Of all the Genin she knew, Sakura had not expected herself to be fighting alongside the two Hyuga heirs.
Truthfully, she hadn't expected them to be fighting together at all. She had only seen rivalry between them in the past. Bitterness. What she had failed to recall however, for all her genius, was that for whatever personal grudges Hinata and Neji had for one another, it was still Neji Hyuga's personal obligation to protect his cousin with life and limb. It was the duty of his lineage.
And for whatever character flaws they had in fiber of confidence and hope, they were an amazingly lethal duet. For them to stand back to back, Byakugan exposed, there line of sight possessed no flaws, and no opponent within a five foot radius stood a fighting chance.
Sakura took advantage of this scenario, mostly playing part as an extended arm of the Hyuga duo.
"There are four Sound-nin hiding three houses south; one is using Henge to look like a bush; one has a sword with a two-foot sweep. Their defenses are weakest at their northeastern side. Sakura, you're closest. Use shuriken." Neji's observations were usually more precise than Hinata's.
"I'm on it." Sakura said, taking to the roof tops, accompanied by a few extra foot steps.
She was not the only Konoha Genin to have joined in their unit. She knew Shino and Kiba were within ear shot of Hinata, who warned them often of approaching stealthy attackers. Tenten, too, was spotted a few times, keeping mostly to the air where she had a broader range of available targets, hurling a vast collection of sharp projectiles into vital portions of enemy anatomy.
The teams ...were staying together.
On the way here, she'd seen Ino and her boys doing their own thing up the street with a relative degree of success.
So, she had to ask herself ...where was her team?
Teamwork, Kakashi-sensei had drilled into them. Teamwork is the key to survival.
... though more recently, he'd only been saying with less force, "... where's the teamwork?"
She darted from shadow to shadow, practicing her developing genjutsu to limit her visibility in the warped and distant light of the flares, blaring off by the distant village wall. At this distance from the more dense action, there were also many still-active street lights, completing a very eerie setting. With the stealthiness of the ninja, even in mid battle, to look down the street it almost looked ...normal.
Whipping a few shuriken as Neji had suggested, indeed a team of enemy were flushed out, and her hair whipped in her face as Kiba and Akamaru went whizzing past her to chase them down.
Where ...was her team?
She continued to afford a decent amount of her attention searching for signs of Sasuke. His curse seal went berserk in mid-battle. Was he dealing with it now? Was it consuming him?
...was he gleefully killing people?
She thought her peripherals caught a brief glimpse of him darting through an ally, flying from wall to opposing wall like a pinball, but she noted a few suspicious shapes in the opposite direction and duty had her chasing after them. As a Konoha shinobi, with her forehead proudly exhibiting the leaf symbol, it was her main priority to secure the safety of the Konoha village, and defend it to the last breath.
Naruto was also nowhere to be found and she had the sinking feeling he would have gone straight to the front rather than flank the battlegrounds as was typically suggested of Genin, creating a second line of defense to insure whatever invaders made it past the first line didn't press any farther.
A loosed blade (she couldn't recognize it; one-sided, it looked like a kitchen knife) whizzed past her, carving a nice hole through her pant leg and thigh. Reacting instantly, pinpointing the direction it had come from, she sent a barrage of shuriken. The satisfying series of moist thunks that followed insured her they found their target.
She dashed to higher ground, disliking the surreal knowledge that she and Ino had gotten ice cream in the store she was now on the roof of. She knew she was making a target of herself when she stepped up on the corner of the rooftop and gazed out, trying to see if she could spy Sasuke out there. He was wearing mostly black, which would make him hard to spot in the dark ...trying to see maybe a flash of the pale skin of his legs or ...
She wanted to collapse as a helpless question dawned on her:
How was this any different from their behavior the first day they became ninja?
Sasuke had instantly isolated himself from his comrades to eliminate the possibility of distraction.
Naruto had charged off alone to single handedly tackle a task fit for a whole team ...
...and she ...was still wasting her time trying to find Sasuke.
Was this how far they had come? Was this the extent of her team's development, after everything they had gone through, the many tribulations and moments of revelation between the three of them ...
No. She at least had the comfort of certainty there. No, they had come a long way; there had been many times they had worked together perfectly. It was only recently that something made their connection degrade.
Something had happened between her boys. Something no one was willing to explain to her. Sasuke ignored her when she asked; Kakashi-sensei gave useless and evasive answers ("-something going on between them? Definitely. There's always something going on between everyone. Just the other day I-") And as for asking Naruto ...Her control over that boy had weakened considerably. There had once been a time when he would stab himself in the face if he thought she'd like him more for it. Ino had even suggested she try getting him to, during one of the few times they weren't arguing about Sasuke.
...having been in mean mood, she'd even considered doing so.
Yet another thing that had inexplicably changed, at least in Naruto; somewhere between first becoming Genin and now, she had become less and less of a priority to him as more important tasks arose. Sakura knew she should be happy about the change but ...She sort of missed it. Not having had many people attracted to her, she wouldn't have thought a pesky nuisance would ...be such an ego booster.
From her vantage, she noted a shadow slightly darker than the others and nailed it with a kunai, watching as it materialized into the shape of a body.
Naruto complained often about not being informed of everything going on but passing time was showing he also seemed to be keeping a few details about himself hidden. His unnaturally deep well of power, doing more things he should have been physically incapable of than Sasuke ...And someone else aside from Kakashi was teaching him, too. No one said anything about it, but ...no one said anything at all. Sometimes she hated the ninja code of personal secrecy.
Actually, Sakura was convinced she was the only member of her group without any important secrets to hide. She was just ...plain ...Sakura. Her skills were adequate but unextraordinary. Her family were neither powerful nor weak, neither famous nor insignificant. They ranked steadily at Chuunin level, neither less nor more. They sacrificed for the sake of the mission but made no excessively important impacts to the Konoha history.
It ran in the blood. She didn't have a tragic family history like Sasuke. Or an increasingly-mysterious blank past like Naruto.
The difference between her and her teammates went far beyond gender and power. They were simply wired differently.
Her style of life, existence as she knew it, was having less and less of a meaning to them, as they strove onward toward their unrealistic goals. She was losing them to something intangible and cosmic.
"S-Sakura-san, behind!" Hinata's yell caught her attention and she dove to the left, clipping her shoulder on the ground and rolling into a workable crouch, a progression of thnk-thnk-thnk-thnk following her, a row of kunai lining up along the shingled roof like a picket fence.
She ...could not function with the woes of her team gobbling up precious cognitive space in her mind. They were slowing her down when they weren't even her problems.
If Sasuke and Naruto could function through their troubles, she at least owed it to them to do so as well.
Neji barked at her, "Two targets approaching you, Sakura -- three o'clock."
She leapt to the ground and yanked a katana out of an unmoving body on the street below, swallowing the solid lump of bile in her throat, and turned to engage.
The invasion ended in a surprisingly swift fashion.
With the phosphorescent gaze of the flares having long since burned out, the final few hours of the battle were waged in the awkward darkness of early morning, during which time participants were allowed to rest their bodies somewhat (enemies were harder to locate and identify, thus less combat was occurring) as the heart and nerves took up the slack with increasing levels of anxiety.
Fear of attack, coming from an unseen direction.
Ninja battles are silent.
...except the roaring tide of increasingly shredded and bloody Doppelgangers. They were a relentless source of action. Enemies had no difficulty locating them and they had no difficulty meeting said enemies head on. He was constantly berated for it, but for reasons he could not articulate he'd always preferred the direct approach.
However, as the first offensively refreshing strokes of the morning sun began to illuminate the topmost portion of ruined houses, burned and broken treetops, punctured ancient wood of the surround village wall, the hoard of foreign shinobi retreated by some unspoken signal. They abandoned wounded comrades, abandoned spoil, stopping in mid-strike to simply turn and streak out the many smoking exits now made available.
With the crisp new sun lending its talent, the battlefield was made clear.
Limping through the destruction, Naruto was aware of a very powerful, strangely sacred and forbidding stillness.
There were many ...shapes texturing the ground, slowly developing color out of the abating darkness.
That was a hand, palm-down to the cobblestone. No wrist or arm to accompany it.
What his brain was trying to register as a patch of tall grass was actually a series of sword tips stuck up out of a torso.
He was annoyed to find himself whistling through only one nostril, the other too clogged, nose decidedly runny. Going to reflexively wipe it, he found it bloody and unpleasantly swollen. Shoot, he didn't want to deal with a broken nose right now.
There wasn't a portion of his known anatomy that wasn't sore. He was getting a good breeze through the tattered remains of his unsalvageable shirt. His pants were going to be needing a good number of patches. The bare soles of his feet felt raw, as though he'd been strolling over broken glass; his palms were burnt and tender from performing a few rushed Rasengen.
He was ...
One eye open (the other pasted shut with clumps of drying blood in his eyelashes) he half-leaned, half-collapsed against what had once been the stone wall of a farm house, and gazed out upon the unreal landscape of angular arms and legs jutting up from the soil, listening as low moans began to respond to the sunlight (or perhaps they'd been groaning all this time and he only now had enough attention to spare for them.) Among the fallen were a number of men still standing, still as pillars.
He observed a few heads poke tentatively out of a nearby window. Apparently his limp-wristed wave of greeting was not enough to comfort them, and they withdrew.
Medics began to filter into the destruction, slinking from alleys, down cluttered and gory streets, adventuring into the smoldering trees, kneeling at the sides of the recognizably Konoha casualties, inspecting them, shining flashlights into their eyes, putting fingertips to their necks, lowering ears to their faces. They traveled in groups of two and three, slowly bringing a more mellow commotion back to the dreary world. Performing emergency surgery, giving orders, pointing fingers, one or two assistants keeping back with clipboard in hand to take down names, instructions, requests, needed supplies.
Konoha did not have terribly many qualified medical ninjas. They had many doctors and regular medics, it was true, but shinobi skilled in use of Chakra to induce rapid healing were in short supply and high demand.
There were also many times that, after a few vain moments of inspection, a doctor would shake his head and turn a body onto its back, folding both arms (if both were still attached) and would place their Konoha headbands across their chests to signal they were beyond the point of no return.
Stretchers were unfolded and laid out to transport casualties to the hospital and, when the hospital had filled up, to the many homes that had volunteered to house wounded.
It was very systematic. Not a man above twenty was unfamiliar with the post-battle procedure; the remaining wounded enemy were dragged, kicked, slid, rolled and thrown into a cluster. The higher ranked among them were sorted out to receive medical treatment and then questioning. The rest were killed.
He heard no song birds this morning, instead came a distant cawing. A murder of crows was approaching, drawn to the potential feast of slain quarry.
"-you see? I told you I saw him in this area." Turning, he recognized the approaching voice of Lee and Neji's instructor, Gai as they called him. Mr. Fuzzybrow as he personally recognized the man.
And striding beside him, "Hm. Naruto. I saw quite a few of your clones scampering about. You're getting pretty proficient with those." Kakashi-sensei. His own supposed instructor.
"Yo...," he greeted wearily, raising a palm and grinning through the less-puffy side of his mouth.
The man had tugged his forehead protector back down over his unmatching eye, "So ...How are you doing? Anything important broken?"
He curled either arm, patted down his legs, his chest, looking back up, "Don't think so."
"Have all your fingers and toes?"
He checked, "Pretty much..."
"And all your teeth?"
He probed mouth with tongue, taking inventory, "Yeah."
"Then congratulations," his sensei gave his tender scalp a rough tousling, "You've survived your first battle intact." Fingers closed around a fistful of tangled hair, pulling him forward, stooping to meet him eye to eye(s), "But next time, stay in the fringes of the battle-zone with the other Genin. The fringes. Geez."
"Heh ...," he replied weakly. After all the fighting, the close proximity was less tolerable than normal and he batted the Jounin's hand away, "Is Sakura-chan okay? Have you seen her yet?"
The single eye was scrutinizing him, "Well. She looks better off than you ..."
(-she always has-), he paused, looking down for a moment, considering not asking but needing to know, "... n' Sasuke?"
The man shrugged, straightening his posture and scratching his jaw, "Also fine." He didn't move to help when the boy sank a little lower against the wall, "Are you going to collapse?"
The response almost came out as "Go to hell!" before he caught it and said, "No way." If he got swatted for sass at the moment, he might not be able to get back up again. And wouldn't that be embarrassing ...
"Go ahead and find your teammates, then." Kakashi glanced to Gai, "I've got more to do, but maybe when I'm finished we can all go out for ramen." He grinned, "I'm not-"
"Not buying, yeah, yeah." Naruto murmured, walking past the man without bothering to say anything else, rolling head between shoulders, shaking out hands, sore from tightly gripping various weapons for the better portion of the night.
He hadn't slept in almost twenty four hours. Jamming fists in pockets as he trudged, he realized this was definitely a time he was angry with Kakashi. Enough that he wanted to turn around and spit at him.
The worst part: he couldn't put to words exactly why. He trusted the man with his life; he knew Kakashi was one of the few adults that didn't hold his abnormal origins against him. And yet ...It was ...like ...
He was tired, hurt, cold, bloody and didn't want to go to the hospital because he didn't feel like putting himself into debt -- there was no loaning agency that would front him the money to pay for the visit. He'd already tried a few times in the past and been rejected; something about credit that he didn't really understand ... Looked like he would have to head home sometime soon to break out his well-used medical kit and depend on his own crappy first aid skills.
There was movement suddenly. The familiar movement of a body rolling over at his feet, of its own will -- the world went into fast forward.
The body jerked, sat up; the sound of nails on a chalkboard -- a sword being drawn -- body no longer beneath him, standing, the blurred silver arc of a swinging motion; something tugged hard at his shirt, no, at the skin of his stomach, but other things held his attention. He was looking into a face with one ruined eye, his little fist pressed deep under the cavity of the jawbone, a kunai gripped in the center of it, the blade turned upward, buried to the hilt somewhere in ...the head. Deep enough to puncture the eyeball from within.
The man was dead, tears of blood leaking from that one horrible eye. It was the first time he'd ... actually really killed someone ... and it was so quick ...
"Ung," in revulsion, he went to pull the blade out but it was stuck in the jaw bone; jerking the hilt downward made the mouth open, allowing him to see the metallic gleam of his weapon on the inner side of the dead man's teeth.
The warm, wet feeling -- panic. Shock, mouth opening to scream but something was swollen in his throat, filling it up, just as he could feel something solid and squishy fill the hand he had pressed against his abdomen.
Oh ...ooh, crap. That wasn't ...was ...
His knees hit the ground but he didn't remember falling, only finding himself looking up at the sky, the damn blue sky, and then the silhouette of Kakashi-sensei was leaning over him, trying to pull his hands away from his stomach ...he ...what? His head and shoulders were resting on Gai's knees, though he didn't know the man had been behind him, and Kakashi was grabbing his wrists and was shouting at him, "Get your hands out of the way! I have to see it! Naruto, hold still, let me see-"
The boy was aware the desperate mantra of "Don't touch it, don't touch it!!" was coming from himself, and he was looking into the upside down shape of Gai's head...
They didn't understand. They didn't understand. He could feel the speed of his heart through the throbbing mass pressing into his palms. Why ... didn't ... this hurt? He had no feeling; he couldn't sit up to better see what had happened to him; the muscles in his stomach were not responding. He could feel ...that the back of his shirt was now soaking and sticky. When finally his hands were pried away and pinned to his sides he had the sensation of something more solid than blood begin to ooze its way out of the wound.
On first sight, his brain was quick to associate the sound and texture of this escaping mass: ramen.
The slurping sound of intestine was just like that of ramen noodles squishing together.
If his abdominal muscles were working at that time, he would have thrown up.
Neither of the men hovering over him were saying anything. It was too quiet; they were looking, and his insides were making suction-sounds and he could hear his own breathing; hyperventilating, like the erratic series of gasps a child makes after crying, painful convulsions of the diaphragm. His wrists were hurting and he wondered if Kakashi was meaning to push all his weight down on them.
Rising panic, "...Sensei?"
Both of his hands were lifted and pressed back against the wound and his teacher was instructing, voice calmer now, casual and aloof as ever, "Hold it like that, Naruto. Don't move; just hold it like that."
The pressure was enough to cause whatever was adventuring out of his stomach to slurp back inside where it belonged.
The Jounin were still looking at each other over the shape of the prone student.
"Kakashi." The weathered and stony tone Gai used was one rarely heard. Gone were his robust jibes, his playful and energetic manner.
This wasn't rivalry anymore.
No one wanted to be the first sensei to lose a pupil.
The man didn't respond to his name, still looking critically downward. He had ...simply ...done this too many times. With too many past comrades. There was no shock left to be had; were a second enemy to attack, he had all his mental facilities rational and functioning, remaining fully capable of reacting to most given situations in an appropriate, logical way. He felt neither weary nor withdrawn.
"Kakashi." Gai said again, and though Kakashi knew what his fellow Jounin was going to say, being realistic, he still didn't want to hear it.
"Kakashi, get a medic."
That ...wasn't what he'd been expecting. Searching the other's face, he tried to see if the man knew something he did not, but found nothing. Though he did not believe in deluding children nor protecting them from painful information, with the desperate entirely-conscious blue eyes staring up at him, he couldn't find it in him to argue.
"Right," he said, and vanished.
A moment later, he had returned with a squat sturdy woman with a considerable amount of blood on her hands and freckles on every visible portion of her body; upon assessing the situation, she only muttered, "This 'im?"
When she kneeled at his side, Naruto had enough discernment to utter, "I don't know her." He tried rolling way whatever limited space he could with Gai holding his shoulders. A deep guttural cough rasped out; dislodging the clots of blood layering the lining of his throat. "H-hey, sensei, I don't know this lady ..."
But Kakashi was remaining silent, so the only answer came from the woman herself, "Quite yammering. Hold still." She seemed rather irritated, and after wrestling the boy's hands out of the way, she stared for only a moment before standing back up again, brushing off her spattered clothes, "Kakashi, I don't know what you're wasting my time for; there's nothing that can be done for this wound. A shinobi with your status had to have known it was fatal as soon as you laid eyes on it." She went to a pouch at her hip, pulling out a tub of pills, "Here's painkillers, either way, if you think he'll need 'em for the road."
To the boy, she was the dark shadow of ugliness. His peripherals were already overtaken by opaque and unpleasant shapes, and he was no longer able to feel his feet, or his hands, really. Something was horribly amiss; hysteria was quivering in his brain, his shoulders; something was ... throbbing. Like a sound, only it was a feeling.
He ...hated this woman.
She and the Jounin were looking down, and barely visible through the remaining shirt-shreds and blood was the dark outline of the Nine Tail's seal, "Hm. Make sure the body's properly taken care of by the Hunter-nin. Powerful jutsu could be gleaned if it fell into the wrong hands." With one more curious glance, she shook her head, "Well. Suppose this is the end of all the fuss. 'S a waste, I guess, though I know a few people that will be pretty happy." Eyeing the battlefield, she searched for signs of life, turned, and began to walk away.
One small hand fell to the blood-mingled dirt; fist fixing around a clod of mud, snatched it up and hurled it at the back of the woman's head with considerable force. It hit with a thunk and stuck to her short hair in a cake.
Three pairs of incredulous eyes swung down as the boy was propping himself up on one elbow, the other arm securely wrapped around his stomach.
His face red from screaming; a vein standing out, lips drawn back to bear teeth, "I'm not dying, you stupid hag!" He was shouting with enough force that flecks of red were coming out along with the words, "Go on! Go away! I wouldn't want your help anyway!" What was thought to be a growl following the statement turned out to be a gurgle; his face was contorted with more than just rage. Pain had to have been evident.
Bent over, Kakashi was crouched beside him, "Naruto." There was a sick amount of humor in this scene, and sometime soon someone was going to end up laughing, because it was too sad. Of all his Genin, he simply hadn't expected ...
One eye hazed over, the other looking in a slightly different direction from its counterpart, the boy latched a hold on his sensei's vest, "J-just watch, Kakashi-sensei! I just ...need to ..." Using the other man as leverage, he managed to hoist himself up to a sitting position, Gai numbly helping him, folding nearly in half, knees drawn up. "Heh ...heh heh," He was whispering, frantic and confidential, a mangled grin twisting half his mouth, almost gleefully observing his abdomen, "I just have to ...get my lazy tenant ... to pull his weight a little ..."
Gai and Kakashi, both kneeling close enough around Naruto that they practically enveloped him from sight, met eyes over his blonde head. A quiet understanding, concern, fear ...confirmation. Resignation.
The boy was murmuring too quiet to hear, and leaning nearer it was found he was talking downward, not to any of them. Muttering, hardly audible, "... stupid fox ...g't off yer ... nine-tailed butt ...you wanna die? ..."
Both men, somewhat startled, glancing around in insure the post-battle necessities were keeping the shinobi nearby distracted, now leaned in to intentionally hide the Genin from view as his Chakra was beginning to take a sharp turn; no longer fluttering and frantic like a trapped bird, it was swelling, rising like dough ...
Morbidly curious, the boy tugged at the damp material obstructing his view, "... hey, sensei ...uh ...can't see it ...would you ...?"
Hands steady in comparison, expression one of reservation and ice, Kakashi deftly slipped a kunai from an unknown source and sliced open the ragged shirt front, peeling away what was sticking to the blood. The seal was distorted, sliced diagonally across the center, just beneath the naval. With the flesh opened like a book, the fatty tissue was exposed, creating a yellow and white frame around the pink and brown workings of the living organism. A nearing-hysteric chortle came from the boy at the sight.
Hands balling, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back until it bumped into Gai's chest, stifling the chuckle into a whimper of strain, and the rising tide of abnormal heat radiating off of him was notably becoming focused, pulled from the extremities, the unnecessary limbs, and pooled into the abdomen, hot enough that it seemed to cauterize the wound, stopping it's bleeding.
At first it appeared the fatty tissue was melting, like wax; the globules liquifying and spilling into the deepest recesses of the wound. But then it was solidifying, turning pink, transforming into muscle mass, new veins formed, spider webbing across the the jagged and uneven plane like cracking glass, filling the developing flesh with oxygen-enriched blood cells. You could see them pumping. The forming flesh rose like a tide, creeping higher and closer to the normal level of skin; pulling together the two lips of the wicked mouth.
The skin around the gash was darkening in color. And blistering. The heat was too intense, the power too raw for precise controlling in his current condition.
Though still quite deep, a series of black stripes were appearing inside the developing meat, linking one side of the halved seal with the other, putting it back together.
The remaining pools of blood what had formed in the naval cavity and the sunken portion of the diaphragm were beginning to sizzle and boil. The boy was keening, lips turned inward and pressed together, biting down to keep from crying out, brows wrinkling tight over clenched eyes; his entire form was trembling; the tendons in his hands were standing out as they pulled tighter and tighter...
It was Kakashi that decided enough was enough. Putting a hand on the boy's shoulder he gave him a good shake, "That's it, Naruto. Stop now. You're starting to burn yourself. Anymore could damage other organs."
Only one eye opened, and it was not blue, "B-but ...it's not-" Voice breaking and cracking; through the lips a set of very sharp teeth could be viewed.
"It's not fatal anymore." The man said, "Stop it. We can take it from here."
A dry sobbing sound of relief, the boy looked over the shoulder of his sensei where the medical woman was now peering down at him, having edged closer for a better look. Her face was white. She'd seen a lot of strange things, but never ...this was ...
The contorted and red face barely resembled that of Uzumaki Naruto, bloody, pained, enraged. And grinning to show canines, "Told you I wasn't dying ..."
At which point, his crimson slitted iris drifted backward, under his lids, until only the whites of his eyes remained. Strained and unable to sustain anymore consciously.
"He ...," the woman attempted to confirm. "Those eyes. Did ...you see?"
Kakashi leaned back on his haunches, and made a deep moaning sigh, a slow shake of his head, working fingertips up his face to scrub each eye socket, venturing up beneath his headband. "Well, you're a medic, right? You can go ahead and patch him up now."
Numbly, her hands drifted to her bag of supplies, eyes still glued to the unmoving and decidedly small shape of her patient-become. "... y-yeah ..."
To be continued.