05: coming of age


Sakura cursed as her foot slipped into yet another mud puddle. She hoisted her large pack over one shoulder so she could bend and extricate her foot from the mud. Her heavy combat boots did nothing to ease her journey and she was growing even more irritated with each passing day. Shikamaru had been sighing and grumbling nonstop, but at least he seemed to know exactly where the solid parts of the ground were, and didn't have to pull his foot from the mud every few minutes.

Their small camp was traversing through the borders separating the Land of Fire from the Land of Water. The area was a dark (even in the afternoon light) and damp marshland, with no signs of life except from the buzzing mosquitoes and the craggly trees growing out of the salt water. It was particularly foggy on that day, and that plus the abundant herbacious vegetation growing out of the damp ground led to almost zero visibility when it comes to detecting mud puddles. By the time they stopped, Sakura was irritated and wet and her boots were sopping with salt water and soil.

The Leaf's camp was slightly hidden by the natural murk that seemed to permeate the gloomy saltmarshes, and it took Sakura a while before she spotted the encampment. They were ushered in stiffly, not a single friendly face in sight. Everyone else that were already in the camp looked tired and disheveled; pale skin from the lack of sunlight and heavy dark bags underneath their eyes. The only one that seemed well enough was a guy with a strange bowl cut and heavy dark brows. He greeted them one by one with enthusiasm that seemed so out of place.

"Hello there, Mister Nara," He said when Sakura and Shikamaru finally entered the gates.

Shikamaru gave a salute. Startled, Sakura followed suit. "Afternoon, Sir,"

Bushy brows nodded amicably before turning his attention to Sakura. He tilted his head quizzically, "And...?"

"Haruno, Sir," She said.

"Came from Waterfall. You wouldn't know him," Shikamaru supplied helpfully.

"Ah, that explains it! I made an effort to get to know everyone in the Military Academy you see, so I was a bit surprised back there," He grinned, then started greeting the other Privates further along the line.

"Quite a boisterous fellow, huh," Shikamaru chuckled lightly.

"Reminds me of our Naruto," Sakura nodded with a laugh.

Naruto. She wondered if she would ever get the chance to see him, again. Kiba, too. After they were transferred out to the newly established camp near the borders of Rain and the Land of Wind, she never saw the two of them, nor any of the other privates that were with them, again. And soon after, she was transferred, along with Shikamaru, to the Leaf war camp located in the gloomy saltmarshes near the Land of Water borders.

Most of the camp was built on elevated wooden scaffolds supported by large wooden poles, probably because the water from the ocean flooded the marshes on a daily basis. Sakura wrinkled her nose while they were being given a brief tour around the encampment by a rather stiff and tired looking officer who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. The area was cursed by the peculiar smell that permeated the rest of the marshlands; a mixture of old salt water and organic decay.

They were grouped together according to whoever was standing beside them, and to Sakura's delight, she was with Shikamaru. They were to share their sleeping quarters with a higher officer that had been in the camp for months now. The officer turned out to be strange, solemn guy who didn't talk much and smiled even less. He offered his name and his greetings and returned to whatever he was doing without a single peep.

This suited Shikamaru just fine, who didn't care who the hell he was rooming with as long as he wasn't some annoying loud mouth. The tent was too big for the three of them. It was meant for six soldiers, their new roomie had said, but since hardly anybody gets assigned in the marshlands, he'd been staying here alone all this time.

"Must have been a bit lonely, huh," Sakura remarked, trying to strike up a conversation with their weird roomie.

"No, I liked it that way," Was her only reply.

She shut up after that.


It must have been the fog, after all, that made everyone seem so gloomy and tired, because Sakura was normally a morning person, but it seemed that waking up to all the murk and chill made her a, well, a not morning person. Shikamaru was still Shikamaru. She had to kick him awake (this used to be Naruto's job).

Their mysterious new roomie was already up and about when she awoke, because his sleeping bag was already rolled up and tucked neatly into a corner. She followed his example, and watched with amusement as Shikamaru kicked his until it rolled up into a corner alongside hers.

Morning in the new camp was, well, far from the morning she was used to. It was brighter yes, but the fog was as thick as ever. For breakfast, they were served stew and bread. The stew was a bit salty to the taste (she tried not to think about where they could have possibly gotten the salt) with chopped meat in it (she hoped it wasn't the meat of some reptile. The marshes were full of them) but at least the water was normal. She half expected it to be salty.

"Hey! Is the food okay?"

They looked up to the sound of the friendly voice. It was the officer from yesterday, Rock Lee. Normally, loud and overly friendly people like him would have annoyed her, but he reminded her so much of Naruto that couldn't resist smiling. "Yes, Sir. It isn't bland, at least,"

He grinned broadly, "Well! Our workers here make the best of the marshes,"

Sakura forced herself to keep the smile in place. That one statement seemed to confirm her earlier suspicions about the food.

"Oh! Was Neji with you? Back at the other camp you were stationed in,"

Sakura raised a brow. Yet another person who called Hyuga Neji's name in a casual way. She didn't expect the stiff Hyuga prodigee to have this many close friends.

"He was. But he left earlier than we did; to the camp near Rain," Shikamaru answered in his bored, drawling voice.

Fuzzy brows frowned, "Ah, I see. I was hoping to at least see him. Then the person assigned here is-"

"Sir Uchiha Sasuke," Sakura finished for him. The name felt strange when she said it, and she was self conscious about it. However, she found herself wanting an excuse to say his name over and over again.

God. She sounded like a mooning village girl.

Which was fine, really, but not when she was pretending to be a boy in a military camp smack dab in the middle of an impending war.

Lee nodded, "Yes, yes, Mister Uchiha is a great asset. We're definitely greatful to have him around,"

He exchanged a few more polite words with them before going on to the next table. "Hi! Is the food okay?" He said once again to the Privates in the other table.

"He certainly tries his best to make this wet blanket of a place into a paradise of sunbeams and rainbows," Shikamaru chuckled lightly.

Sakura nodded, "It's great, though, to have someone like him around. A single smiling face will do. Everyone here looks so tired,"

"I am, too, you know,"

"But you're always tired," Sakura retorted dryly.


Girls. That's what everyone in the camp seemed to be talking about lately. Girlfriends back home, unrequited loves, all that romantic stuff. It seemed weird to hear grown boys talking about such girly things, but Sakura kind of understood. In this gloomy camp where everything beyond the fog is a mystery (could be a small frog, could be an enemy with a blade in hand) it must be quite easy to think of the possibility of death. The possibility of not going back home. And there their weaknesses surface.

She was on watch duty, a rather boring and tedious assignment. There was nothing much to watch anyway, the thick fog certainly made sure of that. She was sitting on top of the wooden scaffold overlooking the barred up entrance of the camp with a handheld periscope and a fellow Private who seemed to miss a girl back home so badly. She wanted to comfort him, truly she did, but not when mosquitoes kept biting the exposed skin where her sleeves and gloves failed to meet. She only felt annoyed.

She'd been on watch duty for close to a week now, and nothing eventful ever did happen. Not that she wasn't grateful. Of course she was. Uneventful meant safe, and safe meant more chances for her to go home. She certainly did not want to be carried home inside a coffin.

Suddenly, she stiffened. Trailing her eyes across the foggy landscape, she felt a bead of sweat drip down her neck.

She thought she heard a splash.

"Did you hear that?" She asked the other private quietly.

He gave her a dumb look. "Heard what?"

It could have been her imagination. It was close to one in the morning and she was getting a bit drowsy. It could have been a splash from a frog. It may not have seem like it at first, but she gradually realized that the saltmarshes were brimming with life, some invisible to the naked eye. Reptiles slithered around, moquitoes buzzed, bacteria and yeast gradually decomposing the dead; all of this making up the stink of the marshlands.

And yet Sakura was frightened and on edge. What was so different about this particular splash?

She kicked her fellow Privates' shoulder lightly, "Wake someone up,"

"Huh?"

"Wake someone up. Anyone. First Lieutenant Uchiha, Colonel Morino. Go, alright? I don't like this,"

As the Private left, Sakura took out her pistol and squinted at the murk. It could be nothing, of course, and she was prepared to receive her share of curses once this proved to be a false alarm.

She hopped down carefully to the lower scaffolding for a better view. She allowed her feet to dangle as she sat down and peered around with the periscope. So far so good. No shadows of any sort. She breathed a sigh of relief as she peered around once more. Like this, she was able to appreciate the saltmarshes. The unique scent of salt water and soil, mingling together. Just this morning, water from the ocean flooded into the marsh, bringing with it small fishes and sand. The water beneath must be deeper than normal tonight.

She was lost in thought about how to explain to the Colonel, when two ice cold hands gripped her ankles and dragged her into the water.


The Land of Water, as its name would imply, was more water than land. There were islands scattered here and there, and right in the heart of it was Mist Village, a secretive little hodgepodge of the strange and the unknown. At least, that was how Sakura saw it.

Nobody knew much about the lands beyond the saltmarshes and the seas. Mist had always been detached from the rest of the lands, both because of the sea surrounding the isles and the suspicious nature of the people residing in it. It was no tourist attraction. Very little came and went. It's either you're born there and stay there, or go there and fail to return. The few who do go there and manage to return are often packed with peculiar tales.

It wasn't just a lawless land of anarchy like most people claim it is, it was a full functioning society hidden deep within the forbidding saltmarshes and beyond the vastly unexplored sea. Travelers claim the Mist is more of a large military base than a village, with their focus on military and experimental science. Labs and training grounds are more abundant than restaurants and parks, they say.

Meanwhile, there are those who have entirely different stories. The waters could make you grow gills and fins and gradually replace your skin with scales. The fog was poisonous, could make you sick and blind and mad. Because those who live within that isolated little isle are mad, they say, and they have green skin and unblinking reptilian eyes.

And they were terribly good swimmers.


Everything was pretty much a blur. The struggle underneath the cold water and her assailant's quick movements. She fought back as much as she could, her body ignoring the biting cold and the lack of air. She opened her mouth to scream when she felt a sharp pain on her leg. Salt water flooded the inside of her mouth. She thought her head would burst. She fought with everything she had to halt the movement of her enemy's arms, because his next target would be her chest. Or head. Anyhow, it wouldn't end so well.

Bang!

Red filled her vision. The saltwater had turned red. She screamed, not caring if she sounded like a girl. She screamed and screamed as she pushed away the body. She scampered away as fast as her trembling legs would carry her until she found herself in shallow water. She tumbled and tripped and she was sure she looked as pathetic as she felt, but for now all she wanted was to get away.

"Akira!" It was Shikamaru. He had scrambled down to the water. She allowed her legs to give way beneath her, and sank into his arms. Other Privates and high ranking officers were gathered around her, too, but most of them had spread out the area to deflect any more possible attacks.

She didn't want to faint, but she did anyway.

When she awoke, Shikamaru was still there. She realized she was in a proper bed, this time. The kind they reserved for the injured. For now, she wanted to ignore her pretensions. For now she wanted to be weak and scared. She wanted to be babied.

"Your legs and arms are still intact," Shikamaru informed her with a yawn. "You got stabbed pretty bad on your right leg, though,"

Her medic skills kicked in, "Infection..." she rasped out. Her throat felt dry.

"It was properly cleaned and treated," He assured her. He looked tired. Did he stay up for her?

Then a chill ran down her spine. She ignored her aching body in favor of removing the blanket and checking to see if they had changed her clothes. Because if they had-

It appears, they didn't.

"My...my clothes..."

"Ah, you want to change?" Shikamaru raised a brow. "The medic in charge removed your coat and cut off a huge chunk of your pants to clean your wound. He initially wanted to strip you fully to clean out the mud, but Uchiha gave orders to keep you fully clothed,"

Sakura blinked. "He what?"

Shikamaru shrugged, "I don't understand it either, but that's what he said. He said people from Waterfall are conservatives and whatnot, and he said you'd prefer to change your clothes by yourself, too. I dunno what the hell he's thinking, prioritizing your eccentricities in a time like this, but medics can't disobey him. He cleaned out the wound properly though, and you don't have any wounds anywhere else,"

"I...I, uh, that's right. I...I'd like to change by myself," Sakura wasn't sure if it was the splitting headache or the saltwater she swallowed, but she felt lightheaded and soon fell into a deep sleep once more.

The leg wound wasn't as bad as she thought it was. After only a day's rest, and with a nice cane the medic had kindly lent her, she was able to walk around camp. More than anything, she wanted to see her assailant's body. And she wanted to know what happened from someone else's point of view, since Shikamaru seemed to avoid her questions.

At the furthest end of the camp, there was a big tent that served as a kind of morgue. Dead bodies of Leaf soldiers were stored here until they could be sent back to their homes. Dead bodies of soldiers, meanwhile, were sent here to be examined for anything that might prove useful. Just as she was about to lift the flap of the tent, someone stopped her.

It was Sasuke Uchiha.

"Sir!" She gave him a wobbly salute. Her arms were still aching.

"What are you doing?"

"Just wanted to see the scout's body, Sir. I make it a...a point to look at their faces at least once."

He scoffed, "A useless, sentimental habit. Leave,"

"I have to," She replied with a small voice. He scared her, definitely, but she had to see the scout's face. She had to see him, so she could remember him. She didn't want to forget any of their faces. Because they'll never forget hers. The face of the person you see before you die...you'd definitely remember it forever, right? It was kind of silly, though, to think of it like that. Because they're dead. They don't remember.

"Leave, Haruno, or I'll toss you back to the marshes," Sasuke sneered, his hand keeping a firm grip on her shoulder.

She was well aware of the consequences of shoving a high ranking officer's hand away and disobeying direct orders, but she did it, anyway, and just as she squirmed out of his grip, she lifted the flap of the tent as far as it would go and what she saw inside stopped her.

Lying on top of the examination table, wearing standard Mist scouting uniforms, was a dead child.


He could not have been more than nine or ten years old.

Was that what Sasuke did not want her to see?

She felt someone shove a warm thermos in her direction. "I wasn't using my higher rank just to push you around, you know," His voice was icy as usual, but he didn't sound mad.

"I'm sorry," Sakura mumbled, accepting the thermos. "It's better that I saw, though. I don't want to stumble around in the dark like some ignorant fool. It's always better to know,"

"And look at you now, moping around like the brat you are," Sasuke shook his head as he always did whenever he was in haughty, condescending mode (which was pretty much always, to be honest)

"Still, it's better to know," Sakura's brows furrowed down, "You treated me like a child,"

She expected him to toss back another haughty remark, but he grew silent this time. She sneaked a look at him, and he looked almost thoughtful. Like he was remembering some memory, scraping bits and pieces of it from the back of his head. Judging from his expression, Sakura doubted it was a happy one. She was just beginning to see how tired he look. He looked like someone who saw far too much and was trying to reduce every image into nothing. Now he was calling them all back, because those bad images are exactly what you need to remind you. To make you remember, so you do a little bit better next time.

"The first time I killed a child, I was seventeen. He was Mist scout, too. He was eight, or so the medics who examined his body told me. I felt like a savage afterwards,"

He sighed and looked at her. His expression did not soften one bit, nor did his voice. Sakura got the distinct feeling she was being lectured. "His body was dumped along with the others and burned. He disturbed my dreams for months. But then my brother dragged me to the marshlands one day and, to my horror, showed me a little grave he made. The body wasn't buried underneath, of course, but there was a crude little engraving and flowers and everything. He practically held a knife to my neck and forced me to put flowers, too. After that, the dreams stopped,"

The fog was starting to clear, Sakura noted. There was one other thing she realized, too, "Someone shot the scout, I remember now. Was it-"

"It was," Sasuke nodded.

Sakura looked down at the ebbing waters. A frog darted from a clump of dense vegetation.

Splash!

She shivered. "I made you kill a child again, I-"

Sasuke scoffed, "I've killed more than twenty of those little scouts, as of date. It doesn't bother me now. They're enemies. They would have done the same to me,"

They fell silent again. Now that she thought about it, she was cold and hungry back then, but still, she managed to fight off the scout. Thinking back, it would have been impossible for her to overpower a grown man like that, but she did. Because it wasn't a grown man.

To her dismay, droplets of tears started escaping her eyes. She ducked her head and fought with all her might not to making snuffling sounds even though her nose was starting to clog up. She was here as Haruno Akira, a grown man of 20, and it was just plain insulting to be treated like a kid.

Finally, Sasuke broke the silence, and just then he sounded less like a First Lieutenant and more like a friend.

"You get it now, don't you? I wasn't treating you like a kid. I was treating you like a human,"

With her head still down, she screwed her wet eyes shut and allowed her voice to go back to its softer, normal version, "And humans cry, don't they?"

"Of course they do, brat,"


TBC

a/n. thanks for reading!