What Does It All Mean?
Part I, Chapter I: Nothing to Worry About
"You're improving greatly, Sakura," the Hokage praised. She stood a few feet behind her student. They were in a room at the Hokage's castle, lined with shelves stalked full of scrolls.
An operating table was stretched out in front of them. A dog, now standing on all four healed-legs, barked happily. Sakura turned to her teacher. "Thank you, Tsunade-sama. But I've healed humans before. Why am I practicing on animals again?"
"That dog was in pretty bad shape. Near death, almost. You've never had to face that with humans… until now."
Sakura scratched behind the dog's ear and wiped the thin sweat from her brow. "What?"
"There is a new mission tomorrow," Tsunade said, handing her student a green scroll. "And they need a medical nin just in case."
A twinge of anxiety rose in Sakura's chest. "What kind of mission is it?"
"Nothing to worry about," the well-endowed Godaime laughed, patting Sakura on the shoulder. "It's a B-rank. I'm to send an ambassador to the Village of the Hidden Sand, and along with some documents. It's nothing too terrible."
"There will be jounin, right? Why would they need me to--?"
"You may be a Chuunin but you are one of the best medical nins in the village. It's just a precaution if we run into trouble."
Sakura nodded. "Sure, I will do it." She took the scroll.
"Good. Besides, Naruto is on the assignment as well."
Sakura's eyes brightened when she heard her friend's name. "Really?"
"Yeah. You two meet the rest in the meeting hall tomorrow at 9am. Okay?"
"Alright. I'll see you tomorrow!" Sakura hurried out of the room in search of her friend.
"No… not good enough."
"One more!" the young man exclaimed.
His companion gasped in amazement. "Easy, Naruto. That'll be your 6th bowl."
Naruto grinned widely. "Ano-sa, Iruka-sensei! You said your treat! So, I'm taking advantage of it."
"But you're a jounin! Your pay is higher than mine," Iruka took a drink of water.
"Yeah, but you work constantly. Like everyday. I don't get paid until after my missions are over," the young man pouted while fishing through his frog money pouch.
Iruka smiled fondly at his former student. He had watched him grow up from a rambunctious, trouble-making boy to the ambitious, still rambunctious man he was today. The academy teacher knew he was gifted from day one, and that he was destined for greatness. Iruka laughed seeing the young man in front of him pout like a 10-year-old. "Are you sure you're 20-years-old?"
Naruto frowned at his former teacher. "Are you sure you're 33? You still look the same since I first started the academy. What did it? Surgery?" Naruto crossed his arms and sat back. "Hm… you and Tsunade-no-baa-chan must share the same secret…"
Iruka's eyebrows twitched in annoyance. "That's cruel, Naruto." He then smiled, easing the remark away. "Remember, Kakashi is older than me."
"But he has a mask on all the time! His hair has been silver since forever!" Naruto exclaimed. "There's no way I could tell how old he is, unless the mask is off. Believe me, I tried. It didn't work out the way I wanted."
"What? You saw Kakashi take his mask off?" Iruka looked shocked. "You saw his face underneath?"
"Nope. Just another mask," answered a sweet voice before Naruto answered. They both turned around and saw her standing there, smiling. "So much heartache for another mask."
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "Hey, have a seat!"
"Sure," she sat at a stool next to Naruto.
"Did you eat lunch already?" Iruka asked. "How about I buy you a bowl?"
Before she answered, Naruto protested. "Weren't you complaining about not having enough money!"
"She was one of my best students. She deserves it," their former teacher flashed a smile at her. "And she's a great teaching assistant."
She stuck her tongue out at Naruto.
Naruto's mouth dropped. "That's cruel, Iruka-sensei."
"There's nothing cruel about it, Naruto," the pink-haired kunoichi smiled. "You're just a pig."
Naruto pouted, his lower lip quivering. "Sakura-chan…"
"Miso ramen, please?" Sakura asked the cook, teasing Naruto more by ignoring him.
"Not strong enough."
"Hope you enjoyed our date, Sakura!"
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Naruto, that wasn't a date! Iruka-sensei was there! And you didn't pay!"
With a grin, Naruto tapped his temple with a finger. "Not in here…" he said, gesturing to his head. "In here, you enjoyed every minute. And any second now, I'm gonna get a kiss."
She glared at him with perplexed eyes. "Keep that imagination in check, you idiot." She crossed her arms over her chest for a moment and then released them, weaving an arm through Naruto's. Naruto's grin became twice as wide.
Sakura walked down the street with Naruto, arms linked. She used to receive dubious looks but over the years, she learned not to care what people thought. She and he knew the truth: they had been teammates in their genin days and they looked out for one another. And if people thought they were an item, they knew better. Caring what people saw them as was too troublesome.
"Idiot!" someone yelled in the flower shop they just passed.
Naruto and Sakura exchanged glances and smiled. "You want to see what they're up to?" Sakura asked.
"Sure. I'm up for some entertainment," Naruto led her into the Yamanaka Flower Shop.
They saw the blonde store owner, female, with crystal angry eyes, clutching a plastic vase. A young man, same age as her, was sitting in a fold-out chair, crouched over, rubbing the top of his head. "Geez, woman," he grumbled.
"Why did you bother to show up if you weren't going to help!" the blonde woman raised the plastic vase again, threatening to hit him a second time.
The man rolled his eyes and at the very same moment noted their guests. "Hey," he said, pointing to the entrance.
The woman looked into the direction of his gesture. She saw the two and immediately headed over to them, walking away from her companion. "Hey Sakura! Naruto!"
They both smiled at her. "Hey," Naruto walked to where the man was sitting and leaned against the counter. "How are you, Shikamaru?"
The man tsked. "I could be better--."
"Well, it's your own fault for falling asleep," the blonde girl, Ino, reasoned. "There's all this stuff I have to put on display and you said you'd come over! Why'd you even bother?"
Sakura and Naruto turned to Shikamaru, who was sitting back, stifling a yawn.
"Aren't you going to say anything!" Ino challenged.
He shrugged. "It's troublesome."
She hissed a sound of frustration through her teeth. "Boys are impossible!" she said to Sakura.
Sakura just shrugged. "I don't date. I wouldn't know," she smiled gently. A hint of sadness was on her lips; a look all three of them caught.
"So," Ino quickly chimed, changing subject. "What are you two up to?"
"Nothing really," Naruto answered. "We got a long mission tomorrow, but that's about it."
"A mission?" Ino looked intrigued. "Both of you?"
"Same mission," Sakura smiled.
"Wow. It's been so long since I had a mission…" Ino mused, looking off to a bundle of orchids that were sitting near her friend. "I might get rusty."
"No way, Ino," Naruto grinned. "That kind of brute strength never goes away." He barely dodged the kunai chucked at him.
"What was that!" Ino growled.
"Ah, stuff it, Naruto," Shikamaru leaned his chair back so the backrest hit the wall. "You'll make things worse."
"Now, now, Ino," Sakura pulled the kunai out of Ino's hand. "I don't think your dad will appreciate you decorating his walls with kunai holes."
Naruto stuck his tongue out and Ino just growled, giving into Sakura's suggestion. "Fine, fine, fine. He'll keep both eyes." She took the kunai from the woman and placed it in her back pouch. "Say, don't you think you should go home? You got a mission tomorrow; you two should rest up."
Sakura looked at her watch and nodded. "I guess you're right."
"I'll walk you home," Naruto left the counter and joined Sakura's side. He offered his arm to her and they said their goodbyes to their friends.
Ino turned and saw Shikamaru dosing off again. The chair was standing on its rear legs, its back support leaning against the wall. Shikamaru's head was back and his eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. He didn't flinch when she began to stomp towards him and he didn't move until she pressed her palms down on his knees. His chair quaked and fell on all four legs. She leaned in so that she was eye-level to him. "Look, Shika, I have been unstocking for the past half-hour. You came in about 20 minutes ago and have done nothing but sit here to either sleep or watch me run back and forth. If you weren't going to be the slightest bit productive or helpful, why did you bother to come over!"
When she was done giving him an earful, Shikamaru stared straight into her eyes and said very plainly, "I've been away on a mission for the past week and a half. I haven't seen you since then."
Ino said nothing and thought about it as she stared straight into Shikamaru's eyes. Then, she smiled, stood straight and walked away in a happier pace. "Don't move, okay? I'm almost done," she called over her shoulder.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Geez, stupid woman…"
"It's the only way left."
Sakura pulled out her bag. It was a beige messenger bag she always used to hold her clothes and other necessities for travel. Nowadays, she carried an extra blue backpack, filled with medical supplies and equipment. She scurried through her apartment that night, rushing, opening her drawers, searching for needed supplies. Twenty kunais were sitting in her pouch and she knew she had ten more somewhere in her apartment.
"Where is that kunai set father had?" she asked out loud, searching her dresser. When opening the bottom drawer, she found a frame, its front face down below her needed kunai set. She put the kunai set on her lap as she sat down and pulled the nearly forgotten picture frame out of its hiding spot.
"Why do I have to take a picture with that guy!"
"Shut up, Naruto! It'll look great, neh, Sasuke-kun?"
"Alright, everyone, say 'cheese'! Big smile."
"What's the point? We can't see your face, Kakashi-sensei."
Sakura was twelve then. Her teacher, Hatake Kakashi, stood behind them, each hand on each boy's head. She stood between the boys, Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke. Her boys…
She wanted to cry. Putting that picture away seven years ago still didn't completely heal her. She put the picture face down and decided maybe a couple more years would do it. She closed the drawer shut, wiped her eyes from newly formed beads of tears and continued packing.
"I'll find him."
Their trek would last for a while. Sakura and Naruto met with two other jounin and four other chuunin inside the meeting hall. Tsunade sat in her long-back wooden chair, behind her desk to address them all. "You read your assignments, correct?" she seemed to direct her attention more to Naruto. "Kino must reach the Village of the Hidden Sand; make it happen. The instructions are pretty easy, but I'll entertain questions anyway," she brushed the air with her hand casually.
"If this is so freakin' important, why don't you act like it, Tsunade-no-baa-chan?"
Kino, the diplomat that stood beside Tsunade, and five of the other ninjas looked completely scandalized. They knew the young man was very blunt, hard-edged, perhaps frank, bordering obnoxious but they never expected him to address the Hokage as "Old Lady." Chouji, one of the jounin standing there, casually pulled out a bag of chips to snack on. Sakura suppressed the giggles in response to the others' expressions. Naruto just stood still, squinted eyes towards the village leader. Tsunade's lips twitched. She had gotten accustomed to Naruto's name for her, but the least he could have done was to address her properly when there were others present.
She sighed. Even if she did hit him on the head or threw him out the window, he wouldn't learn his lesson. "Being serious all the time is bad for one's health. If that's all the questions, then you should leave now."
They all bowed and left with the diplomat standing between the group of ninjas.
"I'll find Naruto."