Chapter 10: The Flame Under the Frying Pan
Hey, everyone. Not dead. Yay me. Don't kill me! It'd be messy...and besides, my imaginary friends would come squish you. After explaining that I don't own Naruto, just Yumi and this plot.
I have to get out of here.
It was the only thought in her mind, all that could form in the whirl of chaotic near-panic that threatened to overwhelm her and burst forth at any second.
Have to escape, get away--
She stumbled backward, almost fell out of the tree--the sudden rush of adrenaline woke her mind, brought her abruptly out of the shock. Her analytical mind bumped off its crazy roller coaster and started whirling in more accustomed circles, processing fast.
Food. Money. Toothbrush.
Sakura slipped her pack off one shoulder, opened it as she darted the five feet across the single room and started literally throwing things inside it, at one point just sweeping her arm across the shelf and letting things fall into her bag or on the floor, wherever they happened to go. The picture, the apple, Hinata's energy bars, the last cookie--a mental checklist went on in her head of things she had to do before running the hell away.
Money--already in my pocket. Food--got all the bars. Picture--
She slipped the picture in her bag, hardly slowing down and barely devoting enough critical brain function to it to hope that it hadn't cracked.
Weapons--she couldn't carry them all, not in this much of a hurry. It took time to suit up, time she no longer had the luxury of. So she snatched the ones that were packed away, things that wouldn't slash her pack and/or her back as she carried them, and added a few extras where they'd fit on the holsters in various places on her body.
Good-bye, she thought, throwing a last look around. Then she stepped out the door, hurtling into freefall and watching the branches whip by as she plummeted.
Once she started running, her mind started working again, but not by much. It was second nature to cover her trail and she did so, but she knew it was useless--if someone already knew she was there, all she was doing was slowing them down a little, and maybe preventing anyone new from finding out. Not that it mattered--she'd never be able to go home again.
She didn't know where she was going now. In fact there were only two things she knew at all at this point: she had to get away; and she had no home.
She was so frazzled she almost missed the faint trace of chakra that subtely lanced through her senses. Almost.
They were following her.
Stretching, she sat up in bed. For some reason, she just wasn't tired. She'd been trying to fall asleep for quite some time, but it just didn't work. It was such a beautiful sunrise, and all she really wanted to do was be out enjoying it.
So she gave up on her nap and went downstairs, waving good-bye to Yumi as she stepped outdoors. It was a good morning fora walk--crisp, cool, beautiful, and just damp enough that all the smells of the forest were amplified. Beautiful.
How the hell did they find me in the first place? she wondered frantically as she was forced to take a painfully cautious detour around what she was pretty sure was an ambush (she hadn't seen anyone yet). For the first time, she had the time to think--running had cleared her mind that much, at least.
It didn't last long.
From nowhere there was a rope snapping at her ankles--Sakura avoided being pulled up in the noose, but barely.
More traps sprang, equally well concealed and successively harder to avoid. After the first one, however, something changed in her mind--she could think again.
Now that it wasn't a wild nightmare of shadow and vapor, now that there was something real and palpable that she had to work to avoid and she was back on "familiar ground", her mind took over at last and she knew what she could do. For the first time, she could do something about the situation she was in (besides run and hope to God she wasn't scurrying in circles, running from nonexistant nightmares), and her mind reacted by waking up at last. Faced with the worst, she found a coolness overtaking her, a wash of calm she hadn't expected. Her mind processed swiftly, coldly, her body knew what to do, all her training came easily from the back of her mind into action.
Now there was something to fight. So she did.
But that didn't stop the incessant, panicking voice in the corner of her mind from babbling in fright, or the single thought that refused to go away no matter how hard she concentrated on escaping or running:
How did they track me here? she cut off a yelp as she dodged something that whizzed far too close to her ear. Furiously turning, the gears of her mind spun into overdrive, trying desperately to come up with something. Coming down from her leap, her feet stung--the skin hadn't completely grown back yet from the day she'd scraped herself coming down her tree. Oh my god, how could I be that stupid--my blood!
Of course--it was so obvious, so simple. The best way to track anyone: blood. She'd bled on the tree, left flakes of skin in the crevices of bark.
Stupid, stupid, stupid--
She managed to berate herself while concentrating on not screaming or being killed as a new trap made itself known.
How many ambushes can these people set UP? she thought crazily.
They were getting harder and harder to avoid. Sakura cursed inwardly--she knew her margin was narrowing, but apart from that first rush her mind couldn't come up with any way to open her options back up again. Life is a string of actions and reactions, and at the moment she was backed into the re-action corner with no way out of it any time soon.
But she still hadn't seen anyone.
Weapons, traps, the traces of chakra that told her she was completely surrounded at times--but never any confimation that a person was there. If it wasn't for the increasingly dangerous "accidents" that seemed to plague her run, she'd have thought she was going insane.
The sunrise was picturesque, perfect, stunningly breathtaking, the stuff of beautiful poetry. All Sakura cared about was that it made things easier to see.
Suddenly she did hear a voice--but not the one she'd expected. In fact it was the last thing she thought she would hear while on her harrowed flight to nowhere in particular.
She burst into the clearing where Hinata was humming to herself, hardly noticing the unmusical squawk that cut off when the startled Hyuuga saw her appear out of nowhere. "HINATA-CHAN!" she exclaimed, feeling an indescribable wave of relief crash around her.
Sakura almost hugged her--but instantly she knew she'd made a mistake. There was too much relief in her voice, far too much enthusiasm. And Hinata had picked up on it.
"Sakura-chan?" Silver eyes crinkled in worry, concern played across the rosebud lips, and Hinata's head tilted to the side a little. "A--are you alright?"
"I'm fine," laughed Sakura. Her voice was too loud. Quickly, she sought to cover her tracks. "I'm just really excited, that's all!"
"Why?" asked Hinata, confused. "What's going on?"
"I'm out for a run," lied Sakura cheerfully.
"O-ok," said Hinata, unsure. She was studying her, concern warring with puzzlement.
If she keeps thinking, eventually one of those thoughts is going to be right. Sakura was very well aware of the double jeapordy she'd just landed in. Out of the frying pan, into the fire--and the pan was still chasing her, somewhere. She didn't have time.
"It feels great!" she continued, as though unware that anything was wrong. She suddenly brightened up even more, bubbling over as though struck by a sudden idea. "Hey, I know--come with me!" she said excitedly.
"Come on, come running with me! It's always more fun to go jogging when there's company!" Sakura took her poor friend by the arm and took off again, dragging little Hinata along whether she liked it or not. The dimunitive girl protested, stumbling, but after a few seconds she gave up and started running alongside willingly, although it she was trying to keep up more so she could question Sakura than because she really wanted to be running.
"What's going on, Sakura?"
"I told you, silly, I'm out for a run!" laughed the petal-haired kunoichi, flashing a bright smile and increasing her speed just a little bit.
Hinata's protests died and she sighed resignedly, deciding to just enjoy the run. It really was more pleasant with another person, even if Sakura was acting a little weird.
It must be because she's tired, she decided. I mean, she's been on a mission for so long--wait a minute, when did she get back from that mission? She knew something was wrong. She just didn't know what it was. "Sakura-chan," she called urgently. "When did you get back?"
"Oh, last night," shrugged Sakura, running faster yet. She leaped nimbly over obstacles, although she was becoming steadily, slowly clumsier with each narrow avoidance. It was impossible to move easily at the speed they were taking--sooner or later, Hinata was sure Sakura was going to end up breaking her neck.
"Why didn't you stop by?"
"Tired," came the cheerful voice again. "Needed a little bit of sleep first."
"You could have slept over..."
"Had to eat too," pointed out Sakura.
"You're always welcome to eat at my house, you know that," sighed Hinata. "What did you do that you couldn't have slept over for?" she really did miss Sakura, or she probably would have stopped herself from pressing.
"Oh, not much. I had to clean up a bit--a house can get a little dusty when you're gone so long!"
"Don't your parents clean it too?"
Sakura tripped and fell hard. Rolling and bouncing, she yelped in pain and surprise as new scratches covered her exposed skin. "Ow ow ow!" she hissed under her breath.
Hinata stopped. "Are you ok?"
"Oh yeah, fine!" she grinned. "Just a bit of a bump--come on, I'm not even sweating yet!" she said cheerfully, springing energetically back up.
It was a blatant lie, but she darted ahead before Hinata had really processed that observation.
"Sakura, what the heck is going on? You're bleeding," cried Hinata.
"Am I? Sheesh. I've been running so long, I guess I just can't really feel it anymore--you know how endorphins are," laughed Sakura, feigning sheepishness. She flipped her little braid over her shoulder.
"Why don't we stop?" suggested Hinata. "We can rest up for a while."
"Um, I have a goal in mind already," lied Sakura, thinking fast. "I want to get all the way into Konoha before I stop today."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah! Come on, it'll be fun! How are we supposed to get stronger if we don't push ourselves a little, hm?"
She had a vague idea, that maybe if another person was with her the stalkers would back off, or at least take enough time to think of something new that she could escape. All she asked for was time.
By some miracle, her desperate prayer was answered--no more overt ambushes surprised her, although she detoured several times because she felt chakra signaling the presence of Them.
Them--that's what she was calling them in her mind now. It wasn't "It" anymore; no, now it had resolved at last into a palpable entity, with the note and the invisible stalkers. It had become Them, now. And she wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
That voice stopped both of them cold--Hinata because she knew the speaker, Sakura because the silver-eyed girl had grabbed her arm.
Dammit, dammit, not now-- she thought desperately, green eyes darting desperately around before the pleasant mask descended forcefully over her features.
"Neji-nii-san," she said, smiling. "I ran into Sakura-chan--well, she ran into me..."
Sakura smiled at Neji as he stepped out of concealment. "Hello," she said. Her voice was breathless, strained--she swore at herself mentally.
He only looked at her. For the first time she realized that she had to look like hell--and running for her life would not have helped the careless image she was trying to convey in the least. Her clothing was torn, her hair was full of foilage, her personal hygiene had suffered greatly during her prolonged retreat of nearly two weeks, she hadn't slept, and she was completely out of breath.
Surprisingly, it was him to break the awkward silence. "How was your walk?" he asked. He seemed to force the words out, like it was a great effort to ask that simple pleasantry, and it looked like it had left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Sakura stared at him, and for one moment she thought that maybe she had gone crazy, and this was all some twisted nightmare conjured up by her poor battered mind. She wanted to laugh, cry, scream, and just sit on the ground doing all three at once for a very long time. Now.
Hinata seemed surprised too, but incredibly pleased and not at all confused. Just happy. "Very good! Thank you for asking."
"Is something the matter, Haruno?" He had caught the flicker of her eyes around their surroundings.
"Nothing at all," she smiled. "Why do you ask? Are you expecting trouble?"
His eyes were narrowing. Sakura felt very, very small suddenly, and knew she walked a very fine line. This was an obstacle she hadn't forseen, and what had seemed a blessing was rapidly turning into lighter fluid for that frying pan she'd so conveniently hopped out of.
"You ran into Hinata-sama...on your way back from a mission? Aren't you supposed to report first thing, Haruno?"
"I already did," she let a little ice creep into her tone, a slight edge. Back off. Go back to being an icy, silent wall why don't you?
"And you decided to find your friends before even resting up," he said scornfully.
"I was out for a run," she said defensively.
"I'm a morning person. Besides, you're up," she pointed out. "And Hinata was going for a walk! If you believe all the stories, ninja are supposed to be entirely nocturnal anyway," she pointed out cheerfully.
"With a backpack?"
Fuck. Sakura's smile didn't flicker. "I need the extra weight--it makes up about the same amount as traveling with weapons," she said smoothly, trying to get her wind back so her voice wouldn't sound strained.
No answer. Just his eyes.
Sakura held the smile determinedly, refusing to fail now. She had kept her mask on firmly for half her life--one boy wouldn't crack it now, no matter how good he was at reading people. No one was better than her on this battlefield, not even the illusion-breaking bloodline's prodigy.
Neji looked Haruno up and down. What he saw didn't agree with him--something was off. He studied her eyes, her sparkling gem-like orbs that were so expressive it was creepy. Lines around the corners; she hadn't slept in several days. Her dress was torn, there was old blood on her shorts, her hair looked terrible. In short, she looked exactly like she should have after coming home from a high-stress mission without a chance to rest. But that didn't make any sense. And she seemed genuinely cheerful, no less bubbly and enthusiastic than she ever was. Her complete lack of strain didn't make him feel any less weird about whatever it was, though--it only added to it.
"Sakura-chan, why don't you come over for a while?" suggested Hinata brightly. "You can have breakfast with us."
The awkwardness hadn't completely disappeared, but Sakura was adept at manipulating social situations. If she'd been functioning up to normal, there would have been no awkwardness to smooth in the first place. Since she wasn't, she simply pretended it wasn't there and smiled as brightly as was normal. "Yeah, that sounds great!" she agreed. "I actually am hungry, now that you mention it--wanna race there, since we've already been running?"
"One would think that already running would be better reason for not racing," said Neji neutrally. Too blandly.
Sakura smiled at him. "Neji-san, the point of running is to build strength. How can one get stronger if one quits halfway through, hm?"
The goad distracted him, and at last the tension vanished as he veiled a glare at her. Well, the old tension. Now the only discomfort was the silver glower trying to run her through like a katana. Nothing out of the ordinary.
At long last, Chapter 10 is up! Yes!
Sorry again about the delay. I realize it was excessive. I really, really don't want that to happen again, and I'll try to make sure it doesn't.