tenten tried to turn away and brush
off her tears, but he caught her hands, stopping her.
"It's okay to cry, you know" he told her softly.
She nodded, and tears fell.
N
"It looks like they've been killed just hours before" Kiba trailed off. "The blood it's still
fresh and wet,"
Akamaru sniffled as it spotted a dog with its neck slashed brutally. Kiba let out a low
growl in indignation, mentally wringing the neck of the person who had dared do this.
Sai and Lee flanked Sakura, who was taking in the scene with comparative composure,
even though she looked shaken. Her emerald eyes scanned for survivors, and her hopes
fell as she saw only death. But thenA slight movement caught her eye, and immediately she knelt down, beside the
seemingly still figure of a young girl, with long pink locks similar to the kunoichi's. Her
eyes were closed, but as soon as Sakura gently took her hand, she felt a squeeze. A
surge of hope rose within her as she saw the girl's lips part in a murmur, a bare whisper
escaped her.
Sakura tried to control her shaking hand as she slowly eased the kunai out of the girl's
chest wound, reminded horribly of that scene, so many years ago
'No! Stop thinking of that!' she screamed inwardly.

Sakura was attempting to heal the girl when her eyes opened, slowly. They were a dark,
deep, mesmerizing shade of green, looking up at Sakura tiredly.
"Nee-san are you are you an angel? Am Am I dead?" she asked softly.
Sakura could feel her heart shatter. This girl on the brink of death, and still speaking so
calmly
"No," Sakura said in a choked voice, forcing a smile as she caressed the girl's cheeks.
"You're not dead I'm not an angel, either" she whispered.
"Oh" the girl said, softly and slowly. "But nee-san you look like one"
Sakura fell silent, not knowing what to say. After a few moments, the young girl spoke.
"I'm dying am I?"
The pink-haired kunoichi could not reply, shaking hard.
"If I die, nee-san, will I go to heaven?" the girl probed again, her breathing shallow.
"I hope so." Sakura forced a smile, clutching the girl's hand tightly.
"Maybe I will see mommy and daddy there" the girl breathed, smiling at Sakura.
"That would be nice"
"Yes" Sakura agreed softly, brushing back the girl's pink locks from her pale face.
"Yes it would"
The girl closed her eyes, then opened them again. "Nee-san arigatou" her shaking
hand gingerly clutching a brand new rag doll that she had been cradling, and weakly
handing it to Sakura. "Please take care of my dolly"
Sakura nodded, fighting back her tears as she took the doll. The young girl smiled and
closed her eyes.
The cherry blossom watched the girl's pale face, so pure, untainted, compared to the
blood, dirt and grime splattered everywhere. Her eyes were closed in a picture of
contentment and rest, unlike those who died horribly with their eyes wide open, staring
into emptiness for eternity.
"Sakura" Sai spoke quietly. "Come on it's over"
Within her, Sakura refused to believe that it was over. Why did things always have to be
over? Why couldn't there ever be hope? That girl was innocent! She had done nothing
wrong, why did her life end this way?
The rest of the team watched silently as the medic nin rose to her feet shakily, her
curtain of pink hair shielding her face from their view.
Sakura lifted the rag doll in her hands. A pink card was attached to the doll's dress. With
trembling fingers, Sakura reached out and opened the card.
'To my darling

Tanoshi
Tanjobi! (1)
From okasan, with love'
It was all Sakura could do to keep herself from crying. She closed the card, and bent
over to give the dead girl and light peck on the forehead.
"I hope that you see your parents in heaven" she whispered softly, then falling silent.
"Just a few hours," Sakura spoke, to no-one in particular. "Just a few hours earlier and
we could've saved this village and I could've saved her,"
The pink-haired kunoichi looked around at her friends with a pained expression on her
face, before streaking off through the bloodied streets of the village, not heeding the
calls of her friends behind her.
N
"Where's Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked Neji anxiously.
"Wait- there's a bunch of Sound nins headed in our direction-" Neji looked distracted, his
Byakugan activated. "Drat!" he suddenly cursed.
"Hey, what was that?" Shikamaru asked sharply
Neji was already sprinting in another direction, Naruto and Tenten hot on his heels. He
yelled an answer to Shikamaru's question.
"Sakura's running straight towards them!"
N
The pink haired kunoichi vaguely heard footsteps approaching, but she just didn't care.
Her mind was racing through too many thoughts to focus, to think straight.
Her shoes slammed against the pavement in anger and protest, in rhythm with the beat
of her heart. Yet, not a single tear fell from her brilliant emerald eyes.
Just as Sakura rounded the corner, she crashed head-on with something.
Or someone.
A burly man with a square-set jaw and a clean-shaven face stared down imposingly at
her. He was on the short side, with beady brown eyes and a Hidden Sound headband
covering his greasy black hair.
"Oi, dobe, I thought I told you to kill them all!" he bellowed at a tall lean fellow with a
patch over his left eye and a katana by his side. His hair was the colour of dirty straw, his
only visible eye was blue. Cerulean. He wore no shirt, baring his visible six-pack, and
long white pants with a red sash at the waist. His hitai-ate was tied to his left wrist.

In a flash, the second man had grabbed the first in a chokehold, cerulean eye glinting
malevolently.
"Do not- ever- call me 'dobe'," he hissed dangerously, his grip of the man's neck
tightening mercilessly. "Dobe,"
"O-okay, Seijin (2)!" the burly man sweatdropped, shaking. "I'm sorry!"
"You better be," the tall man, or rather, Seijin, released him.
"That's a Leaf kunoichi, dim-wit," Seijin spoke, glancing at Sakura's headband. "She's
just arrived- send in the pawns to make a fool of her, Hyozan (3) I've never liked the
Leaf,"
Hyozan, the burly man, nodded meekly.
"Well, gentlemen," Seijin turned to face his eager minions. "We've got a pretty one this
time finish her off, will ya?"
One of the Sound nins lunged forward eagerly at Sakura, which resulted in Seijin
plunging a dagger straight through him with out hesitating.
"I haven't said start yet," Seijin drawled, watching the man slump to the ground, dead.
Smirking, he turned to the other gulping ninjas. "Now you may go," Eager to get away
from the maniacal samurai, they rushed into attack.
Sakura's anger had been building to the ultimatum, and like Tsunade, she wasn't a
person you wanted to deal with when she was angry. Her bright emerald eyes flashed as
she stood facing them with her feet apart, weaponless.
"Let me warn you," the cherry blossom snarled dangerously. "You caught me on
a very. bad. day"
Sakura's gloved fists slammed into the ground with unbelievable force, creating a huge
split that shot forward towards her oncoming attackers with extreme speed. The sound
nins screamed like sissies as they lost their footing and plunged into the darkness below.
Seijin's cerulean eye widened, a single thought running through his mind. 'What what
kind of crazy strength is that? She's a girl!'
"I may be a girl, but don't underestimate me," Sakura said quietly, seemingly able to
read his thoughts. To outsiders, she might look afraid, but her own friends knew that this
was simply a sign that she was going to blow- and it wasn't going to be pretty.
Hyozan cowered in fear behind Seijin, the latter's lean frame barely shielding him from
the furious kunoichi's view.
Sakura clenched her gloved fists, staring Seijin in the eye. "Ten down, two to go," she
breathed. "For killing this village, I will kill you,"
"C'mon, then, pretty I'll make this quick," Seijin sneered, drawing out his katana. The
long, smooth blade shone in the light, reflecting the rays of the sun as Seijin twisted it to
suit his stance.

From underneath his mop of messy, straw-coloured hair, Sakura caught the satisfaction
in his single eye, the will to see bloodshed, to kill.
'He kills for pleasure,' Sakura thought determinedly, her eyes narrowing. 'I'll kill him'
Sakura slid her Fuuma Shuriken out of her pack, flipped it open and faced Seijin
squarely, ready to kill.
N
Sakura waited for Seijin to make the first move, Tsunade's words ringing in her ears.
'Impatience is men's greatest weakness they think so highly of their abilities, they think
women can't fight, and their pride becomes their downfall. Let them attack. Watch them,
study them, and counter them. Always. Be. Prepared.'
Sure enough, after several moments, Seijin allowed his impulse to take over and leapt at
Sakura, katana poised for one quick slash to her neck.
He was fast, but this time, Sakura was faster. Dodging, she spun her Fuuma Shuriken
and slashed at Seijin's left arm, drawing blood.
He swore, quickly turning around and retaliating with a slash to her shoulders.
A burning, searing pain ripped through her entire body from her shoulders, making her
shudder in agony. It hurt like hell.
"Teme!" Sakura cursed, realizing what Seijin had done.
Forget the slash wound, she could heal that easily enough.
What remained unaccounted for, was the fact that Seijin's blade was poisoned.
N
"Round that corner!" Neji hissed, skidding to a sudden halt.
"Sakura!" Tenten rushed up to Sakura, who was clutching her shoulder in obvious pain.
"You- !" Naruto growled, leaping towards Seijin with Neji close behind.
"WAIT!" Sakura warned, ignoring the pain and grabbing her backpack swiftly. She pulled
out four injection needles filled with clear blue liquid and flung two towards Naruto and
Neji.
"His katana's poisoned! My antidote can only work for ten minutes, got it?"
Both shinobis nodded, plunging the needles into their thighs.
It's useless," Seijin drawled, watching them with amusement as he spun his katana
leisurely. "No antidote works against my poison,"

"I wouldn't be so sure," Sakura shot back calmly, injecting herself and healing her wound
quickly. Throwing a needle to Tenten and her backpack to Hinata, Sakura signalled to
Shikamaru.
He understood. Motioning for the others to stay back, he beckoned to Sai and both
trapped the idiot Hyozan quickly and effectively. The rest of the team stood back, poised
for backup attacks.
Fuuma Shuriken in hand, Sakura faced Seijin with a new wave of deadly determination,
Tenten, Naruto and Neji flanking her. Her tone was dangerously low.
"Let's get this party started,"
N
In moments, Seijin was bearing down on them, katana poised to kill his young
opponents.
His moments were fluid, his aim precise. His attacks came as an endless barrage, raining
down upon them without warning.
"Aw c'mon you call yourselves ninjas?" Seijin sneered. His razor-sharp katana slashed
mercilessly, drawing blood everywhere.
His deep cerulean eyes, however, narrowed when he saw the slash wounds healing as
soon as he inflicted them.
'So it looks like that girl's little antidote does work,' Seijin thought, somewhat
grudgingly. "Against my poison she's a medic nin to be reckoned with, I'll give her that
much credit'
Neji flew back from the impact of Seijin's blade through his abdomen, bleeding profusely
before sealing up without a trace. He gritted his teeth, seeing Tenten fly back crashing
into a tree with a deep cut to her cheek. Two kunais and five shurikens found their mark,
courtesy to a furious weapons mistress.
'He's too darned fast!' Neji thought, unfocused on the battle.
"Neji, you idiot! MOVE!" Tenten hollered, knocking him out of harm's way just as Seijin's
blade whizzed right past the spot where his head had been just seconds ago.
"Focus, will you?" the weapons mistress yelled as she dodged yet another flurry of
attacks. Naruto went crashing through a whole row of trees, only Sakura managed to
block Seijin's attacks successively courtesy to her large Fuuma Shuriken.
"Regroup!" Neji ordered. Immediately, Tenten, Sakura and Naruto sprang back into
position beside him.
"Let's try a different approach," Neji said through clenched teeth. "Konoha Yon!"
Sakura was up first. Seijin watched, mockingly as she spun her Fuuma Shuriken with one
hand. The pink-haired kunoichi smiled inwardly. She was counting on the conceited Seijin
to think it was all part of an act- and fall right into their trap.

Behind her, Naruto quickly and secretly created a clone before transforming into a Fuuma
Shuriken, using his clone to fling himself towards Sakura. Anticipating this move, she
caught him deftly with her free hand.
Smiling inwardly, Sakura flung the two shurikens in a cross formation, deliberately
missing Seijin as Tenten's smoke bombs covered her. The weapons mistress threw in a
variety of weapons to act as decoys, distracting Seijin from Sakura's shurikens.
For Naruto and Sakura, this inversion of the Shadow Shuriken Technique served as a
reminder of happier days with Sasuke, where they felt the real Team 7 back then.
"Bad shot," Seijin smirked smugly. "I didn't even dodge is that the best you Leaf ninjas
can do? Pathetic"
Sakura shrugged nonchalantly, a secret smile tugging at her lips. Clouds of smoke were
obscuring her view, but she could still make out the hyperactive ninja's hazy figure,
bearing down on Seiji.
"Look up, dobe," Naruto's loud voice smirked. Seijin was still clueless when Naruto's right
foot connected heavily with the back of his head, sending him staggering forwards.
The samurai fell right atop the opaque-eyed Hyuuga prodigy, who was waiting for his
chance for payback. Poised to strike with the Sixty-Four hands of Hakke (i), he
immediately sealed two of Seijin's vital tenketsu points.
Neji would've sealed more, but Seijin managed to whirl away, cursing. In moments,
Sakura and Tenten were on him, side by side and pinning Seijin right against a wall with
their kunais.
"Shikamaru!" Tenten yelled, straining from the effort to hold him down.
"Kagemane no Jutsu! (ii)" the Nara genius focused, letting his shadow snake upon the
ground before shooting towards Seijin and trapping him successfully.
Neji poised to attack Seijin's tenketsu points again, but paused when an extremely smug
look crossed the man's face.
"I don't like that look on his face," Naruto said grimly to Lee and Kiba.
Seijin's lips parted in a mumble, and Shikamaru suddenly felt like he was being ripped
apart, heart and soul. It was pure torture, and he had to force himself to keep his control
on Seijin.
"ARGH!"
He let out a roar from the excruciating pain, and was sent flying backwards by an unseen
force, breaking his control over the samurai.
"Shika!" Ino cried out, running towards him.
Everyone watched in absolute awe as a pair of great, shimmering wings, made entirely
out of chakra, unfolded from Seijin's back. In a single swipe, he sent Sakura and Tenten
flying, before grabbing the shaking Hyozan from Sai's slacked grip and flipping his katana
up from where Shikamaru had forced him to fling it before.

"See you soon," Seijin smirked, soaring high into the air with a flap of his wings. The
blade of his katana met the arm of a certain Taijutsu specialist who tried to stop him.
"Losers," he added one last word, sneering, soaring higher and higher above them.
"Akamaru! Douteki Saitentei! (iii)" Kiba hollered, flinging Akamaru upwards.
The Inuzuka dog went soaring above Seijin and Hyozan gleefully sending out a spray of
pee that covered both men, before landing back safely in his master's arms.
From high up above, Hyozan screamed vulgalarities at them.

Chapter 4- Visitors of Sunagakure!


-
"Stop. We'll camp here for the night,"
After what seemed like an eternity of jumping from tree to tree, Neji finally said the
words they all wanted to hear- very badly.
The earthen ground shook slightly as ten shinobis landed flat-out upon the ground,
exhausted and enjoying the feel of the cool night air against their warm, reddened
cheeks. High above them, shining brilliantly against the dark sky, the full, round moon
provided a kind of gentle assurance, the kind that light always gave in darkness.
Everyone moved about wordlessly, setting up camp. A gloomy, foreboding air hung about
them, the memory of the dead village and burying the corpses remained long from
forgotten.
Sakura's hands shook as she put her pack down on the earthy ground, suddenly
remembering the little girl's face staring up at her. She needed the bandages inside her
pack to wrap around her sore, hurting wrist from using the Fuuma Shuriken too much,
but she didn't want to see the rag doll in her pack.
She couldn't deal with the emotion- yet.
N
Sai and Kiba trudged through the forest, collecting firewood, silent while the rest of the
boys pitched up the tents and the girls prepared dinner. Or supper, whichever was more
suitable. Nobody cared for the moment.
Arranging the firewood neatly, Sakura struck a match to light it up, subconsciously
remembering how easy it was when Sasuke was around to do his Katon. Catching
herself, she shook her head to clear those memories. Why did it disturb her so much
now?
'Get a grip, Sakura!'

N
While everyone sat down to eat, Neji and Shikamaru quietly discussed their plans before
standing up to speak to the silent team.
"We're already at the border of the Fire and the Wind Country," Shikamaru began,
looking around slowly at his teammates' weary faces.
"We should be at Hidden Sand by noon tomorrow, if we keep up our current pace," Neji
continued. "We'll meet the Kazekage there and see if the Sand has any information on
the scrolls and also, Seijin and Hyozan,"
Sakura nodded slowly in agreement. "I've got to make a stronger antidote. I used my
last on Lee-san, and if Seijin is as smart as I think he is, he'd strengthen his poison. We
definitely need a stronger defense,"
"Good," Neji approved her suggestion. "That is a possibility. The herbs needed for that
antidote can only be found in Suna, right?"
"Mm" Sakura replied softly, lost in thought.
"Kiba," Shikamaru turned to the animal specialist, "You and Akamaru used Dountenki
Saitentei. Got a lock on the target's location?"
"They're headed north of the Wind Country," Kiba promptly replied, ruffling Akamaru's
pure white fur.
"Seems like they're headed the same way as us," Sai spoke quietly, saying exactly what
was on everyone's minds. "Do you think they're there with the same purpose as us?"
His onyx eyes reflected the dancing firelight, questioning his teammates.
No one had an answer.
N
"I'll take first watch," Sakura volunteered, her voice tired. Her face looked pale, but her
emerald eyes remained ever alert.
They'd just finished dinner, and were getting ready to sleep. Everyone looked doubtfully
at Sakura, they knew that she was extremely tired, but"Let her have the first watch. I'll stay with her," Tenten said firmly, standing up. She
caught Sakura's eye, and the pink-haired kunoichi nodded gratefully at her best friend.
Neji stood promptly. "I'll complete the three-man watch, then,"
Naruto and Kiba snickered loudly.
Neji glared.
N

Sakura swallowed yet another huge yawn, blinking to stay awake and trying not to show
her tiredness. She was exhausted, but she'd prefer exhaustion to the nightmares that
she knew would come in her sleep.
She, Neji and Tenten sat in a close-knit circle at the edge of their camp. Neji had
activated his Byakugan to save their walking energy. All three were silent, letting their
thoughts drift elsewhere. They were supposed to be on guard, but hey
Neji seemed to be the only one really alert. He looked at the tired Sakura skeptically.
"Get some sleep, Sakura. We can't have our only medic nin collapsing,"
She looked at him strangely. "I think you know how it feels, Neji-san to have
nightmares about those who are gone"
The Hyuuga genius's face fell, ever so slightly. He remembered all too well.
"I cried all that night I failed to save my parents I failed to make him stay. I thought
I had to get stronger, and maybe I did. But it never seems to be enough. I still couldn't
save that girl- I couldn't even revenge her. I stopped crying, but it just isn't enough.
It's never enough,"
Sakura stared up at the starless sky, seemingly sharing her sorrow.
"Hey, stop getting all mopey, you two," Tenten smiled slightly, trying to lighten the
mood, but in the end, her own face fell. "At least you knew your parents. Me? I don't
even know my name,"
All three fell silent.
N
By noon the next day, as Neji had predicted, the ten Leaf shinobis were approaching the
gates of Sunagakure, the Hidden Sand Village. Two fierce-looking guards stopped them,
demanding to know their 'sneaky' business, much to the indignation of a certain
hyperactive ninja, who immediately stepped forward to give both guards a piece of his
mind- using his fists.
Shikamaru pulled the fuming Naruto back while Neji pulled out the authorization scroll
from the Godaime Hokage, and that was when a deep, cool voice sounded from
somewhere above them.
"Who goes there,"
They looked up in surprise, and immediately the two guards knelt before the seventeenyear-old Kazekage, who was standing atop the high wall surrounding Suna, arms crossed
and staring down at them.
Naruto looked delighted at seeing his 'old friend', immediately rushing up to the foot of
the wall, jumping and yelling for Gaara to 'get down here and give me a proper
welcome'.
Ino and Shikamaru both dragged him back by an ear each, Ino conking him on the head
hard. "He's the Kazekage, you idiot!" Shikamaru hissed. "Show some darned respect!"

"Aah, forget it," Gaara stopped the Jounin from skinning the jinchuuriki alive. "I really
hate all the formalities we're friends, right?" he said the word 'friend' haltingly, as if
unaccustomed to using it.
Naruto laughed boisterously as Gaara leapt down, leading them through the gates. "Eh
where's Temari and Kankuro?" he asked curiously.
"Temari's out with her boyfriend," Gaara said with a slight 'eew' tone to it. Sakura stifled
a laugh at the way Gaara could still be pretty childish.
Ino heaved an audible sigh of relief, looking at her teammate sheepishly, and Shikamaru
glared daggers at her. It was a well known fact that Ino had always been questioning the
Nara genius about his relationship with Gaara's older sister, suspicious of him.
'I told her I had nothing to do with Temari, but no, she just wouldn't listen' Shikamaru
thought, fuming. Luckily, no one noticed the look on his face.
"Kankuro's somewhere," Gaara shrugged nonchalantly. "He's still the same old
Naruto?" the Kazekage nodded to the grinning ninja.
"Yes," everyone replied simultaneously, their voices dull.
In two seconds Naruto was on Gaara's back, hugging both the gourd and the Kazekage.
"Heh! Forget the formalities, right?" he grinned widely.
Gaara winced. "I didn't mean to the extent of letting myself be hugged. Geroff!"
Naruto was thrown back several meters by a powerful wall of sand flying out of Gaara's
gourd, and his teammates laughed at the look on his face, walking on.
"Man, this is no fun," the jinchuuriki complained, rubbing the back of his sore head
before leaping up and running after his team.
"HEY! Wait for me!"
N
The people of Hidden Sand smiled and bowed to the pink-haired kunoichi as she walked
past them towards Suna's famed greenhouse. She smiled back, returning the customary
bow. After she'd cured Kankuro of Sasori's poison some time back, Hidden Sand had
started to really respect her and her comrades, as well.
Somehow, as Sakura entered the greenhouse, Sakura could feel Chiyo's presence all
around her, as if quietly greeting an old friend. A soft smile curved her lips.
"Hey, Chiyo-sama." Sakura smiled and whispered, admiring the lush interior of the
greenhouse.
The tips of her slender fingers brushed past the herb leaves, the fragrant scents of the
life-saving plants wafted through the still air sweetly.
She remembered how Tsunade had always emphasized on the importance of potionmaking, and how tenderly the Godaime Hokage loved her personal greenhouse of herbs.

"Think of it, Sakura" the Fifth lifted a small pot of rosemary, examining it carefully for
bugs. "Just two or three of these tiny leaves can save a life. It's vital for a medic nin to
be able to 'communicate' with these plants- it may be your only resort when you have
nowhere else to turn,"
'True enough, Tsunade-shishou' Sakura thought with a smile on her face.
The cherry blossom was entirely lost in thought until the sight of the two most precious
and rare herbs, both vital ingredients in Tsunade's ultimate antidote, brought her sharply
back to earth.
Shinwa hi no hana, the Mythical Fire Flower. Famed for being able to ease any kind of
pain inflicted in any way, and to quicken the process of healing wounds, it was a coveted
herb in all the great shinobi countries, and few villages managed to cultivate the plant.
Kaze no hana, the delicate Wind Blossom. This plant, Sakura remembered, was a counter
for high fevers, and could neutralize all types of poison, from the mildest to the deadliest.
This was a plant unique to the Wind Country only, due to its requirement of humid
temperature to grow properly.
Remembering her purpose, the cherry blossom placed her light brown satchel on the
ground. She reached out a hand and deftly plucked herb after herb, flinging them into a
black bowl to begin the process of making Tsunade's ultimate antidote.
N
"Hinata!" Sakura called as she stepped into the guestroom all four girls shared. Ino and
Tenten lazed on the white beds, Ino sorting out her wardrobe while Tenten examined her
prized weapons.
Both looked up as their pink-haired friend entered.
"Finished the antidote?" Tenten asked. Sakura nodded.
"Man, Ino, what do you do with so many clothes on a mission?" Sakura looked at Ino's
pile of clothes in amazement. "And how did you manage to squeeze all that in your
backpack?"
"I have my ways," Ino smirked, lifting up a light blue outfit, frowning at the wrinkled
material. "How can a girl survive without fifteen sets of clothes, at least?"
Tenten snorted. "I brought three and I'm surviving just fine," she told the blonde
sarcastically.
Ino ignored her.
Sakura laughed, walking towards the balcony.
Hinata was standing on the balcony, her ivory eyes glazed over with a dreamy expression
on her face. Down below, the young children of Sunagakure played along the streets,
their laughter echoing through the air as mothers watched with smiles on their faces.
Peace was present in every sense of the word.
"It really reminds you of Konoha, doesn't it?" Sakura asked as she stepped onto the
balcony beside Hinata, resting her arms against the balcony railing.

"Mm" Hinata agreed quietly. "It- reminds me of home of everything we're missing
right now"
"Yes, but remember that we're also doing this for Konoha to protect everything that we
live for, everything that we love," Sakura reminded her, a half-smile on her face. Those
words were an echo of the hyperactive ninja.
The Hyuuga heir nodded in silent understanding, spotting the satchel slung over Sakura's
shoulders.
"Nani, Sakura-chan?" she pointed at it.
"Tsunade-sama's best antidote," Sakura smirked. "Seijin won't know what hit him,"
Hinata smiled.
"I promised to teach you a new technique, Hinata, are you ready?"
"H-hai!"
N
"Hey guys, can you clear this space for awhile? I'm teaching Hinata a new technique,"
Sakura requested of Lee, Neji, Shikamaru and Naruto, who were teaming up for a
sparring session on one of Suna's vast practice grounds.
The boys readily consented, leaving the grounds.
"Oi! Why don't we watch?" Naruto yelled after the retreating boys. "Should be
interesting, don'tcha think?" Neji, Shikamaru and Lee looked at each other, shrugged and
stayed by the training grounds to watch.
Hinata broke out in cold sweat. She was counting on them to leave! (Especially Naruto)
Fighting to control her nervousness, Hinata suddenly felt that Naruto was being no help
at all, even though he was yelling encouragement from the sidelines.
"First, I'll explain the technique. Ignore that idiot, Hinata," Sakura frowned at Naruto,
who immediately stopped cheering. Hinata heaved a silent sigh of relief. Sakura fought
the urge to smile, turning back to the Hyuuga. "Listen carefully. This technique is called
Chakra Enjintou (1), and its main strength is to create a blade of chakra that can cut
your opponents muscles and arteries without breaking the skin,"
"Hey, hey!" Naruto called from the stands, waving a hand. "I've got a question!"
"Like this is your training session," Neji remarked sarcastically, crossing his arms.
Hinata saw the vein throbbing in Sakura's forehead. "He- is- so- annoying-" she said
quietly to Hinata through clenched teeth. Forcing on a smile, she turned to face Naruto.
"Yes, Naruto?" Sakura asked sweetly.
Hinata laughed inwardly, before chiding herself. Sakura could fake almost any emotion,
but it meant that she was always hiding her true self. After her parents died. After heleft.
A small sigh escaped her lips.

"So, that means, this technique is no blood, no gore?" Naruto's extremely loud voice
asked boisterously, demanding an answer.
"Yes, if you don't count internal bleeding," Sakura smirked, picturing herself using her
technique to kill Naruto right now.
"Internal bleeding kills faster," Hinata spoke without stammering, surprised at her own
boldness.
"True enough," Sakura admitted, smiling at Hinata, who smiled back slightly. Sakura
was, at least, more patient, somber and serious than five years ago. She was
responsible, and remained as smart as ever. But now, she rarely smiled.
"I need someone to volunteer" Sakura hinted boldly, turning to the boys. "Dummies
don't show the real results of this technique,"
Neji had his arms crossed, a definite no-no expression on his stoic face.
Lee was looking nervously at his feet, tracing patterns in the sand while his thick
eyebrows twitched. Also a no-go.
Shikamaru was looking at her with that famed 'you-have-got-to-be-kidding-this-is-sotroublesome' look. Sakura sighed. Geniuses. Yeah, right.
"Naruto?" Sakura turned to her teammate.
The blond ramen-lover shrugged and grinned, a sweatdrop gracing the back of his head
as he chuckled nervously. "Uh I think I'll pass Sakura-chan,"
"Geez, I never realized that our bunch of machoists were actually a bunch of cowards,"
the cherry blossom scorned, exchanging a look with Hinata. "Never mind Hinata,
activate your Byakugan,"
She complied.
"Watch carefully, Hinata,"
Sakura focused chakra into her hands, creating a solid blade in her right hand.
"U-uh, Sakura-chan?" Hinata stammered nervously. "Who-who are you going to use it
on?"
Hinata's question went unanswered. A look on determination crossed the cherry
blossom's face; she braced herself with both feet apart, barely noticing Ino and Tenten
approaching them.
Without further hesitation, Sakura raised the blade, preparing herself for the pain about
to come- and drove it straight into her lower left arm.
N
"Oi, people!" Ino called indignantly after the troop of boys, who were trying to escape
quietly- only to find Tenten blocking the way, hands on hips, looking none too pleased.

"How could you let a lady cut herself?" Tenten demanded, glaring. She turned to Ino.
"Man, we've got a bunch of wimps for boyfriends,"
"Hey!" Shikamaru and Neji retorted, looking disgruntled.
"It's true." both girls shot back, daring them to argue. The boys knew better than to say
anything more.
Meanwhile, Hinata observed Sakura worriedly. The cherry blossom's face was contorted
in pain, and her hands shook as she let her chakra blade dissolve. Concentrating chakra
into her wound this time, Sakura healed herself.
"See?" the pink-haired kunoichi turned to Hinata, still mending her wound while forcing a
smile for the Hyuuga's sake. "This hurts like hell, even when used on the minor muscles.
Imagine what it would do if you tore it straight through your opponents' heart,"
Hinata seemed to shudder at the thought. "D-do you n-need any h-help, Sakura-chan?"
"No this'll only heal properly tomorrow, though good thing it was my left arm"
Sakura examined her healed arm carefully. "Never mind me now, you try,"
The Hyuuga heir nodded, bracing herself, waiting for Sakura's instructions.
"Calm down, focus, and gather your chakra,"
N
By dinnertime the next day, Hinata had Chakra Enjintou mastered perfectly. Both
temporary sensei and student entered the room, beaming.
"How's the training?" Tenten asked, passing two bowls of udon to them. "Don't worry, we
bashed those useless guys up nicely for you," she cast a sideways glance at the four
boys, who were busy looking elsewhere.
"Hinata's impressive!" Sakura said happily, taking up her chopsticks. "And thanks!"
Neji raised an eyebrow at her former comment. "Hn," His tone was sarcastic, but Hinata
caught the glint of humour in his opaque eyes.
"Stop underestimating your cousin, Hyuuga Neji," Sakura shot at him scathingly, despite
knowing that Neji wasn't serious. "She mastered Chakra Enjintou in ten hours, just two
hours after my record!"
"You go, Hinata-chan!" Naruto whooped gleefully, cheering her. Hinata's cheeks
reddened, and Sakura smiled softly.
The rest of the team beamed at her and offered their congratulations, even Gaara, albeit
in a slightly unemotional tone.
But for Hinata, the greatest praise came from seeing Sakura, Naruto and Neji's satisfied
faces.
N

"We're setting up North tomorrow, Shikamaru announced after dinner. "We've loitered
long enough," he motioned to Sai, who spread out the map provided by Tsunade.
"According to Tsunade Hokage-sama, the scrolls are located in a cave- Horaana Kake
Jiku," Neji said coolly, his arms crossed. "We don't know the exact location, though,"
"It's a temple," Gaara spoke suddenly from the back of the room. "A temple in a cave,"
Everyone was stunned. This was something entirely unexpected Sakura's spirits sank
inside her as she spoke.
"Wait. Gaara, why is the cave named that way? 'Scroll Cave' is hardly a name you'd
expect a temple to come up with,"
Gaara shrugged, his dark-rimmed eyes watching her intently, as if reading her thoughts.
Sakura averted her gaze. The Kazekage looked away, to the inquisitive faces of the
Konoha shinobis. "Dunno. Maybe its because of an old legend saying that once, an old
man, near death, handed a chest of scrolls to the head monk of that particular temple,
pleading with him to safekeep it until the 'right person' came to claim it,"
"Who's the 'right person'?" Sai asked quietly.
"Yeah, yeah! Who?" Naruto demanded excitedly.
Sakura's heart sank lower with each passing second. She knew but she didn't want to
tell. She didn't want them to know. Not just yet.
No one noticed Sakura looking distracted, they were more interested in hearing Gaara's
version of the legend.
"No one knows. Apparently, the old man gasped something about 'Konoha' and I can't
remember. He died before the monks could even get his name. The legend said that he
had been shot by a poisoned arrow. That's what Baki told me when I was younger not
that I cared, then,"
The team looked disappointed, and doubtful.
"It's just a legend" Kiba said absently, scratching Akamaru's back.
"Yeah who knows? It might not be the cave we're looking for, and that'd just be
wasting our time" Ino quipped.
"I agree" Neji began to speak, but was suddenly interrupted by a certain pink-haired
kunoichi, who had stood up suddenly, upsetting her cup of ocha. A servant hurriedly
cleaned it up.
"I do not agree,"
Her four words rang clearly through the air, surprising her teammates.
"Sakura" Naruto said slowly, knowing that this was a sign of Sakura getting angry or
impatient. He was ignored blatantly.

"Every legend has some truth behind it," the cherry blossom said quietly, but inside her,
she was desperate for them to believe her. This was the cave! She had to convince them
about it. "I believe, that this is the cave we're looking for," There was something
inexplicably cold about her.
Sakura looked around and saw her teammates' faces, and realized that she had
overreacted. They were probably far from believing her right now.
'You're so stupid!'' Sakura chided herself inwardly. Out loud, she apologized.
"I'm- sorry,"
Without another word, Sakura left the room.
N
"We can't just lead our team running after legends!" Neji and Shikamaru protested
lamely after Sakura's retreating figure, not really sure of what had happened.
The room was silent, until Tenten walked up to the boys, speaking quietly.
"Woman's intuition, guys it's always right,"

Chapter 5- Sandstorm
-
"What got into you back there? I swear, you sounded exactly like Neji when he was still
bitter about his father 's death"
Tenten found Sakura sitting atop the high wall surrounding Sunagakure, staring at the
receding moon. Sakura turned her face slightly to look at her friend.
The weapons mistress, dressed in a Chinese-style top with long, semi transparent silkmesh sleeves and shorts, with a short skirt up front and a longer skirt behind, a sash at
the waist, was a sight upon the dark night sky.
At first, Sakura remembered, the boyish Tenten had been horrified at the prospect at the
very suggestion of a skirt in her new uniform, and it had taken Ino a full week of
persuasion and relentless threats to force the 'dress' on her. But when Neji passed by
and stopped dead in his tracks at seeing his girlfriend dressed so Tenten kept it on.
"Haruno Sakura," Tenten said sternly. "Wake up!"
The cherry blossom smiled slightly. "C'mon, sit down,"
The brown-haired kunoichi obliged, and asked her question again. "So, are you going to
answer my question or not?"

Sakura was silent for a long while, just looking at Tenten. Inexplicable emotions flickered
across her face.
"I need to tell you something,"
"Spill," Tenten said firmly, turning to look at her friend. She'd sensed something wrong
from ages ago, but she knew that Sakura would tell when she wanted to. "I want to
know everything,"
N
"so, basically, I'm putting every single one of our lives in danger because Akatsuki is
after me," Sakura sighed. "All because of some family secret"
"I somehow get the feeling it's something more than that, Sakura," Tenten told her
thoughtfully. "And I agree- every legend has some truth behind it..."
"Well, then, it's just too bad that our team leaders back there don't seem to believe me,"
Sakura deadpanned, pushing a lock of her hair out of her face.
Tenten was silent for a long while, just staring at her best friend. "You won't just give
up?"
"Huh?"
"Neji and Shikamaru they respect you. Your opinions. Even the Hyuuga Neji admits that
you're one of the last people he'd want to face in battle after you kicked his butt the last
time. And I must say since our first Chunnin exams you've changed,"
"Changed?" Sakura laughed lightly. "I'm still the same old Sakura"
"Trust me. You're different. You know what I thought of you when I first saw Team 7?
Silly, vain, flirtatious and annoying. Look at you now! You know you're no longer a
pushover, not like you were one in the first place,"
Sakura looked like she was analyzing Tenten's words, nodding slowly. "You know
'annoying' was what Sasuke-kun used to call me. It really hurt back then, but when I
look back now I was annoying, wasn't I? And perhaps, a worse idiot than Naruto" a
smile twitched on her lips.
"Absolutely," Tenten laughed. Silence ensued.
"Tenten?"
"Yeah?"
"Thanks,"
Tenten's chocolate eyes sparkled as she smiled. "You just have to hang on a little more,
Sakura life was never meant to be easy. Sometimes we don't have a choice about
things, but that's just the way it is,"
"Yeah," Sakura said softly, tilting her face upwards to watch the millions of tiny stars
shimmering against the dark night sky, a sigh escaping her lips.

"You know, I still wonder of he's looking up at the sky, somewhere out there,"
N
"Orochimaru-sama, why haven't we completed the body switch yet?" A certain silverhaired man wearing round glasses, asked his silent master.
The snake-wielding Sannin frowned slightly beneath his curtain of long, dark hair. His
pale skin looked wet and clammy; his eyes were hollow and haunting, looking at Kabuto
with an inexplicable expression in them. He disliked his subordinates questioning him,
but"It should only have taken three years" Orochimaru rose from his stone seat, taking to
pacing his dark chamber, an aura of frustration radiating off him. "He is perfectly strong
and capable, and he is ready- but the Uchiha is resisting!"
The villain's voice came out as a vehement hiss, venting his bottled-up anger. It was a
well-known fact that Orochimaru disliked things not going according to plan- one of his
weaknesses.
"How is it so, Orochimaru-sama?" Kabuto smoothly tried to appease the Sannin. Having
the snake-wielder in a bad mood was not on his to-do list. Definitely not. The last time
that happened, he'd been made to wait on the Uchiha hand-and-foot for a week. Not a
pleasant experience.
Orochimaru failed to notice his subordinate's musings. "You saw how he can control his
curse seal, Kabuto. He is no ordinary boy, whatever anyone says about Itachi.
Seventeen, and he is already stronger than me!" the villain raised his voice. "He is
perfect for me- but he has not yet achieved his revenge, and until then I cannot take
him,"
"Then you are not going to assist him in his revenge?" Kabuto asked cautiously.
"Of course not!" Orochimaru snapped. "Do you have any idea of what Itachi can do,
Kabuto? The excuse was just an illusion, and nothing more! An excuse to get him on my
side!"
"But with his iron will"
"That is why we need that scroll! The secret of crumbling even the strongest!"
Orochimaru had lost his cool. "We leave in two days, Kabuto. Tell Sasuke-kun to get
ready," his voice dropped to a hiss.
"As you wish" Kabuto retreated silently with a bow. A smile twitched at the corner of his
mouth as he exited the chamber. Orochimaru was the very reflection of a man who no
longer had confidence, who no longer knew his strengths.
N
His onyx eyes scanned the dark horizon, covered with glittering stars. The slight breeze
whipped through his messy hair, swaying his white shirt.
They were nearing the Wind Country's border, he could tell. Somewhere at the North.
The air was extremely chilly, now that it was night, and the breeze carried grains of
sand.

Sasuke thought about his situation. He wasn't dumb. He knew, from the start, that
Orochimaru would never help him with his revenge. If that man could handle Itachi, why
choose Sasuke as a container? Any person with average brains would choose the more
powerful counterpart of the two remaining members of the Uchiha clan.
But Sasuke had his own tricks. Orochimaru was not to get his wish until the shinobi had
his revenge. After that, Sasuke couldn't care less what happened.
His face was like porcelain. It felt like porcelain. Smooth, and emotionless. But his heart
remained untouched by Orochimaru. It stilled harboured his growing revenge, and the
thought of his team. His old life.
He wondered how Naruto and Sakura were. Despite his claims of forgetting everything
for revenge, they had entered his heart. The duo had made their mark, and they were
determined not to be erased from his memory anytime soon. Naruto and his
brotherliness his constant, 'pointless' challenges Sasuke wouldn't admit it, but the
reason he always strove so hard was because he was afraid Naruto would do better.
Males and their egos
Sakura the pink-haired kunoichi was annoying. Her infatuation was irritating. But he
had to admit, somewhere inside having two friends who really cared made a difference.
They kept coming back for him, willing to help him up when he was falling. Even though
he had shattered all their hopes, they never gave up on him.
Vaguely, he wondered if Naruto would still view him as a worthy opponent. The
jinchuuriki was a man of honour, not power. After Sasuke had betrayed them would
Naruto still treat him like the 'brother' he'd claimed Sasuke was.
Sasuke let a quiet sigh escaped his lips. With one last glance at the beautiful night sky,
he turned and walked back into their hideout.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, he, too, wondered if somewhere, somehow
the rest of Team 7 were staring up at the same, starry night sky.
N
Ino and Hinata were gossiping when Sakura and Tenten returned from their night walk.
Okay, it was more like Ino was doing all the gossiping and Hinata was listening meekly.
"Oi, Ino! Stop filling the poor girl's head with all your gossip!" Tenten laughed, plopping
onto her soft bed. "Neji'll have your head,"
"Fine!" Ino pouted in a sulk, while Hinata and Sakura laughed, looking at each other. If
there was one thing Sakura loved about her three friends, it was their capacity to forgive
and forget. They never held anything against her, no matter what happened.
Just then, a knock sounded on their door. Sakura opened it- only to be greeted by a
certain blond kunoichi with her hair set back in four ponytails.
"Temari!" Sakura exclaimed, stepping aside to let the young woman in. Temari was
greeted by a chorus of 'hello's from all in the room.
"Hey it's been a long time since I saw you girls"Temari laughed, sitting on a nearby
chair. "How's it been going with the guys?" she added slyly.

Sakura laughed lightly at the faces of her friends. Ino was the first to recover.
"You're calling at an ungodly hour it's one a.m. " the girl smirked, propping herself up
on her elbows on her bed.
"I just wanted to check if you guys were all right," Temari laughed. "There's a real bad
sandstorm howling out there"
The other four Konoha kunoichis looked out of their closed balcony window. Zero
visibility. Sand was churning like a tornado outside.
"Who'd be out in a sandstorm like that?" Tenten said incredulously.
"Guess," Temari teased.
"Uzumaki Naruto," Sakura said exasperatedly. "That idiot!"
"Exactly," the Sand kunoichi grinned. "He went out for a walk and didn't notice the red
flag, apparently,"
"W-will N-Naruto-kun be alright?" Hinata asked nervously.
"Well, Hyuuga and Inuzuka are searching for him"Temari replied. "They're definitely not
happy Naruto is so dead,"
"He'll survive, Hinata," Sakura said evenly. "Man, he can be a great shinobi sometimes,
but at other times he's hopeless,"
"Won't do us any good worrying," Ino grinned, unconcerned. "Let's just leave the
menfolk to worry about our dear teammate, shall we?"
"Yeah, sure," Tenten laughed. "We'll find Naruto in about twenty pieces scattered across
the world tomorrow, regardless of whether he makes it back in one piece or not tonight,"
Ino nodded happily. "Meanwhile, Temari, get your stuff over and we'll have an all-girls
sleepover I hear you've got a new boyfriend"
N
They'd gone against the 'no sleeping' rules of a sleepover and fallen asleep haphazardly,
Sakura lying against the head of the bed, Tenten sprawled at the foot; Hinata was
sleeping in a sitting position on the floor leaning against the bedframe, while Temari was
sleeping in the chair.
The five kunoichis were up at the crack of dawn, courtesy to their internal alarm
systems, yawning and rubbing their tired eyes. The outside sky was still dark, but the air
was still and quiet. The sandstorm, apparently, had stopped.
However, within a few moments- another storm started- inside the room. Three of the
five kunoichis were fighting tooth and nail to get the bathroom first.
"Me first!"
"Oh no you don't!"

"Geroff, Ino! You always take ages in the bathroom!"


"I'm going!"
Temari sighed, hands on hips, and turned to face the shy Hyuuga. "They're always like
this, aren't they?"
"M-m yes" Hinata stammered.
"C'mon, you can use the one in my room," Temari invited.
Nodding a silent thanks, Hinata slipped out of the room with Temari.
N
By the time all five girls arrive downstairs for breakfast, they boys were already attacking
the buffet like there was no tomorrow. Naruto, it seemed, was still in one piece, gobbling
happily away. Ino, Hinata and Temari gladly joined the food riot, leaving Tenten and
Sakura surveying the whole scene.
Gaara, as expected, was at the head of the table. Kankuro was nowhere to be seen, Neji
and Shikamaru were beside the Kazekage, sitting with their arms crossed and facing
each other. Neither looked angry at Naruto, which probably explained why the
hyperactive ninja was still alive. But the look on their faces- was one of unrest and
unease.
"Something's not right," Sakura spoke, frowning. She knew Tenten felt the same thing.
Both kunoichi's had suddenly lost their appetite for breakfast, they felt the tension in the
air.
Oh yes. Something was definitely wrong.
Just then, the Hyuuga genius spotted the two girls and knew that they sensed it. Silently,
he motioned to the two kunoichis and his co-leader to follow him, and left the room .
N
"Spill," Tenten ordered as soon as the door closed behind them in the next room. "We
know that look,"
"What happened last night? You guys went out to search for Naruto, right?" Sakura
queried, leaning against a wall with her arms crossed.
"Yeah, while you girls were nicely and warmly huddled up in your tiny room, we were
looking for that idiot out in the sandstorm," Shikamaru deadpanned.
"Rub it in," Tenten said sarcastically.
"Hey, quit it already. We just want to know what happened," Sakura broke the oncoming
fight. "Neji?"
"Remember last night's sandstorm? The way everything was zero visibility?" Neji started.
"Naturally, I used the Byakugan guess what I saw,"

"Uh" Sakura said slowly.


"Someone was standing on the wall surrounding Suna. I tried to get a closer look, but
Naruto chose that very moment to fly right into me," Neji said distastefully. "By the time
I got up, whoever that person was, was gone,"
"But-but- I don't understand!" Tenten stammered, confused. "What would that person
have to do with the sandstorm?"
"D'you know what the characteristics of a sandstorm are, Tenten?" Shikamaru asked.
The weapons mistress shook her head.
"The sand it was flying in different directions" realization struck Sakura, her voice was
soft and barely audible.
"And?" Tenten asked, still confused.
"When sandstorms occur, sand will usually be flying in only one direction because of the
seasonal and directional winds. No sandstorm ever has a messy formation which was
exactly why yesterday's sandstorm made us suspicious,"
"That means it was deliberately done," Tenten said, finally understanding. "Because
they would need lots of manpower to create a real sandstorm, and it wasn't genjutsu,"
"The creator was trying too hard to fool us, and ended up making a huge mistake
instead," Neji finished simply.
"And you don't think that it's-" Sakura was cut off by a whirl of sand that materialized
beside her.
Gaara stood with his feet apart and arms crossed, his eyes narrowed in displeasure. His
dark-rimmed eyes studied the four Konoha shinobis emotionlessly, the tone of his voice
was flat.
"It's Akatsuki. Definitely,"

Chapter 6- Desert Oasis


-
"Akatsuki. So" Sakura breathed, exchanging a sideways glance with Tenten, her heart
throbbing as she said those words- the words that she knew was an absolute lie.
"They're after Naruto, obviously,"
She felt the pressure of the lie. Trying to deceive herself wasn't going to work for long.

"We think they want something else as well," Shikamaru uncrossed his arms and stepped
forward. Sakura could've sworn that her heart stopped for a few moments. Was this it?
Did they know the truth already?
"The scrolls," Tenten said promptly, seeing Sakura's face.
"Exactly," Neji deadpanned. "We've got to beat them to it,"
"Easy for you to say" Shikamaru said lazily, sighing. "Man, this is-"
"Troublesome," three Konoha shinobis cut in dryly.
"We know, Shikamaru, so stop complaining already," Tenten quipped. "Doesn't make any
difference. It's still a mission that we've got to complete,"
"Does anyone else know?" Sakura queried, looking at the Hyuuga prodigy.
"Only the five of us. And I prefer we keep it that way," Neji replied coolly. "We don't want
the rest worrying, they're far too vulnerable. We need Naruto fired up to keep the others
going, or we'll be fighting a losing battle for sure,"
The four shinobis nodded, understanding.
"I'm positive that all of us can be trusted and not give way to emotion," Neji continued,
his tone firm.
"But Temari will have to know, right? If Gaara-sama's coming, she'll be taking charge,"
Shikamaru started, looking at the Kazekage. "Right?"
"With Baki as her advisor, yes. Sometimes Temari can make the most ridiculous
decisions," Gaara said dryly.
"Only Temari, then. No one else," Neji finished.
"If we're done, let's get going. The others might get suspicious, even though I doubt it,"
Tenten said, motioning to the audible food riot outside. "Judging by all that noise,"
They could hear Naruto and Kiba bickering all the way from the dining hall, with some
colourful language not really fit to be on a printed page.
"HEY! That was my piece of chicken, you bastard!"
"Shut up, you moron! I got it first!"
"No you didn't! I got it first!"
"Even Akamaru says I got it first! Geroff !"
"Gimme back my piece of chicken!"
"Stop yelling in my ear!"
"Not until I get my chicken back!"

"MORON!!"
"BASTARD!!"
The sounds of a scuffle ensued.
The Konoha shinobis sweatdropped. Gaara let out a sigh.
"Well, I better go make sure those two don't dismantle my house completely,"
Neji nodded. Gaara and Shikamaru headed out, Sakura and Tenten were about to follow
when a certain Hyuuga prodigy's voice rang out behind them.
"Wait,"
Sakura could've sworn her heart stopped beating for a few moments. She could sense it.
Neji knew what she had been hiding. Slowly, the kunoichi turned around, awaiting the
death sentence pending.
"Yeah?"
"The scrolls belong to your clan, don't they?" Neji spoke, straight to the point. "And
Akatsuki is after you this time,"
The pink-haired girl was silent for a long while.
"Why did you keep it from us?" Neji's voice was quiet, undemanding.
Silence.
"I didn't want anyone to worry I thought it was my own problem, something I had to
deal with myself," Sakura replied, looking at her feet. Part of that was true. She also
knew that by not telling at least her team leaders, she had put everyone into
unpredictable danger. But she preferred not to think about that now.
To her surprise, Hyuuga Neji was smiling. Slightly, but a smile was a smile.
"You're becoming like the Uchiha, you know that?"
Sakura looked up sharply. He- he- was comparing her to- to- Sasuke?
"You're inheriting that 'this is my problem and I'll deal with it alone' attitude of his," Neji
said before Sakura could even get started. "I had that problem. But you have to consider
that everything you do, everything concerning you, will affect the team. Did you ever
think about that?"
"Yes," Sakura said softly. "I did,"
"You were afraid that we would reject you, right?"
She nodded.
"You should've known that none of us would be that lowly,"

"It was my fault," Sakura said quietly. "I was selfish. But you have to understand that
even I didn't know how to handle this in the beginning. And it isn't easy to tell people
that I'm a danger magnet,"
"That's why I'm not telling this to the entire team," Neji folded his arms, his face stern.
"You're let off for this once. But no more secrets, Haruno,"
The cherry blossom's face broke into a smile. "Sure thing,"
Tenten, who had been silent all the while, grinned. "Case solved, let's get going," she
motioned to the door.
Sakura strode towards her best friend, before halting suddenly and turning back to face
the Hyuuga prodigy.
"One more question, Neji,"
"Hn,"
"How did you know?"
Neji motioned to his opaque eyes, a slight smile plastered on his face.
"I can see everything, after all,"
N
Even the opaque-eyed prodigy had to admit, they had chosen a bad time to travel. The
scorching sun bore down on their hunched figures, dragging their feet through the soft
sand.
Lee was supporting a groaning and complaining jinchuuriki, Shikamaru gave Ino a
piggyback after her relentless pleading. Neji sighed inwardly.
He was proud of the other kunoichis in his team. Tenten and Sakura showed no sign of
giving up even though they were drenched in sweat, and Hinata did not complain despite
looking utterly exhausted.
He knew Lee well enough to know that the thick brows never gave up. Sai was
emotionless, as always, Kiba was muttering to Akamaru. Shikamaru, for once, did not
utter a word about the mission being 'troublesome', while Gaara, probably used to the
scorching desert weather, walked calm and upright before him.
Wanting to maintain his image as a Hyuuga, Neji kept his composure. But after another
two hours in the sweltering heat, slipping and sinking into sand, even he silently
admitted defeat.
"N-Neji nii-san gomen but I really can't" Hinata staggered, and Sakura caught her,
on the verge of collapsing herself.
"Okay- Neji- I really can't- go any- farther" Tenten sank to the ground on her knees,
her lips parched. Neji looked reluctant.

"Let the rest, Hyuuga," Gaara looked back, his expression unreadable. Without waiting
for an answer or any sign of consent, the young Kazekage waved a hand, creating a
sandy dome around them, shielding them from the sun.
Immediately everyone collapsed on the soft sand.
"Some wind, anyone" Naruto groaned.
"I'll handle that," Sai said emotionlessly, releasing four phoenixes out of two scrolls,
allowing them to soar inside the 'tent', creating a light breeze around the thankful
shinobis.
"This is the life" Ino drawled, spread-eagled on the soft sand. Lee and Kiba fingered the
solid sand walls curiously. Sakura went around tirelessly, healing blisters and sores while
Hinata and Tenten divided the food and water.
N
Healing was no easy job, and by the time she was finished, Sakura was exhausted. She
plopped down beside a calm, quiet Sai, who was busy inking and sealing an assortment
of animals into empty scrolls.
"How do you stay so calm, Sai-kun?" Sakura sighed, massaging her sore legs while
accepting Hinata's offer of water, gulping down the entire bottle in one go.
"Shouldn't that question be directed at Gaara-sama or Neji-san?" Sai continued drawing,
not looking up.
"Well, you're the nearest one to me right now," Sakura retorted with less vigour than
usual, she was too tired to argue with an emotionless boy.
"To answer your question, I simply don't bother about others like you always do, ugly old
hag," Sai spared her a quick glance.
Too tired to answer, Sakura simply closed her eyes and let sleep overcome her.
N
Kakashi leapt agilely from bough to bough, careful not to rustle any leaves. His senses
were sharp and alert for any suspicious signs or movements, as a Jounin's should be.
He had chosen the path up North of the Fire Country before turning west, towards the
Wind country. He didn't need to go through Sunagakure, anyway, and he'd rather avoid
miles of hot, open desert.
His single eye roamed the green land for hidden traps and enemies. He'd met some
robbers and all, trying to sneak up on him (idiots) but they were handled easily
enough. Still, it never hurt to be cautious.
Pakkun panted as it followed Kakashi. "Oi, Kaka-bastard! Slow down! I'm getting old, you
know!"
"This is a mission. How slow d'you want me to go?" the Copy Ninja didn't miss a beat.

:You were the one who wanted me to come along, baka,"


"For company,"
"Because someone couldn't come along"
"Sakura's on a mission,"
"AHA! So you wanted her to come!" Pakkun declared triumphantly. "Hey, you in love or
something?"
Kakashi glared daggers at the over-talkative dog. "She's like my sister, baka the only
one in Team 7 who ever opened up to me you know that Sasuke and Naruto were
always interested only in achieving what they wanted she had very different goals,"
"Aww how sweet the Hatake Kakashi admitting that he's got a soft spot!" Pakkun said
sarcastically.
"Just shut up," Kakashi muttered. "Like you'd ever understand"
"Haha. Very funny," Pakkun snorted a little. "You better not get me killed in this mission,
Kakashi I'm not your field agent, I'm just an innocent little bystander,"
"Innocent bystander?" Kakashi snorted. "We've got a mission to complete, Pakkun, so
just shut up and buck up already,"
N
In the shadows of the trees, a figure lurked, listening to their every word. As soon as the
duo was out of sight, the figure chuckled dryly.
"Hatake Kakashi the forest is a really bad place to hold personal conversations"
N
Kabuto adjusted his glasses and squinted through the dim light to see the body he was
working on. Silently he cursed Orochimaru for always choosing the dull, dark places to
stay. Medic nins needed light, for goodness' sake.
He stopped for a moment to reflect.
Hidden Sound was crumbling rapidly. Putting high-handed, powerful ninjas all in one
village was not paying off. Everyone wanted the best for oneself, co-operation was nonexistent. No one dared determine where their loyalties lay, who was a friend and who
was a foe. Everyone was a suspect, let down your guard for two seconds and you were a
dead man.
Orochimaru was desperate. Metempsychosis (1) had failed for the first time, and the
snake Sannin did not take failure well. Besides, there was no guarantee that it would
succeed, even this time. The Uchiha blood was not yet his.
Otogakure was under control when Orochimaru had a clearer mind, but now his mind
was filled with nothing but acquiring Sasuke's body as his own. It had become his
obsession, his weakness, and his empire was crumbling with him.

Kabuto smiled to himself. The outcome of this battle had already been decided when
Orochimaru began to fear his own apprentice.
"Uchiha Sasuke you are one remarkable boy"
N
The Konoha shinobis had to learn the harshness of the desert- even at night- the hard
way.
Everyone was nearly frozen stark stiff. The chilly winds nipped at their pale, cold,
exposed faces scathingly, until their skin felt almost raw. No one spoke, everyone merely
struggled against the blowing wind with their eyes narrowed to prevent sand from
blinding them.
Sakura pulled her light brown cloak tightly around her shoulders and looked around
enviously at the other girls, who had the boys' protective arms around them, shielding
them from the wind.
The formation had been totally forgotten. Gaara, totally unfazed, walked forward calmly,
leading the group. Neji and Tenten, Naruto and Hinata, Shikamaru and Ino followed. Kiba
was too busy protecting Akamaru to notice anything or anyone else, Lee and Sai walked
unfailingly behind her.
Sakura shivered slightly, still trying to act like a tough kunoichi while her feet were
shaking and her tightly clenched teeth still managed to chatter uncontrollably. She barely
felt any warmth from her cloak.
Just then, she felt an arm placed firmly around her shoulders, and jolted.
It was Sai. Sai. What was happening to the world?
"Sai?" Sakura asked quizzically.
"You're uncomfortable with this?" Sai asked emotionlessly, not letting go of his grip on
her visibly trembling shoulders.
"No this just isn't normal for you,"
"Get used to it, then. And don't mistake my intentions, you're just a friend to me ugly,"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever you say," Sakura managed a dry smile. "Arigatou, Sai-kun,"
"Hn," was the extent of his reply, but the kunoichi could've sworn that there had been a
twitch at the corner of his mouth- the first sign of a real smile.
N
"We're almost there,"
Everyone looked up, hope crossing their perspiring faces. After seemingly endless days of
braving the bizarre desert weather conditions, that sentence was all they wanted to hear.

The Kazekage looked at the group f shinobis behind him, shaking his head slightly while
trying to contain a smile. They'd made it this far, after all
"We'll take a break" Shikamaru panted. "Is that a mirage, or do I see an oasis?"
"It's real," Gaara said dryly, turning to head towards the lush heaven spread before
them, complete with a clear blue lake and shady trees, located right under a rocky cliff
whose peak was too high to be seen.
Gratefully, the rest of the Leaf shinobis trailed behind him, comforted by the thought of
achieving one of their mission objectives by tomorrow.
N
Somehow, Sakura distrusted this place. She studied her surroundings as she sat on the
grassy bank of the lake alone, watching her friends ramble around, exploring the oasis
while laughing and joking.
This place wasn't created by genjutsu, she was sure of that. But she had that tingling
feeling in her gut, her intuition was telling her that something was about to happen. She
couldn't shake off that sense of foreboding, even if she wanted to. Sakura trusted her
intuition.
She vaguely saw Kiba and Akamaru, flanked by a singing Lee, heading towards the lake
with its cool, inviting water. Lee's singing was terrible, but somehow Sakura was
oblivious to it. She kept feeling something something.
A sudden jolt shook Sakura's body as images filled her mind and the terrified cherry
blossom reached out a hand to try and stop the two boys from touching the water.
Yet no sound escaped her throat, her body was rigid and unable to move as she watched
them bending, in slow motion, closer and closer towards the glassy surface of the water
before she found her movement and voice again.
In milliseconds, the kunoichi was on her feet and racing towards them at top speed, a
strangled cry escaping her lips as she ran.
"Kiba! Lee! NO!"
Kiba and Lee straightened suddenly to look at Sakura, totally confused by her sudden
outburst.
Too late. Akamaru's white paw touched the surface of the water, sending little waves
rippling across the still surface of the water.
And hell broke loose.
N
Neji leaned against a tree, his opaque eyes watching Naruto talking to Hinata and making
her blush and laugh. His eyes narrowed.
After Hinata had shyly excused herself, stammering, to help Ino do something, Neji
strolled up behind the hyperactive ninja quietly.

"Naruto,"
"Yeah, Neji?" the jinchuuriki turned to face his team leader, smiling but curious.
"Come with me for a sec," Neji ordered, walking towards the trees.
"Geez, what is this about?" Naruto grumbled, scrambling through the prickling bush with
as much grace as a herd of stampeding elephants, before bumping into a solid chest
head-on.
Naruto looked up, only to find Neji staring down at him.
"What?"
"You like Hinata,"
It wasn't a question, Hyuuga Neji was making a blunt statement. His gaze never
wandered, never wavered. After all, he was one of Konoha's best interrogators.
This was scary.
"Y-Yeah?" Naruto shook slightly. Neji had a way of scaring the wits out of a
person. 'What's up with him?'
Neji's right hand flew out suddenly and slammed Naruto into a tree. Naruto let out an
indignant yelp. "What was that for?" he hollered, getting angry.
The Hyuuga genius, unfazed, spoke stoically.
"Don't hurt her. If you do"
"Then what?" Naruto didn't mean that he would ever hurt Hinata, but he was curious.
"Then you can kiss your beloved ramen goodbye,"
"Uh why?" the hyperactive ninja sweatdropped.
"Because," Neji smirked satisfactorily, dropping Naruto and turning to walk away. He
paused, glancing sideways at Naruto.
"I don't think there's gonna be any ramen in hell,"
N
"NO!"
Sakura's piercing yell rang through the air. Neji and Naruto looked at each other,
expressions hardening, before sprinting out of the bushes swiftly.
By the lake, a sight met their eyes. The rest of the team were staring, with a mixture of
horror and awe at the thing rising out of the water from beside the lake.

The clear blue lake water rippled in wide circles, creating waves that washed upon the
shore violently. The ground shook, Kiba and Lee sprang back quickly to avoid falling into
the lake altogether.
A screech, somewhat terrible, yet beautiful and powerful, echoed endlessly through the
silent sky.
Everyone subconsciously edged away from the thing, with three exceptions. Sai remained
rigidly still, as did Gaara, their faces ever expressionless. SakuraSakura was walking towards the creature.
N
"What is she doing!" Naruto bellowed disbelievingly. "Does she know what that thing can
do?"
Neji's opaque eyes narrowed. Sakura wasn't that stupid, or rash. Unless"Byakugan!"
The Hyuuga prodigy scanned the scene carefully, picking every minor detail out for
examination. He saw nothing out of place, nothing to indicate that the entire thing had
been a set up or a trap.
"No, this isn't genjutsu," he spoke quietly. "This- is the real thing,"
Naruto watched the huge phoenix, in all its golden glory, with its majestic seven tails
swishing as it rose gracefully, in awe. He let out a low whistle, impressed by the pure
beauty and power of the creature.
"So" he breathed. "This is the Nanabi,"

Chapter 7- The Nanabi


-
"It's like she's possessed or something," Neji said grimly. "Naruto, back me up. I'm going
to immobilize her," the Hyuuga braced himself to execute the Sixty-Four Hands of Hakke.
"No," Naruto suddenly stopped him, his narrowed blue eyes watching Sakura intently. He
could see her eyes- they told him all he needed to know.
"What?"
"Don't do it, Neji," Naruto said quietly. "Sakura-chan knows what she's doing, trust me,"

"She's walking towards the seven-tailed demon and you say she knows what she's
doing," Neji remarked stonily, beginning his hand seals. "You should be panicking,"
Naruto ignored his sarcasm.
"Tenten will tell you the same thing,"
At this, Neji paused. The brown-haired kunoichi was running up to the duo at top speed.
"Don't, Neji! Not that move! Sakura knows what she's doing!"
"And has she personally told you that? If I were you, I wouldn't believe her," Neji said
icily, beginning to doubt his friends' sanity.
'No, Neji," Tenten took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "But you don't know her
like we do it's in her eyes"
Neji looked at her with an unreadable expression on his face, as if he wasn't sure of
whether if to believe her or not.
At long last, he turned his Byakugan towards Tsunade's apprentice. He caught the look in
her eyes, the determination, and at the same time, uncertainty and fear- it was all
reflected in her emerald eyes.
And for that moment, he could've sworn that he could read every single thought running
through her confused mind.
N
'Hello, Sakura'
The Nanabi's feminine voice rang through the empty vortex of her mind. The cherry
blossom jolted in obvious surprise, halting right before the magnificent tailed beast.
'How how do you know my name?' she whispered in her mind. She had no choice- no
words came out of her mouth.
'Because I've been waiting for you,'
'For me?'
'The last remaining member of the Haruno clan, correct?'
'Yes'
'I am the guardian of the scrolls you seek,' the demon phoenix told her quietly, its voice
echoing through her mind.
'How? Forgive me if this sounds insulting, but you're supposed to be destructive,
supposed to be sealed within a jinchuuriki,'
'Unlike my brothers, I do not destroy. Everything bad must be countered with something
good, thus my existence. And also-'
The Nanabi paused.

'-my jinchuuriki- is you,'


'WHAT?'
This time, Sakura felt like the ground had just disappeared from underneath her, and
collapsed to her knees.
'I have got to be dreaming this CAN'T be true!' Sakura screamed into the blankness of
her unfocused mind.
'You have to trust me, Sakura Akatsuki already has seven of my eight brothers, Naruto,
containing the Kyuubi, is the only one left, and me. We have to stop them. Akatsuki
wants you because they know that you're the only one who can neutralize and seal the
jinchuuriki, with my help,' the Nanabi explained patiently.
'And the scrolls? What are they for?' the pink cherry blossom was totally overwhelmed
by the sudden input of knowledge, shaking with confusion and fear of what would happen
next.
'There are two. One is for sealing the nine jinchuuriki together, once you've retrieved the
other eight. The other- is a family secret of your clan. I know not the contents of that
scroll,'
'What- what do I have to do?' Sakura asked helplessly, sinking to the ground on her
knees before the seven-tailed demon.
'I have to enter your body temporarily,' the Nanabi explained.
'How-how can I be sure that I won't destroy everything in my path with- with you
in me?' Sakura was doubtful, her tone betraying fear. She- Haruno Sakura- the
jinchuuriki of the Nanabi?
Impossible.
But then again
'Just one question , Sakura do you trust me? If you don't trust me now, nothing will
stop Akatsuki later. They'll find me, and capture me, and then they'll take the Uzumaki
boy- and all will be lost. Can you really live with the knowledge that you were the cause
of all that?' the Nanabi pressed further.
The pink haired kunoichi was silent, contemplating her decision.
'It's not my fault if Akatsuki takes over the world!' Sakura yelled furiously into her mind.
'Please, Sakura just this: reunite me and my brothers again, seal us up with the scroll,
and it's over. I'll be gone, the Kyuubi will be gone, and Uzumaki can lead a free life. I
promise. Please,'
'Easy for you to say,' The sarcasm was pretty much lost in her whirlwind of emotions.
Sakura shook her head bitterly, not quite able to comprehend exactly what she was
feeling. Which choice? Trust the Nanabi, and save everything she loved at the price of
her own life, or walk away from this burden?

'There wasn't any choice to begin with,' Sakura thought bitterly, letting her tears flow as
she buried her face in her hands.
'Why me?'
N
"Okay. That's it," Kiba growled as the Nanabi reached out a golden wing to touch the
trembling Sakura's back. "I don't know what that thing is doing and I don't care. All I
know is that it ain't touching our teammate,"
The animal specialist began running towards the seven-tailed demon furiously,
performing his jutsu with Akamaru by his side. The rest, exchanging hesitant looks,
followed, save for Gaara, who did not budge.
"I'm not sure about this" Naruto hissed to Tenten as he followed, running.
"Neither am I," the brown-haired kunoichi said grimly. "But it doesn't look like we have a
choice,"
N
Nearing the Nanabi, the Konoha shinobis began executing their highest level jutsu,
preparing to hit the tailed demon with everything they had.
The Nanabi looked up at the group charging towards it but stayed still, unresponsive.
Sakura looked up to the commotion, staring in horror as she saw the range of attacks
directed at the Nanabi behind her. Every kind of jutsu imaginable was headed towards
the golden phoenix.
There was no way any mortal alive could've stopped the impact of that attack, but in a
moment of impulse, Sakura leapt between her teammates and the Nanabi, crying out her
plea, the expression of her face one of horror and fear.
"NO! STOP!"
Too late. Her team was going way too fast to stop in time, to avoid hitting their own
teammate. Nanoseconds before impact, a golden streak of light dived towards Sakura's
slender frame, engulfing her completely.
The cherry blossom let out a piercing scream that struck the heart of all those who heard
it as the attacks hit her simultaneously. The Nanabi had disappeared, and Sakura's limp
body flew right across the lake, crashing into the solid rock cliff and slumped down,
covered in her own blood.
N
The Konoha shinobis stared in utter horror, silent and rigid. All their most powerful
attacks had hit the pink-haired kunoichi in one go. She couldn't- couldn't be alive.
No one moved. The air was still, there was nothing but silence.
Naruto was the first to regain himself. "Oh no," he whispered, taking off running towards
his teammate. His loud, desperate voice echoed through the silent air, calling, hoping
with every fibre in his soul that Sakura-

"SAKURA!"
N
A certain onyx-eyed young man was in the middle of training using his katana when he
heard the shattering scream. Moments later, he heard that voice. His sword arm fell
limply to his side. For a moment, he forgot the world around him. He was vaguely aware
of the rapid beats of his usually calm heart, triggered by a bout of inexplicable emotions.
Who screamed?
That voice faint, but clear. And that name that familiar name
There was no denying it. His team was close by. Naruto and Sakura they were here.
Were they looking for him?
With a slight pang of guilt in his heart, Sasuke remembered the way he'd treated them
the last time they found him in Orochimaru's lair. He didn't deserve them. He didn't
deserve the way they came back every single time, looking for him, pleading with him to
return.
Ready to forgive him.
Then the Uchiha's slackened grip tightened on his katana again as he slashed a dummy's
head right off, furious at his own obvious weakness. He could not afford to be thinking
about his old life when he had other issues to deal with.
'I am an avenger. I live to kill the one who destroyed my life,'
Somehow, that line no longer sounded right. Nothing ever seemed right to him now.
Orochimaru had tried to take over his body forcefully, two years ago, but failed. Every
since the Snake Sannin had tried to use him, to take over his body without keeping his
end of the bargain, Sasuke had begun to doubt the path he chose.
'Help me kill Itachi' Sasuke let out a quiet hollow laugh. 'How shallow does he think I
am?'
'You literally gave yourself to him,' his conscience smirked. 'If that isn't shallow, what is?'
'Shut up,' Sasuke growled mentally, preparing to strike another dummy.
'SAKURA!'
Sasuke's sword arm fell again as he heard the echoing call he had heard just minutes
ago resounding in his mind.
Something was wrong.
He could feel it. He thought it had been just a playful call, Naruto's usual, boisterous self,
but now that he had heard it replaying in his mind
The call sounded desperate. And Naruto didn't usually sound desperate.
What had happened? Why had Sakura, if it was her, screamed?

What if they were being attacked? What if Akatsuki had found them? Or, worse still, what
if Itachi was killing them right now?
"Sasuke-kun,"
Kabuto walked into the training grounds haltingly. Sasuke wasn't one to stop in the
middle of training, he valued time too much. It probably was nothing, but it never hurt to
be cautious around an Uchiha.
"Is everything alright?"
Sasuke suddenly snapped back into reality, eyeing Kabuto coldly. He did not trust the
medic nin in the least.
"What is it."
He never asked questions, he simply made statements.
"Orochimaru-sama says it's time to go," Kabuto explained quietly, adjusting his glasses.
"We have to continue our journey,"
Sasuke nodded curtly, dismissing the medic nin. This 'journey' they had been on had
lasted for two weeks, seemingly going nowhere. He had no idea where they were going,
and had been unable to find out anything so far, but he sensed something.
The Uchiha suddenly found his thoughts wandering to Team 7. Gripping the sword in his
hand, he lightly touched the blade of his katana, reminding himself of his purpose with
Orochimaru.
'I am here to get stronger, to kill Itachi. I will not waste time worrying about my old life.
I will forget Konoha. I will forget Team 7. I have only one objective, and-'
The onyx-eyed boy turned to walk out of the training grounds.
'I have no regrets,'
N
Seijin watched Hyozan distastefully as the latter frantically tried to rid himself of the
smell of dog pee in the river, muttering and cursing all the while.
Slipping on his Akatsuki cloak, Seijin turned around to find Deidara fiddling with his clay
bombs.
"Remind me again of why I have to waste my chakra carrying that fat piece of trash
around," Seijin deadpanned, sitting on the grassy bank by the wide, clear river while
polishing his prized katana.
"I don't like him any more than you do, but he's our only chance of trapping the Nanabi
and retrieving the scrolls before Haruno does," Deidara examined a freshly-made bomb.
"He claims to know the way through the caves, and frankly speaking, that's the only
reason he's alive right now,"

"If he doesn't know the way, I am so gonna murder him," Seijin said viciously, slamming
the tip of his katana into the ground forcefully.
Hyozan looked up in surprise and fear from a distance, and even though he couldn't hear
their conversation, he quickly and nervously edged away, tripping over his own feet and
splashing, head first, into the river.
Seijin groaned inwardly. Being seen in such company was ruining his image. He turned to
Deidara, watching the 'master of arts' skillfully enhancing the destructive power of his
bombs.
"Does Orochimaru suspect anything yet?" Deidara asked casually.
Seijin snorted. "That man is so freakin' obsessed with getting the Uchiha's body for his
own, he wouldn't notice if I rode past him with a banner announcing that I'm betraying
him,"
"Seems like he's lost his touch from the old days," Deidara smirked. "There was a time
when he could make a person feel like he could read their every thought when he was in
the room. But then, betraying Akatsuki was never his best decision,"
"Is Itachi coming down to visit his dear brother?" Seijin asked smugly, twisting his
katana in an experimental slash.
"Who knows? The Uchiha reports to no one. Even in the Akatsuki, he's a class above the
rest of us,"
Seijin stayed silent. His impatience showed in his constant twirling of his katana, unable
to stay still. Finally, he spoke.
"What's that Haruno girl's name, anyway?"
"Sakura," Deidara replied coolly. Seijin stiffened.
"What does she look like?"
"Pink hair, green eyes you can't miss her," Deidara said recklessly, throwing a bomb
across the river. It exploded, burning down several trees. The Akatsuki member seemed
satisfied. "Never got to see how she fights - I got attacked by Hatake and that Kyuubi
boy when I was with Sasori she killed him, though must have something worthwhile
in her,"
Seijin, however, did not hear past Deidara's first sentence. He swore loudly, making
Hyozan, who was just crawling out of the river, shriek and fall right in again.
"Shit! She's that girl I told you about should've finished her off" the samurai went into
a rant.
"Idiot," Deidara said calmly. "Doubt you could've killed her, though sounded to me like
you were getting beaten up,"
"Shut up," Seijin shot back.
Silence ensued.

"She's a good medic nin and has insane strength, right?" Deidara broke the silence
thoughtfully.
Seijin nodded gloomily. A satisfied smile spread over Deidara's smooth features.
"Fighting her should be interesting,"

Chapter 8- Horaana Kake Jiku


-
'Sakura you've got to be okay!' Naruto thought frantically, sprinting ahead of everyone
else, looking at nothing but the still, unmoving figure of his teammate on the ground, not
far off. 'I'll- I'll never for give myself for using the Rasengan on you!'
The hyperactive ninja skidded to a half on his knees, beside his unconscious teammate,
wincing at the blood spattered everywhere- on the ground, on the rocky cliff- over her
entire body!
Instinctively Naruto reached out to turn Sakura on her back, but Sai's sharp,
commanding voice stopped him.
"Don't touch her!"
Naruto rounded on him furiously. "Just because you don't care about her-"
Sai stopped him mid-sentence, the faintest trace of emotion in his voice. His words,
albeit spoken stoically, made an impact on Naruto. "I do care about her. A lot more than
you know. But look," he motioned to Sakura's still body.
"What" Tenten breathed as a soft, golden glow surrounded Sakura, and her wounds
began to heal without leaving a trace.
"Is- is she healing herself?" Kiba asked in amazement.
"No, Sakura can't heal herself when she's unconscious" Ino said, her pale face stricken.
"It's the Nanabi's chakra," a deep, nonchalant voice sounded from behind them. Gaara's
dark-rimmed eyes studied the girl lying on the ground, his arms crossed. He felt no guiltafter all, he hadn't attacked her- but he felt a tinge of something he'd been feeling more
and more lately- was it sympathy, or compassion? "It's like when I had the Shukaku
inside me- as is the case with Naruto- our wounds will always be healed by the immense
chakra inside us,"
"So that means Sakura-san" Lee said haltingly, almost fearfully.
Naruto's lip trembled. Sakura- Sakura was going to become like him. Feared, isolated- all
because of a demon inside. His fists clenched, he fought back the welling tears in his

startling sky-blue eyes. He'd promised himself that he wouldn't let anyone else go
through what he had been through, and again, he had failed that promise.
But then Sakura began to stir, groaning.
"Ugh" her hands twitched, looking for support on the ground. Regaining their senses,
Naruto and Tenten gently pulled her into a sitting position.
Through blurred eyes, Sakura saw her team surrounding her, looking concerned and
fearful at the same time. She faintly remembered the impact of her friends' unintentional
blows.
'How in the world did I survive that?' she wondered vaguely, her thoughts still blurred.
'You had my protection,' the Nanabi's voice said soothingly.
Sakura started. 'You're- you're-'
'Inside you, yes. Look at your left arm,'
The cherry blossom looked. Running down the side of her left arm was a series of golden
markings, a pattern that she did not recognize.
Quietly, Sakura lifted her arm and fingered the marks, looking up at her silent team.
"Sakura?" Neji asked with narrowed eyes, not quite believing what had just happened.
"I am the Nanabi's jinchuuriki," Sakura repeated softly to herself, trying to believe it.
"Me?"
Silence met her words. No one knew how to react. Tenten, Hinata and Ino knelt beside
the pink-haired kunoichi, comfortingly.
"Does- does this- change- anything between us?" Sakura asked hesitatingly, afraid to
look up, to see the truth in their faces.
Tenten held Sakura firmly by the shoulders. "Look at me," she commanded. Slowly,
Sakura lifted her emerald eyes to meet Tenten's chocolate ones. "This does not change
anything between us, got it?"
"Yeah, forehead-girl! Don't be stupid!" Ino hugged her childhood rival in relief, laughing
and crying at the same time. Hinata took Sakura's hands and held them tightly, quietly
reassuring her.
Sakura looked up thankfully, sharing an embrace with her three close friends, feeling
their unconditional warmth and concern for her. A mutual understanding of how much
she appreciated them for being there for her went unspoken, but deeply felt by all who
knew the connection between the four kunoichis.
N
"Hey, keep quiet!" Kakashi hissed sharply at Pakkun. The ninja dog hadn't stopped
talking since they started at dawn, and the Copy nin had had enough. "Do you have any
idea how many people out there could've heard your freakin' loud voice already?"

Pakkun huffed indignantly. "Well, I need some sense of security, you know!"
"Closing in on target," Kakashi ignored his companion, staring through the leaves of the
bushes as he moved quickly and silently. Even Pakkun knew better than to irritate the
Jounin at a time like this.
Several shadowy figures strode through the thinning forest, almost hurriedly, moving
northwards. Kakashi swiftly briefed Pakkun on his duty.
"We part here. You get into the hideout, gather all the information you can and get back
to Konoha. Report everything to the Fifth. I'll follow them alone,"
Pakkun nodded slowly. "Roger," The small ninja turned, tracing the scent of their target
towards the hideout. Kakashi was just about to leave when Pakkun called him.
"Eh, Kaka-bastard"
"What?"
"He's dangerous,"
"I know,"
"Good luck,"
"Yeah,"
"Kakashi come back, 'kay? I haven't finished annoying you yet," Pakkun said quietly,
somewhat apologetically.
Kakashi smiled behind his mask.
"Sure thing,"
N
Scaling the steep path up the rocky cliffs was no easy feat. Occasionally, there was no
path, and the ten Konoha shinobis with the Kazekage leading them had to resort to plain
climbing the cliffs.
Shikamaru frowned as he climbed, hand over hand. His stamina was pretty good, tiring
out was simply not his thing, but the real problem he was worrying about was the fact
that they were on a cliff, in plain sight, and open prey to anyone who felt like attacking.
And Shikamaru did not like being vulnerable.
"Shikamaru I've lost track of Seijin and Hyozan I think they must've managed to wash
the scent off,: Kiba panted to the Nara genius behind him, pulling himself up yet another
huge boulder.
"Don't have time to worry about that now," Shikamaru pulled a complaining Ino up
behind him. "Mendokusai" he muttered under his breath to Ino before turning back to
Kiba. "We need- WATCH OUT!"

Kiba looked up, horrorstruck as the smaller rock he had gripped just moments before
was loosening- and bringing the larger boulder on top crashing down with it.
Shikamaru, Ino, Hinata and Sai felt their hearts sinking to their guts. There was nowhere
to go, they would never be able to move to avoid the boulder in time.
Sai contemplated using one of his inked animals to shield them when a whirl of sand
materialized beside Kiba, revealing a calm, collected Gaara. Bracing himself with one
hand and his feet against the rocks, the Kazekage manipulated a dome of sand to
surround the five shinobis and himself.
Seconds later, they heard the boulder crashing down the roof of the sand dome, and
rolling downhill noisily before making a great splash in the lake below. The shinobis
unconsciously heaved sighs of relief.
"Move quickly, Sakura's already at the top," Gaara's ever-stoic voice urged them
upwards.
Nodding their silent thanks, they continued the tiring climb to the cave, somewhere
above them.
N
With her level of strength, it wasn't hard to scale the cliffs ahead of everyone else.
The cherry blossom sat with her legs dangling perilously over the edge of the cliff, trying
to sort out her jumbled mind. Too much had happened ever since this mission began,
and she had the uncanny feeling that much more was about to happen. She would never
be safe until they got back to Konoha. And she wasn't sure if she could handle it
anymore.
Sakura groaned, burying her face in her arms, wrapped her around her knees. Her bijuu
had been, so far, quiet.
'Why choose me?'
Now, the Nanabi spoke.
'Remember that story, 'Pandora's Box'?'
'I heard it from my grandfather before,'
'Our story the tailed demons' story is similar,'
Sakura was silent.
'Your great-grandfather was the one who freed us from our prison in the depths of that
lake during the wars, by accident. While my brothers escaped, I stayed behind, giving
him a scroll to reseal all the Bijuu as a punishment,'
'And then?' Sakura was curious.
'He was terrified. I told him I'd be watching him, and he returned home, still holding the
scroll. Years later, as I was still watching my brothers destroy as each village tried to

harness their powers, your grandfather returned. He had been shot by a poisoned arrow
and was on the brink of death, he held two scrolls in his hands. One was the Bijuusealing scroll, and the other belonged to your clan. It would seem that he was being
pursued,'
'Chichioya was never a ninja so I guess ojisan couldn't pass them down to him
and maybe he felt I was too young' Sakura said softly.
'Yes he mentioned that much before the monks from the cave found him and brought
him up to their temple. I had to stay hidden, but I heard your grandfather's last
words- "Wait for my granddaughter she's the last"- so I had to wait another ten
years for you,'
'So I'm here to repay a family debt,' Sakura looked sorry.
'No, not a family debt. You're simply here to put things right again,'
N
Sakura was lost in thought-conversation with the Nanabi when Gaara materialized beside
her, alone. His usual, emotionless mask and his crossed arms betrayed nothing.
"Sakura,"
"Nani?" She jerked back into reality, looking up at the Kazekage. "You were having a
conversation with the Nanabi?" he asked, sitting down. His dark-rimmed eyes stared out
into the distant sky.
"How did you know?" Sakura asked in surprise, looking at him.
"I've been through it before, if you remember," Gaara said simply, a hint of sarcasm in
his words.
"Mm" she replied softly, smiling inwardly. The Kazekage might not know it, but he was
definitely improving.
"Are you sure you can do it?" he asked quietly.
"Doesn't look like I have a choice," Sakura said dryly. Gaara noted the tinge of bitterness
in her voice.
"You do," the young Kazekage said emotionlessly. "The Bijuu was forced into most of us,
but the Nanabi gave you a choice,"
"But-" Sakura protested. 'That's no choice at all'
"Listen, Sakura," Gaara turned suddenly to face her. "It doesn't matter what the choices
were. Whichever you chose, the most important thing is that you have to be able to live
with yourself. That's my advice,"
The cherry blossom was silent, thinking.
Gaara watched her intently, until a smile broke out on the kunoichi's face. "I understand
now, Gaara-sama thanks,"

A faint smile crossed his lips, then disappeared.


"Anytime,"
N
"Here, take my hand," Sakura offered, pulling both Neji and Tenten up onto the flat
ground with slight effort.
Seven others followed, slumping onto the ground in exhaustion.
"Sometimes, forehead I wish I had your super strength" Ino panted, brushing the
dust off her clothes.
"It isn't easy to control, you know," Sakura retorted, standing up and observing the front
of the temple for the first time.
"So this is it" Sakura looked up at the structure of the temple entrance, built into the
solid rock. "Horaana Kake Jiku"
No one said anything, taking in every detail of the majestic temple entrance, from the
intricate carvings with gold-gilded lotus flowers and leaves, to the towering red pillars
holding the structure up, and the shiny, dark green roof tiles.
Suddenly, the large wooden doors before them creaked open, ever so slightly. The only
interior of the temple that they could see was darkness. The shinobis glanced at each
other uneasily. Something was wrong
"We have visitors!" A shrill voice could be heard calling from inside, scurrying footsteps
echoing through the air.
And then, out of the narrow opening of the doors, a stately figure clothed in the
traditional, pale yellowish-orange robes, strode out. He was old, but clean shaven, and
had six dots imprinted on the crown of his head.
His hurried expression relaxed into a pleasant smile as he saw who was among his
visitors. A smile, but with something more in it. Sakura felt her guts squirming, and
glanced towards Tenten. The brown-haired kunoichi's eyes said the same thing.
"Aah, it's the Kazekage," the old man said quietly, still smiling.
Without warning, he lashed out with a spinning kick aimed at Gaara's head, from the left.
Immediately Sai and Neji moved to intervene, but did not manage to block him.
The Kazekage did not flinch. A solid sand wall blocked the kick.
The old man smiled, much to everyone's stunned surprise. Smiling after you'd just
attacked this particular Kazekage was definitely not the normal response.
"So, it is you after all, Gaara-samawhat brings you here risking your neck to climb that
treacherous cliff?" he asked with a sly smile, as if he already knew their purpose.
"Takashi-sama, we're here for the scrolls," Gaara spoke directly to the point. His
expression did not betray much, but his dark-rimmed eyes narrowed slightly.

The head monk, or Takashi, said nothing. He studied the group of shinobis behind Gaara
sharply, finally spotting Sakura- or perhaps, it was the golden markings on her arm that
had caught his attention.
"You, girl! Come over here!" Takashi pointed at her, motioning her over with an air of
arrogance around him. Sakura felt a wave of indignation rise within her, but wisely kept
quiet. Her inner self screamed into her mind.
'Bakaidiotic monk ordering me around like a servant'
Sakura did not budge. For once, she agreed with that annoying voice at the back of her
head. Her intuition, as well, had begun tingling. She did not like this man- at all.
Gaara seemed to read her thoughts. "She is a guest of Suna, Takashi, it would do well
for you to show some respect to her,"
The monk looked at Gaara strangely, as if with contempt. Gaara kept his glare steady.
Reluctantly, he turned back to Sakura.
"Please," he added in a grudging undertone.
Sakura glanced at him uneasily. Reluctantly, she relented, walking slowly towards
Takashi. Behind her, Naruto was struggling within Neji and Kiba's grip, trying to stop her.
"Sakura-chan! Don't! He might be some-"
Kiba's hand clamped over Naruto's mouth, knowing full well that the hyperactive ninja
was going to say 'perverted old monk' and ruin their entire mission.
"Shut up, baka! Sakura knows how to take care of herself!" the animal specialist hissed
at Naruto, who was still struggling frantically. He bit Kiba's hand, breaking free as the
animal specialist released him, exclaiming from the pain.
"HEY!"
"I couldn't breathe, you idiot!" Naruto wheezed, inhaling sharply.
Sakura, oblivious to the commotion behind her, walked towards the monk, her head held
high as her glare at Takashi never wavered. The old man grabbed her arm roughly with
one hand, grasped her shoulder with the other, and pulled her closer to him.
The pink-haired kunoichi winced with discomfort as Takashi traced the Nanabi's mark
with his fingers.
"The Nanabi's seal" he whispered harshly, gripping her arm with brute force.
"Get your hands off me," Sakura hissed, wrenching her arm forcefully out of Takashi's
steel grip.
Ino felt like cheering for her childhood rival. 'Yeah, you show him what you've got, girl!'
Takashi stared at her with that same look of contempt he'd given Gaara just moments
ago. Sakura met his stare without flinching. He seemed to regain himself, looking around
at the group of shinobis before glancing back at Sakura with an inexplicable expression.

"Very well then. Follow me in,"

Chapter 9- Konoha VS Akatsuki


The interior of the temple was lit mainly by fire torches along the walls. Little natural
light was seen, save for the visible air well some distance before them. Even so, the cave
felt airy and cool, and had a calming effect on those inside it. For the shinobis, however,
it was an exception. Their senses were tingling, heightening their awareness of their
surroundings.
Young, lower class monks stood on either side of them, their heads bowed with their
hands held before them, in the customary palms together gesture. The shinobis could
feel, however, the sharp, discreet gazes of the monks on them as they proceeded,
following Takashi.
Sakura eyed the monks warily. She was certain that they weren't there for welcoming
purposes.
'There's something going on in here' she thought uneasily. Her emerald eyes caught
Tenten's brown ones, indicating Takashi signaling in the air.
Before any of them had enough time to register the gesture, a flurry of orange-yellow
robes descended on them, weapons drawn, poised to kill.
It was soon Takashi's turn to be surprised. At the very moment the monks' knives met
the shinobis, all shinobis disappeared into smoke, logs taking the place of humans.
"What?" Takashi said slowly, hardly believing what he'd just seen. Kawarimi, the
replacement technique? Then, harmless Sakura petals were falling thickly in a blizzard
around them. Stunned and mesmerized at the same time, the monks stared at the
beautiful scene, weapons hanging limply at their sides.
And then, without any warning, shurikens replaced the cherry blossoms, cutting through
their flesh by the dozen, involuntarily crying out in pain.
Eleven shinobis leapt down in the midst of all the confusion, tackling three monks each.
In no time, only Takashi was left standing, staring.
"Hello again, Takashi or should I say Seijin?" Sakura said calmly, knocking out the
'monk' she was sitting on with a swift punch to the head. She stood, facing him squarely.
The rest of her teammates were staring icily at the lone figure facing them, looking none
to assuring.
"Well I'm busted," Takashi, or Seijin, laughed hollowly, transforming back into his
original form. His eyes glinted at them. "How?"
"For several idiotic reasons," Gaara spoke calmly. "One- you staged Takashi pretty well,
you even managed to find out that he customarily attacked me as a code between us to

prevent fraud, but you missed out on a major detail. Takashi-sama is left-handed. He
always came at me from my left, while you attacked from my right,"
"Second dead giveaway-" Shikamaru started, his arms crossed and his expression stoic.
"Lower class monks always follow their head monk out as a mark of respect, and to
protect their leader. You were afraid we'd recognize those Sound nins of yours in broad
daylight, so you kept them inside,"
"Third, your hands," Sakura said coolly. "No monk would actually bother with keeping his
hands as smooth as yours. After you gave yourself away like that, all we had to do was
create replicas of ourselves and hide,"
"Pretty sharp, aren't you?" Seijin drawled. "Since I couldn't finish you off last time, I
might as well do it now," His muscled arm reached down to draw his katana- and groped
at thin air.
"Looking for this?" Tenten's voice rang out behind him. The weapons mistress was coolly
twirling his katana in her right hand, her chocolate eyes emotionless. "Took it while you
were busy fawning over my best friend monks don't usually carry swords around, do
they?"
This time, Seijin looked totally flustered. At least, his face looked flustered. There was
something unusual about his chakra, Neji and Sakura noted, looking at each other
uneasily. His chakra was getting stronger instead of going haywire, which meant"Those chakra wings," Ino whispered, watching the great, shimmering chakra wings
unfold from Seijin's back.
"Lucky people, you know?" Seijin smirked broadly. "Most people only get to see them
once before I finish them off,"
"Cut the small talk and tell us what you want," Naruto snarled loudly, fists clenched.
"I think you probably already know or has your little friend over there not told you the
truth yet?" Seijin sneered, looking at Sakura.
The kunoichi seethed with pure anger, shaking.
"What I do is none of your business,"
"It's very much my business, Haruno. After all, my task is to prevent Konoha from
getting the scrolls but it looks like your little friends are clueless shall I fill them in on
what you neglected to tell them?"
Everyone turned to look at Sakura in surprise, save for Tenten and Neji.
"I believe," the weapons mistress began slowly. "That if Sakura chooses not to tell us
something, she does it for a good reason. So shut- the hell- up,"
Five shurikens went flying towards Seijin, but were deflected by a gust of wind from
Seijin's wings. Tenten leapt out of the way, her expression set, poised for another attack.
"Are you guys going to help take this idiot down, or are you just gonna stand there
gaping at your own teammate?" Tenten yelled at the unmoving shinobis.

Snapping back into reality, the other ten shinobis fell into their stances, prepared to
fight.
Sakura stood beside Tenten, glancing sideways at her gratefully.
"You're a lifesaver," Sakura said quietly, fists clenched and ready to strike.
"Anytime, Sakura that's what friends are for," Tenten replied, pulling out her scrolls.
"But- I think it's time you told them. I'm not underestimating you, Sakura but they
need to know- soon,"
"Yeah," Sakura said softly, looking at the ground. "Soon,"
N
"Got busted already, Seijin?"
A voice was suddenly heard from behind them. Naruto tensed. He- knew that voice.
"Deidara" he hissed under his breath, never averting his eyes from Seijin. Hinata, never
having met the explosives master before, looked at the jinchuuriki in surprise, sneaking a
glance at the man behind them.
Sakura shot Naruto a quick look that said 'Don't blow it now,'
Deidara walked up calmly, studying the group with an unreadable expression.
"Hello, Uzumaki, Haruno wow, even the Kazekage is here"
Stony silence met his sarcasm. "I leave for ten minutes to tie up that Takashi idiot and
you get yourself into this bloody mess," Deidara looked at Seijin sideways. "Even fooling
people is an art of precision, you know,"
Seijin grudgingly acknowledged Deidara's words.
"Just get over here and help already,"
"With pleasure,"
The explosives master leapt over swiftly and easily, his mane of hair brushing past his
face. Several explosives could be seen in his hand, Deidara flung them at the shinobis
without second thought.
'Crazy fellow!' Naruto thought viciously, leaping away to avoid the explosion. 'He's gonna
bring the entire cave down and bury us!'
"He's standing below the air well," Kiba hissed loudly, beside Akamaru. 'If the cave
collapses, it'll only crush us, not him!'
"Everyone! Get out of the way NOW!" Shikamaru hollered, dragging Ino and Hinata
behind him. He had spotted what the others had not- Deidara's smaller explosives were
just decoys- the real bomb was hitting the ceiling above them!

Gaara's sand dome materialized around them, at the very moment the entire cave was
rocked by a massive explosion. They could almost feel the solid rocks smashing against
their sandy armour of protection, and the ground shaking violently beneath their feet.
Then silence.
Everyone looked around dazedly, trying to grasp what had just happened.
"Damn that Deidara"Shikamaru cursed, the memory of Konoha's Fire Temple,
destroyed by Akatsuki, resurfacing in his mind. "Damned Akatsuki!"
"I think we have other things to worry about, Shikamaru," the Kazekage spoke quietly,
looking around.
Ino suddenly clutched Shikamaru's arm tightly, startling him.
"Ino, what in the world-"
"Shika- where's- where's Sai-"
"Kiba-" Lee said slowly.
"Naruto-kun-" Hinata fumbled.
"And Sakura?" Tenten finished in a whisper.
The seven shinobis left looked at each other in horror.
"Oh no,"
N
Slowly, Sai and Kiba opened their eyes, the latter with his arms wrapped around
Akamaru, protecting it. They had expected to feel the rocks crushing them after the
avalanche, but they felt nothing.
"What in the world?" Kiba said harshly, hugging Akamaru tightly. Hues of red and gold
chakra were enveloping them, protecting them from the crushing rocks just above.
"Heh finally got enough courage to open your eyes, guys?" the pink-haired cherry
blossom was half-grinning, half-grimacing at them, speaking with considerable effort.
Both Naruto and Sakura were standing on either side of them, feet apart and using the
chakra-release handseals, looking strained and soaked with sweat.
"I need- to get us- out," Sakura's voice trembled as she spoke. "Naruto- can you hold
this up?"
The jinchuuriki shook his head. "Too dangerous I'm already using the Kyuubi's chakra,
if I release any more, I won't be able to control it," he told her through clenched teeth.
"We'll do it," Sai and Kiba volunteered, standing up and bracing themselves, releasing
their chakra.

"Hurry up, Sakura-chan they can't hold it up for long"


"Just lower this a bit so I can get us out in one punch," Sakura withdrew her chakra, and
immediately the rocks came down by a few inches.
Sakura's fist shot upwards, crumbling everything in its path.
N
The moment Gaara's sand some fell to dust, they could hear Deidara's voice.
"Looks like Uzumaki and Haruno got crushed,"
Tenten's fists clenched. "The moment I get to tackle that guy, he's gonna be dead, dead
and dead,"
"I hope you're right," Ino quipped, but right now we've got to find them,"
"You guys take care of that," Neji instructed. "Lee, Gaara-sama, Tenten and I will deal
with them,"
Shikamaru, Ino and Hinata nodded, turning.
Neji turned to his team. "Deidara's a long-range fighter, so Tenten can handle him.
Gaara-sama, can you cover her?"
Gaara nodded curtly.
"Lee, we'll tackle Seijin," Neji turned to Konoha's Green Beast.
"Roger!" Lee saluted with a grin.
"All right! Move!" Neji called.
All four shinobis shot off.
N
"Heh, you think my only weapon is the katana?" Seijin smirked as Neji called to Tenten
to throw the katana over, catching it deftly.
Neji knew that they were in trouble once he saw the chakra blade forming in Seijin's
hands.
'Oh great. He can use Chakra Enjintou,' the Hyuuga prodigy groaned inwardly, flinging
ten shurikens at the ninja, all which were easily deflected.
"You know, I wonder why you people ever bother to stay in Konoha," Seijin flipped his
dirty blonde hair out of his face. "That place seriously, it's one of the lousiest-"
"Lee! NO!" Neji wasn't listening. Lee was charging full speed at Seijin, anger etched upon
his face.

"Nobody insults Konoha!" thick brows twitched as Lee prepared to deliver some of his
most powerful Taijutsu- only to feel a ripping sensation tearing through his body, then
unbearable pain. He was sent flying by a punch from Seijin, his right art rendered
completely useless.
"Why d'you have to be such an idiot, Lee?" Neji said through clenched teeth, charging at
Seijin with his katana.
As the two blades met and forcefully held their own, Neji channeled chakra through the
Katana, using Seijin's chakra blade as a medium to affect Seijin's body.
But all the effect it had on the samurai was to jolt him slightly.
"You're wasting your time," Seijin told the astonished Hyuuga. "My chakra is too powerful
for you to repel,"
"We'll see about that," Neji growled.
N
Tenten snarled as another of Deidara's clay explosives easily deflected her attacks. Gaara
used his shield of sand to cover them from the weapons, but they were making no visible
progress.
"Gaara-sama," Tenten panted. "Soushoryuu is my only chance, any more advanced
jutsus on my part will bring the cave down. You know what to do,"
The young Kazekage nodded, understanding his part.
The weapons mistress smiled, pulling out her summoning scrolls and placing them upon
the ground, quickly forming her handseals.
'Let's just see how you deflect all my attacks for this one,'
"Soushoryuu!"
N
"Ino, you take left, Hinata, take right, and I'll do front." Shikamaru commanded the two
girls. "C'mon, let's move!"
"Shikamaru-san" Hinata said quietly. Ino and the Jounin looked at her questioningly. "I
think there's no need for that,"
Both had no time to react to her words.
Behind them, a loud blast rocked the cave, and small fragments of rocks rained down
upon them. Shikamaru and Ino turned around slowly.
Four figures leapt out from the clouds of dust, looking none to happy.
A certain pink-haired kunoichi adjusted her gloves.
"So," she began. "What did we miss?"

Chapter 10- Dance of the Four Seasons


-
Neji and Seijin both held their ground, chakra blade and katana pressing firmly against
each other. The Hyuuga prodigy channeled his chakra to his hands and withheld it, finally
releasing it in a single, powerful blast into Seijin's body, jolting the samurai considerably.
But Neji could no longer hold the katana, he had lost too much chakra for that attack on
Seijin. In an instant, Seijin had overpowered Neji's katana defense, and when the blades
slipped, Seijin's chakra blade drove right across Neji's shoulders, missing his heart by
millimeters.
The Hyuuga crashed onto the ground. Hard.
Sakura was already sprinting towards Neji and Lee at full speed, terrified for the fate of
her friends.
"Hinata! Use Chakra Enjintou! That's the only thing that's going to work against him!"
Sakura hollered to her friends. "You guys have to help her, but don't get near that
blade!"
Skidding to a halt on her knees, Sakura took care of Neji first. There were more major
arteries and the delicate heart muscles at the shoulders, near the heart. His face was
contorted in pain as he raised a hand to tentatively touch his bleeding wound, which was
slapped away by Sakura.
"Don't move, you idiot, unless you want to be paralyzed for life,"
Neji opened his mouth to say something indignantly, but decided against it. Sakura's
hands glowed with chakra as she dispelled it towards Neji's wounds, hoping that he really
wasn't going to be paralyzed for life.
'Sakura use my chakra he'll heal faster' the Nanabi's voice sounded in her head, and
suddenly, her chakra flow became stronger and steadier. Within minutes, Neji was
healed.
He sat up gingerly, Sakura's worried face confronting him.
"I'm fine," he told her. "Thanks. Lee"
Snapping back into reality, she turned to the patiently waiting boy to her left.
The Taijutsu specialist had had enough sense to sit still, preventing excess lost of blood.
Sakura smiled slightly and quickly healed his arm.
"Okay?"
"Hai!" Lee saluted.
Sakura stood up with a smile, but halted. "Don't you find it strange remember that
Hyozan guy?"
Lee and Neji nodded. "Don't see him around"

"They probably got annoyed and disposed of him," Neji said simply, his Byakugan
scanning the cave. "He's not here I wouldn't blame them for dumping him, either
cowardly ego-maniac"
N
Hinata was trembling as she activated her Byakugan and chakra blade simultaneously.
What if something went wrong? What if she totally screwed up and got her friends into
trouble?
"Hinata-chan! You can do it!" Naruto hollered as he, Kiba, Ino and Shikamaru surrounded
Seijin. They barely noticed that Sai had gone missing from their midst, everyone was
focused on Hinata and Seijin.
"Oh, c'mon. Stop wasting my time," Seijin drawled, attacking Hinata. He was obviously of
the opinion that Hinata was an easy pushover, and that was where he was wrong. She
blocked, and a flurry of weapons from her teammates went flying at Seijin, all effectively
blocked by his chakra wings.
"Damn those wings," Ino hissed under her breath as she dodged the kunai that came
flying back at her.
Hinata took the chance while Seijin was busy blocking the weapons to hit two tenketsu
points, before quickly dodging from his reach. 'Being smaller in size does have its
advantages,' she thought grimly as Seijin's taller frame failed to catch her.
She had learnt, from watching Neji battling Seijin, that if she didn't act fast, Seijin's
chakra would simply overpower the effects of her Jyuken.
Hinata leapt back a few paces and attacked again, using her chakra blade as a shield
rather than a weapon, and hit another four vital points. Seijin could still move, but was
considerably slower. His hand, wielding the blade, was being brought down full speed at
her. There wouldn't be enough time to dodge"ARGH!"
A kunai, courtesy to a weapons mistress who had turned away from Deidara for a split
second, found its mark, embedded in Seijin's blade hand.
"Arigatou, Tenten!" Hinata found the time to call out to Tenten while hitting another eight
points.
"You're welcome!" Tenten hollered back while using her chakra strings to pull the kunai
from Seijin's hand and attacking Deidara with fresh fervour.
Hinata focused on her target.
Sixteen points.
Thirty-two points.
"Sixty-Four points!"
The Hyuuga heir skidded backwards, panting, but looking triumphant.

Seijin could move, but his chakra blade had dissolved. His movements were disoriented,
and Ino fought the urge to laugh as he lumbered around clumsily, flinging his arms.
"Hinata-chan!" Naruto whooped, dancing around the blushing girl.
N
"Regroup!" Neji yelled as soon as he saw that Hinata had completed the Sixty-Four
Hands of Hakke on Seijin.
His teammates sprang back into position behind him, breathing heavily from the effort
taken to face two top rank missing nins.
"They're dangerous," he turned to the girls. "Stay back,"
"Not a chance, Hyuuga Neji," Tenten grinned, looking at Sakura, Ino and Hinata. "We
kunoichi aren't as weak as you think,"
Sakura stepped forward, a small smile on her face.
"This time, girls take centre stage,"
N
"Ready?" Ino hollered. The four kunoichis formed a close knit circle, quickly completing a
complicated combination of handseals before moving swiftly into position surrounding
Deidara and Seijin with set expressions on their faces.
'They're fast!' Lee thought in amazement, hearing audible gasps from all the boys.
Since when had the girls been able to match them in speed?
"Konoha: Shiki no Dansu!" (1) Sakura, Ino, Tenten and Hinata yelled simultaneously, all
four poised with feet apart and handseals ready. An inexplicable gust of wind rose,
swirling around them wildly as each kunoichi held her ground.
Sakura's feet shifted, her emerald eyes flashing dangerously.
Naruto recognized her first handseal. 'Kage Bunshin? She can do Kage Bunshin?'
Deidara and Seijin looked around nonchalantly, even mockingly, at the four girls. C'mon
what could a bunch of girls do?
Right?
Sakura nodded slightly, signaling to her friends and leapt lightly into the air, her
handseals too fast to follow.
"Haru Dansu: Arashi Shuriken!" (2) the pink-haired kunoichi let out a yell, Her kage
bunshins appeared in midair, simultaneously pulling out two closed fans and holding
them in a cross formation. The moment the fans flipped open, a storm of shurikens,
every single one of the swift and deadly, rained down upon the two Akatsuki members.
There was no way to dodge, nowhere to run. Sakura's kage bunshins disappeared, and
she landed in a crouch, motioning to Ino.

The blond swiftly took over.


"Natsu Dansu: Saseru Cho!" (#)
'Genjutsu' Shikamaru thought in amazement. 'Heh I would never have thought that
Ino would be good in genjutsu'
She proved him wrong.
A swirl of black and white butterflies materialized above Deidara and Seijin, who were
still occupied by flying shurikens, courtesy to genjutsu on Sakura's part, as well.
Thousands upon millions of the tiny insects, with one wing black and another wing white,
were slowly beginning to swirl like a tornado, gradually picking up speed, but maintained
a steady pace after several moments.
"That isn't fast enough" Sai's quiet voice came from behind them. The boys jumped.
They hadn't even noticed that Sai had gone missing ever since they had started fighting
Deidara and Seijin.
Takashi-sama, the real Takashi-sama, stood behind Sai, a small group of monks
following. Takashi chuckled lightly, watching the battle. "Those," he motioned to the
girls. "Will make excellent kunoichi someday,"
"They already are excellent kunoichi," Gaara gave him a sidelong glace. "So, Sai found
you?"
"Yes," Takashi's one-word reply was followed by another chuckle.
"Baka hogging all the limelight again just like Sasuke-teme" Naruto muttered
audibly. Sai looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
His only reply was a simple shrug, which left Naruto fuming.
N
Neji saw Tenten move a fraction from the corner of his eye, subconsciously smirking.
Tenten was always protesting that Neji didn't give girls enough credit in sparring or in
missions, so this would be her chance to prove herself to him. 'What will you show us?'
No one could see what was happening to Deidara and Seijin within the swirl of
butterflies, but they were soon distracted by Tenten's movements.
'Soushoryuu are you sure?' Neji thought as he saw the two scrolls on the ground beside
Tenten. His Byakugan narrowed. 'Wait- there's a variation in that handseal'
"Aki Dansu: Soushoryuu Kogeki Desu!" (4)
Tenten's misty white twin dragons rose out of the scrolls, bringing her with them, high up
into the air. But, instead of twisting and sending a whirl of projectiles out, the twin
dragons stopped in midair.
Neji could feel the suspense in the air. What was the weapons mistress attempting? Or
had something gone wrong?

Just as that thought crossed his mind, the dragons suddenly began a steep, inclining dive
towards Deidara and Seijin at full speed.
The weapons mistress did a backflip in the air and landed, her hands twisting nearly
invisible chakra strings, controlling the movements of the dragons.
'Chakra strings' Neji thought. 'She's using them to control the dragons instead of her
weapons'
When Ino's genjutsu dispelled, the guys caught the dragons barreling downwards before
pulling up steeply once again, now rising in a spinning circle around Deidara and Seijin
while Tenten's numerous weapons went flying within the misty prison.
"Those bastards can't have survived that," Kiba said incredulously, watching the swirling
dragons spin faster with each passing moment, closing in on the victims within.
Apparently, for the girls, it didn't hurt to make sure. Hinata shifted slightly as Tenten
signalled from the air, before landing smoothly and jerking her chakra strings back.
"Fuyu Dansu: Kaiten-Jyuken Ketsugo!" (5) Hinata yelled.
This time, Neji nearly yelped. 'Kaiten-Jyuken combination? She can't be serious,'
She was. Neji had no idea that Hinata had mastered Kaiten, let alone combined it with
Jyuken in some crazy jutsu that would be depleting all her chakra. He wasn't even sure
that she had enough stamina for such an advanced jutsu, judging by her usual
performance.
The normally shy Hyuuga was now in the Kaiten stance, waiting for her cue. The moment
Tenten's twin dragons disappeared, she moved.
Hinata's version of the Kaiten wasn't the normal move. Instead of spinning along with the
sphere of chakra surrounding her, Hinata was standing still. Only the semi-transparent
chakra sphere was spinning, serving its purpose as a Hyuuga's ultimate defense.
What startled Neji was the fact that when Hinata moved, the chakra sphere moved with
her, making her able to attack and defend at the same time. Neji vaguely wondered how
much chakra it took to keep the entire jutsu lasting long enough for an attack as well.
Naruto looked like he was going to burst any moment, watching the battle with bottled
up fervour.
Hinata was speeding towards Deidara and Seijin, hands poised for Jyuken. Both the
Akatsuki members were bruised, bloody and muddled, but still very much alive- and very
much pissed that four girls had gotten the better of them.
"How's she going to attack at close range? There's two of 'em!" Kiba said fervently,
accompanied by a yelping Akamaru, both extremely concerned for their teammate.
Neji watched his cousin step between the very surprised duo, his eyes widening as he
saw her hand movements. Usually, when Jyuken was used, it utilized both hands to hit
the chakra points on one person. But now'No way'

"Two points!" the Hyuuga heir hit both men simultaneously, two tenketsu points each.
'Two people at the same time?' Neji thought disbelievingly.
"Four points!" Seijin doubled over.
"Eight points!" Deidara cursed loudly, albeit being unable to move very well. His left hand
slowly reached into his cloak for a another explosive, but"Sixteen points!" Hinata discreetly glared at him as she hit each point swiftly, secretly
wondering how she'd gathered so much courage as to glare at an Akatsuki member.
"Shit," Deidara snarled, totally immobilized.
'She's moving so fast! And using the 64 Hands of Hakke on two people at once' Neji
contemplated the impossibility of it.
"Thirty-two points!"
By this time, Hinata's hands were moving so fast they were a blur. The shy girl looked
grimly determined.
"Sixty-Four points!"
Hitting the last point forcefully, Hinata stumbled backward, exhausted. She was caught
by Sakura and Tenten, while Deidara and Seijin went crashing into a cave wall.
Dust billowed as several rocks fell, blocking their view.
Silence.
Then Ino spoke tentatively.
"Are they done for?"
N
"No, apparently not," Sakura said grimly as two figures rose shakily from the dust. "Get
back, everyone. I guess we'll have to complete this,"
Deidara and Seijin were stumbling through the clouds of dust, Seijin looking more
steady.
"Next time, we should just use the 128 Hands of Hakke on him," Neji said distastefully.
"Save us a bit more trouble,"
"That guy and his chakra" Naruto said grudgingly.
"Hinata, are you sure you can do this?" Sakura asked worriedly. It was obvious that
Hinata was tired out, probably low on chakra as well. "Because if you can't-"
"I have to make the final hit," Hinata said quietly, stumbling slightly over her words. "I'll
do it,"

"Well?" Tenten questioned Sakura.


"If you're sure about this" Sakura sighed to Hinata, taking her place. The four kunoichis
faced the Akatsuki members in line.
"Shiki Dansu!" (6)
All four shot off in different directions. Tenten to the left, Ino to the right, Sakura and
Hinata sprinting up front.
Deidara and Seijin had no idea of what was happening when the cherry blossom sprinted
towards them, easily lifting both men off the ground and throwing two swift punches,
sending them flying up into the air forcefully.
Tenten and Ino leapt upwards, completing perfect roundhouse kicks in mid-air and
smashing the two men down to where Hinata was waiting below.
Once they were within reach, Hinata made the fatal blows to the neck.
N
The two Akatsuki members fell limply to the ground as the shy Hyuuga panted; her arms
limp by her sides.
Just then, Seijin's chakra wings flapped. Hinata, unable to move away in time, got hit
hard by Seijin's left wing, falling and skidding several feet away.
"I didn't have enough strength left" Hinata mumbled, feeling guilty.
"It's okay," Tenten said soothingly, while glaring over at the Akatsuki members.
The samurai somehow managed to stagger to his feet, pulling the swearing, immobile
Deidara up and supporting him. With one deadly glance at the shinobis, Seijin took off
upwards, escaping through the air well. His voice remained, echoing in the cave.
"This isn't over yet!"

Chapter 11- Chest of Secrets



"Forget them," Neji said calmly as Naruto fumed. "We've got more pressing matters to
worry about,"
Sakura healed the last of Hinata's wounds, and stood up, looking hesitant and feeling
extremely guilty. She doubted that her team had forgotten Seijin's taunting words.
"Well, maybe I should tell them what you neglected to mention, Haruno,"

Tenten gently touched the pink-haired kunoichi's shoulder and nudged her on.
"Go on. Tell them,"
Sakura took a deep breath, glancing at Tenten. Her teammates were looking at her
questioningly, and Neji's emotionless faade, as he stood with his arms crossed, at the
back of the group, did nothing to help her.
"There's- something I've got to tell you guys,"
N
" Haruno clan? Those scrolls belong to your clan? Why didn't you tell me, Sakurachan?" Naruto nearly yelled the cave down, looking indignantly at his childhood crush.
"Yeah, forehead!" Ino demanded, hands on hips. The rest of the team stayed quiet, most
of them unsure of what to say, or how to react. Keeping the secret was Sakura's right,
but as her friends, she could have at least told them
"Hey, enough already," Shikamaru stepped in. "Bickering over something like that isn't
going to get us anywhere. We need to find the scrolls and get back to Konoha pronto. As
long as Deidara and Seijin are out there, we're not safe, and seeing as they know about
the scrolls, we can't be sure of how many others know about it,"
"Right. So now we have to look for the scrolls. Split up and search?" Kiba asked.
"Wait, young ones," Takashi-sama, smiling serenely, suddenly intervened. "A chain is
only as strong as its weakest link. And lack of trust and cooperation will be your team's
weakest link if this is not cleared,"
Silence. Each shinobi tried to register his words.
"Do you still trust your teammate?"
Another moment of silence. Sakura found her breath caught in her throat. What would
they say?
"Of course we do!" Ino and Naruto lashed out suddenly and simultaneously, almost
indignantly. "What, you think we'd lose faith in Sakura because of some stupid scrolls?"
"It's settled, then," Takashi gave Sakura a slight smile.
"No, it's NOT settled! Where are the scrolls?" Naruto yelled from the back, standing
beside Neji, nearly deafening everyone.
"Ah for that, only Sakura here can tell us. The scrolls were hidden in Sanoke-sama, the
former head monk's time, not mine. I do not know its location," the old monk gestured to
the pink-haired kunoichi.
"Me?"
Everyone turned to look at her.

"How?" Sakura was at a loss for words. How was she supposed to locate the scrolls with
not the faintest idea of where it was?
'Chakra is your specialty, right?' she suddenly heard the Nanabi smirking within her.
'Yeah but scrolls that give out chakra?' Sakura said dubiously.
'No, you let out a wave of chakra and the scrolls will react to it. I warn you, though, that
it's quite dangerous,'
'Uh dangerous?' the cherry blossom sweatdropped. The only reply she got was a smirk
from the seven-tailed demon. She sighed. 'Okay'
The pink-haired kunoichi opened her eyes, only to find all her teammates staring at her,
waiting for a response. She took a deep breath.
"I suggest you guys defend yourselves a bit. My chakra might be a bit extreme. And
according to the Nanabi, it might be dangerous,"
The glanced at her skeptically. Sakura shrugged. "Hey, it was what the Nanabi said.
Unless you want accidents happening"
They took her advice.
Sakura closed her eyes, forming her chakra release handseals.
A huge, powerful wave of shimmering chakra spread throughout the cave, the magnitude
of its force felt by everyone within its radius. The shinobis fought to hold their ground
against the overpowering force. It seeped into every crack, every opening in the cave,
sourcing out the location of the scrolls.
Suddenly, they heard a loud rumble. And then, the cave walls began to tremble, as if
some hard object was crashing into it at intervals. The deafening sound grew louder by
the second, and then everything suddenly turned quiet.
Takashi chuckled. "So, Sanoke-sama hid it there,"
"Where?" Lee asked excitedly.
"Behind the statue of the Goddess of Mercy," Tenten motioned to the slowly shifting
statue of a beautiful woman dressed in grand robes. The crashing had started again,
seemingly louder and more vicious than before. Everyone covered their ears to avoid
being deafened.
A moderately sized opening could be seen in the cave wall. A particularly loud crash
rocked the cave, and in a swift flash, something square shot out of the opening at top
speed.
"EVERYONE! DOWN!" Sakura hollered, bracing herself to catch the object. Feet apart,
the kunoichi waited for the object to make an impact, her emerald eyes closed tightly.
But it never came. The moment the flying object touched her hands, it slowed down and
gently propelled itself onto the cave ground.

The rest of the shinobis stood up cautiously, eyeing the object as if it would jump up and
start attacking them any second.
"What is it?" Sai asked quietly as Sakura knelt before the intricately carved chest.
The chest was moderately sized, and made of solid mahogany, brownish-red in colour.
Even though it was only made from wood, it was undeniably heavy. Sakura shuddered to
think just how many of her bones would have been shattered if the box had crashed into
her.
If she'd survived the impact.
"There are some runes by the edges" Neji knelt opposite Sakura, his right hand
fingering the embossed runes. "Don't recognize them, though"
"'Haruno', I get the name at the top, but the rest is gibberish," Tenten studied the runes.
The words were carved along the edges of the lid, with exquisite craftsmanship.
However, the only detail that caught the cherry blossom's attention was the emblem
carved in the center of the lid. The familiarity of the symbol brought a flood of memories
rushing back to the kunoichi.
N (Flashback)
"Ojisan! You promised to show me something new today!" cried an extremely excited,
pink-haired little girl as her four-year-old feet pattered on the tatami mats.
The old man turned around, smiling. He had short-cropped, snow-white hair, a kindly,
though wrinkled, and weather-beaten face. His eyes - they matched his granddaughter's
sinking pools of emerald, always twinkling.
"Be patient, Sakura" he patted her on the head, laughing. He loved it when his son
came to visit, because it meant seeing that little pink-haired ray of sunshine bugging him
to show her new techniques or something of the sort. It made up for having a son who
point-blank refused to be a ninja.
"Come, sit down. And why don't you serve us some tea?" he motioned to the table,
already decked with Sakura's favourite soft, sugared sweets and a pot of ocha. The girl
obliged delightedly.
Sakura's grandfather strode over to a high shelf in his study, taking down a display item
carefully, cradling the precious item in his hands.
"Sakura," the old man called. Immediately the young girl ran over, her hands clasped
together. "What is it, ojisan? Show me, please!"
The old man laughed. "Look," he held out the object.
"Wow" The young girl breathed in awe, tiny fingers reaching out to touch the round
object.
It was probably about an inch thick, with a beautiful crest carved atop it. A shuriken, with
a five-petaled Sakura blossom at the very centre, and the Haruno name written in kanji
diagonally between the shuriken blades. It was exquisite.

"This, Sakura, is the old Haruno family crest," her grandfather explained, letting her
touch the emblem. "You must remember it someday it will be yours,"
"Hai, ojisan!"
"Now, try this," the old man said with a smile, kneeling on the floor beside his
granddaughter. He tilted the object for her to get a better view, and deftly pressed
several sakura petals.
Immediately the shuriken part of the crest sank inwards, and then rotated in a clockwise
motion. The blades penetrated the sides of the small round disc.
"I made this as a lock, Sakura," her grandfather said quietly. "You press the sakura
petals to make it work,"
"Oh" the pink haired girl stared in awe.
"Listen and watch carefully, now," the old man retracted the lock. "First you press the top
petal, then the bottom left one, and then the top right one," he pressed them, and then
the blades sprang out. He pressed the combination again, and the blades retracted,
falling back into place. It hardly looked like there was a groove between the carved
elements of the lock, its craftsmanship was perfect.
"Remember it's always top bottom left top right"
Top, bottom left, top right
N (End of flashback)
"How d'you get this darned thing to open, anyway?" Naruto asked loudly, his voice
echoing through the cave as he tried to pry open the heavy mahogany lid.
Sakura's mind was elsewhere.
Top, bottom left, top right
"Dunno looks pretty complicated," then came Ino's bored voice.
Top bottom left top right
The kunoichi subconsciously reached out a hand towards the embossed family crest. Her
fingers pressed the top petal. And then the bottom left one. And then the top right one.
They heard a click, followed by a whirring noise and another click.
Carefully, Sakura lifted the lock, and opened the box.
N
Two plain-looking scrolls were all that were in the box. Considering the size of the box,
the contents looked rather miserable, lying framed by faded pink satin cloths that had
gathered dust over the years.

"That's it?" Ino demanded incredulously. "We traveled for three weeks, fought a chakra
maniac and Akatsuki members, witnessed a dead village and nearly killed you for this?"
"Troublesome," Shikamaru sighed, crossing his arms.
"What?" Ino snarled at the Nara genius.
"It's too troublesome to explain,"
The soul-switching kunoichi looked like she was about to burst, but was cut off by
Sakura.
"It isn't the way the covers look, Ino it's the content that matters," Sakura spoke
quietly, reaching out a hand to lift one of the scrolls.
"Stop it," a certain Hyuuga prodigy hissed. "Someone is coming through the back - get
out, all of you!"
"I'll take these," Sakura said promptly, grabbing the two scrolls and the lock. "Neji, Sai,
take this, please," she swiftly shut the chest lid and swung it over to the guys.
"Yeah," Neji caught it. "Tenten"
"Gotcha," the weapons mistress was already strapping on a wrist catapult, modified after
Shizune's poison dart catapult.
"They're getting closer" Neji warned.
"Everyone! Out now!" Shikamaru hollered.
"Tenten, pass me one of those," Sakura called.
"Catch," her friend grinned. The cherry blossom quickly strapped it on, loading the
catapult with six kunais. "Aim for that stretch loose rock up there," the weapons mistress
called to her friend, pointing to the back of the cave, through which they could see an
opening.
Sakura nodded. "One" Both kunoichis pulled the catapults back, taking aim.
"Two"
"THREE!"
Twelve kunais went flying, right on target. The loose rocks began crumbling rapidly as
the kunais lodged between the visible cracks, bringing down larger, heavier rocks.
Not pausing to watch, Sakura and Tenten made a dash for the exit. Takashi-sama smiled
as they passed, his fellow monks forming a straight line behind him.
"Good luck to all of you!" he called after them. Sakura halted, looking back in surprise.
"You aren't coming?"

"No," the old monk smiled serenely. "My duty our duty is to protect this temple, and we
will rebuild it or die fighting for it. Now, go!"
The cherry blossom spared one last glance at the crumbling temple, turning at Tenten's
call. She ran until she reached the cave opening.
"Everyone else is down there already let's get going!" the brown-haired kunoichi said
urgently.
Sakura took a step towards her friend, and then felt her intuition tingling. She could feel
what was it? 'Orochimaru that's his aura,' her inner self hissed.
"Sakura!" Tenten grabbed her arm. "What's gotten into you?"
"Wait" Sakura said slowly. "I think it's Orochimaru trying to get in from the back I
have that feeling"She whispered. "S-Sasuke might be with him!"
The crumbling cave was echoing loud curses and the sound of someone trying to break
through the stone barrier they had created. Tenten took one look at her best friend's face
and knew what the kunoichi wanted to do turn back.
Tenten grabbed Sakura's shoulders, both standing perilously close to the edge of the cliff.
She could tell that Neji's eyes were looking upward from below, wondering what was
happening between them.
"Sakura. Listen. You can't go back in there. You're still no match for Orochimaru, not to
mention if Sasuke and Kabuto are with him. Besides, you can't even be sure that it's
really them it might be those Akatsuki dogs trying to get the scrolls. You can't go in
there,"
The cherry blossom averted her eyes to the ground. She knew Tenten was right, as much
as she hated to admit it. She'd already put her teammates' lives on the line once, and
she couldn't do it again.
She took one last look at the entrance of the cave behind her before turning to her friend
and taking a deep breath.
"Let's go,"
Tenten smiled.
Without another word, both girls took a few steps backward, ran, and dived off the cliff
into the clear lake water below.
N
When the duo emerged, soaking wet, from the lake, their team was nowhere to be seen.
Sakura shook her wet hair out of her face and spotted Shikamaru signaling to them from
the cover of the trees.
Quickly checking that her lock and scrolls were intact, the cherry blossom motioned to
Tenten, and sparing a quick glance upwards to make sure no one was watching them,
they sprinted off into the trees.

They found Ino retying her wet hair, grumbling about getting soaked, Naruto complaining
about why they didn't stay back to kick some butt; and the Nara genius rolling his eyes,
throwing a look at Sakura and Tenten that clearly said 'thank-kami-sama-you're-herenow-let's-get-going-before-I-go-insane'.
"Where's everyone?" Tenten asked quietly, shaking out her long brown hair as they
hurried after Shikamaru.
"Neji led them away first, we're going across Earth country before turning towards
Konoha at least we'll avoid open land," Shikamaru explained.
"What happened up there, anyway? You guys made us wait for ages," Ino asked
curiously as they sprinted across the desert.
"Something," Tenten said simply. Night was falling, and once again, the chilly winds
ripped through their wet garments and stung them like ice. The five shinobis could just
see the rest of their team some distance before them, and picked up their pace.
Sakura felt the weight of all the added objects inside her backpack, but it wasn't just
physical weight that was bothering her. The emotional burden was taking its toll as well.
Her thoughts wandered to the lock the scrolls her grandfather
'Chichioya okasan'
And then, in a fleeting moment, the image of a grinning, four year old boy with jet black
hair and large brown eyes resurfaced in her mind.
Sakura jolted inwardly. That face it it was
Her brother.
N (Flashback)
"Yuki! Get back in here! It's dangerous to play on the road!" His mother called from
inside the weapons shop Sakura's grandfather owned. "Sakura, please go get your
brother back inside the shop, okay?" the beautiful, silver-haired woman told her
daughter, who nodded and ran out.
The four-year-old boy did not heed his mother's call. Laughing and making faces at his
six-year-old sister, he continued running in the middle of the street.
Smiling at her brother's childishness, Sakura tried to follow him through the busy crowd
and get back into the shop before okasan got mad, but she was nowhere as nimble as
Yuki and soon lost him.
Sakura began to panic. Yuki was only four, he couldn't take care of himself. If anything
happened to him, she'd never
'There!' the cherry blossom yelled triumphantly in her mind, spotting her brother
standing on the street not far off. She raced towards him.
"Yuki!" Sakura called, laughing. "Come back here, you little "

She stopped abruptly, mid-sentence. The loud thundering of hooves could be heard, not
far off. Sakura saw the merchant's wagon, pulled by four large horses, racing up the
street straight towards her brother!
Yuki, blissfully ignorant of the impending disaster, continued laughing at the 'weird'
expression on his older sister's face. Sakura bolted towards him, hoping against hope
that she could push him away in time.
'No I'm too far off!'
The wagon drew closer. Sakura could just see the horses' hooves thundering upon the
ground with unmistakable force, causing clouds of dust to billow while heading straight
for her brother
Yuki turned to look behind him and saw the horses looming, bearing down on him, and
let out a cry of surprise.
'Just a bit more c'mon!' Sakura urged herself inwardly, shaking as she ran.
Too late. A blue-black blur rolled out upon the road and the wagon roared past. Sakura
closed her eyes and sank to the ground, letting out a strangled cry.
"YUKI!"

Chapter 12- Haruno Secret Scrolls



The pink-haired girl's shoulders shook as she buried her face in her hands, not willing to
witness her brother's fate. Sob after sob sounded, tears spilling out of her emerald eyes.
'Yuki'
Then she heard a round of applause, growing louder by the minute.
Applause?
Sakura lifted her tear-stained face to get a view of what the commotion was all about
only to find Yuki running towards her, looking as if nothing had happened. There was
only concern etched in his face why was his sister crying?
"Onee-san don't cry" he cooed, his large brown eyes staring up at her adorably.
Sakura reached out a hand to touch her brother's arm, trying to ascertain that he was
real, that it wasn't a trick of her mind. Breaking into sobs again, she gathered Yuki in her
arms and hugged him tightly.

"Don't you EVER scare me like that again, you hear me, Yuki?" she said through her
tears. The little boy gently pried himself from his sister's grasp.
"Hai, nee-san!" he mock saluted, grinning at her. His expression once again reverted into
concern when he saw his sister's tears still flowing. "Don't cry, onee-san, please don't
cry"
Sakura quickly wiped off her tears, standing up. "I'm I'm not crying anymore, Yuki"
she punched him playfully on the arm. Yuki retorted with a mischievous grin.
The young boy started, as if suddenly remembering something. He grabbed his sister by
the arm and dragged her forward.
"Nii-san saved me from the big bad horses!" he pointed at a boy about her age, with
raven hair and onyx eyes. The handsome boy stepped up, smiling.
Sakura's heart stopped for a moment. Regaining her senses, she stepped up to face him.
"Uh" she began uncertainly.
"Uchiha Sasuke," he offered, smiling.
"Oh" she said, blushing slightly. "Haruno Sakura,"
"And I'm Yuki-chan!" Yuki piped up gleefully.
Sasuke laughed. "Yes, I know. You're sister's scream told me that," he cast her a
sideways glance.
Sakura turned very red. Remembering her manners, Sakura dropped into a bow.
"Arigatou, Sasuke-san," she said shyly.
"Hey, it was nothing," he grinned, then bent down to ruffle Yuki's hair. "Just take care,
Yuki-chan, and don't go running on the street, okay? Don't make your sister worry"
"Hai!" Yuki grinned.
"Okay, I really have to go now bye, then," Sasuke turned, waving. "See you guys
around!"
Sakura smiled slightly, nodding to Sasuke. "C'mon, Yuki"
N (End of Flashback)
Sakura felt the hot tears stinging her eyes, but blatantly refused to cry. Sasuke had been
so different.
It seemed that fate was intent on claiming Yuki's life. A year later, the energetic boy died
of sickness but he smiled to the end, despite his suffering, always assuring Sakura that
he was 'alright'.
After he died, Sakura could almost feel nothing. She withdrew herself. When she met
Sasuke again at the Academy, she felt some hope that he'd understand what she felt

after all, the entire village knew about Itachi killing their clan - but he shattered all those
hopes. He didn't remember her. He was dead-set on revenge.
Then he left. Then her parents died.
'Everything's gone,'
N
Sakura collapsed beneath a large tree, utterly exhausted. Burying her pale face in her
arms, wrapped around her knees, the cherry blossom let her emotions take over, but
tears still blatantly refused to come, to offer her some long-awaited relief.
The clueless Naruto started at seeing Sakura's shoulders shaking, and immediately
dropped his tasks to walk towards his teammate.
"Naruto-kun"
A quiet voice held him back. He turned, to find the opaque-eyed Hyuuga heir calling to
him.
"Don't" the shy girl cautioned. "Sakura-chan needs to be alone for awhile,"
"B-but-" Naruto made a move to protest.
"Leave her be, Naruto,"
Neji stood behind Hinata with folded arms. "C'mon, let's get on with our work,:
The hyperactive ninja reluctantly turned away, glancing at Sakura's pitiful state.
'Whatever it is, Sakura-chan hang on'
N
Sakura stayed at her spot all through dinner, and until everyone was getting ready to
sleep. Since they were already in Fire territory, everyone was rather relaxed.
Tenten approached Sakura quietly. The pink-haired girl was staring into the night sky,
her arms still wrapped around her knees.
"Mind if I sit here?"
Sakura simply nodded, glancing up at her friend with a slight smile.
Silence ensued as Tenten quietly sat down.
"Want to talk about anything?" the weapons mistress asked as she lay back against the
tree trunk, watching the stars flicker in the dark sky.
Sakura shook her head. "I'm fine"
"If you ever want to talk, just let me know, 'kay?" Tenten said gently, turning to look at
Sakura, her chocolate eyes full of concern.

"Yeah," Sakura said with a smile. "I know. Thanks,"


"Get some sleep," Tenten advised, letting out a huge yawn. She stood up, dusted herself
and climbed into the tent she shared with Sakura. "Don't think too much!" she called
back.
"I'll just stare at the sky for a bit longer," Sakura replied, a real smile spreading over her
face. "G'night!"
Tenten stuck her head out of the tent and waved to show that she had heard, before
disappearing inside the tent again.
A few moments later, her hyperactive teammate had joined her, chatting animatedly
about how he missed Ichiraku Ramen, how he wondered what Kaka-sensei was doing,
whether if Tsunade-baa-chan was worried about them or not, and on the whole, he made
Sakura laugh so much she ended up with stitches in her side before she stumbled off into
her tent to sleep.
So much for staring at the sky.
N
Sakura was just about to close her eyes and fall asleep when she remembered
something. Sitting up, she reached into her backpack and took out the small rag doll the
dying girl had given her.
Just staring at the yarn-knit brown hair, black button eyes, tiny nose and smiling mouth
made Sakura think of the little girl back in Konoha who brought her wild flowers ever two
days because 'onee-san saved my mommy'.
She smiled slightly and replaced the rag doll, turning over to sleep again.
'I'm doing the right thing, I guess,'
N
The cherry blossom awoke with a start, for some reason sweating profusely, inside her
tent in the middle of the night. Tenten remained sound asleep beside her, oblivious to
the world.
The cool night breeze blew through the mosquito netting of their tent, proving that it
wasn't humid temperature making her all moody. Something just bothered her. It was a
nagging, overpowering feeling that seemed to influence her thoughts and tell her what to
do.
Sakura found herself involuntarily reaching out for the family scroll inside her backpack,
standing up drowsily on her two tired feet and walking out of the tent, the precious scroll
in hand.
The force led her on. It was almost like she was sleepwalking, apart from the fact that
she was actually conscious of what she was doing she was just unable to control
herself. She could even hear Sai, who was on night watch, calling her name in confusion,
but she was unable to respond. She heard it, but she did not register it.

Somewhere in the middle of her dream-like state, the pink-haired kunoichi recognized
the pathway she was taking. It led to another isolated clearing, situated right next to the
stream where they obtained their water.
Vaguely, she wondered why in the world she was going in that direction, but natural
human curiosity got the better of her and she did not try to oppose the force controlling
her.
'Sakura, you baka! Turn around this instant and get your sorry butt back to camp! Who
knows what's in the clearing? SAKURA!' her inner self ranted furiously to no avail.
It was when she stood in the middle of the clearing, when the force had somehow
stopped controlling her and silence surrounded her that Sakura finally realized
something.
'What am I doing here?'
N
"Neji! Shikamaru! Get your butts out of your tent this very second!"
Tenten's holler shattered the peaceful silence, rudely jolting everyone in the camp
awake.
Neji was the first to exit his tent, Shikamaru crawling out behind the Hyuuga, still half
asleep.
"What is it you troublesome woman" he yawned lazily.
The weapons mistress rewarded him with a hard smack to the head that brought him
sharply back to earth.
"Sakura just wandered off somewhere it's like she's in a trace," Tenten said
breathlessly. "Sai said she was headed for the stream, she didn't reply to his calls. He
told me before he went to follow her,"
Neji let out an exasperated sigh. Already the rest were up, yawning while asking about
the commotion.
"Sakura's gonna be in a hell lot of trouble when we get back to Konoha lead the way,
Tenten,"
N
The pink0haired kunoichi studied the scroll carefully. When she saw the scroll briefly in
the cave, it already had two kanji letters on it.
Haruno.
She hadn't found the time to examine the contents of the scroll, but now she noticed the
addition of words that definitely had not been there previously.
Sakura.

Basic mission rules were that no shinobi of any rank could read any enclosed information
without the permission of their village leader, but Sakura decided that this was an
exception. The scroll did, after all, belong the her clan and it had her name on it.
Usually, Sakura would not have bent any rules under any circumstances, but she was
feeling reckless. Like she didn't want to care. Like, for once, she wanted to do what her
heart told her to.
Not leaving any more room for doubt, Sakura flung open the scroll in a single, fleeting
movement.
It stayed in the air, fluttering gently. The silence remained unbroken.
And then
The scroll emitted a single, purely white beam of light, passing just above Sakura's head.
Fascinated, she watched the beam engulfing the clearing and beyond in streaks of
beautiful, blinding white light, before the light flickered and faded
Then the earth trembled, causing the water in the nearby stream to leap up, sending
water droplets spraying all over the cherry blossom. Sakura's emerald eyes caught what
seemed to be flashes of fire dancing around her as the wind swirled wildly. The tingling
sensation of electricity in the air tickled her fair skin.
Such a sight would have scared most people, but Sakura felt strangely at peace. Like all
the elements were in total harmony with her like she had control.
But what she saw next, in her mind, brought her crashing down from cloud nine.
Her family, standing together. Four semi-transparent, floating figures, her grandfather
beside her father, her father with an arm around her mother, and her mother holding
Yuki's hand while he frantically waved at her, laughing.
They looked so complete without her.
N
"What's happening?" Tenten asked as they caught up with Sai, who was watching Sakura
from behind some bushes.
"I don't know" this time, even Sai's voice betrayed worry. "I don't know what's
happening to her"
"Sakura-san looks like she is deeply immersed in her fire of youth!" Lee exclaimed, his
eyes wide. If the situation hadn't been so serious, Tenten would've laughed.
"She looks like she's seeing something," Neji said slowly, studying the scene.
"So? What are we waiting for? We have to stop whatever's controlling her!" Naruto said
impatiently.
"Remember what happened the last time we rushed in to 'save' her?" Shikamaru said
sharply, referring to the time when their attacks on the Nanabi hit her instead. "We don't
know what we'll do to her we can only wait and see,"

N
"Sakura" her grandfather was suddenly standing before her, his ghostly, yet kindly
image reaching for her shoulders.
"Ojisan" she whispered. She did not notice the white light forming a graceful, upward
swirl surrounding her, nor anything else around her.
"I don't have much time, Sakura, this jutsu only allows me a few moments," the old man
said urgently. "Listen to me, and remember this never, ever let this immense power
overcome you. It's a rare secret that few of our clan were destined to know, to master.
You must control the strength within, not the other way around. Remember that!"
Her grandfather slowly trudged backwards, towards the rest of her family, giving her a
small smile. "Never let the power control you use it well!"
With familiar smiles and waves, her family was disappearing, fading into nothingness.
Sakura tried to reach out, to pull them back towards her, never to let them go, but
The white light had disappeared. The scroll lay on the ground, now devoid of its contents.
Sakura saw nothing, felt nothing. She only registered the streaks of her warm, salty
tears running down her cheeks.
There was no so, no sound just tears.
For the first time in five years, Haruno Sakura was crying.
N
Silence stretched on like eternity. No one had seen Sakura crying since her parents'
deaths five years ago. And no one knew how to console her because none of them
knew what she had seen.
Hinata felt something that she couldn't place. What they had just seen happening to
Sakura was some sort of ritual. She felt that it was familiar, somewhat, but she was
pretty sure that she had never seen it before
Then it clicked.
"Neji-nii-san" she whispered. He nodded at her.
"The transferring ritual," he confirmed. "Something like when the Byakugan was not yet
a kekkai genkai, and had to be transferred through rituals,"
"And and also remember when we studied about the history of the other clans?"
Hinata spoke quietly.
"Haruno some of them had exclusive control of all five elements, right?" Neji's eyes
narrowed as he tried to remember what he had been taught in the Hyuuga household.
"Yes"
"Come on,"

The Hyuuga genius beckoned to her as he stepped towards the motionless Sakura, still
standing in the middle of the clearing. Her salty tears had dried upon her pale cheeks
and her emerald eyes stared blankly into space. Neji shuddered at the sight. It was
almost like her eyes, once the liveliest part of her, had lost its glow entirely.
"Sakura," he shook her gently by the shoulder.
For a moment, she looked like she wasn't about to respond, but then she turned around
slowly to face him, still emotionless.
"Here," he handed her a small, blank card. "Channel some chakra into it,"
She looked at him curiously, but accepted the card. Sakura recognized it as the chakra
nature card, and vaguely remembered that when she had used it before, on Tsunade's
request, that her chakra was earth natured.
The cherry blossom, however, did as she was told.
She concentrated, and felt the familiar surge of chakra coursing through her right hand
Everyone was silent, for some reason watching the scene with bated breaths, not
knowing what to expect. The card began to show signs of cracking, turning silver. And
then it shattered. Thousands of tiny, silver, glass-like fragments showered upon the
ground, reflecting the moonlight like tiny stars.
Sakura snapped out of her dream-like state abruptly, watching the beautiful scene in
fascination. When the card reacted like that
"Sakura," Neji said quietly, eyeing the card fragments on the ground. When the card
reacted like that and it didn't happen often it meant that the person had an affiliation
to all five elements.
"It would seem that you now have control over all the five elements,"

Chapter 13- Kakashi's Summon


There was nothing but silence as the group of shinobis traveled towards Leaf, Gaara
following them to meet the Hokage in Konoha.
The air was tensed and solemn, each shinobi was occupied with their own train of
thought particularly a certain pink-haired kunoichi, who lagged behind in the formation,
still trying to comprehend everything that had happened within the short span of the past
two days.
She wondered why memories of her family affected her so much now. It was probably
because the mission, the Nanabi and the scrolls were so closely linked to her long gone
family

Sakura had always assumed that she had finally accepted the fact that her family
everything that she had once knew and loved were gone, but now she realized the
truth.
She had never really let go. All these years, she had still clung on to past memories so
tightly, but she'd forced herself not to let emotion take over, telling her to get a grip and
be strong, when deep inside, she'd never had the strength to let go.
That was probably why all those memories haunted her now.
The cherry blossom tilted her head slightly to the left, catching a glimpse of the newly
embedded seal on her left arm, in the form of the ancient Haruno symbol. She'd noticed
it that morning, having collapsed from exhaustion after the 'ritual' of sorts on the
previous night.
'I seem to have an affiliation to seals and marks' Sakura thought dryly, picturing the
Nanabi's mark running down her arm with the Haruno crest just above it, and also the
tattoo of her favourite quote, 'strength' in kanji on her right shoulder. And the seals on
her palms from the Binding Seal Jutsu that Kakashi had used on her before she'd left for
the mission.
'How much more can I handle?' she sighed inwardly, willing the entire nightmare to just
go away and leave her in peace.
N
Being only at the border of Leaf, they had about six more days of travel. Neji decided to
let them spend the night at an inn in a village he'd once visited on a mission, seeing as
everyone needed a lot of rest.
Ino had squealed with delight when Neji mentioned that the inn had an onsen. Sakura,
Tenten and Hinata merely smiled tiredly. It'd be a nice change for them
The forest was thinning, patches of sunlight streamed through the tree canopy, the mud
path broadened into a proper road leading towards the village in the distance. For a
moment, Sakura let her mind drift, to admire the natural beauty around her, inhaling the
sweet, fresh forest scent deeply.
The cherry blossom was rudely jolted out of her trance when a sharp, searing pain
coursed through both her palms. She gasped involuntarily, clasping her hands together in
an instinctive attempt to stop this burning pain.
The crystal locket around her neck, the one that Kakashi had bestowed upon her with the
Binding Seal Jutsu, was glowing red-hot, and pointing discreetly towards the direction of
the setting sun on its own accord.
"What's wrong, Sakura?" Kiba asked sharply as the team turned to look at her curiously.
"Nothing," Sakura said with a nonchalant smile, hoping against hope that they'd actually
buy that.
"You're lying, Sakura,"
'Damn Neji and his Byakugan!' Sakura cursed inwardly.

"Don't lie," Neji warned, his arms crossed. Tenten strode over to her best friend, gently
unclasping Sakura's hands and examining the seals embossed into her palms.
"Someone used Azarashi no Jutsu on you," Tenten said quietly, her voice undemanding,
unassuming.
Everyone stared at Sakura. 'Well, obviously,' Sakura thought bitterly. 'After everything
that has happened, I'm not exactly the most trusted member of the team, am I?'
She sighed, prying her hands loose from Tenten's grip.
"Kakashi-sensei"
"For what?" Naruto asked concernedly, pushing his way to get in front of her. He
obviously had no idea of what Azarashi no Jutsu was. "What did Kaka-sensei do to you?
If he hurt you "
"No!" Sakura snapped, irritated. "Just let me explain already!"
Naruto fell silent, his expression disconcerted. It had been a long while since Sakura had
snapped at him like that.
Sakura took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down.
"Before we left on this mission Kakashi-sensei told me that he was going on another Sranked mission, and that he might need my help "
She caught their incredulous faces and felt her fists clenching. 'Why am I explaining
myself to them in the first place?'
"I know, that's exactly what I told him! But he was serious about it,"
"You know he wasn't serious, Sakura-chan!" Naruto cut in.
"He's a Jounin, Sakura an elite ANBU member D'you think he'd ever need any help
from a chunnin? And even if he did, do you really think that you'd be able to hold your
own against someone he couldn't handle?" Shikamaru added quietly. He had reason, but
Sakura refused to give in.
"So you're saying that you don't believe that I'm capable?" Sakura half-snarled,
struggling to keep her temper in check.
"No one's underestimating you, ugly" Sai stated. "They're right,"
"He might be hurt! He might be dying, and you're telling me to stay comfortably
protected and leave him be?" Sakura raised her voice, trembling with pent-up anger.
"There are rules, Sakura " Neji started.
"I know the rules, dammit! But have you forgotten our code of honour? Where 'no
shinobi leaves his comrade to die'?" her emerald eyes flashed dangerously at him. "I'm
not asking the team to come with me, I can always look for him alone!"

"Tsunade-sama's orders were for us to return safely, as a team," Neji countered. "You
may not realize your duty, Sakura, but I do. Mine is to get you safely back to Konoha,
regardless of the circumstances. You're not the only one who cares about Kakashi,"
"But "
"I said no, Haruno!" Our mission is complete and we will return to Konoha together. You
are not going off alone to find Kakashi. Do I get myself clear?" the Hyuuga prodigy raised
his voice to counter hers.
It was a known fact that when Neji called you by your last name, whatever he said was
final. Sakura fought the urge to retort.
She lowered her gaze, trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to spill from
her emerald eyes.
Everyone was silent, wondering what was about to happen.
"Promise me you won't go, Sakura," Neji said quietly, his opaque eyes staring at her.
Sakura closed her eyes and discreetly crossed her fingers.
"I promise,"
N
The inn was beautiful, secluded in a glaze surrounded by greenery. The innkeeper
provided them with three rooms, two for the boys and one for the girls, instructed them
on directions to the onsen and to the common room, then left them to their own devices.
Luckily, no one recognized the Kazekage, his gourd concealed by genjutsu, and they
were left in peace.
Once again sharing a room, the four girls fell into routine. Ino dragged Hinata to the
onsen for a bath, while Sakura sat at the bay window, staring at the twilight sky. Tenten
lay, spread-eagled on the bed, folding paper shurikens from scraps of paper.
The cherry blossom suddenly stood up. "I'm going out for a walk I think I need to clear
my head a bit,"
"Want me to come along?" Tenten sat up.
"No thanks I need to be alone," Sakura said quietly.
Tenten nodded understandingly. "Don't stay out late, okay?"
"Yeah," Sakura stealthily picked up her backpack, all filled and ready for her 'solo'
mission. She prayed hard as she walked out of the room.
The weapons mistress noticed nothing.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Sakura heaved a silent sight of relief. Quickly
checking if anyone was about, Sakura climbed onto a nearby window sill, leaping out

swiftly. She landed lightly on the grassy ground, hoisting her backpack onto her
shoulders.
The crystal locket was still slightly elevated, pointing towards the trees. Taking a deep
breath, Sakura sprinted off with nothing more than a backward glance and a quick, soft
apology to her team.
N
Neji knocked lightly on the girls' room door. The door opened slightly before a shriek
rang out,
"Wait! I can't be seen with my hair like this!"
'Ino, presumably,' Neji sighed inwardly. Hinata opened the door moments later.
"Neji nii-san?" the Hyuuga heir asked curiously.
Neji was silent. Ino and Tenten were inside, but
"Where's Sakura?" he walked in casually, his eyes scanning the room swiftly. "We're
about to have a meeting,"
"She went out for a walk," Tenten replied as she picked up her paper shurikens and
stowed them away in a cloth pouch.
"She went out for a walk?" Neji questioned, taking Tenten by the arm and pulling her to
where their backpacks lay. "So tell me who takes their backpacks out on walks?" he
continued asking quietly, motioning to the three backpacks on the floor.
The three kunoichis stared at each other, speechless.
"Tenten. What time did she leave?" the Hyuuga prodigy asked.
"About an hour ago"
"Then she had a head start. Pack up, we're going after her," Neji turned to walk out. "I'll
tell the guys to get ready,"
"But Neji nii-san you said " Hinata spoke slowly, her pale eyes glancing at him in
surprise.
"I didn't expect her to listen to me. Did you?" Neji smirked.
Hinata shook her head.
"She's always got a mind of her own we wouldn't be able to stop her, at any rate.
Besides " Neji turned to walk out, the faintest hint of a smile on his face.
"I really want to see who the Hatake Kakashi couldn't handle alone,"
N

Sakura swung herself over a fallen log, landing quietly on the mossy forest grounds,
sweating profusely. She took a moment to catch her breath, instantly becoming aware of
the locket pulling strongly around her neck.
Kakashi was near.
'Who could he be facing? Am I too late?' she thought worriedly. 'It's been several hours
the enemy's probably gone' Sakura reassured herself, despite logic arguing that unless
his enemy had killed him, whoever it was wouldn't have left.
The kunoichi's internal clock told her that it was almost dawn. Swiftly and silently, she
darted through the shadows of the trees, hearing voices from a distance just as she
passed a huge birch tree.
The cherry blossom quickened her steps, but gasped as a kunai whizzed past her head.
Instincts kicking in, she ducked low, checking for any signs of enemies.
There was none. No one targeting her, at least. Sakura cautiously picked the kunai up
from the ground and examined it. There was a tiny slash on the loop handle Kakashi's
weapons signature.
She stood slowly, never letting down her guard while pocketing the kunai. Edging
through the trees, Sakura focused on locating the source of the noise.
From her spot in the trees, she could see Kakashi staggering to his feet, covered in blood
and gashes. His red Sharingan was activated, and he looked absolutely calm, but Sakura
could sense his low chakra levels. At this rate, her sensei wouldn't be lasting very long
against whomever he was facing.
Sakura had two options. She could take advantage of her position and use the element of
surprise to attack his opponent first, or she could go straight to help Kakashi.
She quickly made her decision, charging into the tiny clearing, prepared.
N
The cherry blossom did not spare a single glance at Kakashi's opponent, choosing,
instead, to look at her sensei. Directing her healing chakra towards his deeper gashes,
she playfully reprimanded him.
"Your kunai nearly killed me back there" she told him. Kakashi winced as she healed
him.
"Took you long enough to get here,"
"I had to find an opening to escape, you moron," Sakura retorted. "The team wouldn't let
me leave saying you could take care of yourself and all right,"
Kakashi wasn't paying any attention to Sakura's words. "Sakura"
Sakura continued her lecture without heeding him. "What would have happened if I didn't
come?"
"SAKURA!"

Kakashi made a move to twist himself around her to protect her, but this time Sakura
was faster, swiftly overpowering him in an aikido move, pinning him to the ground.
At that same moment, the kunoichi spun around with a flying roundhouse kick, dodging a
lightning-encased blade narrowly. Her attacker felt the impact of her kick, but quickly
adjusted, landing on both feet, some distance away. The cherry blossom leapt back a few
feet, landing I a crouch.
"I'm not dumb," Sakura's voice came out as a snarl. Her emerald eyes flashed upwards,
meeting those of her attacker's.
"Sasuke."

Chapter 14 Reunion

He noted that she'd grown taller, had more curves, and looked so much more mature
than she had before. He'd been surprised when Sakura had suddenly leapt out of
nowhere, but most of all
He was surprised to find that it hurt when Sakura went straight to Kakashi without
sparing him a glance.
He noted the way her eyes flashed, the way her face showed no weakness, no fear when
she faced him, and her undeniable self-confidence, radiating from her in waves. He also
knew, once he sensed her, that she was not a pushover.
This couldn't be the Sakura he once knew. Emotional and begging for dates none of
that was happening now. This definitely was not Sakura.
"You're not Sakura," Sasuke said flatly without thinking. His red Sharingan was activated,
they stared her down without blinking.
Sakura looked at him strangely, before letting out a bitter laugh, one that Sasuke never
knew she was capable of. "I'm not Sakura? Oh, come on, Sasuke, you should know
better than that,"
He was momentarily confused by her words.
"I am Sakura. I'm simply not the Sakura you knew,"
The Uchiha was silent. Sakura
"The Sakura you knew cried to you on the day you left. She proclaimed that she would
follow you to the ends of the earth if you refused to stay, the only reason being that she
cared for you. And you gave her nothing but a meaningless 'thank you'," the pink-haired
kunoichi stared him in the eye. "That was the Sakura you knew. The one who was
actually nave and idiotic enough to say all that to your face,"

Silence.
"I can't believe I actually did that, you know? Because now, when I look back, I realize
that you just don't deserve it. You don't deserve us, never giving up on you. You don't
deserve everything that Naruto and I have gone through just to shake some bloody
sense into you. We've defended you from everyone who said a single bad word about
you. We did so much, and we received nothing but hatred in return,"
Sakura's fists clenched unintentionally.
"Well, if I don't deserve it, then why are you still chasing after me,?" Sasuke growled,
lifting his sword to strike while coming straight at her. Sakura stood, motionless. When
he was a foot away from her, her gloved fist smashed into his face and sent him flying
backwards, but his blade had drawn blood from her arm. A painful jolt coursed through
her entire body and Sakura let out a low growl, healing her arm quickly.
"We never gave up on you," the cherry blossom said quietly. "We never gave up on you
because we cared, dammit! We still care!" her voice rose in a crescendo. "We kept
hoping that you'd come back some day, no matter what happened. It's been five years,
Sasuke, do you even realize that?"
"I'm aware," Sasuke spat. Snakes slithered out of his yukata sleeves, surrounding his
childhood teammate.
"Then" Sakura turned to look at the silent Kakashi, who saw the tears threatening to
spill from her emerald eyes.
"I'm sorry, Sasuke-kun,"
N
Neji swung past another branch, Akamaru now at his heels, helping to trace Sakura's
cleverly concealed scent and chakra presence. Frankly, he wasn't worried about the
kunoichi, he knew that she was capable in her own way.
"We've been out for an hour and a half, already, any sign of Sakura yet?" Shikamaru
called from behind, landing on a branch with Ino beside him. Before he could get started
on the 'troublesome' word, Ino sent him a death glare.
Shikamaru caught the worry reflected in her eyes and wisely said nothing more.
Gaara and Sai were silent, following Hinata at the rear of the group. Sai removed two
scrolls from his pack and sent a hoard of rats scurrying around them to help Akamaru
pick up chakra trails.
Everyone was immersed in their own thoughts of the most recent events, a part of them
grudging Sakura for delaying their return home, but another part of them sincerely
worried about her.
Lee was the only openly enthusiastic one amongst them. "We must hurry! Sakura-san
may have lost much of her youthful flame already!" he proclaimed, punching his fist into
the air and somersaulting, resulting in him tripping over a tree branch. Everyone groaned
silently.

Tenten narrowed her eyes, behind Kiba. Naruto was long gone before them, not heeding
anyone's orders, solely concerned on finding Sakura. 'You're one lucky girl, SakuraSo
many people care about you I just hope you know what you're doing'
"Tenten," the Hyuuga prodigy called her from up front. Grabbing a branch above her, the
weapons mistress swung over Kiba, muttering a quick apology to him before landing
beside Neji.
"Yeah?" she asked him quietly. She knew full well that Neji could read her thoughts, his
Byakugan was activated. He looked at her, leaping over a fallen branch, his opaque eyes
betraying concern.
"Sakura'll be fine. She's stronger than any one of us knows the Nanabi and her kekkai
genkai are simply added bonuses. And Naruto will find her. Those two have a bond that
we won't ever understand," he said in a low voice.
Tenten glanced at him, and for a moment, their eyes locked. "I know thanks,"
"Neji!" Kiba hissed just as the Hyuuga branch member was about to reply Tenten. The
Inuzuka pulled the couple back by their collars, not heeding their death glares.
"Akamaru"
The white ninja dog whined, looking up at them.
"There are three people in the clearing up front, not counting Naruto who's closing in on
them," Sai stated before Kiba had the chance, forming handseals to retrieve his inked
rats.
Kiba nodded. "Kakashi, Sakura and"
"Sasuke," Sai finished simply.
"They're in trouble. He was no push-off the last time I faced him, and that was in the
Chunnin exams," Gaara's dark-rimmed eyes narrowed as he crossed his arms.
Lee was about to speak when Neji and Hinata yelled out.
"DUCK!"
Razor-sharp missiles came flying at them, meeting Tenten's weapons in midair and
clanging onto the ground uselessly. Several more were blocked by Gaara's sand.
"Well, it looks like our ambush didn't work," a familiar voice smirked. About ten figures
leapt into view, a white-haired man in the lead.
"Kabuto," a certain ANBU Root member acknowledged quietly, staring the medic nin
down.
"Split up!" Shikamaru yelled, taking command. "Three-man teams!"
The shinobis shot off in perfectly synchronized rhythm. Tenten, Lee and Neji took off to
the right, Shikamaru, Gaara and Ino took the front, Hinata, Sai and Kiba went left.
Team Gai found themselves facing Kabuto.

"Well," the medic-nin smirked, adjusting his glasses. "Shall we begin?"


N
"I don't need you to be sorry," Sasuke snarled. "Because you'll be the one dying when
I'm finished,"
"I wouldn't be so sure, Sasuke," the cherry blossom retorted, drawing her Fuuma
Shuriken. Kakashi watched, torn between being concerned for Sakura's safety and
enjoying the rather interesting match.
The trio suddenly heard a chuckle from above them.
"She's right," an averagely tall figure leapt down from the shadows of the trees. Naruto
stood beside Sakura, a lopsided grin on his face as he faced Sasuke.
"Teme so, we meet again, huh?" Naruto smirked. "But seriously, don't be so sure that
you'll defeat her this time,"
N
"Looks like they're having a real cosy reunion back there," Kabuto smirked, easily
dodging Tenten's flying missiles. Through the sparse forest leaves, Team Gai could barely
make out three figures in the nearby clearing.
Lee's spinning kick sent the two Sound nins about to attack Tenten from behind flying.
Neji dodged two kunais and hit his attacker at the heart, discreetly throwing a kunai
backwards, hitting another dead-on. The Hyuuga noted that Sound nins were increasing,
and frowned.
'Kabuto's got backup does Orochimaru know we're here?'
"Touching, isn't it?" Kabuto sighed mockingly, leaping up another branch to avoid
Tenten's punch. "Chasing after someone whom you know won't ever return" he paused,
looking back at her mockingly. "But then again Sakura wasn't exactly how should I
put it the brightest girl around, is she?"
Obviously, he was doing nothing to ease the weapon's mistress' towering temper of
indignation.
"At least it's better than chasing after a dream that will never come true, in Orochimaru's
case," she snarled, pulling out two katanas.
Much to their surprise, Kabuto smirked and nodded. "Yes, it is. Orochimaru is currently
rather useless, seeing as you have obtained the scrolls before him, and he is far from
achieving his ambition,"
He expertly dodged Lee's punch, but did not manage to avoid Tenten's katanas. Finding
deep slashes on his arm, Kabuto tried to heal himself, but the weapons mistress gave
him no time to spare.
Already her Rising Twin Dragons were encircling him, throwing out weapons by the
hundreds. The medic nin found himself struggling to dodge the endless barrage of razorsharp weapons without any means of stopping the attacks, as the dragons were simply
mist.

"I haven't spent five years living with a medic nin without learning anything," Tenten
smirked. "A medical ninja's strength lies in their ability and stamina in manipulating
chakra. If I manage to make you lose most of your chakra and energy without wasting
much of my own, then the fight is in my favour,"
"I " Kabuto dodged two kunais. " don't lose so easily,"
He made a flying leap towards Tenten, aiming to disable the source of the attacks.
The weapons mistress jerked her chakra strings controlling the dragons. "Not so fast,"
she warned. "Rokuryuu: Saseru!" (1)
Four more misty, white dragons materialized, blocking Kabuto's path. All six legendary
creatures rose in an upward spiral, trapping the medic nin within.
"You know what to do" Tenten cast her male teammates a sidelong glance, gradually
letting her jutsu dispel.
"Yeah," Neji said simply, leaping of the branch he was on.
"Rodger!" Lee made more of a show, taking a flying leap towards the disappearing
tornado of dragons.
N
"Kiba, Hinata hold the fort here for a few moments," Sai said in his quiet manner,
blocking three kunais with his own. "I need to do something,"
The two shinobis nodded, paled and sweating from the effort it took to face the
increasing number of Sound nins.
"Make it quick," Kiba growled as he lunged at an attacker's throat, Akamaru tackling
another.
Silently, Sai disappeared through the bushes, making sure that no one was following
him. He knelt upon the ground and spread out an empty scroll, quickly dipping his
calligraphy brush in ink and beginning to write.
Within a few moments, Sai was done. Swiftly completing a series of handseals, he placed
his hands on the scroll. It glowed momentarily, and then the inked words rose from the
surface of the scroll, clumping together to form the shape of a black falcon, his swiftest
flying animal.
It perched atop Sai's hand, cocking its head to the side, awaiting its master's instructions
on where to go.
"You know where to. Go," Sai said softly, releasing the bird. It fluttered off through the
leaves.
Sai watched it disappear before pocketing his things and darting back through the bushes
to rejoin his friends.
N

'Don't be so sure you'll defeat her this time'


Sasuke found Naruto's words replaying in his mind. Sakura was he no longer a match
for her, even? An emotion, one that he had not felt for a long time, resurfaced.
Fear.
The Uchiha did not like this particular emotion it made him feel like he was helpless,
like he wasn't in control. Quickly brushing his doubts away, Sasuke's arrogant self
reassured him. 'It isn't possible,'
"You still underestimate me, Sasuke," Sakura's cold voice rang out. "Big mistake,"
Her right fist smashed into the ground forcefully, creating a split that shot forward for
kami-sama knows how long. Sasuke gave a start and sprang aside, onyx eyes widening
as he narrowly avoided falling into the deep crack.
A flicker of surprise crossed his face, but he quickly regained himself and went on the
offensive, coming straight at Sakura with his katana poised. Naruto quickly moved in to
join her, but Sakura's free hand stopped him as she blocked Sasuke's katana with a
kunai, slipping beneath the blade to avoid getting slashed.
"No, Naruto" she said softly, leaping away to find an opening for attacks.
"But he could kill you!" the hyperactive ninja looked doubtful, knowing that Sakura was
implying that she wanted to fight Sasuke by herself.
"My fight. Promise me," she said firmly as she did a backflip and landed beside him, her
emerald eyes still watching Sasuke.
"Let her go, Naruto," Kakashi suddenly spoke up, still leaning against a tree behind them.
The smile beneath his mask was obvious. "You'll never stop her,"
Naruto's sky blue eyes studied Sakura carefully for several seconds, watching her fend
off blows, and sighed.
"okay but I'm coming in if things get nasty, 'kay?"
She smiled. "Yeah, sure. I'm not ready to die yet," Two shurikens slashed at two snakes
slithering towards her from her left. "Just take care of Kaka-sensei" she cast a sidelong
glance at Kakashi.
The injured Jounin raised a hand sheepishly in his trademark gesture. "Yo,"
Sakura shook her head, leaping forward to face Sasuke again.
"Wish me luck,"

Chapter 15 Battle

For some reason, Sasuke found himself deactivating his Sharingan. Perhaps he felt that it
would be an unfair advantage over a 'weak' girl, or perhaps he thought that Sakura was
simply too easy an opponent.
"I suggest that you use the Sharingan," Sakura said quietly, her voice betraying no
arrogance. "I'm really not as weak as you think,"
Kakashi jolted in surprise. No one in their right mind would ever ask an Uchiha to
activate the Sharingan during a fight. It was simply asking for defeat, or certain death.
"I'm not going to use it. You're not worth it," Sasuke said coldly, adjusting his katana,
poised to strike again.
"Let's see you stick to that resolve throughout the battle," Sakura replied, somewhat
emotionlessly as well. Through the years, she'd learnt to shut her emotions out during
battle, but the downside was that she often suffered overwhelming bouts of emotion
afterwards.
She decided that she could worry about that later.
Both shinobis, one a top-rank kunoichi and another, a missing ninja, faced each other
squarely with no further comments. Both were poised, waiting for the other to strike.
Neither wished to break the golden rule of never making the first move.
Kakashi and Naruto found themselves holding their breaths, waiting for the explosion.
Instead of an explosion, they found cherry blossoms falling, so gently and subtly, out of
nowhere. It was a beautiful sight.
Sasuke's onyx eyes subconsciously flickered upwards to watch the falling cherry
blossoms. 'Just like Konoha in spring I wonder if '
He was jolted out of his thoughts by a sudden realization: there were no sakura trees in
the forest.
The raven-haired boy narrowly dodged the storm of hidden shurikens, and retaliated with
his own array of kunais, thrown at the cherry blossom. Sasuke was not happy to find his
yukata torn in different parts by the flying shuriken, and cursed at himself for not being
observant enough to see through Sakura's trick.
A kunai glazed the cherry blossom's arm as she did a backflip to avoid his attacks. She
ignored the wound.
"I told you not to underestimate me,"
Fuuma Shuriken in hand, Sakura proceeded to bunch a series of perfectly executed, rapid
attacks on her former teammate. Several blows connected. Some missed.

Either way, when Sasuke somehow managed to get into the offensive, he had begun to
regret deactivating his Sharingan. He'd almost forgotten Sakura's expertise in genjutsu,
as well as her competence in executing basic jutsus.
Sasuke let out a barely audible growl as yet again, his sword met a kage bunshin and it
disappeared. 'Even without being annoying, she gets on my nerves' he thought
distastefully.
He heard a soft swish behind him and instinctively dodged. Still, Sakura's punch
connected with his shoulder and sent him stumbling forward, feeling his shoulder aching
painfully.
"Why did you leave us, Sasuke? Joining Orochimaru did it make you stronger?" she
asked quietly, picking him up by his collar. She had to quickly let go in a move to avoid
Sasuke's katana slashing out at her. "Letting someone take over your body is it really
worth it?"
"I told you. As long as I am able to revenge my clan, I don't care what happens," Sasuke
thrust his blade at her, and managed to slash her left arm. He smirked inwardly as he
sprang back, but swore under his breath when the wound healed almost instantly. The
markings on her arm were glowing, ever so slightly. Something stirred in Sasuke's
mind.'That seal where have I seen it before?'
Sakura's fist caught him unawares and sent him flying backwards, slamming into a tree.
"Don't you care about anything? Konoha? Your friends? Us?" She demanded, her voice
raised slightly as she dodged Sasuke's lightning-encased blade.
"I never did care," Sasuke replied harshly, pinning her against a tree as his Chidori
sizzled threateningly in his right hand.
"You did," Sakura looked at him quietly without struggling, and then disappeared.
"You did care,"
Her voice echoed as Sasuke swore under his breath. Another kage bunshin.
On impulse, Sasuke whirled around and caught Sakura, who was bearing down on him,
by the neck and lifted her up easily, cutting off her air supply and choking her.
"What do you know, Sakura? You never did understand me, and let me tell you this
you never will,"
This time, he hit a nerve.
Before he registered it, Sakura's solid (and somewhat more painful) fist hit his abdomen
with full force, making him release her and stumble backwards painfully, clutching his
stomach.
"'What do I know'? 'I don't understand'?" she hissed, before her voice rising in a
crescendo. Sasuke attacked.
A surge of strength filled her rapidly as Sakura swiftly dodged blow after blow and
delivered her own attacks. A spark of anger and hurt danced in her bright emerald eyes
as she glared at him, her fists doing the talking.

"What do you know, Sasuke?" Sakura hissed, dodging his blade narrowly. "Your parents
were killed? Naruto never knew his parents. Neither did Kakashi-sensei. My own parents
were killed on the day you left, by the very Sound nins you're affiliated with. Do you
think we've never lost our loved ones? That, just because your parents and your clan
were killed, 'no one understands you'? Do you know that I'm the only one left in my clan,
as well?"
Surprised silence met her words.
"You said you couldn't get stronger by staying in Konoha, but how much stronger have
you gotten with Orochimaru if I can match your strengths?" she snarled, throwing her fist
towards the ground, splitting the earth yet again. "So, does being used by Orochimaru
make you stronger? Better than us? Would giving up everything you care for to kill Itachi
make you happy?"
"Shut up," Sasuke retorted coldly, sheathing his sword and performing the handseals for
an old jutsu he'd known ever since he was young.
"Katon: Gokakyuu no Jutsu!" (1)
Sakura could feel the heat waves engulfing her slender frame as she impulsively
performed several handseals for a technique she had never learnt, or heard of, in her
life.
"Suiton: Mizu Kabe!" (2)
A wall of cascading water materialized before her. The fireball dissolved into smoke and
ashes as the water quenched its flames.
Sakura glanced at her own hands in surprise. Suiton? Since when had she been able to
use water-based techniques?
"How did she do that?" Even Kakashi couldn't stifle a gasp. "She just created a technique
without the elemental basis!"
"Kekkai genkai," (3) Naruto grinned, seeing Sasuke's unemotional faade finally cracking
just a little. "You have a lot to catch up on, Kaka-sensei"
Sasuke and Sakura found themselves staring at each other intensely, unfathomable
silence and tension hung in the air. Emerald eyes locked with onyx ones without any
sense of time or surroundings.
"Don't waste your time," Sasuke spoke, suddenly and sharply. "You know that I will
never give up on killing Itachi,"
"I didn't give up on you for five years," Sakura replied softly. "What makes you think that
I'll give up now?"
"Then I'll make you,"
His famed Chidori glowed within his right hand. Usually, the mere sight of it was enough
to unnerve an opponent, but the cherry blossom did not budge. The electricity could be
felt in the air thrust forward at Sakura.
Still, she did not move.

"Sakura! Don't be an idiot!" Kakashi called out. He, of all people, knew the destructive
power of the Chidori. "He'll kill you!"
N
(That night, in Konoha)
Tsunade stood by the window, deeply inhaling the sweet scent of the outside air. Night
had fallen, and the street lamps had been lighted, looking solitary and deserted
compared to the warm glow coming from the nearby house windows.
She was worried, she couldn't deny that. For the past few days, she'd been snapping at
everyone around her; her paperwork piled on as she paid no attention to them. Poor
Shizune had to deal with all the Hokage's work as well as her own, and despite her
constant stern warnings to the Godaime, Tsunade was past caring about these 'trivial'
matters like paperwork.
The Fifth sank back into her chair and swiveled it to face the window. She wouldn't have
been so worried if Sai had continued sending his reports back to her, but nothing had
arrived from him for more than a week.
'What if something happened to them to Sakura?' her mind whispered slyly. Tsunade
quickly shoved the thought out.
Just then, the Hokage's eyes caught sight of a faint silhouette against the bright, round
moon, and stood up so abruptly her chair toppled.
Could it be?
The silhouette soon became clearer as it drew closer, diving steeply downwards towards
Tsunade's office window. It was a falcon, Sai's fastest flying inked animal.
The black falcon perched atop Tsunade's hand, pecking at her fingers. Usually she would
be annoyed at this gesture, but this time she shakily placed the bird on her cluttered
desk, and quickly flipped open and empty scroll. Forming several handseals, Tsunade
watched as the falcon dissolved, and words began appearing on the surface of the scroll
Sai had given her.
Impatiently, the Godaime Hokage snatched it up and began to read the message.
N
"Shizune!" Tsunade called out sharply, slamming the scroll on her table.
"Hai, Hokage-sama?" her assistant appeared.
"Get Jiraya in my office. Now."
"Tsunade-sama" Shizune reprimanded her with a sigh. "It's three in the morning!"
But this time, the Hokage was adamant.

"Check the pubs. See if he's at home. Drag him out of bed and splash water on his face if
you have to," Tsunade said with a measured level of calm. "Just tell him that he'll
bevery sorry tomorrow if he doesn't get his pathetic butt in here now,"
"Geez, stop harassing your assistant, Tsunade," a voice sounded from beyond the office
door. "I'm here already," The white-haired man entered. "I could hear your voice right
down the street I was planning to drop by, anyway,"
"You? At three in the morning?" his childhood teammate retorted.
"Hey, you were the one who wanted to drag me out of bed at this time," he said
defensively. "And besides, I thought you'd be drunk you're a lot easier to deal with
when you're not sober" Jiraya shrugged nonchalantly. "So, what is it that's so urgent,
Hokage? And if it's that urgent, why are you talking to me instead of the elders?"
Without being invited, the Sannin settled into a chair opposite Tsunade. Shizune
thankfully disappeared out of the office and closed the door.
"Personal matters. I don't want the old geezers poking their noses around and 'advising'
me on 'what is best for Konoha' treating me like a darned five-year-old," Tsunade said
evenly.
Jiraya laughed. "You finally agree with me that the advice those old geezers give are
stupid, huh?"
She didn't reply. Taking the scroll on her desk, she passed it to him. "Read it,"
"Another message from that ANBU Root brat?" Jiraya raised an eyebrow as he took the
scroll from Tsunade.
"He has a name, you moron," Tsunade shot back scathingly.
He did not reply as his eyes scanned the scroll, and his neutral expression changed into
one of concern. "How"
'Hokage-sama:
I apologize for not writing sooner, but much has happened since my last message. I have
to make his quick for Kabuto and his Sound nins are attacking my teammates. Sakura,
Naruto and Kakashi-sensei are confronting Sasuke, and it would seem that Sakura has
insisted that she fight Sasuke alone. But don't worry; she's got her kekkai genkai and the
strength of the Nanabi to rely on.
But one thing that I must warn you about is that I sense that Danzou, the leader of my
ANBU division, is getting restless. He has been trying to contact me, even though I have
not given him any correspondence yet. I have a feeling that he may try to start a coup to
overthrow the Hokage again. Please watch him carefully.
I must go now. And Tsunade-sama please put your faith in Sakura. She will survive.
Sai'
Jiraya rolled up the scroll and placed it on the Hokage's table. He sat in silence.

"Since when did the Harunos have a bloodline limit?" he asked suddenly, looking up at
Tsunade.
"Don't you remember anything from the time when we studied the history of the clans in
Konoha?" the Fifth asked exasperatedly, glaring at her childhood teammate.
The Toad Sannin shrugged. "Hey, you were the smart one,"
Tsunade sighed. "Not all of them had the kekkai genkai Sakura's grandfather was one
of the special ones remember him?"
Jiraya scrunched up his face, trying to remember. "The old geezer who owned the
weapons shop and always gave us treats when we went to buy stuff?"
Tsunade nodded. "He had this uncanny ability to manipulate elements as he liked but
the Harunos were wiped off the history books once her grandfather, the last known one
with the ability, died," a look of guilt crossed the Hokage's face. "I forgot to tell Sakura
that,"
Silence.
"So, Hatake found the Uchiha and alerted them?" Jiraya spoke quietly.
Tsunade nodded, looking distracted. "I shouldn't have told him to summon them. I mean
what if they aren't good enough to match him? Now that Kabuto's there, Orochimaru
might even show up, and Sakura she I can't even imagine it!" the usually collected
Godaime Hokage let out all her pent up frustrations in one breath.
"Tsunade," Jiraya said quietly, his tone commanding. She looked up at him, her face
lined with worry. "That Sai brat is right. Put your faith in Sakura, she's a survivor. She's
grown to be like you, in many ways minus the gambling and sake problem"
Silence.
"You've got to let her go, Tsunade she's grown up, she's got to face things on her own
and you, of all people, know that she's perfectly capable of it,"
His childhood teammate did not reply, but Jiraya continued with a small smile.
"After all, she's got Naruto. He hasn't ever let me down yet. You've got to trust those
two,"
N
(With the shinobis, early that morning)
Neji and Lee leapt at Kabuto while Tenten veered her dragons away and let them
dissolve.
The bespectacled medic nin leapt backwards, swinging over a branch to avoid being
pummeled by the two shinobis, but received two kunais lodged in his upper left thigh
from Tenten.

Cursing, he pulled the kunais up dodged Lee's spinning kick before going forward several
paces to tackle Neji.
Despite Team Gai's perfectly executed triangle-attack formation, Kabuto was smiling as
he dodged and countered them, always within reach but never touchable.
"Orochimaru was extremely angry when you made off with the scrolls before him," the
silver-haired man said lightly as he caught Tenten's fist and sent her whirling back.
"Would we care?" Neji said emotionlessly, aiming for a point on Kabuto's back that would
immobilize him, but again Kabuto dodged, his mocking smile irritating the Hyuuga
prodigy.
"Well, since you guys took it I was wondering if there was any chance of getting it
back"the medic ninja said nonchalantly, shrugging.
"Of course not!" Lee said indignantly, his blow connecting with Kabuto's right cheek,
sending him stumbling back.
"Even if we wanted to, we wouldn't be able to," Tenten said quietly, throwing smoke
bombs to create a cover for Neji.
Kabuto eyed his surroundings warily, the smoke blinding his line of view. The three
shinobis were moving too quietly to be detected, and for that moment, he was
defenseless.
"Was Sasuke there when Orochimaru was trying to get the scrolls?" Tenten's voice came
quietly again, echoing softly and somewhat eerily in the misty surroundings.
Kabuto snickered. "Why so interested? Don't tell me you're falling for the Uchiha, like
that pathetic Haruno"
Two blows, one from a furious Hyuuga, and another from the weapons mistress insulted
on her friend's behalf, hit him on both his chest and back simultaneously, with full force.
Kabuto felt the pain, suddenly and painfully jolting him, then he only felt numbness. A
rush of warm liquid rushed up his throat and nearly choked him, and he spat blood,
collapsing onto his knees. However, for some reason, he remained smiling through his
pain, speaking while coughing up even more blood.
"Of course Sasuke-kun wasn't there Orochimaru's afraid of him"
Team Gai glanced at each other.
Neji grabbed Kabuto by the collar by the collar roughly. "Spill. Whatever you know. And
I'll know if you're lying," he motioned to his activated Byakugan.
"Then I'll be better off not telling you anything," Kabuto smirked, coughing up another
round of blood. But that was enough. From that one sentence alone, Neji ad been told
what he wanted to know. Orochimaru was weakening, Otogakure was crumbling, and
Kabuto was no longer loyal.
"Let's go," the Hyuuga prodigy motioned to his teammates, dragging Kabuto along in his
wake.

N
Team Gai found their friends still fighting the Sound nins ferociously, and noted that the
opponents' numbers were increasing rapidly. Gaara was having the least trouble, one
glare from him sent sand enveloping the enemy by the dozen.
Tenten put two fingers between her lips and let out a high-pitched whistle.
The fighting stopped almost immediately, and everyone fell silent, looking up at their
sudden intruders.
Neji held up the medic nin, flinging him towards the sound ninjas. "Take him," the
opaque-eyed boy spat. "And leave. Now."
There was something about his tone of voice that warned them not to disobey, and soon
they were gone without a trace, as suddenly as they had appeared.
The shinobis regrouped, not exchanging a word, and headed to wards the clearing where
their teammates were battling the Uchiha.
N
Naruto felt like panicking. What the hell was up with her? Sakura should know better
than that but it was simply too late to help her now, whatever crazy idea she might
have in mind.
The cherry blossom's face remained impassive in the face of danger, her feet blatantly
refused to move an inch. Her arm seemed to be tingling inexplicably, but she hardly
noticed. She couldn't define the emotions she was feeling as the onyx-eyed boy got
dangerously close to her, his icy black stare chilling her.
Sakura closed her eyes, Kakashi and Naruto watched with bated breaths, somehow
knowing that their female teammate would survive.
Her next move was entirely unexpected, even for the cherry blossom herself, and was
executed only when Sasuke was mere inches away. Her right arm drew back, as if
preparing to catch the ball of electricity.
Yet another blinding flash of light engulfed the clearing, while Naruto inhaled sharply as
he watched the battle.
Sakura was countering Sasuke's Chidori with her own.

Chapter 16 Climax
Naruto chanced a glance at Kakashi, and for once in his life, he saw the Jounin frozen in
total shock as he watched the battle taking an unexpected turn.

The electrical sparks of the Chidori was nearly too blinding to watch, but not one of the
fascinated spectators could turn away from the scene. Sakura and Sasuke both using
Chidori against each other was not exactly an ordinary sight.
After ensuring that Kabuto was not about to turn back for another attack on them
anytime soon, the rest of the weary team joined Naruto and Kakashi at their post in the
shelter of the trees, but not a word was exchanged.
Gaara watched, standing apart from the group with his arms crossed and his brow
furrowed. Sai crouched next to the Kazekage, his expression unreadable.
Meanwhile, the duo engaged in battle were completely unaware of 0f their surroundings,
pools of emerald and onyx stared intensely at each other, never wavering, never
breaking contact.
"You how" Sasuke broke the silence with a hiss, sparing a quick glance at his Chidori,
which was evenly matched by hers. Had Kakashi taught her Chidori as well? But then
again, how could she have mastered it?
"Honestly, I don't know," Sakura said quietly, almost sarcastically. At that very same
moment, both shinobis discharged their Chidori and leapt out of the way swiftly, barely
escaping the electrical explosion several seconds later.
Without hesitating, Sasuke started on the offense again, using numerous weapons to
accentuate his attacks on Sakura. His opponent was badly bruised, but her wounds
healed as soon as they were inflicted.
'Damn for her to be a medic nin, of all things' Sasuke cursed inwardly as another deep
slash wound on her arm healed without a trace.
The cherry blossom swung over a branch to avoid a kunai while taking the opportunity to
execute a jutsu Tsunade had taught her just recently. Feeling about another dozen
shurikens grazing her arms and drawing blood, Sakura swore under her breath and
quickly performed her handseals, ignoring the bleeding gashes.
"Chuusuusei Biribiri!" (1) she landed, hitting a point on Sasuke's neck.
Sasuke, however, had activated his Sharingan at the last moment, enabling him to veer
sideways slightly so that Sakura could not hit the point directly. The jutsu, supposed to
disorientate its victim's movements, totally immobilized him instead.
'So hitting slightly to the left immobilizes the person I have to remember that' Sakura
made a mental note to tell Tsunade.
She stood from her landing position, facing Sasuke. Her face remained emotionless.
"You activated the Sharingan," she said in a flat tone. "While fighting me,"
"So?" Sasuke shot back scathingly. "It doesn't mean that I will go back to Konoha quietly
and give up on killing Itachi,"
"When will you ever understand, Sasuke?" Sakura's voice rose slightly. "We're not asking
you to give up your revenge we simply want you to come home with us," the tone of
her voice lowered until they could barely hear it. He did not reply.

"Itachi might have killed your clan, but he's still your brother,"
"Don't you dare speak of him as my brother," Sasuke snarled back in response.
Sakura continued, not heeding him.
"He might have betrayed Konoha and joined Akatsuki, but you know he still views you as
his brother," Sakura took a step closer to him. "Itachi kills anyone who gets in his way
but he never did touch you, or hurt you seriously - considering all the opportunities he
had,"
"Itachi thinks of me as someone not worth killing because I am weak," Sasuke growled,
trying to sort out his emotions while straining to break free of Sakura's jutsu. 'Damn that
girl! Why does she have this effect on me?'
Sakura laughed. It was a short, bitter laugh, almost scornful.
"Do you really believe that's true? That you're 'weaker' and more 'not worth killing' than
all the younger ones in your clan? It there's one thing you don't understand, Sasuke, its
human nature. Your brother he still harbours some connection to you, whatever he
claims. And it's because of that that he's trying to make you hate him, to sever that
connection. He can't kill you because you meant the world to him back then, because you
were the only one there for him, who saw everything that he went through, things that
even his best friend didn't know,"
All was quiet around them. Even though sunlight was streaming through the forest
canopy, no animals or birds could be seen or heard. It was as if the entire world had
stopped to watch and listen.
"Being betrayed by a sibling is painful, isn't it?" Sakura asked quietly. "It feels like your
heart has been ripped out like you can never truly live again,"
"What would you know?" Sasuke spat bitterly.
"I know a lot more than you do, Sasuke," the cherry blossom said softly. "Maybe
Kakashi-sensei and Naruto wouldn't understand what you felt because they never had
siblings, but you're wrong if you think I don't know how it feels,"
Confusion was evident in Sasuke's onyx eyes, but as he opened his mouth to speak,
Sakura cut in, with a sudden question in a soft, hesitant voice.
"Do you remember my brother, Sasuke?"
N
Kakashi and Naruto exchanged confused glances. Sakura had a brother? Was she lying,
trying to coax the Uchiha? Naruto cast Neji a glance for confirmation. The Hyuuga
prodigy shook his head.
So it was true. Sakura had a brother, and her own team members had never known. It
was apparent that the rest of the girls knew, because they were the only ones not
looking confused.
"You saved my brother from being crushed by a wagon, eleven years ago,"

Sakura spoke softly, haltingly, affected by the memory.


"You still smiled back then"
As her voice echoed into the silence, Sasuke found the memory slowly returning to him.
That little boy with brown eyes and jet black hair grinning widely up at him, thanking
him for saving his life.
"Yuki died. A year later. He kept smiling while he was sick; trying to reassure me and my
family that he was okay. But it made me feel worse. Like like I was guilty for his
death," she whispered the last sentence. "I couldn't do anything to help him'
Silence met her words.
"Was that how you felt, Sasuke?" she asked, her emerald eyes staring at him blankly.
"Like you were the guilty one? You still have a brother I have no one left,"
The cherry blossom was lost in thought, completely unaware of her surroundings.
"Whatever you say, Sasuke blood is still thicker than water"
By this time, she was only a foot away from him.
Sakura opened her mouth to speak again, but all that escaped her lips was a soft
exclamation of surprise as she felt a sudden, jolting pain through her abdomen and
shuddered, crumpling to the ground. She clutched her abdomen, feeling the warm blood
trickling through her fingers.
The jutsu had worn off. Sasuke, hardly registering his own actions, had pulled out his
katana, sparking with electricity, and drove it straight through his childhood teammate.
The pink-haired kunoichi slumped against a tree, numbness flooding her body. Everyone
watched in stricken horror Sakura was not healing herself.
Slowly, she tilted her head upwards to meet his icy, onyx stare, but much to everyone's
surprise, she was smiling softly, looking resigned.
"I've got nothing more to say so kill me,"
N
"Don't you dare, teme,"
Just as the raven-haired boy lifted his sword to strike, a sharp voice rang out, and two
figures leapt before him, blocking his path.
Naruto and Kakashi faced him squarely, despite the latter's wounds being barely healed.
The Jounin winced as he felt a freshly-healed wound split open again, but he didn't have
time to care.
Sasuke let out a low laugh. "See, Sakura? You always have to be protected"
Sakura did not open her eyes, holding back the tears that threatened to spill. In the
end after all that she had gone through she was still what Sasuke termed as 'weak'.

"That's not true, Uchiha," a sudden, quiet voice broke the tense silence as a certain
opaque-eyed Hyuuga heir stepped out from behind the trees, slowly walking towards her
friend. "Sakura-chan doesn't need to be protected she'd be willing die if it would bring
you back to Konoha but it seems that you haven't changed and we're not going to let
her die in vain,"
Glaring at him in a way Hinata had never known she was capable of, the normally shy
girl knelt beside her pink-haired friend, shaking her gently. Through her blurred eyes,
Sakura glanced at Hinata.
"I can't heal this alone, Sakura-chan you have to help," Hinata indicated towards
Sakura's bleeding abdomen. She could tell that the kunoichi was getting dizzy from the
blood loss and was not registering her words, from the way her emerald eyes were blank
and unfocused. Immediately Hinata motioned Ino over, looking grim.
"We've got to heal her,"
N
Sakura felt herself sinking in the darkness of blissful ignorance as her world spun around
her in an endless vortex. She could hear someone speaking, but she lacked the willpower
to actually listen. Only Sasuke's last words echoed in her subconscious.
"You always have to be protected"
The cut in her heart had just grown deeper.
N
"So now you'd even kill Sakura-chan?" Naruto demanded furiously, fists clenched as his
blue eyes blazed.
"I thought you had more honour than that, Sasuke," Kakashi spoke quietly but firmly, in
the tone that he had used on them when they were genin.
"She asked for it, didn't she?" the Uchiha said simply.
"Sakura was just testing you, you moron!" Naruto growled, seething with fury.
"Putting her life on the line to test me?" Sasuke asked dryly, fingering his bloodied blade.
"Who'd be such an idiot?"
"She did it because she cares, teme!" This time, the blond boy yelled. "All of us do! And
in the end, all you ever think about is your stupid revenge!"
"So why don't you annoying idiots just leave me alone and get on with your pathetic little
lives, Naruto? Why waste time on me?" Sasuke replied coldly. "When will you ever learn
that I don't care, even if you do?"
Naruto let out a deafening roar as he leapt at the Uchiha and tackled him to the ground,
despite receiving numerous slashes on various parts of his body, seemingly not feeling
the pain. Hinata gasped.
"I'm gonna kill you, you hear me? I'm gonna kill you and rip you to pieces!"

A dangerous reddish-gold aura was enveloping Naruto as he grappled with Sasuke on the
mossy forest ground. One of the Kyuubi's tails lashed out fiercely, bringing down several
trees.
Kakashi started in mixed horror and surprise, taking a step forward in a move to stop
more of the Kyuubi's tails from appearing, but he collapsed even before he took his
second step.
Immediately Ino was beside him, dragging the senior Jounin back into safe territory.
"Don't move," she commanded firmly. "You're totally chakra depleted,"
"The Kyuubi" Kakashi whispered. Naruto was now sporting a second tail. Before them,
Sasuke was transforming as well, his curse seal spreading like wildfire all over his body
as he rolled out from under Naruto.
Ino gasped in horror, exchanging glances with Hinata. The Hyuuga heir, however, was
more concerned about the fact that Sakura's body was repelling her healing chakra,
refusing to be healed. 'Sakura-chan'
Sasuke's handsome face was becoming distorted, black marks crawling over it and
changing his facial features, twisting it into a horrifying mask that rendered him entirely
unrecognizable, apart from his mop of chicken hair.
His body had also transformed into the same twisted deformity, growing slightly larger
and taller than he originally was. The marks of the curse seal were etched into his pale
skin, all over his body, while his eyes retained the blood red shade of the Uchiha
Sharingan, with its three commas.
"He's activated his curse seal at level 2," Neji said quietly, unable to pry his eyes away
from the battle. Shikamaru was frowning, obviously worried, while Lee was staring, wide
eyed, at the battle. Akamaru was shaking inside Kiba's jacket, while Kiba himself looked
shaken. Tenten had already joined Ino and Hinata.
The two beasts, once teammates, snarled and growled at each other, yellowish cat-like
eyes meeting blood red ones. Without hesitation, they leapt towards each other, aiming
for the kill.
N
The battle was almost too confusing to watch. One moment the two boys were attacking
each other with weapons, and another moment later, they were throwing punches and
dodging kicks.
No words were spoken; the intensity in which they were glaring at each other said it all.
Swirls of Naruto's red-gold chakra danced around him his fourth tail appeared. The fifth
tail was forming.
Sasuke seemed to be unaffected by the Kyuubi's dangerous chakra, even as his fist made
contact with Naruto's face. But he had taken his share of beating, blood trickled from the
corner of his mouth and his body was bruised all over.
Naruto was covered in his own blood, but his mind was elsewhere as he rampaged on,
tearing the trees apart in an attempt to trap Sasuke. His fifth tail was now fully formed,
lashing out dangerously close to the group of shinobis behind the trees, who leapt
backwards in alarm.

"Oh no," Shikamaru groaned. "This is bad"


N
'Hey!' Sakura heard the Nanabi's voice, rudely jolting out of her blissful darkness. 'Get up
and heal yourself right now!'
'Uhh' Sakura groaned. 'I thought you'd heal me'
'You said this was your fight, right? I'm not going to help you'
'Then just leave me alone'
'You promised Naruto that you'd bring Sasuke back together with him,' the Nanabi
chided sternly. 'And now you're leaving the job to him just because you got stabbed in
the abdomen?'
'I promised?' Sakura asked groggily, still not fully conscious.
'Two years ago. You promised. I saw it in your mind,' the seven-tailed demon phoenix
told her quietly. 'Hinata and Ino are trying to heal you, but you're resisting it,'
'Huh'
'Sakura! Open your eyes and see what's happening between your teammates! NOW!'
Whether if it was out of surprise, or fear, the cherry blossom obeyed.
The moment she caught sight of Naruto, consumed by the Kyuubi and performing the
Rasengan; and Sasuke, with his curse seal activated, and his Chidori in his right hand,
she bolted upright.
Hinata, Ino and Tenten nearly shrieked when Sakura jumped up suddenly, the gaping
wound on her abdomen only partly healed by her own chakra.
Before any of them registered what was happening, Sakura was standing in the path of
the two boys charging at each other, emerald eyes flashing dangerously as her deafening
yell resounded in the clearing
"STOP IT! BOTH OF YOU!"

Chapter 17- Defeat


-
Sakura's outstretched hands caught each boy firmly by the collar, halting them in their
tracks. For some reason, they had dissolved the Rasengan and the Chidori
simultaneously, as if reluctant to hurt her.

Kakashi, looking pale and tired, smiled sadly under his mask as he felt the familiarity of
the scene from so long ago, save for the fact that this time; Sakura was stopping the
boys herself. She had grown, after all.
The cherry blossom was looking none too pleased as she held them by their collars,
trying to ignore the painful throbbing in her abdomen. The Nanabi's golden chakra
enveloped her right hand, protecting her from the Kyuubi's chakra.
The boys remained glaring at each other intensely.
Sakura clenched her jaw. "I said stop it. Now."
The Kyuubi's tails were disappearing, Naruto's eyes were loosing their cat-like
appearance and his chakra presence was returning to normal. Sakura inwardly sighed in
relief when her friend's blue eyes looked at her almost curiously, as if confused.
Opposite Naruto, Sasuke was also slowly returning to his original form as his curse seal
receded and his features smoothened out. The Uchiha retained his emotionless
expression, watching the pink-haired kunoichi.
Sakura released them turning towards Naruto, towering over him with her hands on her
hips. With one swift punch, she sent the utterly clueless boy flying backwards and
crashing into the trees.
"You baka! You promised Captain Yamato that when you went to get that moron back,
you'd do it with your own eyes, not the Kyuubi's!"
Sasuke bit back an exclamation. Sakura had just called him a
Moron?
The furious pink-haired girl was now facing him. Sasuke glared back at the burning
emerald eyes, bracing himself for some sort of verbal or physical onslaught.
Sakura continued glaring at him for a few moments, and then her face switched to an
unemotional faade. She raised her right hand.
Seconds later, a stinging slap grazed his left cheek.
N
The onyx-eyed boy glanced at the cherry blossom in disbelief. Now, she was looking
angry.
"Wake up, Sasuke, and grow up!"
Onyx eyes stared into flashing emerald ones as Sakura's words echoed through the silent
clearing.
"Do you really think that revenge is always the only way out? Would having Itachi dead
really make you ha-"
"I don't want to be happy," Sasuke cut in, a hint of anger in his voice as he crossed his
arms. "So stop trying to act like you know what I went through!"

He could still feel the sting of her slap on his cheek. 'The nerve of that girl'
"Tell me, Sasuke," Sakura asked quietly after a moment of silence. She faced him, while
her eyes still blazed, ignoring the throbbing pain in her abdomen and the blood seeping
through her fingers as her hand clutched her stomach. "Do you actually understand what
'being strong' means?"
In the background, Neji, Shikamaru and Kakashi exchanged glances. This was getting
interesting, even by their standards mainly because the question Sakura had just
asked Sasuke was the last question each potential Jounin was asked at the end of the
exam. Not that any of their teammates knew.
"It means not needing you idiots following me every step of the way and being able to
kill Itachi alone," Sasuke growled back at her, losing his patience.
Sakura nearly laughed, feeling the bitterness well up within her.
"So that's your pathetic understanding of the term 'being strong'?" she asked in scorn.
"Being able to stand alone? Not needing the help of others?"
Silence.
"Well, you're wrong, Sasuke. Dead wrong," Sakura snarled. "The true meaning of being
strong-" she leaned in closer towards him, so that her face was mere inches away from
him, and her startling emerald eyes were staring into his.
"-is to be able to protect people. To have the willpower to be loyal to your comrades, to
be able to love, and to care. To be able to trust, and to know when to let down your pride
and admit defeat."
Sasuke stared back defiantly at Sakura. The pink-haired girl continued.
"By that measure you're the weakest here," she ended in a whisper.
Kakashi spoke in a low tone to Neji and Shikamaru. "If this was the Jounin exam I'd be
giving her a hundred percent pass for that answer,"
Sasuke still looked passive. "Love is a weakness," he said, his tone cold.
"Yes," Sakura agreed softly, drawing back to her full height. "Love is a weakness, but
hidden strength lies behind this particular weakness,"
Everything felt so silent, the cherry blossom continued staring at the raven-haired boy,
almost lost in her own world of thought. She spoke again, suddenly looking sad.
"And not being able to love is your greatest weakness,"
N
"Shizune!" Tsunade called from her office, frowning slightly as she crossed her legs and
placed her hands on her desk. The raven-haired assistant hurried in straight from her
work, carrying Tsunade's pet pig, Tonton, in her arms. Shizune looked rather hassled,
glancing back at her overloaded desk as she approached the Godaime Hokage. Man, how
she wish Sakura were here to handle all that work, as well.

"Hai, Tsunade-sama?"
Tonton leapt out of Shizune's arms and pattered over to its master. Picking the tiny pink
animal up, the Godaime looked at her assistant expectantly, knowing that some people
were waiting to see her outside.
"Kurenai-san and Genma-san are here to see you, Tsunade-sama," Shizune said quietly,
stepping aside.
"Come in," Tsunade ordered, leaning back in her chair while stroking Tonton's head.
The two Jounins entered and bowed to the Fifth. Tsunade gave a slight nod of
acknowledgement before indicating to Shizune to close the doors and seal the room.
She obliged.
"Any news of Danzou yet?" Tsunade questioned, once satisfied that no one would be able
to eavesdrop on their conversation.
"Nothing suspicious, as far as we've seen, Hokage-sama," Kurenai reported, her face
looking tired while her crimson eyes shut for a few moments. "Iruka is still keeping
watch."
"He's been holed up in his mansion for ages," Genma reported, hands in his pockets. "We
just see his servants going in and out for daily matters, and occasionally he walks out
into the main courtyard that's about it,"
Behind Tsunade, Shizune started in surprise, but no one noticed.
"Any suspicious visitors?" the Hokage asked.
"Well, so far everything looks pretty nor-" Genma began, but was quickly cut off by
Kurenai.
"No. I saw two hooded men entering Danzou's residence by the side door. Yesterday
night," the raven-haired kunoichi reported grimly. "I was pretty sure they weren't from
Konoha, but I wanted to await your green light to confront them,"
"I haven't issued any tourist passes lately," Tsunade said curtly. "So they're intruders,"
the Fifth's eyes narrowed. "It's noon. They might still be around. Iruka's watching right
now, right?"
"Yes," Genma nodded.
"Both of you confront the two intruders once you see them anywhere. Bring them to me
immediately. But send Iruka to get backup first, we don't know how strong they may be.
Got me?"
Both Jounins nodded and prepared to exit, but Shizune suddenly cried out.
"Wait!"
Three pairs of eyes turned to look at her in surprise.

"Please wait, Tsunade-sama!" she pleaded, before turning to Genma. "You say that he
didn't leave his house?" she questioned.
"Uh yeah," Genma replied, curious.
"That's impossible," Shizune stated, turning to face Tsunade. "Because I saw him on
the street yesterday, when I went out to get more sake for Tsunade-sama,"
"You saw him?" Kurenai asked, startled. "Are you sure?"
"Perfectly sure," Shizune nodded. "At first, I thought it was nothing after all, it was just
a man walking down a street and it happened to be Danzou. But something made me
turn back and take a look. Maybe it was because he looked so hurried, and the street
was quiet he walked into a pub called the 'Sakeya',"
"That pub shut down three months ago," Tsunade cut in.
"I forgot about that" Shizune trailed off. "But then I realized where he had come from,"
She paused, taking a breath.
"He came out from an abandoned building you know, the barred up old shop further up
the street from Sakeya?" she asked.
"The faded red one? The one that used to sell weapons?" Genma asked.
"Yes, that one," Shizune nodded. "I found the door unlocked, so I walked in. The inside
was nothing suspicious, just an abandoned shop full of dust, but the shelves on the far
end of the wall had been shifted, and there was a passageway at the far end that seemed
to go on. I didn't go any further,"
Tsunade glanced at Genma and Kurenai. "So the question now is: why was Danzou
walking out of one abandoned building and into another?"
The room was silent.
"Get backup and investigate immediately. Send someone to watch Danzou's residence.
Check where the passage Shizune mentioned leads to, and find out what was going on in
the Sakeya. Watch, but do not attack. Not until you have my signal. You are to be
dressed as ANBU, and this is an official A-rank mission. Kurenai, you're in charge. Choose
your team and report back if anything is found. All clear?" the Godaime Hokage
instructed firmly, standing up.
"Yes," both Jounins bowed.
"Shizune," Tsunade said sharply. Her assistant lifted the seal on the room. The Hokage
turned back to the Jounins. "Now go,"
Kurenai and Genma nodded, and disappeared.
N

Sasuke had never known that silence could be so deafening. There she was, that pinkhaired girl standing right in front of him. The one person who had, somehow, begun to
matter so much to him.
The raven-haired boy would never admit it, but her words had affected him. And right
now, he was angry.
"Since 'not knowing how to love' is my greatest weakness, why do both of you absolute
idiots keep coming back?" he demanded, his voice rising in a crescendo. "Why do you,
Sakura, still love me even though you know I won't love you back? And you, dobe why
treat me as a brother when you know that in the end, one of us will die at the hands of
the other?"
His sudden outburst surprised them, and no one spoke for several moments.
"Because you once showed us that you were capable of caring, that's why," Sakura
replied softly. "We won't ever give up on you, even if it means following you to the ends
of the earth or losing our lives in the process,"
"Even if you killed me, I'd still die treating you as my brother," Naruto added grimly. "So
are you coming, teme, or am I going to have to drag you all the way back to Konoha?"
The Uchiha glared at his former teammate.
"Leave. Now. All of you,"
Sakura eyes Sasuke curiously, and a moment later, her face was set in determination.
"We told you, Sasuke, we're not leaving without you. Not this time,"
Sasuke found himself surprised at Sakura's tone of voice, but then his surprise switched
to anger. 'Dammit I don't need this right now she's just confusing me'
'Who's 'confusing' you?' a voice sounded from the back of his head. 'You know you want
to leave that idiotic snake bastard and go back with them'
"Just shut up," Sasuke subconsciously spoke out loud. Realizing his mistake, his
expression hardened. "When will the two of you give up? And when will you learn that no
matter what, I can't turn back?!"
"Why, then?" Naruto demanded angrily. "Why can't you see that selling your soul to
Orochimaru isn't going to help you kill Itachi? That revenge isn't the only thing in the
world? That we care too much to let you sink into darkness?"
"Because I don't deserve it, you moron!" Sasuke yelled back at his friend. "I'm not worth
your time or your tears! So just stop pursuing me and get on with your lives already!"
Only the sounds of the two boys panting could be heard now, as they glared at each
other with a mixture of hate and regret.
Sakura took a step towards Sasuke, but crumpled onto the ground as her sudden
movement reopened her semi-healed abdomen wound.

The girl just sat there, clutching her stomach and biting back the pain. She stared at the
ground, pink locks shielding her face from view. Unbeknownst to any of those watching,
tears glistened in her emerald eyes.
"It's simple, really we've just come too far to 'leave you alone' and 'get on with our
lives',"
N
The three teammates just stayed where they were, still and silent, not knowing what to
say, or to do. Sakura struggled to summon enough chakra to heal her wound, but she
was suppressing the Nanabi's chakra and did not have enough of her own left for healing.
Sasuke was staring into blank space, his thoughts a muddled jumble. What was he
feeling? Was it pain, or relief? He couldn't tell.
And then he suddenly felt a jab to his lower back, and his body went limp. He lay on the
ground, feeling inexplicably numbed. Somewhere to his left, Naruto and Tenten were
helping Sakura stand, and when he looked up, Hyuuga Neji was staring down at him,
looking passive.
"You're coming with us, Uchiha, whether you like it or not."

Chapter 18 Hyuuga Bunke Juinjutsu



Kakashi surveyed the camp scene while resting beneath a large tree, his visible eye
reflecting the firelight some distance away. Sakura had healed him some time after the
battle, but he had exhausted his chakra using the Sharingan.
For once, his trademark orange novel was stowed away in his pocket, nowhere to be
seen. The Jounin was intently watching Sasuke, who was bound to a large tree, some
distance away from him.
The Uchiha's face was blank, but Kakashi could sense some kind of emotion dancing in
his ex-student's onyx eyes. Something that told him Sasuke was torn between anger
and relief?
Kakashi smiled slightly under his mask.
N
Deep in thought while watching a certain pink-haired kunoichi talking to her three friends
by the fire, Sasuke failed to notice a certain hyperactive ninja coming towards him until
he was standing right beside him.

"Hey," came the greeting as Naruto sat on the ground beside Sasuke. The Uchiha noticed
the lack of the term '-teme' in the greeting, and glanced at the jinchuuriki with an
eyebrow slightly raised.
"Are you okay?" Naruto asked, somewhat stiffly. He hadn't forgotten the battle.
"Hn."
"Stop giving me one-word replies, you bastard, or I swear I'll rip you limb to limb,"
Sasuke glared daggers at Naruto, and the latter glared right back.
"How do you think I am, tied up like a freakin' mummy after having my chakra flow
stopped?" Sasuke spat.
Naruto suddenly broke into a grin. "Now that's more like it it's kinda good to know that
five years with Oro didn't change your attitude all that much,"
The furious Uchiha did not reply.
Both young teens sat in silence, each thinking their own thoughts.
"I saw you staring at Sakura-chan," the blonde boy broke the silence with a knowing
smirk. "She's a lot prettier, don't you think?" he added slyly as Sasuke started, his
expression almost comical.
"Don't worry, Sasuke-kun, I won't tell her I'll make you tell her," Naruto laughed at his
comrade.
"Shut up, dobe," the raven-haired boy muttered.
Naruto turned serious suddenly. "She's not weak anymore, Sasuke," he said quietly,
watching the Uchiha's face intently for any changes. "When she fought you back then
she was holding back. She didn't even use her advanced-level genjutsu on you,"
"Genjutsu doesn't work " Sasuke started indignantly, but was cut off by Naruto.
"Normal genjutsu doesn't work, on the Sharingan, I know. But Sakura's been studying
with Kurenai-sensei, and they developed a kind of double-layered genjutsu and
managed to fool Neji with it,"
Sasuke felt a jolt of surprise. Genjutsu that could even fool a Byakugan user?
"They also found a glitch in the two famous Mangekyou Sharingan genjutsu Sakura
thinks that there may be a way to enable 'kai' to work on Tsukiyomi and Ameterasu,"
Now Sasuke was surprised, even if he refused to show it.
Naruto changed the topic. "How was life with the snake bastard?"
Sasuke was silent for awhile. "He'll come after us, you know," he avoided his exteammate's question.
Naruto snorted. "Who's afraid of him?"

Silence.
"All these years you were gone people talked," Naruto said, his tone low.
"I wouldn't care," Sasuke replied emotionlessly.
"You didn't care, but Sakura did," Naruto retorted. "She defended you every time she
heard something bad being said about you, and after awhile, everywhere she went,
people whispered behind her back. I overheard two idiots sneering that 'the Hokage's
apprentice is probably working in league with that traitor did you hear that she once
had this huge crush on him? What a cheap slut,'," Naruto added, somewhat angrily. "I
wanted to rip their heads off"
"Why didn't you, then?" Sasuke asked icily, suddenly feeling the urge to personally kill
those two idiots himself. 'I'd have ripped them limb to limb' a loud thought sounded in
his mind.
Naruto smiled sadly. "I really don't know why I didn't do it," he admitted. "But I think it
was because she once warned me never to defend her or she'd personally rip me apart
herself. And coming from her, that was a threat,"
Sasuke found random thoughts running through his jumbled mind as he watched the
sunset. Just this morning he had fought his ole team, and now he was being held captive
by them. The irony of it.
Strangely, he felt no resentment. His pride was a little wounded, true enough, but hey.
Hey felt happy, even. Just a little.
Maybe it was the feeling of being away from Orochimaru's hell, or just the feeling of
being back where he belonged.
He was jolted out of his thoughts by Naruto's voice.
"Sasuke."
"Aa?"
"I have a question."
Sasuke gave him a slight nod.
"If you were given the freedom to decide would you come willingly back home with
us?" Naruto asked quietly.
There was a long while of silence as Sasuke immersed himself in the question. When he
finally looked straight at Naruto, his face was still passive, but his eyes harboured the
slightest hint of warmth.
"Yes," Sasuke said quietly. "I would,"
N
"You mean that?"

A hesitant, feminine voice sounded, and both boys looked up in surprise. Their pinkhaired friend was standing before them, looking straight at Sasuke.
For a moment, the Uchiha half expected Sakura to burst into tears and suffocate him
with another of her crushing hugs, but nothing of the sort happened.
She knelt on the ground, facing him, her emerald eyes staring intently at him. "Do you
really mean that?"
"When I say something I mean it," Sasuke snapped, feeling a hot sensation wash over
his face. Then he swallowed hard Uchihas did not blush.
Sakura smiled, noting the faint tinge of colour on Sasuke's face. Twisting to her right,
she repositioned herself to sit facing the two boys. Her inner self was almost dying with
excitement, she could tell. Groaning inwardly, she shut the annoying voice out.
It was almost completely dark now. The firelight danced upon their faces, giving them a
warm glow. Naruto prattled on animatedly, updating Sasuke on the happenings in
Konoha, while Sakura added in parts that Naruto had missed out with almost as much
gusto as the hyperactive ninja.
Sasuke listened without comment. He wondered just how much he'd missed, all the
changes in Konoha, the political tides, the Rookie Nine maturing from adolescents to
adults (heck, even Naruto had read Jiraya's dirty novels) His friends were growing up,
and all this while he had been holed up with nothing but Kabuto's collection of dead
bodies for company.
He wondered how those two could forgive him so easily, and treat him like nothing had
happened. 'Do I do I deserve it?' he questioned himself.
" Jounin exams in a month, can you believe it? Hey, Sasuke, are you listening?" Sasuke
jolted out of his reverie, only to find Sakura looking expectantly at him.
"Hn."
"I said, the Jounin exams are in a month, and both of us are taking part," Sakura
repeated with an air of mock exasperation.
"You passed Chunin level?" Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Hey, teme, we didn't just sit around moping for five years, you know," Naruto jabbed at
Sasuke's chest, earning himself a death glare. He, however, continued. "You're
notthat loved, Sasuke, so get over yourself,"
Sakura laughed lightly at the exchange. "Do you want to take the exams?" she asked the
Uchiha, tilting her head to one side.
"I haven't even passed Chunin level yet," Sasuke muttered, trying to hide his
embarrassment. He braced himself for an assault of laughter. Nothing happened.
"That doesn't really matter," Sakura said nonchalantly, shifting to a more comfortable
position, leaning against a tree.
Sasuke glanced at her.

"For a start, I am the Hokage's apprentice," the cherry blossom grinned. "But it mainly
depends on you to convince Tsunade-sama and I warn you, she's not an easy person
to deal with,"
N
The conversation went on right though dinner, with Sakura and Naruto sneaking food to
Sasuke due to the fact that Neji was still rather displeased at having the Uchiha as an
added burden to the team.
However, what they didn't know was that the Hyuuga prodigy saw them, but chose to
simply turn away with a small smirk. Maybe this would turn out better than he thought
When everyone else hit the sack, Naruto tactfully excused himself with a wink and a
thumbs up at Sasuke, before disappearing into his tent. Some distance away, a silverhaired Jounin stood as well, satisfied at the way things were going, and decided to call it
a night.
So Sakura and Sasuke were left alone, quietly talking through the night, or simply sitting
in silence. As for what they talked about no one knew.
N
Kakashi packed the last of his things and strode over to where he had left Sakura and
Sasuke last night, under the trees. The Jounin grinned under his mask as he saw both of
them still there Sasuke sleeping against the tree he'd been bound to in a sitting
position, while Sakura was sleeping on the ground, right next to him.
"Hey" he called out softly. Immediately the two shinobis bolted awake.
"Time to go, lovebirds," Kakashi smirked. Sasuke glared, but Sakura didn't seem to
register his words. She rubbed her tired eyes groggily, stretching while yawning.
"What time is it"
"Half past three in the morning, and your dear team leader says that if you don't get
your butts moving this second, you're gonna have hell to pay,"
Sakura swore. "My backpack"
"Packed," Kakashi motioned to a pack lying against a rock, not far off. "Thank Tenten,
she did it,"
Sakura heaved a sigh of relief. "C'mon, let's go,"
N
It was cold, and travelling when you were still half asleep didn't help at all. They ahd
three more days to reach Konoha, and the prospect of that long journey didn't cheer
them up, either.
Sasuke squirmed in his uncomfortably tight bonds, his wrists were sore. Keeping his
balance on the branches without the use of his hands was harder than he thought.

Sakura and Naruto had spent a full ten minutes arguing with Neji on whether or not the
Uchiha should be tied up, but the Hyuuga was adamant on having Sasuke's chakra points
sealed and his hands bound until they reached Konoha.
'Damn you Hyuuga'
N
It was almost dawn. The air was fresh and they could hear birds chirping sweetly, but Sai
couldn't shake off the funny feeling in his gut. 'We're being watched'
He cast Kakashi a glance. The Jounin nodded slightly, looking grim. He'd sensed it, too.
Sai tapped Hinata on the shoulder. Her Byakugan was activated; she'd know what was
going on. Glancing back quickly as an acknowledgement, she turned to whisper.
"Akamaru"
The white ninja dog let out a low whine. Neji heard it, and glanced sharply to the right.
He raised a clenched fist, before spreading out his fingers the signal for them to
disperse and tackle the enemy.
Immediately the group fanned out in twos or threes, leaping in different directions to
source out their trackers.
N
Three minutes had passed, and still nothing. Teaming with Naruto and Sasuke, Sakura
glanced around her. Everything looked normal normal, that is, until Sakura noticed the
queer little vine twisting about a small branch she'd seen it before.
Then it struck her. Performing several handseals, Sakura caught both boys by the
shoulders, halting them.
"Genjutsu Kai!"
Several trees began to vanish, and the forest became sparse. The cherry blossom
clenched her fists. "Dammit we were travelling in circles!"
Naruto was about to say something when suddenly, an agonized scream rang through
the air, followed by a painfully familiar voice.
"Neji!"
The members of Team 7 glanced at each other sharply, before taking off in the direction
of the voice, unspoken fear and worry tugging at their hearts.
N
Hyuuga Neji, the Hyuuga Neji, was keeled upon the ground, clutching his head in obvious
pain. Tenten knelt beside him, trying to ask him what was wrong. The brown haired
kunoichi prided herself for possessing a certain calm demeanor when facing crisis during
missions, but that trait seemed to be abandoning her now as her heart raced and her
entire body felt numb.

She tried to ask him what was wrong, trying to find the words that seemed to have left
her completely in this time of need. But she soon realized that she didn't have to ask.
Neji's hitai-ate had fallen off, and there, right in the middle of his forehead, was the
Hyuuga Curse Seal, glowing eerily green for all to see.
His shame. The mark that separated him from the others in the Hyuuga Clan. The one
that he had tried to keep hidden from public view, for so many years. In a moment, just
a moment, his weakness was displayed to the world.
By now, every member of the team surrounded Neji and Tenten, wary of attackers.
Somehow, they knew, even before that man appeared right in front of Sasuke and
Kakashi, just who that man was. The man none of them particularly wanted to meet right
now. The man that Sasuke had vowed to kill, even at the expense of his own life.
Uchiha Itachi.
N
"Sakura!" Sasuke said sharply to the girl beside him. Understanding his tone of voice,
she pulled out a kunai and slashed at his wrist bindings, swiftly hitting several points of
his body that enabled his chakra to flow again.
Behind them, Tenten was close to tears, all her defenses down. She tried desperately to
comfort Neji, but she didn't know how. It hurt her to see him like this. It hurt worse than
anything else to see someone she loved suffering pain that she would never be able to
comprehend.
"Hinata! Do something! Please" the weapons mistress pleaded. The Hyuuga heir
seemed to be the only calm one amongst them, kneeling next to Neji. She closed her
eyes and contemplated something for a moment, no one could tell what.
'Should I use that technique? I've spent two years developing it but it only works in
theory would it work now?'
Making up her mind, Hinata looked up, a new spark of determination in her opaque eyes.
"Neji nii-san this will hurt even more,"
N
Just seeing his brother standing right before him in his Akatsuki cloak with that
emotionless face on made Sasuke's blood boil. Casting a quick glance backwards at Neji,
Sasuke rounded angrily on his brother.
"Leave him alone, Itachi!"
"He doesn't interest me. I am only here for the Kyuubi and the Nanabi," Itachi spoke
coldly, his tone flat. His Sharingan stared at them in a fixed way, sending shivers up their
spines.
"Only Naruto hosts the Kyuubi here," Sasuke shot back, somewhat confused.
"That girl next to you," Itachi motioned to wards Sakura simply. "is the Nanabi's
jinchuuriki,"

Sasuke glanced at Sakura in surprise. She returned it with a warning glare. 'Not now,
you idiot!'
Her emerald eyes said it all.
Sasuke's fists clenched as he turned back to face Itachi, scowling. So what else was
being kept from him? A jab to his back from Naruto brought him sharply back to earth.
"Focus, teme!" the jinchuuriki hissed.
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Fight me, Itachi. Not him!" he lunged forwards, only to be
pulled back by Sakura and Naruto.
"I said it, brother. I only want your two friends. Not you," Itachi spoke smoothly, not
moving a muscle as he watched Sasuke struggle between his teammates. "Stop wasting
my time. You're no different from all the idiots from our clan"
The cherry blossom caught the look on Sasuke's face and shuddered. Pure hatred.
"Whatever, Uchiha, it's me and Sakura you want, so leave Neji alone!" Naruto
demanded, his voice a low growl.
"What makes you think I activated the Seal on that pathetic Hyuuga?" Itachi asked
coolly.
Before the words could sink in, another voice sounded from behind the Uchiha.
"The ability to activate the Curse Seal is a Hyuuga bloodline limit," a figure walked up
behind Itachi. "You should know that,"
The shinobis gasped. They didn't know him, but those eyes
Kakashi's eyes narrowed as his finally spoke.
"So you decide to show up, traitor,"
"Tsk, tsk. If I recall correctly, this boy standing before me is also a traitor, Hatake,"
"He came back to us,"
"Once a traitor, always a traitor, Hatake the Uchiha knows that well,"
"Are you just bitter about having your name erased from the Hyuuga Clan, Hakujo?" (1)
"Shut up, Hatake,"
"Not until you do, Hyuuga,"
Onyx and opaque eyes clashed.

Chapter 19- Reverse


-
Hinata looked up sharply when she heard that name, but faltered when she saw
just who it was.
"H-Hakujo"
His jet-black hair was tied back in the typical Hyuuga fashion, but it was the glint in his
eyes and the sneer tugging at his lips that made all the difference. Roughly pushing past
Sasuke and Kakashi, he approached the trio on the ground; his eyes full of mockery that
made Tenten want to lodge every weapon that she owned into his body. 'How how dare
he - !"
Hakujo failed to notice her. "Why the lack of respect, Hinata-sama?" he sneered,
referring to the blatant lack of the honorific term to his name. "But then again, Hanabi
was always more polite to her uncle than you not that I ever really liked her, anyway.
Not that I would ever like anything that is related to that imbecile Hiashi,"
Everyone stared at the unusual scene before them, unsure of what to do or to say. It
seemed inappropriate to interfere as the Hyuugas were generally reserved people, their
clan's doings were never public and this looked like a family feud. An open
confrontation this was something new, when it came to the opaque eyed clan.
Hinata's eyes were downcast, her fists clenched so tight her knuckles were white. Naruto
noticed her body shaking, and his eyes narrowed. Not another one of them! Why did
everyone of those Hyuuga morons always think that Hinata wasn't capable? His own fists
clenched tight, but Sakura's warning hand on his shoulder held him back.
Neji was whimpering slightly, trying to hide his pain. How difficult it had to be if he
broke down in front of his team like that, he would never be able to face them again.
Tenten knew that this was the way he thought, regardless of whatever they told him. His
pride came before anything else. She knew that. Swallowing hard, she glanced down at
her numb hands, lacking circulation from Neji's death grip, his only open display of the
pain he felt.
Hakujo strode closer to the girl kneeling beside her cousin, lowering himself until he was
at eye level with Hinata. His face showed pure malice, malice born out of a grudge. "Your
father Hiashi " Hakujo spat the name as if it was dirt. "-is an absolute fool for choosing
a weakling like you to be heir. When there could have been so many better choices "
When the opaque-eyed girl spoke, interrupting him, her voice was dangerously quiet.
"Do not insult my father."
Her uncle let out a low laugh. "Why do you defend him, Hinata? If I remember correctly,
Hiashi himself called you 'weak' and gave up on you, handing you over to your sensei
because of your dismal lack of abilities, I suppose,"
Hakujo reached out a hand and tilted Hinata's face upwards. "I see tears tears of an
heir who is unworthy, who is nothing but a sniveling child" he spoke smoothly.
Naruto felt like lashing out at Hakujo, but refrained. Hinata could take care of herself.

Instead, it was Neji who raised a shaking hand and dealt a rather powerful blow to
Hakujo's arm, despite his condition. His opaque eyes glared at the older man while he
tried to hide his pain. "Don't touch Hinata-sama!"
"Get your filthy hands off me, Branch member!" Hakujo snarled. Neji let out a sudden,
fresh cry of agony Hakujo's killing intent was rocketing. "You disgrace the Hyuugas by
interacting with this kind of woman!" he pointed accusingly at Tenten, who started, her
brown eyes containing a spark of fury. "A woman who doesn't even know her name, who
has none of our prestige!"
"Your prestige?" Tenten growled, lashing out with her kunais and shurikens. "What
prestige is there when all the Hyuugas do is rant about destiny and torture the Branch
House members? Tell me!" the weapons mistress looked like she was ready to murder,
narrowly dodging the weapons Hakujo had caught and sent flying back at her.
"Do you know why you're weak, Hinata?" It's because you hang out with garbage like
this!" her uncle spoke viciously, kicking Neji. Hard.
'You you lowlife!' Tenten screamed into her mind, translating her anger into strength as
she attempted a sideswipe to Hakujo's feet. He avoided her neatly, never taking his eyes
off Hinata.
"Don't listen to him Hinata Tenten " Neji whispered, despite the excruciating
pain crushing him. "Don't listen!"
Hakujo continued. "Your fool of a father dared name you heir! He took my rightful place,
he inherited every last yen from the late clan leader and he erased my name from the
Hyuugas putting you as his successor!"
Hinata's shoulders shook as anger boiled within her. There was only so much she could
take before she flared. "You have no right to be our clan leader and anything would be
better than having you lead us Hyuugas!" she snarled.
"Why wouldn't I make a good clan leader, Hinata? After all, I aim to make life better for
the Main House," Hakujo's tone suddenly switched to a much calmer pitch. "The Branch
those fools aren't suffering enough. They should be made to work as slaves instead of
the pretty term 'protectors'. Insolent brats like him " her uncle motioned to Neji. "should be eliminated,"
He'd hit a nerve. Hinata's opaque eyes flashed upwards.
"What do you know about valuing human life, Hakujo?" she asked dangerously, drawing
herself up to her full height. "All you care about is you, you and you! Nothing else! What
makes us Main House members so different from the Branch? We're not smarter Nejisan is better than all of us. We're not superior beings because all of us are only
humans!"
"When will you see sense, Hinata? The Branch was created to serve us they are simply
pawns and tools to be used as they come and go. Their deaths do not matter to us,"
Hakujo's eyes shone with a malicious glint. "We are not equal the Curse Seal sees to
that. The Branch members and their curse seals 'til death do they part'. That is the way
it is, and the way it should be!" he sneered, looking at Neji mockingly.
The watching shinobis felt furious. What kind of sick man was this? To take human
life as nothing? To treat others as nothing but tools?

"And the best thing, Hinata" Hakujo continued, oblivious to the death wishes he was
receiving, "-is that you can't do anything about it,"
"You want to bet?" Hinata challenged, her face set. No one had ever seen the shy
Hyuuga heir looking like that, utterly furious and unafraid to show it. She suddenly
seemed to radiate strength and a certain command for respect. "There's no difference
between Main and Branch House members I'll prove it!" her voice was quiet, but held a
trace of daring him to argue with her.
Turning towards her cousin, Hinata instructed Tenten to hold the trembling prodigy
firmly. "Hold his hand," she told her quietly. "He's going to need it,"
'I'll have to do it. It's now or never, and I'm never going to let Hakujo have
the satisfaction of knowing that I've failed yet again,' Hinata thought, bracing
herself. 'Please, please work'
It was something she had been trying to develop for years, and using it this once would
determine if her efforts had been in vain or not. Her handseals were performed quickly,
too fast to follow.
"Hyuuga Bunke Juinjutsu: hantai ni suru!" (1)
Two of her fingers were pressed towards Neji's temples; visible white chakra was being
channeled into the Curse Seal. For a moment, it glowed an even brighter shade of green,
before slowly dimming
With a cry, Hakujo started forward, but was swiftly blocked by Sasuke and Gaara, who
glared him down.
The shinobi watched in fascination. The Curse Seal on Neji's forehead it was fading.
Hinata's eyes were tightly shut in concentration. Tenten noted that Neji's grip was
slackening; even his body had stopped shaking.
Only the faint outline of the seal could be seen now. A moment later, it was gone.
Completely gone.
Hinata heaved a sigh of relief, letting her hands fall to her sides. Neji was reaching out
for his hitai-ate, watching his reflection in the shiny metal plate. No trace of the curse
seal could be seen.
He looked up at Hinata, saying nothing. But Hinata did not feel the need to hear him say
anything. The look on his face alone was enough thanks to last her a lifetime.
N
Hakujo's expression switched from surprise to one of anger as he saw just what Hinata
had done.
"You - !"
Neji stood up calmly, retying his hitai-ate with measured composure. To his female
teammate he gave a small smile, which she returned, stepping back. As much as she
wanted to give the jerk a piece of her mind with her weapons, she knew that the family
feud was none of her business.

"Do you realize what you've just done?" Hinata's uncle burst forward, furiously glaring at
her.
"Nothing that concerns you, my dear exiled uncle," Hinata met his glare with a passive
stare. Ino, Sakura and Tenten glanced at each other, exchanging their victory signal.
Hakujo was about to give her an angry retort when Itachi suddenly cut in coldly from the
side.
"The time for talking is over, Hyuuga."
"Who are you to order me around, Uchiha?"
The Sharingan and the Byakugan clashed. Tension wove through the air, creating a
crushing sensation felt by all those around it. Who would've known that two families,
with such closely related bloodlines, could despise each other so much?
'Blood and clans typical, eh?' Sakura found herself thinking. 'Well good thing our
prodigies act a little more civil than that' she glanced at Neji and Sasuke.
Kakashi felt a sudden, churning feeling in his gut someone was coming. Instinctively he
grabbed both Naruto and Sakura, shoving them to one side while rolling out of harm's
way himself.
Milliseconds later, a huge sword wrapped with bandages crashed right down on the spot
where the trio was before. The bandages snapped and came loose, revealing the cold,
grey teeth of the Sameheda.
Sakura and Naruto sprang up, giving their sensei a thankful glance. Kakashi stood up,
looking grim, his single visible eye narrowed at the figure who leapt down after the
sword. Sakura spoke for them, her voice a low, dangerous hiss.
"Kisame."
N
The shark-faced man paid no attention to the group, as if he hadn't just tried to
assassinate them. Instead, he focused on his partners with a frown. "Quit it, both of you
we're supposed to bring back the two jinchuuriki, not bicker like a bunch of sissies,"
The Hyuuga and the Uchiha glared at each other for one last time, and a moment later,
their penetrating gazes fell on Naruto and Sakura, who stood, feet apart and fists
clenched. The cherry blossom's heart beat a little faster it was one thing to defend her
friend from the Akatsuki bastards, but it was another thing to be on Akatsuki's wanted
list. She was afraid, she couldn't deny it.
Naruto seemed to notice her tensed body. "Stay calm, Sakura-chan none of us will let
them get you" he said quietly, his aquamarine eyes never leaving the Akatsuki trio
before them. Sakura smiled, just a little.
"I'd really rather we do this without any fuss," Itachi spoke emotionlessly. "But I guess
that won't be happening."
Slowly, the older Uchiha began fading from their line of view, his blood red eyes ever
staring, hauntingly at them. Kisame and Hakujo followed, disappearing without a trace.

"Don't look at his eyes!" Kakashi and Sasuke yelled a warning at the same time, their
blood red eyes narrowed as the landscape around them gradually switched to that of a
barren land, mist hovering around them. The pitch black night sky hosted nothing but a
blood red moon.
"Tsukiyomi," Kakashi growled, now using only his left eye. "Sasuke."
He needn't have spoken. Already the Uchiha prodigy was by his side, his Sharingan
activated with Sai right next to him. Hinata and Neji had their Byakugan activated and
within moments, everyone else had formed a tight circle surrounding Naruto and Sakura.
The two jinchuuriki glanced at each other and rolled their eyes. This was so old they
didn't need any protection. But knowing that they stood no chance against three Akatsuki
members alone, they stayed put, while Sakura attempted the normal 'kai' jutsu. 'Not
working'
"Naruto," the pink-haired kunoichi suddenly hissed. Not waiting for his response, she
continued. "Whatever you do do not let the Kyubi take over. Am I clear?" Her voice
held a hint of worry, while her emerald eyes remained alert for movement.
"But " Naruto started to protest. Letting the Kyubi out when he was angry had become
almost a habit, but in all fairness to him, he tried to contain the demon fox. Yet, even at
only one tail, the Kyubi did enough damage. Sakura didn't want anything else happening,
not after their encounter with Sasuke.
"Naruto," the cherry blossom spoke sharply, her tone daring him to challenge her. "The
Bijuu they're not our strengths. They're our weaknesses. Using their power only
hurtsus. And if you let the Kyubi out during this fight, you're doomed. Do you
understand?"
Reluctantly, Naruto nodded.
Sakura felt a wave of relief. Maybe, just maybe, they would have a chance for survival
through this. If they used the Bijuu, they would be consumed by the immense chakra
instead of being helped by it. The Akatsuki had used that to their advantage when
capturing the rest of the Bijuu. Now, they only needed two more to complete the set, and
Sakura was determined that neither she nor Naruto nor any of her friends were going to
die here, today. Not this time.
"Sakura!" a voice called out quietly, and the cherry blossom looked over. She was sure it
had been Tenten calling her, but the weapons mistress was not looking at her. Tenten
seemed to have spoken her name unconsciously. Sakura looked around her, and realized
that all her friends seemed to be frozen to the spot. Most of them were wide-eyed, and
shivering. Wait shivering?
Fear. She recognized it immediately.
'Dammit Tsukiyomi's only supposed to work with eye contact on one person only he
must've developed it so now he's torturing them in their minds' Sakura cursed
inwardly, almost panicking.
It seemed that only she and Naruto were the only ones unaffected by the genjutsu, the
latter was looking around confusedly, wondering why the atmosphere suddenly felt so
strange.

"NARUTO!!! DUCK!!!!" Sakura hollered as a storm of weapons rained out from nowhere,
cutting flesh and drawing the blood of the seemingly frozen shinobis, who let out muffled
cries of agony.
"No" the kunoichi whispered, trying to dodge the weapons. "Naruto get everyone to
make body contact with the person next to them!" Sakura commanded, darting forwards.
A kunai lodged into her left thigh, and a sudden, jolting pain shot through her entire leg,
nearly making her collapse. She gritted her teeth through the pain. "Make them hold
hands, whatever as long as they're touching and don't let those weapons get you
they hurt like hell"
"Too late," Naruto said through clenched teeth, ignoring the pain while trying to drape
Ino's stiff arm around Shikamaru.
The cherry blossom placed herself between Kakashi and Sasuke. When her frantic calls to
them went unnoticed, she slapped both of them out of exasperation, and forcefully linked
their arms with hers.
"Done!" Behind her, Naruto let out a triumphant cry, which was followed by a swear word
as two shurikens hit his upper right arm.
Sakura tried hard to ignore the bouts of jolting pain that occurred every time a weapon
hit her her healing wasn't going to work in Itachi's world. Naruto clasped her shoulders
firmly, and Sakura began her handseals. She closed her eyes and focused, Kurenai's
words ringing in her ears.
"Focus. It's the only thing that will get you out of any type of genjutsu."
Sakura found herself picturing all of them, safely home and happy. She saw it so vividly,
she felt as if they were really back in Konoha, without having to worry about Akatsuki
members popping out of nowhere and being trapped in deadly genjutsus.
"MOVE, PEOPLE!!!" Naruto's sudden, loud voice rang out, accompanied by language not
exactly fit to be printed. A hand roughly shook her by the shoulder, jerking her back into
reality. In the next few blurry moments, she registered the fact that the advanced
release technique she had been working on with Kurenai-sensei actually worked, after all
and the next thing she knew, she was shoved onto the ground, with Sasuke atop her.
A pink tint had barely made it into her cheeks when the Uchiha stood up swiftly, looking
down at her.
"Stay alert, Sakura, I won't be there to save you the next time," he smirked, offering her
a hand while using his other hand to defend them with his sword.
Sakura took it while sending a flurry of shurikens flying, about to retort indignantly that
she had saved his butt from Tsukiyomi, but as she was joisted up by the Uchiha, she bit
back the retort.
That could wait.
N
"TEME! SAKURA-CHAN!"

Jolted by their hyperactive friend's frantic call, the two shinobis looked up in surprise.
Horror was evident on their faces as both noticed the same thing:
The Sameheda was bearing down upon them, its claw-like teeth glinting dangerously.
Their senses suddenly kicking in full force, both the cherry blossom and the Uchiha dived
apart, Sakura to the left and Sasuke to the right. The latter made it safely out of harms
way and back to his teammates, who were now engaged in battle with Hakujo and Itachi.
Sakura was not so lucky. Her left foot had caught on a tree root and she stumbled
forward, falling hard right in the way of Kisame's sword.
In a reflex action, Sakura lifted her right arm to block the blade and thanked kamisama that for some weird reason, she'd put on metal ANBU arm guards that morning.
When the sword clashed with metal, Sakura felt herself shuddering from the impact and
fought to hold her ground, using her left arm as a support for her right, growling while
countering the pressure that Kisame was forcing on her.
'A kunoichi tripping what an unforgivable blunder,' Sakura thought with a slight smirk
as she kept the chakra flow in her arm steady, her emerald eyes meeting Kisame's
mocking grin.
The male members of Team 7 saw what was happening and started in Sakura's direction,
but were quickly blocked by Itachi. The glare of his blood-red eyes said it all: You're not
going anywhere.
N
Beads of sweat trickled down Sakura's porcelain skin as she stubbornly refused to give in
to the pressure of Kisame's sword. Her body was shaking with the effort, her jaws were
clenched and her eyes tightly shut.
'I won't hold this for much longer' Sakura thought desperately. 'He's too strong!'
'Oh c'mon you weakling! Don't tell me you're gonna show Sasu-kun that we're weak!' her
inner self pouted.
'This has nothing to do with him!' Sakura growled inwardly.
"You know, it'd be much easier if you and that Kyubi boy would just give yourselves up
after all, dying while the Bijuu is being extracted is relatively painless."
"Dream on," Sakura snarled back, still struggling to hold her own. "Like you'd ever know
what it's like to die or to have people close to you die."
Kisame looked surprised, the pressure of his word lessened just for a moment. Sakura
cheered inwardly this was a chance.
Seconds later, the shark-faced man felt Sakura's arm giving way under the pressure he
was putting on her, and smirked.
"Given up, haven't what "

He broke off mid-sentence, startled.


The pink-haired kunoichi had disappeared.
And in her place was nothing but a log.

Chapter 20- Strength

Sakura crouched on a branch, well hidden from the view of all the Akatsuki members.
She wasn't worried about Hakujo's Byakugan Neji, Hinata and Tenten were keeping
him extremely busy at the moment.
Kisame was facing Sai, Gaara, Lee and Kiba, Shikamaru and Ino well-hidden behind
several bushes and attempting to destabilize the shark-faced man.
The rest of Team 7 were confronting Itachi. Sakura forced herself to look away she
knew that she wouldn't be able to resist jumping in to intervene once she saw Sasuke
fighting Itachi,
'They're distracted I better do it now' she thought, leaping nimbly onto a higher
branch to get a better view. A small frown creased her brow as she contemplated the
best way to trap all three Akatsuki members at once, in her genjutsu. Finding a
satisfactory position, the pink-haired kunoichi sat down upon the branch, centering her
chakra and concentrating.
"Kurenai-sensei, I have an idea," Sakura looked up suddenly from the book she was
flipping through.
"Let's hear it," the crimson-eyed woman strode over, sitting beside the kunoichi.
"Most of our genjutsu techniques involve making a person see something out of the
ordinary, such as the Nemuri Genjutsu produces floating feathers, so on and so forth,"
Sakura started, gesturing with a hand. "But those kinds won't fool people with the
Byakugan and Sharingan easily because they know, at an early stage, exactly what we
are attempting, and they are usually able to do the reverse procedures in time,"
Kurenai nodded. "I see your point. But both bloodlines have always prided themselves in
this sort of thing not to be fooled by illusions,"
"Yes, precisely," Sakura grinned, an unusual characteristic for her. "Imagine a scene
where you're facing someone with either of those two bloodlines, and instead of doing
the basic genjutsus, you create an illusion entirely similar to the surroundings, only
revealing the true nature of the illusion once your opponent is completely trapped and
unable to use 'kai' easily,"
The older woman looked thoughtful. "Yes, Sakura, that's a good base to start off with,
but you have to remember that imitating something that already exists, and doing it

without imperfections visible to the trained eye of those with the Byakugan and
Sharingan it's not an easy task,"
Sakura tilted her head to one side, smiling. "When have I been one to give up a
challenge, sensei?"
Kurenai smirked. "Well, since you put it that way I challenge you to develop this
technique within a week and fool both Kakashi and Hyuuga Neji with it,"
"That's a deal, sensei!"
Sakura opened her eyes and straightened, a small smile adorning her lips at the
memory. Quickly calculating he genjutsu coverage, the cherry blossom leapt down onto a
lower branch, preparing to execute her handseals.
'Wish me luck, Kurenai-sensei'
N (Back in Konoha)
A certain crimson-eyed Jounin crept stealthily along the dusty corridor in the old weapons
shop Shizune had mentioned, her cat mask and ANBU uniform in place. Behind her,
another well-built man with messy, spiky black hair followed, his eyes sharp and alert.
The corridor they were traveling along branched into two. Signaling to her partner;
Kurenai took the left branch.
"Five minutes only, Kotetsu," she said softly. "You know the warning signal,"
He nodded.
They split.
N
The 'Sakeya' had once been extremely popular, as Genma remembered. Dressed as
ANBU, he, Iruka and Izumo silently entered, walking softly as each examined a section of
the room they were in.
Rows of dusty bottles lined the wooden cupboards along the walls, most of them still full.
Quite obviously, the owner had been in a hurry to pack up and leave for some reason,
Genma thought, as he noted that almost all of the sake left were the expensive kinds. He
suddenly had a fleeting vision of the Hokage getting drunk alone in this particular
abandoned shop.
"Tsunade-sama would go psycho if she could see all this sake right now," the Jounin
muttered audibly under his breath.
"Yeah," Izumo agreed, his usual mop of hair covering one eye. "But this place looks
a little too small to be a pub, don'tcha think?"
Genma and Iruka looked around them. Doing a rough calculation, Iruka gauged that the
room they were standing in was only as big as the average study definitely not enough
to serve as a pub.

"You've got a point," Iruka agreed, walking around cautiously as not to make any sound.
"They must've rigged it somehow"
It was then that something caught his eye.
"Hey Genma Izumo look at that," he pointed to a section of the shelves on the wall
facing the entrance. "Is it just me, or does that section look cleaner than the rest?"
Genma stepped forward to investigate, but suddenly glanced sharply at his partners.
Footsteps. Someone was approaching from the other side of the shelves!
The three men moved in sync to their perfectly organized plan Iruka darted out to warn
Kurenai and Kotetsu with a bird call, while Genma and Izumo sprang apart, hiding
themselves.
The shelves moved slowly but smoothly, and both hidden shinobis watched with bated
breaths, instinctively knowing the person behind those shelves.
The concealed door opened fully, and out stepped Danzou.
N
Kotetsu cautiously pushed open the door at the end of the corridor only to e met by a
disappointing sight : it was empty.
'Looks like a dead end,' the Jounin thought glumly, quietly shutting the door. Then he
perked up. There it was a quick succession of shrill falcon calls. Iruka's signal.
Swiftly, Kotetsu ran lightly down the length of the corridor, back to the fork where he and
Kurenai had split. The crimson-eyed woman wasn't there, and he could hear footsteps
coming from the direction they had entered. Deciding that he should worry later, Kotetsu
spotted the loose ceiling panel overhead, and leapt up, pushing it open and drawing
himself in, then replacing the panel, leaving a small gap to watch the goings-on beneath
him.
Not a moment too soon. The stately leader of the ANBU Root division walked past, right
under him just as the panel was put back in place.
N
Kurenai was only two feet away from the door at the end of the corridor when she heard
Iruka's signal. As if on cue, footsteps sounded from beyond the closed door and
another pair of footsteps were headed in her direction from the other end of the corridor.
With a splilt second to make her decision, Kurenai swiftly performed several genjutsu
handseals, and merged into the wall.
The door opened, and out stepped a rather familiar figure.
Kurenai's eyes widened as she barely stifled a gasp.
Deidara?

N (Somewhere in the forest)


Sasuke was impatient, Kakashi could tell that much. The way in which he moved without
contemplation, or strategy before attacking, was a mirror image of Naruto's younger self.
'You killed hundreds without flinching, Sasuke, and now, when you're facing the person
you want to kill, you're losing yourself,' Kakashi thought grimly. Without warning, the
Jounin grabbed his ex-student and leapt away, dragging Sasuke along.
"Kakashi what " Sasuke growled.
"Stop it,"
"Stop what?"
"You're fighting a losing battle, and you know it," Kakashi gave him a sidelong glare after
checking that Naruto was holding up. "Stop it. You're just letting him get to you!"
"So what's your problem with it?" the raven-haired teen shot back, angry at being
treated like a kid after five years of having his own way at Orochimaru's.
Kakashi turned to him, his expression serious. "Listen. Sakura's trying to do something, I
can't tell exactly what, but you and all of us have to keep all three of those Akatsuki
distracted for as long as it takes for Sakura to do whatever she's attempting. So don't
get defeated now just because you're too angry to think straight," he warned.
"I don't need her to "
"You can't do this alone, Sasuke!" the Copy-nin's voice rose rapidly. "You know that so
stop being a smartass and get serious, because this isn't about killing Itachi for revenge!
Not anymore! It's about getting all of us out of this alive!"
The silence seemed infinite between them as the impact of Kakashi's words sunk in.
He continued, in a quieter tone. "You don't want to lose Naruto and Sakura again, do
you?" His eyes watched the young man intently, waiting for the answer he already knew.
There was no response, Sasuke's gaze was averted to the ground.
"Sasuke,"
Reluctantly, the raven-haired boy muttered a "No,"
"Then you should know what to do," Kakashi turned and made a move to head back to
the battlefield, but he suddenly paused. Without turning around, the silver-haired Jounin
spoke again.
"I'm not asking for any promises, Sasuke, but remember that both Naruto and Sakura
never gave up on you don't give up on yourself now,"
With that, Kakashi leapt out of sight to rejoin the jinchuuriki in battle.
N

"You're an idiot, Hinata," Hakujo snarled, lunging at her. "Freeing the Branch members
what good will it do you?"
The Hyuuga heir sidestepped him. "I think that would be none of your concern, uncle,"
she said evenly. "It'll probably take off a year or two of my life, but that's just me, trying
to defy destiny," she mocked lightly, hardly aware that she was doing it. There was a
reckless desire within her to just let loose for once.
"Then what makes you think that the Branch will be grateful to you for freeing them?"
Hakujo snarled, aiming a punch at Hinata. "They'll be killing off all the Main House
members next-"
She blocked his fist with a chakra wall. "What have you ever done to deserve gratitude
from them, Hakujo? And if they killed off the Main House, we'd deserve it after all the
agony we've put them through, for all these years!"
Neji took the chance to attack Hakujo while Hinata and Tenten distracted him, but the
older Hyuuga managed to block his attack. Just seeing Hinata's furious face made the
prodigy remember what he'd said to his father about her on her third birthday.
"Chichioya, isn't she cute?" the younger boy asked, looking up at his father with a big
smile on his childish face.
'Well, she's not cute, anymore, chichioya but she has grown' Neji thought with an
unseen smile.
Tenten shook her teammate by the shoulder, a puzzled look on her face. He gave her a
slight nod to indicate that he was okay, and the weapons mistress tossed him an
explosive, pulling out a few more of her own explosive tags, already attached to handleless kunais.
Understanding her gesture, the opaque-eyed boy pulled out several of his own, as well,
and leapt out of sight following Tenten.
Hakujo was getting angrier by the second at Hinata defying his words. In the Hyuuga
household, the elders were never contradicted by those younger than them it was a
tradition long upheld, and a tradition that Hinata was breaking. He managed to hit one of
her vital points and several minor ones, but the girl refused to give in even though she
hadn't managed to land a single blow on him.
"So you insist on continuing this ridiculous notion of yours?" Hakujo demanded, whirling
back to avoid a kick from Hinata.
"Yes,"
"You'll never become head of the Hyuuga clan," her uncle whispered harshly. "I'll make
sure of that because you'll be dead by the time I'm finished here,"
"You're wasting your time, Hakujo," Hinata stood still, suddenly calm. The exiled Hyuuga
was moving towards her at top speed, wanting to deal a killing blow. "My sister supports
me fully on this matter, so even if you kill me"
Hinata was fading away from view. In a moment, two hand grenades and about a dozen
kunai with explosive tags attached came raining down on the lone man.

Hakujo, who had been too arrogant to activate his Byakugan before, assumed that it was
genjutsu, judging by the way Hinata had disappeared.
And by the time he realized that the hand grenades and explosive tags lodged onto his
cloak were real enough it was already too late.
N
Sai felt frustration building within him as Kisame's sword effectively blocked and
absorbed every single inked animal he used. None of the others were faring very well,
either; Gaara's sand could only manage to keep the Sameheda out of the way for about
half a minute, but not much damage could be done within that time limit.
Lee's taijutsu was practically useless against the sword, only his speed gave him some
point of advantage in landing blows, but Kisame wasn't an Akatsuki member for nothing.
Kiba and Akamaru couldn't even lay a scratch on the shark-faced man.
"Guys! Retreat!"
Shikamaru's yell resounded from his post in the trees, after he and Ino had agreed on
the strategy. The team glanced at each other. Retreating whatever way you chose to
put it in was still running away.
They didn't have much time to debate that point, staying alive was the key factor right
now. All four shinobis and the ninja dog darted back to their leader, their expressions
difficult to read.
"Hey, come back out here, you wimps," Kisame mocked, watching them but not
bothering to move from his spot. Kiba flared up at once.
"Who are you calling wimp, you-"
"Shut up, Kiba!" Shikamaru hissed. "We're getting that darned sword out of his hands for
once and for all, so just listen here!"
No one objected.
N
"Oi, I'm getting bored here" Kisame said loudly, yawning while resting his sword on the
ground. 'Those twerps what do they think they're doing, stalling their deaths?'
Within the short span of Kisame's attention lapse, the shinobis vanished. Kisame started,
immediately alert.
All at once, four shinobis and one white ninja dog came bearing down from above. Solid
sand crawled up his sword, immobilizing his right hand; a large black tiger clawed onto
his left art; two green, spandex-clad arms wrapped around his neck in a strong hold
while someone grabbed his left foot, and sharp fangs dug into his right leg.
Before the surprised man had any time to react, Shikamaru started on his signature
jutsu.
"Kagemane no Jutsu!"

His black shadow snaked upon the earthen ground, trapping the shark-faced man. "Ino!"
the Nara genius signalled sharply.
Already the blonde girl was standing before him, her handseals in place. Her electric blue
eyes reflected a spark of determination seldom seen in her.
"Ninpou: Shitenshin no Jutsu!"
At that very moment, Kisame's right hand and sword forcefully came free of their sand
prison, and he swiftly lifted it before him to block the path of Ino's soul possession. The
large sword suddenly vibrated.
Ino's body remained limp at Shikamaru's feet, but suddenly coughed up blood. As much
as he wanted to check on her, Shikamaru knew that he had to keep his jutsu's hold on
Kisame for as long as possible.
The team watched with bated breaths. Kisame was still.
Then, a tired voice spoke. "It's alright I'm in his body now"
With a sigh of relief, all the shinobis released their grasp on the Akatsuki member.
Shikamaru dispelled his jutsu.
And regretted that decision.
N
A malicious grin broke out upon Kisame's face as he suddenly darted forward and
grabbed Ino by her collar. The blonde girl was slowly regaining consciousness, still
coughing up bouts of blood.
Everyone stared in disbelief. Kisame
"Just a little play acting and you fell for it like the idiots you are" the blue-skinned man
smirked. "Especially you, self-proclaimed genius," he sneered at Shikamaru. "So this
one's your girlfriend, eh? Not bad for a lazy ass like you"
No one said anything no one knew what to say. They couldn't risk attacking, Ino's life
was on the line.
Inwardly, the Nara genius seethed with anger at his own stupidity. An inexplicable feeling
was eating him up from the inside, something so unbearably painful that his mind was
wiped blank of thought of any form of strategy, save for that one, loud, resounding
thought.
'Ino'
N
"You fight rather gallantly for your life, Uzumaki, just like all your jinchuuriki friends,"
Itachi said emotionlessly, easily sidestepping a punch from Naruto. "But I doubt it will
help you, really, and you're just wasting my time,"

Naruto said nothing, even though he was dying to rip that stoic expression off the
Uchiha's face. His blue eyes darted to a side as he spotted Kakashi and Sasuke headed
towards them, and vaguely wondered exactly what his sensei had told his stubborn
teammate.
Itachi caught sight of them, too, and moved backwards, so that he was facing all three of
them at once. Red clashed with red as they stared at each other, their gazes never
wavering.
"I'd like to know how much you would sacrifice for those you call friends," the older
Uchiha directed his question at Sasuke.
Wordlessly, the real battle began, each dodging, swerving and delivering blows expertly.
Kakashi and Itachi's faces remained passive throughout, but Naruto and Sasuke clearly
displayed every ounce of anger and hatred felt.
'Both of you still have a lot to learn about a true shinobi battle' Kakashi thought grimly
as he threw several kunai at his opponent. His eyes subconsciously flickered upwards,
searching for any sign of the pink-haired kunoichi. 'Sakura you better hurry, whatever
you're doing I'm not sure if these two hotheads can keep it up,'
N
Sakura checked if she could remember every variation of the handseals required. If she
missed out even one, her plan was entirely doomed.
Somehow, her heart was beating unbelievably fast. Kurenai had told her that this
technique would wear her down immensely due to the amount of concentration it took to
create and maintain it, and she wasn't exactly sure if she could do it.
The cherry blossom had deliberately placed her self at a spot where she had a clear view
of her teammates battling their rival. Even though she knew it only served as a
distraction.
'Here goes' Sakura took a deep breath, starting on her handseals.
"Genjutsu: Fushi no gen'ei!" (1)
She could feel it. A wonderful, floating sensation rushed through her body, even though
she was still standing firmly on the branch. She felt light, as if she had suddenly become
weightless, and the feeling of total control had filled her, brushing away all her doubts.
The genjutsu was working. Ever so slowly, the forest was changing, the lush, green
leaves gradually dissolving, leaving only barren branches as a bout of cold wind whipped
through the air.
Sakura was just experiencing a sense of elation at having successfully executed her
genjutsu when she happened to look downwards, to where Team 7 and Itachi were still
battling it out, oblivious to the sudden change.
Sasuke had whirled around to avoid several senbon, and was turning back to face Itachi,
his katana poised. Somehow, from the look on Itachi's usually blank face alone, Sakura
could tell he'd activated his Mangekyou Sharingan.

Completely forgetting her own halfway-complete genjutsu, and reacting to a sudden


impulse, Sakura leapt down from the branch without thinking, and landed right between
the Uchiha brothers, facing Itachi.
When her emerald eyes met Itachi's red, unforgiving Mangekyou Sharingan, Sakura
froze, unable to move.
She knew, at that moment that she'd just made the biggest mistake of her life.

Chapter 21- Illusions


-
All at once, the pink-haired girl found herself sinking. Or floating. Whichever it was, she
wasn't sure. All around her was pitch black darkness, and eerie silence filled the endless
void, making her feel empty, all of a sudden.
Then there was a call.
"Sakura!"
It was loud, desperate, even. Naruto's, maybe? Or Sasuke?
'Nah Sasuke would never yell like that' a vague thought popped up in her mind.
It was surprising, really. She was probably dying, and that was all she could think of? A
heavy fog seemed to be settling in her mind, blotting bits and pieces of her
consciousness out. She tried to remember random things, like Naruto's favourite food,
but she somehow could not recall it. When she shifted her thoughts, she found that she
couldn't even remember her hair colour. Feeling childish excitement bubbling in her,
Sakura grabbed a lock of her own hair and glanced at it.
'Ooh, I've got pink hair!!!!' she giggled, flipping herself over as she went on floating in
the pitch-black vortex, her fear seemingly gone. Acting like a five-year-old, the pinkhaired kunoichi twisted around and pretended to be swimming, giggling all the way as
she stretched her arms and legs this way and that, experimenting. Just then
"OW!" Sakura shrieked as her hindquarters met with solid ground and reality came
rushing back in one humongous wave, leaving her confused one moment, and angry the
next. Angry at herself, for not focusing on her problem and getting carried away by the
genjutsu until she forgot herself.
The sudden presence of light had nearly blinded her, but as Sakura stood gingerly, her
butt still hurting, she saw that she was on terra firma again. Shadows of barren trees
drew long across the similarly barren landscape, similar to the effect of Tsukiyomi save
for the fact that the trademark, blood red moon was missing.
Thick mist began to envelop her, limitating her line of vision. Sakura glanced around
warily, her kunoichi's instincts kicking in. The only things visible now were the faint

outlines of twisted, gnarled trees. There seemed to be a faint sound echoing all around
her, gradually growing louder.
Laughing.
At first, she felt nothing. Then there was that awful feeling gnawing at her heart, eating
her alive. She knew what it was, the emotion was all too familiar.
Fear.
N
Naruto dived towards Sakura's motionless body, shoving her away forcefully, hoping
against hope that he'd managed to get her out of harm's way, but he knew the truth.
"Too late,"
Itachi deadpanned, his red eyes leaving the pink-haired kunoichi, who was now crumpled
upon the earthen ground, looking as if she was asleep, to meet Naruto's furious azure
eyes. The jinchuuriki's fists clenched all that separated him from lashing out with the
nine-tails' chakra was his promise to Sakura, just before this fight.
Sasuke saw it, as his brother's gaze shifted to rest on him. The three black swirls within
the blood red sea of his brother's unconcerned gaze, with a spark that seemed to mock
him perpetually.
"Tsukiyomi you used Tsukiyomi on her!" Sasuke growled, a burning feeling rising in his
throat. No one without a Sharingan, trapped by Tsukiyomi, could ever survive.
No one.
"It's not Tsukiyomi," Itachi said emotionlessly, waving a hand almost carelessly. "It's
something much worse. And it's not my fault she jumped in. That was meant for you,"
'Why now, Sakura, you damned idiot?' Sasuke hissed in his thoughts, trying to stop his
body shaking.
Naruto was kneeling beside the pink-haired girl, looking absolutely furious, angry tears
running down his cheeks. Sakura Sakura she
'No! Sakura-chan's not going to die!' he desperately tried to reassure himself,
desperately tried to hold back his tears, but he couldn't. Death was still something the
cheery blonde couldn't comprehend, especially the death of someone so precious to him.
"What did you do to her?" Naruto growled, looking ready to murder as he stood slowly,
fists clenched tightly.
"I didn't do anything," Itachi deadpanned. "Saving other people is a waste of time
especially if that person happens to be my little brother," the older Uchiha's face was
blank. "She will see the future as I intend it,"
"Get her out of it. Now." A certain onyx-eyed boy demanded, his eyes lowered to the
ground as he stopped himself for showing signs of weakness. He couldn't cry. He was an
Uchiha. He couldn't cry, not in front of this murderer. "DO IT!"

Itachi's blood red eyes stared at him. "It's irreversible,"


His words seemed to echo, on and on. Sakura's three male teammates froze. It had
registered in their minds, the moment Sakura crumpled in their midst, that she was
gone, but somehow, having someone say it made it utterly final.
Subconsciously, their gazes fell upon their pink-haired friend, lying on the ground with a
restless expression on her face. They recognized the familiar expressions, appearing
plainly upon the cherry blossom's face Sakura had never been able to truly master the
art of concealing emotions.
Fear.
Confusion.
Sasuke spoke in a quiet, low tone, confusion etched into his pale face.
"Irreversible?"
N
A sharp jab to his lower back brought the Nara genius sharply back into the world of the
living and conscious. It was Sai. "Snap out of it," the raven-haired boy hissed, with quiet
a bit of viciousness laced into his voice. "Any ideas?"
Various rather unusable ideas raced through his supposedly 'genius' brain. Shaking his
head slightly to clear the fog settling over his mind, he shook his head and glanced at
Sai.
At a loss. Shikamaru never imagined that it would ever happen to him.
"Nara. Get your clueless butt moving," a dry voice sounded. The Kazekage looked
passive. "After I get him to stop, trap him again. Move fast, he's too quick for our attacks
to last. Sai, you're the distraction. Don't let him hurt Yamanaka."
Sai nodded, leaping out of sight. Gaara turned to face Shikamaru, who was getting into
position. The Kazekage had waves of sand shifting around him, as if they, too, were
impatient to attack.
"Shikamaru," he spoke flatly, his dark-rimmed eyes narrowed.
The boy looked up, his face unreadable.
"Don't let her down,"
N
Everything seemed to blur for a few moments as her emotions took control. Shutting her
eyes tightly, the kunoichi forced herself to calm down and think rationally.
Then she opened her eyes. The mist was gone, and all that surrounded her was an
endless, empty white place.

It's strange, really, when one is surrounded by a vast expanse of emptiness. It feels as if
you've suddenly become hollow, and everything becomes cold so cold, because you
can't feel. You can't feel the warmth that keeps us human, that keeps us alive.
That was how Sakura felt. Empty. Lonely. Then she was bewildered. What was
happening?
And then, in a single, split second, agonized screams rang through the air, and Sakura
collapsed to her knees, clutching her head, shaking all over. Every scream pierced deep
into her heart, causing pain beyond anything she could describe.
"No no STOP IT!" the cherry blossom whimpered, her eyes shut tightly, willing the
ghastly sounds to go away, to leave her alone. "Stop stop"
She kept trembling. The air felt so cold so lifeless. When she finally opened her eyes
again
Her world was full of blood.
"NO!"
N
"I don't give a damn," Sasuke lunged at his brother, the Chidori sparking dangerously in
the palm of his hand. "Reverse it! NOW!"
"Getting attached to her won't help you kill me," Itachi said simply, dodging. "You will
simply collapse when I kill her "
"SHUT UP!" Sasuke roared, his sword drawn.
"Hn," Itachi smirked, blocking Sasuke easily with a kunai. "Do you really think you can
protect her?"
"I'll do whatever it takes," Sasuke growled subconsciously, hardly registering his own
words.
"Is she really that precious to you?" Itachi asked with an air of detachment, twirling his
kunai with a finger before sending a barrage of shurikens at Sasuke.
His brother could not reply.
N
Sai dodged behind a clump of bushes and trees, discreetly making his way to a spot
where he was behind Kisame. He pulled out several scrolls and prepared to start on a
distraction when a sudden movement on the ground made him pause. His dark eyes
scanned the earthen forest ground, trying to detect any attacks.
His eyes widened. Bugs?
Millions of the tiny black insects scampered upon the ground silently, carefully avoiding
the patch Sai was squatting on. The forest ground looked like shifting black earth as

more of the insects appeared and moved past him steadily, ignoring him, clambering
onwards.
It took him one moment to realize exactly what was happening, and then a tiny smile
crept up upon his face.
'Aburame Shino'
N
Ino struggled within Kisame's steel grasp, trying to comprehend the sequence of events
right after her soul had crashed into Kisame's chakra barrier and ricocheted back into her
body. That encounter left no visible bruise, but it still hurt. Like hell. The blonde haired
kunoichi squirmed uncomfortably.
'The shark-faced idiot is going to pay for scarring my skin like that,' Ino thought vaguely,
feeling the blood circulation in her arms halting due to Kisame's unyielding grip.
Thinking fast, she focused what was left of her chakra and created a weak, but effective
electrical field about her arms, jolting the Akatsuki member considerably probably from
the shock.
The moment his grip slackened, the blonde kunoichi summoned her energy and kicked
him right where a guy ain't supposed to be kicked.
N
'Blood there's so much blood!'
Outside the gates of Konoha, a battle raged a vicious battle between the Leaf and
Sand, Sound and Akatsuki. Weapons rained down like a hailstorm, sources unknown
and while the Sound and Akatsuki remained standing, their numbers never decreasing;
Leaf and Sand shinobis lay dead upon the ground, as far as an eye could see.
Sakura stood, shivering with terror. The dark, thunderous sky was raining crimson
droplets, staining her face, her hair and her body blood-red. All of a sudden, she was
standing right in the middle of the battlefield, no longer an observer, yet she could only
watch as scores of Sound shinobis raced towards her, weapons in hand.
Something struck her. Sakura looked down, and there was a katana struck right through
her chest but she felt no pain. Only fear.
She looked around slowly, apprehensively, almost afraid of what she would find.
Her friends lay on the ground, horribly mangled. Dead. She whimpered at the sight,
falling to her knees.
"Tenten! Hinata!"
Neither of the girls, lying on the ground covered in blood, responded to their friend's
desperate calls. Their faces were pale, their skin cold. They were dead.
"Neji! Lee? Naruto!!!" Sakura's choked, her frantic cry sounding again as she grabbed the
hyperactive ninja by his bloodied collar and shook him hard, hoping against hope that he

would wake up, grinning, perfectly fine, and tell her that they were just playing a prank
on her.
He remained still.
Lifeless.
"No" the pink-haired kunoichi whimpered, turning with hot tears streaking down her
pale face. "No"
A pair of strong arms gathered her into a tight embrace, and a shaky voice whispered
into her ear. "Shh it's alright"
She'd know that voice anywhere.
"Sasuke" she clutched at his shirt, sinking into the warmth, feeling just a trace of
comfort from the fact that he was there.
That moment was not to last. Sakura heard a soft gasp, before the raven-haired boy
suddenly went limp, his grasp on her slackening before he slumped to the ground. The
girl froze before she had any time to react. She was staring into those eyes those eyes
that had kept Sasuke on a never-ending rush for revenge, for all these years.
Itachi's smile was unnerving, curving up ever so slightly at the edge as if he
was satisfied. Sakura's mind was utterly blank as she stared into the blood red depths of
his Sharingan, feeling pain beyond anything describable.
"He's gone." The Akatsuki member let out a small smirk, motioning carelessly towards all
the dead bodies of her friends, lying around them. "All of them are gone,"
Silence.
"Alone," he continued, his voice distant. "Lost, desolate. Alone. That's all you are, and
ever will be,"
Itachi faded from her view, and Sakura simply stood there, her limbs refusing to move,
her mind refusing to work.
In a single, powerful explosion, the once beautiful village of Konoha went up in flames,
dancing and soaring towards the sky viciously, mocking the kunoichi below, laughing at
her helplessness. The cherry blossom fell wordlessly to her knees, watching her home
village burn.
It burned. It burned to the ground until nothing was left save for smoke, soot and
ashes.
N
"What - ?" Kurenai whispered in horror. "Deidara in Konoha?"
As soon as the Akatsuki member rounded the corner of the corridor, Kurenai dispelled
her genjutsu and looked around, searching for a way to follow him. She would need more
proof. Glancing upwards, she saw that there was a ceiling panel that could be moved.

The crimson-eyed woman leapt upwards lightly, shifting the panel and gripping the edge
to hoist herself up, hoping that it would bear her weight.
'At least it didn't collapse,' Kurenai thought vaguely once she was above the ceiling,
crawling on all fours in the filthy place after replacing the panel. Pausing a moment to be
sure of her bearings, she moved silently along the rafters holding the roof up, until she
was certain that she was right above the room behind the closed door. Using a kunai, she
expertly made a peephole through the ceiling board, and peered down.
N
Kotetsu watched intently as the duo beneath him met at the corridor, subconsciously
holding his breath. Danzou and Deidara, in cahoots? What next?
Deidara stood before the older man and looked him straight in the eye, speaking firmly
but softly.
"Taiyotsuki,"
'Sun and moon? Is this a code?' the Jounin thought, frowning.
Danzou seemed to hesitate for a moment, before replying. "Chikyusora,"
'Earth and sky so it is a code, then,' Kotetsu's eyes narrowed as he watched the duo
carefully.
Danzou looked somewhat perplexed, as if he wanted to say something but couldn't pluck
up the courage to say it. He kept quiet.
"We have a slight problem," Deidara spoke calmly, his expression detached. "Shall we?"
he motioned to the corridor leading in.
The older man was tight-lipped, simply giving him a curt nod and walking on, looking like
someone who knew that he was about to be executed. Deidara followed.
Kotetsu silently replaced the ceiling board, creeping in the direction where he assumed
they were going.
N
There was a man sitting, cross-legged on the floor by the traditional Japanese low table.
Kurenai inspected him closely, trying to detect any familiarity in his features or his
movements, but she could not recognize him. His Akatsuki cloak lay on the floor beside
him in the rather dimly lit room, and he twirled his katana almost carelessly in his right
hand.
'Who is he? If Akatsuki has new recruits, that would mean they're planning something
and that doesn't sound good' crimson eyes narrowed.
The door leading into the room suddenly opened. At that very moment, Kurenai heard a
slight shuffling noise right next to her and sprang up lightly, careful not to make a sound,
her kunai in hand. She relaxed when she saw that it was only Kotetsu, grinning at having
successfully frightened his superior even if it was only for a moment.

Kurenai glared at him, returning to spying through her peephole. Beside her, Kotetsu
knelt and did the same.
The blonde man Kurenai had not recognized stood up as soon as Danzou and Deidara
entered. He didn't look too pleased.
"Is the deal still on, old man?" he demanded, gripping his katana tightly.
"Yes, of course it is," Danzou looked surprised, drawing back.
"Chill, Seijin. You're scaring the pants off him. And please remember who's your superior
in here," Deidara sat down and cast the man a sidelong glance, looking nonchalant. "Let
me deal with him. As for you, Danzou we were supposed to obtain the Haruno Scrolls
and the two jinchuuriki and we promised that you would be given Konoha once it has
fallen," He poured himself a cup of tea and casually took a sip, looking as if he owned the
world. "Yet, the next thing we know, a bunch of brats and the Kazekage beat us to the
scrolls. You were supposed to make sure that didn't happen,"
Danzou felt himself begin to sweat. "I didn't hear of their mission, or I would've
prevented it! I had my subordinates provide the wrong information, but you know the
Godaime isn't exactly one woman who listens to advice!"
"Well, then you're pretty much useless to us if that's the best you can do," Seijin
snapped, irritated.
"You have one more chance," Deidara cut in smoothly, giving Seijin a warning look. "Get
the scrolls when those brats get back. Kill them if you have to. But don't touch Haruno
and Uzumaki, you hear me?"
Danzou swallowed, then nodded.
"If you fail that "Seijin spat viciously, obviously still sore from having run away from a
bunch of teenage shinobis. "Watch out for your pathetic butt. You don't know just what
I'm capable of,"
N
The moment Danzou disappeared into the other building Shizune had mentioned, Iruka
darted into the Sakeya again, finding Genma and Izumo trying to figure out how to open
the shelves concealing what ever was behind it. A secret passage, perhaps.
Genma found a bottle stuck fast to the shelf, with less dust on it. Examining it closely, he
gently twisted the bottle in a counter-clockwise motion. It wouldn't budge. He turned it
the other way.
Izumo sprang back in surprise when the shelves began shifting silently. The mechanisms
moved smoothly, indicated frequent use, sliding noiselessly to the right.
"Iruka, bird call if you see anyone coming," Genma instructed, glancing at the other man.
"No problem," Iruka gave him a thumbs up. "Hurry up, he might be back any second,"
The two Jounins entered the dark, musty corridor, walking silently. There was nothing
particularly striking about the place, save for the fact that there seemed to be rooms on
either side of the averagely wide corridor, all boarded up. The place was falling apart,

wooden panels missing ins several places and water leaked from some parts of the
ceiling.
"It's hard to believe a man like Danzou would walk through this place," Izumo groaned at
the stench of stagnant water gathering in pools at their feet, and dead rats. "I mean,
looking at him, you'd think he's the kind of old man who prefers a more luxurious life
than well this,"
"You have to remember that he's a pretty tough guy to be in charge of ANBU Root
division," Genma explained quietly, examining their surroundings, squinting to see in the
dim light. "But he's pretty much bankrupt right now, with Tsunade-sama not trusting
him. And if he does any construction or renovation work here, people would get
suspicious,"
"I'm guessing where this leads to," Izumo said grimly. They could barely make out a
wooden door before them in the dark.
"Here goes," Genma stepped forward and slowly pushed the door open. Both stepped out
into a dark room, filled to the brim with junk. Old furniture, chests, large volumes of
books and chinaware lay piled up haphazardly, in obvious neglect.
"Is this a storeroom or something?" Izumo slapped the arm of an antique chair beside
him and nearly choked when a cloud of dust engulfed him. He sounded like a strangled
chicken as he tried not to make a sound.
"Hey, keep quiet," Genma warned, walking towards the doors at the opposite end of the
room. Dim rays of light shone through the traditional rice-paper sliding doors, and the
Jounin cautiously pulled them open,peering out.
Izumo joined him. "So, is this place what I think it is?"
"Yeah. We're in Danzou's mansion."
N
Kisame growled, involuntarily releasing his grip on the blonde kunoichi. Ino, who had
neither chakra nor strength left, fell like a limp doll.
Shikamaru darted forward agilely, catching his teammate in his arms before springing
back, out of Kisame's reach. She smiled tiredly up at him, drifting in and out of
consciousness. "So you lazy ass you finally did something to save my butt, huh"
"My pleasure," the pineapple-head tried to smirk, but somehow, it came out rather
choked.
Ino laughed softly, before her eyelids dropped. "I'm so tired"
Before Shikamaru could say anything else, Ino had already succumbed to sleep. Feeling
a slight, reluctant smile curving his lips, the Jounin gently placed her against the trunk of
a tree.
"Nara!" a warning voice sounded, and he whirled around, his instincts tingling madly. A
very angry Kisame, wielding his huge chakra-absorbent sword, was bearing down upon
them.

'Shit!' he swore mentally, eyes darting left and right for an opening to escape. Just then,
a taller figure sprang before him, blocking Kisame's path. A certain shinobi with spiky
black hair and shades.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you. Your sword is pretty useless right now," a deep, stern
voice spoke from behind the high collar.
Kisame halted, looking at his sword instinctively and nearly dropped it.
The Sameheda was crawling with millions of tiny, black bugs.
N
Sasuke dodged the flying senbon Itachi threw at him with ease, his Sharingan burning
with obvious hatred as his eyes kept watch on his brother. The younger Uchiha had
resolved to the fact that he needed Naruto to cover his back in this fight, Itachi wasn't
the 'genius' Uchiha for nothing. His attacks could spring out of nowhere, and even if it
was a genjutsu, every weapon that connected hurt like hell.
"Oi, teme, any ideas yet?" Naruto demanded, backing up against Sasuke, two kunai in
hand as he blocked the array of weapons flying towards him. Sweat glistened on his skin,
he was dying to unleash the Kyubi on Itachi. Again, only his promise to Sakura kept him
from doing so. "You're supposed to be the genius here!"
Sasuke smirked inwardly, despite the fact that he was right in the middle of a battle. 'I'm
going to hold that against you when we get home, dobe. If we get out of this alive,'
Then he swore. That one thought had been all the distraction Itachi had needed. Sasuke
spotted, too late, the exploding tag attached to a kunai that was flying towards him.
"Dobe! Out of the way!" Sasuke shoved Naruto aside as a small explosion took place, and
landed several paces behind where he had been standing before. A glint of metal told
him that the exploding tag had been yet another ploy. Itachi was sprinting towards his
brother with remarkable speed, a sword poised to strike.
Kakashi's eyes narrowed, his grip on his kunai tightening. In a spilt second, he moved.
Sasuke's hand shot out swiftly, his reflexes at work. At the same moment that he caught
the oncoming blade in his hand, millimeters away from his skin, metal clashed with
metal.
The sharp blade of the katana cut through the fabric covering Sasuke's palm and drew
blood. But the Uchiha hardly registered it. His eyes were trained on the three weapons
that had clashed. A katana, a kunai, and a specialty blade, glowing with chakra.
"In a rough spot, eh?"
Kakashi and Sasuke looked up in surprise.
Asuma's grinning face stared right back at them.
N

Flames engulfed the surrounding trees as various explosions rocked the ground. Neji and
Hinata leapt out of the way in the nick of time, and landed on a safe spot some distance
away. It was several moments before Neji noticed the weapons mistress' absence.
"Where's Tenten?" he asked his cousin sharply.
Hinata shook her head, worried.
Neji's eyes narrowed and he swiftly performed a handseal. "Byakugan!"
He scanned the forest, and saw a feminine figure leaping from branch to branch, coming
towards them. Neji subconsciously heaved a sigh of relief.
"It was a moment too soon. Just as Tenten came into view and swung over a branch,
another smaller explosion occurred, sending jets of flames soaring upwards right
towards the branch the kunoichi was using as her support.
First there was a scream
Then the brown-haired kunoichi fell, plummeting to the ground below, her right arm
charred and useless.
Neji's breath caught in his throat, and he leapt forwards.
"TENTEN!"

Chapter 22- The Difference Between Life and Death



Sakura stayed in that position for a long while, unmoving and utterly defeated. Her pink
locks were dull and matted, her brilliant emerald eyes had lost their usual bright spark,
and blood had dried upon her cold, clammy skin, leaving unsightly marks.
Sakura felt cold. So very cold her frail form shook as she tried to erase the horrible
memory from her mind, but it was there, right in front of her, staring at her in the face,
not allowing her to forget it. All her friends the village the screams the blood fire
"Sasuke," she whispered painfully, hugging herself as she tried not to look at the
Uchiha's pale face. 'Sasuke"
Her cold, trembling fingers, at long last, reached out to touch Sasuke's blank, peaceful
face. A sudden jolt of pain coursed through her system, and the cherry blossom let out a
soft gasp.
Images began flashing before her frozen emerald eyes, showing her what seemed to be
the future. Things that she did not want to see. Rows and rows of coffins everyone in
Konoha was dead, save for her. She was the only one left, alone, burying the dead.

Fearful, echoing voices called to her, some pleading her for help, some cursing her
inability.
"Help me Sakura help!"
"What were you doing girl? Whimpering, and watching us die?"
"How could you, Sakura? You watched us fighting for our lives, and you did nothing!"
"Everything's your fault! If you'd been stronger, this would never have happened!"
The pink-haired kunoichi clutched her head, tears streaming down her face as she tried
to convince herself otherwise. 'It's just a genjutsu nothing happened it's not my
fault I did nothing wrong!'
"Open your eyes," a firm, commanding voice ordered, and against her will, Sakura was
forced to look up. "Watch!"
She saw herself.
Beaten. Worn. Dead. Her own emerald eyes stared up at her blankly, frozen forever in an
expression of shock. There were two Sound nins. Her mirror image was unclothed. They
were using her body as their doll, to fulfill their desires.
Yes, it was a dead body, but it was her dead body. Sakura tried to turn away, but she
couldn't. an invisible force kept her eyes open and kept her facing the ghastly scene,
making her register every detail, every movement. "How how could they " her own
voice choked at seeing her own dignity being violated in a way she couldn't bear to
imagine even in death!
The two men were done with her body, laughing with satisfaction as they drew out their
weapons.
"Pity we got her dead, eh? Should've been a lot more fun if she was alive, kicking and
screaming," one of them mocked a sigh as he traced a finger over her smooth skin.
Sakura, watching the scene, nearly threw up. She wanted to scream, she wanted to
punch him until every bone in his body was broken, but she couldn't make a sound, she
couldn't move.
She knew what they were about to do.
A slash. Then two. More kept raining down upon her lifeless body as the two men tore
their blades through the dead girl's skin, grinning like they were having fun. Blood
spattered through the air, leaving crimson stains upon the ground. They kept at it until
her body resembled nothing but bloody pulp, with only her face intact. The rest of her
body was nothing but spilling guts, organs and broken bones.
'Horrible' couldn't even describe the scene. How could anyone watch their own body
being mauled like that? Yet Sakura couldn't turn away. A single hand covered her open
mouth as her heartbeat raced and bile rose in her throat. She couldn't hold it back
anymore, and threw up.
After seven years, Haruno Sakura was about to crumble again.

The image faded, but the memory stayed. The lone, terrified girl remained sitting by
Sasuke's body, sobs racking her fragile frame as the tears she had held back for so long
spilled out freely.
A slight breeze blew, and a soft, coaxing, musical voice accompanied it, like a siren's
song.
"You are the only one left now wouldn't it be easier if you just end your life? After all, it
would be the end of your pain and you'll be with Sasuke again, won't you?"
Sakura found herself glancing to the right. A kunai lay on the ground, shiny and new,
untouched by the grime of battle. Without really registering it, the pink-haired girl picked
it up.
Slowly, she lifted the kunai and held it against her neck, poised to cut.
One cut, one quick movement and she would be dead.
The blade drew blood.
A sudden, violent storm lashed out, rainwater soaked through her torn clothes, and
washed away the matted blood upon her skin. Lightning danced in bright, thunderous
flashes, striking dangerously close to where the pink-haired kunoichi knelt. An invisible
force seemed to pull her hand away from her neck, trying to wrench it out of her grasp.
Sakura slowly lowered the blade and lifted her tear-streaked face to the skies. She loved
rainstorms. The water that poured down felt so refreshing everything seemed twice as
clear to her emerald eyes, and the sudden wave of clarity that washed over her senses
jolted her sharply back to earth.
The cherry blossom dropped the bloodied kunai she was holding in shock, and her left
hand reached up to her neck, where a small cut had been made, and blood oozed out
freely.
"What happened?" she asked herself in confusion, feeling as if she'd just woken up
from a long sleep.
'You got rather carried away by the genjutsu,' her inner self grumbled.
'Genjutsu?' Sakura was still confused, before realization struck her. 'Itachi the
Mangekyou Sharingan!'
'Yeah, now you come to your senses. Thank kami, at least you haven't killed yourself
yet,' the annoying voice in her head said mockingly. 'Now please get your butt out of
here because this place is giving me the creeps,'
For once, Sakura welcomed the little voice at the back of her head, even if it annoyed her
like hell. At least its presence was a comfort. And her inner self was scared? That was
something new
Sakura smiled slightly, even though it came out rather like a grimace. Reaching for the
kunai again, she braced herself and plunged it into her upper thigh.
N

The raven-haired Uchiha didn't know why, but a burning, furious sensation was coursing
through his veins. He had carelessly allowed Itachi's sword to nearly strike him and
only weak people were careless. Carelessness was something he couldn't afford right
now. Not when
His gaze fell upon Sakura, who had suddenly thrown up, coughing and choking. Every
muscle in his body wanted to move in her direction, but he had unfinished business with
his brother. The skin of his palm prickled as blood seeped out, staining the black fabric
serving to cushion his hands. At least it was his left hand. If it had been his sword arm,
this battle would be over.
Sasuke soon realized, however, that being weak wasn't what he was furious about. There
was a vicious, churning feeling in his system, his adrenaline level rose rapidly. Someone
was going to get hurt, and preferably, that someone would be Itachi.
The Uchiha growled at his brother as the four males held their ground in a silent battle,
blades against sword and sword against flesh. The adrenaline charge in Sasuke's body
was inexplicable and for the first time in his life, Sasuke almost understood
just why Naruto always won his battles even after being mauled for the hundredth
time. Perhaps it was because of this feeling, this emotion that made him feel stronger
than he had ever felt. Like he could do anything.
His palm had begun to hurt badly. Deciding that it wasn't worth the risk, Sasuke yanked
his hand off the katana blade and swiftly leapt upwards, using Asuma and Kakashi's
outstretched arms as a lever and swung himself across just as Itachi's sword thrust
forward, before moving upwards in a quick slashing motion. Sasuke avoided it narrowly
and aimed a kick at Itachi.
The older Uchiha swerved. Sasuke had anticipated that. Swiftly twisting his lithe body to
the left, he managed a slash down Itachi's back only to have him disappear.
'Kage bunshin damn!' Sasuke swore quietly, adjusting himself to land on his feet. Itachi
was on his left. Probably another bunshin, but Sasuke couldn't take any chances with
that. He didn't have time to create bunshin of his own, he would leave that to Naruto.
Darting to the left, he thrust his sword at Itachi, but the bunshin easily avoided the
attack and threw a punch at Sasuke hitting him on the face.
Five of Naruto's kage bunshins were scattered around the clearing, whopping every
single one of Itachi's look-alikes that they could find. But Itachi hadn't become a Jounin
at thirteen for nothing for every twenty punches Naruto threw, it was either Itachi got
hit once, or Naruto himself was pummeled twice as hard. 'Even his bunshins are up to his
par,' Naruto thought grimly, receiving yet another blow to his stomach.
"Come out here you cowardly bastard! I know you're not among these bunshins!" Naruto
hollered, mad. He hated people who snuck out of a fight leaving their bunshin behind.
Sasuke stayed silent and focused on finding the real Itachi among the thirty-plus bunshin
that surrounded him. Naruto was probably right, Itachi would've left his bunshins to do
the work until his little brother got tired out. Spurred by anger, the younger Uchiha
moved twice as quickly, disposing of bunshins with lightning speed. In a blur of
movement, ten bunshins were down.
He knew the sole weakness of the Sharingan was its high chakra consumption. If Itachi
had used the advanced Mangekyou Sharingan and the Kage Bunshin Technique, he
should be running low on chakra this would be Sasuke's advantage.

'Found him!' Sasuke thought victoriously, as his lightning chakra-enhanced sword met
real flesh. But it was just a small cut compared to what Itachi could, and would do to him
once the older man started taking this battle seriously.
Itachi successfully avoided Sasuke's blows, but he could tell that his younger brother was
no longer to be underestimated. His speed could almost match Itachi's own, but it was
the spark of viciousness in every move that made Sasuke dangerous right now.
'Hn. He does care about that girl, doesn't he?' Itachi thought smugly, dodging an
uppercut. 'I'll have to do something about that'
Thoughts were the worst distraction. In seconds Sasuke had managed a slash down
Itachi's back, tearing through his Akatsuki cloak and drawing blood. The raven-haired
younger Uchiha growled. It was, again, another cut that was only skin deep, unable to do
much harm. Not even halting to survey the damage done, Sasuke darted to the right and
dealt another blow to Itachi's left cheek, sending the man reeling backwards despite an
attempt to block the punch.
"He sure is giving his brother a harder time than we ever did," Asuma watched, an
eyebrow raised.
"Itachi used the Sharingan too much," Kakashi observed quietly, watching the two
brothers attempting to kill each other. "He should've been out a long time ago, using
both the Mangekyou and Kage Bunshin jutsu like that,"
"But Itachi isn't your average Uchiha, is he now?" Asuma cocked his head sideways. "I
remember him from ANBU that guy kills without blinking half a dozen Mist shinobis
out in less than three minutes,"
"KAKASHI-" Sasuke yelled, dodging Itachi's sword before executing a perfect roundhouse
kick, backed by Naruto. "-WATCH SAKURA YOU IDIOT!"
The two men whirled around in alarm and spotted the cherry blossom, with her eyes
closed, in a sitting position, lifting a kunai that had dropped to the ground and raising it
to her neck.
Kakashi skidded forward on his knees, grabbing hold of Sakura's hand in a steel grip.
Asuma held her down by the shoulders firmly to make sure she couldn't struggle.
Blood seeped down from a small gash upon her neck, she had cut herself. Kakashi swore,
Sakura's strength was hard to fight. "Dammit! He's trying to make her kill herself!"
"He was serious when he said that this was an advanced version of the Mangekyou,"
Asuma growled. "That bastard he's even found a way to transfer the effects of his
genjutsu into real life do you think we can use 'kai' for this? Kurenai mentioned
something about a release technique that could work on the Mangekyou, but I never
found out more about it"
"Knowing Sakura, she'll be fighting the genjutsu, so maybe the normal release technique
might help. But the Mangekyou genjutsu no human had ever survived it yet," Kakashi
released Sakura's hand, she'd stopped struggling. But before he could stop her, she
drove the kunai into her own thigh. The Copy nin smiled slightly. She was fighting.

"Well, she's no 'ordinary human'," Asuma chuckled. "At any rate, Kakashi, we've got to
do something. And I don't think we'll be losing Konoha's Cherry Blossom to death
anytime soon,"
The silver-haired Jounin raised an eyebrow. Asuma smiled lopsidedly.
"Darn it. I sounded like Gai, didn't I?"
"You have no idea. C'mon," Kakashi shifted to kneel behind the pink-haired kunoichi, and
both men placed a hand each on Sakura' shoulders while forming their handseals. With a
swift glance at each other, they shut their eyes tightly.
"Kai!"
N
A certain Hyuuga prodigy's arm caught the falling kunoichi by the waist swiftly, while
leaping out of the way of yet another small explosion, panting heavily.
Neji's opaque eyes scanned Tenten's limp body for vital signs, and he was slightly
relieved to see that her chakra was channeling to her charred right arm. But he knew
that she was no medic nin, and that her own chakra was simply not sufficient for healing.
"Hinata," Neji breathed, fighting to stay calm. "Can you heal this?"
"I could try, but I'm not sure," Hinata looked worried, pulling off the weapons mistress'
hitai-ate and stroking Tenten's sweaty forehead. "I still think that getting Sakura-chan to
heal it will be safest,"
Neji nodded, turning to look for Sakura while holding his unconscious teammate securely
in his arms. A sudden instinct made him whirl around his eyes widened as he saw a
dark, charred figure staggering towards them at a considerable speed, a dagger held
aloft.
"Why isn't he dead yet?" Neji spoke through clenched teeth, preparing to defend. But he
never got the chance.
Hinata swerved and placed herself between her cousin and Hakujo. Her opaque eyes
flashed dangerously with an unusual spark of viciousness as she braced herself for
Kaiten, but the expected blow never came.
"Baika no Jutsu!"
A large, spinning thing shot out of the forest, crashing into an opposite tree before
slamming into the startled Hakujo. He collapsed and disappeared under the huge mass
crushing him with a strangled cry.
"Chouji-san!" Hinata spoke with a mixture of surprise and relief, bowing slightly to say
her thanks as the shinobi decreased in size to reveal a mop of reddish-brown hair and a
chubby face.
"Nasty piece of work," The Akimichi heir dusted himself, glaring at Hakujo's broken,
motionless body in distaste. "Hinata-san, Neji-san what happened?" he caught sight of
Tenten's limp form in Neji's arms.

"We'll explain later. We need to get Tenten to Sakura fast," the Hyuuga prodigy spoke
urgently, turning to leave. "Arigatou, Chouji-san,"
"No problem, but you'll be better off having Hinata-san heal Tenten first," the chubby boy
said darkly. Hinata and Neji glanced at him, confused.
"I just passed Team 7 battling Itachi. Sakura's been trapped in that traitor's Mangekyou
Sharingan genjutsu he says he says that she won't live,"
The two Hyuugas froze.
Losing two teammates now was something they couldn't think about. Hinata closed her
eyes, shaking slightly.
"Tenten Sakura"
Unbeknownst to the trio, Hakujo was shakily standing. He had about half his arms broken
by Chouji's attack, he was suffering from first-degree burns from the explosives, but his
hatred, his desire to kill, kept him alive.
Once again, he charged towards Hinata, his dagger still clutched tightly in his right hand
the only hand he could now use.
"Hina " Neji let out a warning call, but the Hyuuga heiress was already facing Hakujo,
angry tears stinging her opaque eyes as she moved.
The kunoichi darted forward, dodged the clumsy dagger easily and dealt a single, killing
blow to Hakujo's neck, breaking it.
The exiled Hyuuga slumped to the ground, lifeless. His face was frozen in shock. Hinata's
tears were contained no longer when she had been taught to deal that blow, she had
never wanted to use it. But she had no choice. When she spoke, her voice was a low,
vicious hiss.
"Die,"
N
"Oh, c'mon, you've got to be kidding me," Kisame mocked, chuckling. "Bugs? Is that
really the best you can do?"
Shino merely glanced at him from behind his shades, completely unaffected.
"And what makes you think you know my attacks?" the black-haired boy asked
indifferently, hands in his pockets and his head cocked slightly to one side.
"Aw, shut up, kid,"
Kisame lifted the Sameheda, and brought it down upon the motionless shinobi. Shino
didn't budge. The sword halted in mid-air, unable to penetrate any futhur, regardless of
how much strength Kisame used. The shark-faced man glanced up in utter surprise.

Shino's bugs, after having quickly and efficiently absorbed the chakra in the Sameheda,
had formed a barely visible, shimmering chakra protection shield just between the
passive boy and the angry Akatsuki member.
"You " Kisame started angriy, but quickly backed off when the black bugs scampered
towards him, searching for an opening to attack. He grudgingly admitted to himself that
the boy was right, he couldn't underestimate his attacks before he knew how they
worked.
Meanwhile, behind Shino, Shikamaru discreetly whispered a plan to the four remaining
boys Sai, Gaara, Kiba and Lee. When he finished his instructions, all four nodded curtly
to him and quietly took up their positions.
Shikamaru shook Ino, trying to wake her. The blonde girl stirred, rubbing her eyes
groggily. "Ugh what?"
"Stay awake, Ino," the Nara genius ordered, pulling her up. "You've got to look for the
Hyuugas and Tenten there was an explosion and I think they may be involved. Go help
them, okay? After that, rejoin the rest of them, or report back to us here,"
The kunoichi still looked pale, flexing her arms to get her blood circulation going, but her
eyes had its alert spark restored. "Yes, Captain," she smiled tiredly. "You guys can
handle this?" she motioned to Kisame.
"Don't worry, we've got a few moves of our own, even though this is troublesome," the
Nara genius faked a yawn.
Ino playfully slapped him on the shoulder. "Good luck, genius," she said quietly before
darting off through the trees.
Shikamaru rejoined the boys, a slight smile hidden.
N
Sakura could feel the jolting pain coursing through her thigh, but somehow, that wasn't
enough to dispel the illusion. Quickly forming the required handseals, the cherry blossom
prepared to execute 'kai', but a sudden, deep voice, devoid of emotion, interrupted her.
"Trying to escape, Haruno?"
Emerald eyes, filled with fury, met Itachi's black stare. The older Uchiha stood some
distance away from her, his face porcelain-smooth. Their gazes remained connected,
with unspoken emotions conveyed through the intense stare-down.
"It's impossible,"
"I don't believe in the impossible,"
"Funny, you gave me a different impression when you were so close to giving up just a
few moments ago,"
"I made a mistake,"

Sakura let out a small gasp. Itachi had suddenly appeared right in front of her,
dangerously close. From the corner of her eye, she could just see the glinting tip of a
sword.
She tried to move, but her body was frozen.
"You're making more mistakes if you think you can get out of here," the Uchiha said in
an eerily soft voice, pressing against her as one hand snaked around her waist and held
her close. "The only way out is death,"
"I'm not going to die here," Sakura drew a shaky breath, aching to pull away from Itachi,
he was holding her too close for comfort. But again, she couldn't move. "Because I don't
believe that it's impossible to get out,"
Itachi chuckled in a low voice, leaning into her and bending down slightly to place a kiss
on her neck before pressing his face against the side of hers, making her shiver
involuntarily. "I'd like to see you try," he whispered flatly into her ear.
Then he drew back quickly, still holding her by the waist. In a single, swift, thrusting
motion, he plunged the sword through her heart.
Her eyes widened, blood spurted out of the wound. A scream of pain escaped her lips,
but she was quickly silenced by Itachi's hand over her mouth and nose, blocking her
airways.
"Don't scream, Sakura. Keep all the pain inside,"
He stabbed again. She jolted, excruciating pain torturing her body.
She could not scream.
"Can you feel it? Isn't pain wonderful?"
Yet another stab.
Sakura crumpled, but Itachi held her limp body upright, against him.
"I'll rip your heart apart,"
The blade drove right through her body again.
Now, her body was shuddering, a muffled moan escaped her clamped lips.
"I told you. It's useless to resist,"
He drew the blade lightly down the nape of her neck, drawing fresh blood, smearing her
skin and tearing her uniform. The cherry blossom had tried, several times, to summon
her strength, but every bit of it seemed to have left her completely.
The pain soon numbed out all other sensation as Itachi dropped his sword and grabbed
hold of her hands, forcing the girl to turn her back to him while twisting her hands behind
her back.

It was a miracle that Sakura was still alive, but that was the point of genjutsu. It tortured
a person to the brink of insanity before killing them. Itachi wasn't done with her yet.
"You saw what those Sound nins did to your dead body, didn't you? Before they cut it to
pieces?" he asked softly, caressing her skin. "I can do that too but perhaps I won't. It'll
probably break Sasuke's heart, won't it?" he smirked, using his knee to brace Sakura's
back.
Sakura felt sick again. It might be an illusion, but every part of her that Itachi had
touched with his sickening intimacy felt raw to her. It felt real. Like a living nightmare.
Her head hung limply, she instinctively knew what was going to happen next, but again,
she was powerless to fight it.
With a swift, powerful tug, Itachi yanked the cherry blossom's arms until he heard a
satisfying 'crack'. The same method of torture Sasuke had used on one of the Sound nins
they'd met at the Chunin exam, so long ago.
Sakura whimpered, hot tears rushing down her bloodied face as her broken arms fell
limply to her sides, providing no support while Itachi simply let her fall to her knees. She
was powerless against her captor, and she knew it.
Warm, rusty liquid rushed into her mouth, and nearly choking, Sakura began coughing
uncontrollably coughing up blood. Itachi towered over her, watching the suffering girl
kneeling at his feet, his face blank.
"I always won over Sasuke when we were young," he spoke flatly. "He could never, and
will never be able to beat me in anything,"
"Arro-gant- much - ?" Sakura spat weakly, between bouts of coughing. Her chest wounds
hurt immensely.
Itachi ignored her. "I'm the kind of person who will resort to any means to win and
since you mean so much to my brother I will kill you to break him,"
Sakura felt her anger rising to a dangerous level. "I- mean- noth-ing- to- to him!" blood
trickled from the corner of her mouth, and Sakura suddenly began to feel dizzy. She'd
lost too much blood.
"Oh, you do," Itachi smirked. "This is my genjutsu and I'm in control, you pathetic
kunoichi,"
Amidst all her pain and her blurred mind, Sakura somehow realized that Itachi was trying
to coax her to use the Nanabi's strength, to allow him an opening to weaken her even
more in the process.
Her body shaking, Sakura bit her lip, her eyes tightly shut.
'My arms I need to heal my arms'
She was out of chakra, so there would be only one way out.
'Nanabi,' she whispered to the dormant demon within her. 'Help me,'
'I was wondering when you were going to ask,' the demon phoenix smirked. 'Don't
worry. I suppose you'll only allow me to heal your arms?'

Without waiting for a response, the seven-tailed Bijuu sent out a light wave of healing
chakra to Sakura's limp arms.
N
"Kakashi!" Asuma spoke sharply as he felt warm liquid coming into contact with his
hands. "Whatever Itachi's doing to her in this genjutsu, it's killing her!"
The silver-haired Jounin, who had been trying to dispel the genjutsu, looked down at
Sakura, suddenly jolted by a spray of blood and her piercing scream that stopped just as
abruptly as it had started.
Deep gashes appeared on her body, as if there was someone really stabbing her again
and again, with no mercy. Both Jounins watched in horror as Sakura's body shuddered, a
gash was slowly drawn down her neck, and a moment later, there was a loud, sickening
'crack'. Sakura's rigid arms went limp.
Then she started coughing. Bouts of blood. Fine crimson droplets sprayed upon the
earthen ground.
"We have to keep on trying," Kakashi said grimly, drawing a long breath. "Or she
definitely won't live,"
N
Itachi stared at the girl at his feet, who seemed to have quietened down a little. He
smirked inwardly. 'Pathetic dead already?'
Before he registered it, a fist shot up, slammed into the bottom of his chin, and sent him
flying some distance away. The pink-haired girl stood slowly, clutching her crudelyhealed chest, a spark a fury dancing in her emerald eyes.
Itachi stood unsteadily, his eyes narrowed at her, yet holding just the slightest trace of
bewilderment. "You "
"Pain, Itachi," Sakura said quietly, every word she spoke hurting her. "Pain dispels
illusions. You got so caught up with torturing me you forgot about that, didn't you?"
The cherry blossom could feel a certain force tugging at her, trying to release her from
the genjutsu. Someone was trying to help her, back in the real world. She would have to
do her part if she wanted to ever get out of this nightmarish world.
Shakily forming her handseals, Sakura tried to ignore the stab wounds hurting her
immensely. She just wanted to leave. Forget this illusion ever happened to her. Forget
the Sound nins raping her dead body. Forget Itachi, touching her.
"Kai!"
Her world turned blur for a moment, blotting out Itachi's pale, emotionless face, before
coming back into focus. Every part of her body hurt, she could only manage to heal her
wounds rather crudely. Everything seemed to spin around her for another few moments
and Sakura took a deep, shuddering breath to steady herself and regain her balance.
Itachi broke away from his fight and stood, staring at the pink-haired kunoichi defiantly
staring at him with hate-filled eyes. He knew how much pain he'd caused her. Heck,

heenjoyed doing it. He enjoyed watching her crumble, testing her strength and immunity
to emotional issues.
And he was rather surprised that she'd passed his test. Not very happy about the fact
that a mere kunoichi had just discredited his fatal genjutsu, though.
His blood red eyes narrowed.
Naruto was watching her with his mouth open. The kind of wounds she had with that
amount of blood lost Sakura should be in a coma! Sasuke himself stared at the scene
with a blank expression, as if frozen.
Kakashi and Asuma stepped back cautiously. They definitely knew Sakura's outburst
symptoms and they definitely did not want to be in the way of an angry kunoichi the
Godaime Hokage had taught them that much with her fist.
For several moments, the only sound that could be heard was Sakura's heavy breathing
as she fought to stay upright and conscious. When she spoke, her voice was cold, like icy
daggers, slicing through the tense air, flat and devoid of emotion.
"You wanted to kill me?" she asked softly, dangerously, fists clenched.
Itachi stared back with equally passive features, not flinching. The cherry blossom
continued, her voice ringing with a deadly tone that sent shivers up the spines of all
those who heard it.
"You're messing with the wrong girl, Uchiha,"

Chapter 23- Silence


-
"Shino!" Shikamaru called out, informing the shinobi that they had a plan with a simple,
agreed-upon hand gesture. Shino understood. He swiftly leapt out of the attack range,
his bugs scurrying after him.
The black-haired boy stood facing Kisame calmly from a distance, his partially-shielded
face revealing nothing, as was the usual. One special trait that few people noticed about
the Aburame was his incredible capability to keep a passive face without anyone
assuming that he was hostile. That was exactly what he did now, watching the Akatsuki
member from behind his shades with a completely relaxed pose.
"Chickened out?" Kisame asked dryly, but kept his guard up. There was something about
this particular shinobi that made him uneasy, and he didn't want to find out what it was.
Shino himself kept quiet, watching his teammates from the corner of his eye while using
his scampering bugs as a distraction to fool his opponent into thinking that his next
attack was coming.

Shikamaru, Sai, Gaara and Kiba had placed themselves strategically around the
unsuspecting Akatsuki member, some distance away as not to alert him. They glanced
momentarily at each other, all fully prepared to execute the plan Shikamaru had in mind.
Lee poised himself, behind them. He would act as backup.
With a slight nod from their strategist, Shino sent his black bugs towards Kisame,
crawling up his feet and cloak to serve as a distraction. Kisame wasn't afraid of the bugs,
but you know that feeling of when bugs are scampering up your skin.
While the shark-faced man was trying not to wince from the tingling sensation on his
skin, and trying to focus on the shinobi instead, Shino discreetly slipped away from the
scene, preparing to withdraw his bugs once his teammates had started their jutsu.
The four boys in the circle exchanged glances again, their faces now set. They would
start.
"Osae tsukeru: domu keimusho!" (1)
All four slammed their open palms upon the earthen ground simultaneously, making the
ground shake rather violently as a vibrant, silvery, shimmering dome of chakra swiftly
built up with such speed it was impossible to escape, and trapping Kisame within.
He was unperturbed, obviously thinking that he would be able to escape. After all, the
Sameheda absorbed chakra. Had these amateur shinobis forgotten that? With a slight
smirk, Kisame raised his huge sword in a quick, slashing motion.
Nothing happened.
"Your chakra absorbent sword is useless in there," Sai glanced at him with blank eyes,
eyes that reminded Kisame of Itachi's. The kind of eyes that, even though he'd never
admit it, creeped him out. Sai continued, still staring at him. "The inside layer of this
dome is made out of sand and special ink particles,"
Kisame started indignantly, but quickly leapt aside when he spotted a shadow trailing
stealthily along the ground. He stayed at the spot where he figured Shikamaru's shadow
length could not reach, and tried to remember what he had heard about the Nara ability
to manipulate shadows.
A rather useless technique, he'd used to think. Maybe he would be taking back his words
after this. They said that this boy was a genius, too.
Then Shikamaru's shadow stopped. Kisame grinned, as people always do when
they think they've won. "Too bad you can't grow any taller right away, eh?" the Akatsuki
member cocked his head to one side, observing Shikamaru's face, scrunched in
concentration.
The Nara genius did not reply, smirking inwardly. 'Idiot I expected more from him,'
Already another shadow was trailing behind Kisame. The shark-faced man caught his
momentary glance to his right and sprang aside the shadow behind missing him by
millimeters.
Kisame glanced back at Shikamaru's sweaty face, looking somewhat smug now. They
couldn't keep up the chakra dome forever, he knew that. He only had to keep moving.

'Crap!' Kisame swore in his mind. The shadow had shot forward again. In a quick thrust,
he planted his sword upright in the ground and leapt upwards to perch atop it.
'It's either a stroke of luck, or he knows that my shadow manipulation doesn't work on
inanimate objects,' Shikamaru thought with a raised eyebrow. 'But no matter. He was
trapped from the start,'
"Can't catch me?" Kisame perched casually on his sword, looking down.
The smug expression froze on his face. The rest of him froze, too. Literally.
Shikamaru released his handseal satisfactorily. "The forest has trees," he spoke absently,
waving his hand at their surroundings. Kisame was forced to do the same, but grudgingly
deadpanned a retort. "I knew that,"
The Nara genius took no notice of his words, and continued. "The trees have shadows,"
"But you didn't " Kisame started. He knew full well that Shikamaru had not used any of
the trees' shadows to trap him.
"The chakra dome has a shadow too,"
The Akatsuki member fell silent, stunned. He'd been trapped, from the very beginning,
and he was so preoccupied with noticing the obvious he had failed to account for the
hidden traps.
Shikamaru calmly motioned to his teammates, it was their turn now.
"Sabaku no kaze: suna wo kiru!" (2)
The young Kazekage shifted slightly to the left, sand overflowing from his gourd. In a
fleeting hand movement, he clenched his fist and manipulated the sand into long, sharp
needles that dove through the chakra barrier with ease, before aiming themselves at the
motionless shark-faced man. A barely visible chakra shield had formed around Kisame,
but the man himself knew it was weak.
Gaara muttered a soft "Release,", and the sharp sand needles went flying, piercing
through the black cloak, probably meeting flesh. Shikamaru timed his jutsu release
perfectly, and avoided being harmed himself.
Kisame made no sound, nor did his face betray any emotion. He was thinking.
Thinking, but not getting any results.
Sai took his cue and grabbed two scrolls from his pack, Shino moving in silently beside
Kiba as the animal specialist knelt down by his white ninja dog, preparing for his turn.
The ANBU Root member flung open his scrolls and formed his handseals, and their
surroundings were silent for a moment.
With a roar, the graceful forms of two black tigers erupted majestically out from the flat
surface of Sai's scrolls. The two inked animals stood on both sides of their master,
awaiting their instructions while baring their teeth at the prisoner trapped within the
chakra dome.

Sai summoned another five of his falcons,that swooped around him, their sharp beaks
clearly visible. Even their wings seemed to have sharpened tips, and their glassy eyes
eyed Kisame threateningly.
He swiftly motioned them forward. "Tora-taka: mettagiri suru!" (3)
As Gaara's sand had done before, the seven inked animals leapt through the chakra
dome easily. The two tigers pounced upwards, dragging the Sameheda and Kisame
down, while the falcons dived steeply towards their prey. The sharp tips of their wings,
beaks and claws dug through fabric and flesh, drawing crimson blood with surprising
ferocity for abstract animals.
Blood was spattered upon the ground, Kisame stumbled blindly, groping for his fallen
sword while keeping silent, unwilling to let this bunch of amateur shinobis see him
showing weakness.
Shikamaru's Kagemane no Jutsu was no longer controlling him, and Kisame saw more
openings to escape the madhouse of inked animals as he easily dodged them, but the
Kazekage stepped in, closing his eyes.
A tornado of sand rose in the dome, obstructing Kisame's view and giving Sai's animals
openings to attack. The tiny grains of sand spun around wildly, just like a snowy scene in
a glass orb. The shinobis, safe beyond the walls of the dome, watched silently, thinking
their own thoughts.
Kisame could feel the sting of the sand beating on him wildly, the small grains flying into
his eyes plus those inked animals attacking him didn't help much, either. Maybe maybe
he could tunnel through the ground?
The Nara genius glanced at Kiba, to his left. The animal specialist grinned with a thumbs
up, and motioned to Lee. Both were ready. Shino took Kiba's place to maintain the dome,
while Kiba and Akamaru sported their razor-sharp claws and began tunneling
downwards, with Lee following closely behind. They soon disappeared.
Shikamaru waited several moments, until he heard a low whine. He motioned to Gaara
and Sai.
"Enough,"
Slowly, the tornado stopped, and the inked animals disappeared into their scrolls after
receiving a pat on the head from their master. When Kisame's hunched, still silhouette
could finally be seen, Shino nodded to Shikamaru, and the Jounin let out a warning call.
"NOW!"
The chakra dome dissolved, and at that very moment, Kiba and Lee burst out from
underground and delivered powerful, upward punch-downward slam combos, sending
Kisame flying.
"Inuzuka doku hanone!" (4)
Akamaru leapt up, his large jaws grabbing hold of Kisame's collar and flinging him
towards Kiba and Lee but not before Kisame had managed to draw the jagged edges of
his sword down Akamaru's side, drawing blood. The ninja dog fell heavily to the ground,
whining.

Lee, burning with fury, slammed into Kisame's body again, not even bothering to use the
Lotus. He just put everything he had into that single attack.
Kiba was staring at Akamaru, paralyzed with shock. He turned slowly as Kisame's
bloodied body crashed onto the ground, his eyes holding a vicious spark seldom seen.
Without a word, he caught the Akatsuki member by the shoulders and hauled him up,
anger radiating off him. His claw-like fingers dug into flesh, making the shark faced man
drop his sword. Kiba flung him against a tree, pulling out poisoned kunais before lodging
them in various parts of Kisame's body.
Then Kisame's body disappeared, replaced by a log.
Kiba was on the verge of erupting now. Lee caught him by the arm, shaking his head
warningly while motioning towards Akamaru.
Kiba spun around, his fists clenched as he skidded forward, bending over his dog, his
face contorted in worry.
"Akamaru"
The white dog let out a soft whine in response, shuddering as it took a deep breath. The
gash was deep. Very deep.
Kiba could only stroke Akamaru's bloodstained fur silently, not knowing what to do, what
to say.
N
Healing chakra engulfed Sakura's frame as she stood shakily, before lifting her eyes to
focus on the Uchiha murderer. Itachi shook his head slightly, trying to brush off the
sudden shock he had received. This girl
Sakura stood there for a long while, silent, but words couldn't possibly convey the
amount of anger she felt, watching Itachi standing before her so nonchalantly, as if he
didn't care, as if nothing had happened. How could anyone anyone act like that?
"You sick murderer!" Sakura lashed out suddenly in a hiss, a strange, new, vicious
spark dancing in her emerald eyes. She radiated a sort of dangerous, deadly fury that
frankly, none of her friends had ever thought her capable of. They'd always thought of
Sakura as the smiling pink-haired medic nin who lost her temper occasionally never to
this extent.
Itachi's Sharingan widened slightly as its user realized that a wave of invisible chakra
was speeding towards him, accompanied by a fierce gush of sudden wind that whipped at
his cloak.
'But she didn't use any handseals!' a wild thought ran through his mind. 'And I would
have seen her if it was a bunshin'
The pink haired kunoichi was still standing a few feet away from him, never moving.
Rigid. But her eyes
Itachi suddenly doubted that his Sharingan was one of the strongest eye-based
bloodlines around. Those eyes if there were eyes that could freeze people with a glare,

it would be those eyes. They weren't any shade of blue, but those emerald eyes they
were icy. Anger, hatred, pure fury all melted into one.
He wasn't afraid though. The Uchiha Itachi was never afraid. He just felt a sense of
amazement at this girl, and coming from him, that was something.
Then he realized that he was frozen. How ironic. In a few moments, he felt movement
returning to him, but his body froze again. It was like a TV. If someone pushed a button
he would freeze, and unfreeze again at the push of another button. And if the controller
felt like it, he would be frozen, unfrozen, frozen, unfrozen, frozen in a never ending
circle. Alternating
'Wait ' a sharp thought rang in his mind, and the truth struck him. 'Alternating
reality?'
It was a simple concept. Alternating between the world of reality and the world of
illusions, to confuse the victim and drive him or her to desperation. Because for a
moment, what you saw could be a genjutsu, and the next it would be a real thing. Itachi
had worked on that theory for awhile now, but it was a difficult thing to master it would
take a lot of chakra, stamina and perfect timing.
So. Had this pink-haired kunoichi achieved what he had not, or was it out of sheer fury
that she managed to do it?
Itachi preferred the second theory.
Sakura remained standing before him, but a sudden convulsion in his gut confirmed his
guess about the 'alternating reality' technique and told him something that he had
always believed not possible.
He, Uchiha Itachi, was trapped in a genjutsu.
With no way out.
N
The cherry blossom swiftly darted to the left and snatched Sasuke's long sword from his
slackened grip, and before he could stop her, she was sprinting towards his motionless
brother, the look on her face utterly incomprehensible.
Sasuke's Sharingan had previously seen the invisible wave of chakra rushing at Itachi,
but he saw no effect only the mild change in expression on his brother's face. What had
she done?
And why wasn't Itachi dodging? A sickening sound filled the air as the blade drove into
flesh, blood spattering through the air.
"Teme?" Naruto whispered almost fearfully, glancing sideways at Sasuke. Sakura
what was happening?
"GO TO HELL, ITACHI!" Sakura lashed out, driving the blade of the sword around wildly,
occasionally hitting her target. She felt a burning desire within her to kill, to maul the
pathetic man standing motionless before her. It was as if a whole new personality had
emerged, and Sakura had no control over her anger nor her actions.

"You've been playing your stupid mind games with Sasuke for so long, you've killed your
own clan for your own sick reasons, you've ruined so many lives and I've had enough!"
Sakura screamed at him, her blade never pausing, never slowing down.
"All those horrible things you made me see those of the future you intend everyone
from your home village killed, everything ruined, everything gone children killed just
like that making me watch my dead body being being " the cherry blossom let out
an exasperated shriek, painfully remembering his touch, and the Sound nins She couldn't say the word. With a ferocious stab, her sword went right through Itachi's
shoulder blades, breaking his arm.
"WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?"
Her scream resounded through the clearing, and the cherry blossom crumpled, tears
streaming down her face.
"I have no family! My brother died, and everything was taken away from me! You have a
brother you had a perfectly fine family, and you chose to destroy it all!"
Sakura's alternating genjutsu lost its effect due to her sudden loss of concentration. But
Itachi had heard every word. He winced slightly as his body regained movement and the
full effect of his wounds could be felt, but his face remained passive.
"Tell me," the Uchiha said, suddenly and quietly. "Do I look like I care?"
Sakura lifted her gaze to meet his, and Sasuke caught sight of murderous intent in her
fiery emerald eyes, but there was something else something that made him, even,
shudder involuntarily.
Bloodlust.
Sakura truly wanted to kill. He could see it, as if something within her had snapped and
anger had taken over, while Sakura's calmer, composed side was lost somewhere in that
sea of murderous intent. Her face clearly spelt that hell was about to break loose.
"SAKURA!" Naruto and Kakashi yelled simultaneously as the kunoichi leapt forward, her
katana poised. They darted forward to restrain her. She would regret her actions later, if
they let her continue. But Sakura wasn't the Godaime's apprentice for nothing. In a swift
blur of movement, they were thrown across the clearing and crashed into trees.
Blade met flesh again as Sakura drove the sword through Itachi's upper torso, twisting it
brutally. If Itachi had not swerved slightly just then, the blade would've pierced his heart.
But that made no difference to Sakura, with pure fury etched into her face.
"Let's see how much you care when you're dying," she hissed at him, pushing the sword
in deeper.
Sasuke had seen enough. Seeing Itachi killed was his wish, but watching Sakura do it
like some psychopath was something he couldn't stand. Sprinting forward, he grabbed
her by the waist and lifted her off the ground, pulling her back.
"Stop it now, Sakura!"
"Let me kill him!"

"I said stop it!"


"You just want to kill him yourself, don't you! Let me go!"
"YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING SO STOP IT RIGHT NOW!"
"NO!"
"DAMMIT SAKURA!"
He twisted her around roughly to face him, prying her hands off the sword. Without
warning, he clamped his lips over hers.
N
Sakura froze, shocked emerald eyes staring into his onyx ones as they broke apart. She
crumpled to her knees, still staring at him in utter shock. Behind them, Naruto gaped
while Kakashi grinned and Asuma grumbled.
"Told ya," the silver-haired Jounin mouthed. "You owe me 2000 yen, Asuma,"
Asuma glared at him.
Sasuke didn't hear them, or he would've been furious at the fact that he'd just been
betted on by his two senseis. He simply knelt before the cherry blossom, speaking
quietly, not even knowing why he said those words.
"He's not worth your time,"
She was shaking all over as she glanced past Sasuke at Itachi, taking in his horrible
state, then at Kakashi and Naruto, who looked badly bruised, and realization hit home.
Sakura dropped the bloody sword, staring at her hands in shock and disgust as hot tears
brimmed in her eyes. She'd just tried to kill someone in cold blood, without knowing, or
registering how she did it.
"Stay away from me!" she shrieked, scrambling away from Sasuke and her friends,
pushing away their comfort and warmth. Sakura was so scared afraid that any
moment, she might revert to that murderous state and kill everyone, destroy everything
she knew. Perhaps perhaps she could shun all of them before the shunned her, treated
her as a monster and the village once did Naruto.
"Stay away"
Torrents of tears streamed down her dirt-streaked face, dripping onto the earth.
The Nanabi was it the reason why? Or was it simply her own, uncontrolled anger, the
ugly side of her that could finally be seen?
She realized that she didn't want to know.
"Sakura?" Sasuke edged close cautiously, afraid of aggravating her. Her wide, emerald
eyes, reflecting her fear, stared at him before she backed further away from him,
shaking her head vigorously like a scared child.

"No! Go away go away before I before I kill you " Sakura's voice was high-pitched
and choked. She wrapped her arms around her knees and sobbed, feeling out of control,
small, afraid. It was as if her childhood fears of being the last, the weakest had come
back to haunt her.
The Uchiha wasn't about to give up. Walking forward silently, he held her by the arm in
an unwavering steel grip.
She tried to shake him off, to no avail. "What's with you, Uchiha! Let me go you
bastard "
"You can't kill me even if you wanted to, Sakura," Sasuke raised his voice to overpower
hers, speaking firmly while staring her in the eye.
Sakura fell silent, on the verge of an outburst, her body shivering.
Then she threw her arms around her childhood crush, her tears unstopped. He was
startled at first, but hugged her loosely around the waist, trying to restrain a smile.
Itachi was staring at the scene before him emotionlessly, hardly registering the painful
throbbing of his gut. He couldn't tell what he was feeling, but he felt a sudden jolt when
the pink-haired girl hugged his brother.
'How how would a hug feel?'
Then he furiously shook it out of his mind.
'We'll finish this next time, Sasuke and Haruno Sakura I suppose I'll have to
remember your name from now on'
Without another word, the Akatsuki member vanished.
Sasuke glanced briefly at the spot where Itachi had stood previously, but suddenly, he
didn't feel much of an inclination to stalk him down. Silently pulling Sakura up, they both
made their way back to the team.
Naruto and Kakashi gingerly stepped forward, covered in sweat, blood and dirt after the
tiring battle, but Sakura couldn't care less. With a small, grateful smile, she threw her
arms around the male members of her team, hugging them tightly, unwilling to let go.
She couldn't lose them again.
N
"Hey " Ino started just as she landed beside Chouji, but halted abruptly when she saw
the looks on their faces, and Tenten, unconscious in Neji's arms. "What "
"Ino," Neji said urgently, pressing forward. "Can you heal this?"
The blonde, recovering from her state of shock, replied firmly. "No, I can't. She's got
second-degree burns and any level of expertise below Sakura's can result in Tenten
losing an arm and I'm not taking that risk," she ended softly, brushing the hair off her
friend's forehead almost sadly.

The three were silent as Ino turned to leave, to look for Sakura. She glanced back at the
motionless shinobis, surprised. "Hey aren't you com "
"Sakura's gone, Ino," Chouji said quietly, trying to ease the impact of the words. Ino
stared back at him blankly, confused.
"Gone? You mean, she left the battle before us?"
"She's dead, Ino!" her chubby teammate said exasperatedly. "She got trapped in a
Mangekyou Sharingan genjutsu! She's not going to live!"
The trio looked at Ino apprehensively, half expecting a hysterical outburst.
But Ino was smiling. Bitterly, but smiling.
"I don't believe it,"
"Ino" Hinata said softly, stepping forward and placing a hand on her shoulder.
"You know Sakura as well as I do, Hinata! She won't leave us just like that! She's not
dead!" Ino spoke furiously, brushing away tears. "Come on!" she dragged Hinata off, in
search of their pink-haired friend.
Feeling a small surge of hope, Chouji and Neji followed.
N
Shikamaru heard a small, shuffling sound somewhere in the woods and whirled around. A
very bloodied Itachi had appeared, barely visible within the shadows of the trees,
supporting an equally wounded Kisame.
Their eyes met for a moment. Itachi's eyes were empty, but Shikamaru thought he saw a
trace of pain in them. Then, along with the Sameheda, they vanished.
Sai and Lee made to go after the duo, but were stopped by Shikamaru. "Don't bother.
They'll be back someday,"
Kiba watched Akamaru anxiously, oblivious to the world around him. Shino placed a hand
on his teammate's shoulder awkwardly, trying to convey comfort to him. "Hinata should
be able to heal it, Kiba,"
The Inuzuka seemed to snap into reality at the sentence, and stood dazedly, preparing to
lift his pet and find Hinata pronto.
"Give him a soldier pill first, you idiot, you'll kill him just by lifting him like that," the lazy
genius hissed.
Too distraught to think of any retort, Kiba did as he was told, and watched with slight
relief as a wave of chakra stemmed the flow of blood from the gaping wound.
"So? Shall we?" Sai asked blankly.
The team nodded.

N
"Sakura!"
The cherry blossom broke away from their group hug as a blonde girl hurtled out of
nowhere and squeezed her so tight she nearly choked.
"Ino In o!"
"They said you were trapped in a genjutsu and that you were dead but I didn't believe
them and I told them so and I'm so glad you're alive and Tenten's badly hurt and "
"Wait "Sakura stopped Ino, but her voice lacked its usual sharpness. A few of them
noticed that, and looked up in surprise. She didn't notice. "Tenten how is she?"
Neji carried the brown-haired kunoichi forward, resolutely silent. Sakura inhaled, her
eyes cast downwards as she stepped forward to tentatively touch her friend's charred
flesh.
"Ino, warm water. Hinata, bandages and antiseptic, please. Naruto, get a sleeping roll
and spread it out," the pink-haired kunoichi commanded, quietly. All three glanced at
each other, but scrambled off hurriedly.
Sasuke watched with slight surprise as everyone followed her orders without question or
opposition. But he was more concerned about her reserved state.
Neji gently placed Tenten on the bedroll Naruto had spread out, almost reluctantly,
before stepping back. Sakura knelt and soaked her hands in the warm water, scrubbing
vigorously to remove the dirt.
At least, that was what most of the team though. The Uchiha, however, glanced at
Kakashi and they shared a grim, knowing look. Maybe just maybe Sakura was trying
to wash off blood that wasn't there, out of guilt. Guilt of her cold-blooded encounter with
Itachi which ended up with her almost killing him. Pain that she was trying to hide, not
from others, but from herself.
Sakura washed Tenten's arm gently, before healing it slowly.
Sasuke watched, intrigued, pushing out his worries for a moment. The black, charred
skin was slowly mending, healing and being restored to its original condition. However,
Sakura wrapped the hand with bandages and used a sling to support it despite the arm
looking perfectly fine.
He somehow felt that now wasn't the time to ask, though.
They'd barely noticed that Shikamaru's team had rejoined them, and Sakura only jolted
back to reality when she saw Hinata healing Akamaru.
Their co-team leaders called or silence.
"We'll set up camp here for tonight, and leave tomorrow. Sai, send a word to the Hokage
about our arrival with Uchiha Sasuke and bring her up to date. The rest of you go get
some rest. Chouji, Shino, you prepare dinner. Sakura and Naruto will guard the Uchiha
if Sakura is up to it," Neji cast her a sidelong glance, doubting her current state of mind.

Sakura merely nodded. "Kakashi-senpai, Asuma-senpai, Shikamaru, we need to have a


discussion," Neji continued firmly.
"Aw now?" Kakashi's single eye peered over the top of his perverted book. "I was just
getting to the good part!"
"Yes, now," Neji glared at his senior Jounin.
"Aa fine don't glare at me like that" the Copy nin resumed his reading, nonchalantly
adding a sentence. "I just thought you'd want to accompany Tenten"
The rest of the group suppressed laughs.
Neji glared harder.
N
Naruto spent half the night convincing Sakura that her encounter with Itachi had not
been her fault.
"I mean, if I had been you I'd have mashed him to pulp wouldn't care less if I'd felt
murderous or whatever isn't he a murderer, too?"
Then, after he was satisfied that he'd at least lessened Sakura's feelings of guilt, the loud
blonde tactfully disappeared, leaving Sasuke and Sakura alone, once again.
The cherry blossom was exhausted, but now that her guilt was lessened, another image
kept her awake, along with the bizarre thoughts that kept funning through her jumbled
mind, until she resorted to asking herself if it had really happened.
"Sakura,"
"Eh?" she said softly, not looking at him.
"Something wrong?" he asked with a smirk.
"I don't know," she admitted after glaring at him.
Sasuke reflected on her words for a moment, and then it suddenly clicked.
"It's not about what I did just now, is it?"
Sakura glanced up sharply, her eyes slightly wide. She looked like she was about to say
something, but then she turned away from him and wrapped her arms around her knees
again. "Forget it,"
"Come on, Sakura"
Silence.
"I'll tell Lee that you're in love with him," Sasuke threatened with a flat tone and a
straight face, jabbing her on the shoulder.
Glare. "You wouldn't dare."

Poke. "I wouldn't?"


Glare.
Poke.
"Fine, fine, you win," Sakura grumbled.
"Don't I always," the Uchiha replied nonchalantly.
"Stuck up bastard,"
Sakura relapsed into silence. When she finally spoke again, her voice was unusually
quiet, and her cheeks flushed.
"That was my first kiss,"
Sasuke hadn't really expected that. From what he had heard during his stay with
Orochimaru, Sakura was the Godaime's apprentice, highly talented, and along with her
above-average looks, she must've gone out with someone else before even though he
didn't like the thought of it.
He was currently wondering how he should react.
"Did you did you mean it?" she asked quickly, before stopping herself. "Never mind
don't answer that," her cheeks turned as red as tomatoes.
Mm tomatoes. He hadn't had any in a long time but back to the real issue. He let out
a somewhat suppressed laugh.
"You were worried about that?" Sasuke asked, restraining laughter. He did, after all,
have an image to maintain.
"Stop laughing," Sakura threatened, her face scarlet. "Before my fist mushes up that
pretty face of yours,"
The Uchiha sombered. "I don't kiss a girl just because she's about to kill my brother, you
know,"
Emerald and onyx met as Sakura searched for any trace of insincerity on the Uchiha's
face. There was none.
Slowly, very slowly, a smile broke out on Sakura's face. She shifted her position to sit
closer to the raven-haired boy, while he hesitantly draped his arm across her shoulders
and pulled her against him.
The cherry blossom gave him a sidelong glance before settling herself contentedly in his
embrace, speaking in a soft, teasing tone.
"So I'll take it that you did mean something by that kiss, then,"

Chapter 24 : Homecoming

"Aw, isn't that just cute?"


A sudden, feminine voice rudely jolted Sakura and Sasuke awake, both whom had fallen
asleep under the tree. They leapt apart when their eyes caught a certain smirking
Hyuuga prodigy standing next to Tenten, who was grinning widely, her arm in a sling.
Sakura's face was flushed, while Sasuke had rearranged his features into his emotionless
mask once again. Both said nothing, glaring at the two older shinobis before them.
"Did you really have to spy on us like that?" Sakura asked indignantly, her arms crossed.
Tenten laughed and took her friend by the arm. "We're not spying, Sakura-chan it's not
like the entire camp doesn't know that the two of you had fallen asleep together"
Sakura glanced up sharply at her surroundings. Everyone in the camp, who had
previously been watching the interesting exchange, immediately whipped back to their
work, unsuccessfully trying to hide their laughter.
Sakura groaned while Sasuke rolled his eyes, grumbling under his breath. "Immature
idiots,"
"Not like you're being very mature about this, Uchiha," Neji smirked. Sasuke's hand
automatically twitched towards where is sword usually hung only to grasp thin air.
Neji twirled Sasuke's confiscated sword with ease, watching the Uchiha fume, smiling
inwardly. He feigned a questioning face. "What? I'm already doing you a favour by not
tying you up,"
The vein throbbing in Sasuke's forehead was clearly visible now.
Tenten and Sakura sighed, exchanging glances. Somehow, they had expected this to
happen sooner or later, Neji would never be able to resist baiting Sasuke.
"C'mon, let's leave the menfolk to their own petty fights it's time to go home, and Ino's
dying to know what happened," Tenten grinned.
"Not again," the pink-haired kunoichi sighed, turning to follow her friend to pack. On
second thought, she called over her shoulder to the opaque-eyed prodigy and the Uchiha.
"Oi! Don't kill each other while we're gone, okay?" the cherry blossom grinned.
Both watched the girls disappear before glancing at each other, shrugging, and walking
off in different directions.
N [In Konoha
"Shizune!" Tsunade yelled at the top of her voice. "SHIZUNE!"

The blonde woman waved the scroll on which she had deciphered Sai's most recent
update just moment's ago, as her assistant hurried into her office, clearly annoyed at
having been dragged away from her work.
"What is it, Tsunade-sama?" a very hassled looking Shizune asked exasperatedly,
plopping into one of the chairs facing the Hokage's desk without invitation. She was
desperately wishing that Sakura would just appear out of thin air, and help her deal with
the load of work that Tsunade had, as usual, neglected.
"They're coming back!" Tsunade could barely contain her excitement completely out of
character for the Godaime. "Sakura's coming back and she's in one piece!"
"Of course she's in one piece," Shizune said crossly, standing up and starting to walk out.
"She's your apprentice, isn't she? Now please get yourself together and act like a
Hokage, Tsunade-sama, Kurenai wants to see you," her assistant reprimanded.
Tsunade rolled her eyes. Sometimes Shizune made her wonder just who was boss around
here.
The crimson-eyed Jounin strode in, followed by Genma.
"I know they're almost home, Hokage-sama, but it's not the time to throw a party just
yet," Kurenai got straight to the point, speaking tiredly. She hadn't gotten any sleep
lately, and it was taking a toll on her. Yet, shinobi were trained this way. Missions came
first, no matter what.
"Deidara and another new Akatsuki recruit named Seijin are here, right now, in Konoha,"
Genma told the Godaime calmly, his hands in his pockets.
"What?" Tsunade nearly fell out of her chair. "In Konoha? How - but Jiraya never said
anything about a new recruit - !"
"Jiraya-sama's in Hidden Rain now, gathering information there we suspect that he
hasn't heard about this new recruit yet," Kurenai said darkly. "And as for how they got in
Danzou struck a deal with them. Akatsuki is bargaining for the Haruno scrolls, plus the
two jinchuuriki. The traitor wants Konoha for himself,"
"When I get my hands on him" Tsunade muttered under her breath, her fist clenching
tightly.
"We need instructions fast, Tsunade-sama," Genma told her firmly. "All else can wait.
Deidara and Seijin request that Danzou attack the Rookie Nine team and retrieve the
scrolls, so they are in immediate danger once they're within range of Konoha's gates. It
is imperative that Akatsuki do not get the scrolls, isn't it?"
"We can't detain Danzou without more proof, the old hags 'advising' me love him too
much," Tsunade scowled with distaste. "Who else is in your team, Kurenai?"
"Iruka, Kotetsu and Izumo,"
"I'll talk to the clan heads and see what agreement we can reach for them to help us,"
the Godaime Hokage spoke thoughtfully. "Meanwhile, station ANBU guards all around
Konoha, and casually spread the word among Danzou's supporters that the team is
returning tomorrow. We'll have to bait them, so make sure the team is well protected,"

Kurenai nodded.
"Genma, draw up a report on the new recruit Seijin and give it to me in another three
hours. I want to know exactly what he looks like and what his apparent abilities are
Jiraya can elaborate on the rest," Tsunade turned to the other Jounin.
"Hai, Tsunade-sama," Genma acknowledged his task.
"I'll speak to the clan heads and get back to you latest by tomorrow, Kurenai. Gather
your ANBU team," Tsunade's hands were clasped underneath her chin.
The office was silent for awhile. The crimson-eyed woman spoke quietly. "Akatsuki only
needs the Nanabi and the Kyuubi to complete their set and they've gone as far as to
collaborate with one of our own do you think that this means?"
Tsunade stood, turning to face her open window. She watched several kids playing ninja
on the street below as their mothers called them in for dinner, she watched villagers
greeting each other cheerfully as they passed. Everything she loved, everything
important to her was here. Her beautiful face was once again heavily lined, her former
excitement had given away to worry.
"Yes," the Hokage spoke slowly, closing her eyes.
"This means war,"
N
"Oi, teme."
Sasuke looked up from the tent he was packing and acknowledged Naruto's presence
with a slight nod. The hyperactive blonde bent over to help the Uchiha.
"I wanted to ask your something," Naruto said as they both stood, Sasuke carrying the
bundled tent over to the pile of backpacks
"Hn."
"About Orochimaru,"
Sasuke raised an eyebrow.
"You didn't kill him yet?"
"No."
"Why?"
"I don't think that concerns you,"
"But he tried to take over your body, right?"
"Twice."
"And?"

"I resisted."
One look from Sasuke told Naruto that he had asked enough questions. He dropped the
subject with a grin and went on packing silently.
"Hey, dobe," Sasuke suddenly spoke after several moments.
"Wait a sec you're talking to me?" Naruto feigned dramatic surprise.
"No, I was just talking to this can of tuna," the Uchiha shot back sarcastically, tossing the
aforementioned can into a pack.
"Never knew that you could talk to fish," Naruto grinned, and before Sasuke could retort,
he continued. "So, what?"
"Sai," Sasuke motioned to the dark-haired teen standing some distance away, talking to
Sakura. "What kind of person is he?"
"Oh," Naruto smirked, barely hiding his glee a jealous Sasuke was priceless to watch.
"He's got absolutely no social skills, like a certain someone I know"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sasuke deadpanned, looking at Naruto threateningly.
"You know what I mean, teme," the jinchuuriki grinned mischievously. "Because you're
such a wonderful social butterfly yourself"
'Since when did the dobe acquire sarcasm?' the Uchiha thought vaguely. For some
reason, the memory of Naruto accidentally 'kissing' him when they were in the Academy
resurfaced. He shook his head to get rid of the image, and suddenly felt like throwing up.
Naruto, completely oblivious to Sasuke's lapse of attention, prattled on. "Anyway, Sai's
gotten a lot better since Sakura-chan started trying to teach him social skills,"
He couldn't resist baiting Sasuke.
Sasuke subconsciously glared at the back of Sai's head he was still talking to Sakura.
"You know, teme, it's okay to be jealous after all, Sai is a lot better than you," Naruto
tried to look nonchalant.
The Uchiha sent the blonde idiot a death glare, aiming a punch to his head.
"Shut your mouth, dobe, before I shut it permanently for you."
N [with Orochimaru
Kabuto winced as yet another loud crash and the sound of something shattering could be
heard from within the Snake Sannin's room.
Orochimaru was mad, he had been mad since he learned that the Leaf shinobis had
managed to retrieve Sasuke. He'd been throwing things for three days now, and it
seemed like he still wasn't finished venting his anger. The medic nin was pretty sure that
if he even put a foot in there, he would be the next thing Orochimaru threw.

It wasn't as if the bastard hadn't already blamed the whole incident on him.
Kabuto sighed. He had no choice, his master had summoned him. Perhaps he should
hand in his resignation and go into early retirement, Kabuto vaguely contemplated that
option.
"Orochimaru-sama?" he adjusted his glasses and knocked tentatively.
The only reply was the sound of something else breaking.
Kabuto recklessly pushed open the door and walked inside.
" that ungrateful, filthy little bloodsucker "
CRASH. A vase shattered. Orochimaru had repeated this rant for three days, and
honestly, Kabuto felt sick of hearing his pitiful whining.
"- came to me for power and walked away "
Smash. The innocent little wooden chair in the corner split.
"- without paying the price!"
White feathers flew as Orochimaru ripped a pillow.
Kabuto blinked.
'This is gonna be another long day'
N
Tsunade paced her office incessantly, numerous thoughts running through her mind
and for once, none of those thoughts were related to sake.
She glanced at the battered old clock on the wall. It'd been half and hour since she'd
dispatched messengers to summon the clan leaders of Konoha for an emergency
meeting, and she was getting impatient.
Her gaze fell upon the clutter on her office desk. Sakura had often admonished the older
woman for having such an 'unrespectable' office, and even undertook the task of cleaning
up every three days, but with the pink-haired kunoichi gone for nearly three weeks now
the entire office had fallen into disarray.
Yet two items remained in place upon her desk. A photograph, of Tsunade and Sakura,
both grinning madly for some reason or another, and a porcelain bottle of special, winterbrewed sake that Sakura had bought for her teacher from the Village of Hidden Mist,
when she'd been there on a mission. Tsunade hadn't touched it yet.
The blonde-haired Hokage smiled at the memory, barely registering the knock on her
door.
"Tsunade-sama," Shizune's quiet voice sounded as the raven-haired woman stepped into
the office.

"Send them in, Shizune," Tsunade straightened and stood behind her desk as the clan
heads filed in, greeting and bowing to her respectfully. With a wave of her hand, the
Godaime gestured for them to sit.
Tsunade looked around for a few moments to ascertain that everyone was present.
'Hyuuga Yamanaka Akimichi Aburame Nara Inuzuka' her hazel eyes scanned
the room, nodding to Jiraya who had slipped in quietly at the last minute. Satisfied, the
Godaime began to speak.
"Just recently, I sent out a team of eight Chunins and two Jounins to source out two
scrolls, believed to be of the Haruno Clan's, and sought after by the Akatsuki. They were
led by Hyuuga Neji and Nara Shikamaru, and the updates from them have revealed that
they were successful in the objective of their mission. Hatake Kakashi, on the other
hand, was sent on another S-class retrieval mission with Pakkun. The latter returned with
additional information on Orochimaru, while I arranged for Kakashi to somehow meat our
team of Chunins. They are now escorting Uchiha Sasuke back to Konoha,"
A slight murmur rippled through the room. Tsunade held up a hand for silence.
"The Uchiha is the least of our concerns right now. I have received information that
Akatsuki is growing more ambitious and restless as the time passes while one of our
own has betrayed us,"
"And who might that be, Hokage-sama?" Hyuuga Hiashi asked calmly.
"The traitor is Danzou," Jiraya, who had been silent and standing in the far corner of the
room, spoke up suddenly. "He has been meeting with up with an Akatsuki member
known as Deidara as well as another new recruit named Seijin. They are collaborating
Akatsuki intends to obtain the Haruno scrolls, and in return, Danzou demands to be put
in charge of Konoha,"
The atmosphere in the room tensed.
"Our spies have determined that Danzou plans to attack the team of shinobis due to
return tomorrow, under pressure from Akatsuki to obtain the scrolls at whatever cost.
Our team is not aware of this ambush and we cannot inform them in time without looking
suspicious. They will be in danger, because hidden ninjas in our surrounding forest are
often taken for our guards and not as enemies. Most of them, I believe, are your sons
and daughters," Tsunade continued.
"Why can't we just arrest Danzou and have it done with?" Akimichi Chouza asked quietly.
"You know, as well as I do, that we will never convince the village elders of his guilt
without proof, they favour him for his monetary donations and previous contributions to
our village." The Hokage explained sharply. "I have stationed ANBU to capture Danzou's
men in action tomorrow. But I need all of you to focus on a more pressing matter," she
took a deep breath.
"Akatsuki, as you know, has spent the last few years capturing the jinchuuriki and
extracting the Bijuu from them. They only require two more to complete the set the
Kyuubi, residing in Uzumaki Naruto, and the Nanabi, currently hosted by my apprentice,
Haruno Sakura."

"Sakura since when?" Yamanaka Inoichi let out an exclamation. He had know the
kunoichi as his daughter's friend, and never once had he heard that
"Too long a story to explain, and I refuse to divulge the details, but if it helps, she only
became a jinchuuriki during this mission," Tsunade fought to keep the exasperation out
of her voice. "But let me get to the point. Akatsuki's near completed collection of taileddemons can mean only one thing for us. I need all of you to train your clan members
harder, strengthen our walls and do everything in your power to ensure the safety of our
village. We fight to protect all that we love, and I don't know what you think but Naruto
and Sakura are extremely important to me and to your children, because they are our
friends and comrades. Never forget what our forefathers died for,"
There was pindrop silence all around. Tsunade closed her eyes, willing her tears not to
fall.
"It can be a day, a month or a year, but war is approaching."
N
"Hey Genma! I heard that the Rookie Nine are gonna return from their mission
tomorrow!" Kotetsu made a show of being drunk, yelling at the top of his voice in the
middle of Konoha's largest bar.
Genma had to admit, Kotetsu looked really convincing. Beside him, Anko was sprawled
out on the bar counter, also looking drunk as she burped and laughed, fingering her
drink. "Yea, and the Hokage's so damn happy"
"Hey, shut it, both of you, that's supposed to be classified!" Genma played his part,
hissing with a strained voice in a loud stage whisper.
The Jounin watched from the corner of his eye as the men at the next table got up
hurriedly, paid and left. He knew that man. One of Danzou's lackeys.
Genma pretended to hoist both Kotetsu and Anko after paying for their drink,
apologetically muttering to the barman about comrades getting drunk after missions.
Receiving a sympathetic smile from the barman, he dragged both shinobis out rather
unceremoniously until they reached ANBU headquarters. Once safely inside, Kotetsu and
Anko dropped all pretense of being drunk.
"You think we did it?" Kotetsu asked Genma.
"Yeah. I think Danzou's man bought our act," Genma said thoughtfully. "We should be
able to proceed with Kurenai's plan,"
"But that was fun!" Anko grinned, her usual self.
Genma rolled his eyes.
N
They were getting closer to home. Everyone seemed to move twice their usual speed,
eager to return to familiar grounds, their thoughts on home.
All except for one person, that is. Uchiha Sasuke was trying to think of anything but
Konoha and everyone in it.

Five years. Branded as a traitor. He was pretty sure that no one would be overjoyed to
see him. Heck, he wasn't even sure if he wanted to go back.
Next to him, Sakura was chatting animatedly about how much Konoha had changed, the
things she wanted to do when she got home, her patients at the hospital Sasuke could
sense that her smile was faked, her cheeriness was simply a mask to hide what she felt
how people would accept her as another jinchuuriki back in Konoha, but Sasuke was too
preoccupied with his own troubles to take notice of her nervousness or her need to talk
to someone. There was a slight pang of guilt in him, he was being selfish, but Sasuke
brushed it off easily.
"Are you done talking?" the Uchiha snapped, irritated. Sakura's face fell ever so slightly
since when had she been able to hide her emotions this well? but she quickly retreated
with a sad smile.
"Yeah, it's okay if you don't want to listen."
The cherry blossom slowed down, her emerald eyes somehow haunting him. She was
growing father away again and it was his fault. He soon lost sight of her as she fell to
the back of the group.
Naruto, who was travelling in front of Sasuke, glanced backward at him with a partly
angry, partly reproachful look, somewhat mixed with annoyance and incredulity. Sasuke
had a feeling that he was going to get a lecture when they got back to Konoha.
He tried to ignore Naruto.
N
"One word of advice, Sakura," Tenten smiled quietly as she leapt onto another branch,
wobbling precariously as her arm in the sling failed to help her balance. She swore under
her breath, before continuing the conversation. "Sasuke's not ready yet talk to him
when the initial problems are over, talk to Ino if you're having fashion issues, but talk to
me if you've got real problems,"
Neji, who had been at the end of the group, caught up to the girls who were slowing
down, and looked at Tenten enquiringly. The brown-haired girl motioned him forward,
shaking her head to deter any further questions on his part. Finally catching on that this
was a 'girl thing', the Hyuuga moved forward, indicating to them to catch up quickly.
Sakura tried to smile, but failed. "I can't make him understand that right now, I need
to talk to someone. I need to talk to get things out of my head because honestly, I'm
scared about returning home with this," she glanced briefly at the mark the Nanabi's
sealing within her had left.
"He's got other things to worry about, Sakura, other things that concern him more,"
Tenten said patiently, even though Sakura knew what she was about to say. "Like how
he'll move on with life when he gets back to Konoha. You know his quest for revenge
isn't over, and personally, I think the only reason he's following us back now is because
he's sick of Orochimaru trying to take over his body and also because there's likely
nothing more that he can gain by staying with that bastard. Your problems are, from his
point of view, little of his concern,"

"That sounds rather harsh," Sakura's voice was soft. She didn't want to think that Sasuke
was returning home because he had nothing left to gain with Orochimaru. She wanted,
very badly, to think that he was returning because he cared.
"Not everyone's like you, Sakura," Tenten laughed slightly, reading her friend's mind
easily. "Yes, he's returning to Konoha for the sole reason of ditching Orochimaru, but I
think he cares in a different way. He could've left for elsewhere, where he wouldn't be
looked down upon like in Konoha, but he chose to return. That ought to
mean something," the kunoichi tilted her head to a side. "Sometimes caring about a
person doesn't mean prying into every aspect of that person's life, or trying to help them
in every way. People need to learn to move on by themselves, there's only so much you
can do. You've done your part in helping him, but he may not think that he needs to help
you with some of your problems. You can't expect him to automatically care because he's
been away for five years, whatever you and Naruto say, that bond has been severed,
even if a little, and it will take time to build it back again," Tenten looked at Sakura
seriously. "Maybe you should give him some time, try living your own life for a bit and let
him live his. If you don't think he's interested to listen to what you're going through, you
can always talk to me. Or stand alone, like the 'strong girl' you've become,"
The weapons mistress smiled as she said the last sentence, but she was alarmed to find
that Sakura was about to cry.
"What if, Tenten what if I'm just tired of being strong?" the pink-haired kunoichi asked
softly in a choked voice, biting her lip to keep herself from crying.
"Tired of being strong?" Tenten asked.
"This whole mission changed my life in three weeks. Every single one of those things
that I gained, the scrolls, the Nanabi, my kekkai genkai every one of them is a
responsibility! Before this mission, I wanted to get stronger, I tried so hard to achieve
more things, to match up to my teammates but now I'm not so sure anymore. It's so
difficult when everyone relies on me for a solution, because they expect me to be able to
solver everything just because I have sudden extra powers!" Sakura said exasperatedly,
fighting to keep her voice down.
"It's like being a medic, Tenten," the cherry blossom spoke softly, closing her eyes and
taking a deep breath, her body on autopilot as she moved through the forest. "Everyone
relies on me to heal their wounds, to cheer them up, to reassure them that everything
will be okay; and they expect me to be able to heal myself, to get up myself when I've
fallen,"
Sakura paused on the branch she was on, silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Everyone forgets that I'm only human, that sometimes, I need someone else to help me
heal. That I feel what they can feel, that I'm not invincible no matter how strong I appear
to be. I don't mind being strong, but I just can't handle everything alone,"
Tenten had stopped moving when Sakura halted on the branch she was standing on.
"You're a really silly girl, you know that?" the kunoichi asked with a slight grin. "What are
we? You know Naruto and I, along with all your friends, have never let you bear things
alone. Sasuke will take time to learn about caring, and if he doesn't, I'm pretty sure
Naruto will make him learn, at any rate,"
The weapons mistress tried to hug her friend, but swore again as she found that the sling
was restricting her movement.

"Aah, screw the sling, my arm's perfectly fine," Tenten grumbled and ripped the material
off before enveloping the half-laughing, half-crying Sakura in a warm hug, telling her in
unspoken words that she was never alone.
N
"Almost home," Kakashi said, grinning at his only female student. "Can't wait to get my
hands on Jiraya-sama's latest book,"
"I thought you said you were bored of it?" the cherry blossom enquired, rolling her eyes
as she grinned back sheepishly. Some things never would change.
She'd managed to catch up with the team along with Tenten after her breakdown, hoping
that no one had noticed, or would question, their absence. She was pretty sure that
Asuma, Kakashi, Neji and Hinata would have seen them falling behind, but they didn't
ask any questions and Sakura wasn't complaining.
At last, they could see it. The roofs of Konoha's buildings, reflecting the morning sunlight
just beyond Konoha's gates in the distance. Home.
"Ichiraku Ramen, here I come!" Naruto hollered somewhere at the head of the group.
Kakashi and Sakura exchanged amused glances, sighing if only a little. That was one
thing that would never change.
Kakashi suddenly tensed and whipped out a kunai, yelling a warning and darting to
Sakura's side as a black-clothed figure came bearing down on her, the glinting tip of a
sword clearly visible.
"WATCH OUT!"

Chapter 25 Pain

"UGH!"
Kakashi was protected from the crashing sword by his own kunai, but suffered the brunt
of the brute force, hurtling sideways and shoving right into the surprised cherry blossom.
Both toppled from their precarious position atop the branch and toppled to the ground
which was a pretty long way down. Lucky for them, Konoha's forest grounds were usually
covered in dry leaves that managed to cushion the fall. Having always been taught to
land sideways when falling didn't hurt, either.
As the two shinobis regained their composure and leapt back up to join the fight, the rest
of the team had already sprung into action. Several of them, like the Hyuugas and
Sasuke, were fully prepared, but the rest were not too graceful for the first few moments
facing their surprise enemy.

A shinobi, however, learns that many things can happen in only a few moments and
that those 'few' moments can cost a precious life. Already they had cuts and grazes all
over, thanks to the weapons used in the ambush.
Neji swore under his breath, never mind the Hyuuga policy of being a gentleman at all
times. Taking down two of the masked enemy efficiently, the prodigy berated himself for
not having paid more attention to the ninjas hidden among the trees. He'd assumed that
they were simply one of Konoha's gate patrols, but he was wrong. Now, the enemy had
the element of surprise, and therefore, the upper hand.
Naruto easily took out four men with a rapid succession of combined punches and kicks,
while Sakura covered his and Sasuke's back, dealing sharp blows to the base of their
necks with the side of her hand, rendering them unconscious.
Sasuke almost looked bored. Watching him from the corner of her eye, Sakura wondered
how they ever defeated him, in a manner of speaking. He made this fight looked so
damned easy!
"Who's got the scrolls?" the man who had first attacked demanded gruffly, distinguishing
himself further as the leader of their attackers. Big mistake. He would be sitting in
Konoha's interrogation cell later, if the team of shinobis had anything to say about it.
Meanwhile, they stayed quiet, not giving Sakura away. The longer the enemy couldn't
locate what they wanted, the better. Gaara was keeping them at bay with constant
waves of sand at their feet, but several managed to penetrate the obstruction.
"It's the pink-haired girl! She's one of the jinchuuriki!" one of the masked attackers
suddenly shouted, pointing at Sakura. She froze for a momentary second before shoving
her knee into his stomach. He flew into oblivion.
'How did they know that?' she thought grimly, preparing for a full onslaught of attacks
in her direction.
As luck would have it, someone else shouted at that very moment.
"No, it's the Hyuuga, their captain! I overheard some Jounin talking about it yesterday
night!" yelled the scrawny man, brandishing his weapon rather unnecessarily. He
sounded extremely proud of himself.
'Too much ego?' Sakura thought. Well, at least she was out of trouble for the moment,
and she wasn't complaining.
The man's word about his 'information' obtained from several Jounins seemed to be all
the reassurance the enemy team needed. All at once, they changed course, charging at
the stoic captain instead which was, quite obviously, a huge mistake. Any nut with a
brain would know that Hyuugas excelled in close combat.
"Kaiten!"
Ten men were thrown backwards by the sheer force of the spinning chakra sphere, five
were out cold. Neji's killer glare sent the other five scrambling backwards.
"I suggest you get lost before I lose my temper. None of us have whatever scrolls you're
looking for our mission objective was to retrieve the Uchiha," the Hyuuga's voice rang
out clearly, opaque eyes narrowed.

'Smooth lie,' Tenten thought, trying not to smirk. For a prodigy who could see through
anyone else's lie, it was ironic that he should lie himself.
"He's lying!" the leader spurred his men on.
Chaos ensued, everyone plunged into battle with fresh fervor. Their enemies, if judged
by skill, never stood a chance some of them fought worse than genins. But they had
the advantage of numbers.
Sakura's fist slammed into one of her attackers, the well-aimed punch sending him
crashing into several others. She was increasingly conscious of the scroll in her backpack,
fearing that at any moment, it might be taken from her.
Heck, she didn't even know why she was so concerned. She hadn't wanted to be involved
in the first place, had she?
The cherry blossom could vaguely see Sasuke, Naruto and Sai, now covering her back,
protecting her and fighting off the enemy with ease that only 'her' boys were capable of.
Several men flinched at seeing the Uchiha in battle, but charged towards him anyway.
The next moment, they were out.
Sakura gritted her teeth, finding herself fighting next to the weapons' mistress. Tenten
signaled to her, and Sakura swiftly grabbed her friend by the shoulders and swung the
brown-haired kunoichi in a wide arc, while Tenten delivered powerful kicks, dispersing of
the enemy quickly.
"Put your heart into it, Sakura! You're not focusing!" Tenten hissed at her friend
anxiously after she had landed. Sakura's attacks lacked the viciousness they once had,
the spirit that made her strong in combat.
The pink-haired kunoichi knew that she was way too preoccupied with worries to
concentrate on this fight they were so close to home, why now? Sakura was sick of
always being the target, sick of being in the center of attention, and all she wanted to do
was to go home and sleep. Yet even that seemed to be too much to ask for. She punched
one man with uncontrolled ferocity to vent her frustration, and he slammed into a nearby
tree. He would be suffering quite a number of broken bones, and the terrifying fact was
Sakura's realization that she didn't care anymore.
Just when the shinobis thought that the fight was going nowhere, they were alerted to a
sudden presence by a familiar, ringing voice.
"Hey you! Looking for these?"
Most heads glanced upwards. Genma had spoken. He was tossing a scroll in one hand,
holding another, Kurenai, Kotetsu and Izumo were next to him on the branch, while a
group of ANBU had completely surrounded the team and their attackers.
There was momentary confusion as the masked men attempted to scramble away, to
escape capture, and in the midst of all that, Sakura spotted one of the enemy leaping
down upon the distracted loudmouth Naruto. She leapt upwards swiftly without a
thought, preparing to deliver a downward kick.
She managed the kick, but in her unfocused state of mind, judged the man's retaliation
wrongly. He twisted to attack her, and both falling man and kunoichi crashed into each
other in mid-air, tumbling down rapidly.

Sakura nearly screamed with a sharp, blinding pain shot through her right foot and up
her leg. She'd crash-landed on the wrong angle and twisted her ankle. Badly. Clenching
her teeth, she attempted to stand, only to find that her foot was utterly useless. Beneath
her, Naruto's attacker was unconscious, Sakura having fallen on top of him.
'Great,' she thought bitterly. Now she was an open target, and that was just what she
needed. The cherry blossom tried not to make a sound as not to draw any attention but
realized, to her horror, that her eyes were quickly losing focus. There was too much pain,
and the stab wounds from her last encounter with Itachi were only semi-healed to save
chakra. This situation was really bad.
No one else had noticed her nasty fall, they were too busy looking at Genma.
"Come get the scrolls, you incompetent bums, isn't that what you wanted all along?"
Genma called out mockingly while Kurenai discreetly signaled to the rest of the ANBU
team behind her.
The battle had paused, and everyone watched with bated breaths. All except for Sakura,
who had enough to do just fighting to stay conscious.
"Hand over the scrolls," A quiet, gruff voice broke the silence. Sakura raised a kunai to
her neck swiftly out of pure instinct. Metal clashed, the man gripped Sakura by the
shoulder while his other hand trained his sword, poised at her throat. Only her kunai was
shielding her from certain death now, and even then, her grip and strength were slipping
with her consciousness.
The shinobis were frozen. How could they not have noticed?
"She's losing her grip, don't count on her being able to overpower me. Hand those scrolls
over or I'll kill her," the man said evenly. He meant business, that much they could tell.
No one was behind him to be able to threaten him, and in any case, if they moved,
Sakura would lose her life. Even if they could be faster than the man, they could not risk
it.
Genma noticed the vital symptoms of someone about to pass out. Sakura's eyes were
unfocused and her whole body was going limp, and the kunai was sliding against the
man's sword.
He weighed his options quickly. The scrolls were not the issue Sakura's life was. He
could hand over the two scrolls anytime, they were fakes, but if he did and the man
checked, realizing that he'd been cheated with blank scrolls, he would kill Sakura. If
Genma didn't hand the scrolls over, Sakura would die.
There was no win-win situation. But maybe luck would be on their side.
"Hurry up!" the man threatened. The sword had almost slipped to the tip of the kunai
now, and beads of perspiration due to the man's anxiousness trickled down his face.
Genma was about to toss the scrolls over when, in a sudden blur of movement, the man
yelped and was thrown forwards, sword and all. A blonde-haired woman with piercing
hazel eyes stepped forward, looking angry. Or scary.
"I did not just hear you threaten my apprentice!"

Behind her, Sakura felt a wave of relief washing over her, before she allowed herself to
slowly succumb to the blissful darkness.
"Tsunade sama" came her shaky, ragged whisper.
Then her world went black.
N
The cherry blossom drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes catching sight of the
white hospital ceiling, occasionally glimpsing the worried faces of her mentor and friends,
before falling back into the dark, blank abyss of unconsciousness.
Jumbled thoughts flashed through her tired mind as she slept, none making sense.
Darkness enveloped her world like a blanket, sometimes comforting, sometimes
frightening. She would dream of all that happened on the mission, having nightmares
about how different things could have turned out how, perhaps, all her friends could
have died for her, or worse still, by her hand.
Alone she felt so isolated. Some thoughts and memories came out clearer than the rest.
Sakura found herself remember Sasuke leaving, her parents dying. Yuki's pale face, as
he was about to succumb to death. His last words.
"Hug me nee-chan"
"YUKI!"
The pink-haired kunoichi bolted upright in bed, and found herself nearly blinded by the
sudden presence of intense light. Her body was rigid, shivering uncontrollably, and tears
streamed down her face in torrents.
"Sakura?"
The girl bit her lip, trying to stem the flow of tears. Tenten stood there, frozen in total
shock and staring at her pink-haired friend. Then Sakura gasped as the weapons'
mistress threw her arms around the cherry blossom, laughing and sobbing at the same
time.
"Ten ten?" Sakura whispered haltingly, still in a groggy state.
"We were so worried you hit your head when you collapsed and fell from the branch,
and Tsunade-sama told us you might have had a concussion" at this, Tenten drew back
quickly still holding Sakura's shoulders, staring at her concernedly. "You are fine, aren't
you? You remember everything? Like your hair colour? And Naruto's favourite food?"
"It's kind of hard to forget that," Sakura commented dryly, feeling more like her old self
again. Her mind ran a systems check on instinct, and she felt okay, save for the fact that
she required a little more rest for her internal wounds to heal completely.
"I think I'm fine," the cherry blossom spoke more seriously, slowly.
Tenten heaved a quiet sigh of relief. "Thank kami-samathe whole village was nearly
thrown into chaos when we rushed in, Tsunade-sama carrying you with the Uchiha
behind and us surrounding him, you know?"

Sakura's brain took awhile to register those words. Tenten continued.


"Everyone thought that he'd killed you when they saw us, and Hokage-sama's grim face.
But Sasuke never flinched, he just kept on walking and after Tsunade-sama completed
your minor operations, he stayed right next to you, every single day. Wouldn't budge,
and even when a whole squad of ANBU came in to detain him, he sealed the room so
that no one could get it,"
The medic nin looked up at her friend in surprise. Tenten merely smiled.
Sakura looked blank for a moment. "How long?"
She was almost afraid of the answer.
"A week. You've been out cold, drifting back occasionally and calling Yuki's name in your
sleep" Tenten tilted her head sideways with concern. "Anyway, you should see the
amount of gifts you received your friends, patients, the works" the weapons mistress
suddenly grinned, pulling open the curtains of the next bed.
Cards, flowers and presents of various shapes and sizes tumbled down, the bright colours
seemingly illuminating the room with their own light. Sakura blinked and spared them a
glance, trying to remember a question she wanted to ask.
"Sasuke shoved them there, they were originally by your beside table. According to
Naruto, 'the teme said that all the colours were blinding him'," Tenten unsuccessfully
tried to suppress a smile
Sakura jolted, remember her question. "Sasuke where is he now? Is he okay?"
"Aren't you ever the concerned one" Tenten teased. "He was here until an hour ago,
the village elders insisted that he attend a hearing so that they could decide on what to
do with him Sasuke got so tired of their pestering he went. I actually think that's just a
stupid excuse of the elders to make it look like they're doing something,"
The cherry blossom was already out of bed, pulling off the tubes connected to her torso
and arms. "Where's the place?"
"But you can't you're not healed yet!"
"Try me," Sakura said dangerously. "Where is the place, Tenten?" She quickly slipped out
of her hospital gown and snatched up some proper clothes from the bedside table,
putting them on. Her stare was unwavering.
"N-next to the Hokage Tower!" Tenten stammered, surprised.
Sakura bolted out of the room. Tenten swore at her own stupidity before bolting out after
her friend. Tsunade would be killing her later. Not to mention the rest of the males in
Team 7.
"Sakura!"
N

"Uchiha Sasuke, isn't it?" the stately, haughty old man stood, adjusting his council robes.
It took all of Sasuke's willpower not to get up and strangle every single one of those
smug-looking old geezers. It wasn't as if they didn't already know his name.
"I believe your counterparts have already asked me that question five times over," the
raven-haired boy closed his eyes and answered in a bored tone, feeling a vein twitch. It'd
been over an hour, and none of these fools had asked a question that actually meant
something.
"Do you enjoy being back in Konoha, Uchiha?"
"I'm afraid I cannot answer that question,"
"Are your friends happy to have you back?"
"That would be entirely up to them,"
"I've heard that you like tomatoes, Sasuke. Is it true?"
twitch "That's none of your business,"
Pointless. All of them. The last question had been asked by a woman that was probably
over seventy and still looked like a giddy fangirl. Sasuke shuddered involuntarily.
He suddenly decided that if this elder was going to act like the rest, he would leave.
Never mind Sakura killing him when she woke up.
If she ever did. Sasuke forced his train of thought elsewhere.
She was unconscious now, and the last thing he had done was to snap at her. Bitter
irony.
Somewhere across the room, Tsunade sat next to the jury box, her arms and legs
crossed, her eyes closed. She looked like she was sleeping. But Sasuke knew better, he
could read people well. The Godaime Hokage was, in a way, a dormant volcano waiting
to blow at the idiots questioning him.
The Uchiha hid a slight smirk.
"Uchiha Sasuke" the old man drew out his name, flipping through some papers. "Five
years ago, you betrayed Konoha and joined Orochimaru,"
"I did not betray Konoha," came his quiet, firm reply.
"Your definition of that statement?"
"My leaving was in pursuit of personal goals. I did not exploit or betray any of Konoha's
secrets or information to Otogakure," Sasuke spoke straight to the point, in a nonchalant
tone, his arms crossed and his face cast down with a blank expression.
"So you have never revealed anything about Konoha to our enemies?"
The only reply he gave was a slight shake of his head.

"But the fact remains that you allied with one of our enemies,"
"I did not deny that,"
The elder peered at Sasuke over the glasses perched on his nose.
"And what, exactly, made you come back? Defeat? Embarrassment?" he questioned. "Or
perhaps lo-"
"That question is out of bounds," Tsunade's voice sounded sharply even through she did
not open her eyes or move.
Sasuke let the ghost of a smile flit across his face.
"Very well," the elder looked disgruntled, but continued grudgingly. "My next question
have you ever killed for Orochimaru?"
The entire room was silent. Naruto gripped the edge of his seat, his face grimly set.
Kakashi's face was blank, as was Sai's. Neji and Shikamaru simply watched the
proceedings patiently. Several people shifted uncomfortably.
But Sasuke looked perfectly calm. "I have killed only in training or in need. Most of those
killed were Sound nins," his voice was dangerously quiet. "I kill on need, never on
command,"
"Have you ever killed any of Konoha or Suna's residents, then?"
"No."
"But, if I recall correctly, you were with Orochimaru and Kabuto and harmed our team of
shinobi sent to search for you,"
"The last time I checked, they were still alive, I believe that that does not count as
killing," Sasuke's gaze was unwavering.
Kakashi watched his student carefully every facial expression, every rise and fall of his
voice. Someone in Sasuke's position ought to be presenting a remorseful image and
trying to impress the jury, but here that Uchiha was, outsmarting his questioner and
looking like he didn't care.
The silver-haired Jounin's thoughts drifted to the blonde loudmouth next to him,
watching the scene with surprising intensity and concentration. Then he remembered
Sakura. A girl, and now a woman. Not one to be taken lightly, either.
He hid a smile.
'My genin team, eh?'
N
Sakura paused outside the small 'courtroom' doors, clutching her chest. Her wounds
were throbbing painfully, she was having slight difficulty breathing, and she felt dizzy.

But she didn't care right now. Silently, she pressed against the wooden doors, listening
intently.
N
Sasuke was bored. Spelt in capital letters. But the old man's next question was like a
sharp jab to his side.
He didn't want to answer it. He knew it was unavoidable, that sooner or later, one of
them would surely ask him that question, the whole reason of his 'betrayal' of Konoha.
"Do you still intend to find your brother and kill him?"
N
Sakura's breath caught in her throat. That question
She didn't want to hear his answer.
No matter what, no matter how much they went through to get him back, the pinkhaired kunoichi knew that it would be a 'yes'.
Meaning that he would leave them again.
Meaning that he still prized revenge above everything else.
Meaning that he might never come back.
Sakura bit her lip, using the door frame as her support. Suddenly it seemed so much
more difficult to breathe.
Then, from behind her, came a loud call, as a certain weapons' mistress came into sight.
"Sakura!"
N
Everyone froze as they heard the name.
Sasuke stood and leapt over the walls of the box he was sitting in, and swiftly strode
over to the doors, Tsunade joining him. Neither heeded the guards that tried to block
their way. With a tug, Sasuke yanked open the doors.
Sakura, who had been using the door as her support, lost her balance and fell when it
opened. Tsunade caught her apprentice and sighed.
"You just never listen, do you?"
The cherry blossom gave her a weak smile before glancing at Sasuke. She just wanted to
know that he was alright, no matter what.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, clutching her painful chest. Tenten grasped the girl
by her shoulders to steady her, smiling softly.

Sasuke paused. He decided not to answer, because frankly, he wasn't too sure if he was
actually 'okay', in every sense of the word. "Let's get you back to the hospital, you
annoying little brat," he said with a slight smirk, draping her arm over his shoulders and
supporting her on one side. Naruto ran up to help, on the other side. Tsunade quietly
stepped back and allowed the two boys to help their teammate. The blonde-haired
jinchuuriki was half-hugging her to death, hardly able to contain his excitement at seeing
her up and about.
"Where do you think you're going, Uchiha?" one of the elders suddenly asked from across
the room. "We're not done with your hearing yet?"
"If you know what's best for you, schedule it for another day," Sasuke spoke in a voice
that rang across the room, without looking back. His face remained passive. "And I'm
taking my teammate back to the hospital," he continued, slowly, calmly. "Are you going
to stop me?"
No one spoke.
Sasuke stepped out of the courtroom, supporting Sakura with Naruto's help, before
walking slowly out, Kakashi, Sai and Tsunade falling in step with them.

Chapter 26 Unexpected Discovery


Sakura healed. Slowly, but she healed. Frankly, she was rather surprised at the amount
of visitors and gifts she received, it had never occurred to her that so many people felt
that she was important to them. The waking moments at hospital were filled with her
friends, narrating the day's happenings, gossip, laughing, helping her recover.
Naruto brought her plenty of ramen, claiming that his favourite food had 'therapeutic
properties' even though Sakura choked at the idea. Tsunade half-killed the blonde boy
each time he brought some into the hospital she could no longer stand the smell of it.
Having constant contact with the jinchuuriki was already more than she could endure.
Sai had deftly drawn several inked mice for her when she had complained about how
boring it was being confined in the hospital. Sakura couldn't stop laughing when the next
nurse that checked her room screamed at the sight of black mice scurrying over the
white sheets and up Sakura's arm. For the first time since Sakura had met him, Sai
looked genuinely amused at the scene.
Kakashi occasionally dropped by when he happened to remember his female student,
bringing some small, random and useless present with him while offering her silent
company, and to a certain extent, intellectual conversation. He let slip that the Kazekage
had, rather awkwardly, told Kakashi that he wished Sakura a speedy recovery before he
returned to Sunagakure. The pink-haired kunoichi felt considerably warmer towards
Gaara after that.
Tenten, Ino, Neji, Shikamaru, Lee and the rest of the Rookie Nine visited often, too,
updating her on the goings-on regarding their missions and most of the time, simply
annoying her by telling her how much fun they were having outside without her.

Through all that pretense, however, Sakura sensed it. The looming danger, the gnawing
fear that was present no matter how much her friends and seniors tried to hide it from
her.
War was approaching.
It was the beginning of the end; or the end of the beginning, no one knew for sure. All
Konoha could be certain about was that they still had insufficient power to face the
combined threat of Akatsuki and Otogakure, not after Orochimaru's invasion five years
ago, and the shinobi wars before that. Even with the Sand's help. And Danzou,
stubbornly refusing to disclose any details regarding his partnership with Deidara and
Seijin while point-blank denying having any connections to the attack on the returning
team, wasn't much help.
Sai secretly visited the haughty man in prison, coaxing him to talk by pretending that he
was still supporting Danzou. What Danzou revealed to him, he told only the Hokage, and
no one else.
But life went on. The funny thing about humans is that no matter what is thrown at
them, no matter how hard they have fallen, they will keep on going. Living, fighting.
Never giving up.
So two weeks later, Sakura was allowed to be discharged from hospital. Before she left,
the pink-haired kunoichi had a long talk with her mentor, about an issue she had spent
long hours debating during her hospital confinement.
Tsunade, however, had been hesitant and highly reluctant to do as Sakura requested.
"Sakura, are you sure? It's a bloodline limit, and once it's sealed, there's no going back
it's not a wise decision, especially now, since you are already the last Haruno in
existence,"
"I only want to seal off my wind and lightning chakra elements, shishou"
"But still"
"I can't handle this much, shishou! First the Nanabi, and then a bloodline limit?"
"Isn't that what you've always wanted? And the Nanabi it's going to be sealed off later,
isn't it?" Tsunade tried to convince Sakura to reverse her decision.
"'Later' can be never," Sakura said softly. "And once the Bijuu is extracted I die, don't
I?"
That fact had never been confirmed by the Nanabi itself, but Sakura knew that it was
most probably true. This task required sacrifice right?
"I've had enough, Tsunade-sama being able to surpass others may be my goal, but too
much of it is something I can't bear" she finished quietly.
So Tsunade had complied. A three-hour long ritual with Shizune's help, sealing off two of
her bloodline limit abilities. Two circles of black runes surrounded the Haruno crest on
her arm, sealing off her automatic wind and lightning chakra controlling abilities.

Naruto had gone ballistic when he found out what she'd done, but she didn't regret it.
Somehow, Sakura felt lighter. She couldn't be sure what would come next in this bizarre
turn of her life, but she was pretty sure that whatever it was going to be, she would be
able to handle it.
N
Sasuke had allowed himself to be confined in prison after Sakura regained her
consciousness. Naruto visited everyday after seeing Sakura, and left Sasuke with a huge
headache each time. The Uchiha had nearly forgotten the one thing Naruto could beat all
females flat at.
Talking.
Kami-sama, that blonde idiot never stopped. First it was about Sakura, then the Jounin
exams due in a month, then Hinata. Oh, and ramen. Sasuke was entirely, utterly,
grossly sick of ramen. Beef ramen, miso ramen, teppanyaki ramen and whatever else
there was to that list. If the Uchiha caught sight of another bowl of ramen, he was going
to throw up.
And he would make sure that he threw up in Naruto's face.
"Hey, Sasuke-kun, what's with that idiotic smile plastered across your face?" a laughing
voice sounded. Sakura's pink head popped up at the bars, grinning.
Sasuke jolted visibly and quickly rearranged his features. He'd actually been smiling
while thinking about throwing up on Naruto.
"You're out of hospital," the Uchiha deadpanned a statement as Sakura let herself in with
a set of keys the prison warden had given to her discreetly. She felt kind of bad about
what she was going to do, but that feeling was mixed with the giddy elation of breaking
rules, something she rarely did.
"Yes, and it would take a real genius to figure that out," Sakura rolled her eyes, shutting
the door behind her. "Why do I always get stuck with the intellectuals?"
"You define the dobe as an intellectual?" Sasuke raised an eyebrow.
Sakura had to laugh. "Well, no," she admitted. "But you and Kakashi-sensei always have
that maddening air of 'intellectual superiority' about you"
The Uchiha let out a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort. "As if you, Haruno
Sakura, with all that brain, don't act 'maddeningly superior' like the rest of us,"
"Do I hear a hidden compliment from the egomaniacal ass of all time?" Sakura teased
with a straight face.
"I place more value on myself to let myself be compared to a donkey, Haruno, thank you
very much,"
"You're welcome," Sakura smirked.
Sasuke would've stuck out his tongue at her right then if he hadn't had an image to
maintain. He resorted to glaring.

Silence reigned for a few moments, and then Sasuke spoke flatly.
"So why are you here?"
The cherry blossom held a food container aloft, grinning.
"Just wanted to see my teammate and I heard Naruto's been visiting which means
ramen. Lots of it."
"Don't remind me," Sasuke groaned uncharacteristically.
"Hey, you weren't the only one on ramen therapy, okay? I had to endure two weeks, so
quit complaining," Sakura thrust the box at him.
The Uchiha took it hesitantly, and saw a delicious looking array of sushi through the
transparent lid. He suddenly felt extremely hungry, prison grub wasn't the best food in
the world. Oddly, guilt was mixed with his hunger.
"Sakura,"
"Aa?" the kunoichi asked absently, looking out through the small, barred window.
"Sorry," he didn't say exactly what he was sorry for, but she understood, and smiled.
"Yeah,"
N
"Come on," Sakura suddenly stood, holding out a hand to the raven-haired shinobi. "I'm
taking you somewhere,"
Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "You do understand the term 'being in prison', don't you?" he
asked flatly after a long moment. "Besides, this cell neutralizes chakra,"
"Hey, I helped modify this prison. The chakra-nullifying jutsu was my idea, and it picks
up your chakra signature and neutralizes your chakra, not mine," Sakura was already
performing some complicated handseals, casting him a sidelong glance. "And yes, I do
understand the term 'being in prison', so I'm breaking a few rules here do you have a
problem with that?"
"Sneaking a prisoner out of prison that sounds more like you're bypassing every last
rule in the rule book instead of just 'breaking a few rules'," Sasuke deadpanned.
"Aw, shut up,"
Two of Sakura's bunshins appeared, and one of them performed Henge no Jutsu,
switching appearances to look like Sasuke.
"Are our prison wardens really that stupid?" the Uchiha questioned skeptically. He was,
after all, a high-risk inmate, a fact which he reminded his teammate of.
"The warden is my friend, and to put it nicely, he's agreed to look the other way for
awhile. I think he doubts you'll escape while under my supervision," Sakura smirked,
sounding like she smuggled prisoners out every other day.

"What am I, a child in need of a babysitter?" Sasuke grumbled under his breath.


"Do you really want to know? The answer's 'yes'," Sakura retorted, grabbing his arm
firmly. "Hold tight,"
"Are you sure about that?" Sasuke smirked, making a move to grab her waist. Sakura
slammed his hand away with maddening accuracy, right on his knuckles, and the Uchiha
tried to hide his grimace of pain.
"Flirtatious showoff," Sakura rolled her eyes.
She transported them out.
N
Both shinobis fell heavily on a patch of grass, Sakura landing right on top of the Uchiha.
That was tricky, transporting two people had been a lot harder than she had thought it
would be
"Get your arm off, Uchiha, I can't breathe," the cherry blossom pried his arm off her
stomach, where it had whacked across her abdomen accidentally-on-purpose when they
had landed, probably a payback for Sakura's previous hit. She stood up and dusted
herself.
"A lot of girls would have died to be you a few moments ago," Sasuke observed with a
maddening air of nonchalance as he, too, stood.
"Which is why I didn't transport us into the middle of the marketplace, I would have been
murdered by now," Sakura shot back. "And unfortunately for you, I'm not from that
majority of idiots," she deadpanned. "And don't you dare start on my genin days,
Sasuke, or I swear this fist will punch you to another dimension,"
Sasuke smirked inwardly. 'She sure is feisty,'
They were approaching a grassy place, fenced all around. The scene seemed only
vaguely familiar to the onyx-eyed boy until he spotted that emblem. A red-and-white
uchiwa (1) fan, engraved onto every tombstone that was arranged neatly, in rows.
The Uchiha cemetery.
Sasuke was struck dumb. Sakura held back, observing him carefully, every twitch in his
facial expression. It struck her that he suddenly looked very much like his younger self,
perhaps at age seven. Worry, fear etched into a childish face with a furrowed brow. His
steps were quick and hurried as his feet automatically carried him forward, along the
route he probably knew by heart. Somehow, Sakura felt a pang. The rare show of
emotion from Sasuke now it made her heart twist. He looked so agonized. Desperate,
even.
He passed all the other dull, gray stones without a second glance, heading towards the
two graves that mattered the most to him. The cherry blossom followed closely behind,
silent, feeling as if she shouldn't be here, she shouldn't be seeing this side of him. The
side that always remained hidden behind his arrogance and determination to reach his
goals.

The Uchiha fell to his knees before two ornately built gravestones, bowing down low until
his forehead touched the grassy ground. Sakura could've sworn that she had seen
glistening crystal tears, trickling down the grass. She wanted so badly to hold him,
comfort him, but she could not. This was not her sorrow. She was simply the narrator,
the passer-by. She would never recall this moment in front of Sasuke; she knew that
because he didn't like to appear weak. The only thing she could do for him was to keep
this secret.
Sasuke himself was lost in his own world, staring at the grass before his parents' graves
through eyes blurred with tears.
Uchiha Fugaku. Uchiha Mikoto. Parents, killed by their own son.
He stayed in that position for a long while, his tears running dry. When he lifted his head,
he saw the fresh flowers placed there. Simple, white flowers, lilies-of-the-valley. He
somehow remembered that his mother used to plant them.
Sakura suddenly found her voice. "I used to come here after I visited my parents'
graves," she said quietly, almost meekly, as if wondering if it was her place to speak. "I
snuck into the Uchiha estate and found those flowers growing wild in the compound so I
always gathered those flowers for them, and I kept telling them that one day, you'd
come home,"
She was apprehensive, afraid of being reprimanded.
But Sasuke couldn't speak, he felt like thanking her but he couldn't find the words. He
remembered sitting in front of his parents' graves. Every day. After they died. Crying
Those tears had dried now. A memory long gone, long past. ThenHe suddenly looked up at Sakura, and both understood simultaneously. There was
someone else, apart from them. Hiding in the graveyard. There had been no attempt to
hide the intruder's chakra presence, it was strong but not very familiar.
Taking charge rather instinctively, Sasuke stood and spoke in a even, commanding tone.
"Come out."
An order, not a request.
He barely dodged a sudden stream of icy sharp daggers, gliding through the air like silent
ghosts, barely visible, as he pulled Sakura down along with him. A figure strode out
rather confidently from behind a tombstone, and as he stepped into view, his face finally
visible, both shinobis nearly jumped out of their skins, shock etched into their faces.
Sakura was the first the speak, a bare whisper escaping her lips.
"Haku?"
N
The tall, once fair-skinned boy stood before them, the gentler, softer features that they
remembered had given away to a slightly hardened look. His pale face had grown more
angular and a little longer, while his long, jet-black hair was tied up in a high ponytail.
So different. But it was Haku, nonetheless.

His hitai-ate was gone.


The two Konoha shinobis stared at him for a long moment, in utter shock, before
regaining their senses. The young man before them remained as passive as ever,
watching them carefully. It was impossible to read what he was thinking.
"I thought you were dead" Sakura could barely manage a whisper, but that whisper
somehow carried across the distance between them and Haku. Her body tensed, while
Sasuke was poised to deflect any attacks Haku's last Ice Mirror jutsu on him was far
from forgotten.
"Dead?" Haku looked trapped somewhere between amused and confused for a moment.
"Since when?" Then he smiled almost maniacally, raising both hands, palms open and
facing outwards.
The next thing both Sasuke and Sakura knew was a sharp, crackling sound, as if ice was
being broken into pieces. Shinobi instincts kicking into action, both dodged swiftly, diving
down and rolling to a side.
"Since five years ago?" Sasuke hissed an incredulous yet sarcastic answer to Haku's
former question, deflecting icy daggers with a long sword that Sakura had flung to him
out of nowhere. He was already missing the familiarity of his own sword.
Sakura was performing a quick Katon jutsu, sending small fireballs hurtling towards the
Mist shinobi while melting the ice daggers effectively. He'd almost forgotten her kekkai
genkai.
"Sakura, distract him. I'll attack from the rear," Sasuke dodged another ice dagger
expertly, conveying instructions to the pink-haired kunoichi with relative calmness.
"Are you out of your mind? What am I supposed to do, punch the ground?" Sakura shot
back scathingly, doing a backflip to avoid a particularly large dagger of ice. "This is
acemetery, in case you've forgotten, you idiot!"
Sasuke paused for a moment, feeling rather stupid.
She was right.
"Why don't you use Katon and I disable him? Knowing you, 'attacking' him probably
translates into 'mauling the guy into bloody pulp before killing him'," Sakura cast him a
sidelong glance.
Without waiting for his reply, she sprinted forward nimbly, disappearing suddenly. Haku's
jet black eyes widened for a split second, but he was swiftly and successfully distracted
by Sasuke's fireball jutsu, creating a solid ice mirror barrier before him to deflect the
attack.
The Uchiha quickly dodged the fireballs that came whirling back, and executed a few
more combinations of Katon jutsus in quick succession, all the while watching Sakura's
stealthy movements pacing behind Haku, searching for an opening.
The Hidden Mist ninja sensed a sudden presence behind him and moved to defend
himself a glassy sheet of ice sprung up between them almost instantly. But he knew
nothing of the kunoichi's strength.

Seconds later, the ice lay in shards, scattered on the ground, while the side of Sakura's
hand reached out and hit the base of Haku's neck with a well-practiced, controlled
amount of force. She would have broken his neck with any extra force.
"He's gotten rusty" Sasuke spoke nonchalantly as he strode over, surveying Haku's still
form with a certain air of distaste. "Different from when we fought him back then,"
"You and Naruto," Sakura corrected his definition of 'we', still looking slightly dazed. "I
did nothing but I have this funny feeling that I've just fought a ghost,"
"He survived Chidori," Sasuke said quietly, kneeling and examining Haku. There was a
circle-shaped scar on his chest, where his heart ought to be. "And it was Kakashi's.
There's no way he would have missed, so how?"
"I have a theory" Sakura trailed off, but shook her head, as if deciding not to say
anything yet. "I better get him to Tsunade-sama she'll have to question him,"
Both were silent for a long while, various thoughts floating through their minds. Neither
spoke. Sasuke glanced around and inwardly heaved a sigh of relief it was lucky that
their fight hadn't disturbed anything.
"Do you want to stay here for awhile more?" Sakura asked quietly, observing him
looking wistfully at his parent's tombstones. He seemed to make a decision.
"No. I'll be fine,"
He didn't know why he had to tell her he'd be okay, perhaps it was to reassure himself as
much as to reassure her.
"You sure?"
"I'll come again when I'm out of prison," Sasuke forced himself to turn away from his
parents' graves.
Sakura seemed to fidget at his words.
"Sasuke do you think you'll ever get out?"
"I'm already out, aren't I?" the raven-haired boy questioned dryly, casting her a sidelong
glance. "Those old hags can't charge me with anything,"
The cherry blossom still looked unsure, her eyes cast towards the distant horizon, not
looking at him.
"Jounin exams, Sakura," Sasuke said suddenly.
"Aa?" she looked surprised.
"You said we'd go together, right?"
"Yeah?"
"We are going," he glanced upwards at the clear sky. "Together."

Sakura looked stunned for a moment, before a slight smile spread across her face.
"Is that a promise?"
He nodded briefly, and the kunoichi took that for a 'yes'.
Suddenly grinning, Sakura created a kage bunshin and picked Haku's limp form up,
slinging him over her shoulder. The pink-haired kunoichi winced slightly she wasn't up
to maximum recovery yet before straightening herself.
"My bunshin can transport you back" she told him. "C'mon,"
Sasuke's onyx eyes met hers for a moment, and held the contact. Not moving, not
speaking. He was surprised to find that just doing nothing like that it was almost
comforting.
Sakura smiled again before turning and striding off, leaving her bunshin next to him.
"Remember your promise, Uchiha,"
N
"Hinata-sama! Move faster!"
The two Hyuugas were a blur of motion as they fought and retaliated, moving ever so
swiftly upon the smooth, polished floorboards of the Hyuuga household dojo.
Hinata spun around, shoving her elbow upwards, aiming for Neji's abdomen. The prodigy
easily dodged and delivered a kick at her feet. She leaped up, her fist snaking to the
back before punching her cousin rather hard in the shoulder, sending him reeling
backwards.
Neji skidded across the floor, bending forwards with his fingertips brushing the floor to
regain his balance. Not even pausing, he somersaulted forward, spinning around with a
roundhouse kick, with an attempted block from Hinata using her arm. Yet she fell
heavily, panting to regain her breath.
In several moments, she was on her feet again. She was progressing rather well, her
stamina was building steadily as Neji noted with a slight swell of pride.
"Good. Shall I go all out?" he cocked his head to one side.
"As long as you don't destroy the dojo, nii-san," Hinata said quietly with a smile that
could barely be glimpsed.
"Hn. I doubt you can push me that far,"
The Hyuuga heir knew that her cousin was prodding her, challenging her to show some
competitive spirit, to surpass him.
Well that would never happen, but she could at least try, ne?
"Then don't say I didn't warn you," the younger girl teased subtly, twisting around to
deliver a blow.

N
Hiashi was watching them. Through the slightly ajar door leading into the dojo, he could
see the cousins perfectly. His original purpose in coming to the dojo was to summon the
duo for a meeting, but he had ended up standing there for a full ten minutes, just
watching.
He didn't know why he hadn't just sent a servant to call them but when he had heard
that they were in the dojo, something had compelled him to go personally. He wanted to
see something that his daughter could do. Anything.
Truth to be told, Hiashi had missed a lot of Hinata's life. She was supposed to be his
daughter, his heir, but he had given up on trying to teach her because she had been so
slow to learn, so lacked the talent that governed and commanded respect in the Hyuuga
household.
He regretted that. Instead of him, it had been Hinata's friends who gave her confidence,
teachers whom had taught her all she knew. Never him, her father.
He had never been a part of her life.
There was so much in Hinata that he had failed to see, beyond that shy, stuttering
exterior. Why had he never noticed? Was it because of his high expectations that made
her so afraid to show what she could do?
"Hinata-sama, I supposed you, too, have noticed?" Neji halted her next attack, glancing
towards the door.
The opaque-eyed kunoichi nodded quietly. Both turning to face the door, they
acknowledged Hiashi's presence with the customary, respectful bow.
"Chichioya,"
"Hiashi-sama,"
The stately clan leader nodded in response, pushing open the door fully after removing
his shoes, stepping inside. The polished wooden floor felt pleasant to walk on, Hiashi
mused absently as he walked towards them. Since when had he begun to notice such
details?
An awkward silence hung in the air, none of the three knew what to say.
Neji was quickly contemplating something in his mind something that might help
Hinata with her father.
"Hiashi-sama," Neji suddenly spoke. The Hyuuga clan leader glanced at him, rather
surprised. "Please allow your daughter to demonstrate something,"
Hinata, who had given in to her old habit of staring at the ground and fidgeting once in
the presence of her father, looked up quickly, her eyes wide.
"What?"
The Hyuuga prodigy whispered it to her. She looked mortified, then started shaking her
head slowly, silently pleading with him not to make her do it. That was until Neji gave

her a look the look that Hinata knew meant that his word, whatever her opinion, was
final.
The girl swallowed, then gave in reluctantly, quietly motioning the way out of the dojo.
N
Hiashi felt rather curious as he stood at the edge of the open-air training grounds
belonging exclusively to the Hyuuga clan, situated right next to the Hyuuga estate. He
observed his daughter walk to the center. He suddenly noted that she walked steadily,
with her head held high somewhat different from before.
"You will attack those two dummies," Neji instructed, his voice carrying across the vast
training grounds as he pointed to two straw dummies. "I want to see every hit, you
understand?"
"Hinata nodded nervously, bracing herself.
"Now!" her cousin gave the command. Hinata paused for a moment, then pushed herself
forward.
"Fuyu Dansu: Kaiten-Jyuken Ketsugo!" (2)
Immediately a whirling sphere of chakra rose around the girl, and just a Neji had done
before, Hiashi took a few tentative steps forward, hardly believing his eyes.
The sphere was spinning but why wasn't she?
It was the secret of Kaiten, passed down for generations, where a Hyuuga could emit
chakra from all parts of their body and spin around so fast that the chakra formed a
sphere. So why could Hinata stand so simply, yet have a Kaiten sphere that spun just as
fast as his own would?
"Hinata-sama used the concept of a thinner wall for the Kaiten sphere, and used the
characteristics of her wind element chakra to deal with the spinning," Neji explained,
seeing Hiashi's bewildered expression. "So since chakra itself can spin faster than
humans, her shield is almost solid and it utilizes minimal chakra,"
Hiashi was speechless, his face blank.
"Did you teach her this?" he asked.
"No," Neji replied, feeling somewhat what satisfied.
Hinata sprinted towards the two dummies, and struck, full force, imagining them to be
Deidara and Seijin. It was really much easier that way, she mused.
'Two four eight sixteen thirty-two' she moved with increasing agility as she
aimed to hit the two dummies simultaneously.
"Sixty-Four!" the Hyuuga heir skidded to a halt, bracing herself while panting heavily,
fighting to regain her breath. The straw dummies fell apart limply, the visible result of
Hinata's ferocious attack.

The entire training ground was silent. Servants and family members alike, who had
gathered there out of curiosity about the commotion, were frozen in shock after realizing
just who had done that much damage in what seemed like less than a minute.
"The shy, stuttering Hinata-sama "
"Can't be!"
"Did you see her "
"How did she "
Frantic whispers echoed all around as the crowd watched Neji and Hiashi step towards
the Hyuuga heir, who straightened and looked straight at her father, feeling anxious
while trying to make out his expression.
The Hyuuga clan leader stopped, right in front of his daughter. He raised his voice to
allow himself to be heard clearly, speaking to the onlookers.
"Please leave us alone for a moment,"
Everyone hurriedly shuffled out amidst whispers. Neji turned to leave as well, but Hiashi
halted him.
"Neji dine at the main house tonight, at seven. We will be having a meeting shortly
after."
"Hai." The boy bowed slightly, before walking away. Hinata could've sworn he had given
her a grin before he left, wishing her luck.
They were alone now. Father and daughter. There was silence between them, it wasn't
uncomfortable but it still felt awkward. Extremely awkward.
"Hinata" Hiashi looked rather hesitant. His arms were raised a fraction, as if he wanted
to hug her but couldn't. Finally, he let them fall limply to his sides, giving up on his
attempt. Instead, he spoke.
"I'm proud of you,"
His daughter looked startled for a moment, then broke into a smile. Their fatherdaughter relationship had been barely existent for seventeen years, held back by a
father's short-sightedness and clan protocols.
Perhaps it wasn't too late to try, at least. It wasn't much, but saying those words it was
a start.
Hinata seemed torn between laughing and crying as she stepped forward and hugged her
father, feeling his arms awkwardly hugging her loosely as his expression switched from
surprise to a very slight smile.
He had never known what it felt like to be hugged by his daughter, strict clan protocols
regarding shows of affection had bred him into a rather stiff person. But he was surprised
to find that it was pleasantly nice.

Hinata conveyed all that had remained unspoken for seventeen years through all her
father's neglect, her quiet love and admiration for her father, her yearning to make him
happy, make him proud.
She was safe with him. As she continued to experience the pleasant warmth that welled
up within her, she felt somewhat thankful, grateful and loved.

Chapter 27 Hyuuga: A New Beginning



"Kakashi-sensei! Jiraiya-sama!"
The two men, who had been in quiet discussion under a tree, glanced up in surprise as
they heard their names called.
A breathless pink-haired kunoichi sprinted towards them, with a noticeable lump slung
over her shoulder. Kakashi's single visible eye narrowed why did he feel as if he
recognized that figure?
"Guess who attacked me in the Uchiha cemetery," Sakura panted, pausing to catch her
breath.
"What were you doing in the Uchiha cemetery, of all places?" Jiraiya crossed his arms
disapprovingly. Visiting a cemetery when you had no business there was a stupid thing to
do.
He was ignored.
"Sakura" Kakashi's voice had dropped, drastically. "Is that Haku?"
His student nodded grimly, Striding forward, she gently put Haku down and propped his
limp form against the tree, then stepped back to let the two shinobi have a better view of
the Mist ninja.
"Kami-sama how?"
For the first time in his life, Kakashi was struck dumb. He knelt beside the young man,
pulling up his shirt and examining the scar on his chest just as Sasuke had done, back in
the cemetery.
"Hey, hey, what's going on?" Jiraiya demanded to know, feeling utterly lost in the
proceedings. "Who the hell is that?"
There was a moment of silence.
"I killed this boy five years ago with Chidori," Kakashi spoke in a low, disbelieving
voice, not quite having gotten over his own shock. "We buried him!"

"So his supposed to be dead?" the Toad Sannin quizzed, looking rather confused before
the full impact of the words hit him, and he leapt backwards, letting out a rather girlish
shriek. "Is that a ghost?!"
Sakura sighed in exasperation. Sometimes she could really comprehend why Jiraiya
usually exited Tsunade's office by flying through a window or a wall courtesy to a wellaimed punch from the Godaime.
"He's alive," Sakura said quietly. "I don't know how, but he is,"
"It would've taken a medic like you of Tsunade-sama and a complete heart transplant for
him to be alive," Kakashi reasoned, his brow furrowing uncharacteristically. "Two highly
unlikely events considering the time and place, but that's my theory."
Jiraiya regained his composure, but stayed away from Haku anyway. "Well there isn't
much you can do now, theories aren't going to help and you wouldn't want him here
when he wakes up so why don't you get him to Tsunade-hime first?" he suggested
lamely.
The cherry blossom nodded, picking Haku up easily. Kakashi started to follow her, before
something struck him as rather odd. Haku if Haku was as strong as he remembered
from five years ago, Sakura shouldn't have had an easy time handling him. So how did
he end up unconscious?"
"Sakura," Kakashi started curiously. "How did you take him out on your own?" his eyes
narrowed suspiciously at her.
"That's classified, sensei," the kunoichi grinned, starting off at a sprint to avoid further
questions. The Copy Nin shook his head and followed after her. Jiraiya stood stunned for
a moment, before hollering after them.
"Hey! Take the back road, you idiots, you'll have people panicking!"
N
"the last one was harder, we didn't know where to look, but we got all three in the
end."
Sakura heard a part of the conversation coming from inside the Hokage's office, but did
not hesitate to shove open the door, barging into the Godaime's room as she had done
so many times before.
"Sakura!" Tsunade whirled around, obviously annoyed at Sakura's sudden intrusion.
"How many times have I told you not to burst in like that?"
"This is urgent!" her student protested, keeping Haku's limp figure carefully balanced on
her shoulder. Spotting Shino's father, Aburame Shibi, seated in one of the chairs facing
the Hokage's desk, she dropped into an apologetic bow.
"Gomen, Aburame-san,"
"No, it's alright. I was just about finished here, anyway." The older man said courteously.
"She could still have waited," Tsunade muttered under her breath. Sakura knew how she
despised interruptions.

"Well, if you'll excuse me, Hokage-sama" Shibi moved towards the door, preparing to
leave.
Tsunade nodded, and then focused her attention on her student, with the sheepish silverhaired Jounin standing behind her. The Hokage radiated displeasure, Sakura could feel
the dangerous vibes in the air.
"Put that unconscious lump down and talk," the Godaime ordered, sinking into her chair.
"And you better have a good explanation, Sakura, Kakashi,"
The kunoichi wisely kept silent while Kakashi sweatdropped. 'How is this my fault?'
Sakura propped Haku against the wall.
She got the reaction she expected, as Tsunade sprang out of her chair and was next to
the Mist ninja in an instant. "I read his report isn't he supposed to be Momochi
Zabuza's companion?"
Both Kakashi and Sakura nodded.
"Haku wasn't he " Tsunade started.
"Supposed to be dead five years ago, yes," Sakura finished rather grimly.
"Is there any chance he might not have died?"
"Chidori, Hokage-sama," Kakashi said quietly. "Mine. Straight through the heart. He
didn't stand a chance, at least from my point of view,"
"And we buried him," Sakura added in an undertone.
Silence.
"Where did you find him?" Tsunade continued with a question.
"He attacked me in the Uchiha cemetery," her student explained. "But judging from what
he said, I doubt he remembers anything of his past,"
Tsunade looked thoughtful for a moment, running various possibilities through her mind.
"Get him into the lab," the Godaime said decisively, walking across the room. She pushed
open a door and entered an adjoining room.
"Hurry up!"
N
Tsunade examined Haku quietly and thoroughly, a true professional at work. Sakura and
Kakashi watched quietly, marveling at her deftness. Few medics had the Hokage's kind of
composure at work.
"I don't know how to explain this theory of sorts," Tsunade straightened after several
minutes, looking at her student. "Kakashi, sorry but could you leave for awhile? I need to
speak to Sakura alone I'll summon you later,"

The Jounin gave her a thumbs-up and disappeared through the door.
Sakura cast a quizzical look at her sensei, and noted the sudden mischievous glint in
Tsunade's hazel eyes. She sighed inwardly. This could not mean anything particularly
good for her. Completely ignoring Haku's issue for a moment, the Godaime turned to her
student and spoke.
"Tell me how did you sneak Sasuke out of jail?" Tsunade gave the kunoichi a sidelong
glance.
"I didn't!" Sakura feigned innocence.
The Godaime raised an eyebrow. "Let me see you were at the Uchiha cemetery, and
the fact that you shouldn't have been able to take Haku out on your own"
"Okay, fine, fine," Sakura caved in. "I just used Kage Bunshin, Henge and then a simple
transportation jutsu, that's all," Sakura grumbled like a five year old denied candy.
Tsunade grinned slightly. "That's my smart girl,"
"Anyway, back to the main topic of discussion," Sakura rolled her eyes while barely
containing a smile, pointing at Haku. "What do you think?"
There was a long while of silence as Tsunade's expression reverted to serious once again.
"I think?" the older woman said quietly, watching the young man lying on the hospital
bed. "You'll think it's ridiculous,"
"Ridiculous?" Sakura laughed lightly, almost bitterly. "You know nothing's ridiculous for
me anymore, shishou, not after my becoming a jinchuuriki it's like nothing's impossible,
once that happened,"
Tsunade stared at her apprentice for a long time. "I think he used my 'Creation: Rebirth'
technique," she spoke slowly, allowing her words to sink in slowly, to make an impact.
"But I thought that was unique you created it, right?" Sakura asked, slightly
confused.
"Like with every other technique, 'Creation: Rebirth' may have variations developed by
others," Tsunade explained, her tone heavy. "He may have found a way, theoretically, to
use it, but had no need to try it out before, having his absolute defense as it is but still,
it's dangerous, trying to force your body to produce new cells at an alarmingly high rate
can really kill a person, especially if your body isn't used to taking a lot of strain,"
"You still do it," Sakura said pointedly, raising an eyebrow.
"There are only a few things I value above my appearance, Sakura," Tsunade smiled.
"But my guess is that he started the jutsu seconds before Chidori hit, and his cells
multiplied fast enough to heal his heart, even if it was a slower healing. He may have
started it as a last resort, not caring whether or not if he died maybe the 'Haku' you
buried was simply a bunshin, maybe he escaped elsewhere and collapsed and maybe,
the severity of the jutsu wiped his memory entirely,"
"So a real 'rebirth', then," Sakura said softly.

Tsunade nodded.
The teacher and student stood in silence, observing the unconscious man. He looked so
peaceful an emotion Sakura had not felt for the longest time.
"Well, let's patch him up, then," the Godaime suddenly reverted back to her brisk,
business-like self, examining Haku's scorched limbs.
"Scorch marks Katon, I presume. Yours or the Uchiha's?" she questioned with a sly
grin.
"Partly mine," Sakura grinned back.
"I swear, your bloodline is going to be a hell lot useful, Sakura if only you hadn't sealed
off "
"We've been through this before, shishou. No more nagging, please," Sakura mocked
annoyance. "It's sealed, and that's that,"
Tsunade replied with an easy shrug, and continued working in silence, Sakura assisting
her.
"Tsunade-sama" the pink-haired kunoichi remembered something she had wanted to
ask.
"Yes?"
"Your meeting with Aburame-san and his mission with Shino what was it about?"
The Hokage regarded her with a passive face for a moment.
"Akatsuki."
Sakura jolted, remembering their encounter with the dreaded organization all too well.
Sasuke
She shook her head to get rid of those thoughts. "Neji and Shikamaru told you about our
mission progress, didn't they?"
"Yes, and everyone was at the debriefing except for you," Tsunade pretended to look
disapproving.
"Wasn't my fault" Sakura muttered.
"Anyway, your team leaders said you're supposed to be in a 'hell lot of trouble'," her
mentor cast her a sidelong glance. Sakura gritted her teeth and made a mental note
to killboth Neji and Shikamaru at first opportunity. Was it wrong to want to help her own
sensei after she promised him?
"But no, the Aburame mission was not regarding the Akatsuki members you
encountered," Tsunade continued before Sakura could protest.
"Then?" Sakura was puzzled.

Tsunade had finished healing Haku. She led Sakura back into her office, requesting
Shizune to keep an eye on the unconscious young man. After settling into her chair and
having Sakura sit opposite her, she continued.
"It's not so much about the Akatsuki members themselves, Jiraiya is already working on
that, it's more about the rings that they wear,"
"Rings?" Sakura thought for a moment, then realization struck. She'd read about this
somewhere, having had full access to the Hokage's personal archive of information. "Oh
you mean the ones they use to seal the Bijuu into that statue the one that Neji saw
with his Byakugan when we were outside the Akatsuki hideout to rescue Gaara?"
"You're catching up fast," Tsunade approved. "They use a forbidden technique, 'Fuin
Jutsu: Genryuu Kyuu Fujin' (1) to draw the Bijuu out of the jinchuuriki while standing on
the statue finger that corresponds to their ring finger. We're not exactly sure if all ten
Akatsuki members are required to be present, but Jiraiya's still working on it,"
Sakura knew that jutsu, Chiyo had explained it to them awhile ago. She shuddered
involuntarily, trying not to imagine what would happen to her if Akatsuki ever managed
to capture her and Naruto. Death?
"Here. Take a look at this," Tsunade slid a file across the desk. Sakura accepted it and
tentatively flipped the plain hardcover open.
The first page showed a list.
AKATSUKI: RINGS, SYMBOLS AND WEARER
(rei) "Zero", worn by Pain
(seiryuu) "Azure Dragon", worn by Deidara
(byakko) "White Tiger", worn by Konan
(suzaku) "Vermilion Bird", worn by Uchiha Itachi
(genbu) "Black Tortoise", worn by Zetsu
(kuchin) "Void", formerly worn by Orochimaru
(nanju) "Sagittarius", worn by Hoshigaki Kisame
(hokuto) "Northern Star", worn by Kakuzu (dead)
(santai) "Three Levels", worn by Hidan (decapitated)
(gyokunyo) "Virgin", worn by Sasori (dead, now worn by Tobi)
She skimmed through the list, subconsciously memorizing the details. Also noting that
the page was rather frayed and yellowed with age, with plenty of added notes in
Tsunade's handwriting, Sakura placed the file back on the table.

"So" she began uncertainly. "From what I overheard Shibi-san and Shino found three
rings and since the rest are constantly worn by the Akatsuki members, I suppose that
they found Kakuzu's 'Hokuto', Hidan's 'Santai' and Orochimaru's 'Kuchin', then"
Tsunade nodded tiredly.
"And I suppose 'Kuchin' would have been the hardest to find because Orochimaru was
still having it," Sakura theorized.
"Smart girl. Shibi and Shino retrieved Kakuzu's ring at the site of your battle, luckily
Naruto's Rasengan Shuriken hadn't destroyed it completely. Shibi doubts Hidan even
noticed his ring was gone, his bugs simply slipped the ring off underground, where
Shikamaru buried that Jashin (2) fanatic," Tsunade sighed.
"And Orochimaru's?" the cherry blossom queried.
"Long story short, they found it at Orochimaru's last hideout, the location revealed by
Pakkun who split up with Kakashi halfway through their mission. Apparently, the snake
bastard just left it there probably got tired of the reminder about Akatsuki,"
"It was as easy as that?" Sakura was surprised. "I mean, knowing him as one of the
'Legendary Three Sannin', I expected something more spectacular,"
"We're not what we used to be, Sakura" Tsunade's voice dropped as she swiveled her
chair to face the window, watching the glorious evening sun set. For the first time since
she had met the Hokage, Sakura realized that Tsunade was getting old. Maybe her skin
had no wrinkles, maybe she still looked twenty, but then again
Her hazel eyes had suddenly lost their spark, their brightness. She looked so tired,
worried.
And Sakura suddenly felt afraid. She had always assumed that Tsunade would always
be there, the thought of her teacher being plain human had never really occurred to her.
So what if Tsunade wasn't there anymore?
She had grown too comfortable, the past five years. Sinking back into that old habit of
taking everything for granted, like she had done with her grandfather, her parents, her
brother. Everybody that mattered. Sakura never thought of how life would be without
them before their deaths, she dwelled on it after they died, and now she was forgetting
that lesson.
She felt a wave of regret wash over her senses, but her reverie was suddenly broken by
the sound of pattering footsteps.
Shizune hurried into the room from the adjoining lab, reporting to Tsunade.
"In case you want to know, Tsunade-sama, Haku's awake,"
N
Hinata was swathed in an elaborate, embroidered kimono by her servants while Hanabi
pulled her sister's hair into a neat twist, held together by a simple snowflake pin. The
kimono was a milky white colour, embroidered with silver snowflakes and feathers. The
pale blue obi went around her waist, expertly twisted into a bow at the back by the
Hyuuga seamstress.

The servants were given the order to leave once they finished dressing the Hyuuga heir,
leaving the two sisters alone in the large room belonging to the Hyuuga heir. Despite its
size, Hinata's room was simply decorated, with small items that she valued instead of
extravagant designs.
Hanabi sat down next to her sister, unusually quiet for once. Hinata often thought of how
much Hanabi reminded her of Naruto, even though she was no match for his loudness.
Like her namesake, fireworks, Hanabi was born to shine, with more natural talent than
her elder sister. She possessed more confidence and poise, always sure of what she
could do. Hinata, on the other hand, lacked that particular fiery spark of her sister's, and
had to rely on hard work to compensate her lack of confidence.
Yet they were sisters, and sometimes, Hinata felt that that was all that mattered.
"I'm nervous, somehow," Hinata confided softly.
"Aren't you always?" Hanabi grinned, rolling her eyes.
"Hanabi! You're not helping!"
"I'm your younger sister, I'm supposed to bully you, not help you," the younger girl
teased with a mischievous expression. "C'mon, nee-chan, it's just a meeting! Besides,
you killed that traitor Hakujo, I bet everyone will be at your feet literally,"
"That's not a very nice thought," Hinata commented dryly. "And this isn't just any
meeting" she trailed off into silence.
It was true. The ceremony tonight, before dinner, symbolized her coming of age as a
Hyuuga, at seventeen. According to tradition, she would be ready to take on serious
apprenticeship under the clan leader, namely her father, from this day onwards, to
prepare her for her role later as Hyuuga clan leader.
Hanabi became somber. "So you're going to tell them? Tonight?"
Hinata nodded. "It's my coming of age ceremony if I don't tell them now, I never will
have the chance it wouldn't be proper after this, like I'm withdrawing because I'm
scared of the heavy duties,"
"What about chichioya? Have you told him?"
"If you count hinting that I will say something rather shocking at the meeting, then yes,
I've told him,"
"I think he knows, in a way," Hanabi smiled. "But it's your path to choose,"
"Yes and Neji-nii-san deserves the honour," Hinata said quietly. "Maybe, with this
decision, I can make a difference in the way things are done in the Hyuuga clan. Maybe I
can make us all equal,"
"You know, when you first told me your 'dream', I was thinking you wanted the
impossible," Hanabi admitted. "But you've come really far, in five years so I wish you
all the best, no matter what,"
"Thank you," her elder sister returned a smile.

A sudden, sly grin crossed Hanabi's face. "Tell me, did Naruto-kun give you this crazy
idea?"
"Sort of," Hinata whacked her sister on the arm to wipe off the annoying grin. "When he
was fighting Neji-nii-san during our first Chunin Exams when he said he'd change the
Hyuuga clan when he became Hokage I started wondering why we needed someone
else to change us, why we couldn't just get over our pride and admit the problem, and
change ourselves instead but it was my idea to give up my position as heir and find a
counter for the Hyuuga Curse Seal Naruto-kun simply gave me the courage to do it,"
Hinata reprimanded, trying to sound severe.
Unfortunately, it only resulted in more teasing Hanabi started sounding like a broken
train whistle. "Isn't that just romantic"
"Shut up, you little brat," Hinata laughed.
"Ooh, nee-chan's being rude!" Hanabi laughed even harder.
"You're impossible," Hinata shook her head and crossed her arms, mock sighing.
Glancing out of the open window at the beautifully crescent-shaped moon, Hinata found
her thoughts drifting towards the loudmouth blonde.
'It's funny how you change lives, Naruto'
N
Those seated in the Hyuuga mansion's meeting hall rose as Hiashi walked in, followed by
Hinata, escorted by Neji. All three were dressed in fine traditional robes bearing the
Hyuuga emblem on the back, and all three were seated at the far end of the long hall.
The coming of age ceremony had been completed before dinner, and Hinata now bore
the Hyuuga emblem in black on her left arm a mark for every Hyuuga that turned
seventeen.
The hall fell silent as Hiashi rose and began to speak, beginning with the usual
introductions, thanking everyone for attending. People began to perk up as he started on
the main topic of discussion.
"This year, my eldest daughter Hinata turns seventeen," the clan leader spoke in his
baritone voice, each word ringing across the specially designed hall clearly. No one
fidgeted, no one whispered while he spoke the Hyuugas had always been brought up
that way. "I believe that she is now ready to learn, to take on the responsibilities of a
clan leader as our tradition dictates,"
This time, a murmur rippled across the room. Hiashi continued, in a quieter tone. "We
have known her, for many years, as a shy girl with no outstanding abilities and I must
confess that I lost all faith in her perhaps all too soon, because Hinata has proved to
me that this girl before us today is no longer a girl, but a young lady who is worthy of our
confidence and our respect,"
The man paused for a moment, to let his words sink in. "Hinata has taught me much, for
the past year. I learnt that perhaps, one without talent at birth can blossom into
something truly remarkable, quietly. Some things that we do not see before our eyes,
exist despite our not realizing it, and Hinata's potential, to me, is one of those things.
Therefore, I hope that all of you here will be able to accept her, guide her and have faith

in my daughter to lead us all through the difficult times ahead I believe we know what
threats Konoha faces,"
Again, there was a ripple of whispers in the hall. Hiashi could pick out several
discontented ones.
"Hinata has proven her worth," Hiashi's words came out strongly. "We know that she has
killed the traitor Hakujo, and I believe her capable if we are willing to trust her abilities,"
The stately leader resumed his seat, and motioned for Hinata to step forward, to speak.
The shy girl rose, trembling slightly, but trying not to show her fear. That, at least, had
to be admired.
She raised her voice slightly to make herself heard, bowing. "Thank you for coming
today," Hinata paused for a moment, unsure of what to say next. She wasn't going to
follow the given speech, that was for sure. She took a deep breath.
"I was born and fated, destined, to be the Hyuuga clan leader after my father," Hinata
clasped her hands before her. "At least, that is the general opinion."
There were several laughs to this comment. Everyone had actually expected Hiashi to
allow his second daughter to succeed him instead.
Hinata let herself smile a little. Time to drop the bomb. "But I do not choose this path,"
Deathly silence fell. Before anyone could contradict her, Hinata continued firmly, gaining
confidence with each passing moment. She had spent so long preparing herself for this
occasion, she couldn't blow it now.
"The Hyuuga clan has been divided for generations which is, in my opinion, quite long
enough. We constantly spend our days talking about fate and destiny, the inescapable
truth that we are so famous for, but we have forgotten what is most important family,
and humanity. Nobody deserves to be forced to serve another human being without
options, without a willing heart, but that is exactly what this clan is implying by setting
up a Branch House and Main house," the opaque-eyed girl forced herself to meet the
eyes of her audience. They hadn't expected this, she could tell. For years, this bitter
truth was a fact that lay unspoken of.
"We have forgotten that humans are not ranked by birth nor by blood, but by their own
characters, goals and capabilities. We brand Branch members with that abominable
Juinjutsu (3) of ours, but for what reason? Aren't we all equal? What gives the Main
house any right to make the Branch serve us, what gives us the right to inflict pain on
them as we please? And don't tell me that the Juinjutsu is there to remind them of their
placing because there never was any 'placing', because they're not of a lower class!"
Neji sat, straight-backed, listening, absorbing every word. He'd been helping Hinata
memorize the prepared speech, and what she was saying now it was completely
unplotted. Nothing like the stoic, boring speech about how she would serve and lead the
Hyuugas well.
Honestly, he preferred this impromptu version. It was the truth, exposing everything as
it really was.
"We are a clan. A family," Hinata said quietly. "I think we've forgotten the mutual respect
that all of us deserve. The Main and the Branch houses are no different, only our

ridiculous attitudes have created differences. You probably think I'm just sentimental
because I'm a woman, but please. Stop trying to fool yourselves with illusions of the Main
House superiority, because we've been living in our own perpetual 'genjutsu' for long
enough,"
Several members of the clan weren't too happy with her words, Hinata could tell. Oh
well, if she'd started, she might as well finish it, right?
"My father is ready to pass on his role of clan leader to me. But as I said at the very
beginning, this is not the path I choose. I am not a worthy candidate for this post and I
will not accept it. I may have killed a traitor, but I feel no glory because that simply
stemmed from my inclination to protect my friends," Hinata paused, swallowing. "I
cannot be all that you expect a Hyuuga leader to be, because that isn't who I am,"
"And you are proposing?" an elder spoke up skeptically.
"My sister Hanabi has also told me that she refuses to hold this position, therefore, I
choose my cousin, Hyuuga Neji, to take my place."
The whole room froze in complete silence, staring at Hinata who was defiantly staring
back at them, daring them to challenge her word. Neji's eyes were wide with shock;
Hiashi was sitting stark still (even though he had somewhat expected this) and the rest
of them looked as if someone had just told them that Maito Gai was changing his haircut.
Then came the reaction.
"You can't he's got the Curse Seal!" someone protested angrily from the back. "What
rubbish is this, I disagree!"
Hinata almost enjoyed the sight of the stoic Hyuugas on the border of panicking. This
was quite a change, indeed. The room suddenly felt like it had a bit of life to it.
"Neji-nii-san, show them," the girl said quietly, trying to keep her annoyance in check.
Still slightly dazed, the prodigy stood and slowly removed his headband.
The fabric fell away. Several gasps could be heard.
That green seal on Neji's forehead it was gone.
"What "
"Impossible!"
"How "
"I found a way to reverse the seal," Hinata commanded attention with quiet dignity,
returning silence to the room. "I don't believe that any of us should be branded like
cows,"
She watched their faces carefully, amused at the expressions. She would have to store
this image in her mind for recollection later, it was priceless.
"So, who wants to tell me that he isn't equal to any of us, now?"

Several people looked angry. "He's still a Branch "


Hiashi promptly stood out, feeling a new spark blazing within him. He had let his brother
be sacrificed for his sake, for his life years ago, and he blamed himself for not having
more of a backbone to prevent it. He didn't want the same thing to happen to Hinata, or
Neji.
"I support Hinata's choice,"
"Hiashi-sama!" one of the elders started.
"My nephew, as all of you know, is a prodigy beyond any known Hyuuga, restricted only
by our short-sighted views on how our fates control our paths!" Hiashi glared him down,
strangely enjoying this defiance.
"That's completely out "
"Listen to me!" Hiashi spoke fiercely, defending his daughter and nephew. "My brother
was relegated to the Branch House simply because he was born second, after me. Years
ago, I let him be sacrificed as my body double, an act that I regret to this day but he
died protecting us, hoping that his death would make us realize what's truly important!
My daughter finally speaks the truth that we have evaded for generations, and you think
she is insane? She was willing to find out exactly what was wrong with our clan, she
made efforts to change our perception of how humans are 'ranked' every word she has
spoken is the truth, whether we like it or not!"
"But Neji Branch member head of clan unacceptable!" one man spluttered
disbelievingly.
From there began a chaotic, heated argument over the topic, some supporting Hinata's
cause, some strongly opposing it while several others simply looked confused. Neji
sighed, rubbing his temples. Sometimes he just wanted to blow his top at them.
Hinata looked exasperated. Just as the noise level built to a maximum, her voice rang
out. Not loudly, but clearly.
"That's quite enough,"
It was as if someone had pressed the 'pause' button on a remote, the effect was
immediate. Everyone and everything fell silent, focused on Hinata. She drew a breath,
speaking calmly.
"What is the use of having the Byakugan, if we see everything but the truth?"
With one last, passive glance at the frozen Hyuugas in the room, Hinata swept out,
Hiashi and Neji following her.

Chapter 28 The Uchiha's Trial

-
Haku looked troubled and fearful as he watched Tsunade and Sakura walk in. He
struggled against the straps that bound him to the hospital bed, and when Sakura caught
his expression, she felt overwhelming pity for him.
He looked so lost, so lonely. As if he had not know, or had contact with humans for a
long time.
'Zabuza was probably the only 'family' he ever knew' a sad thought crossed the cherry
blossom's mind.
"Who are you? Where am I?" Haku demanded, glaring up at Tsunade as the Godaime
neared him, her expression flat. She would have to carefully judge his current abilities
and character first, before making any assumptions.
"Who I am isn't important," Tsunade spoke smoothly. "And you are in Konoha's hospital,"
"Konoha?" he looked confused. "But my home is in the Mist village"
Tsunade and Sakura glanced at each other.
"Tell me," the Hokage asked suddenly. "What's your name?"
"Haku."
He said it without hesitation, implicating that he knew that for a fact. 'At least he
remembers that,' Tsunade thought rather grimly.
"Anything else you remember?" she queried again.
Haku looked like he was about to answer, before he thought the better of it and started
struggling against his bonds again. "Why are you asking me these questions? You can't
let me go!" his voice rose to a yell as he struggled even more frantically, bewildered.
"We're trying to help you," Sakura told him, firmly and clearly while holding his thrashing
arms down to prevent him from hurting himself. "Tsunade-sama maybe we could
release his bonds, to calm him down?" she requested. "We're treating him like a
prisoner"
"No," the Godaime was adamant. "We don't know how violent he may get and I'm not
taking any chances here. Haku, please just answer my question,"
N
It was a tedious process, trying to extract information from the stubborn shinobi, and in
the end, Haku fell asleep, tired from struggling, while Tsunade and Sakura sat up late,
discussing the matter and the steps best taken.
"Shizune!" Tsunade called for her assistant. The raven-haired woman hurried in.
"Summon Jiraiya, Kakashi, Anko, Neji, Shikamaru and Naruto now. Take this pass and
get the Uchiha here as well,"

"At twelve a.m., Hokage-sama?" Shizune asked with a raised eyebrow. "Shikamaru isn't
going to be happy"
"Ask him if he's keen on feeling my fist tomorrow," Tsunade replied curtly. Shizune
laughed and exited.
"So we're going to keep him as a Konoha shinobi?" Sakura asked, uncertainly. "Won't
the Mist village authorities protest?"
"Technically, he's classified as a missing nin due to his alliance with Zabuza listed as a
wanted shinobi across all five countries. But now that they think he's dead, he's off the
list I'd rather not pull up such a huge issue for nothing, the fuss would do Konoha no
good, and besides, they'll probably come up with some crackpot theory about Zabuza
having done the same thing and start hunting him again," the Godaime explained,
quietly. "Seeing Haku's condition I don't think he deserves any of that,"
Silence, for a moment. Then Tsunade continued.
"Right now, he's considered to be trespassing into Konoha because we know that he has
no authorization pass to enter he could be charged and punished for that offense. So
since he was 'taken in by an elderly couple' and can't remember anything from before
that' it's just much easier for all of us, if we request that he change his allegiance to
Konoha instead. Besides, with everything we're going through, he's an asset to us, you
know that."
"But still making him switch loyalties from Mist to Leaf just seems wrong" Sakura said
skeptically. Always having been one who prided herself on loyalty towards her village and
comrades, she remained uncertain about this decision asking someone to switch
loyalties?
"Missing nins have no allegiance, remember?" Tsunade reminded her, sighing. Just as
Sakura was about to say something, a knock sounded, and the door opened.
A rather grumpy Jiraiya strode in, followed by Kakashi, who was, for some reason,
grinning. Naruto was dragging his feet, looking like he hadn't slept in a week. Anko
followed, and last came Sasuke, escorted by Neji and Shikamaru. True to their rank, both
Jounins looked serious and alert.
"What's wrong with you, old hag, you just interrupted my drink," Jiraiya muttered under
his breath, not daring to speak any louder for fear of Tsunade's fist.
"Did I interrupt your drink or your time with girls?" Tsunade cocked her head to one side,
raising an eyebrow.
The Toad Sannin had no reply.
"It's twelve-thirty in the freakin' morning, baa-chan" Naruto yawned loudly, hunched
over. Sakura could've sworn he was drunk or something, if Naruto actually drank.
Kakashi pinched the boy, hard resulting in a loud yelp and a glare.
Tsunade waited for things to calm down, before speaking straight to the point, "All of you
probably have gotten wind of Haku, former Mist missing nin, having been found in the
Uchiha cemetery with utterly no memory of his past,"

Naruto was wide awake now, shocked. If Neji and Shikamaru were surprised, they did
well to hide it.
"Wh- what?" the jinchuuriki said disbelievingly.
"Haku? As in the companion of Momochi Zabuza?" Shikamaru frowned. "I thought he was
"
"Dead?" Sakura finished his sentence for him, almost feeling sick of the question. "Well,
apparently not. At least, he was very much alive when he attacked me in the Uchiha
cemetery," she quipped. Sasuke caught her eye and smirked. Tsunade continued her
statement.
"If you're done gaping, I just wanted to say that we will be accepting Haku as a Konoha
shinobi," the Godaime closed her eyes, crossing her arms. "He doesn't remember
anything from before he was supposed to have 'died' from Kakashi's Chidori, so I think
that it will be a lot easier if I simply build a new identity for him, based on whatever
information I have managed to glean from him,"
"You're forgetting the elders, Tsunade-hime" Jiraiya frowned, making eye contact with
his childhood teammate.
The Fifth waved a hand dismissively. "What they don't know won't hurt them, they
already have the Uchiha's case to deal with,"
"So why are we here?" Neji questioned quietly.
"Good question," Tsunade turned to him. "You, Shikamaru and the rest of Team 7 will
keep an eye on him. Make sure people don't get too suspicious, one of you should be
with him at all times to make sure he does things right and doesn't offend anyone here.
I'll slip a file on him into our archives and create a slightly different identity for him, in
case anyone checks. Also, make sure he doesn't use that signature of his the Ice Mirror
Jutsu too freely, it'll draw a lot of attention," she instructed. "Meanwhile, Anko how
are the preparations for the Jounin Exams?"
"Near completed, everything has been set up and is running smoothly. We will be
receiving registrations starting next week. Also, as you ordered, foreign shinobis will not
be allowed to enter Konoha until two days before the exam. And Tsunade-sama I would
like to ask you to reconsider your decision of letting shinobis from Suna enter early,
because there will be chances of others impersonating them, and since we don't know
their shinobis as well as we do our own, we should make the rule apply to them, too I
think Sunagakure will understand," Anko spoke.
Tsunade nodded. "Good point. Get a carrier bird to inform the Kazekage of the changes
after this,"
The Jounin nodded.
"About that rule aren't the other villages complaining? Those taking the exam usually
want extra time to scout around the area," Jiraiya asked gruffly.
"It's precisely because of that situation that I can't allow them in earlier two days
should be enough for basic scouting. They'll be able to gather a lot of information on our
security measures if we let them in earlier," Tsunade explained.

"And Anko about our shortage of Chunnins taking the exam I'm putting Haku in, too,
so just see to how we can fix up the four-man teams,"
"Roger," Anko acknowledged.
"Alright, Team 7 stay, the rest are dismissed,"
After everyone else had left, Tsunade studied the team standing before her, comparing
their faces to those that she remembered from five years ago. How much they had all
grown
"Sasuke, your last hearing is tomorrow don't disappoint your team," the Fifth Hokage
spoke quietly. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but you have a good chance of entering
the Jounin exam, most of our existing shinobis agree to allowing you exemption from the
Chunin level if you pass a series of tests next week and that is also only if you are
cleared of all charges at your hearing tomorrow,"
Naruto was grinning, all trace of sleepiness gone as he thumped Sasuke hard o his back
and received a death glare in return.
"Sometimes, dobe, I think you have a death wish," Sasuke deadpanned, trying not to
wince.
"Don't you glare at me, teme, you're the one in trouble now," the blonde loudmouth
grinned cheekily.
Sakura laughed. "Aah, Sasuke will be fine won't you?" she teased.
"Stop fussing over me," Sasuke muttered at his teammates.
"Like that's ever gonna happen, teme, you need a babysitter so badly" Naruto playfully
cuffed his teammate and ruffled his chicken-ass hair, while the Uchiha retaliated and
Sakura, still laughing, tried to break them up.
Tsunade surveyed the scene with a barely visible smile. Team 7, to her, was the team
that stood out most. So different, and at the same time, so close. Even if they'd been
apart for five years.
"You're a lucky man, Hatake Kakashi,"
The silver-haired Jounin grinned beneath his mask, his orange book held limply by his
side. He watched his team with a certain pride, like a father watching his kids grow up.
"I know,"
N
She had nearly forgotten how beautiful the dawn could be. Sitting on a fallen log in the
old training grounds her team used to train at, Sakura watched the vibrant hues of
sunlight rising from the east, caught up in her own dreamland. Everything felt so fresh,
so new in the morning. If Shikamaru liked watching clouds, Sakura loved watching the
sunrise.
A new day, new hopes, new dreams. A new beginning. The sunrise was never the same,
each day.

"I swear, you'll find yourself in a hell lot of trouble if you let yourself off-guard like that
I've called you twice already!"
Sakura whirled around, startled, only to find a brown-haired kunoichi smiling at her.
Contrary to her usual buns, Tenten had her hair plaited into a messy, single long plait
that hung down her back. Sakura figured that she hadn't bothered to tie up her hair
today, as Tenten usually slept with her hair braided that way. Still, the kunoichi looked
perfectly ready for combat, as always.
"Well, at least if I die now, I'll die happy," Sakura retorted, going back to watching the
sunrise.
"What?" Tenten mocked surprise, sitting down beside her friend. "Without marrying the
Uchiha and having kids?"
"You talk a lot," Sakura complained with a half smile. "Aren't you supposed to having
your sparring session with Neji?"
"I'll let him sleep in today, he's been busy with some Hyuuga clan matters and frankly,
I'd rather not get involved at this time," Tenten cast her a sidelong glance.
"Oh, c'mon you know Neji's like a clockwork, he wakes up at dawn no matter what
fat chance of letting him 'sleep in'," Sakura rolled her eyes. "So Hinata told them
already?"
"Yeah, last night at her coming of age ceremony. Caused quite a ruckus, apparently,"
Sakura laughed. "Well, it's time someone knocked sense into those stoic Hyuugas about
their twisted hierarchy,"
"You know" Tenten trailed off, changing the topic while staring at the rising sun. "It's
weird, really to think of how much we've all changed,"
"Ino hasn't changed all that much," Sakura said innocently. "No one screams louder than
her if we dare wake her up at this 'ungodly' hour which is why she has never
experienced a sunrise before. I'm surprised that she has the patience to go cloudwatching with Shikamaru, actually,"
Tenten chortled.
Both girls sat in comfortable silence until the sun rose considerably, then Tenten sprang
up energetically and suggested that they spar.
"Tsunade-sama hinted that I might be put with your team for the Jounin Exams," she
added slyly as Sakura stood.
"That's great!" Sakura cheered, high-fiving the weapons mistress.
"So? Shall we work on some techniques?" Tenten grinned. "We could use some
collaboration on actual training,"
"You said it," Sakura replied, daring across the training ground. "Spar first!"
She leapt aside nimbly as a kunai flew at her, landing in a tiger crouch, smirking.

"I'm not gonna go easy on you, Tenten!"


"Look who's talking!" came the incredulous, confident reply as a barrage of weapons
flew.
N
"HIYAH!" Sakura's fist smashed into the ground as Tenten disappeared. Seconds later, an
array of weapons came flying out of the jagged crevices of earth and rock as Tenten rose
out of the ground, and another storm of shurikens spun wildly towards their imaginary
target simultaneously, accompanied by two Fuuma Shurikens that traveled in a wide,
cutting arc.
Sakura caught them as they spun back, panting heavily. Tenten climbed up to where
Sakura was standing, plopping down next to her, exhausted.
"Sakura, your punch was too strong, you'll sink your opponents before any weapons can
do much damage," a cool, collected voice sounded from somewhere to their left. "Tenten,
practice widening and narrowing your weapons range to accommodate the spread of your
targets,"
"Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura addressed the silver-haired Jounin leaning casually on a
nearby tree in surprise. She caught his hand moving towards his weapon pouch and
stiffened, but a kunai suddenly whizzed past her at lightning speed and struck Kakashi
squarely in the chest and he disappeared.
"Bunshins," Tenten sighed, leaping to her feet. "Brace yourself; Kakashi's not going to
give us any breaks,"
"Be alert, Sakura!" a deep voice warned, ringing through the clearing surrounded by
trees. Both kunoichis spun in different directions as numerous Kage Bunshin materialized
right in the middle of the training ground and began to charge at them, weapons aloft.
Tenten sent out a barrage of weapons, dispelling about half of them.
"Tenten! Futago Ryuu no Kaiten!" (1) Sakura hollered, yanking what looked like a long,
thin piece of fabric out of her pouch. Both kunoichis sprinted towards opposing trees,
gaining speed as they mounted the tree trunks, running up by controlling the chakra flow
to their feet.
Once they had reached a certain height, Sakura and Tenten arched their figures
backwards, propelling themselves off the trees while somersaulting past each other
through the air. Tenten deftly caught the other end of the trailing 'fabric' in mid air. As
their feet touched the opposite trees, both twisted around and leapt down, stretching out
the fine net that Sakura had been holding, and clamped the net down firmly on the
ground while landing, trapping Kakashi's bunshins.
All that happened so fast Kakashi had let himself be caught off guard. Now, Sakura sent
a shockwave of chakra through the net, dispelling all the other bunshins leaving
Kakashi crouched rather sheepishly in the middle.
"You lost, Kaka-sensei," Sakura grinned.
"Ah well it was two on one" the Jounin stuck up for himself, protesting. Everyone
knew that he had purposely let himself be caught up in the attack just to experience the
effects, but hey, a little teasing didn't hurt.

"Sour grapes much?" Tenten snorted. Kakashi laughed.


Sakura retrieved the net and stowed it back into her pouch. "How long have you been
watching?" she asked, even though she knew. She'd sensed him awhile ago.
"Dunno. 'Bout half an hour?" Kakashi shrugged. "This second technique you two used is
more unique, especially the net thing"
"We figured the chakra shockwave would work better for Sasuke or Naruto, since their
Wind and Lightning element chakra can either hurt or render the enemy unconscious,"
Tenten reasoned. "And even though technically, it can be done by two, a four man team
would be more effective for this because while two are holding the net, the other two can
prevent the targets from escaping,"
Kakashi nodded. "Both of you have perfect teamwork, as I expected. For the other
technique that I saw earlier remember my pointers. When Sasuke and Naruto train
with both of you, incorporate their hit-smash technique into the part after Tenten throws
her weapons that should deal with opponents who have managed to jump up to avoid
the attack," he instructed.
Sakura nodded, the flopped down, spread-eagled on the ground. "That's it,
I'm exhausted"
Tenten poked her playfully, laughing.
"Good job, both of you," Kakashi commented, hands in his pockets. "Tenten, you'll be
training with us from next week don't forget, okay?"
"As long as you don't turn up late, as you're notoriously famous for," Tenten retorted, not
missing a beat.
Kakashi smiled easily. "Well, gotta go Sakura, don't forget Sasuke's hearing is at two,
if you want to attend. You better have some lunch and take a bath,"
"Yes, dad," Sakura rolled her eyes as her sensei disappeared with a grin and a farewell
wave.
"He treats me like I'm five," the cherry blossom grumbled, sitting up.
"Well, don't complain," Tenten smirked. "You're not the one getting a two-hour lecture on
'youth' every time you meet your sensei and his favourite student,"
N
Sakura took a deep breath, standing before the doors of the courtroom with Naruto
beside her. Seriously, the elders were making a big fuss using one of the main
courtrooms for a hearing, not even a court case.
"Naruto I don't think I can go in" she suddenly said in a strained whisper.
"Why not?" the jinchuuriki frowned, clueless.
"I'm nervous, dammit! I can't stand waiting for the elders to decide on Sasuke's case!"
Sakura burst out desperately, suddenly feeling emotional. People were beginning to

stare. "I'm just scared that they'll give him some horrible punishment or " Sakura
continued in a lower voice.
"Sakura-chan" Naruto sighed. "You heard Tsunade baa-chan, the teme's got a ood
chance of getting off, and so far, so good why are you getting worked up now?"
"I'm just worried"
"Don't, then," Naruto said firmly, dragging her in. "Look at that teme, he's supposed to
be the one panicking, not you,"
Sasuke looked impeccably calm as he stood at the doorway at the far end of the
courtroom, waiting to be given the signal to enter. Despite the mounting nervousness in
her, Sakura kept a straight face and forced herself to calm down.
Everyone rose as the panel of jury walked in, then sat, waiting for the judge.
Naruto squeezed the pink-haired kunoichi's arm and grinned reassuringly at her.
"Trust Sasuke, he'll be fine,"
N
The atmosphere was somewhat tense as the judge, an elderly man of around eighty
strode in serenely, followed by Sasuke, who had, apparently, refused to be 'escorted' by
the guards, and walked slowly behind.
His face was stoically blank, as always, but when he caught Sakura's worried expression,
his eyes softened a fraction as if reassuring her that everything would be okay.
The cherry blossom studied the jury carefully. Most of them were the village elders, but
Sakura was relieved to see Asuma, Genma and Kurenai amongst them. They would
support Sasuke.
The judge sat, his snow-white hair and beard impeccably neat. There was a ripple of
murmurs as people shuffled back on their seats on the benches. The courtroom was full,
almost half of Konoha's population had turned up all eager to know the Uchiha's fate.
"Final hearing of Uchiha Sasuke, aged seventeen. The charge: for leaving Konoha to join
missing nin Orochimaru in Otogakure. He claims to have never killed any of Konoha's
shinobis nor betrayed any of our defense and internal information to the enemy," the
judge read, adjusting his glasses.
Sakura's hands were clasped tightly in her lap. Sai, sitting next to her rather
nonchalantly, touched her arm and whispered. "Stop worrying, you old hag, you're
getting more wrinkles by the second,
The smile he received for that jab was rather grim.
Sai's gesture had not escaped Sasuke's attention, and he spent the next few moments
glaring in that general direction, completely missing the first question.
His cross-examiner coughed. "Uchiha,"

Sasuke forced himself to pay attention to his questioner.


"What will you do if you are released?" the pudgy, balding man repeated the question.
Sasuke shrugged lightly. "Take part in the Jounin exams with my teammates,"
"If I am not mistaken, you are still at Genin level?"
"Would you rather we take this outside and I prove to you if my skills are still 'Genin
level'?" Sasuke shot back with a thinly veiled threat.
"I am not a shinobi, Uchiha," the man replied calmly. Sakura had to give him credit, most
people cowered at the mere sight of Sasuke. "But back to you. Perhaps we shall skip the
Jounin Exams matter now, why did you return?"
"My friends managed to persuade me," came the simple reply.
"But if you acknowledge that they " the man gestured to Team 7 "- are your friends,
why did you leave in the first place?"
"Perhaps I made a mistake," Sasuke spoke quietly. This was something new to him,
admitting a mistake. He usually didn't make any. "But did you ever have a goal to
achieve, a goal that required more than what was available at the current time and
place?"
"By that 'goal' I assume that you mean revenging the Uchiha clan?" the examiner said
bluntly.
Sasuke nodded curtly.
"So that was your only reason for joining Orochimaru?"
"Yes,"
"But what about the fact that he intended to take over your body once you were done?"
"I had no intention of letting him do so,"
"You are confident that you would have been able to stop him?"
"I stopped him once. Metempsychosis has to be done every three years, it's been five
years now. One more year before he tries again,"
Sakura shuddered. He said it so matter-of-factly, as if it didn't matter to him whether or
not Orochimaru inhibited his body. The examiner moved on to another topic, probably
uncomfortable with this one.
"Did it ever strike you that your actions were purely selfish, abandoning people who
cared for you on a mission to kill?"
"You don't understand," Sasuke's voice was low, after a moment of silence. "You've
never experienced losing everything in just one day, never expecting it, never seeing it
coming. You don't know how it feels, no matter how many people you've heard from, no
matter how many people you've 'counselled'. So stop trying to act like you know how it

feels, stop telling me how I should have 'considered' my options five years ago instead of
running off because you'll only know how I felt when they're gone, everyone who
matters. When you'll do anything to get them back,"
The courtroom was silent. It was the first time Uchiha Sasuke had said anything more
than a sentence.
'I understand' the whispered thought floated in Sakura's mind as her emerald eyes
locked with his onyx ones.
"Killing Itachi is something I will not give up on, because it's important to me whether
or not it's good or bad in our opinion," the Uchiha finished quietly, indirectly speaking to
Sakura.
His examiner stared at him for a few moments, before turning to the judge. "No more
questions, Your Honour,"
The second questioner stood. Sasuke closed his eyes for a moment, sighing.
Somehow, this hearing was making him reflect on his decisions a little too much.
N
"The jury, please step into the room behind, court is dismissed until the jury has reached
its verdict," the judge hammered his gavel, and people began shuffling out, murmuring
and talking.
They were not allowed to speak to Sasuke yet, but as they passed him, Sakura gave him
a small smile, trying to reassure him when, in reality, she was the one who needed
reassurance.
Once outside, Sakura leaned heavily against the wall, sighing.
"So, what did you think?" Kakashi asked casually, flipping through his book.
"I don't want to think," Sakura groaned.
"The teme did fine, I loved his answers," Naruto grinned. "The examiners' faces
were priceless,"
"It's not funny, Naruto!" Sakura said exasperatedly, "They can very well decide to kill
him instead of releasing him!"
"I'd like to see them try," Naruto snorted. "Kill Uchiha Sasuke? Forget Akatsuki and war,
they'll have a mob of murderous fangirls after them next,"
Sakura had to laugh.
"Just look at the whole thing from a logical point of view," Sai spoke boredly, standing
next to Kakashi. "Konoha faces the threat of war and the Uchiha is an asset to our
manpower, no matter what he has done. Our elders may be utter idiots, but they're not
as stupid as that,"
"That's true," Kakashi agreed, his nose still buried in his book.

"Well, you're not helping, you're student's being charged in court and you're still reading
that stupid book," Sakura muttered.
Kakashi reached out a gloved hand and ruffled her pink hair, never taking his eyes off his
book. By now, murderous vibes were coming off Sakura. She hated having her hair
ruffled and her sensei knew it.
"it's my de-stress method, Saku-chan"he said innocently, hardly noticing her death
glare.
The kunoichi gave up and slumped to the ground in a sitting position.
"he won't let you down, you know," Sai said suddenly, staring at the courtroom door. It
was almost time to re-enter the place.
"Huh?" Sakura looked at him, confused. Sai grinned.
"Didn't you happen to see the way he glared at me when I spoke to you?"
N
Pein stood, staring blankly at the falling rain, his face and piercing eyes carefully masked
as not to show any trace of emotion.
Konan, his female partner, stood silently next to him, watching the retreating figures of
Seijin and Deidara growing fainter through the rain, in the distance.
They were accustomed to this. Silence. A mutual understanding existed between them
ever since they could remember.
"So we make our move soon?" Konan questioned flatly, softly.
"They are the last two. Tobi-sama insists, you heard him," Pein glanced over at her
emotionlessly.
"Konoha is preparing for the Jounin exams, ne?"
"Judging by the stricter enforcement of security, they are prepared for war, as well," Pein
continued staring at the rain.
Silence.
"Are you worried? The Uchiha boy plus the nine-tails and the Nanabi?" Konan took a
step closer. There was hardly any distance between them now, yet she seemed to be
hardly touching her partner. "They hurt four of the Akatsuki, too, they must be quite
something"
"They find strength in numbers. Itachi can take care of his brother. My clones will take
care of the rest," came the quiet reply. Pein turned to walk back in, sweeping past Konan
with a glance.
"They're nothing we can't handle,"
N

"Freak, what happened to both of you?" Seijin asked incredulously as the pair of them
Deidara and himself met Itachi and Kisame in the Akatsuki base, both whom were still
recuperating from their previous encounter with the Konoha shinobis. That defeat had
been a sore hit for both of them, many of their fellow Akatsuki had been rather surprised
when the two men returned, bloodied, but they knew better than to comment.
Seijin, however, had no restrictions on that part. The word 'discretion' never existed in
his vocabulary, and paired with his arrogance, he irritated everyone he met.
"Finally met your match, Itachi-san?" Deidara couldn't help smirking, feeling a wave of
satisfaction as he saw the Uchiha twitch. He eyed the chest bindings Itachi had on under
his cloak, visible through the open front. 'Those brats are really something made me
lose an arm, and hurt the Uchiha like that' Deidara thought rather wistfully. Both
Kisame and Itachi still bore marks of that particular fight, numerous gashes tainting their
torso.
"Watch your mouth, Deidara," Itachi retaliated smoothly, his blank stare icier than any
glare. The explosives master narrowed his eyes and returned the favour, not about to be
outdone.
Both were locked in a stare-down for several moments, Deidara's angry orbs clashing
with Itachi's stubbornly blank, blood-red ones.
"Not worth your time," Kisame's hand grasped Itachi's shoulder firmly. No one without a
death wish would do that, but the shark-faced man sensed that Itachi's intent to kill was
skyrocketing and it wouldn't do for Akatsuki to be bickering amongst themselves now.
Itachi seemed to start forward a fraction, but paused as Kisame's grip on his shoulder
tightened. Casting another cold, blank stare at the duo, Itachi turned and continued
down the dimly torch-lit passageway, Kisame behind him, without another word.
N
Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura and Sai settled back into their seats in the courtroom, in tense
silence. Naruto gave Sasuke a thumbs up, but Sakura, somehow, daren't look in that
general direction.
Behind them, two women sat, gossiping rather too loudly to Sakura's distaste. They were
talking about sensitive issues, in the cherry blossom's opinion, and her fists clenched
tighter with every word she heard.
"The Uchiha will be getting off scot-free, I suppose"
"Isn't that what always happens? You know he's the only Uchiha descendent left with a
claim to his family's fortune he probably bought his way out,"
"Come to think of it, the Godaime seems to favour him, doesn't she? Maybe he bribed
her,"
"Or maybe it's because of her apprentice, that pink-haired Haruno girl she had a major
crush on him when she was young, didn't she? Maybe it didn't wear off after all, I heard
from Ami that she's nothing but a boy-chaser, typical girl"
Naruto felt the dangerous aura radiating off Sakura, while the two women behind them
remained blissfully unaware of their impending death sentences. Heck, he doubted that

they had even noticed Sakura sitting right in front of them. Which would make them
pretty blind, considering her mop of conspicuous pink hair.
" that woman never acts respectably, I mean, she's probably twice as old as me and
she still pretends that she's twenty, walking around showing off that ridiculous cleavage
of hers,"
That was it. Sakura's patience snapped, and Naruto immediately braced himself to stop
her from doing anything particularly destructive. But before she could stand up and give
them a piece of her mind with her fists, Sai was already standing, facing them.
"Excuse me," he enquired politely, yet his tensed jaw was unmistakable. The looked up in
surprise, then giggled rather childishly. Sai wasn't bad-looking at all.
His next sentence, however, brought them sharply back to earth. "If it wasn't for that
'old woman with a ridiculous cleavage', Konoha would be in shambles by now," Sai
dropped all pretense of being polite and spoke through clenched teeth. "Show some
damned respect for your Hokage or get out of here, because even the Uchiha has more
honour than to bribe people for freedom. He's standing trial, isn't he? And I suppose you
haven't noticed that the particular girl you're talking about is sitting right in front of
you?"
At this, the two women glanced at Sakura's snarling face, horrified.
"Well, she's " one of the women started, trying to defend herself.
"She what? Likes the Uchiha? Is that a crime?" Sai asked coldly. "We are shinobi, we
have our own code of honour if the Uchiha is cleared, it'll be because he's not in the
wrong, and not because of anything else. So the two of you better watch what you say,
because in my book, gossiping old hags like you are the lowest of the low,"
"Excuse me?!" one of the women took the term 'gossiping old hag' as an offense,
shrieking indignantly while standing up. By now, people were starting to watch the scene,
curious. The woman was ridiculously short, Sai towered over her. But still. She pointed
an accusing finger at him. "Watch your mouth, you little "
"You shut your mouth, lady," Sakura whirled around, fury dancing in her eyes. Naruto's
cerulean glare accompanied hers.
"If you ladies have nothing better to do than to criticize things you don't understand and
gossip, get out," Kakashi suddenly spoke, not turning back. His arms were crossed and
for once, since they had met him, Sakura and Naruto saw their sensei angry. His voice
was icy, in a way they had never imagined it could be.
Looking offended and terrified at the same time, both women hurriedly left, muttering
angrily.
"Thanks, Sai, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said quietly once they had settled back into their
seats.
"Wouldn't want you to demolish the courtroom," the black-haired boy half-smiled back,
while Kakashi merely nodded, grinning slightly. Naruto clapped her on the back, smiling.
Sakura caught Tsunade's eye from across the room. Her mentor was smiling, mouthing
something.

"I heard every word,"


The cherry blossom relaxed for a moment, then tensed again as the jury filled up their
places quietly, the judge resuming his seat. He hammered once for silence.
"Results of the jury's discussion,"
Sakura gripped the edge of her seat so tightly her knuckles were white. Naruto placed a
hand on her shoulder almost protectively, glancing across at Sasuke. Their gazes held.
"Those in favour of conviction?" the judge asked calmly. Sakura was almost afraid to look
up. Praying hard, she forced her eyes to glance upwards, at the jury box.
One two three votes. But that would mean
She felt the wooden bench crack under her fist. Several people whom were sitting on the
same bench jolted as they felt their seats sinking slightly under them.
"Those in favour of release?" the result was obvious, but the judge asked anyway, just to
enjoy the effect. Who said that judging was a boring job?
Three-quarters of the jury raised their hands, Asuma's grinning face amongst them.
Then, much to Team 7's amazement, most of the people in the courtroom slowly raised
their hands as well. Their vote didn't exactly count, but the look on Sasuke's face
was priceless he had his mouth open. Sakura and Naruto glanced at each other with
grins, freezing that particular picture into their minds forever. Sasuke was never going to
live this down.
"Very well," the judge was smiling. "Uchiha Sasuke is now reinstated as a shinobi of
Konoha and you will be eligible to enter the Jounin exams if you pass several tests next
week presided over by the Hokage. You are suspended from B-rank missions and above
for two years, but you are permitted to rejoin Team 7. Cleared of all charges, court
dismissed," the gavel hammered once.
Sakura suddenly felt like hugging the judge.
There was a momentary, stunned silence, before a great cheer rose in the room, with the
more energetic members of the Rookie Nine and Team Gai being the loudest contributors
of all.
Across the room, Sakura, Naruto and Sasuke glanced at each other. A wave of mutual
understanding and relief washed over all three teammates, it showed in their eyes.
Sasuke leapt out of his confining box easily, smirking, while Naruto and Sakura sprinted
over, crashing into the Uchiha with a three-way hug, the former grinning like a mad cat,
the latter torn between laughing and crying from emotional overload.
"All of them have grown, eh?" Asuma chewed on his cigarette, his hands in his pockets
while speaking to Kakashi. Kurenai and Gai joined them, four senseis watching their
students congratulating Sasuke and suddenly feeling very old.
Kakashi gave him a satisfied nod, smirking slightly before turning to leave. "Let's get out
of here before Naruto renders me broke once again with another of his brilliant 'ramen
party' suggestions I seriously have no idea where Iruka gets enough money to feed
that boy, even occasionally,"

"It's a little too late to run, don't you think, Kakashi?" Kurenai laughed as Naruto's loud
voice boomed over the din to them.
"Oh no," the silver-haired Jounin groaned, attempting to dive out of the room.
"OI! Don't run away, Kaka-sensei, you're treating us to ramen!"

Chapter 29 The Battle Plan.


Haku's face remained passive as he sat watching Team 7 and Tenten engrossed in a fullout sparring session, with Kakashi and Neji observing the four shinobis, occasionally
giving their opinions regarding techniques and formations.
Somehow, the fair-skinned young man felt out of place. Alone, in an utterly unfamiliar
and new surroundings, where everyone else was close knit, where it was so difficult to
actually fit in, even if people accepted him.
Life in Hidden Mist, as he remembered, had always been lonely. The village, even though
it bustled with people, was empty. It lacked the warmth that Konoha radiated constantly.
He was not accustomed to seeing people smiling at him even though they did not know
him perhaps the Leaf headband, so clearly shown tied around his forehead, was
enough assurance for these people that he was part of their family, of their village. He
was used to being included, or having friends.
And here, no one expected anything of him. Except for him to remember his past.
'Zabuza, huh?' a quiet thought floated through his mind. He could not remember who
that man was, even after Sakura had tried her best to explain, to tell him. Heck, he
didn't even remember this team he was supposed to have almost killed or remember
his 'dying', either. All that remained were vague recollections of Hidden Mist, and recent
memories of the old couple whom he had lived with, somewhere until they both died
and then wandering, without direction nor purpose. He had ended up in this strange
village, sleeping in a graveyard, until he was disturbed by a strangely pink-haired girl
and that funny-haired guy
Haku sighed, lifting his face towards the clear blue sky.
Perhaps, someday he would remember.
N
All four shinobis were drenched in sweat as they sank onto the grass, exhausted. All
except for Sasuke, that is, who, despite the visible beads of sweat glinting against his
skin, looked impeccably fresh and unperturbed, as always.
Neji tossed their water bottles to them and all four drank greedily, ending up with half
the bottle of water going over their heads to sooth the burning heat.
"Ugh, I'm exhausted" Naruto groaned loudly, sprawling himself flat out on the ground.

"Where did that extensive vocabulary come from, dobe?" Sasuke deadpanned, sitting
next to Sakura, as he raised an eyebrow.
"From your girlfriend, teme," Naruto did not miss a beat, grinning while pointing towards
Sakura.
Sasuke skidded over and kicked the blonde hard, resulting in a yelp and a very
mischievous-looking Naruto jumping up, tipping the contents of an entire bottle of water
over the Uchiha's head.
Sakura laughed at the murderous vibes Sasuke radiated, too lazy to break up their fight.
Kakashi, used to this sort of scene, simply spared them a glance and went back to
reading his book, while Neji and Tenten were talking to each other, probably too busy to
even notice what was going on.
The cherry blossom glanced over at Haku, sitting some distance away from them, and
suddenly recalled the scene where she'd given Haku his new hitai-ate, with the symbol of
the Leaf carved upon the shiny metal plate.
It had been the last day of his confinement in hospital, and Tsunade had requested that
Sakura be the one to give him the new headband despite her protests.
"He trusts you, somehow," Tsunade had said, firmly. There was no arguing with her at
that point.
"Sakura-san," Haku asked quietly as he stared at the metal plate, tracing the outline of
Konoha's symbol with his fingertip. "Will I ever remember?"
"It depends on you, really," Sakura said with a small smile. "But you have to know that
once you put that forehead protector on, you will be a shinobi of Konoha who's no
longer affiliated with Hidden Mist,"
"It never made any difference to me, I suppose, whatever village I was affiliated to,"
Haku said methodically, still fingering the metal plate. "I think I have this feeling, that
back then, all that mattered was that I was with Zabuza I would do anything, betray
any village for him,"
"So you do remember, then?" Sakura was startled.
"No." he looked up. "I only remember having somebody whom I cared for so much, I
would never care about anything else. Not even allegiance to villages, loyalty nothing."
Sakura started, but was halted by the smile creeping up his face as he lifted the hitai-ate
to his forehead and secured it, speaking quietly.
"But you guys are like" he paused, searching for the correct, unfamiliar words. "A
family. And you took me in, as part of that family so I suppose all that will have to
change, ne?"
She smiled.
"OI! Sakura-chan!" Naruto sang, waving his arms before the oblivious kunoichi's face.
"Wake up wake up! We're going for ramen, my treat!"

"Yes, 'your treat', and one of us will probably end up paying for the twenty bowls you've
devoured," Sasuke muttered under his breath.
"Actually, I feel like eating thirty today," Naruto said thoughtfully as he walked ahead.
"I'll pass," Kakashi said hurriedly, standing after hearing Naruto's suggestion. He'd
already been rendered pitifully broke by the blonde's last ramen party and I certainly
did not help that the latest in the Icha-Icha series had just been released the day after
the party.
"We'll pass, too," Neji stood, Tenten next to him. With a wave, all three walked away,
Kakashi calling back to remind them of practice the next day.
Naruto had taken to bugging Haku to go for ramen, while the Uchiha also contemplated
escape. He'd been on the receiving end of Naruto's ramen bill quite a few times already.
"Don't worry, if Naruto can't afford it, I'll pay," Sakura laughed, beckoning him to follow
Naruto, who was now happily chatting away with Haku next to him, headed towards
Ichiraku.
Sasuke smirked and joined her.
"I'll take your word for it, because I'm out of cash."
Sakura rolled her eyes. As if the entire village didn't know how rich the Uchiha household
was. She cast him a sidelong glance.
"Liar,"
N
"The dobe sure forgives easily," Sasuke observed as he and Sakura walked some ways
behind Naruto and an amused Haku, who was listening to one of the loudmouth's
rambles. "I haven't forgotten the time that guy almost killed me."
"Oh, c'mon, it's been so long" Sakura admonished.
"Funny, I vaguely remember someone crying over my 'corpse' that day" Sasuke said
dryly.
"Shut up," the pink-haired kunoichi tilted her head to a side. "Heard you passed your
tests yesterday,"
She was referring to the tests Sasuke had been compelled to take to be reaccepted as a
shinobi of Konoha. It had been a closed affair, so no one knew what happened except for
Sasuke and the judges. All Sakura knew was the gist of it, the first test being an
intelligence test, second a psychological one, and for the third, combat.
"Piece of cake," Sasuke replied nonchalantly. "I think I scared the pants of the examiner
for the second psychological test, he was far more nuts than me,"
"Arrogant much?" Sakura shot back.
"They made me fight Tsunade for my last test,"

"Tsunade-sama," Sakura corrected indignantly. Sasuke ignored her.


"You're very much like her,"
There was a moment of silence as Sakura stared at him.
"I'll take that as a compliment," her face suddenly broke into a grin.
Sasuke cast her a sidelong glance. "Same temper, same unfeminine strength "
"You want to repeat that?" Sakura challenged, showing him her clenched fist.
"Can't be bothered," the Uchiha raised an eyebrow. "Thankfully, you have no sake issues,
though"
They arrived at the ramen stall, and slid comfortably into their usual seats.
The cherry blossom had one last retort.
"Sometimes, Uchiha, you talk way too much,"
N
The days passed, quickly. All around Konoha, the atmosphere was tensed, excited, in
anticipation of the Jounin Exams.
Yet those who knew the impending danger felt apprehensive. Anything could happen
now, any day could bring the worst. Shikamaru and Neji spent most of their days
huddled in the Hokage's office with Tsunade and Sakura, devising defense strategies and
aiming to strengthen Konoha's walls as well as safehouses for the children. Occasionally
Sasuke and Kakashi would be enlisted to contribute their ideas, or else Jiraiya would drop
in with some more information on Akatsuki.
"Honestly, Shikamaru, I don't understand why you aren't ANBU Captain yet," Sakura
stretched and yawned after several long hours spent sitting and drawing up plans.
Shikamaru and Neji, the absolute geniuses had spotted every tiny weak spot Sakura had
missed. "It would have taken me a year to plan what we've managed to do in two days,"
"He's got the wrong attitude," Neji, current ANBU Captain, half smirked. "ANBU Captains
can't spend their days watching clouds and complaining like Nara does,"
"As if you had the right attitude, Hyuuga and as if you don't spend all your free time
over at my place with Tenten," Sakura scoffed.
A ghost of a smile crossed Neji's lips, and he said nothing more.
"Hey, Saku-chan!" Shizune suddenly appeared in the doorway. Sakura looked up in
surprise Tsunade's black-haired assistant had a really wide smile plastered across her
face. Something was up.
"What?" the cherry blossom enquired, curious.
"The Uchiha's here to see you," Shizune laughed. Sakura groaned. This teasing would
never end, it had started when Sasuke was watching over her in hospital.

The two boys smirked from behind her. Sakura glared daggers at them before
straightening and striding out.
N
"Sasuke, you better have a good reason for this visit, or Neji and Shikamaru, not to
mention Shizune, will never get off my case," Sakura said as she met him in the corridor
outside the office.
He said nothing, but thrust a paper bag towards her. She vaguely wondered if it would
kill him to just say 'hi', but took the bag anyway, pulling it open and looking inside.
"As a repayment for the food you gave me in prison," Sasuke spoke flatly, his arms
crossed as he leaned against the wall, observing her.
There was an assortment of soft, sugared candy in various shapes and colours inside
Sakura's favourites. With a delighted smile that broke out suddenly on her face, she
hugged him, and a very startled Sasuke found that he enjoyed the feeling, somehow. His
pale skin flushed.
"Come on, you can help us with the plans," Sakura invited, motioning towards the office.
"Neji and Shikamaru are totally killing me with their pure genius,"
Sasuke shook his head, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. "I've got some training to
catch up on with Kakashi besides, I have to make sure the dobe doesn't drive Haku to
the brink of insanity,"
Sakura laughed. "He hasn't let off yet? Poor Haku"
"Hinata finds it amusing, actually. I'm surprised."
The kunoichi grinned. "People change, Uchiha. I have to go now, before those two" she
cocked her head to a side, pointing towards the office. "-start getting random thoughts,"
Sasuke shrugged. "I'll see you later at the meeting."
Sakura's face fell, ever so slightly. Sighing, she turned away. When she spoke, her voice
was quiet.
"I can't believe that we're really preparing for war."
N
"So?" Sakura was met by a question the moment she stepped back into the office,
courtesy to a bored- looking Hyuuga prodigy.
It was really evident that neither shinobi had been doing any work while she was gone.
Sakura plopped back into her seat with an exasperated glare at both boys.
"The Uchiha proposed or something?" Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. Neji had to cough,
to cover up what sounded suspiciously like a laugh.
The cherry blossom sighed. "I swear, you guys are way worse than Ino when it comes to
my love affairs,"

"Well, at least you admit that it's a love affair," Neji deadpanned. "The Uchiha will never
admit that,"
"I thought you guys weren't interested in this kind of stuff?" Sakura crossed her arms,
thoroughly annoyed.
"Honestly, Sakura, it's hard not to be interested when the Uchiha is involved," Shikamaru
smiled lazily. "Unless there is something you don't want us to know?"
"You see this, Nara?" Sakura's fist balled up in front of Shikamaru's face. The pineapple
head hastily drew back, alarmed.
Satisfied, Sakura tossed the bag of candy onto the table.
"Now shut up, eat and get back to work or I'll get the girls to drag both of you out
shopping tomorrow,"
N
The huge hall located on the ground floor of the Hokage Tower began filling up with
people as six o'clock approached. Everyone of merit clan heads, ANBU members,
Jounins was there.
"It's strange to think that all these people have actually come to listen to a war strategy
concocted by a bunch of teenagers," Tenten was laughing as she helped them prepare
their presentation.
"You don't have to be old to be smart," Neji raised an eyebrow.
Tenten rolled her eyes. "Yeah, says the top rookie of our year, who always acts like he's
eighty when he's eighteen lighten up, Neji!"
That comment earned her a hard smack on the shoulder.
"Anyway, their lives depend on our plan now, so what choice do they have?" Shikamaru
slouched over, hands in pockets. "Do I have to do the presentation?"
"Yes, now stand straight, get out there and show 'em and you better not embarrass
me, Shika!" Ino hissed, shoving him out to face the crowd.
"Damn. Shouldn't have left my options open," Shikamaru muttered under his breath.
"This is troublesome" Looking up with a deadened expression on his face, the Jounin
raised his voice to speak. "Let's just skip introductions and get straight down to the
strategy," he deadpanned.
In the crowd, Asuma chuckled and Kurenai sweatdropped.
"He looks like he's already been through a hundred years of war how on earth did you
bring that boy up, Asuma?"
"Hey, I didn't do anything, that's just him," her partner protested.
"Konoha's walls are currently being strengthened with layered defenses. Curved walls
hide our side entrances, to camouflage them and enable food and backup transport.

Several inner walls have already been built to serve as decoys our entrance is currently
masked to resemble a dead end, while the obvious paths lead to underground tunnels
where enemies can be ambushed, and if necessary, blocked out." Shikamaru indicated to
the specific locations on the mapped plan behind him.
"We need to increase our food supplies drastically those who are in charge?"
Several well-known merchants raised their hands in acknowledgement. Shikamaru
nodded. "Bring in as much food as you can, dry provisons and live stock at the lowest
prices possible. You know the budget. Set aside at least three quarters of that foodstock
in our storehouses, and the rest can be used on daily basis. Take the Jounin Exams and
the celebration afterwards as an excuse for the larger requirement of food. The villagers
will be requested to have at least a patch of garden for growing food," the Nara genius
explained, serious once he got right down to it.
"Do we really need to do all that?" a complaining voice rose, from somewhere in the
crowd. Shikamaru looked down, at the floor, his fists clenching in his pockets. He hated
people questioning his strategies unnecessarily.
"Will you be complaining when the war is long and your family goes hungry?" Shikamaru
questioned without looking up. The voice fell silent.
"Kotetsu will be in charge of supplies. Those involved, please report to him," the
pineapple head continued. The aforementioned Jounin saluted, acknowledging his job.
"Iruka-sensei is in charge of the evacuation of children and the elderly to the
safehouses,"
Iruka nodded, looking somewhat grim. He took that job seriously.
"Next attacks. Kakashi-sensei will head this division, with me and Neji. Several teams
will be placed at the watchtowers around Konoha's second layer of walls. Each team will
have a Byakugan user with them. Hiashi-sama " Shikamaru looked towards the Hyuuga
clan head for confirmation and received a curt nod in reply. "-alright, then. Our defense
formation works this way: Konoha has been separated into five semi-circle layers, since
we are already solidly blocked by the Hokage Monument cliffs. For the Jounin Exams,
only the first, outermost section will be open to foreign shinobis that is where every
single exam will take place, including the exam in the Forest of Death and where
participants will stay, so that no one will be able to penetrate our systems. The second
layer will host our watchtowers, and minimal houses. The third, fourth and fifth sections
will have a chakra dome protection cast over them,"
Shikamaru drew a breath, then continued. "Medic nins will be situated just beyond the
second section to heal the injured Shizune is in charge of that division. All those who
have healing skills and wish to help, please report to her. As for backup, Jiraiya-sama will
lead teams of three to designated areas outside Konoha to serve as lookouts and provide
another vantage point for attack. Traps will also be set surrounding the village, and
above the cliffs to be dealt with by Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei,"
"Each division is required to submit a list of their members, and if required, their plans,
attack patterns and formations to me by word of mouth, tomorrow. Any further
changes will be informed to all of you. All clear?" the lazy genius questioned, hands in his
pockets.
"Yes," came the quiet, echoed word, as people started shuffling out. Shikamaru slouched
back to his friends, the overall mood was starting to swing into a depressive atmosphere.

Without a word, he headed towards the stairs leading up to Tsunade's office, where there
was more work to be done.
His heart was somehow, heavy.
"C'mon. Let's get on with our own attack patterns,"
N
Sakura spun, twirled and dodged, alone on one of the training grounds, as if she was
fighting an imaginary opponent. This stimulation exercise had been suggested by Neji, to
recreate the feeling of mass fighting.
Not as if it would do her any good.
Beads of sweat trickled down her furrowed brow as she launched another spinning
roundhouse kick before landing and throwing her fist towards the ground, cracking and
smashing the solid rock into countless pieces, shards that crumbled and soared through
the air, raining down heavily.
Somehow, that vented her frustrations a little. She could hardly stand the pressing dread
of impending doom, where everything familiar was gradually changing. Where nothing
felt safe anymore.
There used to be kids running around all the time, playing on the streets. Or giving her
plates of food that their mothers had cooked especially for her, her favourites. Just
smiling, because there was something to be happy about.
But now mothers hurried pulled their children indoors, barring them from playing
outside people hurried about their businesses, hurried past without a word of greeting,
hurrying to get back into their homes as if those four walls could protect them.
As if.
"ARGH!" Sakura's gloved fist smashed forcefully into another boulder, reducing it to
mere dust. Her eyes stung as a sudden breeze whipped the dust particles past her face,
and two trickles of tears drew a path down her smudged cheeks. She was so close to
crying, but she couldn't.
Her knuckles bled, but she didn't bother with healing. The pain, perhaps, would help her
accept the pain to come.
"It doesn't help, you know," a dry, familiar voice rang out. "Pain doesn't help you
comprehend,"
Sakura didn't turn, still staring at her bleeding knuckles, almost willing them to hurt.
"You know, as well as I do, that this war is happening because of the Bijuu sealed within
me and Naruto, Sai."
A low chuckle escaped the ANBU Root member. "Does everything always have to be your
fault? You're acting like you're the bloody victim of every single angst drama there is
around the place," the dark-haired boy asked, stepping easily across the cracked ground.

He silenced Sakura as she began to protest. "I'm just giving an honest opinion, hag. Stop
wallowing in self-pity the girl I met is way above that. Would youo blame Naruto for the
war, had you not become a jinchuuriki?"
Hesitantly, Sakura shook her head. She was indignant about being termed as 'acting the
victim of angst dramas', but she could see his point.
"But war I don't want to see people dying especially not for me," she said softly,
recalling Shikamaru's order.
"You and Naruto will stay in the safehouses in the event of war. No arguments. If
Akatsuki gets hold of both of you, all is lost."
Stay back stay protected while others fought for her?
"We fight for everything that is precious to us," Sai quoted quietly, standing next to her.
"Remember? Hinata told me what you said to her. What makes you think that any of us
will let you or Naruto be captured by Akatsuki? Especially Sasuke Tenten and Naruto
himself?"
Sakura was silent, watching the blood dry in cracked patches.
Sai touched her shoulder. "You're a friend worth fighting fore, you and Naruto. Everyone
knows that. Stop blaming yourself for nothing, because life goes on anyway,"
The kunoichi finally relented, allowing her chakra to heal the wound slowly.
Sai smirked. "Good. Smile, and you better get going, your team is looking for you. The
Jounin Exams briefing is in half an hour."
"Thanks," Sakura smiled, rather tiredly, turning to leave. "And Sai"
"Huh?"
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but you're really not that bad at socializing at all,"
Sai merely grinned. "Don't tell the Uchiha you've been with me, I'm not looking for a
death sentence yet,"
N
The briefing hall was deadly silent. Shinobis from the various hidden villages clumped
together in groups with their own village's teams and their accompanying Jounins. The
tension was thick in the air as rival teams glared at each other, sizing others up, trying to
determine who would rule this exam.
Sakura fingered the bandages wrapped around her right hand knuckles. Her long training
meant that she was low on chakra and incapable of much healing at that moment, so she
was lucky that her teammates hadn't asked any awkward questions yet. She could feel
the crushing pressure of the tension around her,and looked around as casually as she
could feign, observing every detail about the teams they would be facing.
''Exam' hardly seems like the right term for this event,' Sakura thought dryly. 'It feels
more like a gathering in which the sole purpose is to eliminate anyone who gets in your
way,'.

Already Naruto was involved in a stare-down with several shinobis from Hidden Sound,
standing across the room, his intense cerulean glare fixed upon the three-man cell.
Sakura put a hand on his shoulder, and shook her head slightly. This was not the time to
pick a fight. Yet as she turned away, her fists clenched tight, wanting to punch their
faces in.
But why the hell were they here?
"Why are Hidden Sound shinobis here, considering their current relations with Konoha?"
the cherry blossom turned to ask her sensei in a rather strained whisper.
The Copy-nin was also studying that particular group out of the corner of his eye, his
orange book miraculously out of sight, while leaning against the wall next to Sasuke, his
hands in his pockets. The avenger himself did not spare them a glance, determinedly
looking in the other direction.
"We can't turn them away," Kakashi answered after a long while. "The Hidden Sound is,
in a way, acknowledged by all the shinobi countries, and at least three objections are
required to ban a village from entering the exams, but so far, only Konoha and Suna
have ever spoken against Otogakure,"
"Don't they ever worry that one day, that village might become a threat to them, too?"
Sakura asked distastefully.
"That's life, Sakura" Kakashi glanced at her, looking slightly amused at her complaint.
"If Otogakure eliminates us, other villages will have more missions, and they will thrive.
No one really cares about anyone else, as long as their fort is safe, they think that they
have nothing to worry about,"
"That's a lie. An illusion," Sakura spat. "And so money means more than humanity? What
about when the Sound turns to attack them?"
"You can't blame them entirely. Nothing in life is fair, you know that yourself," Sasuke
suddenly spoke, glancing at her quickly. "You're nave, in that way. Humans fight for
themselves, to ensure their own survival,"
"We don't!" Sakura shot back indignantly.
"Why do you think I came back?" Sasuke asked suddenly, interrupting her.
Silence.
"I thought the rule was 'four-man teams'? Otogakure's group only has three members,"
Tenten joined the conversation, changing the topic while glancing over her shoulder at
the Sound team.
"They're allowed, if their numbers are insufficient and they're confident enough," Kakashi
told her. "Max, and recommended in a team is four, minimum three,"
"They're that confident?" the weapons mistress said skeptically. "I mean, most of the
teams here are tough by the looks of it four man teams too, that makes it downright
dangerous to assume you're above them,"
"It doesn't matter to them, their target is me. Again," Sasuke said almost casually,
staring at the ceiling. Several kunoichi from other teams were eying him already, and

Sasuke didn't like it. "Winning isn't their priority, just like in the last Chunin Exams" he
trailed off, before adding a sudden sentence. "I used to work with them,"
Naruto let out a low whistle. "That Oro-bastard is really hell bent on getting you, isn't
he?"
"Forget Orochimaru, who are they?" Tenten asked the Uchiha, gesturing slightly. The
whole team leaned in to listen, interested.
Sasuke sighed. "Otogakure's best which, basically means that they're Orochimaru's
best experiment results," Sasuke said simply. Sakura looked torn between amused and
disgusted. He continued. "The girl is Karin, she's a powerful chakra sensor and used to
guard one of Orochimaru's experiment bases. Suigetsu, the shorter guy, was once
Zabuza's junior, training to be one of the Mist's Seven Swordsmen he's holding
Zabuza's zanbato (1) now, took it from his grave. And the huge guy is Juugo,"
"Go on," Sakura prompted when he paused. "What about Juugo?"
"He's harmless, actually. He hates hurting people, but he can get into crazed rampages
and kill everyone in sight deciding on which gender he wants to kill first. I used to be
able to control him with my Sharingan, to a certain extent," Sasuke said quietly. "And
he is also the source of the curse seal,"
The five shinobis were silent for awhile.
"Well, be careful, all of you," Kakashi said simply, before casting Sasuke a sidelong
glance. "Sasuke, be sure of your standing. It was enough work trying to get you back
once,"
Sakura noticed the girl from Oto's team, Karin, catching Sasuke's eye and smiling rather
sloppily. The pink-haired girl rolled her eyes and turned away, fighting the urge to laugh.
She caught Sasuke smirking at her, completely ignoring Karin's rather obvious attempt at
flirting. Sakura raised an eyebrow at him.
"You're just set on getting your fangirls to kill me, aren't you? Anyway, it seems that
someone over there fancies you quite a bit," she commented dryly.
"You're not worried?" Sasuke smirked.
Sakura shrugged. "Nope. Judging by your reaction, you're not interested, and anyway,
your love life is not my problem,"
"I'm hurt," Sasuke said lazily, not even bothering to sound offended.
She cast him a sidelong glance. "Not every girl goes gaga over your mop of chicken-ass
hair, Uchiha, get over it,"
Kakashi laughed and tried to cover up with a cough, but failed, and earned himself a
death glare from Sasuke.
On the whole, Sakura felt considerably cheered up by the time Anko walked in for their
briefing, while constantly bantering about how far Karin would go to get Sasuke with
Naruto and Tenten just to annoy the Uchiha. Karin's dirty looks shot at her from across
the room only served to amuse her more, which, in turn, infuriated the Sound kunoichi.

Sakura glanced at Sasuke's barely evident, pained expression and laughed.


Oh yes, this exam was going to be fun.
N
The atmosphere once again tensed as Anko stepped to the front of the hall and began to
speak. Even in that uncomfortable situation, the Jounin continued smiling slyly.
"Lots of tension in the air and bloodlust," Anko grinned. Sakura could've sworn that the
Jounin was enjoying this tension as she added rather happily: "I like that,"
"Weirdo, that woman" Naruto muttered under his breath. "She hasn't changed at all"
"Well. Haven't you all grown since the last Chunin Exams," Anko didn't bother with
staying at the front of the hall, she stepped into the crowd, examining the participants as
Tsunade had instructed. The shinobis parted to let her pass, some leering, some mocking
her. Anko took little notice, her voice rose to fill the silent hall as she walked.
"All of you should have grown up, in these five years," Anko spoke clearly, glancing at
Naruto. Somehow, her expression was unreadable. "Because the Chunin Exam was
nothing but child's play. Now " the Jounin paused, turning back as she reached the end
of the hall.
"The Jounin Exam is on a whole different level. You will no longer be protected from
those who aim to kill you by exam proctors, because that is how the real world works.
You're on your own, and you have only your teammates and yourself to rely on. No one
else will help you. The key is not to kill, but to use those bloody brains of yours and
survive, if you have any at all. That's the key in this exam. Survive," Anko closed her
eyes, halting.
Sakura glanced at Kakashi. Wasn't this the topic they had just discussed?
Several gasps could be heard as Anko suddenly stepped neatly to one side, her hand
reaching out in a blur. She caught the kunai that had been meant to strike her neck with
ease, flipping it over in her hand and throwing it back where it came from without so
much as a backward glance.
It caught a lock of hair of the male Grass nin who had thrown it before embedding itself
deeply into the wall. Only the handle remained visible, sticking out.
Tenten stiffened. That sort of accuracy Anko?
"That " the woman turned around sharply, her demeanor completely calm even though
anger flashed in her eyes. "-was not very nice," Her eyes bore into his, and the brownhaired ninja visibly shrank.
From that moment on, no one mocked her.
"Let's get back to serious business," Anko continued her pacing through the room.
"General rules: the exam will be held in the outermost section of Konoha and it stays
there. No one is to wander anywhere else without authorization and those who fail to
obey this rule will not be dealt with lightly."
Dead silence. She continued

"Two. No attacks, ambushes or killing outside exam periods. Exam proctors will
constantly be on the watch, so don't try to cause trouble or you'll be disqualified and not
allowed to continue your stay in this village,"
"Yeah, yeah," came a bored voice from the crowd. "Enough about the boring village, get
on with the exam rules already,"
"Don't be so impatient," Anko sighed. "Right. On to the exams this may come as a
surprise, but there are no rules. Absolutely none, other than you follow what you're told
to do for whatever test you're doing,"
"No rules?" Sakura whispered to her teammates.
"That's Anko for you her plans are always on the extreme side," Kakashi said simply,
shrugging as Sakura stared at him.
"You cheat, go ahead. If you're caught well, that's just too bad, isn't it? Let's say one of
your team members get's kidnapped and is held hostage by another team, your enemy
then it's up to you to get them back. We can't help you because that is your fight and
you have to face it alone. Only in observed, one-on-one battles will the proctors step in if
the fight has gone too far,"
There was a jumble of expressions across the hall. Anko went on. "We want you to prove
how well your team or individual can complete a give task with the least bloodshed and
injury. A Jounin's capabilities are not measured by how many they can kill, but how
efficiently they can handle their mission and react in emergency situations preferably
without killing unless absolutely necessary. Bloodshed is always optional. You have to
learn to survive through your skills and stealth, not brute force,"
Everyone remained quiet.
"Okay, that's about it. Hand in your registration forms before you leave. And one more
thing Anko suddenly stopped them, they had already begun moving. "Choose whom to
trust as a source of information wisely. You may leave now,"
"That's so irrelevant," Sakura overheard the members of another team speaking to each
other, and rolled her eyes. Those people really didn't know what Anko had in store for
them, if they really thought that way
"Well, I'll see you all two days from now, at the third training ground at twelve noon
sharp!" Anko waved, and disappeared. Slowly, the shinobis gathered in the room trudged
forward to hand in their signed registration slips to the clerks collecting them before
shuffling out.
Neji caught hold of Tenten and motioned for her to follow him. With a nod to Sakura, the
kunoichi went with him. The cherry blossom noticed Karin, fighting through the crowd to
get near Sasuke while the Uchiha was edging discreetly away. She tried not to laugh, and
walked right until she was between Naruto and Sasuke, slinging her arms across their
shoulders while ignoring Karin's eyes boring holes into her back.
"So, boys, ready to show them what we've got?" she grinned. Both glanced at her with
their own signature smirk and grin.
"You bet,"

Chapter 30 Start of the Jounin Exams


Rats scurried past across the filthy prison floor, devouring the untouched meal placed at
the cell door flap. That food, too, was half-rotten and surrounded by flies. But at least the
stench was bearable.
In one of the dark corners of the small prison cell, a lone figure sat still on the hard bunk
bed, feet apart and back straight, head held high. His lined face, half hidden by the
shadows and the permanent bandages, showed a man stubbornly clinging on to what
little pride he had left.
He had refused to eat, refused to sleep as a note of protest. He was doing what was best
for Konoha, and he would follow that path, even if it meant betraying his village to
achieve it. He had done it once, twice, and this time they had thrown him in prison.
The sound of keys jangling in the lock filled the silence for a moment. The rusty door
swung open, creaking loudly on its complaining hinges with the effort it took.
"Get out," the warden, a man in his late thirties with a visibly unkempt beard demanded
gruffly. He didn't like entering this cell, that prisoner radiated vibes that made him
uncomfortable. "You've got a visitor."
Danzou's eyes darted to the door and his hopes rose a little, even if he wouldn't show it.
Standing slowly, he put his weight on the wooden staff, the only possession he'd been
allowed to take into prison apart from the clothes on his back. His joints complained
loudly, but he didn't care. There were more important matters to deal with. That visitor
it might be no, it had to be Sai.
A small smile twitched his wrinkled lips. Sai. That boy had no name, but the name he'd
been given for that last, fateful mission had stuck, for some reason, until even he,
Danzou, had started to associate that particular name with the boy.
That boy was the only one who hadn't abandoned him, hadn't left him right on the
moment that damned Tsunade had uncovered his operations. What had he taught them
about loyalty? They'd forgotten anything. But then, he hadn't exactly followed his own
words, had he? He'd betrayed Konoha. Quietly. It was for the good of his village.
Danzou trudged out to the visiting cell slowly, the warden prodding him forward
impatiently. He fought the urge to scream at him, beat him with his staff, that insolent
young brat. When he got out of this prison, he would show that idiot just who was the
boss around here.
"Ah, Sai! How are you, my boy?" Danzou could barely contain his excitement as he saw
that it was indeed his subordinate visiting. Taking the seat opposite the black haired boy
in the dimly lit room, he glanced across at Sai.
Sai did not return the greeting. He simply looked indifferent, cold but wasn't that the
way this particular boy always looked? Danzou himself had cultivated that faade on him.
There were a few moments of uncertain silence.
"The Hokage knows everything, Danzou, you might as well just confess about your ties
to Akatsuki," the ANBU Root member spoke directly to the point.
It took another several moments for the words to sink in.

"What" Danzou's voice dropped a fraction, unsure of what he had just heard. "What
do you mean?"
"You heard me,"
Danzou's face hardened. Betrayal. "Who was it?"
"The traitor?" Sai asked smoothly, looking him in the eye while raising an eyebrow. "Who
else?"
Silence. Then the truth dawned.
"Y-you-" Danzou could barely speak as he raised an accusing finger, trembling with pure
fury. His serene expression was gone, his composure crushed in a moment of revelation.
Sai Sai he should have seen it all along. That boy had long been brainwashed by the
Godaime's little underlings, he should have know when Sai hadn't deserted him when
he'd been arrested. Wasn't that human nature, to support the winning side and desert
the losers?
That didn't make being betrayed by the last person he'd trusted any more pleasant,
though.
"After all these years you you" Danzou was almost incoherent, anger consuming
every fibre of his now frail body. If he'd been twenty years younger he would have
thrown the boy across the room.
"I left?" Sai added, trying to be helpful. Danzou stood suddenly, his chair toppled with a
loud clang. The warden was already hurrying in, but Sai gestured for him to stop.
"I gave you everything! Food clothes, shelter, your name, your life!" the elderly man
roared, uncontrolled anger lashing out. Only his frail state of old age prevented him from
striding forward and strangling the blank-faced brat he'd brought up, all these years.
He was breathing heavily now, yelling had taken a lot out of him. The man sank back into
his seat heavily.
"I gave you your life," Danzou whispered, through ragged breaths, his words halting as if
he was unsure of how to pronounce them.
Sai's face remained stoically blank. After a long moment, he stood, pushing his chair
back slightly.
"What you're doing is going to hurt my friends," Sai said calmly, turning to leave.
"Warden, I'm done here," his next sentence was directed at the warden, who was
standing, staring and gaping at the scene.
"So," Danzou spoke to the retreating back, glaring at it with poisonous contempt. His
dreams, his aspirations were crushed. "You would rather side with your pathetic little
'friends', instead of the man who gave you a life?"
Silence. The warden unlocked the cell door, opening it for Sai. The shinobi paused, just
before exiting. As if on second thought he added a sentence.
"Actually, Danzou," Sai spoke calmly, not looking back.

"You gave me a life, but they taught me how to live,"


N
"Sakura, come here," Tsunade called out form her office, just as her student was about
to leave the premises. Curiously, Sakura entered.
"That chest your team brought back," the Godaime started, reaching into a drawer. "The
encryption department couldn't decipher the runes, but they found something else, in the
faded silk lining,"
Tsunade held out an object which seemed to shimmer, radiating soft rays of light through
the Godaime's fingers clasped around it. Sakura took it, hesitantly.
It was a glass vial, perhaps about as big as her hand. A sort of silvery-blue substance,
that seemed to be neither gas nor liquid, floated lazily around in the bottle, tiny wisps
curling upwards.
"What, exactly, is this?" Sakura asked in amazement, marveling at the delicateness of
the item. She had never seen anything so indescribable in her life. The hues of colour
through the clear glass was beautiful, mesmerizing even, but at the same time, radiated
a sort of deadliness that warned of impending danger.
"I don't know," Tsunade said heavily, leaning back in her high-backed chair. "I've studied
it, but all it seems to be is an extremely dense volume of something like chakra,"
"like chakra?" Sakura queried, frowning. Was there such a thing?
"Yes. I don't think it is chakra, but it's extremely similar," Tsunade explained. The lid is
sealed very strongly. I don't want to open it because it might be dangerous,"
Sakura didn't' speak, she just stared at the vial, letting it draw her in, willing it to tell her
its secrets.
The office was silent, until the Godaime leaned forwards suddenly. Her chair creaked.
"Sakura do you feel uncomfortable holding it?"
The pink-haired kunoichi started at the unusual question, but weighed her answers
carefully, judging, studying the glass bottle in her hands. It gave off a pleasant warmth,
and apart from the slight deadliness that she had sensed earlier, she felt safe holding it.
As if it belonged to her, like a new pet warming up to its mistress.
"No," Sakura finally spoke after a long while, rather surprised at her own answer. "It's
just pleasant."
Tsunade looked at her. Sakura met her gaze.
"Then it belongs to you," her mentor said briskly, shuffling a few papers placed on her
desk, breaking eye contact.
"Wha-" Sakura jolted.
"Every single person who held that vial complained that they felt a strange sensation, like
overwhelming power and danger," Tsunade said calmly. "When I touched it, I had the
same feeling as if it was trying to repel me because I wasn't the person it sought."

The cherry blossom tried to digest the piece of information.


"The chest was your grandfather's creation, right?" the Hokage asked simply, receiving
an uncertain nod in reply. "I knew that man, Sakura when I was a girl. Haruno Seian
was always a creative man. He was plain gifted in making things that often looked like
they had no use but proved to be otherwise and that was why he became Konoha's
most renowned weapons-smith. His weapons were discreet and beautifully useful to
spring surprises on enemies,"
Sakura smiled slightly. She had only known that her grandfather had owned a weapons
shop, she had visited it once or twice but it looked ordinary. The things that her
grandfather had showed her were usually not weapons, but items of extraordinary
craftsmanship and cunning mechanisms. Tenten would have been ecstatic to meet her
grandfather had he been still alive.
"I don't know what's inside that bottle, nor what it is for, but if he intends to give it to
you, there must be a reason," Tsunade continued.
Sakura's grip on the vial tightened. This wasn't an ordinary contraption, it felt
otherwordly. What was he trying to tell her? 'Ojiisan'
Tsunade seemed to snap up for a moment, rummaging through her drawers again
before triumphantly pulling out a scrap of paper.
"This was tied to the neck of the bottle," the blonde woman thrust the paper at her
apprentice, who took it, surprised. The paper was protected with a coat of something
transparent and glossy, probably some sort of varnish to keep it from decaying.
Sakura's emerald eyes skimmed over the page swiftly, before widening in absolute
shock. She nearly dropped the bottle, it slid right to her fingertips.
"Sakura? What's wrong?" Tsunade asked sharply, noticing the evident change in Sakura's
composure.
'It's the same' the cherry blossom thought desperately.
She had to be sure. With a quick, barely uttered apology and farewell to her mentor, the
pink-haired girl bolted out not heeding Tsunade's calls.
Sakura sprinted through the streets, a barely visible blur of pink and red, nearly crashing
into Haku who was with Sasuke and Naruto. Not even bothering with them, she
scrambled past the three males, running all the way to her house front door before
shoving in open unceremoniously, tumbling in between gasps of breath.
"Hey, Sakura, Naruto asked us "
Tenten's greeting was cut short as the cherry blossom dashed up the stairs, into her
room and slammed the door behind her before diving under her pillow for her diary.
She'd read that verse so many times she knew it by heart, but she had to see and
compare the two.
The scrap of parchment that her father had pressed into her hand seven years ago,
before he died, fell out from between her diary pages.

Her hands trembling, Sakura held the two pieces of paper side by side. Reading them,
comparing them. Wondering what the words meant. The papers nearly crumpled in her
hands.
Different handwriting, they had probably been copied out by different people. But the
words were chillingly, exactly the same.
' 'A life for a life'
As the old saying goes
For the little one we love
Here our lives be laid
Forbidden as this act may be
There will be no regrets.
For with ever life forsaken,
Another one will thrive.'
"Sakura?" there came a tentative knock on her room door as Tenten's voice sounded
uncertainly. "Are you okay?"
The pink-haired kunoichi straightened, trying to speak in a calm voice.
"Yeah. Just needed the toilet, that's all," came her rather choked reply. That was a
lame excuse.
"Well if you say so" Tenten spoke uncertainly, from the other side of the door. "Come
on, Naruto's inviting us for a good luck party at "
"Ichiraku Ramen?" Sakura found her sarcasm returning as she carefully folded the two
pieces of paper and stashed them, along with the sealed glass vial, into her shuriken
pouch.
"Well, yeah." She heard Tenten laugh outside. "Come on, I'm waiting!"
Rearranging her features, Sakura walked towards the door. Clasping the door handle,
she paused to compose herself, inhaling deeply. The words remained etched into her
mind, a memory that refused to be buried.
'For with every life forsaken, another one will thrive'.
N
Sasuke had immediately been able to sense that something was wrong the moment
Sakura stepped into Ichiraku's. Even if she laughed and smiled, there was a strange aura
of unrest about her, fear and uncertainty. Once she was no longer in the centre of
attention, her faade would fall off again, and if anyone asked, the cherry blossom simply
forced a smile and said that she was tired. Most of the time she just spaced out, deep
frown lines creasing her forehead as if she was thinking about something.

Heck, Sasuke would never buy her 'tired' act. There was something wrong with her, and
what a certain Hyuuga prodigy had said to him that evening only served to confirm his
guesses further.
"Sakura's acting strange tonight," Neji casually observed while sitting about two seats
away from the Uchiha. They were always like that, two quiet, stoic boys, trying to ignore
the chaos around them, sitting alone until one of their friends came around to start
annoying them. But they seldom talked to each other.
Sasuke glanced at him, surprised.
Neji stood to get a drink refill, speaking discreetly as he passed behind Sasuke's seat.
"Whatever that's bothering her is in her shuriken pouch, she keeps reaching for it
unnecessarily."
With a last, significant glance at Sasuke and a smirk, Neji disappeared into the crowd.
So. Her shuriken pouch, huh? As much as he hated to admit it, the Hyuuga was right.
Sakura was placing a hand on her pouch too often, her posture tensed. It was abnormal,
considering the fact that they were in a relatively danger-free zone.
It was already nine-thirty when everyone decided to disperse and catch a good night's
sleep. Tenten joined Team 7 at the door, looking as if she had something important to
say.
"Sasuke, Naruto, gather all I mean all your gear needed for tomorrow and get to the
Haruno residence in half an hour," the brown-haired kunoichi instructed.
"Why? Aren't we meeting up tomorrow morning?" Naruto asked, curious.
"It's the Jounin Exams, I don't think Anko's gonna let us start of easy, do you? Anyway,
it's better for us to stick together in one place, in case of a change in timing or something
like that," Tenten gestured.
Sakura narrowed her eyes at her friend, and her suspicious stare was replied with a coy
smile on the weapons' mistress' part. That girl definitely knew something she wasn't
supposed to know.
"Quite a few teams are already going to camp at the third training ground, where we're
supposed to be at tomorrow noon but Sakura's house isn't far from there and we
shouldn't have to worry about speed if need be," Tenten continued.
Sakura slung an arm across her friend's shoulders, cuffing Tenten hard in the process.
"You can trust this source of information, guys, Neji's probably gone and told
her everything already," the kunoichi cast the weapons mistress a sidelong glance with a
smirk.
"Well, he did drop a few hints," Tenten grinned, dodging under Sakura's arm to avoid
being cuffed again.
Agreeing to meet up at the Haruno residence after gathering their things, the team split
ways. Sasuke lagged behind Naruto, watching the girls disappear into the darkness.

Sakura's shuriken pouch he would be doing a little investigating later.


N
The night was eerily silent. Through the sheer-curtained living room windows, shafts of
moonlight illuminated the dark living room of the Haruno residence, where three figures
lay, sleeping on rolls placed on the floor, while the fourth member sat against the wall,
keeping watch for alarms that might indicate something unusual.
His mind was almost solely focused on another purpose, though. On Tenten's advice, all
of them had fallen asleep wearing their uniforms, with their backpacks stocked full of
needed supplies. Of course, their weapon pouches had been removed from their clothing,
but Sasuke's problem was that Sakura had hers right next to her face. And according to
Kakashi, the girl was an excellent chakra sensor even when asleep, her body tended to
respond to any unusual flow of chakra around her, like when a person was moving.
He also knew the consequences if Sakura caught him. Even if he'd been away for five
years, a few weeks with her was enough to know that she hated people prying into her
things but this time, his curiosity was winning over the thought of getting pummeled.
Carefully maintaining a regular flow of chakra in his body, Sasuke crept over, reaching
out for the pouch next to Sakura.
Almost there but just as his fingertips brushed the fabric of the shuriken holster,
another hand shot out and grabbed it, quickly drawing it back into a protective embrace.
Sakura had not been asleep at all. She lay on her bedroll, clutching the pouch to her
chest. The moonlight illuminated her emerald eyes as she stared up at him,
expressionless.
"Stay out of my business, Uchiha,"
Sasuke wasn't about to give up just yet. He sat down on the floor next to her, with the
air of a child stubbornly refusing to cave in. "What are you hiding?"
"Don't know what you're talking about," Sakura mumbled, closing her eyes and trying to
fall asleep again.
The onyx-eyed boy reached out and clutched the hand holding the pouch tightly. "Spill it,
Haruno. Something's bothering you, you can't lie about that,"
"Oh, so now you're the caring teammate, are you?" Sakura glared, hissing impatiently.
"You're the one who told me not to face my problems alone," Sasuke snarled back in a
low voice, not keen to wake the others. Having an argument in whispers wasn't as easy
as it seemed.
"I never said that there was anything wrong with me!" Sakura lashed out in a fierce
whisper.
"I'm not blind, Sakura," Sasuke challenged defiantly. "If you insist that there's nothing
wrong, show me what's in that shuriken pouch and I'll leave you alone,"
Silence. The stare-down of the year was in progress, a furious kunoichi versus a stubborn
Uchiha.

"I'm too tired to argue with you, Sasuke," Sakura spoke quietly, breaking eye contact
and snuggling back under her blanket. "Just leave me alone already you'll get your
answers someday,"
Sasuke watched her silently as she fell asleep, the pouch clutched in her hand. His grip
on her arm was slowly relaxing, but she didn't pull away. The Uchiha just sat there,
watching and wondering.
When he finally decided to get up and return to his post by the wall, Sasuke realized that
he couldn't Sakura's other hand had somehow slipped into his, and she wasn't letting
go.
Deciding against waking the girl up again, Sasuke settled himself comfortably next to her
sleeping form, subconsciously feeling the warmth of her hand in his.
He smiled.
Well, there was no one around to see, anyway.
N
"Enjoying yourself, Sasuke?" a laughing voice teased, jolting the raven-haired boy out of
the half-asleep state he'd been in. The room was still dark, but Sasuke could tell that it
was almost dawn.
Tenten strode over to where he was sitting next to the sleeping girl, smiling. "You've
been sitting there for the whole night, haven't you?"
Sasuke nodded hesitantly, scrambling in his mind for a good reason to justify himself. He
finally resorted to gesturing towards the partly numb hand Sakura still grasped. "She
wouldn't let go,"
Tenten raised an eyebrow, bending to face him with her hands on her hips.
"Let's rephrase that, Uchiha. 'You let her hold on' sounds more like it,"
The onyx-eyed boy glared at her, but Tenten only laughed and straightened. "You know,
I haven't seen her sleeping so peacefully for a really long time now," she spoke
methodically, observing Sakura's serene expression. It was a wonder that the girl hadn't
woken up yet, she was usually a light sleeper.
Sasuke was silent, allowing that little piece of information to sink in. She hadn't been
sleeping well?
"She isn't telling you something, right?" Tenten queried further. The Uchiha looked
startled for a moment. The weapons mistress continued, not expecting a reply.
"Well don't push her to tell you,"
Sasuke glanced at her. "Even if something is seriously wrong?"
Tenten sighed. "You don't know her well enough yet, Uchiha. Sakura's headstrong and
determined to complete things on her own as far as possible, without help. You won't
coax anything out of her as long as she doesn't want you to know but she will tell,
someday. In a way, her parents' deaths and your leaving made her this way,"

Sasuke's jaw tensed.


"Just don't worry about her. She'll pull through, like she always does, and that's not a
bad thing," Tenten let out a small smile. "You've no idea how much she's changed since
you came back. I seldom see her so constantly upbeat, ever since her parents' deaths"
Tenten turned towards the door. "Think about it, Sasuke I'll be going to scout for
anything unusual maybe I'll be able to draw up a rough sketch of what the other teams
are like. You better let Naruto sleep in, he works best when he's hyperactive anyway,"
"Be careful. The other teams may already be setting up traps to cripple others," Sasuke
warned almost automatically, before starting in surprise at what he had just said.
Tenten grinned knowingly. "Looks like Naruto and Sakura did a pretty good job of
reshaping your personality too but hey, don't worry. I am, after all, older than you
and my stealth skills aren't too shabby either. You don't get to be a Hyuuga prodigy's
sparring partner by being a clumsy oaf,"
"Are you sure that it isn't just because he likes you?" Sasuke shot back, sarcasm in full
force.
"Look who's talking," Tenten said smugly, opening the front door. "Oh yeah, Sasuke
you better get Sakura to wake up and let go of your hand before Naruto wakes up, or
he's going to be cooing like a broken steam engine when he sees both of you like that,"
N
"the Grass teams look pretty aggressive, we better be wary of them. And I spotted the
few Sound shinobis walking around, I don't think they've slept at all," Tenten explained in
a low voice as Team 7 discussed their findings while walking together after having split
up to gather information on the various Chunins talking part in the exam.
It was about eight in the morning. The team decided to head towards the meeting place
first and scout for more details on the teams that had chosen to camp there.
"The Oto nins are trained like army personnel, they usually require minimal sleep and
can go for long periods awake," Sasuke supplied as an answer to Tenten's statement.
"I saw a few from the Mist village," Sakura reported as she moved. "They look like a
quiet bunch, none of them really showed much technique during their short training
session. But their sensei was really drilling them, push ups and whatnot. There's only one
guy I'm pretty apprehensive of, in the Rain team, the shinobis from Amegakure - he
looked like Sasuke used to cold, calculating. Always aloof from his team members. But
then again, the whole Rain team look as if they could freeze the ground they walked on,"
Sakura narrated, shuddering at the memory. "But this guy I was talking about his hair
was snow-white, even though he was young and when he glanced at me as I walked
past, his eyes were just unnerving."
"Sounds like someone we'll have to watch out for," Sasuke agreed quietly. Neither of
them had discussed what happened yesterday night, Sakura had quickly drawn her hand
away when she realized she had been holding his this morning, a slight trace of a blush
visible on her cheeks.

Naruto had nothing to report, he had only encountered several Sand Chunins, and the
team reached a decision not to disturb any of their shinobis unless absolutely necessary.
Sasuke, meanwhile, had information on shinobis from the Rock Village.
"They were careless, practicing high-level techniques in an open space," Sasuke smirked.
"I copied quite a few jutsus,"
"Well, I doubt those are their trump cards, no one would be that careless," Tenten
reasoned.
"So what are we gonna do now? It's still pretty early, Anko said to gather at twelve,"
Naruto cut in.
"I have a feeling that our 'exam' has already started," Sakura confided in a low tone as
two Jounins she recognized walked past. "I mean, there are way too many Jounins
around the place shouldn't they be preparing the exams? And those two have been
observing us for quite awhile"
"I heard them," Sasuke suddenly sprang forward, hurrying his teammates on. "The exam
time has been changed to eight-thirty, they put up a notice an hour ago,"
The team exchanged glances. "Like I said," Sakura straightened, picking up her pace.
"The exam's started. Tenten was right, Anko is gonna make this difficult I bet quite a
few people won't have even woken up yet and will be disqualified."
'So she's testing our response to an emergency," Naruto said, catching up.
"Probably also our ability to gather information," Tenten spoke. "If Sasuke hadn't paid
attention to the two Jounins, we would never have known,"
"Well, that suits me just fine," Naruto grinned widely. "I can't wait to get started!"
N
All four shinobis landed silently on a branch just beyond the third training ground, where
they were supposed to gather. Keeping well into the shadows, they observed the area
through keen, seasoned eyes of well-trained shinobi.
There was no one in sight, not one person had set foot in the clearing below.
"Sakura, anybody around?" Tenten whispered.
"A team of people to our left, around twenty meters, maybe," Sakura said quietly,
allowing her senses to heighten, tracing gentle pulses of chakra signatures around them.
It had been part of her medic training, this chakra-sensing. Tsunade had commented
that it was an invaluable asset on the field. "Another team at the northeast, the rest are
more or less randomly scattered around, not too near us,"
"Why isn't anyone down there, then? It's almost time," Naruto started forward, preparing
to leap down. Sasuke and Sakura yanked him backwards, grasping one shoulder on each
side.
"Watch it, dobe, can't you see the traps?" Sasuke hissed, eyeing the ground below. His
Sharingan could barely make out the thin wire-trip lines suspended there. He suspected

that there were camouflaged pitfalls on the ground, too, some of the leaves looked
freshly turned up.
A leaf drifted past Tenten's face. For a moment, the kunoichi froze, her eyes wide, then
she caught it deftly, quickly crumpling it in her fist and smoldering it with her shoe.
"Explosive tags attached to leaves watch out, they're probably the work of the Jounins,"
'More like someone trying to seriously kill us,' the grim thought floated through Sakura's
mind as she glimpsed what the others had not, from the corner of her eye how had he
managed to conceal his chakra so well? a mop of distinguishable white hair, she had a
feeling that she knew just who it was.
'That guy from Amegakure.'
None of her teammates had noticed him, at all. Sakura was about to say something when
Sasuke's dry voice broke the silence.
"There goes the first idiots,"
A whole bunch of shinobis, probably worried about being late, were crashing through the
bushes to get into the training ground. All at once, the place seemed to explode in a
frenzy of shrieks and yells as various traps were activated and many of those shinobis
were either dangling upside down in nets or sinking in pits of mudwater.
A loud sigh made itself heard as Anko stepped out, seemingly from nowhere, into the
middle of the training ground. She probably teleported, Sakura reasoned. The Jounin was
grinning slyly, as usual, observing the result of her traps.
"Well, well. What have we got here?" she peered closely at one boy, who was cramped
up in a net beneath a particularly large-sized boy, and struggling to breathe. He yelped
and tried to edge away, if that was even possible with a dead weight on him. Anko
tended to be scary when she stared.
She sighed again. "I did expect better, you know" Anko crossed her arms. "But still. All
of you-" she gestured to those trapped. "-fail."
A disbelieving chorus of yelps sounded all around. "Wha-"
"The smarter ones, watching from up in the trees," the black-haired woman looked up.
"Get down here,"
They were apprehensive, but detecting no further threat, those concealed in the trees
leapt down, careful to avoid the pitfalls of mud. There was a soft patter of feet as all of
them landed.
"Well then." Anko looked around, studying their faces, counting their numbers quickly.
There were about fifty of them left, which would account for around ten teams or so.
Good. Less people, less work. She smiled. "Congratulations on passing the first test,"
Team 7 glanced at each other. That was it? The first test? It seemed so simple.
"Hey hey, Anko-san!" Naruto called out, frowning. Sasuke and Sakura groaned, knowing
full well what was coming. "Why so easy?"
"Says the idiot who nearly fell for those traps," the Uchiha muttered.

"Oh, come on, Naruto if it was really that easy, would there be so many failing, just the
first test?" Anko sashayed over, raising an eyebrow at him. "Anyway, you won't be
complaining, Ibiki's got some really good ideas for your second test hope to see you
alive after that, ne?"
Naruto wisely kept his silence this time. Anko looked satisfied, turning to face others.
"Now, before I forget if one of your teammates happen to be one of the idiots caught
here, your whole team fail, as well,"
The hyperactive ninja suddenly felt three stares boring holes into him and shivered,
grinning sheepishly. Their team had been that close to getting disqualified.
Just to have something else to do, Naruto looked around for their friends. It looked like
Haku had agreed to take the exam as well, he was standing not far off with Kiba, Shino
and Lee for their four-man team.
"But that's just unfair you said that the exam would start at twelve, and then you
change the time to eight-thirty when we hurry here, we're told that the firs test is over
and that we're told that the first test is over and that we've been disqualified for falling
into a trap that wasn't supposed to be there!" A voice protested loudly, indignant.
Anko looked utterly scornful, looking in the direction of the voice. "What are you, five?
Since when were traps 'not supposed to be there', doesn't that defy the whole purpose of
an ambush?"
Everyone was silent.
"I'd just like to ask why the hell you're taking the Jounin Exam,"
Sakura had the feeling that Anko knew exactly who had said those words as the Jounin
continued staring in the same direction.
"Life isn't planned out for you. Grow up!" Anko turned away.
"But you can't just change the times and expect us-"
Anko's voice silenced the shinobi speaking as she interrupted and pointed at Sakura.
"You, over there. Tell us what the shinobi rule number five is,"
"'A shinobi must always be alert to changes and be able to respond quickly, yet proceed
with caution'," Sakura recited confidently, the rule she knew by heart. She could vaguely
hear someone muttering "Smartass," but also knew that whoever that was, he was
probably being scared witless by a certain Uchiha and the future Hokage's glares by now.
"Exactly. I mentioned, at your briefing, that it is up to you to obtain the accurate
information. I expected all of you to be up early and scouting for information on your
opponents instead of enjoying your beauty sleep, if you had done that, like any
reasonably good shinobi would have, you'd have either seen the notices put up or
overheard the Jounin I deployed talking about the change in timing."
No one dared contradict her this time.
"You were not only late," Anko spoke to those trapped. "You failed to observe your
surroundings carefully enough. These traps are basic, and I left obvious hints to their
presence. Any Chunin ought to have seen through them easily. The fact that you didn't,

shows that you lack stealth and alertness, vital skills for shinobis. You're not cut out to
be Jounin, so just forget about continuing this exam."
N
"Now, the second exam," Anko announced once the disqualified teams had been forced
to leave. "Genma, Ibiki, if you would," she stepped back, motioning towards two males
standing at the sidelines. They moved forward, the former chewing on his senbon, as
usual, the latter with his ever-stern face.
"Alright," Genma spoke up, his voice level. "The exam will take place in the Forest of
Death, as you know. Those whose names are read out, please step forward and follow
Morino-san," he pulled out a scroll from his pocket, unraveling it smoothly.
Sakura glanced at her teammates. So they would be separated? She listened intently as
Genma read on, the funny churning feeling of anticipation in the pit of her stomach kept
telling her that her name was on the list.
"Haruno Sakura," Genma looked up, gesturing for her to move towards the group
gathered around Ibiki. She nodded.
Tenten touched Sakura's shoulder, concerned.
"I'll be fine," the cherry blossom smiled at her, leaning forwards with a hug, before
turning to hug Naruto as well.
"Be careful, Sakura-chan" Naruto's brow was furrowed as she broke away.
She looked at Sasuke awkwardly, not knowing whether or not it would be appropriate to
give him a hug as well. He didn't say anything, he couldn't find something to say, and in
the end, she decided that perhaps it would be better not to hug him.
"Well I'm going so whatever mad plan they have in mind for us good luck, guys,"
Sakura put on her best cheery face, but she wasn't fooling anyone.
'Especially not Sasuke,' a quiet thought ran through her mind as all the names were
called, and she followed Morino Ibiki's group away from the training grounds, through
one of the gates leading into the Forest of Death.
N
"For this exam," Genma spoke once Ibiki was out of sight into the forest. "We will be
testing your mission completion skills. Your teammates, who have already been taken
into the forest, will be given a vital piece of information that will help you locate certain
items, as well as details that you will need, to retrieve those items for the completion of
the mission,"
Silence.
"Your teammates have been taken in as 'hostages'. They will be closely guarded by
Jounins at different bases and their bases will be changed every two hours. So it is up to
your team here to find and rescue your teammate by locating the base he or she is in
and defeating the Jounins guarding them. When I say 'defeat', I mean defeat, not maul
and kill. Our Jounins will step down if you have put up a good fight, and you are not to
hunt down other hostages, just find your own teammate,"

"And, how, exactly, should we find them in that bloody vast forest? Scour the entire
place?" someone asked rather rudely.
"Well, if you plan to be that stupid, go ahead," Genma said coldly. "The hostages will be
told to give out a kind of signal that you ought to recognize when they are at their base.
You were search for them based on that signal alone, and until you rescue the hostages,
nothing else can be done. Once you have retrieved your teammate, further instructions
will be revealed. Your destination after completing your mission is the tower in the center
of the forest. All clear?"
A murmur went around. Genma took that as a 'yes' and assigned them to their gates.
"Why am I suddenly having a really bad feeling about this?" Tenten asked Naruto and
Sasuke as they approached Gate 10, padlocked with chains. Their accompanying Jounin
was jangling the keys.
"I hope Sakura-chan's okay" Naruto mused, saluting towards Kiba's team who was at
the next gate, wishing them luck.
"We better find her fast," Sasuke said suddenly. "That guy she was talking about before
the white haired one over there," Naruto and Tenten glanced over at the shinobi in
question. His team was at the next gate to their left. Sasuke continued. "I think he's
targeting Sakura, for some reason,"
"You think it's because of the Nanabi and the scrolls?" Naruto questioned quietly.
Before any of them could reply, Genma's voice boomed over to them, filling the vast
expanse of forest ground.
"You have four days. Begin!"

Chapter 31- The Second Test.



"You will follow your assigned Jounin to your bases. Don't try to escape on the way
because you will only be given the information your team needs at the base," Morino
Ibiki looked around sternly as he conveyed their instructions. "If you do so, and manage
to meet your team without the required information, you will not be able to glean details
from other teams because every team has a specific set of instructions. We will know if
you did no acquire what you were supposed to find,"
Sakura listened carefully, making note of every point. Her brow furrowed in
concentration, as it always did when Tsunade gave her instructions it had become a
habit.
'So they expect us to try and escape after having been given the information needed,
at the bases which will make it difficult since close watch will be kept on us
then'Sakura mused, calculating possibilities.

She could feel the stare of a blonde-haired kunoichi boring through her back from some
distance away. Sakura had noticed that when they had been led into the forest, that girl
was keeping an unnaturally close watch on her, even though she had not displayed any
sign of potential strengths to warrant herself enemies so early in the exam. However
that girl was from the Rain Village. The same team as that white-haired man Sakura had
seen earlier. The girl's features were distinct, beautiful, even. Eerily golden eyes matched
her hair, a straight nose adorned her high cheekboned, fair-skinned face. Her looks
accentuated her perfect hourglass figure, flaunted in a short, tight black spaghettistrapped dress with shorts underneath. Her golden hair was left untied, cascading down
her back. An image of a goddess.
A perfect partner, in a way, for that similarly handsome white-haired man. Sakura wryly
doubted that this particular kunoichi ever had to fight, her looks alone would have
guaranteed helplessly enchanted men obeying her every command.
Little did she know how close her guess was, to the truth.
Their eyes were the same. Maybe not in colour, silver matched with gold, but they were
cold, glassy. As if they belonged to the dead. Both looked practically too flawless to be
human, even.
Sakura shuddered involuntarily. They seemed to be targeting her team, but why?
"You are required to retrieve certain items using the information you will be given at the
base. After obtaining those items, you can attack other teams for their treasures to get
bonus points and fail their exam. Your team is given four days to complete this mission
by reaching the tower in the center of the forest with all items and teammates intact,"
Ibiki's voice rang out clearly, sharply. No one dared interrupt or contradict; Ibiki had a
certain air that instantly made people wary of him, unlike Anko.
Sakura observed the rest of the 'hostages'. The girl Sasuke had mentioned, from the
Sound, Karin, was here. Also glaring at her. The cherry blossom sighed, wondering why
she had suddenly become everyone's target to kill.
Shino had been chosen from the Leaf's other team. Sakura cast him a slight smile to
wish him luck, but couldn't see his expression due to the high collar of his uniform.
"Once you reach base, you will be allowed to give out a signal to indicate your location,
but don't be an idiot and yell your head off because you will be bound and gagged," Ibiki
held up ropes and duct tape to illustrate his meaning. "Jounins," he indicated to the
group of shinobi gathered behind the hostages in the clearing. "Take up your posts,"
In a flurry of movement, each 'hostage' found himself or herself flanked by two Konoha
Jounins. Sakura was secretly pleased to find Kotetsu and Izumo next to her having
people she knew around her made things seem slightly better.
"Ah the Godaime's apprentice," Kotetsu grinned, speaking discreetly. "We'll have to
careful, or we'll find ourselves flying to the other end of the world, eh, Izumo?"
Sakura covered up her laugh with a cough as Izumo took his cue.
"Shame she's grown so much though that revelation of our genjutsu during your first
Chunin Exam wasn't all that bad"

The pink-haired kunoichi smiled at the memory. Izumo and Kotetsu had cast a genjutsu
over the second floor and tricked plenty of Genins into believing that it was the third
floor, where they were supposed to be. And Sasuke had poked right through it.
"Move out!" Ibiki's command interrupted the thought. She quickly followed Kotetsu
towards the trees, Izumo guarding her from behind.
"Well, don't expect us to show any mercy, Haruno," Izumo was now speaking in a
business-like tone. "Even if you are the Hokage's apprentice,"
Sakura rolled her eyes, recalling Tsunade's harsh training tactics before speaking.
"Do you think Tsunade-sama has ever cut me any slack?"
Izumo pretended to frown as Kotetsu laughed.
"Well I haven't exactly seen her training you yet, but knowing her. fair enough, you
win,"
Sakura couldn't help but grin.
N
As the trio moved deeper and deeper into the forbidding forest, however, Sakura's mood
became somber once again, old fears of the Amegakure team as well as the contents of
the glass vial in her pouch resurfacing, dominating her emotions.
What, exactly, did those two shinobi from the Rain Village want with her, until they could
attempt to kill her whole team with an explosive note?
"We're here," Kotetsu suddenly leapt upwards, propelling himself into a cleverly hidden
treehouse sandwiched between the boughs of a tall tree. "Get in, hostage,"
Sighing, Sakura realized no one was going to help her get in even if her hands had been
bound. She nimbly channeled chakra into her feet and ran up the tree trunk, using her
upper body as a weight to counter gravity by throwing herself forwards and rolling into
the treehouse. It was a painful stunt, but it didn't look like she had much choice about
that.
"Nice trick," Izumo observed, impressed, as he followed her into the treehouse.
"Lay off on the praise, Izumo she's supposed to be our hostage, not your best friend,"
Kotetsu sighed, rummaging through a box that seemed to be the sole piece of furniture
in the room. After several moments, he held a long scroll aloft triumphantly, turning to
Sakura. "Now, before we gag you, instructions,"
The cherry blossom nodded, prepared to listen.
"Well, your teammates' first objective would be to rescue you from us, so here's your
second objective. I'm going to give you a key and a basic map that will lead you to find
two scrolls, and then a box that requires two keys to open."
"Two keys? I have only one oh," the truth dawned on Sakura. "So we'll have to attack
someone else to get the other,"

Izumo nodded, picking up where Kotetsu had left off. "But the one rule for this test is
that you are not to open the boxes until you're told to, same as the first Chunin Exam
before,"
"And again, these are your instructions. Other teams will have different sets even if you
will have to compete with them for certain items still, you don't have to bother with
stealing other treasures if you don't have your own," Kotetsu added as a warning as he
put the map and the key into her pack.
Sakura's mind was already elsewhere. Her team had not decided on a signal, so how was
she going to contact them? She could very well try her signature cherry blossom
genjutsu, but without a designated target and with her being the only one with the name
'Sakura' in the entire exam, it would be entirely too conspicuous. Perhaps that wasn't
worth the risk, especially not with the Rain and Sound teams around. She would just
have to wait until their second base-change and attempt a genjutsu to trap her exam
proctors and escape, if her team had not found her by then.
Izumo was already approaching her, a long piece of black fabric in hand ready to gag her
with. "Ibiki-san did say to use duct tape, but I suppose cloth is kinder of the face, huh?"
he grinned mischievously.
The pink-haired kunoichi rolled her eyes, before suddenly remembering something
urgent. "Wait." She spoke sharply. "Before that gag goes on I need you guys to do me a
favour after my team has rescued me,"
"As long as it doesn't involve helping you cheat, we're all ears," Kotetsu agreed.
"No, it's got nothing much to do with this exam," Sakura shook her head. "Just go
straightaway to Tsunade-sama and tell her to keep an eye on the teams from Amegakure
especially the white-haired man and the blonde kunoichi on his team,"
"These two?" Kotetsu drew a small book out of his pocket, flipping through it until he
found the page he wanted, and showed it to Sakura. Two photos of the two shinobi
Sakura had mentioned, as well as some basic information, stared up at her from the
page.
"Kouru Shiroi," Sakura muttered, memorizing the name. "Ice-white, huh? Suitable
name and the girl " Sakura's voice choked when she read the letters printed under
the photo. Kin Tsume. Tsume was her mother's name, and anything connected to it still
hurt Sakura. She knew that she wouldn't have the heart to touch the girl now
"Well, what about them?" Izumo asked curiously, snapping her out of her reverie. "Why
d'you need Tsunade-sama herself to keep an eye on them?"
"I think they're tracking and targeting me or the scr or something that I have,"
Sakura corrected herself quickly before she finished the word 'scrolls', remembering that
their mission and the retrieved contents were classified.
"Is it just exam jitters? I assure you, everyone will be trying to scare you witless during
this exam," Izumo was still skeptical.
"Not to the extent of trying to blast my team into oblivion with an explosive tag," Sakura
said wryly. "He tried, that guy, when we were hiding in the trees during Anko's little trick
exam,"

"We're in on the scroll business, if that's what you mean," Kotetsu suddenly spoke,
glancing outside to ensure that they weren't being eavesdropped on. He pocketed the
information book. "You think the Rain team wants either that or you and Naruto, right?"
Sakura nodded hesitantly.
"Consider it done. We'll warn the Godaime," Kotetsu told her calmly, stiding towards the
box in the center or the one-roomed, dimly lit tree house.
"What's in there, anyway?" Sakura asked as Izumo was about to gag her. "Don't tell me
there was only a map and a key in that huge box,"
"Nope," Kotetsu fished something out happily. Sakura raised an eyebrow as she saw that
it was a cup of instant ramen and a flask of what was probably hot water.
"You've got to be kidding me," Sakura glanced at him. "Naruto will be able to smell that
from a mile away,"
"Exactly," Izumo grinned, tying the gag. "A little cheating never hurts and besides, we
don't intend to sit here waiting for four days waiting for your teammates,"
Sakura sighed inwardly. 'And that coming from those two who were so adamant
about not helping me cheat, eh?'
N
Naruto, Sasuke and Tenten slipped quietly through the forest, senses heightened, alert
for any signal that Sakura might have devised to catch their attention.
But after an hour of unsuccessful searching, the trio stopped to cook up a plan. So far
they'd found three hideouts, two still occupied but neither hostage was Sakura, one with
no sign of a hostage by had two Konoha Jounins, standing outside, still as ice with an
expression of shock etched into their faces. Tenten had cautiously approached them and
touched the arm of the nearest Jounin, drawing back quickly as cold shock jolted her
body.
"They're frozen. Literally," the weapons mistress had reported grimly, grabbing a radio
transmitter sticking out from one of their pockets. The other transmitter lay in pieces,
shattered on the ground. "If they're not unfrozen soon, they'll die from their low body
temperature,"
"Try Katon?" Sasuke suggested.
"You could, but I'm not sure if it'll actually work," Tenten was already tuning the
transmitter, speaking to the operator. "Konoha Team 7 here in hideout Three, Forest of
Death," Tenten read the crudely painted number on the door of the shack. "We have
found two Jounins totally frozen with no sign of the hostage. You need to send a good
medic-team here at once. Over,"
The transmitter buzzed for a few moments as Sasuke attempted a fireball to unfreeze the
Jounins. A cackly voice spoke from the other end. "Roger. Team on the way. Over,"
"Thank you. We have to commence with our exam now, over and out," Tenten spoke
clearly, then turned to Naruto and Sasuke.

"It's working, I think," Sasuke said as he drew a deep breath after the last small fireball.
Naruto had gathered some firewood to make a small fire. "They seem to be stirring."
"Still very cold, though. I think Sakura-chan would say that they need medics," Naruto
touched one of them after arranging the firewood on the ground, near them. He frowned.
"Who could've done this? I doubt it was Haku, his jutsu would have left a clear layer of
ice over them. And besides, he wouldn't have left them like this,"
"No, not him," Sasuke confirmed, setting the firewood alight, then placed the Jounins on
a sleeping position on the ground next to it with some help from Tenten and Naruto.
"This should hold up until the medics get here, we'll have to risk the smoke attracting
attention,"
"We should go, our mission," Tenten reminded them, placing the transmitter in one of
the Jounins' hands before turning to leave.
With a nod, the two boys swiftly followed, continuing their search for Sakura.
N
"No good. I don't see anything that Sakura might've left as a signal," Tenten sighed,
leaning against a tree, racking her brains. Surely Sakura left some sign? It'd been an
hour and a half since the exam started.
"Well, we could follow that way," Naruto said hopefully, pointing to the northwest.
"Why?" Sasuke asked, eyes narrowed. He had a feeling that whatever the answer was, it
had nothing to do with Sakura.
"I smell ramen. Beef ramen,"
Tenten and Sasuke must have looked pretty murderous, because Naruto instantly held
up his hands and backed away in horror.
"Don't kill me yet!"
"Well, I'm this close-" Sasuke growled, his hand on his sword. Tenten blocked him with a
warning glance.
"Are you sure it's not just your stomach talking, Naruto?" the weapons mistress sighed.
"And what does smelling beef ramen have to do with finding Sakura?"
"Weeellll" Naruto trailed off, looking sheepish and guilty. "Kotetsu passed by me
yesterday and told me to use my nose to find what I'm looking for,"
"So we're cheating?" Sasuke asked.
"We're going to head that way sooner or later, won't we?" Naruto whined, protesting his
innocence.
"Make up your minds, they're gonna change bases soon," Tenten warned, checking her
watch.
Sasuke and Naruto glanced at each other.

"Lead the way, dobe,"


N
They'd changed bases by teleporting, and there was still no sign of her team. Sakura
knew that she would have to escape soon, she doubted that either scroll or the box
would be easy to find in this vast, dangerous forest.
But first, the signal. She couldn't risk having to search for her team instead. Sakura
cleared her mind and focused on her problem, as Tsunade had taught her so long ago
Perhaps her summoning slugs could find her team first and take them to her location.
Yes, that would be a good idea.
Her summoning scroll was fastened above her shuriken pouch. She was pretty sure she'd
be able to do the summon without opening the scroll, just a touch of blood at the edge of
the outer flap would do. Her wrists were bound, but if she wriggled a little Nawanuke no
Jutsu (1) would get the ropes off.
Using her own nails, Sakura cut her thumb, feeling warm blood trickling out slowly.
Forming her handseals with some difficulty as it was hard to move her hands properly
behind her back, she drew her blood across the outer edge of the opening flap of the
scroll.
'Kuchiyose no Jutsu!' (2)
With a small 'poof', a small white slug appeared behind her, looking up at her
expectantly.
"Chiisai," Sakura strained to whisper through her gag, trying to pronounce the words
while carefully watching Kotetsu and Izumo's backs. They were talking, not watching her.
Perfect. "Find Naruto and get my team here," again, her voice was painfully muffled, but
hearing the word 'Naruto' and seeing Sakura's tied-up condition, Chiisai understood,
nodding before darting towards the cracks of the wooden walls and squeezing itself out.
Satisfied, Sakura concentrated on her next task. Nemuri Genjutsu (3) ought to work
nicely if she didn't attract their attention while doing her handseals. Then those two
Jounins would fall asleep and there wouldn't be any need to fight.
Carefully, quietly, Sakura placed her hands together behind her back, forming one seal
after another to complete the combination required for the illusion.
Done. 'Nemuri Genjutsu!' she formed her final seal, concentrating on making her targets
fall asleep, picture vivid scenes of pleasant dreams. Sakura had to make sure it
happened gradually, or one of them might realize what she was doing and reverse the
genjutsu.
The cherry blossom watched, holding her breath, as Kotetsu and Izumo's chatting slowly
ceased, they were nodding off and slumping to the ground. Pretty soon they were out
cold. Smiling at her handiwork, Sakura stood quietly, freeing her hands of the already
loosened ropes, then quickly untying her gag. Her mouth was beginning to feel sore.
Stepping carefully over Izumo and Kotetsu's sleeping forms, Sakura exited the small
shack that was their second hideout.

Stretching, Sakura paused as she heard a small noise behind her. Before she could even
turn, a gloved hand gripped her right arm, vice-like.
Whirling around quickly, her heart racing, Sakura's eyes widened. How could she not
have sensed him? The dangerous aura radiating off him in waves like they used to with
Gaara how could she have missed that?
The white hair those silver eyes the Rain headband
"You" she whispered.
N
Sakura's initial shock gave way to fury as she remembered how this guy had tried to
obliterate her entire team, and her eyes narrowed as Shiroi's grip on her arm tightened
into a stronghold, numbing it entirely. His clothes were entirely black, long sleeved shirt,
long pants, black shoes.
"What do you want with me." She hissed at him. It was a simple, dangerous statement,
not a question. She already knew what these people were after it was not too difficult
to guess, there could only be two possibilities. And if he had tried to kill her, as well as
Naruto, then he didn't know what dormant power lay within them. Which meant he
wanted
"The scrolls," Shiroi said simply, his silver eyes unnervingly blank. She hated those eyes,
they were so inhuman.
"I don't have them," was the cherry blossom's curt reply. It was true, anyhow. The
remaining Bijuu-sealing scroll constantly changed hands amongst Sakura's friends to
avoid being easily taken. If she remembered correctly, it had been last given to Neji for
safekeeping.
Shiroi, however, evidently did not believe her. He took a step closer, staring into her
eyes. "You have no idea what I can do, do you?" his voice was level. He removed the
glove on his free hand and stuffed it into his pocket, still observing her.
"Is that a threat?" Sakura asked lightly, not flinching. She was used to threats, shinobis
got them regularly from petty thieves and robbers during missions. Even if this man
wasn't an ordinary run-off-the-mill criminal, she wouldn't let him win this battle of wits.
"Hand them over," Shiroi gripped her collar with his free hand and removed his other
glove.
"I said, I don't have them," Sakura spoke through clenched teeth. "Now let go!" with
an angry exclamation, the girl twisted out of his grasp, swinging around with a full-force
right hook followed by a roundhouse kick, both which he dodged.
Her next punch was caught, her gloved fist in his bare palm. Sakura seethed. No one
could block her this perfectly. Who was this guy?
"I see you've made a choice," Shiroi said flatly, his larger hand closing in on her fist,
attempting to crush it. Sakura withheld.
"There was no choice in the first place," the cherry blossom spat at him. "I am a shinobi
and so are you. We have a code of honour. Do the math," Her vivid green eyes glared

fiercely at him. She couldn't move away, his grip was too strong, she couldn't risk
punching the ground and revealing her strengths to the enemy either.
"There are many things a guy can do to a weaker girl out here, you know," the whitehaired man looked at her coolly. "One dead body, and no one would be any the wiser,"
he remained infuriatingly calm.
"I've faced worse," Sakura muttered, remembering the genjutsu Itachi had trapped her
in, what the Sound nins had done to her dead body. That illusion she had absolutely no
intention to let it become a reality.
She tugged her fist back forcefully. Unfortunately, his grip only tightened, and his other
hand closed in around the bare skin of her other arm. She was really trapped now.
"I'm quite sure you've faced worse," this time, his voice was mocking, goading her to
lose her temper. "But I think you've never experienced this,"
Sakura was confused for a moment, but as his grip on her right fist shifted to make
contact with the skin above her wrist, she suddenly understood, a wave of terror
enveloping her.
A cold, ticklish sensation was running up her arms from the point of contact between
Shiroi's hands and her bare skin, like fluid, curling, snaking its way under her flesh. The
weather felt unusually warm, the air eerily still, but Sakura was suddenly aware of the
fact that she felt cold and light-headed. Her arms were so cold they were numb, and
involuntarily, she began shivering, the cold, freezing sensation contracting her chest,
making every breath difficult and painful.
Sakura realized that Shiroi's grip had been the only thing holding her up when he
released her and she crumpled to her knees, her arms wrapped around her form in a
desperate attempt to keep warm, trembling all over.
The white-haired man pulled his gloves back on, observing her keeling over, now seized
by a bout of hacking coughs between ragged, gasping breaths, no doubt caused by the
cold constricting her lungs.
"You might want to hand the scrolls over now," Shiroi said aloofly, observing her like he
was reading the dinner menu with complete indifference. "Any contact with my skin will
freeze your chakra system and the cold, in turn, will shut down your body,"
"I don't have them-" Sakura found the strength to lift her head, glaring at him with
murderous contempt. Her skin was deathly pale and she was growing dizzier by the
second her heart was slowing down. Another hour without help and she would be just a
frozen corpse. She tried not to imagine the look on Sasuke's and Naruto's faces when
they found her like that.
Sakura moaned and keeled over again, her head felt like it was being pounded into
mush. It was so very painful
'Where the heck are they?' Sakura thought desperately through the haze in her mind,
about her teammates. She had no control over her chakra flow, everything was going
haywire with her body system.
Shiroi looked like he was going to say something more, but then his head jerked up as he
heard quick footsteps approaching. He didn't want to deal with anyone else right now.

"We'll finish this later," the white-haired man spoke quietly, disappearing into the shadow
of the trees.
Sakura could only register the dropping temperature and the pounding of her head,
accompanied by strangely loud footsteps that followed its rhythm, distorted voices and
images that seemed so much larger, louder than life, and how cold she felt. So cold
And then she passed out.
N
"No more ramen scent," Naruto said gloomily as they reached the base of a huge tree.
Sasuke spotted what looked like wooden plants between the upper boughs of the trees
and leapt up nimbly to check. A tree house. It was empty, but he knew that Sakura had
been here, traces of her chakra signature were present around the place.
"They must've teleporte," Naruto said as Sasuke leapt down again. Tenten was
examining the ground for footprints, but she might as well have been looking at concrete
for all the good it did. Leaves covered the whole ground, no one could've left any tracks.
"A tree house up there. She's definitely been here, her chakra signature was all over the
place," Sasuke reported quietly.
Tenten rubbed her temples, thinking. "What now? They've already changed bases and we
can't waste any more time"
"Eh Chiisai?" Naruto suddenly perked up, darting to the left. Tenten whirled around,
quickly joining him.
Sasuke saw nothing, he frowned at his teammates' antics. Then he spotted it, a small
white slug on the ground in front of Naruto, who bent down to talk to it. "Did Sakurachan send you?"
"Yes, hurry up and follow!" Chiisai turned, scrambling away. Sasuke vaguely thought that
this was going to take all day, but his notion proved wrong that little slug sure moved
fast. Probably why Sakura sent it.
Chiisai led them further into the forest, past a strange entwining of vines overhead that
seemed to form a bridge; a huge mushroom in the middle of a clearing with a duck
sitting on it; and a rather large earthworm, probably the size of a normal snake, curled
up around a branch, sleeping, among many other queer sights. Sasuke could've sworn
that this forest seemed to get weirder every time he entered it.
"Quiet. Someone up front," Chiisai chided, as if they had been making any noise in the
first place, before stopping in its tracks. They edged forward cautiously, not wanting to
pick any unnecessary fights not without their medic around.
Then there was a loud crackle of dry leaves, as if someone had fallen, heavily. All of
them paused, contemplating whether or not to proceed. Making a quick decision, they
shuffled forward, prepared to fight if necessary.
That was when they saw Sakura, right ahead of them, her unmistakable mop of pink hair
keeled over, forehead pressed to the ground. She was shivering, they could tell even
from this distance. All of a sudden, it clicked. The Jounins before, and now her

"Oh Kami Sakura!" Tenten and Naruto darted forward, but Sasuke beat them all to it,
skidding to a halt on his knees, pulling her upper body towards him so that she now lay
on her back against him, and cradled her cold form tightly. Why did he suddenly feel so
possessive of her, so angry towards whoever had done this?
"She's bloody frozen!" Sasuke hissed as Tenten and Naruto touched their teammate
hesitantly.
Sakura was stirring, she curled up tightly in Sasuke's embrace, completely shut off from
the world as only two words escaped her pale, almost blue lips in a pitiful whimper.
"So cold"
"Teme, Katon!" Naruto snapped urgently. Tenten was already gathering firewood, piling
them up near Sakura.
"Don't worry, I'll do it," the weapons' mistress spoke calmly. "Naruto, take all our
blankets and put them on her, we'll camp here for awhile," she added, creating a small
fireball blown towards the pile of dry leaves. It caught the flames instantly, crackling
sharply as she piled larger twigs and branches on it.
Sasuke felt strangely relieved when the cherry blossom's cold, rigid body slowly warmed
up and relaxed. The heat was working.
"Hey, there's another base here," Naruto called out as he walked around the tree they
were next to.
"Yes, and two Jounins were inside," Chiisai confirmed. "If there's nothing else, I better go
now,"
"Thank you very much, Chiisai," Tenten added, smiling at the small slug.
With a small jerk of what might have been a nod, the summoned creature disappeared.
"Eh! Izumo, Kotetsu!" Naruto's surprised voice rang out rather loudly from behind the
tree.
"Quiet, you idiot, do you want the entire forest hunting our team?" Sasuke said sharply,
annoyed. They were already taking a big risk with the fire, like Kabuto had said during
their first Chunin Exam the smoke was a clear signal to their team's location.
"But I mean seriously! They're here!" Naruto protested, kneeling down on the wooden
floor of the shack base to touch Izumo's hand. It was warm. "It's like they're sleeping
they're not cold at all"
Tenten frowned, working it out. "Then it must've been Sakura's doing. Nemuri Genjutsu,
I presume. You better release them, Sasuke, Sakura's sleep-inducing genjutsus are
pretty strong and I'm no good with illusions,"
Sighing, Sasuke carefully put Sakura's head down to lie on the ground, before moving
around the tree and entering the shack Naruto was in.
One glance at the two sleeping figures told him all he needed to know. Sakura had
probably trapped them with her genjutsu to escape, only to be attacked outside, herself.

But by whom?
Sasuke had a grim feeling that he knew the answer. Kneeling next to Naruto, he placed
two fingers on Izumo's forehead and formed his seal.
"Kai!"
A the Jounin began to stir, the Uchiha turned to Kotetsu and did the same. Within
moments, both exam proctors were blinking at Naruto and Sasuke.
"Damn," Kotetsu cursed with a half-smile. "She got us,"
"You meant to let her escape all this while, didn't you?" Naruto said accusingly. "The
ramen tip and all"
"Are you complaining, you ungrateful little brat?" Kotetsu grinned, ruffling Naruto's hair.
Never mind the fact that the boy was already seventeen.
"Hey, where's Haruno?" Izumo frowned, standing up.
"Outside. Frozen," Sasuke told them rather grimly.
It took several moments for the words to sink in. "Frozen what the hell " Kotetsu said
in disbelieving amazement, darting out to see for himself with Izumo right behind him.
The two remaining boys glanced at each other, before following them out.
The Jounins knelt beside Sakura's still form, cautiously touching her arms. They wouldn't
describe her as frozen, her body must've been warmed up from the fire, but she was still
dangerously cold, her temperature was way below normal.
"We found her keeled over here, barely conscious and incoherent. Someone had left
rather hurriedly when we got here, but we couldn't trace whoever it was," Tenten
narrated, feeling Sakura's forehead.
"How did you guys know where to find her? Ramen scent was gone by then, we
teleported here," Izumo asked.
"Sakura sent a summoned slug," Naruto answered, his brow furrowed. "But it didn't
know who attacked her. So she should've sent it before she escaped."
"Should've guessed," Kotetsu mumbled, not believing that they could have missed their
'hostage' summoning an animal.
"We found two Jounins in similar condition in another base," Sasuke said casually,
observing Sakura's face. "Radioed for medic nins, they should be fine,"
"Three similar attacks? In barely four hours into the exam?" Izumo exclaimed. "All of
them could've died, what kind of psycho-"
He was cut off by a sudden blur of pink bolting upright, her breath in constricting gasps,
eyes wide and expression panicked.
"Hey, hey, calm down you freakin' idiot!" Tenten held Sakura firmly to keep her still,
worried. When the cherry blossom saw that it was just her friends, she nearly collapsed

with relief. Clutching her chest, Sakura attempted to regain her breathing, her lungs had
been constricted by the cold and nearly cut off her oxygen supply.
"Damn guy" she breathed, shivering, She was still very cold, three layers of blankets
and a fire did nothing to help that.
"Who was it, Sakura-chan?" Naruto demanded, grasping her shoulders and shaking her a
little. "Come on, tell us!"
"Quit it, dobe, you'll kill her," Sasuke growled, yanking Naruto off. Sakura was in no
condition to speak.
Yet she was already tugging at Kotetsu's sleeve. "Warn Tsunade-sama Koru Shiroi
wants the scrolls," Sakura jolted as another spasm of shivers seized her body. She felt
like she was standing stark naked in the Snow Country.
"Who's that?" the Uchiha asked sharply. Kotetsu took out the information booklet again,
showing Sakura the page they had previously seen.
"This guy? The one you warned us about earlier?" Izumo asked. Sakura could only nod.
"He can't touch people. Contact with his skin f-freezes your chakra system a-and
then the c-cold shuts down your body" she had some difficulty speaking clearly, her
teeth still chattered, but she was starting to feel a little warmer. "He found me when
when I got out here, and said he wanted the scrolls when I fought him he dodged
everything took off his gloves. He touched me and I just started to freeze," Sakura
shuddered at the memory.
"That white-haired guy I'll kill him," Naruto growled, fists clenching. Sasuke was a step
further, already envisioning the demise of this Shiroi guy by his, Uchiha Sasuke's hand,
complete with blood gore, and a soundtrack.
"Well we better get a report to Tsunade-sama now. You think you can hold on for the
exam, Sakura?" Kotetsu stood.
"I'll be okay I think," Sakura said uncertainly, still feeling rather numb. "But I'm going
to finish this exam and bash that Shiroi bloody and raw at first chance," she growled,
before calming herself down and taking measured breaths, testing her current physical
state.
"That's the spirit," Izumo smiled, then sombered. "But be careful. Konoha needs all its
shinobis now,"
Team 7 nodded silently.
"Warn Kiba's team about this guy if you see them, will you?" Naruto asked just as the
two Jounin were about to leave.
Both turned back slightly and saluted, before disappearing into the forest.
N
"Dammit," Sakura cursed under her breath as she failed another tree-climbing attempt.
Her chakra control was still rather off, Shiroi's attack had really slowed down its

circulation and her reflexes. She was finding it difficult to perform even the simplest
jutsus and tasks.
"Sakura, just take a break," Tenten warned. Seven hours into the exam, Sakura's body
temperature had returned to normal with their constant movement, and they were
looking for the first scroll they were supposed to find. The map was proving difficult to
read, it was sketchy and had big gaps missing.
"I think this will last for a day at least," the cherry blossom sighed ruefully, plopping
down next to her friend. Sasuke was sitting, some distance away, bent over the map on
the floor with his hands locked together just below his chin in that ever so familiar
gesture, an obvious sign that he was thinking. Naruto, meanwhile, had gone scouting
around to see if there was any stream they could get water from.
"Hey, Sasuke," Sakura asked quietly after a few minutes of bereaving her loss of chakra
control.
"Aa," the raven-haired boy did not look up. His brow furrowed in concentration, his mind
was probably aeons away.
"What are you staring at the map for? Found anything?"
He did not speak for a long while. Finally glancing up, he motioned to the two girls.
"Come see this."
Curiously, they crawled over to take a look.
"Tell me what you see," he said simply.
"Well, we're supposed to find two scrolls ad a box, so the indicators are here, here and-"
Sakura paused, searching for the third mark. "-but there's no third mark on the map,"
"Exactly. Two are marked clearly with these crosses, and we're headed here-" Sasuke
traced a finger across the parchment, marking their path, "-but I've been staring at that
thing for half an hour, and I still can't find any sign of a third marked location."
"Unless two items are hidden in the same place?" Tenten suggested, but Sakura shook
her head.
"Too easy," the cherry blossom said. "There may be clues at those two places to lead us
to a third, though,"
"Possible," Sasuke said thoughtfully, before spotting Naruto returning. Rolling up the
map, he stood and stashed it next to his sword. "Let's get going, we should be there in
another half an hour."
Both kunoichi nodded and stood as Naruto rejoined them. At least in Sakura's
case, tried to stand. She ended up with a wave of nausea washing over her senses and
nearly collapsed if not for Tenten reaching out to steady her.
"you sure you're okay?" Sasuke asked automatically, with a hint of worry in his eyes.
Naruto had the same concerned expression on, and Sakura sighed inwardly. Some
things, she thought, really never change.

"I'm okay," she told an obvious lie. She had been feeling these bouots of dizziness every
time she moved fast ever since Shiroi's attack. Her reactions were worryingly slow. "I
just don't think we should get into any fights yet, I can't heal anyone and I'll just be a
liability."
There was a moment of silence, her teammates seemed to be contemplating whether or
not they should reprimand her.
Finally they turned away, to continue searching for the scroll.
"There's a stream to the northwest, roughly where we're headed. We should camp there
tonight," Nnrauto supplied the results of his scouting. Everyone nodded.
"Let's go," Sasuke spoke quietly, and the four shinobis slipped through the forest once
more, each absorbed in their own thoughts and unspoken fears.
N
"Left here," Sasuke said, swerving as he spotted what looked like the clump of palm
trees as indicated upon the map. He grumbled under his breath, the map looked like it
had been scribbled by a kid with a crayon, it looked so crude.
He'd been unanimously and wordlessly chosen to lead the team for some reason,
navigating their route. His reflexes were the fastest, and besides, he had the Sharingan,
Naruto had reasoned when he questioned them.
"Take that fork and turn right," the Uchiha motioned to the path before them and without
a word, Team 7 followed. Sasuke swerved right, he was so concentrated on the map that
he failed to see what was right before him.
"TEME! Watch out!" Naruto's voice rang out sharply as a huge, scaly mass lunged
towards them. The team dived apart Sasuke just in the nick of time as the scaly head
reared back, studying its prey thorugh black, beady eyes that glinted malevolently.
Sasuke, Naruto and Tenten had gotten safely out of range in the trees above, but Sakura
wasn't so lucky. She'd lacked chakra force in her feet when she jumped, completely
missed the branch she'd been aiming for, and tumbled painfully to the ground. She swore
viciously under her breath.
If only she'd noticed that she was lying right in the path of the huge snake.
It's massive head was already diving towards her by the time she glanced up in horror.
Maybe Kawarimi, the Replacement, jutsu, could
Then a blur of black flashed past and Sasuke was between her and the snake, sword
drawn before him in a defensive stance. The snake's head stopped abruptly, inches away
from Sasuke's face. It had recognized him.
"Back," Sasuke hissed, like he was issuing an order. Behind him, Sakura sprung to her
feet, flanked by Naruto and Tenten. That had been a close call.
"Uchiha Sasuke, eh" the massive snake moved it's head back slightly, hissing. "Well.
This makes things a little more complicated, doesn't it?"
"Huh?" Tenten looked quizzical. Sakura answered her unasked question.

"Sasuke signed a blood contract with snakes to summon them, and it's a rule that
summoned creatures cannot attack those who are involved with the contract. But
knowing snakes I'm not quite sure if that rule would be enforced,"
"Well, unfortunately for me, the rule applies," the snake hissed, with a twitch that
somewhat resembled a smirk. "And after all I wouldn't dare to attack one who can
summon Manda-sama (4) himself," its beady eyes studied Sasuke's emotionless face.
'Then you can let us pass," Sasuke spoke curtly, sword still drawn. He'd learnt not to
trust any of these creatures, they changed loyalties faster than Naruto could glomp a
bowl of ramen.
"I'm afraid that 'it won't be so easy', quoting Anko's words," the snake replied calmly.
Naruto had a feeling that the creature couldn't wait for them to make the wrong move so
that he would have an excuse for his dinner, never mind the rules. "You will have to
answer my riddle. Get it right on first try, you pass. Get it wrong and you will be
attacked. I may not be able to touch the Uchiha, but I have no reservations about the
rest of you. There are no other choices nor any other way to your destination,"
Team 7 glanced at each other. They were completely stuck, it would be no point to run,
there was no doubt in their minds that the snake would attack the moment they tried to
leave. It looked perfectly hungry, anyway.
"Let's hear it, then," Sasuke said quietly, never letting his guard down, while
contemplating routes of escape. Just in case.
The snake smiled slyly, beginning to speak. It's voice hissed, the words with 's' in them
were slurred horribly, but the team listened intently. None of them fancied asking the
snake to repeat whatever it had just said.
"What does man love more than life,
Fear more than death or mortal strife,
What the poor have, the rich require,,
And all contented men desire?
What the miser spends and the spendthrift saves,
And all men bring down to their graves?"
Silence. Naruto glanced around hopelessly. Tenten was pondering the answer, but
Sasuke and Sakura had already opened their mouths to speak.
"Nothing," their voices rang out simultaneously, and both shinobi glanced at each other.
Sasuke motioned for her to continue.
"The answer is nothing," the cherry blossom looked the snake square in the eye. It
remained silent, and for a moment, Sakura feared that their answer was wrong, the
snake was going to attack
"Very well. You may pass,"

The last word came as a long, spiteful, vicious hiss, as if the snake was angry that they
had answered correctly it had just missed its dinner.
"Go. All of you," Sasuke motioned to his teammates to go past the snake first, and
followed last, always keeping a watchful eye on the huge predator. He didn't doubt that
the snake might just go back on its word of letting them go unscathed.
Its beady, glittering eyes followed them through the trees, before it slithered off with a
dissatisfied hiss. Sasuke sheathed his sword.
"Man, that snake sure is scary," Naruto shuddered once they were out of sight.
"He's Katai. One of Manda's subordinates," Sasuke made an elaboration, referring to the
snake leader Manda. "Manda always sent him to do all the measly jobs, but it doesn't
mean that he isn't vicious quite the opposite, in fact."
"So why's he reduced to doing these jobs? Anko summoned that snake, I suppose, but
do they really consent to doing such meager stuff like acting as the obstacle in an
exam?" Sakura questioned skeptically.
"Because he's the smallest of all of Manda's right-hand subordinates," Sasuke replied
calmly, nonchalantly, walking on.
"You mean there are snakes bigger than that one?" Tenten exclaimed, voicing the girls'
surprise. "I mean, even Gamabunta (5) is only slightly bigger than that snake!"
"You haven't seen Manda," Sasuke said darkly. Naruto nodded. He'd met the King of
Snakes once, when he and Jiraya were attempting to bring Tsunade back to Konoha.
"Oh. Gosh." Sakura's disbelieving voice as she halted cut off their conversation.
Right before them, a huge maze of chakra webs stretched out menacingly from tree to
tree. Unlike the previous web they'd encountered early in their last mission, these webs
varied in size, clearly visible glowing silvery-white, surrounding and protecting a small,
altar-like hut in the very center. The webs were so closely knit and complicated in
arrangement , it would be a nightmare trying to crawl through them all.
"All this fuss for a scroll," Sasuke muttered distastefully, pulling a chakra nature card
from his pack and swiping it lightly across the web closest to them. The card sizzled
viciously with electrical sparks. "And I'll be damned if Kakashi didn't help them with these
webs the electrical charge can match the Chidori," he stowed the card away.
"So what's the plan?" Sakura asked uncertainly, knowing that punching the ground like
she did last time was out of the question, her chakra control was too erratic for her to
even attempt a punch she might end up severely wounded instead.
"Sharingan!" Three black commas swirled in the blood-red irises of Sasuke's eyes as he
studied the obstacle. He quickly noted the weaker chakra flow of several webs that might
just yield to a strong barrier of their own chakra. Several footholds were visible upon the
trees, probably to help them navigate across.
"Well?" Naruto asked as Sasuke turned back to them.
"Difficult, but possible," the raven-haired Uchiha spoke. "There are weak spots in the
maze, and footholds on the trees,"

"Are you suggesting chakra barriers?" Tenten glanced at him in surprise. Chakra barriers
took up a lot of energy.
Sasuke nodded. "We'll just have to be quick. Three of us will create the barriers, Sakura
can slip through the barriers and navigate over the stronger ones with the footholds,"
"Are you sure? My physique isn't the best at the moment," Sakura said doubtfully.
"It's better than our chakra control, and you're the most slender amongst us," Sasuke
said bluntly. Tenten pretended to look offended at the comment about Sakura being the
'most slender'.
"Anyway. Here's the plan. I'll create the first and second barriers here and here "
Sasuke motioned to the two webs stretched before them. "Because my reflexes are the
fastest and I'll be able to get out before the first web reseals. Tenten will enter next, pass
through my barriers, swing over those interlocked webs and create the second barrier on
that web,"
Tenten nodded, noting the exact spot she needed to block.
"Naruto enters the same way following Tenten's path, passes through her barrier,
navigate under two webs and over the next few and make his two barriers on the last
two webs before the altar. He needs to be there, his chakra reserves are high and those
two webs are strong. Sakura, get your path?" Sasuke asked.
Sakura nodded, as did Tenten and Naruto. Sasuke knelt before the first web. "Be quick,
Sakura. And you guys, don't touch any of the webs or you'll be fried,"
"Way to lay off on the pressure, Captain," Sakura rolled her eyes. She could've sworn
that she'd seen the ghost of a smile cross the Uchiha's face.
His hands glowed momentarily, eerily blue, and as eh touched the web, the chakra began
eating its way upwards, cutting the web's connections, in a circle until it rejoined the spot
where Ssauke's hand was touching, forming a hole just big enough for a human to slip
through, surrounded by what seemed like a ring of blue fire.
Sasuke himself carefully climbed through, and formed the same ring barrier on the
second web.
Tenten followed, leaping up to catch a foothold on the nearby tree, swung over three
webs expertly, landed and commenced with her part. Naruto entered the maze next.
"Sakura, go," Sasuke said quietly the moment Naruto was in place. He added, somewhat
subconsciously: "And be careful,"
"Don't choke me with your concern, Captain," Sakura smiled ruefully at him before her
expression switched into grim determination and she slipped through the first two
barriers. Following Tenten's maneuver, she leapt up, caught the foothold and swung over
to where Tenten was, missing the top of the last web by millimeters.
She met Tenten's encouraging smile with a forced one that looked more like a grimace.
Clambering through her friend's barrier, she glanced at the vast maze of the webs before
her. All was well for Naruto, who was pretty agile and very much hyperactive, but she
was tired and had not yet regained her strength.

Chiding herself sternly for having such thoughts, Sakura took a deep breath and got
down to a crawl under the vertical web stretched above, but she hadn't anticipated the
horizontal web lying close to the ground, Flattening herself, the cherry blossom resorted
to a commando crawl on her tummy. Surprisingly enough, it wasn't too hard, just a few
tricky spots and son she found herself leaping over the last web before crossing Naruto's
two barriers, met with a wide grin from the blonde ninja. The last barrier Naruto had
created was so small Sakura had to dive through it, getting a small shock after having
brushed past the edge, before rolling to a halt in front of the altar.
Stepping closer, Sakura saw that the elevated altar held a basin, and the scroll lay at the
bottom, but
CLANG!
The sound of metal clashing rung through the forest, and Sakura whirled around, barely
dodging a kunai that had been thrown at her. They had enemies Sasuke had allowed
the last web to reseal, and was fighting using his sword, slashing across the webs at
whoever it was trying to get in. No problem there, Sasuke's sword was strengthened by
electricity after all. Tenten was helping him, hurling two kunais with practiced, dead
accuracy using her free hand, hitting two of their attackers square. Judging by the lack of
voices, it was probably just another four-man cell trying to get this scroll.
"Hurry up, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said urgently, straining to keep his barriers up. "We
need to get out of here!"
"I can't, the scroll's covered by another solid layer of chakra, same as the webs," Sakura
said, racking her brains for an idea. She couldn't do a barrier
"Hang on, I'm coming-" Naruto moved.
"No, stay where you are it'll be difficult for you to reconstruct the barrier," Sakura's
eyes were shut in concentration.
"Hurry up, will you!" Sasuke yelled. His movements were hampered by the two webs he
was between. The two remaining members of the attacking team were putting up a good
fight.
Sakura didn't even hear him. 'If I can't control my chakra properly enough for a barrier
I can still create a burst of it around my hand lightning is weakest against the earth
element, right?'
So. Her chakra was originally earth-natured, this shouldn't be a problem. If only she
could just channel, focus the chakra in her hand
It worked. All of a sudden, her hand glowed brightly with greenish chakra, and she found
that she had more control over it than before. For a moment, the sheer joy that her
foremost ability chakra control had returned, overshadowed everything else. Then
she remembered the task at hand. Her face set once more, Sakura plunged her chakraencased hand into the basin, through the solid layer protecting it.
It didn't hurt. Her theory had been correct; her chakra repelled the lightning-natured
barrier over the scroll.
Sakura yanked the scroll out, yelling triumphantly.

"Got it!"

Chapter 32 Pain for Power



At the precise moment the scroll left the basin, the chakra webs vanished. Sakura's
victory celebration, however, was brutally cut short as she hurriedly dived down to avoid
weapons that came whizzing her way, clutching the scroll protectively to her chest.
No longer obstructed by the cumbersome webs, Sasuke made a quick job of the
remaining two attackers, striking them expertly with the back of his sword, rendering
them unconscious.
But no sooner had those two shinobi crumpled when the team found themselves under
attack again, this time by a group from the Snow Country, the ones Sasuke had spied on
before the exam.
Team 7 was wary. They had used up a lot of energy to retrieve the scroll, they needed to
end this round as quickly as possible and get out safely.
"I knew Katai was lying when he said that there was only one way to get in here," Tenten
muttered to Sakura, both standing back to back, eyeing the two shinobi who were
targeting them. "There's no way so many teams could have gotten past him and his
riddles, and Sasuke's the only one with the blood contract,"
Sasuke and Naruto were a few paces away from the girls, the former resorting to his flat,
bored faade, the latter, as usual, eager to start the battle. With one loud whoop from
Naruto, the stalled fight swung into action. Sakura and Tenten dodged sideways and
were replaced by logs as a range of specialty, six-bladed shuriken came whizzing towards
them in a perfect arc formation, and before the two Snow shinobi knew it, something had
hit them from behind, sending them flying, tumbling and skidding to a halt.
Then both disappeared. Sakura cursed, they were good. A sudden, soft 'whoosh' just
above her head told her to dodge, and the cherry blossom leapt back just as someone's
foot crashed into the spot where she'd been just a moment ago. She winced. All that
force reminded her of one of Lee's kicks, she would've been smashed if that had actually
connected.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Naruto's booming voice hammered at her.
Sakura could've grinned at that moment, Naruto's trademark technique was a permanent
fixture in every battle, almost like his personal war-cry. The group of clones that
materialized joined in the fight with much enthusiasm, punching and kicking so fast they
were mere orange blurs.
Tenten swung her Fuuma Shuriken with ease, dodging and blocking her opponent and his
kunai. But he, too, was highly efficient, neither managed to land a single blow.

Sasuke's fight seemed to be a breeze for him, his movements were so fluid and precise it
gave the feeling that he was simply playing around with his opponent before ending the
game. It did not bode well for the poor Snow kunoichi either, because the Uchiha had
previously managed to copy their techniques and was now using them, full force, against
her.
Sakura exchanged glances with Tenten as they blocked, dodged and attacked their
opponents wordlessly. This fight was going nowhere, even if Sakura had partly regained
her chakra control. They would have to go according to plan.
"Group them together," Sakura whispered discreetly to Sasuke as she whirled past him,
luring her opponent to follow her. Not so far away, Naruto, too, was informed of the plan
by Tenten.
It wasn't difficult. The Snow team was good at combat, but they were not quite alert and
blindly followed where they were led, hardly noticing that they had suddenly been
grouped together with Konoha's Team 7 surrounding them.
Naruto and Sasuke took on Sakura and Tenten's opponents as well, distracting them
while the two kunoichi edged away, sprinting towards the two trees situated opposite
each other. Like they had done so many times before during practice, both girls ran
lightly up the tree trunks, before kicking off and arching backwards, somersaulting
through the air and catching hold of the ends of the net Sakura extracted from her
pouch, stretching it wide and clamping it down swiftly over their targets as Sasuke and
Naruto dived out of range while Naruto's numerous bunshin weighed the enemy team
down, preventing them from escaping.
"Now!"
Both boys responded to Tenten's command, catching hold of the other two ends of the
net, they released shockwaves of Lightning and Wind-natured chakra, jolting the trapped
shinobis and rendering them unconscious while dispelling Naruto's clones.
Tired and sweaty, Sakura stowed the net into her pouch. Her teammates were searching
the unconscious shinobi for their keys and any other items of use to them. Tenten found
a key on one of the Hidden Waterfall nins, the first group who had attacked them. Naruto
took another key from the Snow team. Sasuke examined their maps and compared them
with his own but they were the same, so that did not benefit them. Either way, he took
the maps, those teams would be pretty much disabled without a location guide.
Sakura re-examined the altar and basin she had obtained their first scroll from, checking
to see if there were any clues indicating a third location, for the box.
No luck there.
The sky was rapidly darkening now. It would be unwise to travel in the dark, and none of
them fancied staying the night here surely other teams would be trying to get this
scroll too. Getting attacked twice in a day and being nearly eaten by a giant snake had
been enough action for a day as it was.
"I can take us to the stream, we should camp there," Naruto said quietly, creatures and
insects of the night already echoing their calls around him.

His three teammates nodded, too tired to reply as they trudged towards him with the
items collected in hand. The blonde jinchuuriki turned, dry leaves crackling under his
feet.
"Let's get going."
N
The night was unusually cold, for the end of spring. Team 7 huddled around their small,
flickering fire, trying to keep warm, taking turns at night watch. Tenten and Naruto were
having the second watch, while Sasuke and Sakura had fallen asleep under a tree,
leaning against each other.
Tenten had just finished rigging several simple traps around their camp, and grabbed
their map from Sasuke's pack, plopping down next to Naruto to study it again. The
hyperactive ninja himself was rekindling the fire, occasionally glancing up at his
peacefully sleeping childhood teammates with a small, satisfied smile.
"They really have no idea how important they are to each other, ne?" Tenten asked
quietly, following Naruto's gaze.
"Yeah," Naruto said distractedly. "It's like sometimes they understand what they feel, but
they're just not sure about what they're supposed to do especially the teme and yet
they're so protective of each other without even realizing it. You know, they pretty much
remind me of me and Hinata-chan when we were younger, just with different
personalities,"
"Don't you even remind me of you and Hinata," Tenten snorted. "You were so bloody
clueless back then, an utter moron when it came to girls, especially poor Hinata,"
"Gosh, I'm so hurt," Naruto grinned. "What are you complaining about? You've got your
Hyuuga, and I've got mine,"
"Sounding possessive, eh?" Tenten grinned right back.
Caught up in their conversation, neither noticed the Uchiha jolt suddenly in his sleep,
twisting uncomfortably as an expression of fear and terror crossed his face, if only
momentarily.
N
A much younger Sasuke sat alone on one of the Uchiha compound's smaller verandahs,
his legs stretched out, staring moodily into space while toying with the clasp of his
shuriken pouch.
He didn't need to look up to tell who was coming. His mother's footsteps were always
gentle, agile, and comfortingly rhythmic, if compared to his father's heavier, attentioncommanding steps or Itachi's silent, almost deadly ones.
"Why the long face, Sasu-chan?" Uchiha Mikoto enquired, sitting down next to her
younger son, before drawing him onto her lap, enveloping him in a protective embrace.
For a moment, Sasuke squirmed, not liking being treated as a 'mother's boy', but
remembering that there was no one around to see and laugh anyway, he finally decided
against it and snuggled back against his mother, contented.

Sasuke loved his mother immensely. She was the only one who ever smiled around the
house, and just as Itachi was his father's pride, Sasuke knew that he was his mother's
personal favourite, the one she talked to, the one whose preferred food was always on
the table. He knew that Mikoto had been chosen as Fugaku's bride not only because she
was a capable housewife, but also a Jounin who could hold her own as a shinobi.
Anyway, she was the only one who ever listened to him.
"Nii-san's always too busy to teach me all the cool ninja stuff," Sasuke mumbled into
Mikoto's shirt sleeve. "It's always 'maybe another time', then he just walks off. Like I'm a
nuisance and he wished that he didn't have a brother. And otou-san just worships nii-san
and I'm never good enough for him, but it's not fair because Itachi's so smart I just get
left behind, good for nothing."
"Well, you're good enough for me, you dissatisfied little squirt," Mikoto teased, tickling
Sasuke. He squirmed, pouting.
"But that's different," the boy said earnestly. "I want to be good enough for them, too!"
Sasuke toyed with his mother's larger, slender hands, running his fingers along her life
lines. "And then, whenever nii-san doesn't want to play with me, he pokes me, hard,"
Sasuke turned suddenly to give a demonstration, imitating Itachi's slow-moving fingers
and poking Mikoto on the forehead. "It hurts," he continued defensively, shuffling back
into his original position.
Mikoto laughed. "I'll tell you a story, shall I? About our ancestor Uchiha Madara and his
younger brother, years ago, just before Konoha was founded."
Sasuke nodded without much enthusiasm.
"Well, Uchiha Madara was powerful, you see. He managed to develop our ultimate
Sharingan, the Mangekyou, but he found that it came with a price."
"What?" Sasuke asked, beginning to get curious.
"Using the Mangekyou took away his sight, bit by bit. So as he tried to conquer the world
with his eyes, he lost his sight, little by little, day by day. He was growing ill now, and
could no longer fight. But he decided that there was a way, to keep his sight, and gain
more power," Mikoto explained. Sasuke snuggled deeper into his mother's embrace, a
little creeped.
"So Madara took his brother's eyes. Plucked them right out."
At this, Sasuke trembled. His mother hugged him tight.
"No one quite knew what happened after that, but some say that Madara, by taking his
brother's Mangekyou as his own, achieved something he termed as 'eternal light', forever
maintaining the power of his Sharingan and also his sight, besides achieving
immortality."
"Im-immortality?" Sasuke almost squeaked. Images of zombies and ghosts flashed
through his childish mind, horrifying, vivid pictures of how Madara might look like.
"But of course, it's a story," Mikoto reassured him. Even if she wouldn't admit it, she
believed that story. Still, there was no need to frighten a child. Itachi would never do
that, she thought with some conviction. But the doubt remained.

"Sometimes, Sasu-chan I don't think that you even need to envy Itachi-kun, because
your life is so much better compared to his."
"Huh?" the young boy was confused.
"Imagine your brother, Sasuke his life is a caged existence, with every path preplanned, every achievement of merit expected from him, every mistake magnified, his
genius taken for granted," Mikoto's face darkened as she spoke about her distant son,
regretting how she had never been able to love him, or to give him a proper childhood.
"The choices that he is actually free to make are few and far between, and never those
with an impact on his life, his road to becoming our clan leader,"
Sasuke stared into space. He'd never thought about Itachi that way, never truly
understood what his brother went through.
"He doesn't have a life and he didn't have a childhood to speak of. You had all that, and
you were always loved more. Itachi knows that. Even if your father piles attention on
him, it's still you that he want's to know about behind closed doors, from me, you know?
After the first 'prodigious' child, you were our sense of normalcy, you showed us what it
was really like to be parents, with a child that threw tantrums and got hurt, not a genius
who's always quiet, unsociable, who's achieved so much but knows so little about love
and life, simple things that kids ought to understand best,"
Sasuke no longer quite followed or understood what Mikoto was saying, but pretended
that he did and nodded solemnly, anyway.
"You're so much luckier than your brother, Sasuke..." his mother ruffled his hair lovingly.
"I wish that you could see that"
They were both silent, then Mikoto stood suddenly, pulling her younger son with her.
"Well, since Itachi doesn't want to teach you anything, how about we go to the fifth
training ground and I show you a few good shuriken throwing techniques?"
Sasuke stuck out his tongue. "You're not as good as nii-san, oka-san!"
His mother pretended to look offended. "Hey, I wasn't made a Jounin for nothing, okay!"
The raven-haired boy seemed to contemplate the offer for awhile. A moment later, his
face lit up.
"Okay! I'll got get my stuff! Wait for me!"
"But your pouch is here-"
The boy had already run off. Mikoto followed, picking up the shuriken pouch Sasuke had
carelessly left on the floor, knowing full well the ruckus that would follow if Sasuke
couldn't find his precious pouch.
Her laughter echoed after the patter of his running footsteps, the silver tinkle of sound
filling the house with comforting warmth and happiness so seldom present in the Uchiha
home.
N

The pleasant memory was almost immediately replaced by a nightmare that Sasuke had
spent his life, day after day, night after night, dreading and regretting.
The round moon shone brightly against the velvety darkness of the dusk, and if this was
any other night, the young Uchiha returning from shuriken practice would have stopped
to marvel at its quiet, unassuming beauty, but tonight, his eyes saw nothing but endless
despair and panic, bodies littering the ground, awash with crimson blood that eerily
reminded him of the Sharingan.
He was once again his childhood self, trapped in the scene that he had tried so
desperately to avenge, to forget.
Why was the Uchiha compound, usually bustling with activity, so quiet? Why was
everyone lying so still, why were they drowning in their own pools of blood?
Terrified eyes scanned the area frantically as his small feet carried him through the mess,
desperately trying to avoid all the bodies and blood, an almost impossible task.
"Oka-san!" A silent scream rose in his throat, choked and died down before he could
make a sound. The first person he cared about where was she?
His pants and hiccupping sobs echoed through the silence as he approached his parent's
room, shaking, trembling.
Afraid.
That was when he saw them, and him. Two mere silhouettes heaped upon the bloodstained tatami mats, devoid of sound, movement, life. His red eyes, staring at Sasuke's
tear-stained face mockingly through the darkness.
So. Two high-ranked Jounins, no match for a mere 13-year-old prodigy? Was that the
truth? Or had Uchiha Fugaku and Mikoto died because he was their son, so precious and
important to them that they could not have hurt him for the world?
Itachi knew none of that, Sasuke realized, as his brother stepped forward to deal with
him. The cold satisfaction written so clearly across his face told Sasuke that this was just
a game for him, just as it was a nightmare for Sasuke. All these dead bodies counted as
nothing. It was the fact that he, Uchiha Itachi, had killed them that mattered.
The rest of their conversation was little more than a blur to Sasuke, his eyes were
trained on Itachi's bloody katana, waiting for it to shift, to strike, to kill him, as he had
watched and marveled at Itachi's practices so many times before.
"So you killed Shisui? You were the one you killed your own best friend?" Sasuke
whispered in horror, finally having to believe what he had so ferociously denied before.
"You have to kill your best friend to obtain the Mangekyou Sharingan," the already
evolved, triple-branched swirl stared at him from blood-red pool, striking Sasuke deep.
The younger boy felt sick at the way Itachi so calmly spoke of killing his best friend, as if
he was just picking an item off the dinner menu. But most of all, Sasuke felt fear. Fear of
dying, of becoming another one of those nameless bodies that surrounded him.
"Don't kill me," his plea came as a pathetic whimper, desperate, afraid. "Don't kill me!"
Sasuke backed away so quickly, he tripped over the threshold.

"Kill you?" Itachi scoffed coldly, stepping forward. "You aren't even worth the effort."
Not worth killing. That was all he was. The pathetic little brother, the one to be left alive
amidst all those lying dead, the one left alone, the one to bear the guilt.
Sasuke's heart crumpled. If he had had any childish hopes, any trace of innocence and
naivety within him, they were crushed, ruined by a brother he had once cared for so
dearly.
"Grow up, Sasuke. Kill your best friend. Obtain the Mangekyou Sharingan, then find me.
We will fight."
His last words were mere whispers. When Sasuke looked up again, Itachi was gone,
leaving behind silence, death, and hatred growing within an avenger.
N
"Sasuke? Sasuke!"
A quiet voice was chiding him, someone was gently shaking him by the shoulder. The
Uchiha groaned, blinking to get his sleep-blurred eyes back into focus.
A pink head hovered in his line of vision, her brow scrunched up with worry as her cool
hand reached out to touch his seemingly burning forehead.
"Sasuke you're sweating all over are you sick?" Sakura asked anxiously. Sasuke was
reminded horribly of his mother at that moment, and froze for a split second.
Regaining his senses, the Uchiha sat up, resting his forehead against his palm, trying to
recall and comprehend his dream memories. There was something, some part of his
dream that unsettled him, struck him, but he couldn't identify what it was. The feeling
kept nagging at him, but his thoughts were interrupted by Sakura grasping his arm.
"Sasuke? Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," Sasuke said distractedly, waving her off. "It was just hot yesterday night."
Tenten and Naruto, who had been discreetly listening in on the conversation, exchanged
glances. It had been freezing last night, what was with Sasuke? However, sensing
something in the air, they tactfully left the duo alone and got on with packing.
Sasuke suddenly realized that Sakura was looking at him rather strangely. "Why? You're
staring," the raven-haired boy glanced at her.
"You're not sick, Sasuke," the cherry blossom explained quietly. "And it was cold last
night, not hot."
"And you're implying? Sasuke questioned, starting to get rather annoyed.
"I think you had a nightmare," Sakura concluded simply, standing up to pack her bag.
"Tell me when you want to."
She left Sasuke, half-irritated and half-amused, wondering how women like Sakura and
his mother could alwas tell when something was wrong and also exactly what was wrong.

N
Sakura's hand slipped into her shuriken pouch for the fifth time since they started out
that morning. Sasuke was surprised at himself, he was actually keeping track.
Tenten had taken over the map-reading this time round, leaving the Uchiha with a
relative amount of free time to observe the pink-haired kunoichi discreetly. His bored
mind had taken to making wild guesses regarding the secret she still stubbornly refused
to disclose.
He also cursed the fact that Sakura had become far more competent at hiding her
emotions. He could catch glimpses of her worry, occasionally, but never enough for him
to draw any conclusions.
"We're getting close. Sasuke, Sakura, do a scout, will you? I can't sense anyone around,
but it doesn't hurt to make sure," Tenten stopped, carefully balanced on a branch.
The aforementioned duo did as they were asked, Sasuke activating his Sharingan and
Sakura sensing chakra.
For a moment, they were silent. Naruto prodded them.
"Hey, everything okay?"
"No," Sasuke and Sakura replied simultaneously, both turning towards him.
"Bad news. It's the Sound team," Sakura reported grimly.
"Karin's probably sensed us properly already, she's far better than Sakura at that, and
they're moving pretty fast," Sasuke deadpanned, starting forward towards their
destination.
"Hey, where d'you think you're going? They're hunting you!" Naruto snapped, stopping
his teammate, angry at his rashness.
"We get the scroll," Sasuke met him squarely in the eye, as he had done so many times
before. "It's the third day, we only have this explicit location and one more box to find.
We need to get there before the Sound team or we'll fail."
"Well, maybe passing isn't everything to us!" Naruto argued heatedly, not stepping
down. "We don't want to lose you again, okay!"
"Passing here is everything to me!" Sasuke retorted sharply. "I didn't take Tsunade's
bloody tests to fail here, and now!" His onyx eyes bore deeply into the blonde
jinchuuriki's electric-blue ones relentlessly.
Naruto looked as if he wanted to argue his point some more, but ended up biting his lip
and looking down, unable to find a better retort. Sakura could tell he was fighting not to
lose his temper over Sasuke's attitude.
Her arms slipped through theirs gently as she glanced with a smile at both males of her
childhood team, linking them together. That was what she was. The link that held that
powerful, yet painfully fragile team together.

"Sasuke, we'll get that scroll," Sakura squeezed his arm reassuringly. "Naruto, the Sound
team isn't getting Sasuke. Not if I can help it," she clenched her fist with an air of dogged
determination.
"That Karin girl may be a better chakra sensor than me, but she doesn't have my
strength or my teammates."
N
The scroll was hidden in a tree hole, almost in plain view if not for the shadows
concealing it partly. No visible traps surrounded or protected it, but Team 7 wasn't
fooled. Life wasn't that easy.
Just as that thought crossed Tenten's mind, Naruto's eager, boisterous voice rang out.
"Well, this looks easy!"
'Oh no.' came the groaning voice in the weapons mistress' head. Out loud, she gave an
instinctive warning.
"Watch "
The warning came too late. The fine trip-wire suspended a foot above the ground caught
on Naruto's trousers and immediately, rigged traps sprung into action, firing weapons at
the Konoha team. The first few were deflected by Tenten's own deftly-thrown kunais,
buying them time to at least flatten themselves on the ground.
They could barely lift their heads with the continuous barrage of razor-sharp weapons
whizzing directly above them. Tenten twisted to face Naruto on her left, a murderous
glint in her chocolate eyes.
"You were saying?"
The blonde boy could only grin sheepishly.
"Dammit We'll have to make a run for it," Sasuke growled. "At this rate, we'll be
nothing but corpses by the time the Sound team get here!"
"Easy for you to say," Sakura muttered. "Is it just me, or have the weapons increased?"
Tenten was no longer listening to their short-tempered bickering, but instead had
carefully flipped over onto her back with her arms crossed over her chest to protect
herself. She carefully scanned the area, searching for the source of the weapons, and
soon she spotted one of them a cleverly camouflaged shooter, probably designed to
shoot in multiple directions hidden on a high branch.
Flipping a kunai out, the brown-haired kunoichi narrowed her eyes, taking careful aim.
Once she found a clear launch path, she sent the sharp blade cutting through the air with
a powerful flick of her wrist, lodging it deeply next to the mouth of the shooter of the
opening diagonally, preventing any more weapons from shooting out.
Satisfied, Tenten easily located the other shooter and disabled that, as well. Her
surprised teammates cautiously stood at the lack of metallic sounds, dusting themselves.

"Amazing," Naruto let out a low whistle. "That kind of accuracy remind me to
appreciate your skills a little more, Tenten."
The girl laughed. "Well, those won't hold for very long, so get moving. The Sound team
status?" she looked enquiringly at the other two.
"They seem to have met an obstruction, we're in luck. Let's get that scroll and get out of
here," Sakura reported.
"Well, you need to figure out a way to cross those," Sasuke pointed bluntly.
A circle of flames had sprung up, just surrounding the tree hosting the scroll, too high to
jump over, and heat waves radiated strongly off it amidst kerosene fumes. The tree
branches formed a perfect, almost solid canopy directly over it, making it impossible for
them to climb a tree to jump down, either.
Naruto was the first to speak.
"Haku"
"Eh?" his teammates looked around in surprise, as if expecting to see Haku's team turn
up.
"No, I mean his Ice Element technique!" Naruto exclaimed, slamming his fist into his
palm triumphantly. "Remember? Kakashi-sensei explained how his bloodline worked by
combining Water and Wind elements, right?"
Sakura nodded slowly, deep in thought. "So you're implying that we could duplicate that
and use it as a barrier to cross the fire?"
"Yeah! My Wind, and your bloodline Water can't we try to replicate his jutsu and create
ice walls? This Katon is powerful, I doubt that just a water wall like you used last time
might hold against it, but ice"
"Well, it wouldn't hurt to try," Sakura shrugged. "Someone's got to run in to get it,
though Tenten, want to do the honours?"
"Nah, let Sasuke do it," Tenten had a mischievous spark in her eyes. "I'm going to rig up
something for our visitors."
"It better be good," her pink-haired friend grinned as Tenten disappeared up a nearby
tree. "C'mon, guys!"
The trio chose a spot where the ring was the closest to the tree hole. Naruto and Sakura
performed their chakra-release handseals, the latter concentrating on drawing her
Water-element. As bluish chakra swirled from their clasped hands and combined, they
closed their eyes and focused, picturing what they intended to form. A crude look-alike of
Haku's trademark Demonic Ice Mirrors formed, mid-air, drifting towards the flames
before splitting into half and parting, breaking the ring of fire in a fluid, sweeping motion,
creating a small pathway through.
The fire lapped viciously at the thick ice, eating through it fast. Beads of perspiration
rolled down Sakura and Naruto's faces as they fought to keep the jutsu going.

Sasuke darted across quickly, snatching the scroll out of its resting place. Dark fur
brushed past his skin as several round objects dropped out and scattered upon the
ground, and the Uchiha soon found the source of the angry chattering that hammered
away a bushy-tailed squirrel glared out at him fiercely, defending its domain. Sasuke
had disturbed its precious stash of acorns while taking the scroll. The kerosene fumes
had probably made it pretty cranky, too.
He almost made a rude face at the angry creature, but thought the better of it and leapt
back out just as the crackling flames consumed and melted the remaining paper-thin wall
of ice.
Naruto and Sakura slumped, exhausted.
"Nothing else there?" Sakura asked wearily as she reached out to take the scroll from
Sasuke, to examine it.
"I'm not sure," the raven-haired boy replied bluntly, still busy glaring at the chattering
squirrel, but started as something whizzed past his face, then cursed loudly at his lack of
alertness.
Sakura let out a small gasp of pain, watching a sudden spray of blood spurt out as the
kunai cut her outstretched hand quite deeply, and quickly withdrew her bleeding arm,
trying to heal it.
Sasuke tossed the scroll into his pack, still swearing under his breath with Naruto right
next to him. Those were people he did not wish to see right now.
"Feh. Second-rate kunoichi she isn't as good as rumours state of the 'Godaime
Hokage's apprentice'," the bespectacled girl scoffed distastefully at Sakura, twirling a
kunai while trying to flirt with Sasuke at the same time.
Sakura couldn't understand why she suddenly felt furious. She took insults well, having
heard them for years now from lousy opponents, but now she stepped closer to Sasuke,
her gash fully healed. Opposite them, Karin boiled at the close contact.
The tension wove through the air, creating almost unbearable suspense.
"Ooh, catfight," Suigetsu drawled, leaning against Zabuza's zanbato(1) lazily while
looking Sakura up and down. Sasuke stepped in front of her with Naruto, eyes narrowed,
both daring Suigetsu to even touch their precious teammate. The man raised an
eyebrow. "I must say that Sasuke-sama has good taste in women, though."
"Of course," Karin flipped her hair back.
"Not you, b, I meant the pink-haired one," Suigetsu cast a devilish sidelong glance at
Karin, who was fuming. "She's definitely far prettier than 'rumours' state, though those
rumours were probably created by you."
"Pretty?! Have you seen her forehead, you a?" Karin shrieked at him.
"Unlike you, b, she's "
Sakura was growling behind her teammates, just waiting to pounce. She shoved Sasuke
and Naruto apart ferociously, glaring at the bickering pair opposite them.

"I AM NOT AN EXHIBIT FOR YOU TO DISCUSS AND IF YOU LIKE EACH OTHER SO MUCH
JUST GO GET MARRIED ALREADY!"
A sudden, shocked silence fell over the entire group. Naruto felt a laugh welling up at the
back of his throat but forced it back down, sensing that this wasn't quite the right time to
even smile. Not with a furious cherry blossom right next to him.
Juugo, who had been silent all this while, stepped forward awkwardly, eyes trained on
the ground while speaking quietly, in a hoarse voice. His words were almost shyly,
directed at Sakura.
"Thanks. For shutting those idiots up."
Before he could direct his next sentence at Sasuke, the Uchiha had already spoken, his
voice low and deadly.
"There is no need to ask the question. The answer is no."
Silence.
"Very well. I have my orders from Orochimaru-sama." Juugo spoke simply.
Sakura shuddered at the empty, haunting look in his eyes as he stepped towards Sasuke.
She could detect a hint of reluctance, he did not wish to do this. Suigetsu and Karin
remained behind him, stunned speechless.
Naruto let out a low growl and Sakura's fists clenched despite her doubts, ready to face
the hulking man, to defend their teammate.
But they never got to find out what Juugo's orders might have been, for at that very
moment, Tenten dislodged the kunais she had used to stem the weapon-shooters before,
sending another round of weapons raining down on the sound team as she adjusted the
shooters' positions. Team 7 quickly dodged.
Tenten couldn't believe that it had only taken a simple concealment jutsu on Karin and
careful control of her chakra to avoid detection by the chakra-sensor, but then, Karin had
been so concerned about sneering at Sakura that she wouldn't have noticed, anyway.
Tenten threw in a few of her own weapons for good measure, striking the enemy
accurately, even though not fatally. Karin wasn't much good at combat, she could tell;
Suigetsu was doing fine, blocking weapons with his sword if only they weren't coming
at him from all directions. Juugo well, given his size, there wasn't much space to dodge,
and he was getting hurt.
The Sound team was trapped. They had unwittingly dodged back, moving towards the
fire ring, which obstructed their escape from behind. Tenten made sure they stayed
there, creating a thicker curtain of attacking weapons in front of them, restricting their
way out.
"Stop. Stop!" Juugo grunted furiously, frustration building rapidly within him as crimson
blood continued to stain his skin, angry at the pinpricks of weapons that he couldn't
dodge or locate.
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. He knew what came next.

True enough, Juugo was clutching his head now, traces of black marks spreading across
his bloodied skin, muttering, chanting under his breath a word that sounded dangerously,
suspiciously like 'kill'.
Suigetsu and Karin abandoned all attempt of protecting themselves from the thick rain of
weapons, choosing instead to try and calm Juugo down as he thrashed about.
Sasuke shoved the horrified Naruto and Sakura away from the scene, past the fire ring,
urging them to leave quickly.
"Go! It'll take time for them to control his rampage, we should be able to lose them by
then."
Tenten leapt down to join them. Taking another glance at the black marks spreading like
wildfire across the hulking man's skin, they didn't need to be told twice. Slipping off
quickly behind Naruto and Tenten, Sakura looked back at Juugo's hunched, shaking form
one last time, feelinga wrenching grip on her heart as she turned away.
The cherry blossom bit her lip. Juugo's condition that look in his eyes reminded her so
painfully of Sasuke, during the Chunin exam. No one deserved that kind of suffering,
especially not him. He had never asked for this, never asked to be the source of so much
destruction and people, afflicted with his genes because of Orochimaru's madness.
Behind her, Sasuke paused for a moment, turning back. He knew how much the Curse
Seal hurt, when activated, how much willpower it took to control the spread. He knew
Juugo's harmless nature. The Sharingan activated, he caught Juugo's power-hungry eyes
from a distance and cast a mind-numbing genjutsu, whispering two words: calm down.
Without waiting to see if there was any effect, the Uchiha turned and sprinted off to
rejoin his team.
N
"How do you stand it?"
The forced chatter around the fire died abruptly with Sakura's sudden question, as her
teammates turned to look at her. She'd been silent, all night.
Her question was directed at Sasuke. He met her gaze without flinching, replying in a flat
voice.
"Stand what?"
"Juugo. The Curse Seal," She said quietly, her own eyes haunted by memories she did
not wish to remember in any way.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said bluntly, turning away, closing his eyes. His gesture
for 'close topic, end of story'.
Sakura persisted. "I saw it. You guys saw it," the cherry blossom wrapped her arms
around her knees. "The kind of pain in his eyes that radiates off him pain that he did
nothing to deserve. I've seen it. In your eyes."

Emerald and onyx pools clashed, the latter warning Sakura not to go on, but she ignored
the blaring signal. Sasuke didn't understand why, but he was getting angry. Why was
Sakura acting like she blamed him for this? The curse, everything?
"I didn't ask for this!" the Uchiha yanked his collar down ferociously, displaying the triplecomma seal.
"You didn't, at first. But now Kakashi-sensei's seal is gone, isn't it?" Sakura pointed out
quietly.
The raven-haired boy stared at her. He hated it when she managed to counter him.
"'The seal is only as strong as your will for it to remain'," Sakura quoted, meeting his
stare. "That was what Kakashi-sensei told you, all those years ago. But when you left
with the Sound Four, they elevated your curse seal to level 2, right? And right on that
moment, Kakashi-sensei's seal was gone, because you didn't want it there anymore."
"Where, exactly, is this topic going?" Sasuke narrowed his eyes dangerously.
"Pain for power," Sakura said simply. "You and Naruto if Naruto gets impatient or
angry, he unleashes the Kyubi without second thought, like you and your Curse Seal. It
hurts you guys, it hurts other people, but you do it anyway so how do you stand it? All
that pain just for a moment of unbeatable strength, while leaving destruction behind
andknowing that you were the cause after that how do you stand it?"
"How do you stand having the Nanabi sealed within?" Sasuke's voice calmed down after
he realized that he'd hit the jackpot regarding Sakura's real meaning.
"Exactly" the cherry blossom trailed off, looking relieved that someone understood what
she meant. She didn't want to say it, the fateful statement she didn't want to admit
that she was a jinchuuriki. Not after seeing the kind of damage Naruto could do with the
Nine-tails, to heck with the Nanabi's claims of being the 'good' counterpart for the other
eight destroyer beasts. "It feels like my body doesn't belong to me anymore, like I'm
sharing it with an unwelcome, separate entity whose existence I want to hide. But with
you guys I can see the kind of damage done, the pain felt when your other sides take
over, but I can only watch when you don't even attempt to restrain the progress because
you want that power!"
Naruto and Sasuke were silent.
"Is it worth it? Pain, in exchange for power that destroys you?" Sakura asked. "Juugo
he didn't ask for power, and he doesn't want it, like you said, Sasuke. He'd do anything
to get rid of his curse you guys were given the chance to properly control that source of
power, but in one moment of hot-headedness, you forget everything."
"I guess I never thought of it that way," Naruto admitted, staring into their fire. "I hate
the demon inside me, but I want the extra power it can give me it just never occurred
to me that things could get out of hand."
"Then have you ever thought about this?" Sakura's pained expression alarmed Tenten,
who shifted close to her friend for comfort. "It struck me some time ago when I was
thinking about the Bijuu-sealing scroll and what the Nanabi said to me "If you do this,
then you and Naruto will be able to lead normal lives afterwards."."
"Yeah?" the blonde boy said hesitantly, still not seeing her point.

"That's a lie," the cherry blossom said bitterly. Sasuke and Tenten started, realizing the
truth.
"I don't want the Nanabi's power, and I'd gladly seal it away, but if I do that it would
mean extracting the Bijuu from my body and you know what that brings, Naruto."
He gasped, recalling vivid memories of Gaara's 'death'. "We we would die."
Sakura looked at him blankly. "That's what I'm afraid of."
She paused, staring into space.
"Death."

Chapter 33 Silver and White



"You can't take deaths so badly, Sakura!" Tsunade had reprimanded her in her first year
on the job, after Sakura had lost a cancer patient, and hadn't found the appetite or the
will to eat for three days. "It's part of the job, and there are so many other lives which
need your care - moping about one dead patient isn't going to help the dozens of others
who need you!"
She was right, she always was. Yet Tsunade had taught her much, Sakura mused, but
her mentor certainly hadn't taught her how to handle her own impending death. Medics
seldom had time to worry about their own well-being, after all. Kakashi had put it
somewhat better.
"Why the long face, Sakura?"
Silence.
"I lost a patient."
"And?" Kakashi flipped open his book nonchalantly.
"I lost a patient," the girl shot back incredulously. "He's dead, sensei - I couldn't, and I
can't help him now. He's dead."
The silver-haired Jounin looked at her over the top of his book, observing her for a long
while.
"You're too sensitive," Kakashi said bluntly, flipping a page. "Death is part of a medic's
job, or any shinobi's job, for that matter. You knew what to expect when you started
out,with your being a medic and a shinobi at the same time."

"Knowing and experiencing are two different matters. And just because I know it, doesn't
mean that I don't feel it now, does it?" Sakura said scathingly, feeling hot tears welling
up in her eyes. Why couldn't everyone just leave her well alone to suffer? "Can't I just
mope for a bit?"
"Go right ahead, Sakura. You can mope all you want, but if you torture yourself like this
for every patient you lose, you'll be crushed by all that emotional toil," he glanced at her
steadily, for once looking serious. "You are sensitive, but you've got to learn how to let
go."
She did not reply, simply wrapping her arms around her knees and staring into space,
observing a falcon swooping across the horizon, somehow wishing she had wings to fly
with. Childhood stories of birds carrying souls to the sky flooded her mind, tales of the
afterlife, heaven, hell. They all started with one thing death. So how did it feel to die?
"What do they feel, I wonder?" the cherry blossom spoke quietly, breaking the silence.
"I've thought about it do they fear dying?"
"Who knows?" the silver-haired Jounin shrugged, shutting his book suddenly. Shifting his
position, he leaned back using his arms as a support, and stared up at the clear sky. "I
grew up during the war. Both my best friends, who were also my teammates, died, when
I was young." Kakashi stared into the distance. "Both of them died for me. I wondered
what they felt, too but when I look back, I'm pretty certain no, I know that they
didn't feel fear."
Sakura glanced at him, surprised.
"People die for many reasons most of old age, some of illness and accidents. And most
people, they are afraid of death coming to claim them, they fear what lies beyond, or
perhaps, what does not lie beyond. Is death a void, a great emptiness? Or is it a
beautiful place, like heaven has been described? But those who willingly die for others
that doesn't matter to them. They don't think of death, they think of the people they are
sacrificing for. And those people, who do just that they are the ones who die happy."
"Dying for others?" Sakura whispered, grasping the concept. Of course she'd heard about
sacrificing oneself, it was what being a medic was all about anyway, but she'd never
really thought about it, or actually understand the significance of this principle.
So. Could she do that? Extracting the Nanabi and sealing it would undoubtedly mean her
death, as with Naruto. She knew the blonde loudmouth would accept it once he got over
the initial shock sacrificing for others, helping them, was something he held strongly to.
But what about her? Sacrificing her time and healing chakra was one thing, but to the
extent of giving up her own life to save another?
'You're thinking too much, you little idiot,' her inner self smirked. 'You never thought
twice about rushing in front of your friends to protect them before, even if it meant
dying.'
'Well, that's different,' Sakura shot back. 'I don't see death coming, like how I know it
will happen now. I just want to protect them, and my body acts before my mind thinks.'
'Well, you were always pretty reckless, even if you're not as bad as Naruto,' her inner
self grinned. 'Forget your body acting before your mind thinks, how about holding on to
the fact that you want to protect your friends and village, even if you know you will die if
you do that?'

'Giving a life to protect?' the pink-haired kunoichi mused. A sudden loud brawl snapped
her out of her reverie.
"Give that piece of chicken back, dobe, you've had your share," Sasuke snatched the last
drumstick from Naruto's gravy-sticky hands as the jinchuuriki protested wildly.
"But I'm hungry!" his teammate whined profusely, attempting puppy eyes. Even though
it was not as if it'd ever persuade the Uchiha.
Sasuke glared at him. "You ate the most. Leave some for Sakura. You call yourself a
teammate?"
"She's not eating! Gimme my chicken!" Naruto pounced at the more agile Sasuke, who
held the drumstick high and away from Naruto's grasp, but instead, got a fistful of his
shirt deeply stained by Naruto's none-too-sanitary, sticky hands while both boys
tumbled.
"Oh, damn!" Realizing what he'd done, Naruto swore and quickly let go of Sasuke's shirt
as the Uchiha looked down slowly.
The scene froze.
"Argh GET OFF!" Sasuke yelled threateningly, reaching for his sword, brandishing it
wildly while Naruto hollered back at him, defending himself from the dangerously sharp
blade. In the midst of all the mess, the piece of chicken flew out of Sasuke's hand and
was caught by a very surprised Sakura, while Tenten doubled over with laughter, an
unconcerned witness to the murder taking place.
The cherry blossom's eyes softened as the scene unfurled before her eyes, feeling a
small smile twisting and lifting the corners of her lips. Taking a bite of the bland but
surprisingly well-cooked drumstick, she contemplated how much her teammates, her
village, resembled sukiyaki (1) components of various different colours and tastes, yet
mixing harmoniously in the warm pot of soup that held them in one place, letting them
rub past each other, never clashing.
She'd die for them. All of them, anytime.
And she'd die happy.
N
Naruto sat with his back against a tree after dinner, twirling a kunai with his brow
furrowed. Sakura sat a little ways from him, eyes closed and legs crossed with the two
scrolls on her lap, meditating. Tenten's shuriken flew out of her hand at regular intervals,
hitting a makeshift target board carved onto a tree, creating a rhythmic, almost
comforting tapping sound. She'd hit the bulls-eye so many times there was a gaping
indent of wooden splinters where the center should've been, and now she was resorting
tonot aiming for the bulls-eye instead. Sasuke idly poked at the embers of their dying fire
with a stick, looking distant.
The team was brainstorming for all the possibilities of the location of the box, they had
been doing that for the past hour and their boredom was beginning to show in their slight
fidgeting.

Naruto had never been one to focus, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to
concentrate on the matter at hand. Gradually, his thoughts wandered, reaching into the
realms of memory as one's thoughts always do when bored.
Scrolls, huh? How typical. Their first Chunnin exam had seen them competing for exactly
the same thing, except that it was considerably harder to have to find the scrolls rather
than just attack any random team for theirs. He vaguely wondered what they would do
with the box once they got to the central tower. No, not just the box the two scrolls
too. Would Kakashi-sensei be popping out of the box, like the last time when they
summoned Iruka-sensei by opening the two Heaven and Earth scrolls simultaneously?
Something seemed to click in that thought. One of the words scrolls? No. But scrolls
summoning Iruka summoning
"I'VE GOT IT!"
His three teammates visibly jumped as Naruto's triumphant yell reverberated through
their camp, it sounded like a herd of elephants flattening the forest.
"Baka, Naruto, do you plan on getting us all killed?" Sakura hissed furiously as Sasuke
doused and extinguished their fire while Tenten retrieved all her shuriken with a swipe of
her summoning scroll, just in case any of the enemy were headed their way after hearing
Naruto's literal proclamation of their location to practically the entire world, considering
how loud his voice was.
"What's the big idea, dobe?" Sasuke scowled as they perched atop a tree some distance
away, alert for any sign of enemy teams.
Naruto was completely unaware of the ruckus he'd just caused.
"Summoning!" the jinchuuriki said proudly, not even noticing the deathly auras
emanating from the trio surrounding him. "I mean, seriously scrolls are used for
summoning, remember?"
"Dobe, you can't have forgotten what happened to those who opened the scrolls before
time in the first Chunin exam," Sasuke deadpanned, annoyed at his friend's apparent
stupidity. Or rashness. Or perhaps both combined.
"Any smarter ideas, teme?" Naruto shot back, feeling snubbed but not about to be
outdone.
The Uchiha grudgingly shook his head.
"He's got a point, though," Tenten said fairly, looking thoughtful. "Scrolls are used for
summoning. Sakura what about our instructions? Did Kotetsu or Izumo say anything
about not opening the scrolls before time?"
Sakura glanced at her, then shut her eyes and concentrated.
Did they say anything of the sort? She could only remember them telling her that they
were not to open the box or had she forgotten her instructions? Well no. She was
pretty certain they only said not to open the box.
Out loud, the pink-haired kunoichi spoke. "Nope. As far as I remember, they just said
that the box wasn't to be opened until we were told."

There was a moment of silence.


"Is it worth taking the risk?" Sasuke remained skeptical, crossing his arms defiantly,
almost daring his teammates to challenge him.
"C'mon, Sasuke it's our last chance. We're at our last day now, it's now or never, and
we don't have any other leads to work on," Tenten reasoned.
The Uchiha seemed to cave.
"So? Do we all agree?" Sakura volunteered quietly.
A slight murmur went around, signalling agreement. Sakura smiled, handing the scrolls
to Naruto.
"Huh?" Naruto asked, surprised.
"Your call. You figured it out, after all," Sakura smiled.
The blonde jinchuuriki grinned broadly, accepting the scrolls from his teammate. It
wasn't often that he was allowed to do the honours, considering his generally rash and
careless nature.
Holding both scrolls in both hands, with the opening flaps hanging down, Naruto focused
his chakra and willed the box to appear, taking a wild shot as he wasn't quite sure if this
was the same as summoning animals. Did it require a small blood sacrifice? Well, he
hadn't signed a blood contract with a box, as far as he could remember, so he supposed
it didn't matter.
"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"
A warm glow enveloped the scrolls, making the team squint at the sudden presence of
light. The blonde loudmouth felt a pleasant sensation running up his arms, as if
reassuring him that everything was okay, and instinctively, Naruto knew that the
summoning had worked.
His teammates watched in fascinated silence. The glow began to dissipate, leaving them
with the faint moonlight streaming to the trees as their only illumination. Naruto pulled
the scrolls to eye level and examined them. The scrolls were empty, devoid of all trace of
words that used to be there. And before Naruto, a large, black, square box stood, as high
as his knee, plain and completely unremarkable. Only the lid was carved with Konoha's
crest, and beneath that, 'Team 7' was written in calligraphic kanji.
"Ooh, you finally figured it out."
Before any of them had a chance to speak, a foreign voice interrupted the darkness
snidely, mocking them.
All four shinobis whirled around, surrounding the box, alert and poised to defend or
attack, whichever the situation required. How could they not have sensed
"I was wondering when you slowpokes would get it," the female voice sneered, the sound
of dry leaves crackling under her feet could be heard as she stepped closer, and into the
moonlight. "I mean, half the teams in the forest has gotten it already and I thought
Team 7 was supposed to be pretty remarkable."

She looked young, perhaps about fifteen? And she was extremely petite, looking almost
too fragile to be a shinobi, let alone a Jounin wannabe. Yet, the arrogance in her smile
was unmistakable, and the sort of air radiating off her Team 7 knew, from experience,
that people like these were no empty vessels. She was dangerous and she meant
business, whatever her physical appearance suggested.
Her red hair was cropped short, falling over her grayish eyes carelessly. She wore a
sleeveless top with a mesh shirt over it, the sleeves reaching her elbow. Black cargo
pants and typical shinobi sandals completed her ensemble.
'She looks like a child,' Sakura thought vaguely, eying her surroundings warily. Two
shadows lurked behind the redhead, and the cherry blossom had a sinking suspicion that
she knew exactly who they were.
"Cut the small talk, Sayuri," one of the looming shadows joined her in the moonlight,
allowing herself to be seen. The cascading waves of golden locks seemed to come alive in
the silvery glint of moonlight, the taller, more matured female cocked her head to one
side with one hand on her hip, surveying Team 7 with a look of distaste as if they were
nothing but trash.
Sakura felt her teammates tense subtly.
"We've got work to do, captain," Tsume, the blonde kunoichi, spoke to the redhead she
was the captain? while glancing at the second shadow behind the redhead. Shiroi
Sakura knew it was him moved effortlessly, soundlessly, as if he was merely gliding on
ice, not walking on dry leaves. "Koru" she started snidely. "Seems like you screwed up
pretty badly, ne?"
"Shut up, Kin," the silver-haired man shot back smoothly.
"Hey, hey," Sayuri piped up lazily, completely relaxed while standing right between two
teammates emanating deathly aura, obviously wanting to kill each other. Her cat-like
eyes shone brightly in the silver moonlight, studying her 'prey' before her.
Sakura felt extremely wary. This girl was cunning, she could tell, and most probably
powerful, too. There was something in her glance that unnerved the cherry blossom
eyes that had seen too much, too much not suited for the eyes of a child.
"Well," Sayuri suddenly straightened, a cocky smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
"I know Shiroi gave you a warning. You know what we want," she held out her gloved
right hand expectantly.
"Knowing what you want doesn't exactly help when we don't have what you want, does
it?" Sakura replied coolly, quietly. "No amount of threatening is going to help you."
Silence. Emerald and grey eyes clashed, each daring the other to give in, to look away
first. Yet Sayuri was the one smirking, completely unconcerned, as if she was actually
enjoying herself.
A sudden realization hit Sakura as she felt a queer sensation washing over her it felt
like someone was probing into her mind, reading her thoughts, searching for something.
"Don't look into her eyes!" she warned her teammates, wanting to look away, break the
connection, but found that she couldn't. Realizing that would be futile, she focused
instead on emptying her mind of thought, blocking out the thought- probe.

"Hmph," Sayuri broke eye contact. "Not bad but she's telling the truth.
'She was just toying with me. That wasn't her real power,' Sakura thought shakily,
feeling her body covered in cold sweat as she fought to keep herself steady, emerald
eyes wide. This girl Sayuri was that her power? Telepathy?
If so had she managed to glean the current location of the scrolls through Sakura?
'Don't worry,' Sakura suddenly heard her inner self speaking lazily. 'Blocked her out.'
For once in her life, Sakura felt thankful for having an alter ego. Somehow, the blow had
left her hard-hit and fatigued how could a mere thought-probe weaken her so much?
and she staggered back to her team, feeling a major headache coming on. Sasuke
grasped her shoulders protectively, drawing her to his side.
"Sakura-chan, are you alright?" Naruto questioned worriedly, his eyes remaining trained
on the opposite team.
"What was that?" Tenten asked quietly, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of her
face.
"Telepathy, I think she can read minds, and she can attack them, too," Sakura
breathed, perspiring profusely.
"Oh well," Sayuri shrugged nonchalantly. "We'll look somewhere else for the scrolls, but
in the meantime let's grab that box, shall we?" she cast her teammates a sly glance.
Team 7 tightened their grips on their weapons, preparing themselves for every
possibility.
"Go all out," Sayuri instructed. "Enjoy yourselves. But don't kill them just yet," the
redhaired female turned and walked away, into the darkness. "I'll be waiting back at
camp, ne?"
Her grey eyes shone brightly in the darkness, and a small smile curved her lips as she
disappeared through the shadows of the trees.
Shiroi and Tsume were still, staring at team 7 emotionlessly, unconcerned. Their lips
moved to reply to Sayuri's command.
"Yes, captain."
N
Shiroi made the first move, gliding effortlessly through the air as an eagle daring towards
its prey. Regaining her composure, Sakura sprinted forward to meet him despite
Sasuke's hand grasping her wrist, trying to halt her.
"I've got a score to settle with him," the cherry blossom told him quietly with a steady,
unflinching gaze.
The Uchiha released her. This was a fight to regain her honour form her previous defeat,
a concept he himself knew all too well.

Tenten sighed. "I'll be joining that rash girl, then," she darted forward to accompany
Sakura. Naruto stopped Sasuke from intervening, knowing how badly the Uchiha wanted
to fight with Sakura.
"You'll just dominate the fight, teme. You know it. The fight is hers, and Tenten
complements her style in battle," the blonde loudmouth warned.
"Hey, you two," Tsume was striding towards them, every bit as sensuous and attractive
as her beauty dictated. "How about you stop worrying about those two kunoichi over
there and pay a little attention to me, instead? A lady doesn't like to be ignored, you
know."
Naruto could somehow see Jiraya falling for this woman hook, line and sinker. She'd have
him wrapped around her little finger in less than the time it'd take Naruto to yell "You
stupid old pervert!". But she was not one to be taken lightly, he could feel it.
"Don't do anything rash, dobe," Sasuke hissed, drawing his sword.
"Same goes for you, teme," Naruto grinned, forming his seals.
"Kage bunshin no jutsu!"
N
Spin, dodge, kick, dodge, spin, punch. Sakura and Tenten whirled, attacked and
defended with the air of well-practiced ninjas, yet neither had managed to land a scratch
on the handsome white-haired man.
"Agh!" Tenten reeled back as Shiroi's gloved fist slammed into her abdomen, feeling the
rusty taste of blood filling her mouth. Sakura immediately intervened, taking up Shiroi's
attention with a fast array of dangerous, powerful punches.
'Damn, he's fast!' the weapons mistress swore, spinning in a quick step to regain her
footing. Sakura had Shiroi's full attention now, if Tenten was to do any damage, she had
to take this shot. Reaching into her kunai pouch with both hands, she slipped her
weapons out and unleashed ten kunais at different angles with practiced accuracy. Two
struck their target deeply as the cherry blossom dodged away mid-kick, and spun back to
maximize the sudden lax in Shiroi's defense by throwing an uppercut, slamming into his
chest and sending the man flying backwards. He went crashing into a tree, jerked from
the impact, and lay still, still conscious.
The two girls stared in horror as blood spurted out of Shiroi's kunai wounds was that
blood? not crimson, like everyone else's, but white.
White blood, spilling from his shoulder and chest wounds.
The cherry blossom was thunderstruck. What was this? She'd never seen anything like it,
not in her five years as a medic, not in the volumes of medical journals and books she'd
studied. Tsunade-sama had attempted a list of rare diseases for her, too, but white blood
had never been mentioned, nor thought possible.
"What the hell is he?" Sakura whispered as she and Tenten backed away, half afraid
of what the effects of the blood spill might be.

Shiroi seemed to stagger, trying to continue their fight, but no sooner had he taken two
steps than he collapsed to his knees, coughing uncontrollably, his handsome face
contorted in suffering pain, while he clawed at his chest.
"He's got a lung problem!" Sakura exclaimed, medic instincts kicking in as she darted
forward to help him, regardless of the fact that he was her enemy.
Tenten swore loudly and darted after her, realizing what Sakura meant to do.
"Wait, Sakura, you idiot!"
N
Tsume looked completely relaxed opposite the passive Uchiha and Naruto, who was
raring to go with his bunshins surrounding him. The three black commas danced within
the blood-red pools of Sasuke's eyes, threatening his opponent with a life of illusion, but
the golden-haired beauty seemed completely unfazed.
"Uchiha, eh," she swept aside a lock of hair obscuring her face. "Captain promised that
I'd have a good time, but an Uchiha" Tsume licked her lips.
Sasuke remained completely passive.
"Delicious eyes," he suddenly felt the warm breath of a whisper brushing pas his ear, and
all of a sudden, the kunoichi was no longer in his line of view, but right next to him, a
goading presence. Naruto rushed at her, kunai aloft, and then she disappeared again.
Sasuke could just detect the faint tingle of cold metal pressed against his throat. Naruto
started forward again to defend his teammate, but Sasuke's harsh voice halted him.
"Take care of the box, Naruto."
The jinchuuriki seemed reluctant to comply, but it suddenly struck him that this was the
first time Sasuke had ever called him by his actual name. Biting his lip, Naruto grabbed
the wooden box and stepped back.
"Are you sure about that, Uchiha?" Tsume teased. "Letting him hold the box when I can
get to him so easily? The only one who stands a chance against my hypnosis is you."
"Cut the small talk, bitch," Sasuke disappeared from beneath her blade. "You're not the
only one who moves fast,"
Metal clashed as the duo whirled and spun effortlessly, engaged in a battle too fast, too
confusing to follow. Naruto's bunshins formed a circle surrounding the fight, eyes
narrowed, evidently uneasy to be made to stand out of the battle.
"Too slow, Uchiha!" Tsume mocked again as she darted past his defense and went
straight for Naruto, who was carrying the box.
Naruto dodged away, clutching the box, and in a flash, Sasuke was before him, meeting
Tsume's attack squarely, staring her in the eye.
"Like I said, you're not the only one who moves fast."

"Ah," Tsume shirked. "Does it matter?"


Sasuke's eyes narrowed as her eerily golden eyes seemed to swirl like a never-ending
vortex, drawing him in, compelling him to listen, to obey her.
"Move aside"
"You can kill that insignificant idiot, can't you?"
"Give me the box"
Sasuke fought back. Hypnosis, that was what she mentioned, wasn't it?
Focusing, he countered her charm with an equally powerful genjutsu of his own, fighting
back, threatening to crush her hypnotic power.
'Damn eyes' Sasuke swore as a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. He
could feel the electrical sensation of overwhelming power coursing through the air,
almost immobilizing him.
Naruto watched, wide-eyed, still protecting the box. This was getting out of hand, he
could tell while Tsume remained as cocky as ever, Sasuke was already struggling to
keep up, keep going, not to let her win this battle.
"C'mon c'mon, Sasuke, keep it up!" the blonde boy yelled, not even sure if his
teammate could hear him. "If you lose to her I'll kill you ten times over even if I have to
go to hell to do that!"
"Heh," Sasuke managed a chuckle. "I'm not going to lose!"
As he said the last word, the Uchiha felt the force opposing his genjutsu suddenly
disappear and he was nearly thrown forward by the strength of his own attack.
Tsume had turned, no longer paying attention to the battle. Naruto rushed up to help
Sasuke, and in the silence, they could hear the echoes of hacking, agonized coughs filling
the void.
"Shiroi!"
N
"Sakura!" Tenten clucehd Sakura's arm just before the pink-haired medic reached the
man suffering an attack. The sight of white blood unnerved her, and besides
"He's your enemy," the brown haired girl hissed. "He tried to kill you once!"
"He's in trouble! I can't just leave him to die!" the cherry blossom retorted furiously. "Not
just because he's 'the enemy'!"
"You can't always trust people so much, Sakura!" Tenten reprimanded firmly, still
harbouring the feeling that her advice wasn't about to be taken. Sakura was always
stubborn.

"I'll take my chances," Sakura pulled away and knelt next to the coughing man, forcing
him to lie down, but ensuring that she didn't come into contact with his skin.
"Stay still," she commanded firmly with the authority of a medic as Shiroi tried to move,
and channeled healing chakra into his lungs, targeting his bronchus. His chest was still
heaving with the effort it took just to breathe, and yet the white-haired man found the
strength to speak.
"Why are you helping me?"
"Because I'm a medic, and medics aren't trained to watch people die," Sakura said
grimly, trying to assess the damage to his lungs.
He stared at her face through pain-blurred eyes, the face contorted in concentration and
worry. How could she find it in her to help him, after he had very nearly killed her? Most
people would've left him for dead, so why, why her?
A shadow of doubt crept into Shiroi's heart.
"Get the scrolls. Then kill her."
That was his order. Could he really do it?
'I owe Pein-sama more'
Just as that thought crossed his mind, his chest constricted painfully again and Shiroi
was thrown forward forcefully by an even worse bout of coughing and this time, he
could feel blood trickling down his face.
"Stay still!" Sakura forced him back down again, desperately trying to heal him.
But Shiroi didn't feel the pain anymore. His mind was completely set on carrying out
what his superiors had commanded and pain didn't matter. As if running on clockwork,
his hand stiffly grasped a kunai from his open pouch, slowly drawing it up. Sakura was so
completely focused on healing him she barely noticed the trembling kunai pointed at her
chest, her heart, as she bent over him.
'Pein-sama'
"Shiroi!"
Tsume's voice. The world spun wildly as someone hoisted him from behind, the metallic
sound of his kunai being knocked out of his hand reverberated through the stunned
silence, and then the cold tip of a blade could be felt at his throat.
Sakura had found herself shoved backwards roughly as the tip of Shiroi's kunai tore
through the shoulder of her blouse, and suddenly, Sasuke was standing with his back
toward her, the tip of his sword pointed at Shiroi's throat, who, in turn, was being
supported by Tsume.
Death waves radiated off the Uchiha, as his grip tightened around his sword.
"She tried to save you," his voice was barely above a whisper, but sounded crystal clear
in the apprehensive silence. "After all you did to her, Sakura tried to save you."

Shiroi and Tsume were staring at him the former with his face contorted in pain, the
latter emotionless.
"Don't you ever dare touch her again," Sasuke hissed, his blade pricking the skin on
Shiroi's throat.
"You hear me?"
Sasuke's teammates bit their lips. This sort of voice low, dangerous was a voice
Sasuke rarely used, and it meant nothing good.
"Who are you to threaten us, Uchiha?" Tsume asked coldly after a long moment of
silence, supporting Shiroi firmly.
With one long, scathing glance at Sasuke, Tsume leapt up, carrying the semi-conscious
Shiroi, and disappeared through the trees.
N
"Stop them," Sakura whispered, standing up slowly, almost disbelievingly, as her team
stared into the darkness left behind. "He's. going to die"
Her face was as pale as a sheet. Shiroi's condition he looked so perfect on the outside,
and yet inside
Unable to stand the thought any longer, the cherry blossom stepped forward, making to
go after the duo, but was quickly blocked by Naruto and Tenten, both shaking their
heads warningly, eying the Uchiha.
Sasuke still had his back to her as he sheathed his sword. His hands no, his whole body
seemed to be trembling. Turning around, he stared straight at her, facing her squarely,
his expression completely unreadable. The cherry blossom looked at him, confused,
meeting his glassy, icy stare apprehensively.
Without another word, Sasuke raised a hand and slapped Sakura right across her cheek.

Chapter 34: Reconciliation


The anger began to show on Sakura's face several seconds after the initial shock.
"What the hell was that for?" she hissed at Sasuke, fingering her reddened cheek.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Shut up, Haruno," Sasuke snarled, blood-red Sharingan boring into Sakura's emerald
eyes. There was anger, fury, his expression was completely livid, but there was
something else that Sakura couldn't quite pinpoint worry, fear? But still. The pinkhaired kunoichi was too angry to think straight, to catch the finer details.
"You're telling me to "

"Yes, I'm telling you, shut up!"


The air seemed to become increasingly suffocating in the tense silence, as two
teammates glared fiercely at each other, neither relenting, neither backing down.
Naruto and Tenten watched uncertainly from the sidelines, unsure if they ought to
intervene in this quarrel. Sasuke seemed to be taking deep breaths, trying to control his
anger, and only relaxed slightly when his Sharingan faded away.
He struggled to find the words to say something, but faltered and failed. How do you put
anger into words? Yelling, screaming, swearing?
No, that wasn't it. What he felt now wasn't exactly anger that could be expressed that
way.
"How could you " he started, but found that he still couldn't say what he wanted to say.
Sighing in frustration, Sasuke turned, releasing his clenched fist.
"You bloody idiot," the Uchiha said quietly, walking away, striding into the cover of the
trees, leaving the cherry blossom staring incredulously at his back.
N
"What-" Sakura started angrily, faced by his retreating back
"You know, I hate to say this but he's right, Sakura. You were a bloody idiot," Tenten
said, casting her friend a sidelong glance.
Sakura looked furious. "Great! So now the oh-so-icy Uchiha slaps me for no apparent
reason and you're supporting him?"
Her two friends stayed silent. Sakura wasn't the best person to reason with when she
was acting like this. The cherry blossom's jaw clenched in frustration when they showed
no response she wanted to hit something. Not them, never, but she wanted one of
them to provoke her, to give her some reason to hit something. Because right now, she
was torn between whether or not she was right or wrong.
"Forget it," she unclenched her fist slowly, motioning towards the route by which Shiroi
and Tsume had just left. "I'm going after them."
"Don't you get it, Sakura?" Naruto's voice rang out, strangely detached. His electric blue
gaze studied her stubborn expression, her tensed muscles.
"This is exactly why the teme is so angry at you."
"Why " Sakura started in mild confusion.
"Your mindset in 'saving people'," Naruto said simply. "You just charge it, undoubtedly
thinking about that life you feel you ought to save. Of course, that's noble, but you forget
even about yourself."
"There's nothing noble " Sakura cut in, looking down at her torn blouse, the mesh shirt
beneath visible through where Shiroi had nicked the outer garment. "Medics aren't
trained to care about themselves." She ended somewhat lamely.

"There were better ways to execute your plan of healing him," Tenten retorted, arms
crossed. "You could've taken him out before even attempting to heal him, and you
wouldn't have ended up nearly being killed."
"But I " Sakura protested.
"Have you forgotten, Sakura-chan, that you, too, have people who care abut you?"
Naruto asked quietly. "Being a medic, putting others before yourself yes, I understand.
But sometimes it's okay to be selfish. Worry about yourself once in awhile. Shiroi tried
to kill you before. It's natural that he would try again, but you just charged in blindly
there's no guarantee that he'd be grateful or anything! You weren't even the slightest bit
cautious about him."
"You made us worried, Sakura." Tenten exhaled, letting out her anger slowly. "We were
scared that you'd be killed," she drew a finger across the rough bark of a tree. "That's all.
We were worried."
N
Naruto watched as Sakura wandered through the trees, radiating a sense of confusion,
like a lost child. He watched as she disappeared behind a large redwood, and sighed.
"I'm no longer sure that it was a good thing to confront her like that" Naruto ventured.
"She just looked like she crumbled."
"It wasn't the nicest thing to say, but it was the right thing to say," Tenten was starting
to prepare dinner. "I know I'm her best friend and all but this time, I need her to get up
by herself and learn that we're gonna be here. Watching her. Cheering her on from the
sidelines, and breaking a few rules to carry her out of the battlefield if need be. But right
now, we can't watch her back forever. She's got to learn that sometimes, being selfish is
the key to her own survival. Even if just a little."
Naruto slowly got up from his sitting position to help, but paused for a moment to tilt his
head towards the sky.
Black, endless, beautiful. Silver stars twinkled in the distance, so close, yet so far apart.
Sometimes he felt that they were like the stars brilliantly shining, appearing so close in
the dark night sky yet so far in reality. If he'd learnt anything from the bizarre mission,
Sasuke's return and this deadly exam, it was that his team still had much to understand
and accept about each other.
He'd seen something in Sasuke's eyes when Shiroi tried to kill Sakura, and it wasn't
anger. He had wanted to tell her about it before. Now, he cast a glance at the tree
behind which the pink-haired kunoichi sat, wondering if he ought to tell her.
Naruto turned and walked away, to help prepare dinner. Not now. That was not for him
to tell. Sakura would have to find out for herself, how much their raven-haired friend
cared for her.
N
He felt frustration. Anger, sadness, relief, all melted into one bubbling caldron of
emotions that he had forced back and never let himself experience until now.

Sasuke couldn't explain what he felt and why he felt that way. When he'd watched
Shiroi's dagger, millimeters away from Sakura's heart, some sort of impulse had washed
over him like a crashing wave, jolting him with a sense of fear that pierced his heart and
twisted through viciously. He could imagine how that pain could've increased tenfold if
the dagger had actually pierced her.
And honestly, that was what frustrated him. Why did he feel this way?
When Sakura had been frozen, that hadn't broken him. But perhaps that was because he
was so focused on doing what he could do to help her. Now that he had to just watch,
fully believing that she would die, that was when it hit him, hard.
Sasuke remembered what had flashed through his mind at the precise moment he'd
caught that scene. For just a split second, he'd seen his mother, Mikoto, in Sakura's
place, and Shiroi's dagger seemed to be Itachi's glinting blade, about to kill the mother
trying to save him.
Then he saw the blood, and Mikoto's limp body slumping lifelessly down, and suddenly,
Sakura was the one dead.
He couldn't describe what he felt then. The rising panic in his chest that overwhelmed
and suffocated him, and made him feel so scared, so afraid for her, like he was a kid
again, afraid of seeing yet another person he loved die. He couldn't' stand another blow
like that.
Sasuke's fists clenched, his nails scraping against the bark of the tree root protruding out
of the ground. It was so painful, having to feel again. He'd spent five years at
Orochimaru's not ever caring what happened to his 'comrades', not ever having to care,
and suddenly feeling like this again was too much.
This was also what he had felt when they were attacked outside Konoha's gates, and one
of the enemy had had a sword at her throat, when he'd watched her slipping away.
No, he shouldn't be thinking like this. He couldn't afford to, not when he still had Itachi to
kill. Having someone so close, so important to him would just make him all the more
vulnerable.
Yet it wasn't as if he could just stop loving
His thoughts paused, thunderstruck. Loving? He shook his head, bewildered. What the
hell was wrong with him? There was no way he could love such a weak, feminine
concept. No, not possible, he just cared for her like any other teammate would
Sasuke's fist smashed into the tree he had been leaning on, his knuckles bled sorely. His
eyes shut tightly in frustration, his jaw clenched. And yet, he knew, he couldn't deny it.
He just didn't know what to think anymore.
N
Shikamaru turned and caught the bottle of cold water Neji had tossed at him. Twisting
off the cap, the Jounin gulped down half the bottle and poured the rest over his head.
"You checked the Northern passages?" Shikamaru asked Neji quietly as water dripped
from his face.

"Yeah. They're all pretty well done, and the entrances properly concealed couldn't tell
where they were without the Byakugan," the Hyuuga prodigy spoke. "The steel
reinforcements for the safehouses have been completed, too."
Shikamaru let out a long sigh of relief. He was unusually perplexed about these defense
matters perhaps it was because he couldn't be directly involved in the carry-out of
every single plan. It had begun to surprise him, his vigilance. He'd spent his childhood
days wanting to be just a 'normal' person, as normal as shinobi could get, anyway. But
even that didn't seem quite possible with a war approaching.
'Damn Akatsuki. They couldn't just well leave the rest of the world alone,' a voice
muttered from the back of his head as his grimaced. 'Troublesome idiots.'
"You're unusually tense, Nara," Neji observed, fingering the newly built wall as he
activated his Byakugan without being really conscious of it an annoying habit he'd
developed lately during his inspection rounds as he scanned the wall for weak spots.
"Hmph," the pineapple-head grumbled. "It's impossible not to be tense, the Godaime's
breathing fire down my back," Shikamaru scowled at the wall he was staring at, the
construction workers had done a shabby job on the last section. Someone would be
suffering his wrath tomorrow.
"The area you're scowling at could use a bit more work," Neji suggested, a smile tugging
at his lips. Shikamaru perplexed was really an unusual occurrence, and he intended to
make the most out of it.
"Yeah, yeah, the guy who did it better be jumping off a cliff now or I'll personally hang
him myself tomorrow," Shikamaru deadpanned, casting the Hyuuga a sidelong glance.
There was a moment of silence.
"How about your research on that Shiroi guy that Tenten's team warned Tsunade-sama
about?" the Nara genius questioned casually, plopping down on a stack of concrete slabs.
"Not much luck, Hidden Rain's information is tight, and strangely, all our informants are
reluctant to sell anything about them as if they know what will happen to them if they
do," Neji rubbed his temples. "But we managed to get a few things from the de-frozen
Jounins he freezes people at touch and it's impossible to resist though we're not sure
what, exactly, his ability freezes in the body, Tsunade-sama's examination on the two
shinobi didn't show much."
"That's a pretty impressive ability, but somehow, I don't think that's the extent of their
power," Shikamaru mused. "We've no proof, but I'm pretty sure Amegakure backs
Akatsuki, which will end badly for us if our exam candidates become prime targets."
"They better not hurt our teams, if they know what's good for them," Neji said darkly, his
thoughts drifting to Tenten.
Shikamaru smiled slightly. "I hope they're alright."
Neji fingered the chocolate-coloured wristband Tenten had given him as a gift just before
the exam, and glanced at Shikamaru.
"I'm sure they are."

N
Ino and Hinata were discussing civilian evacuation plans with Tsunade in her office when
Shizune knocked quietly and announced that Chouza and Chouji were back, after two
months of being away. Ino leapt up excitedly, greeting her teammate with so much
enthusiasm it was as if he'd been away for years, but Chouji was obviously very tired
despite trying his best to return the greeting with a grin.
Tsunade looked at the Akimichi clan head expectantly after Ino and Hinata gave up their
desk-front seats to the two men.
Chouza shook his head tiredly, answering the unasked question. "It's no good. No one
wants to help supply food, all the other villages are afraid of getting mixed up in this and
turning Akatsuki into their enemy as well."
"Haven't they ever lost anything to Akatsuki?" the Godaime asked, quietly fuming. "All
those complacent heads, fearing for nothing but their own lives."
"They may have lost their jinchuuriki, but to most, that isn't so much of a loss, seeing as
they're viewed as monsters," Chouza replied.
"If we lose this war and Akatsuki completes their Bijuu collection, no one will be spared.
They haven't thought of that either, have they?" the Godaime muttered distastefully,
scorning the selfish display from the other villages.
"They're not looking that far," Chouji said wistfully.
"But of course, Sunagakure pledged all the help they can give, even in manpower, but
being a desert village, there's only so much they can offer in terms of food," Chouza
reported. "Hidden Mist has also pledged to help, but as for the rest"
"How much of our population can we cover with our current food supply?" Tsunade
questioned.
"I'd say about two-thirds, including the pledged help. But many foreign merchants are
avoiding Konoha altogether after all the rumours, so it may be even less," Chouza
answered.
"Then we prepare what we can. Take some time to revise our rationing, see if it can be
adjusted. I'll speak to the heads of the smaller villages around to see what they can
offer," the Godaime decided.
Chouza inclined his head slightly in agreement. "How are things going with the Jounin
exams? And the mission Chouji was supposed to go on?"
Tsunade sighed. "Dangerous, as usual. At least Anko is enjoying herself in the midst of
all that bloodlust. As for the mission, I'll leave Ino and Hinata to give you the details, it's
a long story," Tsunade glanced out of the window, and stood. "Ino, Hinata, I'll continue
this discussion later. Stay here for awhile, I'm going to see someone. Please excuse me,
Akimichi-san."
With a parting wave, the Godaime swept out of the room, quickening her steps once out
of sight.
N

Jiraya was gazing back at Konoha, his eyes travelling over the familiar, faded-coloured
walls and roofs of his home village, pausing for a moment on the Hokage tower before
finally resting upon the Hokage monument, so deeply engraved into the cliffs overlooking
the village.
Five great shinobi who gave everything they had to keep the village safe, and three of
them were extremely precious to him. He didn't care much for the Shodaime and
Nidaime he respected them as the core founders of Konoha and nothing more, nothing
less. But as for the other three
The Sandaime, his teacher.
The Yondaime, Namikaze Minato, his prize student.
The Godaime, Tsunade, his childhood teammate.
Jiraya's gaze fixed on the empty spot next to Tsunade's monument. He could imagine
Naruto's face up there, not serious or benign like the rest, but grinning broadly, a sworn
protector of Konoha.
'Maybe I won't live to see you become the Rokudaime, brat, but you better make sure
your face is up there or I'll come back to haunt you,' the Sannin thought amusedly.
"What's with the stupid look, Jiraya?" a voice cut through his thoughts. Jiraya knew she'd
been there, how could he not? Tsunade had a certain presence, cultivated over the years
of being Hokage, commanding authority and attention. But he loved her all the same.
Through losing teachers and students, he learned the importance of friends, how he
could never take them for granted.
"So you're leaving, then?" the blonde woman asked quietly, breaking the silence.
"Yeah. I'm planning to reach our stakeout point before those brats get out of the Forest
of Death, I don't want any surprises sprung on us," the white-haired man crossed his
arms, looking at Tsunade intently.
The Godaime hesitated. "if the war really happens, you'll be in the front lines, Jiraya,"
He merely chuckled. "What better place to be? I've always wanted to be in the thick of
things, Tsunade, you know me well."
"I know," she said quietly, almost sounding frustrated as she stared at the moving
clouds, rapid changing shapes and patterns. "But sometimes, I wish I wasn't the
Hokage just so that I don't have to be invincible and can be in action once again, like
all the years before, right at the front lines where I belong."
Jiraya grasped her shoulders. "You belong in that office of yours lady. Having one of us in
the front lines is quite enough. After all," he grinned. "I could always use some backup."
Tsunade scowled. Jiraya was always acting like everything was a big joke, never showing
her how he really felt. It was maddening, his trying to protect her.
"Well, I'd better be going, my team's waiting," Jiraya released her shoulder, meeting her
hazel eyes. "It's almost our time, Tsunade. Take care of those brats properly. And say
goodbye to Naruto for me, will ya?"

Tsunade nodded. "Promise me you'll come back, okay?"


The Toad Sannin had just been about to turn away, but faced Tsunade again, his
expression rather melancholic.
"I don't make promises I might not be able to keep, Tsunade."
They stood there for a long while.
Tsunade took a step forward, and hesitantly gave her childhood teammate a brief,
awkward hug, stepping back swiftly lest he get the wrong idea.
Jiraya smiled broadly, saluting her. "Take care, Tsunade-chan."
The Godaime watched him walking away, fighting back her tears. Her inability to protect
was coming back to haunt her now, all the people she loved who left, one by one. Dan,
her handsome boyfriend, who had died in her arms during a mission. Her younger
brother, who had dreamt of becoming Hokage. The Sandaime, her teacher and
predecessor, dead at the hands of his won student, Orochimaru.
And now him. The one person left to her, walking away, a mere silhouette against the
glorious setting sun. Leaving, without a promise to return.
As Jiraya disappeared through Konoha's gates, Tsunade turned, letting her tears flow as
she hugged herself on the deserted pathway, utterly alone.
She knew she was never going to see him again.
N
Anko grabbed the last dango on the plate and swallowed it whole, quickly, before Kakashi
could notice that his share was gone.
"Damn, Anko, that was mine!" the silver-haired Jounin protested, but was blatantly
ignored. All around them, the Jounins laughed.
"Anyway, is that it?" Genma stretched lazily. Asuma and Kurenai were quietly chatting in
a corner of the lounge, Izumo and Kotetsu were laughing their heads off at the coffee
table for some reason, Shizune was explaining something to Iruka, standing next to the
window no one was any interested in the meeting anymore.
"Well, one more thing. You could try not getting killed," Anko grinned. "We've got quite a
dangerous bunch this year."
"You think we're no match for them?" Asuma cut in, sounding amused.
"Uh-huh," Anko imitated a mother hen tone, wagging a finger at him, pretending to look
stern as Kurenai doubled over in laughter. Looking serious was not Anko's forte.
"Overconfidence comes before downfall, young man."
"Well, I wish I was that young, Anko, I'm older than you,' Asuma grinned.
"Yeah, and like you're one to talk, Anko," Kakashi cast her a sidelong glance, earning
himself a glare.

"I'm trying to give some good advice here!"


"Hear, hear," Genma called out cheekily, and Izumo and Kotetsu applauded amidst hoots
and cheers.
"The problem is, Anko, anyone dim-witted enough to take your advice have been liable to
getting killed," Shizune said wryly. "Though, for once, you've actually used your common
sense."
Far from being offended, Anko grinned. "Well, since everyone is starting to ignore me,
we might as well end this."
"Gosh" Kotetsu yawned. "I've been waiting forever to hear you say that."
Izumo stood, stretching. "I'm going to Ichiraku's. Who's coming?"
Everyone filed out, with Anko at the rear, yelling a reminder.
"You lot better be there tomorrow night!"
On second thought, she yanked Ka