The sun beat down on her mercilessly, burning into her body, into her brain and her guts. If she stayed in this sun any longer, it would burn her all the way through, leaving nothing but the charred remains of what had once been a human woman. There would be nothing but bleached bones and a few bits of metal until the desert sand rose and claimed those, too.

But she couldn't die yet, couldn't let the fire of the sun consume her. She had to reach him first, had to tell him, prove to him that it hadn't all been a lie.

She couldn't let it end this way.

Chapter 1

It wasn't raining.

It should have been, but that was the weather for her. On a day like this, it ought to be dumping heavy, drenching buckets of cold, blinding rain. The wind ought to be howling, dark clouds raging, lightening ripping spasmodically in time with bellowing thunder. Damnit, Inner Sakura waved an impotent fist at the sky. Can't you at least drizzle a little?

But the sky remained unrepentantly colorless, calm, and dry. It was cloudy, but only enough to cast a remarkable sense of doom and depression on everything, including her. Not that she needed the encouragement. Well, at least it wasn't a nice, sunny, cheerful afternoon, with lovely warm sun and bright colored birds yapping their stupid beaks off. That would have been too much. She shuddered.

Three hours until she left. Maybe a storm would kick up between now and then. Maybe a monumental hurricane would slice its way right through the village, first preventing her departure and then providing her with an excellent excuse to stay and clean things up. Hah, she derided herself. How quickly we resort to wishing ill on the people we've sworn to protect when it conveniences us.

Ok, so maybe wishing for a natural disaster of epic proportions was a bit . . . extreme. But she was a desperate woman.


"Good evening, Lee." She waved a listless hand at her approaching friend. Oh, she was so not in the mood for his perpetual cheer today. And if he so much as mentioned the word springtime, well, she couldn't be held responsible for the consequences, that was all. He moved to her side easily, stretching out lanky legs to catch up and then modifying his stride to match hers. He brought with him the characteristic smell of sweat and dirt and muscles pushed to their limit, but he moved as easily as if he'd done nothing but lay around with Shikamaru all day. Sakura had once found the smell a little, well, gross, but somehow it had evolved into something almost comforting. Familiar, at least. And of course, with her well-trained sensitivity to life forces and auras, she was perhaps more aware than most of the sense of peace and security he all but radiated for several feet around him.

Right now, though, his aura was mildly troubled. "I heard of your mission," he said, after a few moments of silence. "It is a grievous day for Konoha, to lose even temporarily our brightest flower. When do you leave?"

"A few hours," she replied, shrugging. "It's Friday. I'm on my way to the traditional Friday-night-ramen-dinner with Naruto before I leave. It's his turn to buy." And if he tries to cop out and sweet-talk me into taking this one again, I'll brain him with his own chopsticks, she thought darkly. Outwardly, she smiled. "Want to come?"

He grinned. "Of course. Maybe this time I'll be able to convince Naruto that a steady diet of nutrition-less noodles and salted broth is not conducive to a healthy body."

Sakura laughed. "Lee, if you can talk Naruto into giving up his precious ramen, I'll run three hundred laps around Konoha myself."

"An admirable task, my friend, but only if you go a decent speed."

"Of course. I'd let you pace me." She winked at him, knowing that he was playing along with her joke, but also fully aware that if he somehow did manage to talk Naruto into giving up ramen, she would find herself tying on the old running sneakers indeed. He made a fist in the air, eyes blazing.

"Then for the good of your own personal betterment, Sakura, I shall fight with all my heart to win this battle!"

They both laughed then, as they arrived at the old, scarred gates of Konoha and passed through. "Lee, can I ask you a favor?" Sakura asked as they nodded a greeting to the chunin guard.

"Of course," he grinned again. "I am always here when you need me." His smile gleamed. How does he do that? Sakura wondered vaguely. If he wasn't incapable of chakra molding, I'd swear it was some kind of jutsu.

"I just need someone to check in on my apartment while I'm gone. It sounds like Tsunade-sama expects me to be in the Wind Country for a few days at least – add that to the six days' travel just to get there and back, and I'm pretty sure all my plants will die. I'd ask Naruto, but he tends to…overdo it a bit. And Ino's off training in the mountains or something these last few days. She won't get back until after I leave. Would you mind terribly?"

Of course he didn't mind. That was one of the wonderful things about Lee. Nothing that helped someone else out was beneath him. He was always glad to help, always glad to do anything he could to ease the lives of those around him. No task too menial, too low. She wondered briefly why she never seemed to fall for the nice guys – and abruptly banished that thought to the farthest, darkest corners of her mind.

"Is anyone coming with you, or is it a solo mission?" Lee was asking, one hand flying out to snatch a piece of newspaper that had been caught in the rising wind.

"Just me. Tsunade-sama doesn't want to appear like the Leaf Village is doing anything threatening, or trying to flex muscle. And what's less threatening than a random medic-in-training?"

He frowned, an expression that tended to pull his features a little out of shape. His was a face made for laughing. "Sakura, I wish you were not so self-degrading. You are an excellent ninja in your own right."

"Thanks, Lee. Coming from an exceptional guy like yourself, that means a lot." And it did, in an odd way. She didn't really think that lowly of herself – being Tsunade's apprentice held some measure of pride after all, and meant that there were certain things she was uncannily good at. Her genjutsu were jounin level, and she knew it. Her taijutsu was just slightly above the average level, too, but that was to be expected when Rock Lee and Maito Gai took it into their heads to train with you twice a week. But genjutsu and a good high back-kick alone weren't enough to get her through the grueling elite ninja exams, and her medical training was far, far from over.

It will just be on hold for a few days. I can use the time to practice chakra storing, she told herself. It was one of Tsunade's better tricks, the ability to store large amounts of chakra in a single point of the body for extended periods of time. So far, Sakura hadn't been able to hold any significant amount of chakra in a single point for longer than a few hours.

"Hey, Hey, Sakura-chan, Fuzzy Brows!" A familiar voice rang out into the deepening twilight. "You hungry? It's Ramen Night! Look, I brought Hinata and Kiba, too. It's a party!"

Sakura smiled at the blond head poking out of the ramen stand curtains, and resisted the urge to laugh when a heavy hand grabbed his jacket and dragged him back in. "Shut up, idiot," Kiba's voice growled. "You're embarrassing us, yelling down the street like that."

"Evening, Hinata, Kiba." Sakura smiled brightly. "Hi Naruto."

It was a nice meal, marked by a lengthy lecture from Mr. Protein-shakes and Vegetables Are A Ninja's Best Friend Lee and a steady stream of off the wall comments from Mr. But Ramen Is The Best! Naruto, and punctuated by the occasional loud sigh from Mr. You're Both Obnoxious Morons Kiba. Sakura and Hinata spoke quietly to each other, except for the occasional moment when Sakura felt called upon to bash Naruto one or two across the head for being exceptionally dense. And honestly, his name was Lee. Not Fuzzy Brows. It wasn't all that difficult a name to say.

Hinata left first, escorted by Lee, who was slightly disappointed to have failed in his attempts to bring Naruto into the joyous world of nutritious and beneficial food but buoyed by Sakura's sincere thanks for his promise to watch her apartment. Kiba sauntered out soon after, winking irascibly at Sakura and tossing a fake punch at Naruto. He whistled casually as he left, and a white shadow reared up from where Akamaru had been sleeping patiently to follow him into the night. At length, Naruto offered to walk her back home.

They walked the dark streets, moving silently as only shinobi could. "Hey, Sakura-chan, why's Old Lady Tsunade sending you out to the Hidden Sand Village for so long, anyway?" Naruto said at last, and Sakura winced. So much for silence.

"Naruto!" She hissed, glancing around. "Do you have to scream out my missions for the whole world to hear?"

"Hey, it's only a B-rank mission, not like its top secret or anything." He paused, eyeing her suspiciously. "Is it?"

"No," she sighed, resigned to the look on his face that said he was curious. And when Uzumaki Naruto was curious, he was a force to be reckoned with. Damn him. "It's just a peacekeeping type of mission. You know, send a Leaf shinobi to hang out with the Sand shinobi, make friends, show that we're all on the same side, exchange a few ritual jutsu with them, and then head on home."

"Exchange jutsu?" Naruto all but choked. "What…why? Isn't that a little…stupid?"

"It's nothing big," she shot back. "They're only ceremonial things. I'm going to give them the secret of fertilizer technique," she smirked. "You know, to help crops grow. I imagine they'll be giving me something to do with sunblocking technique to prevent sunburn. Little non-combatant things. It's an old tradition. And besides – " she inhaled abruptly, cutting herself off. He didn't need to know that. She didn't need to say it aloud in the public street, anyway. Even if the possibility of anyone listening was low.

"Still," Naruto scratched his head, not seeming to notice the sudden break. "It doesn't sound like a great idea to me."

"How do you think I feel?" Sakura responded. "I don't really want to put my medical training on hold to go hang out in the sand playing diplomat." It's too f-ing hot here she grumped to herself. I don't even want to imagine what it must be like in the middle of the bloody desert.

Naruto clapped a friendly hand on her shoulder. "Hey, tell you what, I'll give you my extra water canteen, and you can think of me when you use it to wash the sweat off your body." He leered at her, and braced himself for the expected blow.

She didn't disappoint him. "Pervert!" She yelled. "Stop thinking about me washing anything, or I'll paste you into the cement right here." Calming down, she flipped an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "And anyway I've got a canteen. Thanks for the offer though."

They arrived at her apartment building a few minutes and several more bantering comments later. She walked up to the door, hesitated, and turned around. He stood calmly at the foot of the stairs, watching her. Waiting. He knew what was coming. She considered not asking, considered saying good night and going inside and picking up her pre-packed bag and heading out without another word. But she couldn't do that, and he knew it. They both knew it. She had to say it.

"If you find Sasuke," she whispered, "let me know."

He nodded, flashed her the thumbs up pose he'd picked up from the Beautiful Green Beast of Konoha himself, and gave her the same answer he always gave her. "It's a promise."

It was a dark and stormy morning. This is what I get, Sakura laughed bitterly, for wishing it would rain last night. The evening had stayed merely gloomy until she was about five hours out from the walls of Konoha, five hours away from her nice dry apartment and her warm, comfortable bed. And when she said rain, she meant a bleeding downpour that threatened to blind her, wave upon wave of bone-chilling water that caused her feet to slip threatening on the wet bark of the trees. Alright, ground it is, she decided, jumping lightly down and running smoothly across muddy earth. It was slippery here too, but a little chakra on the balls of her feet and some more flowing smoothly into her leg muscles, and she could run all night through the rain without even really thinking about it. She could stop and try to make camp, but she was already soaked, and trying to start a fire with damp wood was just not worth the effort and chakra required. So to stay warm, she ran. It would get her there that much faster, anyway. The sooner she was there, the sooner she could leave.

Why does it bother me so much? She wondered absently, dodging swaying tree limbs and the occasional deceptively deep mud puddle almost subconsciously. It's not like I'm being exiled from my home to go live there. And it's not like the Hidden Sand village had really been a problem for Konoha for a long time. They were allies, albeit the unease between them had not subsided much since the war. When you consider the degree of betrayal, she mused, four years is not very much time.

There had been a lot of betrayal going around then. Sand had betrayed Leaf, and in turn been betrayed by Sound. The Kazekage turning out to be Orochimaru. Sasuke, leaving.

She winced, but it may have been the sudden deluge of cold water that flooded off a tree down her back as she passed under it.

At this rate, she was going to be grateful to get to the desert. Rain was highly overrated, sometimes.