The sun rises before Kakashi does. A rather rare circumstance to witness.
Sakura had creeped back into the apartment hoping he would already be gone. To strategize with Shikaku. At the Memorial Stone. Training with Gai. Anywhere but here.
But as Sakura closes the double doors of his bedroom behind her, she can smell the sake on his clothes scattered across the floor. She gives a sigh.
His back and shoulders contract gently beneath the push and pull of his lungs. She watches his jaw clench in his sleep and she allows herself to stare and to wonder for just a few moments longer.
The kunoichi quietly moves about the room, picking up his uniform off the floor and placing them in the hamper. She sets his headband down on the nightstand gently as if it would break as she watches the light from the cracked blinds play against his sharp cheekbones.
Sakura traces the scar of the sharingan, her fingertip like a ghost against his skin.
He hardly stirs. It makes her stomach churn at the thought of how much he must've had to drink last night.
The pinkette shakes her head and starts packing a spare sets of clothes into her backpack. She gathers her weapons and her medical gear, going through the motions of preparing for the journey to Suna.
Every now and then, her eyes flicker to his sinewy shoulders and the fine curve of his lips. But she refuses to linger.
As she attaches her bag to her back, and Sakura realizes, from less than five feet away from him, she misses him already.
The kunoichi hovers by his side for a few moments. She reaches out and touches his cheek carefully as if her fingers would fall through his skin if she presses too hard.
Her hand travels up into his hair and she pushes his silver locks away from his eyes. Sakura's lips lean down to press themselves against his, just once. She taps her forehead slowly to his.
"I'll see you soon."
Before she starts the ache in her gut deepens, Sakura turns on her heels and heads for the doors.
She creaks them open and is about to close them behind her when she hears him stir.
His voice rasps out to her and she drinks it in greedily. Her eyes shut beneath the weight of his words and they are too heavy for this time of day.
"Be careful," is all he says. She waits for more.
She hopes for it.
But he doesn't give in. He stares at the circle on her back and clutches the sheets in his hands too tightly as he sits up. Sakura's eyes crest down to the floor and she smiles sadly.
She doesn't look back.
The doors shut softly and Kakashi stares at the space she just preoccupied. He listens to the sound of her feet in the hallway, the click of the front door as it shuts and he hones in on her chakra signature until it's almost out of reach, clinging to it's pulse as if it was his own.
He lays back slowly and stares at the white ceiling.
The sharingan aches in it's socket.
"See you soon."
Shikamaru shoves his hands impatiently into his pockets. He tries not to scowl.
"We'll be back before you know it," she says with a half smile. He doesn't return it.
Yamato tries not to pry but his eyes keep brushing over the curve of the genius' furrowed brow. The corners of his lips turned down in a worried expression.
The boy absently runs a hand along the three thin lines across his cheek.
"You have to make a three day trip in two, each way. Which gives you no more than a day and a half to convince Gaara to become an ally. And one," he holds up a single finger, "just one day to rest up for the invasion."
Sakura rolls her eyes.
"Yes sir, Nara-san, sir." Her sarcasm earns him another scowl. Sakura puts her hand out and grips him by the shoulder. He tries not too lean into her touch too obviously.
"Watch your step, Cherry." He glances over at Naruto doing some stretches. Sai and Yamato converse quietly, the pale boy's voice unusually expressive as he glances between Hokage Tower and the open road. Shikamaru holds her gaze tightly. "We need all four of you to return in mint condition. No accidents."
She's about to protest his lecture. Roll her eyes and exasperatedly explain that she isn't some silly genin and doesn't need to be told these things twice. But the gleam of his pupils against the morning sun makes her stop. Worry crosses them until they grow dark.
She grips his other shoulder. The two of them tap foreheads together and Sakura tries to smile.
"Stop being so troublesome," she says with a huff.
Shikamaru smirks. The first one she's seen in weeks but it's gone almost as soon as it arrives.
"Sakura," calls Yamato from their left. He watches Shikamaru slink back away from her. "Time to move."
She nods to her captain and tries to turn back to Shika and say goodbye.
But the genius is already strolling away, his hands stuffed down into his pockets. He cranes his neck to look up at the sky and Sakura watches him blend back into the morning crowds of the village.
Ino's absence beside him is so profound, it makes the air around him still. He never sways into the space that should be hers.
He simply walks on as if there is a body there next to him.
"Alright!" cries Naruto with his usual large smile. "Off to Suna!"
He points in the direction that they're heading and the four of them take off at a quick speed.
A three day journey made in two. There would be no time for breaks.
Not even to breathe.
Their feet move across the tree branches as if they have hardly touched them, barely leaving an imprint before they're off and sprinting. Sakura ducks a branch and flips down onto the one below her.
The baby kicks and she almost loses her footing. Almost.
Hours tick by, the sun slowly making its rounds through the sky while the four of them continue on to the Sand. Light filters in from the canopy of green above them and they press onwards, deep into Fire country until the black of night creeps up on them. But even then, they press on, sharpening their hearing and their senses to a high that exhausts their energy too quickly.
And yet, they keep going.
Yamato notices when Sakura starts to fall behind.
"Sai," he says almost inaudibly. But the pale boy hears him and turns his head, easily swerving a branch he almost didn't see. The taichou points his two index fingers ahead and Sai nods, understanding. He swings from a tree limb and drops in front of Yamato, taking the lead of the pack.
He falls in step beside her.
"Everything alright?" he asks casually. But Sakura knows better than to believe such a tone.
"Fine." She attempts a smile.
And just like her, he doesn't buy it.
He glances up at the moon peeking in from above them. His eyes slip over to her face and she's already staring back.
"I said I'm fine, Yamato." Her voice sharpens at the end. It makes him chuckle.
"I didn't say anything."
"Not out loud," she retorts. He gives another grin.
"Just being observant is all." Yamato swerves closer into her to avoid the tip of a sharp limb. Their shoulders touch and they both apologize profusely and stare back ahead, all joking aside.
He rubs the back of his brown head.
"If you're tired, Sakura, we can afford to rest for a few-"
"No," she snaps. He raises an eyebrow. Her jade eyes grow wide and she looks hurriedly away "What I meant to say was, time is a luxury we don't have." Her feet suddenly pick up the pace and Yamato follows easily.
The strain of her movements is as tangible as the film of sweat coating the back of her neck.
He skids to a halt. Naruto and Sai pick up on the sudden freeze in movement and stop.
"We're making camp for the night," the taichou says. Sakura scowls his way.
"Finally!" Naruto steps off the edge of a limb and lands to the ground gracefully. His shoulders slump. "I'm exhausted."
"Maybe you would have more energy if you stopped eating so much ramen, fattie." Sai gives an overly cheerful smile as he drops down next to his yellowed companion. The jinchuuriki's eyebrow twitches.
"Who're you calling fat, belly boy!"
Naruto shakes his fist at Sai who simply smiles back, laying out his sleeping bag gently on the forest floor.
"I'm not the one you should be calling belly boy, dickless." He pokes a pale finger at Naruto's stomach. "Just as I suspected. A little pudge."
The blonde blanches and he instantly lifts up his shirt, running a hand over what is indeed the tiniest hint of a belly. Sakura rolls her eyes.
"Knock it off," she hisses. "Leave him alone."
Sai gives a chuckle as he steps out of their perimeter to take his watch post. As usual, he takes his notebook and a ration to pass the time. The kunoichi marks his position and the amount of time it would need to reach him in case of an emergency before she unrolls her own sleeping bag.
Naruto is about to slap his down next to hers when Yamato stops them.
"Defensive Formation B." He jerks his brown head in the direction of where Naruto should be sleeping, at the tip of the triangle. In case of an ambush, each shinobi, one at the tip, two at the base, will immediately have their backs covered. A precautionary measure.
The jinchuuriki drags his sleeping bag away, grumbling under his breath.
Yamato and Sakura take the two points of the base. He begins to unfurl his blanket.
"What? No fire either!" exclaims Naruto. The taichou shakes his head.
"We might as well have a neon sign that says, 'Fire Shinobi Sleeping! Catch Us By Surprise!' Seriously, Naruto," chides Sakura. "Use your head."
The blonde makes a loud fuss as always before he stuffs his face with his ration, rather resentfully, and lays down. He's snoring almost instantly.
Sakura lies awake, staring at the stars blinking above her head for what feels like an hour.
Mere small moments in the vast expanse of the sky.
She misses Kakashi.
The kunoichi turns over on her side.
He's probably relieved that he doesn't have to walk on eggshells around her for six days.
Just like everyone else does as of recently.
There's a flicker of movement and her eyes snap upwards, focusing. Yamato stares back at her, his head tilted to the side with his hands tucked behind his head.
He smiles softly.
"You should get some sleep."
She smirks. Just barely.
"So should you."
The taichou sits up and gracefully, as all ninja do, gets to his feet. He glances once at Naruto's sleeping form, mouth open and leg twitching, and treks over to where Sakura is laying. She curls her legs farther into her so he has room to sit down on her sleeping bag. His back leans against her knee.
Yamato digs in his vest pocket and pulls out the remainder of an unfinished ration. Miso flavored.
He holds it out to her.
She stares at his outstretched hand, trying to hold back the fear in her jade eyes. Worry turns down the corners of her pink lips and she looks up at him, confused.
Does he know that she's eating for two?
That her energy and chakra have split into fragments that feed into another life?
He chuckles at her expression.
"I'd know your hungry face anywhere, Sakura." He holds the food bar out farther. "Take it. They're portioned smaller in war time to conserve resources." Yamato doesn't say it. Food rations minimize to the absolute necessities because it would be a waste if larger rations were given out to men who have a bigger chance of not coming home.
Sakura takes it gratefully.
She rises to a sitting position and her feet absently tuck underneath the weight of his thigh, as they always have. Yamato right hand tremors lightly against his knee.
The kunoichi takes a small nibble of the miso bar, listening to Naruto's snoring as if it were a song. Yamato repeatedly scans the surroundings, eyes adjusting to subtle changes in the light of clouds against the moon. Somewhere nearby, Sai tears another page out of his notebook.
"The ache lessens," he suddenly says. Sakura had been playing with the wrapper of his ration and looks up. She doesn't reply. He clears his throat and tries again. "It dulls from the roar that it currently is."
He doesn't say her name. And she doesn't want him to.
The kunoichi stares down at her hands. Shadows flicker across her palms with the dance of moonlight in between the gaps and dips of the canopy above.
She swears it almost looks like blood running over her fingers, black in the dark instead of red.
"Lady Tsunade loved Master Jiraiya, didn't she?"
From nearby, as if commanded solely by the name of his shishou, Naruto stirs. He whispers his name against the air and it falls to the earth where no one but the two of them can hear.
Yamato smiles sadly.
"I'd like to believe so."
Sakura turns to him. A different coat of sadness paints her eyes into a sea green. He can't look away.
"She lost a lover once. And a brother." Her stare falls into her lap. "Then Jiraiya."
He suddenly is aware of where she is trying to steer the conversation. Yamato can feel her start to dig for the courage to say it.
"It tooks her years, Yamato." She crumples the ration wrapper in her fist. "Years to learn to endure." Her eyes find his again and the weight of the kyuubi seems to sit on his chest. "All I have ever wanted was to become like her." Sakura's lips harden into a line. "And now I pray every day that I don't."
He swallows hard and sweeps his gaze over the dark edges of their campsite. It bends and twists into shapes and shadows. Yamato shuts his eyes.
"Every shinobi knows this pain, Sakura. And if they don't, they will soon." His deep voice trembles, just once. "War is kind to no one."
"The fact that everyone shares in it doesn't make it less real," she says, too loudly for the inconspicuous demeanor they've been trying to uphold. From deep in the trees, Sai's pencil stops moving across the paper.
Sakura apologizes quietly, almost under her breath.
"Ino was family." She wraps her arms around herself. "They all are."
Both of them slide their attention to Naruto's sleeping form. One leg sticks out of the sleeping bag now and he drools against his the back of his hand.
Fear grips her like a chokehold.
"If anyone will survive this, Sakura, it's Naruto." Yamato chuckles endearingly. But she doesn't return it.
Her eyes linger on the whiskers of the jinchuuriki's cheeks for a moment.
"But can he survive the survival?"
Sakura's words wring Yamato's insides. It wasn't so long ago that Kakashi asked him the same thing.
He turns back over his shoulder and watches the boy smile in his sleep.
"Doubting him is the greatest insult you could ever pay him."
She flinches slightly and cast her eyes downwards. Yamato's expression softens and he puts his hand on hers.
She meets his stare halfway and Sakura is suddenly lost amongst the browns of his irises. They pull her in until she feels like she is buried in soft earth where the cold of her bones ebbs away.
Her lungs take in a shaky breath.
"I'm not Tsunade. If I lose anyone else," her pink head shakes from side to side, "I don't know if I could live through it."
Yamato almost smiles and she frowns when she sees it playing on his lips, fingering the line between hurt and offense. He squeezes her hand.
"No, no, no. I'm not laughing at you, it's just-" he gives a low chuckle. His almond eyes meet hers once again and the corners are painted with a shade of tiredness. "Kakashi once said the same thing. A very long time ago."
Sakura grows quiet and starts to fidget with her hair once again. They don't meet each other's gaze again, instead listening to the soft hoot of an owl nearby and the scratch scratch of colored pencil against parchment from within the trees. Silence stretches on and it isn't the one they used to sit with on their couch, welcoming and whole.
This one is heavy. Full to the brim with something that he'd rather not name.
It forces a sigh from his mouth.
"He's the greatest survivor I've ever known, Sakura." The taichou slowly gets to his feet. A knee pops and he winces slightly. His hand finds her hair and gives it a stroke.
The warmth of his palm radiates down her spine and she knows they are no longer talking about Naruto.
"He was born with war in his blood." His fingers linger against her cheek. "We all were." Yamato tilts her chin up with his index finger and he stares back at her bright jade gaze as if it was the first time. "You will understand soon."
He smiles and regret laces his lips like a poison.
"Ino was only the beginning."
The kunoichi sucks in a breath as if he had hit her. But the captain is gone within the trees before she can demand why he would say such a horrible thing. Why he would let his words empower Kami's will to destroy everything she has.
But as Sai, pale as ever, comes slinking back to camp, dark circles beneath his even darker eyes, Sakura swallows the lump in her throat.
Because Yamato is right. Her brothers are not safe.
Sai settles down into his sleeping bag and falls instantly to sleep. He always frowns in his dreams.
How many more of the Konoha 11 would she have to lose?
Sakura listens for Yamato. He's as still as the ground beneath her but his chakra signature is there, pulsing lightly beneath a thick cloud of suppression from the enemy. But she could find it anywhere.
Which one of the men she loves would Sakura have to mourn?
'Because,' Kakashi says with the turn of his back, 'Love and loved are two very different things.'
She shuts his words out like a cold draft until they have vanished beneath the earth where they will stay until she misses him again. But right now, as she lays back against her sleeping bag, Sakura resigns to the ache of her pregnant body.
Her eyes grow heavy as she listens to the sound of Naruto and Sai breathing beneath the lingering sky. It lulls her into sleep.
They are still alive. Kakashi and Yamato, although one half a nation away, are still alive.
She holds her growing abdomen protectively.
And her child is still kicking amongst the faux warmth of her sleeping bag.
War could wait until morning.
Kakashi's index finger points to a marked spot on the map laid out on the table. Shikamaru follows it with his own. Red x's, circles, names, and coordinates have been crossed out, scribbled back in, and crossed out again but yet, Kakashi is still able to present the gist of the attack plan. They study it carefully.
"Inoichi and your father will split the eastern district and the west. Yamato and I will take the North and the South while Guy's battalion patrols the perimeter and stands guard over the medical unit."
"How far away is the camp again?"
Kakashi rubs the back of his silver head.
"About 7 and a half miles out."
Shikamaru gives a low whistle.
"That's alot of ground to cover when you're bleeding out…"
The jonin nods grimly.
"Indeed. But it would be unwise to-"
"Move it closer, right."
Shikamaru rubs his hand along his jaw and leans down further, trying to visualize every placement, every street and battalion in it's rightful place along the grids of his mind. A flaw lights up along the southern edge of the soon to be battlefield like a firework.
"There aren't enough men here," he says slowly, circling the area around what will be the medical compound. "They could be easily overrun."
The Nara genius looks up to meet the copy ninja's eye. He stares back almost blankly.
But Shikamaru can see the clench in his jaw and the way his shoulders sag beneath the reality of what his junior has pointed out. The single gray orb, however, stays still and unmoving against the slightly alarmed expression on Shikamaru's face.
Kakashi glances at the rows of angry scars across his cheek.
His mood worsens.
"There just aren't enough shinobi to split between the invasion and the homefront. Too many are still too weak to fight."
"So we just throw the medical ninja out there to fend for themselves? If their compound collapses, we are all in some serious trouble."
Kakashi says nothing. He puts his hands on his hips and continues to stare at the map with the same almost uninterested stare. Like Shikamaru, the holes in their plan light up like fires across the page until it makes him close his eye. Something ugly makes a nest in his gut.
He thinks of the ghost of Sakura's lips against his from this morning.
"It's the best we can do for now."
The younger man leans up from the table and throws his hands into his pockets with a scowl.
"That seems to be the catchphrase for this goddamn war."
Kakashi peers into Shikamaru's face then and Ino's absence stares back at him. It claws a hole into the jonin's chest until he's forced to look away. The War Council room is empty, littered only with the maps and plans of the war and yet, it is filled with a sorrow so familiar that Kakashi can taste it.
"If Guy's battalion acts efficiently," he says quietly, "in capturing any ninja trying to flee, the medical team won't see a single Sound shinobi."
"There are too many variables, Kakashi-sensei. You're making estimates and guesses about what could and should happen and it can all fall apart in a single moment. This is war, we can't afford-"
"Remember who you're talking to, Shikamaru." The boy stops in his tracks. "I was a jonin of the Third Great Shinobi War when I was only seven years old, I know the price of mistakes."
The genius does his best to avoid Kakashi's eye. Silence hangs uneasily between them and the Commander tiredly runs his hand along his jaw. It moves up to pinch the bridge of his nose.
"War is chaos," he starts slowly, "There is no order, no time for anything but your will to survive." Gloved hands start rolling up the scrolls and maps laid out on the table. The boy watches closely. "Plans can only take you so far."
Kakashi takes what he needs; files, a copy of the map, and roster sheets with him. He stows them in his backpack and turns to leave.
Shikamaru stares up at him with his dark eyes. Their shoulders meet as Kakashi takes a pause, trying to come up with the right words to say. But there are none.
"Without plans, we are blind." The genius' hand clenches into a fist inside his pocket. "Ino is proof of that."
Kakashi glances sideways at his companion. But Shikamaru doesn't look back.
Guilt traps the copy ninja into a cage. There is no right way to turn. There is no way to make it right.
Kakashi takes a step forward.
"The destruction of the hospital was a miscalculation." The sharingan shows it's owner long blonde hair spilling over the edge of Yamato's arm. "Along with everyone who perished in it."
The chuunin spins on his heels to face him but Kakashi has already shuffled to the door.
"If it had been Sakura that Yamato pulled out of the rubble? Or Naruto?" Shikamaru calls out to him, his voice echoing loudly so that Kakashi cannot escape it. "There would be no more miscalculations."
The jonin's hand hovers over the doorknob. He thinks of the two of them travelling to Suna at this very moment while Fire Country is spotted with the enemy. Of Sakura running across the sands of the desert while carrying their child. And he turns to look at Shikamaru over his shoulder.
"I can win a war," he says with the tight grip of the doorknob. "But I can't stop death."
Kakashi, unable to stand a moment longer under the weight of Ino's absence, the copy ninja pushes open the doors of the War Council room and immediately darts for the stairs leading outside.
The maps and the files in his bag feel like stones against his back. He burns his way down the spiraling steps of Hokage Tower and before he can even hit the ground, he takes off running.
Kakashi soon buries himself within the people of Konoha and their bustling streets, unseen and unacknowledged as he darts in and out of crowds. Shikamaru's voice, as it does many nights as of lately, rings in his ears like a soft wail he can't seem to forget.
'If it had been Sakura that Yamato pulled out of the rubble? Or Naruto?'
Kakashi's gut wrenches at the thought and he ducks into an alleyway. It gets harder to breathe at the thought of losing either of them. The son of his sensei, the Hero of the Leaf that Kakashi had no part in creating. His second biggest accomplishment and even that was empty.
'There would be no more miscalculations.'
As he takes to the rooftops, Kakashi almost laughs at the idea.
His hand folds around the ultrasound picture he never leaves home without and he wishes he could tell Shikamaru that with the life growing inside of Sakura, with her refusal to resign herself from active duty?
Nothing ever truly goes as planned.
The desert is kinder this time of the year than in the summer.
Sweat from exertion still sticks their gear to their backs but their legs keep on pumping, sandaled feet skidding across the sand as fast as they can make them move. Naruto, for about the fourth time of the afternoon, has tried to argue his case about how ninja are natural sprinters. Not cross country runners.
"Than just think of it as one long sprint," says Yamato over his shoulder. He gives the boy a smile. "Or maybe you are just getting a little fat." The blonde gives a huff and jets past the taichou to take the lead. He gives a chuckle.
Sakura, willing herself to focus on a spot of Yamato's back to maintain the same distance and speed, is having trouble. Her energy these days leaves quicker than it arrives. She tries not to fall too far behind.
"What's bothering you, ugly?" Sai asks with a smooth slide up next to her. The pinkette ignores his name calling.
"Nothing," she snaps. Sakura picks up her speed and he follows. He raises an eyebrow. "I said nothing, Sai." She narrows her eyes at him. But he keeps questioning her with just the simple arch of his brow. "Quit looking at me like that!"
A sly smile turns up the right hand corner of his mouth. It opens to say something insulting, no doubt. But the boy quickly shuts his lips into a hard line. Sakura notices.
"What is it?" she asks in what sounds like a hush. Sai says nothing, continuing to press onward with his sandals skidding faster across the hot sand. She keeps right on his tail, adrenaline starting to prick beneath her skin.
"Sai," she demands again.
He ignores her and turns to Yamato.
"Taichou," is all he says. The jonin nods his brown head.
Sakura failed to notice that while she was focusing on Sai, Naruto had stopped talking.
His shoulders have tensed beneath his orange jacket. He turns his head to the side and gives her a hard cerulean glance.
"We're being followed." Yamato's voice barely carries above a whisper. But Sakura's body responds to it like an alarm. All her muscles tense at once and she has to keep her chakra from flaring at the onset of danger. Her right hand grips the strap of her pack tightly.
"What do we do?"
He looks back at her and pretends a smile.
"We bait them to cross the outer boundaries of Sunagakure."
Naruto tries his best not to be alarmed, his eyes quivering with the effort.
"Why would we lead them straight into the Sand? We should turn and face them right now!"
"Are you an idiot?" Sakura says fiercely. "That's what they want us to do. We're playing a game of shogi with them, Naruto, don't you see? The attack on the Leaf was their move, if we kill them now, it will constitute as our response."
The blonde mumbles something hotly under his breath before turning back to the taichou who stares straight ahead. Sakura can see the thread of action starting to weave in his mind but still, he says nothing. They keep running.
"They're just toying with us," Naruto says between his teeth after half an hour. "I can't take it."
"You will not move and you will not act without my say-so," Yamato replies sternly. "This isn't just another mission to Suna. This is war, the rules are different and you still do not know how to play."
The jinchuuriki frowns and stares back ahead, angrily huffing his breaths as they keep up their same quick pace. The enemy still follows in pursuit, deep into the desert until the sun begins to set on their second day of traveling. Sunagakure lingers on the horizon and Sakura swallows her nervousness down like a bitter food pill. She narrowed down their only choices with a stone sinking in her stomach.
Either turn and face them or lead a threat straight to the city limits of the Sand. Once the shinobi learn of the Leaf's inability to stop a small group of scouts, they won't want to fight for Konoha. Gaara will have no option but to oblige to the wishes of his people and all of this will be for nothing.
Jōmae will win without the alliance between the Leaf and the Sand.
And as Yamato turns to look at Sakura over his shoulder, the last lights of day playing on his tan skin, she knows he's thinking the same thing. He gives her an order with the urgency of his almond eyes.
Sakura prays to Kami to let her make it to Suna.
The kunoichi skids to a stop, sending a flurry of sand about her ankles, and pulls back her fist.
It lights up like a christmas tree with her chakra and with a cry, she slams it down into the earth. The sand begins to spill into the cracks made beneath it, the air capturing grains and dust like magnets while the rest of her team slides to a halt, squinting through the mini sand storm that Sakura just created with her hands.
They see four bodies climb their way out of the broken earth but they can't see their faces.
"Formation F," Yamato says under his breath. His eyes sting with the sand permeating the air but he doesn't stop watching the enemy regroup, coughing and sputtering amongst themselves as they try to find their bearings. "Remember," the taichou begins as the three young ninja file into formation, "Do not kill them."
"Then what're we supposed to do?" snaps Naruto between his teeth, hands already reaching towards each other in the shape of the Shadow Clone sign. "Let them run back home with intel?"
Yamato knows this is how the whole thing could very well go down. He simply shakes his head and takes a defensive stance as the air around them begins to clear. Sakura resists the urge to rub her eyes free of this irritation as it begins to spread into only a thin film between them and the enemy.
The first sound they make is a slow, mocking clap. It makes Sai narrow his eyes.
As if by instinct, Yamato takes a half step forward in front of Sakura.
"Well, well," comes a slick oily voice from the other side of the kunoichi-made cavern. "That was rather impressive, Sakura."
Naruto bristles at the use of her name and the pinkette herself tries not to react to it.
Yamato completes his half step and now nearly blocks her completely from view. She resists the urge to roll her eyes.
The dust and sand finally settles back to the ground where it belongs and Team Kakashi faces the enemy. They all bear the insignia of the Rock on their headbands. Yamato is suddenly aware of the advantage of the terrain in their favor and he curses silently.
"We're not playing into your game!" cries Naruto. He gives them a fist. "You're picking a fight with the wrong squad!"
Yamato, almost thankful for Naruto's rash distraction, takes the opportunity to analyze the scouts, picking them apart until he can find an upper hand to take.
Four men, two of average height, two above. By the style of their vests, only one is a jonin. The slick blonde hair, as smooth as his voice, to the left with the crooked nose and green eyes. Yamato can tell that just by the way he stands, he is in charge. He shifts his feet, and the rest do as well, mimicking his movements. A well organized team, a familiar one. He guesses the age of the jonin and his subordinates and determines that by the smoothness of the skin on their hands, the telltale sign of a shinobi not weathered enough, they are freshly promoted chuunin of the Rock. Most likely his own genin team.
Yamato narrows his eyes when the other captain responds to Naruto's taunt.
"Except for the fact, my jinchuuriki friend," Sakura bristles at this moment instead, "That you are the exact team we are looking for." His green eyes shift to the only kunoichi in the area and smirks. "Right to the T."
Naruto notices this exchange. The look in his eye and the dart to Sakura lights a fire in his chest.
"You better back off, pal," he hisses. "She can break you in half."
The blonde Rock nin throws his head back and laughs, a deep throttling chuckle that seems to shake the ground beneath them even though they are all absolutely still. It makes Yamato's insides curl.
"Oh, I don't really want her." His eyes imply otherwise. "We're here for your captain."
It's Sakura's turn to talk a half step in front of Yamato. She does so automatically, her feet moving before her brain has the time to process what her body is doing.
Before she can think of a reason to not step in front of him.
Yamato spares her only half a second. It is still not enough.
"You're a sharp man, Yamato," says the Rock nin with a snake-in-the-grass smirk. "I'm sure you've already figured out that you are out of options."
Yamato looks between him and the faces of his men and can't seem to find an answer.
"Surrender yourself quietly," the foreign shinobi begins, "And no harm will come to the rest of your team. A petty alliance between you and Sunagakure will remain in the cards and well," he gives an oily smile, "no one has to die today."
"Except for me," Yamato retorts calmly. "Once you hand me over to Yoshirou."
This time, all four Rock nin chuckle. The unknown jonin slicks his hair back with both hands, still smirking down at the ground in smug disbelief.
Sakura suddenly feels nauseous.
"I assure you, Yamato," hard empty green eyes bore into his almond ones, "The Commander wishes to give you a very, very long and miserable life."
Yamato's feet leave the ground before the Rock nin can even smile.
Team Kakashi blurs into action and Sakura fears for her safety.
For the safety of Kakashi's child.
But she plays a game of tag with her opponent using only the broken shards of earth at their feet that she created with her hands. He sends a boulder flying to her face and Sakura swings it right back with the heel of her chakra intensified sole. Dodge, roll, defend.
Yamato, Naruto, Sai.
Her eyes dart around to the dust storm churning up beneath all their sandaled feet. No one noticed as the jonin and Yamato squared off that the jinchuuriki had been gathering sage energy. Smears of color crease the corners of his eyes and he moves too fast for her to see, drilling his opponent into the sand with an intensified version Uzumaki Barrage. The poor chuunin is nearly buried under the ground by the time Naruto is finished with him.
But as the taichou ordered, the boy is not dead.
Sakura has suddenly switched to using hand to hand only, thrusting the heel of her palm up into the Rock ninja's nose. He catches her wrist at the last moment and twists.
Something breaks and she howls, but only for a moment.
The bone he had been holding in his grasp turns into the snapping of a tree branch. His eyes widen and gazes around frantically, caught off guard by the substitution jutsu. From behind, Sakura, in a mock move of something she once saw Sasuke do, the kunoichi catches his wrists and uses his back as a spring board. Both of his shoulders come popping out of his sockets and he buckles, arms useless.
Hands just as impaired.
Yamato takes a moment to admire her handy work. But eager fingers almost grab him by his face guard and the taichou ducks out of range. His left arm materializes into wood and he sends them sprouting to the Rock jonin like vines. But the blonde man's arm has also changed form, gathering and cracking together into stone. He knocks away Yamato's jutsu, splintering the wood into pieces until he's driving the captain back.
A clone, made during a short pause in the battle, sweeps the Rock nin's feet out from under him.
But this is also a clone, shredding itself down into fine dust that pools at the carbon copy of Yamato's feet. Both captains whip around, using the few milliseconds that they have to pinpoint the enemy by his chakra. Naruto and Sai, too busy fighting off the last remaining chuunin, with the jinchuuriki spiraling through an explosion of ink with the rasengan, Sakura watches anxiously as Yamato tries to get his bearings.
She counts the moments. And before she can blink, his time is up.
But there's a jolt, there at the soles of her heeled sandals, that lets her know through the earth that he is coming from below and also from the right.
"3 o'clock!" she hollers at Yamato. "Below and 3!"
The taichou has just enough to launch into the air, letting the two rock clones collide with each other mid-air, vanishing into the earth from which they came.
However, as Yamato feared, it was only a diversion.
"Sakura!" Naruto cries from too far away, "MOVE!"
It happens so fast she barely has time to breathe.
She can feel the wisps of her hair cascading down between her shoulder blades as if she was a gennin once again, a ghost that ignites in this sudden burst of deja vu. She can hear the urgency in Naruto's voice, as he has shouted countless times into the void of battle, that she needs to run.
A miscalculation. A misstep. Too focused on Yamato, not enough on herself.
Too focused on being a ninja and not being a mother.
She needs to move her feet before she dies because, as he often times is, Naruto cannot save her right now.
Tsunade built her better than this. The Fifth Hokage constructed a woman out of a girl that once stood as Sakura does now, with her knees buckling together, frozen in place but the kunoichi cannot find this soldier. She can't find the pulse of the Will of Fire beneath her, only the push and pull of fear and dread.
The flash of her life before her eyes like a slow motion movie. Full of daffodils and sloping green fields and Ino's yellow hair. The smell of her father's shampoo and Mebuki's favorite dango from down the street.
She is weightless. A star drifting amongst the blanket of lights in a midnight sky while she watches Sasuke sleep beneath the shadows of a tree. Naruto's snores easily.
The rush of falling even though Uchiha arms are there to catch her.
Tsunade shaking her from the depths of an abandonment, by both lover, friend and sensei, to mold her like clay into someone who can no longer be left behind.
Yamato's breath against her ear. Their perfectly timed feet against the countless terrain they have crossed, mountains and gravel to sea and air.
The need of Kakashi's hands against her back when Obito pays him another visit in his dreams.
Sakura can feel nothing. See nothing but Kakashi's face alongside almond shaped eyes and the three thin lines of Ino's last imprint on Earth upon Shikamaru's cheek.
The warmth of Naruto's chest against hers when they revert back into children in the dark.
But it is not Sai that makes her move although his hand is already scrawling ink across his scroll.
It is not Naruto's clone trying to swing the original in her direction that spurs Sakura into action, her name from falling from his lips like a battle cry and a confession.
Not even the 'Please' crumbling off of Yamato's lips as he falls back to earth makes her react.
It's the stress induced kick of Kakashi's child against her womb that brings the life back into her viridian eyes.
And it sparks the battle back into a roar like the spark of a match.
The Rock jonin's kunai has almost tipped down into the side of her throat. But she is there, swinging her fist around in a pinwheel like Kakashi had taught her. First the strike of one, and then the backhanded strike of another. The kunai slaps itself into the air and Sakura catches it easily, like the weight of Kakashi's grief, in her right hand. It twirls effortlessly against her fingers and before the enemy can even hit the sand, Sakura is there.
She drives the tip of his own kunai into the palm of his hand, pinning him to the sand until the only one screaming is him.
Naruto's momentum has finally reached Sakura and she catches him too, not willing to crash into the dirt with him as he had planned. They go skidding across the warm grains of the sand, getting it in their eyes and in their mouths, and it burns across Sakura's back.
Beneath them, the ground shakes with turbulence and the two friends stumble to their feet, gripping on to each other's forearms even though neither of them are in danger of falling.
They watch, from within the swirl of another sand storm, as wood begins to rise up from the caverns of Wind country. It cages the foriegn jonin in like an animal, growling and hissing as he pries the kunai from his hand.
Sai's ink soaked tigers drag the three defeated chuunin by their ankles and angrily toss them into the door of the cage. The jonin, eager to take his way out, throws himself against it as if escape could be that simple.
The entryway seals up, furling and curling from roots and into a pillar before he can reach it.
"I'm gonna fucking kill you!" the man spits, slick blonde hair disheveled and falling from it's greasy hold and into his eyes. His hands make a sign and Sakura takes a defensive stance, ready for the world to fall apart beneath them.
But Yamato smirks and nothing happens.
Not even a glimmer of his chakra ignites and Sakura stares, wide-eyed.
The taichou strolls up to the bars of his own prison and leans his face in dangerously close to the enemy's.
Yamato strokes a pillar of his creation almost lovingly and chuckles.
"The cage will slowly drink up your chakra like rain water until there's nothing left but your hollow eyes and empty veins." A flicker of fear crosses the hateful green eyes and the taichou smirks again. "You can thank your Commander Yoshirou for the blueprints. I spent a long time studying them first hand."
The Rock ninja's face ashens.
"And if I were you," Yamato continues, his voice dangerous and low, "I would pray to Kami that, being the merciful Leaf ninja we are, we hurry to Suna so you can be captured and saved from such a…" he raises an eyebrow, "unheroic death."
The jonin, defeated, sinks down onto his knees and leans his forehead against the hard wood of his demise. And right before their eyes, he now battles himself for two things; treason or survival.
Yamato turns to his team and without even a second glance back, his almond eyes hard and almost unforgiving, he nods to Suna on the horizon.
Sakura can't help but smile as Gaara, the Kazekage himself, stands stiffly amongst the embrace of Naruto. He isn't sure of what to do with his hands but there's a smile there, barely, curling up the corner of his mouth.
Temari tries not to be too annoyed at the jinchuuriki's unnecessary show of affection. But even she, as the kunoichi crosses her long legs and lets her fan lean against her knee, can't look upon her brother and his old friend without a hint of tenderness in her turquoise eyes.
"I'm glad you made it to my village safely," he rumbles in his deep cadenced voice. Naruto removes himself from the Kazekage's person space and takes a few steps back. "And thanks to you, my men are already in route to apprehending the intrusion on our border."
"Aww, it was nothing really," Naruto says with a grin, tucking his hands behind his yellow head. "Could've taken all four of those bastards in my sleep!"
Kankuro tries not to roll his eyes. But his smile betrays his purple stained lips.
"Looks like we owe you one," the eldest of the sand siblings says. Temari gives him an urgent look, the air of the room suddenly turning into a more pressing one as the spur of a political conversation might unfold. He gives the back of his neck a nervous rub. "A debt that can easily be repaid with some food and rest."
For some unknown reason, Gaara swivels his gaze to Sakura. And although the two have never been close, an unfriendly word or glance has yet to cross between the Kazekage and herself.
But Sakura is forced to look away when his pale blue eyes remind her too much of Ino.
Yamato, knowing this was a mistake on her part in the unsaid lingo of politics, covers her tracks.
"We would be most grateful to receive your hospitality, Lord Gaara. As we will discuss tomorrow, Team Kakashi is on a strict timeline that forced us to make the trek to Sunagakure in two days instead of three." He gives a charming smile and motions to the well placed yawn of Sai which he tries to cover with his hand. "As you can see."
A nod passes from Temari to Sai on his part of playing it off. Yamato thanks Kami that at least one of the sand siblings is already on board with this alliance.
Gaara nods earnestly.
"Of course. Ren," the Kazekage calls in his low rumble. A young orange haired genin steps through nervously and almost cowers under the curious stare of Naruto. Gaara finds this almost endearing.
"Show the Leaf ninja to their rooms. And have a meal prepared."
The skittish genin gives an enthusiastic nod and with bows to the Kazekage and the siblings, and Gaara's small almost imperceptible smile, the Konoha natives trek off after Ren and his small form down the winding corridors of the Kazekage's Tower.
Almost immediately, Sai and Naruto rush into the boy's room to strip off their sandals and lay down, leaving Sakura and Yamato lingering in front of her door beside theirs. And although the cool interior of Gaara's home washes over them, forever protecting against the heat of the desert, Sakura feels her skin prickle beneath his gaze.
They wait until Ren's footsteps have all but faded from around the corner.
"Sakura," he begins. But the girl doesn't respond immediately, feigning a sudden interest in her dirtied fingernails. "Sakura."
She looks up the second time and just as she feared, she stares up into his worried expression.
He doesn't need to ask the question. Doesn't even need to pretend like he's going to.
His lungs expand too widely, like if he's finally able to catch his breath, and he gives his jaw a tired rub when she doesn't respond.
Her throat closes around all the things that she should be saying and she has to look away.
They both saw it, out there in the desert, and now he can't let it go.
"Why didn't you move?" His voice barely reaches above a whisper, strung by a fear that maybe if he speaks to loud, she will flee.
Or worse, she will freeze.
Sakura stares up at him, almost horrified at the reality of his words, and looks down at her cherry blossom painted toenails.
"I was afraid."
His almond eyes soften like earth after a long rain and he tilts her chin up.
The touch burns but Sakura doesn't pull away.
"We're all scared."
She wants to scream now. She wants to throw something and shove him and ache for Kakashi in the middle of this hallway but she can't. Yamato doesn't know that in that moment she struggled to be a mother, to make the right move or counter the right attack because she had already taken one misstep.
She had already missed her chance to extract herself from the field.
And her child could've very well paid the price.
The thought of it had frozen her, glued her limbs to a state of limbo that wouldn't react no matter how much she tried to move them. The Will of Fire did nothing. Her love for both Yamato and Kakashi did nothing to make her spur in time to save not only her life, but off the fetus growing inside of her.
It was the kick of Kakashi's baby that saved her.
And Sakura had never felt more unworthy to be a mother.
"Yamato," she whispers before she can stop herself. "I need to tell you something..."