A Naruto fanfic



Rating: T

Genre: Drama/Adventure (maybe?)

Characters/Pairings: Tsunade, Sasuke, Naruto; [N/A]

Summary: Fairness is a nice idea, but tricky to actually work out in practice. Tsunade, however, at least intends to give credit where credit is due. Set before the Sasuke Retrieval arc.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The chirp of an alarm pierced Sakura Haruno's sleep.

She groaned, rolling over in her futon.

Cracking emerald eyes open, she blearily stared at her alarm clock for a handful of seconds. It was dark outside, still, and although she had gotten herself to sleep before seven, Sakura was nonetheless drowsy and slow to process what she was seeing.

4:30 am.

Briefly, the pinkette pondered researching some manner of time-warping kinjutsu so she could get some more damn sleep. It took her a moment, in her present somnolent haze, to realize that such a thing was very unlikely to exist.

And even if it did, she certainly wouldn't be able to use it at her present skill level.

Resisting the urge to curse under her breath, Sakura silently motivated herself with thoughts of the training to come. Or she tried to, at least.

But thinking about all of that before even getting out of bed really just made her want to pull the covers over her head and pretend she hadn't heard her alarm going off. Only by stubbornly swearing to kick her own ass if she did not get up right now was Sakura able to convince herself to throw off the covers and get dressed.

Pausing only to make her bed and brush her teeth, Sakura changed out of her pajamas. She threw on a pair of ratty old clothes that she wouldn't care about ruining, grabbing a stopwatch and a water bottle.

It was around quarter to five by the time Sakura got outside. The sun was close to an hour from rising as she started her morning run, and she could still see the moon in the sky.

Sakura started off at a walking pace, breathing in the crisp morning air to wake herself up. Her eyelids were still feeling a little heavy, and she yawned more than once over the first five minutes, but now that she was up and outside she was actually able to remember the firm resolve which had kept her persevering through this physical training regimen.

Once she was fully conscious and no longer feeling the temptation to turn back and return to her bed, Sakura picked up her pace. She went gradually faster as she warmed up, loosening her muscles with light exercise.

By the five minute mark, Sakura was going at a brisk jog. At fifteen minutes she was running. And by the time she reached a half hour, Sakura was at her effective top speed, lungs burning, chest heaving, stabbing pains shooting through her legs.

She slowed back down through jogging to speedwalking, taking five more minutes to cool herself off and relax her leg muscles.

At roughly twenty past five, Sakura was back at her house. Drenched with sweat and smelling like something had died and crawled down her shirt three weeks ago, she went up to her room and grabbed a clean change of clothes and a bathrobe.

One brief shower later – taking only enough time to do a quick scrub and rinse – Sakura was going through a few simple kata to speed up her drip drying. Nothing particularly wild or intense, but it was important to practice the basic forms. By five thirty-five, Sakura was fully dressed and out of the bathroom.

Heading down to the kitchen, Sakura prepared herself a simple but hearty breakfast. After the events of the Chuunin Exam's second phase, she had cast aside the petty concerns of dieting and gone to her parents for help in getting stronger.

Though career genin themselves, Kizashi and Mebuki were still experienced in the basics, and glad to hear that their daughter was ready to take her training seriously. Sakura's dad had helped her draw up a suitable training regimen, and her mom had taken to showing her a few simple tricks with make up to conceal the various little scrapes and bruises.

"It's not just a matter of vanity for us kunoichi," Mebuki had said with a wink as she showed Sakura how to get just the right colors to imitate skin tone. "Men are less likely to consider a girl a threat, especially if she looks cute and harmless... a smart kunoichi takes the time to doll herself up just enough to hide the fruits of her training..."

It was amazing how much one could obfuscate the slow build up of muscle and callouses with simple tricks of clothing arrangement. Just by slightly changing how she wore her clothes, Sakura could make it look like she hadn't gained any muscle tone since the second stage of the Chuunin Exams.

With the slightest subtle touches of make up, Mebuki had taught her daughter how to make herself look cute and nonthreatening. Aside from that, the woman had also taken to preparing hearty, protein-rich bento to help Sakura close the gap between her and her teammates.

Kizashi, being a big and physically powerful man, despite not having all that much skill as a ninja, had shown his little girl all sorts of little tricks for maximizing the efficiency of muscle gain, as well as teaching her a few useful locks and holds that he had picked up over the years.

He helped her with shurikenjutsu and simple techniques, sparring with his daughter when they had the time, and teaching her a few simple but nifty jutsu. Sakura was a clever girl and a quick learner. With her only weaknesses being a comparatively weak body and lackluster stamina – and these were things she had spent a better part of the past two months training every day to overcome – she had a good amount of potential.

"Honestly, dear... I'm surprised at how quickly you're improving. I think you might already be more skilled than me and your mother," Kizashi had said thoughtfully one day, a few weeks into training with his daughter.

"...Although that doesn't mean you're stronger than us!" He'd added a moment later with a hearty laugh.

Sakura's parents, while overall mediocre shinobi, still had many things they could teach their daughter, and with them helping her along the way she had honestly seen a drastic improvement in her weakest areas.

She was not as fast or apt with ninjutsu as Sasuke-kun, to be sure, or as strong or hardy as Naruto, but she was improving. It would be a while before she could stand alongside her teammates as an equally capable shinobi, but she was getting there.

She had promised herself, after all. One day, Naruto and Sasuke would be the ones watching her back as she protected them.

She would protect them. They were her comrades.

That was Sakura's promise of a lifetime.

It was seven in the morning when Sasuke arrived at the team's meeting spot. Sakura was there well ahead of him, practicing her shurikenjutsu.

Sweat beaded down her brow, emerald eyes intently focused on the task at hand. Kunai slipped from between her fingers, loosed in a calculated trajectory. Flight swift and straight brought a full salvo of throwing knives ten meters through the air, their journey coming to an end in the chest of a straw and rolled-tatami training dummy.

It was a rough circle of iron, each blade only an inch or two from its fellows. Rips and tears in the tatami – which Sasuke's eyes could effortlessly pick out even from this distance – showed where prior barrages had landed.

For the most part, he could tell that Sakura's throws had been fairly precisely clustered around the areas corresponding with soft or vital points.

"Hey," he said by way of greeting, giving his teammate a lazy movement of the arm that could perhaps be interpreted as a halfhearted wave.

"Hm," Sakura grunted, giving a short nod to show that she heard him. "Hi, Sasuke-kun."

Her lips quirked up at the corners, and her eyes twinkled a bit brighter than before, but she otherwise showed no sign of relenting from her training.

Sasuke couldn't help the smirk that crept onto his face. He did not ask his female teammate how long she had been at this, but simply sat down in a spot close enough to keep an eye on her progress while still giving her enough space to practice.

Adopting the lotus pose, Sasuke took a slow, deep breath and closed his eyes.

He had already done his usual morning exercises, and it would probably be a little while yet before Naruto arrived. He should have enough time for contemplation and cleansing.

Sakura would not disturb his meditation.

han nya ha ra mit-ta shin gyou
kan ji zai bo satsu gyou jin han
nya ha ra mit-ta ji shou ken
go un kai kuu do is-sai ku yaku

Sasuke chanted the verses of the heart sutra, his voice low and soft, like a breeze whispering through the leaves. He was still, motionless, legs crossed and eyes closed as he focused on the core of his being.

sha ri shi shiki fu i kuu kuu
i fu shiki shiki soku ze kuu kuu
soku ze shiki ju sou gyou shiki yaku
bu nyo ze sha ri shi ze sho

The steady, intermittent thunk thunk thunk of shuriken impacting training dummies was soothing in its own way, a calming repetition as rhythmic and natural as waves lapping at the shore.

Sasuke's chakra flowed freely, unfettered in meditation. It seeped through every fiber of his being, enriching and relaxing him. He emptied himself of worries, devoting the entirety of his mind to the chant, forgetting for a time all things but the syllables which he formed with his mouth.

hou kuu sou fu shou fu metsu fu
ku fu jou fu zou fu gen ze
ko kuu chuu-mu shiki-mu ju sou gyou shiki

He felt the prick of the curse mark at the edge of his consciousness. A deep energy thrummed within it, a well of power longing to be tapped. For an instant, the temptation to release the evil-suppressing seal flickered in his heart.

But Sasuke quashed this desire, remembering what Lord Jiraiya had told him.

mu gen ni bi zetsu shin i mu
shiki shou kou mi soku hou mu gen
kai nai shi mu i shiki kai mu
mu myou yaku mu mu myou jin nai

Jiraiya glowered sternly down at Sasuke, arms crossed over his chest. Naruto, Sakura, and Kakashi had all left. The first two had needed to be all but ushered out of the room.

"Don't use that curse mark," he said gruffly, tersely. "Your body can't handle that kind of power."

Sasuke's eyes flashed, and he looked up at the man, dark and defiant.

"Then I just need to get stronger, right?" he said, his voice low. "I can't keep suppressing this forever. Every time I'm pushed to my limit..."

He grimaced, a hand unconsciously going to the back of his neck. The juuin burned in his skin, pricking at the back of his mind with honeyed whispers of power, tempting promises of strength such as he could never imagine, if he would only just submit.

"It's not a matter of strength," Jiraiya replied, and his eyes held something like a mix of disdain and – pity? "At least, not any kind of strength that you would be able to reach."

shi mu rou shi yaku mu rou shi
jin mu ku shuu metsu dou mu chi
yaku mu toku i mu sho toku-ko bo
dai sat ta e han nya ha ra

Sasuke's temper flared at these words, the implication behind them. This man was saying he was weak – that he could not handle the curse mark, that he would never be able to handle it.

For a moment, Sasuke wanted dearly to rip away Kakashi's suppressing seal and beat the pitying look off of that old bastard's face. Onyx eyes ignited, burning crimson. Twin commas ringed black pupils.

"I am not weak," Sasuke hissed through grit teeth. "I'm not! I am...!"

"I didn't say that you were," Jiraiya replied, seeming entirely unfazed by the flare up of Sasuke's doujutsu. "But that doesn't make you strong. Not compared to someone like me, or Orochimaru – or your brother."

A heavy silence followed that statement. Sasuke glared daggers at Jiraiya, his lips curling back.

"Maybe not now..." he whispered, clenching his fists. "But I'll get stronger... strong enough to defeat Itachi, and avenge my clan!"

Jiraiya shrugged, and he waved a hand dismissively.

"Maybe you will," he said. "And maybe you won't. Even if you did, though, I still doubt you would have what it takes to handle that curse mark."

mit-ta ko shin mu kei gei mu
kei gei ko mu u ku fu on
ri is-sai ten dou mu sou ku gyou ne

"And how can you be so sure of that?" Sasuke growled. He was tense, and the curse mark was howling in his ears, thick and potent chakra roiling furiously within its confines.

Jiraiya let out a sigh. He stood motionless beside Sasuke's bed, and closed his eyes.

Sasuke bit back a snarl at this apparent dismissal of his inquiries. His fingers twitched. The Uchiha was tense, a glint of something wild and wary in his sharingan.

But then he saw something that gave him pause. The chakra of the man before him... it was changing.

han san ze sho butsu e han nya
ha ra mit-ta ko toku a noku
ta ra san myaku san bo dai ko
chi han nya ha ra mit-ta ze

Eyes widened. Even if it wasn't yet fully matured, Sasuke's doujutsu could still see the signs of something changing in Jiraya's chakra. It seemed to... fill out, for lack of a better description, growing deeper and richer.

It was different. Sasuke's sharingan could read something of the changes in the man's chakra, but he felt like he was seeing only a small part of what was happening. He was aware of the difference in the man's chakra, but he was also aware that what he saw was only an indirect observation.

He felt like a blind man trying to describe the sun. Sasuke knew it was there; he could see the shifting in the man's chakra, the changes in his flesh, but there was something missing, something he realized he was not seeing.

Something he could not see.

It was something that felt strangely familiar, yet different, like quilts made with the same fabric but knitted in different weaves.

"Orochimaru's curse mark..." Jiraiya said, opening his eyes to meet Sasuke's gaze. "...is derived from senjutsu. Human chakra incorporating natural energy in equal proportion to mind and body. It's a power that even a shinobi of my level can only barely handle."

Sasuke stared.

His eyes narrowed.

dai jin shu ze dai myou shu ze
mu jou shu ze mu tou dou shu
nou jo is-sai ku shin jitsu fu
ko ko setsu han nya ha ra mit

"But... it's possible to control it...?" he muttered.

Jiraiya met Sasuke's eyes, and shook his head.

"The last man to master this power was the Lord First Hokage," the man said. "Someone who excelled in all fields of the ninja arts, with a power so vast that he was called shinobi no kami. It's possible to master sage chakra in the same sense that it's possible to fling a kunai to the moon."

Sasuke deflated. Something about the absolute certainty in the man's tone got to him.

He saw Jiraiya let go of whatever he had taken into himself, his chakra returning to its normal state, his body reverting to how it naturally looked.

Sasuke collapsed back into the bed, his sharingan deactivating.

"I can't let this curse mark hold me back..." he muttered, eyes dark. "I refuse to be limited by the need to restrain this thing."

Jiraiya's face was unreadable.

"Just don't let it consume you," the man said quietly. "You've got potential, kid. It'd be a shame to see it all thrown away in fit of pique."

Sasuke did not respond.

He closed his eyes.

ta shu soku setsu shu watsu
gya tei gya tei ha ra gya tei
ha ra sou gya tei bo ji so wa ka

Back in the present, Sasuke opened his eyes. He exhaled slowly, feeling the sun on the back of his neck. A slight breeze ruffled his hair.

The itch of the curse mark pawing at the back of his mind was distant now, faded to almost nothing. Its power felt... not weaker, exactly, but more manageable, thrumming gently behind the confines of Kakashi's evil-sealing method.

Coming out of his meditation, the temptation to release the curse mark's power was very small, a brief and passing notion that he easily rebuffed. Detached from the baser emotions which the curse mark preyed upon, Sasuke could safely use his own chakra to its limit without fear of creating an opening for Orochimaru's little time bomb.

It was not permanent by any means. He would need to meditate again, exhort himself to continue defying that temptation, and rebuke those parts of his mind and soul which hungered for power at any cost.

But Sasuke was not his brother. He would not let himself go down the same path as that man. He would grow strong on his own terms, by his own methods.

He was no man's pawn.

Looking over his shoulder, feeling refreshed and at peace, Sasuke noticed Sakura in a similar pose to himself. He smiled wryly, seeing the sweat which lingered on her skin.

The girl had been working hard. She was no longer the person he had remonstrated for being even worse than Naruto. Not that that would mean as much now.

But she'd been doing her best to get stronger. She wasn't there yet, from what Sasuke had seen, but she was making an earnest effort. She was throwing herself into her training, holding nothing back in her quest to improve.

Sasuke could respect that. She was much more tolerable now that she had begun to take her career seriously.

He chuckled, catching himself looking rather intently at the girl.

"Heh... she seems a lot cuter like this..." he whispered to himself.

A moment passed before Sasuke registered what he had just said. Then he blushed, and violently shook his head.

He did not notice the slightest hint of redness which crept into Sakura's cheeks.

For better or worse, before Sasuke and Sakura could find themselves getting too cozy or curious, Naruto came bounding over the bridge and into the training grounds. He was beaming as brightly as a signal flare, grinning wide and all but skipping over to his teammates.

The blond had apparently opted to wear his flak vest today. He had the same orange trousers on as ever, but it was sadly neither practical nor comfortable for him to wear the vest over his favorite blue and orange coat. Naruto had thusly bemoaned the lack of orange flak vests, and still tended to waffle between whether or not to wear the thing.

On one hand, he was obviously happy to show off his new rank, and the privileges afforded to him as a chuunin. On the other hand, he was also very fond of his old track suit, and the color orange in general.

Today, it seemed that his desire to remind people of his recent promotion had outweighed his love for his old outfit.

"Yooo, Sasuke! Sakura!" Naruto cheered, bouncing over to his two teammates. "Have a nice nap?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, and Sakura suppressed a slight giggle. They stood up from their meditating positions, waving to their teammate in greeting.

"Hey, Naruto," said Sasuke. He noticed a scroll in the blond's hand, and pointed at it. "You got a new mission for us?"

Naruto nodded cheerfully, his grin widening (if that were possible).

"A B-rank!" he said, barely able to repress his enthusiasm.

Sasuke felt a quiver of excitement himself. Sakura frowned slightly, though.

"Just the three of us?" she murmured. "That seems dangerous."

"Nah," Naruto replied. "This is gonna be one of those two-squad deals. A joint mission."

Sasuke quirked an eyebrow.

"Two squads?" he said. "As in, four man squads?"

Naruto nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess the client for this was real set on getting the best deal for his money, so we'll be getting a fourth team member for this job."

"Do you know who it is?" Sakura inquired. "That we'll be working with, I mean."

"Shikamaru's team," Naruto said, "plus Neji and Hinata."

Sasuke furrowed his brow.

"Who?" he said, frowning.

"Neji was Naruto's opponent in the third phase of the exams," Sakura said. "You weren't there for the fight, but I'm sure you remember him. And Hinata was in our graduating class at the academy. She's Neji's cousin."

"Ah." Sasuke grimaced. "Hyuuga? Well, I guess they'll be good for reconnaissance."

"Neji's a real good fighter," Naruto added. "Even more dangerous in close range than Bushy Brows."

"What about... Hinata, was it?" Sasuke inquired. "That name doesn't really ring a bell."

"She's kind of a wallflower," Sakura conceded. "But she was very brave in her match against Neji. Especially with... oh, a certain someone cheering her on."

Sakura gave Naruto a meaningful look.

The blond completely missed her point.

"Yeah!" he chirped. "She might be kinda weird, but that Hinata's got real guts!"

Sasuke hummed.

"Hinata..." he muttered, frowning. "...that wouldn't happen to be written the same as Hyuuga, would it?"

"Maybe," Sakura said with a shrug. "It could be, at any rate."

Sasuke grumbled, muttering some unfavorable things about wordplay and puns.

Sweatdropping slightly, Sakura turned to Naruto.

"So," she said. "Do you know who'll be on our squad, then?"

"No, Granny didn't say," Naruto answered. He hummed thoughtfully. "...I kinda hope we don't get stuck with Neji, though."

"I thought you said he was strong?" Sasuke interjected.

"Crazy skilled, yeah," Naruto nodded in agreement. He squinted, crossing his arms over his chest. "But he's also kind of a total jerk."

Sakura suddenly choked.

Which was unusual, seeing as how neither Naruto or Sasuke had seen her take anything but air into her mouth since the start of their conversation.

But then a voice interrupted their thoughts.

"Well, now," said Neji Hyuuga, walking up to Team Seven. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything important."

Naruto at least had the decency to look sheepish.

A/N: A part of me was strongly tempted to have Hinata be the one on their team for shippiness sake, but then I decided that Neji would probably have more to talk about.

And what is Team Seven's newest mission? Don't ask me, I haven't got the slightest clue yet! Haha...

Also, I can totally see Sasuke as one of those guys who is absolutely TERRIBLE at remembering names and faces... kinda channeling myself, in that respect, though in his case it's mostly out of aloof disinterest.

Additionally, I really like the idea of Sasuke taking up meditation to control his emotions and strengthen his resolve to not use the curse mark.

Canonically, allegedly half on ninja training is supposed to be about such things, but of course introspection and contemplation are not as visually interesting as training montages. So it seems like a really neat idea to me to focus more heavily on that aspect with someone who could have seriously benefited from regular meditation.

Updated: 11-25-14

TTFN and R&R!

– — ❤