Author: JanuaryEclipses PM
Sakura isn’t weak because she lacks strength. She is weak because they protect her. Sakura-centricRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Drama - Sakura H. - Chapters: 14 - Words: 106,653 - Reviews: 1,401 - Favs: 1,404 - Follows: 1,309 - Updated: 04-21-13 - Published: 09-27-09 - id: 5405135
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Notes: Hey guys, so my only excuse this time is school. I always get really busy when it starts, and to be honest, I'm not sure how I'll be updating-wise for the rest of the semester. Some weeks will be good. Some will be not so good. The good news is that I'm updating in October when last year I went from July to January without updating, so we'll call this an improvement! Thanks to those of you who were patient and encouraging. And oh my goodness 1000 reviews! I feel so blessed you guys, thank you! Here's to you guys, to more chapters, and to 1000 more!
Quote for Chapter 13: "Dispute not with her: she is a lunatic."— William Shakespeare, Richard III.
Title: Catch 22
Rating: T (or PG-13)
Summary: Sakura isn't weak because she lacks strength. She is weak because they protect her. Sakura-centric
Pairings: None (yet)
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Spoiler Alert: This chapter is entirely fanfiction. You're safe…for now.
Chapter 13: Dispute Not
It came as little surprise to Sakura that "Team Kakashi the Second" flew through the written test and the practical exam, not to mention the preliminaries. Of course, she hadn't actually been in Earth for that part, but she was already hearing stories. They had made it through Earth's version of the Forest of Death in less than ten minutes, groups of potential Chuunin cowering at their feet and handing over the required scrolls. In the preliminaries, the rumor went that Suigetsu won his match by default since his opponent had fainted on him before the examiner even started the match.
So now, a month later, she stood next to Tsunade in the Kage's balcony as an honored guest of the Hokage in her own Chuunin attire. She really needed to go ahead and take the Jounin exam, but somehow she never found time for it. She was more than qualified for the position, after all, and she was ready to earn her promotion. Two ANBU stood behind her and her mentor as guards, and even Sakura was armed to the teeth. Considering how the last Chuunin Exam had gone when it involved Sasuke and Naruto, she felt it was only appropriate to be prepared. Besides, ever since they had walked into the Earth village, the people here had given her strange looks and it was making her nervous. Of course that could have been because of her hair, but who knew?
The Tsuchikage was naturally sitting in the middle, with Tsunade to his left and then the Raikage, and to his right sat Gaara and then the Mizukage. Each of them had their own set of guards flanking them, but only Tsunade and the Tsuchikage seemed to have an extra, with a rather lanky man standing beside the Tsuchikage. Although there was a man standing behind the Tsuchikage that was nearly twice Sakura's size, so she didn't know why he felt like he needed more protection.
Sakura paid attention to the fights, entertaining herself by betting who the winner was going to be. She had been right all but once, in which a rather miraculous display of courage from a young girl from Waterfall had her impressed.
The kunoichi heard footsteps coming towards her, and she turned her head to see Temari walking in her direction in her usual black kimono, her trademark fan probably sealed away for the time being. She felt the people around her, especially those not from Konoha, tense a bit. It was unusual for a Kage's guard to leave their side, especially around so many foreign nin.
The blonde came and stood next to Sakura. "Switch places with me. Kazekage-sama would like to have a word with you, if that would be alright with the venerable Hokage-sama?" Sakura wondered if Temari felt strange calling her little brother by such a title, but shrugged off that thought to raise a confused eyebrow. Tsunade merely rolled her eyes at the formalities, and jerked her head as a sign of permission.
Temari stood in Sakura's place while the pink haired kunoichi made her way behind the Tsuchikage's chair, not failing to notice how all eyes were trained on her movements. She passed Gaara's chair, receiving a smile from Kankuro as she did so, and kneeled next to him on his right as a sign of respect. She could almost feel the Mizukage's eyes on her and she bit her cheek to remain calm. It was hard not to be intimidated by the Mizukage after all, gorgeous woman that she was.
"Kazekage-sama." Sakura addressed, proud of herself that she didn't let any of her confusion slip into her voice. Why would he call her over? Not to mention in such a place. If he wanted to speak to her, Sakura had little doubt that he could find a more convenient time to do it. She stood, too distracted to focus on any of the matches now.
The redhead was characteristically quiet for a moment before speaking. "Haruno-san, I have a request to make of you."
Green eyes blinked. "Of course, Kazekage-sama."
"Konoha's medics have long been considered the best amongst the Great Villages, and recent evaluations of Suna's hospital have shown that we have improvements to make. Seeing as how Konoha's hospital has only gotten better since you've trained the incoming medics, my request is that you travel to Suna and improve the efficiency of our hospital. It will be considered an A-Rank mission should you decide to accept, and the Hokage-sama has already agreed." He finally looked at her. "But, of course, the decision is entirely up to you."
Sakura's mouth fell open a tad…she couldn't help it. Whatever she had been expecting to come out of the Kazekage's mouth, that certainly was not it. And of course he would have to ask her in the most embarrassing way possible, in front of all the Kages who were very obviously listening in on the conversation. Sakura thought for a moment that he had done it on purpose, to boast a little that the Godaime Hokage's apprentice would be the one to train Suna medics, to hopefully make them par with Konoha's. But then she thought about it again and dismissed that idea, since Gaara was never one to boast about such things, and frankly he didn't care who was listening. Which meant…he had just truly and genuinely complimented her skills without any sort of hidden agenda.
She felt a bit faint, to be honest.
Finally realizing an answer was expected of her, she removed the slightly shocked expression from her face and gave him a slight smile. "It would be an honor, Kazekage-sama." She said, inwardly squealing in glee that she was being recognized in such a manner.
He nodded. "Temari will be in contact with the remainder of the details." He looked like he was going to say something more, but his gaze flickered over to towards the stadium. Sakura looked over and nearly jumped out of her skin—narrowly avoiding embarrassing herself any further and managing not to react—when she found Naruto crouched in front of Gaara on the ledge.
Sakura was amused to see one of the Mizukage's guards start a little bit, though.
Cerulean blue eyes were narrowed in scrutiny, his arms crossed, and he looked a bit disgruntled. He was this close to getting himself disqualified for stepping out of bounds, but as long as he didn't touch the ground inside the Kage's balcony he was fine. The wall of the stadium was still considered in bounds. Although Sakura discovered that they were merely looking at a clone, considering the real Naruto had one hand on a twelve-year-old's head and was holding him at arms length, practically taunting the poor boy.
"Whatcha talking about?" The blonde asked, his gaze shifting between Sakura's incredulous expression and Gaara's stoic one.
The pink haired kunoichi wanted to punch the clone out of existence, but touching him would disqualify him as well. So instead, she settled on an intelligent, "…the hell?"
Naruto put one hand on his heart dramatically. "I'm down there fighting for my life"—the actual Naruto had surrounded the twelve-year-old Genin with clones and was taunting him—"and not even my own teammate will cheer me on. How do you think that makes me feel, Sakura-chan? That you don't care that I might be broken and bleeding"—the boy was now trying to catch the real Naruto, who was disappearing and reappearing in random locations—"and you're up here getting cozy with Gaara?" Sakura spluttered, turning beet red at the repressed laughs that were coming from behind the Mizukage's hand. "It's just rude, Sakura-chan."
The kunoichi wondered if a black hole would open up underneath her and just swallow her.
"Naruto." Sakura bit out, fists clenched. "Get back in the ring."
"But I am in the ring, technically, anyway." He shook his head. "Clearly you haven't been listening to me. Gaara, it's not fair that you're distracting her. What if I need Sakura-chan's support in a life or death"—the twelve year old was now beating on a clone while the real Naruto sat a few feet behind the Genin—"situation?"
"I'm sure you'll be fine." Sakura wondered how the words made it past her teeth, clenched as hard as they were.
"Thank you for the confidence, Sakura-chan, but what if—"
Sakura marched over to him and put her finger not an inch away from his nose, getting face to face with him. Blue eyes crossed warily to look at her pointer finger, knowing that she could kill him, or at least dispel the clone, with just the tip of it. Sakura didn't dare touch him though. She didn't want to be the reason he failed.
"Get back down there, now."
He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Why? So you can get all kissy-kissy with—"
Sakura didn't even let him finish. She merely tapped his nose with the tip of her finger, watching his face crumple as he was sent a good ten feet out in the air before his clone started falling downwards, eventually poofing out of existence in midair.
There was silence on the balcony for a moment before Tsunade cleared her throat. "Terrible balance, that one…" She said, and Sakura heard the other Kages murmur an agreement.
Clones didn't relay their information to the actual person until they didn't exist anymore, so Sakura watched as Naruto's face twisted as he relived the conversation. Since most of his attention was free (he was back to holding the child's head again) he turned towards her indignantly.
"Hey!" He yelled at her.
"Finish the fight, idiot!" Sakura yelled back, leaning over the wall.
Her teammate gave her a flat look, released the kid, and stepped aside. The Waterfall Genin ran at the older boy, not managing to change his direction when Naruto moved. He tripped…and knocked himself out on a rock. The proctor didn't look like he knew quite what was going on.
"Happy now?!" Naruto yelled at her. He started walking back towards the rest of the finalists, who were in an alcove directly underneath the Kage's balcony. The blond muttered, "Evil bitch," not thinking she could hear him. As it was, he was facing in her general direction, so Sakura managed to lip-read it all the same.
Sakura's gloved fist came down hard on the ledge, the entire stadium trembling and groaning as a result. Naruto froze mid step, sweating bullets as he cautiously directed his gaze to the balcony. Sakura saw him gulp.
"What was that?" The kunoichi asked, managing to project her voice without yelling.
"I said dinner is my treat, Sakura-chan!" Naruto called back, his voice sounding less than steady.
"That's what I thought you said." She muttered, turning back around with the slight giggles of the spectators ringing in her ears. She met the amused faces of the Kages and their guards, and flushed a little under the attention. The kunoichi cleared her throat. "Temari has the rest of the details?" Sakura asked the Kazekage, her eye still twitching.
"Yes." He said. Gaara looked the least affected by Naruto's appearance, but Sakura could still see that he was the slightest bit amused by the whole thing.
"Is there anything further you wished to discuss, Kazekage-sama?"
"No." He said. "You're dismissed."
The kunoichi bowed a little in response, and began to make her way back to Tsunade. She shot Kankuro a frosty glance when he grinned and opened his mouth, but he shut it immediately when he saw that look. Temari was smiling as well, she wasn't the only one, and Tsunade was smirking.
"He deserved that." Tsunade told her.
"He slipped off that ledge, shishou." Sakura responded coolly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Tsunade grinned wider. "Of course, but do me a favor and make him buy you something expensive."
Oh, Tsunade didn't have to worry about that. If Sakura had her way, her teammate would be buying her a gold plated kunai before the night was over with, which she would then promptly use to stab him.
It never got that extreme, but the finals matches ended when it got too dark to fight anymore. Naruto, Sasuke, and Suigetsu were still in the competition, and tomorrow was reserved to allow them to fight, since no way was a matchup between any of them going to be short.
As soon as Sakura saw Naruto on the street—with no one foreign around, she didn't want to damage Konoha's reputation anymore than it already had been—she stalked up to him, fists clenched. As soon as he saw her, his face immediately settled on panic, looking for support from anyone else and not finding any.
"Congratulations, idiot." Sakura seethed.
And then she sent him flying.
"What did the Kazekage want, Sakura?" Kakashi asked that night at dinner. It was strange, Sakura mused, to be eating with her team at a place that wasn't ramen-related. However, Naruto had already eaten at the one ramen stand in Rock and declared it wasn't worth eating there, since apparently it was the worst ramen he'd ever tasted. No one else complained about this, since it meant they got to pick a different place to eat for a change. Sakura allowed herself to be led around and given their version of a tour, since they had been here for a month between the preliminaries and the finals matches. They were currently eating from a large beef hot pot at one of the restaurants the team frequented.
Sakura snatched a few pieces of beef before Naruto or Suigetsu could get to them. "He was giving me a mission." She said, popping a mushroom in her mouth. Her team stared at her for a moment.
"A mission?" Naruto asked, his mouth full of food. "But Sakura-chan—"
"Swallow, dobe." Sasuke said a little disgustedly.
Sakura didn't wait for him to swallow before she started her explanation. "Gaara-sama requested that I travel to Suna to train medics and improve the efficiency of the hospital there."
"Oh…that's um…" Naruto cleared his throat. It was a bit disconcerting he didn't look excited for her. "And you said no, right?"
Sakura gave him an incredulous expression. "Why would I say no? It's a huge honor."
"Because you practically just got back from your last long term mission, Sakura-chan! You'll be leaving us again!"
It doesn't feel so good, does it? Being the one left behind. Sakura thought, but she said, "Keep your voice down."
"I've already accepted, Naruto."
"When are you leaving?" Kakashi asked.
"I don't know. Temari is supposed to come by my room later with the details. I imagine it will be soon though."
"Sakura-chan…" Naruto said, and there was a bit of worry filtering into his voice.
"It's not like last time." She assured him. "I'm going to Suna. Nothing's going to happen."
"Maybe I can talk to Gaara so he can get some other medic to go."
The kunoichi reeled back as if she'd been slapped. Some other medic? Did that imply that Naruto thought she was just some medic? As if anyone else besides the Hokage herself was even close to her skills. Some medic? She felt her mouth open slightly, but her anger was overshadowed by hurt. After all this time…after everything they had gone through together…after all the times she had proven herself…
The blond seemed to realize his mistake the instant the last syllable was out of his mouth. "Wait, that's not what I meant Sakura-chan!" Sakura didn't trust herself to talk. The moment she started she was going to verbally thrash him. "I just meant that you've been so busy…so maybe you could take a break and someone else could go instead?" He suggested a little hesitantly.
"Well I'm sure Tsunade-sama would be honored, but unfortunately she's a little busy." Sakura bit out before standing up. She would let the rest of them get the tab.
She didn't look back. Not even when she had a retort on her tongue did she look back. She just walked away with tears in her eyes and her shoulders back and her chin up. She heard Naruto scramble after her, but she needed this. She needed to be the one to walk away for a change. When the blond was three steps away, she made the required hand seals and poofed out of the restaurant.
Sakura landed in her hotel room, and sobbed in the silence.
Naruto and Sasuke were fighting in the ring, neither was giving it their all. She expected Naruto to be distracted, but something must have happened when she'd left that had bothered Sasuke as well.
Tsunade looked over with a smirk. "Who are you rooting for, Sakura?"
"Neither." Sakura growled. She was mad at Naruto for his comments, and she was mad at the rest of her team for not backing her up.
Tsunade sighed. "Just remember Sakura, men are idiots."
The Raikage looked over. "Beg pardon?" He asked.
The Hokage turned cool eyes towards him. "Men are idiots." She reiterated slowly. "Present company included."
There was no reaction on A's face, he merely turned back towards the match. Sakura thought the statement was a little ballsy, and she wondered how Tsunade knew she could get away with that without starting an international incident. Behind her, the Mizukage tittered—tittered!—behind her hand in amusement. Sakura turned her eyes upwards and said a word of thanks that she hadn't been the Mizukage's apprentice. As hellish as Tsunade's training had been, there was no way she would have endured the ladylike Mizu-damn-kage for close to three years.
After an hour and a half, it was declared a draw and the matches were over. Sasuke had already won against Suigetsu.
Temari walked up to her as the Kages were bidding each other goodbye with a lot of fake smiling. "Sakura." She greeted. "Let's talk." She paused. "Unless you'd rather see your team first?"
Green eyes swiveled towards the ring, where her team was gathering. Something inside of her pushed her to see if they were okay, to go heal their wounds…but then the hurt flared again. Some other medic could tend to that. She looked back to Temari. "No. Let's go."
The look the Suna kunoichi sent her made her feel a little guilty, but she forcefully shoved it down. "Okay." Temari said. "We can talk in my hotel."
The walk to the hotel was short, and they sat in the living room of Temari's suite that she shared with her brothers. Naturally, the Kazekage's accommodations were far nicer than Sakura's. The older kunoichi handed her a file. "The major things are in there."
What she saw first amongst the pile of papers was the basics of the hospital: how large it was, how many it staffed, how many patients it could hold, etc. Some other documents listed the requirements of the incoming medics (which were surprisingly low) and what training was like for a medic. This had Sakura frowning. It was no wonder she'd had to race from Konoha to save Kankurou's life.
"This is helpful, but I can't get a feel of the hospital just from this." She told Temari. "I need to actually go there." There was a lot the documents weren't covering, and it was hard to tell exactly what she needed to do there from a few pieces of paper.
Temari nodded. "We figured. But we also decided to go ahead and give you those so you can guess what you're up against."
The last sheet in the pile told her how much she was going to get paid. They would provide housing, and she would get a stipend. The amount seemed a little much, but when Sakura factored out about how much she would have to spend for food, the amount was reasonable. It was still more than she would have asked for.
"Temari," Sakura addressed. "Why did Gaara-sama ask me to do this in front of the rest of the Kages?" Because if your hospital wasn't doing that well, that wasn't exactly something you advertised to the other Great Nations. They could conclude that since the hospital wasn't doing well, then the rest of the city wasn't doing well either, leaving Suna open for attack.
The other kunoichi shrugged. "I have no idea, but Gaara usually just does whatever he wants anyway, regardless of who is watching." She sent the medic a sly look. "Why? Were you embarrassed?"
Sakura flushed. "You were there." She said. "Of course I was embarrassed…although that was mostly Naruto's fault."
"Is that why you're mad at him?"
Sakura paused, almost cursing the fact that the other woman was so observant. "No…he just opened his mouth last night and said some things." When she was still on the end of Temari's questioning gaze, she elaborated a bit. Temari wasn't Ino, but maybe it would be good to talk to her all the same. "He doesn't think I should go to Suna. He said he'd talk to Tsunade to send some other medic instead."
"Does he realize there is no other medic we'd consider asking?"
Sakura's heart fluttered a bit at the indirect compliment. She had been their first choice, and their only choice. "I don't think so, but I think it's got more to do with the fact that I'll be gone for a long period of time."
"Ah." Temari sat back in her chair. "I know you don't want to hear this, but I get where he's coming from."
Sakura blinked for a few seconds. "Excuse me?"
"I was the one who found you when you got back, remember? The sight of you and that stupid pineapple idiot almost dying was…well it's not exactly something I like to think about."
The medic thought for a few moments about that. She imagined that news had been rather traumatic, since if she'd heard that Naruto was found almost dead after he disappeared for a few months she'd be pretty upset, too. But she knew he could take care of himself…just like he should know that she could take care of herself. "I guess I'm just upset he doesn't trust me." Sakura finally said, running her hand through her hair.
Temari snorted a laugh. "Yeah, that team of yours…" She looked skyward, leaving the other woman guessing at what was going to come next.
The air became a little awkward, so Sakura cleared her throat and got back to business. "So, when would I be expected in Suna?"
The blonde came out of her memories. "As soon as you're available. We expect that you will go to Konoha after the Exams, so whenever you are packed and prepared."
Sakura nodded. "Okay." She calculated the time in her head. "Give me…two weeks?"
The other kunoichi nodded. "Sure." She stood up, and Sakura followed. "I'll see you when you arrive, then."
The walk back to her room gave Sakura a little time to think. She knew Naruto hadn't meant to hurt her feelings (he tried his best never to let her get hurt period, if he could help it), so maybe she should just take it as concern? Temari's comments made her think a bit, but she needed to work a little before she could forgive Naruto.
When she got back to her room, there was a familiar blond leaning against the wall next to the door. His head was down, resting against his brand new Chuunin vest. He looked so much like the Fourth Hokage that she momentarily forgot she was mad. She'd known that he would go on to be a great shinobi…and now he looked the part. When he sensed her approaching and looked up with sad blue eyes, she lost all resolve. Damn it.
"Before you say anything," she began. "I want you to know you're an ass. I can more than take care of myself, thank you, and no matter what anyone says I am still going to Suna because it's a big honor and I've already committed to it." She blew her bangs out of her face. "But…thank you for being concerned about me. This won't be like…like the last time I went."
She took a second to breathe and collect her thoughts. The medic was working out the rest of her rant in her head, but she was jarred out of her mindset by Naruto. Normally he interrupted her by complaining or talking or being obnoxious. Now, the thing that bothered her was that he hadn't moved from his spot against the wall. Hadn't even attempted to open his mouth to reason with her or defend himself. He was being so un-Naruto-like that Sakura forgot anything else she was going to say.
"I was terrified." He confessed softly, after a long silence. He was looking at the ground, hands stuffed in his pockets, looking so vulnerable and not at all like the obnoxious idiot she'd grown up with. "When you disappeared, I was scared for you." He brought one hand up to cover his eyes. "And then I wasn't even allowed to see you when you got back. I had no way of knowing you were okay…" A tear slipped past his hand and down his cheek.
Heartbreaking. It was the only word that could describe the situation in front of her. Sakura actually felt the left side of her chest ache, and her eyes filled with tears.
"Kakashi kept me up to date, but I hated that I couldn't do anything for you." He gave a bitter laugh. "I still have nightmares about it."
It was the last straw. Sakura quickly unlocked her hotel room door and pulled him inside the room. As soon as she had the door shut, she had him in her arms and was sobbing along with him.
"It won't be like that, Naruto." She kept saying to soothe them both. "I'll be okay."
Because the truth was, she still had nightmares, too.
Two days after her heart-to-heart chat with Naruto, Sakura was on the road headed towards home. This time, instead of travelling with the Hokage and her guards, she now traveled with her original party plus all the Konoha participants in the Exams. The depression from those who didn't make Chuunin was almost palpable, and she saw more than a few glares directed towards the ones who gloated about their new vests.
Sadly, Sakura had to admit that some of the gloating was coming from her own team—mainly in the form of Suigetsu and Naruto. Somewhere in the course of the month they had been at the Exams, they had formed an odd sort of friendship based on making fun of each other. At first, the medic wanted to compare it to Naruto and Sasuke's Genin relationship, but then she realized it wasn't like that at all. Naruto and Sasuke's friendship was about competition…on outdoing the other…on always being stronger, better, faster, more cunning than the other. It spanned everything from fighting to ramen. Naruto and Suigetsu made crude jokes in hopes of offending the other, and more than once she'd had to tell them to knock it off when innocent little Genin/Chuunin ears had picked up a few choice words.
Speaking of Naruto…he had finally accepted she would be leaving for a little bit, but he was still far from happy about it. The thing that made him relent was the fact that he trusted Gaara with his life, and she would be fine in Suna. "Still," he'd said. "I hear of any attacks or Akatsuki movements in the area and I'll be headed to Suna, and that's a promise." She agreed, and they had gone back to their carefree ways after she'd punched him and reminded him she could protect herself. Apparently, their little scene in the restaurant a few nights ago had been forgotten by the rest of the team…or they were carefully not mentioning it. It was probably a good thing Sai hadn't made the trip, or he'd have said something insensitive about it.
During the trip, Kakashi had come up to her and given her some advice about staying in the desert for an extended period. He'd ruffled her hair at some point, mumbling something about his students growing up. Suigetsu had offhandedly commented to her he wouldn't last five minutes in the desert, what with the scarce water sources. In fact, there had been plenty of time for talking, since they had to travel slower to accommodate the younger shinobi.
The only person who hadn't mentioned anything was Sasuke. In fact, he hadn't said a word to her since they went out to eat as a team, and that had been three nights ago. Not one word. Not a "hn" or a grunt or even a sigh. He'd said more to her when they were Genin. It was making her frustrated, because she was playing back everything she'd done to see if there was a reason he wasn't talking to her. She thought about cornering him when they stopped for the night to confront him about it, but then laughed, because Uchiha Sasuke wasn't the type to be cornered for anything.
The caravan stopped before twilight, when the sky hadn't even begun to darken yet. Tsunade had wanted to get home as fast as possible, but the little ones made that hard. Even Sakura could see how exhausted they were after a full day's travel. She felt a little bad for them, considering they still had two or three more days exactly like this one before they got home.
The more experienced shinobi went to secure the area while the less experienced collected firewood and dinner. Sakura busied herself around the campsite and made herself useful, doing odd jobs and healing a few scratches the Genin had gotten from stray branches. They had fish for dinner, taking shifts between eating and keeping watch. The sun just beginning to set at this point, which bathed the clearing in gold, but made all the older nin feel fidgety. Generally, this was the time when they stopped for the night. Now that dinner was over, the tents set up, the area scouted for the night…there was nothing to do.
She looked around for someone to talk to, not seeing any of her teammates. Kakashi was reading in a tree to her left, Tsunade was fussing at a few Jounin for something or other, Shizune was fussing over the Genin for something or other…and those were all the people she knew. She wasn't really close to any of the Jounin instructors that had come, and the Genin (and newly minted Chuunin) seemed to be intimidated by the older shinobi. Naruto had tried to talk to one before the trip began and the poor little pre-teen fainted.
She sighed and walked over to Kakashi's tree, looking up at his form from the ground. "Hey Kakashi-sensei?" She called up.
"Hm?" Came his quiet response, as if he was only half paying attention to her.
"Did you see where Naruto or Sasuke went?"
"Naruto made a bet with Suigetsu and they ran South. Sasuke went that way." He waved his hand in a general direction before going back to his book.
"Thanks!" She called up again before hopping into the trees. She had wanted to talk to Sasuke for awhile, since she realized he hadn't even acknowledged her in three days, and he'd had plenty of chance to.
It wasn't entirely unusual for him not to talk to her, but it did feel a little odd. She hadn't done anything different lately except declare that she was going to Suna, but he didn't seem like he cared much. Of course Caring Sasuke probably had the same expression as Angry Sasuke or Sad Sasuke or Embarrassed Sasuke. People might actually be able to tell what he was feeling if he wasn't such a motionless prick all the time. And he should be happy for her, damn it! Going to Suna was a huge opportunity and everyone was making her feel guilty about it.
Jumping through the treetops, she worked herself into a fine state of anger and frustration, ready to go and beat answers out of her teammate. He was going to support her and not be a complete jerk whether he wanted to or not!
Seeking Sasuke out wasn't difficult, as he was less than a quarter mile from their campsite and only mildly hiding his chakra. She hopped through the trees, determined to get answers. He was just up ahead…
She got one glimpse of him and nearly missed her next tree branch, doing some unlady-like scrambling and cursing to keep her balance. She glowered at him through the leaves. He was bathing. Of course he was unavailable when she had so much fire and determination in her. She gave a frustrated huff, because she knew she was going to mellow out soon and Sasuke wasn't the type to respond casual questioning about his behavior. If she wanted answers, she was going to have to demand them.
She had no doubt he'd already sensed her presence, and the longer she stood in the foliage warring with herself the more he was going to see her as some sort of pervert. Which, if Sakura had anything to say about it, was the last thing she should be called. She was the only one on her team who hadn't read the Icha Icha series, so she figured that qualified her for some level of innocence. Also, unlike Sasuke, she–
…Hold on. Why couldn't she go down there now? He'd surprised her in the shower before, so she should go down there and return the favor. She didn't even have to break into his apartment or his bathroom to do so. Without over thinking it too much (lest she talk herself out of it) she jumped down and landed on the bank of the river, her toes almost touching the water. She steeled herself at the sight of his naked back, forcing herself to remember that she was a medic and a ninja and had seen at least a hundred men without their shirts before, so it should make no difference to her now. Also, he wasn't even indecent. The water was cloudy enough to hide everything below his waist.
"You've been avoiding me." She stated, thankful her voice was calm and strong. She thought this was fitting, considering he'd said the same thing to her when he'd broken into her bathroom.
Unlike Sakura, however, Sasuke didn't quite have the same reaction. He didn't throw a kunai at his intruder, or panic and look for something to cover himself with, he simply turned around to face her, acting like she'd just asked how the water was instead of accusing him of something. Also, he seemingly didn't care about his nakedness, because he made no attempt to make sure the water was covering him. Instead, he put a hand on his hip and tilted his head sideways, cockily, as if he knew his state of undress would unnerve her far sooner than it did him.
And Sakura wasn't exactly prepared for the mental cold shower she had to give herself when she saw his chest and a particularly well defined set of abs. She had to mentally stuff Inner Sakura into the deepest recesses of her mind to keep her inner persona from making Outer Sakura react. The part of her that had always liked Sasuke was reacting, but she couldn't show him that because she couldn't be that girl anymore. The fact that the water shimmering on his body was reflecting the oranges of twilight made it hard to keep her voice even when she said, "Why?"
One eyebrow raised in question, and Sakura knew that was probably the only answer she was going to receive. Still, she crossed her arms and gave him a defiant look, "I'm waiting." She said. When he still made no move to answer her, she sat down on the grass, and looked at him pointedly.
"This is bold of you, Sakura." He said, unmoving.
Finally, words. Sakura waved her hand dismissively. "I'm a medic, Sasuke. Your nakedness doesn't bother me."
It was so slight that she would have missed it if she wasn't looking. One corner of his mouth twitched upwards before his general expression settled on what would have been laughter for anyone else but was just mild amusement for Sasuke.
Also just like when their roles were switched two months ago, she started to get nervous when he walked forward. She had only been confident because all of his important bits were covered by the water. If he walked out and…exposed himself, she would rip out the entire forest trying to get back to her tent and barricade herself inside. She'd made all that talk about not caring that he was naked, but she actually cared very deeply. In her role as a medic, she'd never actually seen a man's ahem, and she had no desire to see her first one at sixteen.
Thankfully, her prayers were answered, because the riverbed didn't slope upwards as she'd originally thought. She was actually sitting on an incline, where the water was still deep enough that when Sasuke did eventually reach her, he was able to cross his arms and rest them comfortably at chest level on the grass.
Still, the way he looked so confident was more than unnerving. Here he was vulnerably naked, without weapons, having to almost crane his neck to look up at her from the low ground in the situation, and Sakura still felt like prey. She wondered how that had happened, because in theory she had all the advantage between them. His eyes hadn't lost their blatant confidence or challenge, though, and she hoped he was unaware how fast her heart was beating.
The fact that he hadn't broken eye contact with her since he'd turned around had only fried her nerves faster.
"Why have you been avoiding me?" She asked again. She couldn't manage to get the edge back in her voice though, and it came out softer than she would have liked.
His mouth quirked upwards again. "I've been busy." He said, mocking what she'd told him two months ago.
"Ass." She hissed. "And that is total bullshit." She glowered at him.
"Does it matter?"
She grit her teeth, choosing to ignore the way her heart clenched at the fact that he'd implied their friendship didn't matter, that she didn't matter.
"Of course it does!" She told him. "We're a team. We're…" supposed to be friends and watch each other's backs and enjoy each other's company. She had to refrain herself from giving her quixotic definition of a team, though, because her team had never been that way. "We're going to have to work together, so suck it up and be a man about it, damn it."
His eyes narrowed, that earlier glimpse of amusement gone. "We're all Chuunin now. Our Genin team is no longer."
That one hurt like he'd just slapped her, and she fought to keep the glassy look out of her eyes. He'd made a point…Chuunin didn't always go on missions with their Genin teams. In fact, Tsunade picked the ones with the skills needed for the mission, despite which team they were on. So in Sasuke's eyes…they had no more reason to be friends? Because all that connected them were a few memories from years back and nothing more?
"Fine." She bit out. "Forget I said anything. You won't have to deal with me after I leave for Suna." She put a hand on the ground to stand up. "Have a nice life Sasu-aaaahhhhh!" She broke off with a shriek, because he'd reached out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her into the water in one lightning fast motion.
The cool water did nothing to her temper or the fact she wanted to cry, and she came up spluttering and coughing. "Bastard!" She screamed. "The hell was that for?"
He had both elbows braced behind him on the grass and was leaning back infuriatingly casually. "You're being annoying."
She splashed him, growling, only becoming more angry at the fact that he merely turned his head away from the water like it was no big deal "I'm being annoying?!" She wanted to lunge at him and drown him, but the fact that the water was almost to her chest was seriously hampering her movements. "You're the one who said we had no reason to be friends anymore, damn it! What do you even care?!"
"I never said that." He said calmly.
"Then please tell me how I misinterpreted our Genin team is no longer." She grit out.
"It's true, isn't it?"
"Well…" She spluttered for a moment. "Technically yes…but…"
"And we won't be on the same team for missions all the time anymore."
She stared at him, feeling like she was back at square one. "You know, you've never been very good at articulating yourself, Sasuke." He raised an eyebrow. She cleared her throat. "Basically what I'm hearing is that since we won't be on the same team, we have no more reasons to be friends." His moved his arms off the bank and rolled his eyes. "Which, you said you cut those bonds a long time ago but…now that you're back…" She was getting her hopes up again, a lesson she should have learned a long time ago not to do around Sasuke. Every time she did, the outcome was always opposite of what she wanted. "Forget it." She said, and then started to wade towards shore. He'd thrown her surprisingly far when he'd pulled her into the water.
"You're a decent sparring partner." He said, and Sakura froze. Her bones froze, her muscles wouldn't respond, her mind shut down, and she had trouble breathing for a moment. She wasn't even sure how she managed to turn her head to look at him, but when she did her eyes were widened. That…it had been the closest he'd ever come to calling her anything less than weak…to calling her his equal. Hell, it was the closest thing to a compliment he'd ever given her. Even the one time he'd commented on her Genjutsu skills as a Genin didn't compare. And she knew she should have taken the win, but that decent word was a little grating.
She huffed. "You can find a lot of sparring partners."
"You're also a medic."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "You can't say I'm a decent sparring partner just because I can heal you when we're done."
"No." He agreed, stepping towards her. "But you have a rare skill set that makes you interesting to fight against."
Her brain was about to overload. After fights with some of the most powerful people in the world, she was interesting to spar? "You're not so bad yourself," She told him. She paused for a moment. "Although you do end up at the hospital a lot."
"Because you don't heal me when we're done." Sakura blinked at that. He was right. She never had the energy to heal his major wounds…so her earlier assumption that he only wanted to use her to heal him was entirely false. "Though your Taijutsu is only adequate."
She glowered. Trust Sasuke to compliment her one moment and then degrade her the next. "Then teach me, oh wise Taijutsu master." She mocked, knowing he would never take the time to do such a–
"Next time." He said. Sakura looked up, surprised, wondering what had gotten into him today. The same man who didn't want to spend any time with her as Genin had just promised her another sparring match. Not only that, Uchiha Sasuke had offered to take time out of his own schedule to improve her Taijutsu. Of course, he didn't have much of a schedule considering he was going to be locked in the village and mission-less again when they returned…but still, it was the thought that counted.
She smiled at him. "Okay."
"Also, fighting you is a vacation from the Dobe." He said, and Sakura looked at him downright dangerously. Still, his expression wasn't quite serious. She was going to have to get used to a Sasuke that actually interacted with his teammates (teased them, invited them to spar, made bets with them) instead of only existing beside them.
She playfully growled at him. "I'll showyou vacation." She said, before launching herself at him and tackling him around the middle. She must have been in a weird place in her head, because she totally forgot he was naked until her skin met his and they fell into the water. She was cussing violently under the water until she felt…cloth? Was that her skirt? No…it didn't belong to her at all.
They both surfaced. "You're wearing clothes?!" Sakura screeched at him, splashing him angrily. "After you led me to believe you were naked?!"
"I'm bathing and you deserved it." He said. Sakura was at a loss of words for a moment, because she had sort of interrupted his bath. But still–! "Bastard!" She hissed at him, before trying to tackle him again. This time, though, he anticipated the move and dodged, sending Sakura sprawling into the water. She surfaced and pointed at him, one hand on hip. "I challenge you to a spar right now…in the water!"
"You sound like the Dobe."
Speak of the Devil…
"Oh boy! I get to be clean!" A voice that was growing closer shouted. From this distance, it vaguely sounded like Naruto. His identity was confirmed because no shinobi in their campsite would yell loud enough to scatter birds in a foreign country except the blond. From the way her senses were reacting, he should be running into the clearing right about–
Without warning, Sasuke's hand clapped itself over her eyes just as there was a big splash that sprayed her upper body with water. She reached for Sasuke's hand and tugged at it. "Hey, what are you–"
"Don't. Move." Sasuke bit out, and he sounded serious enough to make her actually comply.
There was a smaller splash from somewhere close. "Water. Water. I love water." Naruto sang out. "I love being clean and–"
"Idiot." Sasuke said.
"Hey Teme, let's have a race to see who can swim to the–" He abruptly cut himself off. "Uh…hey Sakura-chan." He sounded sheepish and embarrassed. "Well shit. I mean shoot. I mean it's really—"
"Put some clothes on, idiot."
Sakura's face grew hot at the reason her eyes were covered in the first place.
"But it's a bath, I shouldn't have to wear clothes!" Naruto pouted.
"Um…I should probably just go…" Sakura muttered.
"You shut up." Sasuke snapped.
The medic elbowed him in the side, satisfied when she felt him flinch. "Don't tell me to shut up." She snapped back.
"Oh!" Naruto exclaimed, and neither Sasuke nor Sakura liked the tone of his voice when he said, "Did I interrupt something? Are you two having your secret-lover time? You shouldn't be doing the hanky-panky with Sakura, you bast–"
Suddenly, there was a roar of rushing water and Naruto's scream, which sounded like he was getting progressively further and further away…Come to think of it, now that she wasn't distracted, it appeared Kakashi was standing almost right behind them.
"Don't worry about it Sakura." Kakashi said, sounding like he was smiling, which meant he had just done something horrendous to one of his students.
"Okay." She squeaked, wondering at the fact that she couldn't sense Naruto anywhere in the vicinity.
She felt Kakashi grasp the back of her shirt and pull her out of the water like a puppy being carried by the scruff of her neck. He set her down on the grass, shivering in the cool night air, before reaching down and whapping Sasuke across the head with the spine of Icha Icha Tactics. "Put some clothes on. You're corrupting the one good member on this team." Kakashi said, though there was an air about him that said he wasn't being all that serious.
His tone didn't stop Sasuke from clutching his head and glaring at him, though, and it certainly didn't stop Sakura from hiding a smile behind her hand.
Suna never failed to take Sakura's breath away. True, the area around the village was desolate and barren, but the people inside the village walls thrived in their sparse environment. They were full of life. According to what Kakashi had said once, a lot of that was due to the Godaime Kazekage, since he had caused the village to thrive in a way it never had before. His predecessors hadn't been bad Kages, per se, but they tended to make enemies easily and carry grudges. Gaara had made peace with Suna's enemies and opened trade routes that gave his people a renewed sense of vigor.
A Jounin met her at the gate—his name was Baki, if she remembered correctly—and he didn't have time to say more than two words to her before Kankuro and Temari were there as well.
"There you are, Sakura!" Kankuro said. "Come on, we'll show you to your apartment."
Said girl cocked her head to one side. "I should probably check in with the Kazekage first." Although her pack was getting a little heavy. She had packed a ton of clothes and a ton of supplies, not knowing exactly how long she would be away from home.
"He's not in the best mood right now." Temari said, and her brother snorted, like that was an understatement. "We'll let him know you're here, but for now it's probably not a good idea to see him."
"If you're sure…" The medic said a little uncertainly. She really was supposed to check in with Gaara before she did anything else, since that was protocol, but if his temper was anything like it was when they were preteens then waiting awhile might be a good thing. Still, the two shinobi were slightly more tense than they should have been for greeting an old friend. "Did something happen?"
Temari blew her bangs upwards. "Gaara is in the middle of a verbal war with the village elders. He didn't find out until we got back that they went behind his back and hired someone from within Suna to overhaul the hospital." Sakura paused for a moment, wondering if that meant she should just turn right around and head back to Konoha. "Gaara is refusing, since he knows you're the best person for the job."
If anyone were to ask, the blush that appeared on the medic's face would immediately be blamed on the heat. Although it appeared like no one but the Kazekage and his siblings actually wanted her here. From her team's resistance to the higher-ups in Suna, she was getting beat down every step of the way.
A hand slapped her shoulder. "Not to worry, Sakura!" Kankuro said, smiling. "Gaara always wins those kind of arguments. Come on, you must be tired."
They avoided serious topics the entire way to her new apartment, choosing instead to give her a small tour. She found out where the market was, as well as all the important buildings like the Kazekage's Tower and the hospital. She discovered her apartment was close to the hospital, and was a cozy little one bedroom number. It had already been equipped with things she hadn't bothered bringing from home, like bedclothes and towels and pots and pans, so that was a nice touch. All she wanted to see right now though was the inside of her shower, since sand had already worked its way into the uncomfortable crevices of her body.
It was only when her two escorts disappeared and she was left in the silence of an unfamiliar place that she sighed and dropped her bag to the ground. It was stupid that she was feeling homesick already. That she was already thinking about returning home to the welcoming embraces of her team and her friends. She thought of Naruto and Sasuke, and wondered if they had thought about her at all when they'd left home over three years ago.
Come on, she told herself in her head. You can do this. She surveyed her surroundings again, forcing the depression to the back of her mind. She was the Hokage's apprentice, and the person the Kazekage was fighting for to be here.
I can do this.
Author's Notes: I tried to make this chapter extra interesting to make up for all the time I haven't updated. I will be getting back to the canon story in a little bit, but I'll be changing it around a bit to incorporate more of Sakura. Kishimoto maybe shows Sakura twice in the war, and that's just unacceptable. And to those of you who will be mad at me for skimming over the Naruto/Sasuke fight, let me tell you it will happen eventually, but that's not a particular fight I want to write twice. Also, I get the feeling they wouldn't go all out for a Chuunin Exam that they're way overqualified for anyway, so you're really not missing anything. As always, please review and let me know what you think!