Haruno Sakura ran down the street mentally admonishing herself for being so late. But it was worth it. She spent an extra hour in the tub today, using the special shampoo from the Earth Country Import Store (which she used most of her savings to buy) and the soap she brought back from the Water Country (that she had saved just for such an occasion). She wanted things to be perfect because today was going to be the day she was going to ask Sasuke out after practice and he was going to say yes.
She knew from the moment she woke up that it was going to be a good day. So armed with her freshly washed hair, slightly perfumed skin, special ninja outfit and just a tad of lipstick on her lips, she bolted down the street with Inner Sakura cheering her on. She slowed down as soon as she neared the normal meeting spot and smoothed her dress out. Once she was sure everything was perfect, she slowly turned the corner and caught a glimpse of her teammates.
"Ohayo Sakura-chan!" Naruto screamed the moment she was within sight. She grimaced a bit at his usual display of affection but decided not to yell at him No reason to mess up a good morning.
"Ohayo Naruto. Ohayo Sasuke-kun," she smiled.
"Eh," he responded.
Sakura smiled for a few seconds and then began to wilt. He obviously wasn't going to say anything about how nice she looked. Didn't he realize how long it took her to look like this?
"You were late today, Sakura-chan," Naruto asked as he bounded up to her. "Did you sleep in? Did your alarm not go off?"
"No," Sakura said, through clenched teeth from the barrage of questions. "I was just taking my time."
"But you were in a rush to get here," he pouted.
"No I wasn't," Sakura argued.
"Yeah you were. I can tell," Naruto continued very proud of himself. "Cause you still got some jam from breakfast on your face."
"Ara?" Sakura said, looking at where he was pointing. She put a hand up to her lips and felt the lipstick brush against her skin.
"Got it!" Naruto said happily as she pulled her hand away.
Sakura's eyebrow twitched and she quickly landed a blow on top of his head. She let out a little sigh and turned to try to resume her discussion with Sasuke. But he moved quicker and suddenly grabbed her arm, pulling her down into a crouch with one hand as he retrieved a few kunai with the other.
"What's wrong?" she asked, looking around for any source of battle ki.
Sasuke frowned. "I'm not sure but I think that there are mist ninja nearby."
Sakura's eyes opened wide and she grabbed her own kunai. "How can you tell?" she asked.
"Because," he replied softly, "something around here smells just like Haku did when we fought him and Zabuza."
Sakura gripped her kunai and let the words sink in. After a few seconds, she realized what was going on. The image of Haku taking a bath with the same soap she had used floated through her mind. Hanging her head, she stood up and walked away.
"Now it's gone," Sasuke said puzzled as he stood up.
Sakura sat downwind of him and curled her knees to her head, deciding that maybe she should just avoid trying anything else this morning and wait for the sensei to show up. Of course that wasn't for a couple more hours and just around the time that they were getting hungry, there was the tell-tale pop and puff of smoke.
"Yo," Kakashi said, looking down at them. "Sorry I'm late but I need to save a small child from the raging river."
As the last syllable faded from the cool fall air, Kakashi shrugged and joined his two seething students on the ground. Sakura and Naruto glared at him defiantly as he neared them, not for one second believing his excuse for being three hours late. Kakashi shot a look towards the third but as usual the quiet Sasuke refused to participate in the daily flambéing of the sensei.
"We have a mission today," Kakashi said.
"Retrieving a lost dog?" Sakura asked, sarcastically.
"Digging weeds?" Sasuke snorted.
"Cooking ramen?" Naruto said with a hopeful look on his face.
Sakura looked at him with a twitching eyebrow. "When have we ever had a mission like that?"
"Never," Naruto replied. "But you never know."
"Actually, our mission does involve food preparation," Kakashi said. Naruto looked up at him hopefully, Sasuke grunted something and Sakura just closed her eyes. For some reason she had a really bad feeling about this mission.
Sakura's hands gripped the wooden pole until her knuckles turned white. Her eye brow twitched and her face started to turn red. Inside, Inner Sakura was having a field day running through the list of words that she wasn't allowed to say out loud. Finally, she settled on something to release the bottled up rage.
"FOOD PREPARATION?" she finally yelled. "How does THIS have anything to do with food preparation?" She held up the net, pointing to the unhappy frog that was jumping around at the bottom.
Kakashi looked down at her from behind his book. "It's a specialty and Hokage-sama wants to serve it to his guest from the Water Country."
"You mean they're going to eat them?" Sakura cried.
"Well, not if you keep letting them get away," Kakashi replied, pointing to the ground as the frog jumped away.
Sakura was torn between continuing to be grossed out over the frog eating idea or just going after it so she could finish this job and go back to the village. Her desire to leave the murky swamp area won out and she quickly ran after the frog, trying not to grimace as her feet squished on the muddy ground.
She saw the escaping frog among the blades of grass and slowly approached it, stalking it quietly as Inner Sakura cheered her on. Okay, grab this one and a few more and we can get out of this nasty place and go back home, ask Sasuke out and have him say yes because this is a good day.
Sakura pounced, landing her net on top of the frog just before it managed to jump into the water. She squealed as she lost her footing and began to pitch towards the water. But at the last second she recovered, sweeping up the net and using one hand to hold it shut.
She looked at the frog. "It IS a good day," she smiled. "Well, for me at least."
Sakura barely had a chance to blink when she felt something barrel into her. She had no hope of maintaining her balance this time and was under water before she realized what happened.
Of course, at the edge was the pond, there wasn't that much water so she just lifted her head up to get air into her lungs again. She slowly stood up and turned around, feeling a mixture of slime, mud and scummy pond water drain down her arms. A horrified looking Naruto was staring at her. Kakashi had put down his book and was looking at her with no emotion. Sasuke had a smirk on his face.
"Sakura-chan, I didn't see you there…" Naruto started. But Sakura didn't move. She just looked down at her clothes and her skin, frozen in shock.
"Sakura, you shouldn't stand in the water like that," Kakashi remarked. "There are leeches in there."
Sakura's eyes blinked as she looked at her sensei with horror. She took a step forward but a combination of mud and pond grass made the ground slippery and she fell backwards, landing on her ass. Before anyone could say anything, the frog she had caught jumped free of her forgotten net and flew up, landing happily on her muck covered pink hair.
"So you think she's still mad?" Naruto asked as he watched Sakura stomp away. Something came hurtling towards him and landed right on his face.
Kakashi sighed as Naruto pitched backwards, a wad of mud square on his nose. "Ah, I think so. She didn't even ask you out today," he said to Sasuke.
"Aa," Sasuke said, trying not sound too relieved. After what had happened on their mission, he would have been hard pressed to say no. Sure, he hated losing any practice time but it looked like she was having such a rotten day, he didn't want to risk being killed for saying no to anything she requested.
Too bad Sakura couldn't read his mind but at the moment she probably wouldn't have cared. As she walked away, she fought back a stream of tears that she had kept bottled up since the incident at the lake. She looked so horrible and the smell… the smell was the worst of all. The stray dogs in town were bolting in the opposite direction.
Stupid, stupid Naruto. Stupid Kakashi. STUPID SASUKE! They didn't understand why she was so upset. As if telling her that she should just wash it off with some water would make her feel better. They didn't understand anything about women! They were just brutish, ignorant, idiotic... they were just…
"MEN!" she screamed as she threw open the door to her house, letting the words echo for a bit before she realized the house was not empty.
"Oka-san, oto-san," she said seeing them sitting on the sofa with cups of tea. And that's when the last person caught her eye. "HOKAGA-sama!" she squealed, suddenly wishing she was anywhere but here.
"Ah, Sakura-chan," her mother said, quickly standing up. "Why don't you go wash up and join us after. We have to talk about something important."
Sakura nodded dumbly and quickly headed towards the bathroom. She stripped over her clothes and threw them out the window, decided they were a complete loss. She sat down in front of the faucet and filled the bucket with water. As soon as the water was warm enough, she began drenching herself, trying to wash away the grim.
Inside her head, Inner Sakura was near hysterical. Why is Hokage here? Did he hear about the mission today? Is he upset that there won't be enough frogs for his dinner? Is he going to tell me I can't be a ninja anymore? What if he tells me I can't be on Team 7 ANYMORE??
Somehow, she managed to pull herself together, grab some clean clothes and make it downstairs before Inner Sakura exploded. She took a seat next to her mother and shook her head when she offered her some tea.
"Sakura," Hokage started. She looked up at him and bit her lip, knowing that if she wasn't careful, she would start begging him to let her stay with her teammates.
"Sakura," he said again. "Do you remember a report you did on the Onnaribisu while you were at the academy?"
Inner Sakura fainted out of disbelief. "Eh… I think so. We were supposed to pick a group in the Fire Country and research them, right?"
"Aa," Hokage said. "It was a very good report. In fact, your sensei suggested it be used as a reference for any mission that required interacting with them."
"Really?" Sakura said, suddenly brightening up considerably. Her mind started to wander as she began to daydream of what award she might get. Maybe they'd have a party in her honor. Maybe a parade. Maybe…
"…the information together as well as you had. We are lucky that we have an expert on the Onnaribisu to use for a mission like this."
"Mission?" she asked, suddenly breaking out of her reverie.
"Yes, Sakura-chan," her mother smiled. "Hokage-sama wants you to help lead this mission. Isn't that wonderful?"
Sakura smiled and nodded but for some reason, she had a very bad feeling about the whole situation. Still, her bad day was over. So nothing else bad could happen right? Right??
"I still don't get why you can't tell us more," Naruto complained.
Kakashi shrugged his shoulder. "That's how it is sometimes. Sakura believed that you two should wait for some of the information. And I think she's right."
"But if we're rescuing this nobleman's son," Naruto whined, "shouldn't we at least know who's holding him captive?"
Kakashi sighed. "Sometimes, a ninja can't know everything ahead of time. Sometimes, it's for his own good. If Sakura believes that this is true, then we'll have to trust her."
Naruto frowned. He did trust Sakura but it didn't mean that he was satisfied. "Can't we at least know why we have to wear these things?" he asked, motioning to the apparel the three of them were wearing.
None of them wore any of the normal ninja attire, including their beloved head protectors. The outfit was rather simple, a brown tunic with a rope belt, plain brown pants and simple walking shoes. They were torn and muddied up but for what reason Sakura wouldn't say.
"You can ask her," Kakashi sighed, his face still hidden beneath a mask. "But I don't think she'll tell you."
Naruto frowned and sat on the window's ledge, letting his feet dangle as he continued to mutter unhappy thoughts at being kept in the dark. It wasn't until there was a shriek from the room next door that he stopped.
"NO WAY!" the distinctive feminine voice cried. "I am not wearing this!"
The men assembled in the room kept silent as they listened to Sakura yell at the poor seamstress in there.
"I can't even breathe in this stupid thing! And look at my chest! It's not supposed to do that!"
Kakashi and Naruto slowly leaned towards the door while Sasuke sat back on the wall with a smirk and crossed arms.
"You want me to stuff what??"
The door slammed open and hit Kakashi square on the nose. Sakura shot him a nasty look as she exited and then came face to face with her teammates. "WHAT?" she demanded when they just stared at her.
And who wouldn't stare? There was a Sakura in front of them that they had never seen. The short hair had been picked up minus a few strands that were braided and hung loose. Her arms were wrapped in green fabric to her elbows. Multi-pocketed brown pants hung loosely around her hips with brown boots peeking from under the hems of the pants. But it was obvious that none of them were looking at that part of the costume. The green top she had on was pulled tight around her waist with ribbons in the back and was pushing up her chest so that it push out dangerously close to the top edge.
Naruto stared for a few minutes before falling backwards out of the window, a small stream of blood following him down. Sasuke held a hand up to his nose and mumbled something about going to retrieve the idiot Naruto. Sakura shot a look over to Kakashi and he could only smile from underneath the mask.
Sakura had managed to get over feeling self conscious of her outfit, mainly because she had ordered them all to walk in front of her so they couldn't see her. That and threatening bodily harm to the first person who looked over their shoulder.
"Ne, Sakura?" Naruto whined from the front.
"What?" she asked.
"How much longer? We've been walking all day!!"
"Just a little bit further," Sakura replied, looking up at the sky to estimate the time they had been walking. In fact, she was certain that they were nearing the borders of the Onnaribisu tribe.
As if on cue, the group suddenly came to a halt, sensing the approach of several people. From the tangled brush emerged three women, each dressed similarly to Sakura and armed with swords and spears. Sakura realized this was it and quickly pushed to the front of the group.
"State your name and purpose," one of the women growled.
"I am Sakura of the Maple Tribe. I seek audience with your chieftess, the great Amaya of the Elm."
The women regarded her for a moment before the same women spoke again. "And who are they?" she asked.
Inner Sakura began to cringe. This was it, this was the hardest part. She knew that she couldn't tell Naruto and Sasuke before because they'd never agree to it if the knew. Now, she could only hope Kakashi-sensei could keep them in line.
"These are… ummm…" She paused and took in a deep breath. Inner Sakura came out and started to cheer her on, reminding her that the Hokage himself had asked her to do this. So she squared her shoulders and found her voice again.
"These are my man slaves."