DISCLAIMER: Naruto is property of Masashi Kishimoto.


A/N

I have returned! Not that I've been away, I just put this work aside for awhile. I found the last few chapters and themes a bit too hard to cope with, but now I've got my head on straight and I'll start uploading more chapters again. Still, my priority is to finish at least one of my other Naruto stories before I return to the Trees seriously, so please bear with me.

I hope I've not made you wait too long, and that you've not given up on this piece!

As always, your reviews are very welcome.


The Leaves of the Tree

19.

It's strange, how one decision can change the course of a person's life faster than years of dedication.

After the mission to Wave, Sakura's life turned on their head and abruptly changed direction, much like a stream affected by a violent earthquake. Her discovery of Uzumaki Kushina mostly affected Naruto's path but Sakura's little stream couldn't remain unaffected and inevitably shifted once again, following the footsteps of its river, her river, Naruto. Jiraiya's tutelage planted a seed of something in both Sakura and Naruto, but while Naruto had been ready for it – demanded it and tended to that tiny seed with all he had – Sakura didn't really understand what she was supposed to do with it. She hadn't yet chosen a definitive direction, you see. She was still a stream, just flowing along and doing whatever, no goal in sight.

When Sakura's parents died, her stream dried up.

After her uncle's visit, the funeral and the revealing of the graves… it was like somewhere within her a dam erupted in a fantastic display and to her surprise she found that she wasn't a river at all. Sakura was an ocean, swirling and gushing, deep and boundless, dangerous. Her currents were wild, her whirlpools powerful, and within her lived an entire universe that depended on her protection. Sakura wrapped herself around this universe, around the precious people she had left, and she swore to protect it and them, and never, ever, fail again. The seed Jiraiya had left in her care finally sunk into the marrow of her bones, took root and began to grow.

Sakura decided she wanted to protect.

Not to be useful in battle, not to support from the back and not to be seen as an equal to anybody. Her worth will be decided by the safety of those she loved, not by acknowledgement from people. Sakura carved this decision into her very soul and abruptly found not only a new path to walk on, but her very own nindo: I'll be the shield that protects those that I love, without fail. She didn't want to heal their wounds, she wanted to prevent them from being wounded in the first place. Sakura refused to go out and make enemies when said enemies would only come after those she held dear for vengeance. Though she had the anger for it in her, Sakura dug her heels and flat out rejected the path of the offensive warrior. She will not go to the front lines. She'll not wield any weapon openly in anybody's name. Sakura wanted to stay behind, wrap her arms around Konoha's perimeter and make it so that no hostile anything could ever breach its walls.

And so… Fuinjutsu.


"No, no, Sakura-chan! You have to do it like – fyuu – not like bam!" Naruto insisted loudly, stomping his feet onto the dusty packed earth and waving his arms around.

Sakura's eyebrow twitched and she buckled down even harder, pulling on her chakra tightly like one would the leash of a rabid dog, attempting to force it to obey – though she didn't really know what her own order was.

"Fyuu! Make it fyuu!"

"Naruto!" Sakura screamed, jumped to her feet and bashed the scroll she preciously focused on over his head. "Just shut up! What the fuck is even 'fyuu'? That's not a word, moron!"

"Hn," Sasuke supplied dryly from the sidelines, where he was polishing his weapon pouch. He'd been doing it for the past two hours, and holding the same kunai for thirty minutes. It was the most inefficient thing Sakura had ever seen him do, and quite obviously a charade. Sasuke was observing her, for whatever reason. It grated on her nerves worse than an angry Ino on a warpath.

"Sasuke," Sakura said through her teeth and the boy abruptly looked up, surprised at her tone. "Either be helpful or zip it!"

"Yeah teme, shut your trap!" Naruto cheered.

Sasuke swiped across his kunai deliberately once more, his black eyes narrowed in annoyance and then stood up.

"Show me," He grumbled, and Naruto only handed him the scroll after Sakura raised her foot threateningly. Sasuke observed it for a long moment and then, like a dirty shameless cheat, activated his sharingan.

Naruto scoffed and dragged his feet away, choosing to throw some kunai at a crooked target rather than watch Sasuke show off his eyes. Again.

Sakura began to tap her foot impatiently, not at all reverent of the special ability. It sort of lost its awe-inspiring quality, when she saw it every fucking day, used for the littlest thing. Alright, there was no 'sort of about it'. Whatever intimidation and respect Sakura initially possessed towards the Sharingan has been long tossed into the nearest bin and set aflame. The ashes were then trampled by a herd of Naruto-shaped clones and Kakashi-sensei's excited pack of ninken, one of which – probably Pakkun – chose that exact spot to pee in. Yes, Sakura was quite fed up with the damn dojutsu.

It was as if once Sasuke developed his clan's kekkei genkai he couldn't preform the simplest of tasks without it, like he regressed into a weak little toddler when his eyes were just regular eyes. It was annoying to the point what little of Sakura's infatuation for him remained bled out of her faster than Jiraiya's blood did south at the sight of a topless woman. She just really couldn't anymore, not even a little bit. Sakura wondered if every bloodline affected shinobi like this, and then decided it couldn't be. Hinata didn't go flaunting her byakugan like it was some custom-made accessory, even though her dojutsu was just as awesome as Sasuke's – and more useful, in Sakura's humble opinion.

Then again, if Hinata ever did it'll be cute. Because Hinata was a heaven-sent saint and nothing she did would ever be annoying. Ever.

But Sakura digressed.

"Well?" she demanded.

"It's a third-rate sealing technique, capable of sealing living things and keeping them unharmed for a period of up to twenty four hours," Sasuke reported blankly.

"I know," Sakura snapped, irritated. "I can't get it to work."

"Just… go 'fyuu'," Sasuke said, a little helplessly, and gave Sakura what could've passed for an apologetic look if there wasn't so much consternation in it.

'I'm going to dig his eyes out,' Inner Sakura informed her dryly. 'Then shove him up his –'

"Ugh!" Sakura threw her arms up in exasperation. "Whatever! I'm gonna find that geriatric pervert! Naruto, just order whatever for dinner!"

"Yes ma'am, onee-chan!" Naruto saluted and made a face at Sasuke, "ya wanna join, teme? Or are you gonna sulk all alone?"

"Aa," Sasuke said grumpily, and it surprised absolutely no one.

Team 7 stuck together like glue, lately. They had all three meals together, walked to and from training together, and – well, Naruto commandeered Sakura's couch for himself, so technically half of them lived together. It would've been a very good thing if there wasn't a certain heaviness to it all. As if a hidden blade were hanging over their heads, waiting for the opportunity to descend and separate their bonds as swiftly and suddenly as they'd began to form.

Naruto was louder than usual, almost as if he were trying to make up for a silence only he could hear. He ran around on a wild pranking spree the likes of which Konoha had never seen before, nor would it ever see again, Sakura didn't think. Naruto gorged himself on ramen and then went on death-defying training binges that gave even Lee pause, all the while cheering at the top of his lungs that he was going to make chunin by next year – just you watch! He hadn't mentioned becoming a Hokage once, not even in passing, since the funeral of Sakura's parents.

Kakashi-sensei was as blank as before, but his movements became more sluggish, his air a lot more tired. He hid behind his bright-orange porn book a lot more often nowadays, and became an even more temporally impaired. Sakura strongly suspected he stopped sleeping, at least for awhile. Nor did he really eat: Gai-sensei started showing up sporadically and violently challenging Kakashi-sensei for eating competitions, which was as great a tell as any. Sometimes Sakura would catch him staring at her, his eyes glazed over and distant, or at Naruto – then his gaze would be barren, like a broken battlefield – and occasionally at Sasuke, at which point he'd look like he was seeing a ghost.

Sakura was more impatient, more snappish than ever before, and she didn't care who the target of it was. Only Ino and Hinata were exempt – Ino because she'd hit her for it, and Hinata because, well, Hinata. Inner Sakura hardly ever spoke to her nowadays, but Sakura wasn't surprised by it. They were either in total agreement or Sakura forcefully shut her counterpart up with single-minded ferocity. She will never be distracted from her goals again, she couldn't afford to, not even by herself.

Sasuke was twitchy and on edge. Always on guard and openly hostile to everything and everyone. Only Team 7 got a semblance of leniency in his treatment of them, but then again he'd loudly and coldly told Naruto to fuck off just that morning, earning three hundred push-ups from Kakashi-sensei and a horrified look from Sakura. Sasuke was never quite that rude or forward before. Naruto, of course, just cackled maniacally and told Sasuke where he could shove it. He got to do four hundred push-ups, with Pakkun sitting on his back and smacking at his head as punishment. So maybe… yeah, okay, only Sakura was exempt.

Team 7 felt as if they were living on borrowed time, but where they got it and for what purpose remained a mystery.


Sakura found Jiraiya exactly where she always found him – peeping on women at the bathhouse. It neither surprised nor annoyed her anymore, mostly because Sakura figured it was just Jiraiya's way of coping with… well, with the shitty life of shinobi. If harassing women was his way of not going completely mad and committing suicide, who was she to judge? Besides, Jiraiya never touched, never forced himself on anybody – that Sakura knew off. He peeped, made perverted comments, cat called and ogled – but he never actually invaded anybody's personal space. He also took it when the women decided to beat him up for his ways, even though he could easily smack them aside and carry on with his day. But just because Sakura sort of understood, it didn't mean she was going to ignore it.

"Aiya!" Sakura screeched in as nasal a tone as she could produce. "Hentai! Invasion of privacy! Disgusting!"

"Not again!" some woman from the baths yelled.

"Hurry! Everybody inside!" another called.

"I'm gonna tell Anko-san!" a third swore.

"Party pooper," Jiraiya told Sakura, entirely unimpressed. "What d'ya want?"

"Teach me this stupid thing," Sakura threw the scroll at him and sat down expectantly.

"Figure it out yourself."

"Teach me," Sakura insisted, "or I'll tell Kurenai-sensei you stole her panties."

"Where would I get those from, exactly?"

"Does it matter?" Sakura asked innocently.

"I don't like you," Jiraiya told her flatly. "But you've got yourself a deal. Now, pay attention."

When Sakura made her way to her new apartment, not her new home – she wasn't used to it, hadn't dreamt of it, couldn't really sleep there very well, not yet – she was exhausted but immensely pleased with herself. After one explanation from Jiraiya, she'd managed the sealing jutsu well enough to get a passing grade from any teacher on any test, but just a pass wasn't enough for either Sakura or Jiraiya. He made her repeat it again and again, over ten times in a row, and when he was still displeased Jiraiya set her to running laps around the bathhouse while holding a rock above her head. It served a double purpose: the respite gave Sakura's chakra time to recharge and the exercise made her look completely ridiculous. After her arsenal was sufficiently filled up, Jiraiya watched her resume practice and the cycle continued till the sun set over Konoha, and the first starts twinkled into visibility above them. By that point Sakura preformed the jutsu perfectly without needing to call out its name, but Jiraiya wanted her to manage it without the full sequence of hand-signs, and that was a difficult process.

It was always this way with Jiraiya. He was demanding and overbearing, uncompromising in his methods even when he seemed incompetent. He would've never asked Naruto to master a jutsu so completely – with the vast amounts of chakra circulating through Naruto's body, his own and the kyubi's, Naruto will never manage it. He just had too much chakra to allow for any sort of shortcut. So from Naruto, Jiraiya expected strong results, quickly and without fail. If Naruto wasn't as efficient, as quick or as powerful as Jiraiya thought he should be, the Toad Sage made a point of scratching his ear, rolling his eyes and loudly proclaiming something about how 'darling Kushina' was definitely 'rolling in her grave' or 'covering her face'. Any comment of the sort made Naruto so angry he worked ten times as hard and completely exceeded any goals set before him – which was the whole point.

With Sakura, Jiraiya couldn't achieve these sorts of results. She didn't have so much chakra available, though her own reserves did grow to be impressive enough for a civilian born girl. With Sakura, Jiraiya could have control. Sakura was exactly the sort of compulsive lunatic to obsess over every little thing and gnaw at it until she chewed it up into unrecognizable mush and spat it out. When she wanted something, she went after it with the sort of ferocity that characterized starved street urchins: ruthless, determined and completely incapable of yielding. Though Sakura grew up with an abundance of everything she just never really learned to be satisfied, to share, to have patience.

It was why she obsessed over Sasuke, hounded Naruto, clung to Kakashi-sensei. It was the emotion that drove her to protect those she loved, so that no one else would ever be taken from her. Ever.

Jiraiya was the perfect sort of person to take advantage of that aspect of her personality and channel it into usefulness – fuinjutsu. Or, rather, he was preparing Sakura for a very specific type of fuinjutsu she was desperate to get her hands on. Sakura all but ordered Jiraiya to make her the best barrier wielder Konoha has ever had. JIraiya got to it with gusto.


And so passed the days, some so slow Sakura thought she was definitely going to die, to turn into a fossil or a living statue before the sun would set, other faster than a blink, quick enough to cause whiplash and make one wonder how the hell time flew by so soon. Before Sakura was ready, or maybe after she was thoroughly prepared, a month had passed from her parents' death, and she had worked up the courage to go visit them for the first time since the funeral.

Ino and Tenten had gone with her. Ino carried an excessively large bouquet she'd arranged herself, filled to bursting with Mebuki's favourite flowers and the few ones Kizashi could name. Tenten had brought Sakura, who nearly lost the nerve that morning, and had her hands quite full making sure she wouldn't bolt.

"Hi, mom," Sakura said meekly to the pristine tombstone after she'd properly lit the incense and made her offerings. "Hey, dad. I'm sorry it took me so long."

"She's a real pansy," Ino offered bluntly, in her usual manner which Mebuki loved very much.

"Ino!" Tenten hissed, "can it!"

"What? I'm just saying!"

"Oi, pig," Sakura growled, but it was empty of animosity. She was grateful for Ino in that moment more than she could express. That one snarky comment got rid of Sakura's awkwardness and discomfort. It was almost like they were four again, caught sneaking cookies, and instead of lying to get them out of trouble Sakura immediately confessed to an amused Mebuki, much to Ino's exasperation.

Or that one time, barely a year ago, when Kizashi had found Sakura's secret stash of dirty novels, sneaked in by Ino, during a girls-only sleepover. Hinata had nearly fainted with embarrassment, Tenten had started laughing maniacally and Sakure, being herself, immediately sold Ino out. Ino's called her a pansy then, too, and then bravely told Kizashi they were growing girls, and did he really want them unprepared for adult life, hmm? Kizashi elegantly bowed out, and the next morning the girls were faced with Mebuki's embarrassing, detailed and remarkably traumatising talk about the 'facts of life' they so dearly wanted to know.

In short, Sakura was glad her friends had come along.

"You look better, forehead," Ino said when they were walking back to Sakura's apartment.

"Yeah," Tenten agreed softly. "You really do."

"I think I'm better," Sakura confessed, a little shyly. "I'm not okay but… I will be. Definitely. Maybe even sometime soon."

"Greatness!" Tenten cheered, a little too loudly, and blushed when an elderly woman huffed at her.

"Get a life, lady," Ino snarked.

"Oh my god, Ino!" Sakura hissed, but it came out more like a baffled laugh.

'No one can take on Ino-pig,' Inner Sakura pitched in, her tone awed.

"Respect thy elders," Tenten teased.

"I respect my elders," Ino shrugged. "I don't respect gossipy crone's –"

"Sakura-chan!"

Sakura's smile froze on her face just as Tenten lost the playful glint in her eyes and Ino abruptly stopped talking. They turned around simultaneously and not even a moment later, Naruto barreled straight into Sakura.

He was pale, his hair and clothes thoroughly rumpled, and covered in cold sweat. His hands shook as he clasped onto Sakura's shoulders for dear life and he nearly lost his footing. Sakura abruptly found herself holding him up, supporting all his weight in her arms, while trying to understand what he was saying. It was quite hard, as Naruto kept swallowing his vowels in his haste and muddles up his sentences.

"Naruto!" Ino barked. "Slow down! We can't understand you!"

"Ino, I can't slow down, 'ttebayo!" Naruto all but wailed. "It's a matter of life or death!"

"What?" Tenten squaked. "Who's?"

"Sasuke-teme!" Naruto yelled. "And Kakashi-sensei! Didn't you listen to me?!"

"Naruto," Sakura felt all the air leave her lungs when she spoke his name, and suddenly Naruto was the one holding her up, because Sakura couldn't feel her legs. Couldn't feel anything, really. "What do you mean life or death? What happened?"

"Sasuke-teme's brother!" Naruto looked as frightened as Sakura felt. "He was here!"