A/N: This is an updated and revised version of the original chapter that was posted last year. Hopefully sentence structure is a little more cohesive, but no plot points were harmed in any way. It's probably unnecessary to warn for this now, but the story begins some time after chapter 310 of the manga, so anime watchers may be spoiled. I think if you've seen the first ep of Shipuuden you should be fine, but each to their own.
It was all about the numbers.
Six months. Going by an average calendar, that was twenty-four weeks. Breaking it down further, it gave them one hundred and sixty-eight days. If she wanted to be meticulous (and Sakura was nothing if not thorough), she could even go so far as to say they only had four thousand and thirty-two hours left. Four thousand and thirty-two hours remaining on the clock that steadily ticked down the time remaining until Sasuke was lost to them forever.
She sighed and turned to stare sightlessly out her bedroom window. Things hadn't gone according to plan. Naruto had come back and infected her with his confidence. She'd been full of restless, anticipatory energy going in to their most recent mission - so much so that even decking Sai hadn't provided her with any sort of release. She'd felt certain that this time was the time, that this attempt to get close to their missing team member would be successful, and that he would definitely return.
It should have worked. She'd taken everything into consideration. She was stronger now, could contribute far more than when she'd been a weak and lovesick genin all those years ago. In Sasuke's stead, the insidious Sai had turned out to be more useful (and personable) than he'd originally let on. Yamato, standing in for the oft-injured Kakashi, had proven to be irreplaceable with his quick thinking and unique abilities. (His hut-jutsu had given her the first good night's sleep she'd had on a mission. Ever.) And Naruto...
Apparently Naruto was more powerful than she ever could have imagined. Ever would have imagined. He'd always been her dorky teammate, endearing in his own, annoying way. On one level she'd known what lay dormant within him, but because of its dormancy she hadn't truly understood. The force of the Kyuubi, what it did to him, what it did to them all...
Rubbing her arm reflexively, she rested her head against the cool glass. The street below was filled with the afternoon bustle of people going about their business and she let her gaze travel over them, absently scanning for any ninja the might be there. There weren't any likely candidates. All the people walked steadily and calmly. There was no set to any of their shoulders, no sign of the alertness that lent fluidity and grace to their movements. These people were innocent and ignorant and until recently, she'd been just like them. Cleverer, perhaps. Stronger, most likely. But in failing to consider one important thing, she had made a grave error in judgement. She'd failed as a ninja, and she'd failed as a friend.
She'd failed to consider that Sasuke might not want to come back.
It had been careless of her. Careless, arrogant, and downright stupid. He'd left for a reason, after all, and she knew that reason was still there – it had been only weeks ago that she'd watched Kakashi fight Itachi. Of his own will Sasuke had chosen to team up with Orochimaru, and of his own will he'd elected to stay.
That didn't mean there was nothing they could do about it - far from it. It just meant they needed to continue with caution, and they'd definitely have to plan things more thoroughly this time around. She knew what to change in the equation, and Sasuke's opinion wouldn't be overlooked in their second attempt. They'd just...work around him. Or something.
Pushing away from the window, she moved around her room, absently tidying things as she went. In her opinion, they wouldn't be mounting a repeat expedition any time soon. Kakashi was still in hospital and Sai still needed time to cultivate a more desirable personality. Naruto had mentioned getting Yamato to work with him, which left Sakura to either rest on her laurels or improve herself somehow.
It was a pretty simple choice.
She paused mid-movement, coming back to herself and discovering she had plumped her pillow to a feathery pulp. She was strong, certainly, (the poor pillow could attest to that) but she still wasn't strong enough. Physically she was doing okay, but mentally she was a bit of a mess.
Took you long enough to figure that out.
Ignoring the little voice in her head as she'd been trying to do for the better part of her adolescence, Sakura moved the mangled pillow aside and flopped onto the bed.
In their latest mission, to the Bridge and beyond, she hadn't done very well at all. If she was honest, she had to admit she'd let the team down again. For more than two years now she'd been so wrapped up in the idea of saving Sasuke that she hadn't considered the toll it was taking on others. Seeing Naruto push himself like that had really shaken her; it had truly put the whole thing into perspective. And then seeing Sasuke, Sasuke who had been unmoved by Naruto's pleas, who had spoken about murder in such a casual, uncaring tone...
She'd been frightened. Not for herself - not even when he'd turned those cold, cold eyes on her in that moment before Yamato stepped in - but for Naruto. Naruto, who never backed down. Naruto, who never gave up. Naruto, who was doing this for the sake of a promise and the enduring memory of the first friend he'd ever had. Sasuke had been her idol; he'd been a dream, out of reach, someone whose heart she could never hope to touch. But he'd been Naruto's best friend, and that had been real; their friendship had been tangible and true. That person who'd stood above them on that rocky cliff-face had been real but he wasn't their friend. If he hadn't looked and sounded like Sasuke, if she hadn't felt that he was their lost friend, Sakura would have sworn those Sharingan eyes belonged to a stranger.
She rolled over and lifted her arm, draping it over her expanse of forehead. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. Their objective was as clear as it had ever been, but their motivation had suffered slightly after their unexpected rendezvous. They were still driven, still obliged to 'rescue' Sasuke and bring him home, but they weren't saving him from Orochimaru.
They were saving him from himself.
And to do that, they needed to improve. Each and every one of them had to be better, stronger, faster. They all needed to bring something more to the team, because having a team, being a team was the one advantage they did have over Sasuke. They could work together to overcome him, and then, Sakura thought, cracking her knuckles with her thumb, then she would teach Sasuke about the punishment given to those who left their friends behind.
But first she needed to work on her own strength. She'd never be a match for Sasuke or Naruto, but that didn't mean she had to be a weak little girl. Filled with a sudden, fierce determination, she swung her legs off the bed and got to her feet. Running a distracted hand through her hair, she exited her room and jogged down the stairs. She gave a solemn nod to the team photograph that took pride of place on the living room mantel and then let herself out, weaving through the crowded streets towards the centre of town and the Hokage tower.
If she wanted to improve herself, she needed to find someone who could help her get stronger. And who better to ask than the strongest kunoichi that Konoha had ever seen?
- - -
"So, let me see if I have this right." Yamato was smiling slightly, but Naruto didn't let himself consider it a sign of victory just yet. The man had far more in common with Kakashi than he'd previously let on, so it was safe to assume he was well-versed in fooling both the enemy and his team. "You," he pointed at Naruto, "want me," he pointed at himself, "to train you," he pointed at Naruto again, "until you are Sasuke's equal in power, speed and strength." He counted the three points off on his fingers.
Naruto nodded. "Yup, you got it!"
The smile was still there but Naruto was disturbed to find it was turning vaguely creepy. He hoped Yamato wasn't about to bust out the scary face. "You may recall, Naruto," the ANBU replied softly, cooing the words with such dangerous calm that Naruto found himself stepping back before he could help it, "that I have a job aside from taking care of you."
"No, I remember," Naruto replied earnestly. "That's why I asked you, since you're ANBU and you have that whole Shodaime thing with the chakra and all!"
"Is that the only qualification?" Sai asked from where he was sitting under a tree, watching the conversation with interest. They were on one of the training grounds on the outskirts of town, a disused one that was overgrown and slightly wild. Naruto had asked Yamato to meet him there, thinking that being in a training area would make him more inclined to train him. Location, or so he had thought, location was key.
That, unfortunately, was as far as his planning had gotten. And Yamato didn't seem to appreciate the relevance (or ambience) of his forest surrounds.
"What, Shodaime's blood?" Naruto shot back, only half-listening to his teammate's question. He didn't need interruptions, dammit, he needed Yamato to agree to his request.
"No, I meant the part where you said 'chakra and all!'" Sai smiled serenely over the top of his sketchbook. "Because then I thought that any ninja would suffice and maybe you could ask those little worshippers of yours, since they're on a break from studies."
Naruto assumed Sai meant Konohamaru and the gang, since he'd taken his new teammate to meet them yesterday.
Sai had been taken aback to discover that Udon was, in fact, male. Unfortunately for all involved, Sai had also felt it necessary to voice his surprise, querying the boy as to whether or not he had a penis. Udon hadn't taken Sai's straightforwardness half as well as Naruto had and was now most likely scarred for life. And he'd always been a bit weird anyway, Naruto thought sadly, reflecting on the disastrous incident. He'd thought the books had been helping Sai...but apparently he'd been wrong.
"Konohamaru wouldn't be any use," he scoffed, glaring over at Sai for both the suggestion and the memory of Udon's tearful face. "I need to get better than Sasuke, and fast. Normally I'd ask Kakashi but he's still recovering from that last fight and I don't want to impose or anything."
"Oh, I see," Yamato interrupted, bringing a hand to his chin and nodding. "Since Kakashi isn't here, you feel I am his replacement in every way and therefore you have a right to impose upon my time even when I am not filling in as a member of Team Seven?"
Sai moved his arms urgently in a gesture of some sort but Naruto was far too busy agreeing with Yamato to take any notice. Finally some sort of understanding had been reached. "Exactly!" he crowed, pleased the captain had known what he meant. "You knew just what I was trying to say!"
He almost laughed at how easy it had been before a terrible, unearthly cold prickled at his skin, causing the hair on his arms to bristle and stiffen in fear. He looked up and immediately wished he hadn't, because Yamato's face had suffered some trick of the dappled afternoon sunlight and seemed to glow with a spectral aura. Naruto shrank under the intimidating weight of the horrifying expression, and shuddered involuntarily when the captain spoke. "You want me to what?"
Naruto let out a squeak. "U-Um, w-well, that is, I u-um, want to be stronger..."
Yamato seemed to tower over him. "Why?"
He clenched his fist in an effort to regain some confidence. "B-Because, I promised. I promised Sakura-chan that I'd bring Sasuke back, and I promised myself I'd save him from Orochimaru...and what he's become."
Sai lowered his hands from the warning gesture he'd been trying to make and Yamato's face returned slowly from its inhuman cast. "A promise, huh?" he said after a moment. "Well, truth be told, I promised the Hokage I'd act in Kakashi's stead, and if he would have trained you, I guess I can do no less."
Hardly able to believe his luck, Naruto let out a loud whoop and jumped around on the spot. He was glad he hadn't mentioned the fact that Kakashi probably would have refused his request. He was a step closer to coming good on his promise, and he didn't need a stumbling block here. Besides, neglecting to mention something wasn't really a lie. Was it?
- - -
They faced each other across the training grounds, Naruto still finding it difficult to contain his excitement. Yamato had actually agreed to his request! The ANBU was looking him up and down and Sai seemed to find this terribly amusing, since his charcoal flew across the paper while he watched Yamato like a hawk.
Catching Naruto's eye, the dark-haired boy lifted a hand. "I won't interfere, I'm just doing research."
Naruto nodded and secured his forehead protector. "No, that's okay. Every hero needs a history and you can illustrate my rise to strength and glory. When I'm Hokage, we can make all the kids at the academy read Uzumaki Naruto's Tale of -" He was cut off abruptly by something hitting his stomach, knocking him to the ground and effectively winding him.
"Oi!" he wheezed from the dirt, scowling at Yamato's bunshin.
The wood-clone shrugged at him as if to say you asked for it, and as Naruto was inclined to agree, he refrained from further comment. He sprung to his feet and then lowered himself into a defensive crouch.
"The first thing we need to work on," said Yamato, walking over to join his double, "is raising your awareness of the things around you. There's no point in having all the power in the world if you can't use at least some of it to ensure you know what's happening in your surrounds."
The clone nodded, taking up the lecture. "Fundamental to that awareness is the speed required to act upon it. You requested this training so that you can bring Sasuke back from Sound. Hopefully you realise by now that he chose to join Orochimaru of his own will, so you'll need to overpower and subdue him in order to return him to Konoha. Do you also know what his return will mean?"
Yeah, he did. He'd thought about it a lot during those two-and-a-bit years away, and he'd thought about it some more after returning to Konoha, seeing all those familiar faces and places again. Standing on the roof of the bakery, catching up with Kakashi, speaking to Sakura and seeing how much they'd all grown and changed... He'd had to realise that even if - no, when - they managed to get Sasuke and drag him back, it would be impossible for him to just slip back into the team. It wouldn't be like it was before - if he had to be a realist (and he hated being a realist) he had to admit things could never go back to how they were then. Sasuke had cast them aside to chase the blood-soaked shadow of his brother, and if they managed to bring him back before he exacted his revenge, it was an absolute given that he'd never forgive them.
Naruto was prepared for that. He'd been prepared for heartbreak from an early age, but he'd strengthened his resolve further one fateful morning, when he'd stuck out his thumb and grinned, promising Sakura he'd bring Sasuke back even if it cost him his life. He'd meant it, and still meant it, although on second thought the whole life thing probably wasn't the greatest of ideas. But that was why he needed this training so badly. Sasuke obviously hadn't been idle. He'd gotten much more everything in the time he'd been away. And while Naruto hadn't slacked off either, he needed to learn a whole new way of fighting where he didn't lean on the Kyuubi as a crutch.
"Yeah," he said grimly, answering Yamato's (bunshin's) question. "I know what it means."
Both Yamatos nodded. "Good," said the original, crossing his arms. "And so, the first thing. What did Sasuke acquire, apart from power, in the time he's spent away?"
"Bad fashion sense," replied Naruto promptly.
"I didn't know him before, but that multi-Chidori attack was not in his file," offered Sai in a thoughtful tone.
The wood-clone shook his head. "Not his clothes or technique. An object. In the time he's been gone, he has gained something. A symbol of power, but not power itself."
Sai dropped his brush. "A pe-"
"The sword." Naruto thought back to the fight and Sasuke's words, before they were both inside his mind. At the memory he felt a tingle from deep within and quashed the stirring of the Kyuubi before it could do anything. "He had a sword."
"Yes," Yamato said. "Another Kusanagi, the twin of Orochimaru's. Because of Sasuke's lightning-based chakra, he can control the sword and channel his power into it so that it acts like a conduit and increases his own strength."
Shit. That didn't sound good. "So, ah, you'll teach me an attack that's more powerful than a lightning sword?" Naruto asked hopefully.
"Nope," Yamato replied cheerfully. "I'm going to teach you the next best thing."
The bunshin stepped to the side and slid back into Yamato's body, who waited patiently until the process was finished before speaking. "Have you ever heard the saying that a good defense is the best offense?"
Naruto scrunched up his face and tried to pick the phrase apart. "Huh?"
Sai shook his head from his position over against the tree. "He's not going to teach you an attack, Naruto."
"What?!" But he'd said-
Yamato held up his hand and waited for Naruto to sputter to a stop. "I won't be teaching you an attack now. Later, certainly, we'll sort out what to work on. But before we progress any further you need to learn how to deflect a chakra-weapon's attack."
Oh. Naruto's face cleared. That sounded almost promising. "So you'll teach me a special move to block that weird sword?"
Yamato stretched out an arm between them, gesturing with his chin for Naruto to look down. He did and watched with surprise and amazement as a thin sheet of wood appeared, growing over Yamato's bare forearm. The wood darkened and hardened until it completely covered the skin from elbow to wrist. In seconds it was like Yamato was wearing a kote armguard, except that it had apparently formed from thin air.
"Wow," Naruto breathed, moving close to peer at Yamato's arm. "How did you do that? Are you teaching me now? Will I be able to do that soon?"
Sai ripped off the top sheet of his drawing pad and started sketching madly at the fresh page, no doubt trying to capture the moment in the moment. Or something artistic like that.
Yamato withdrew his arm and tapped both forearms together, the chakra kote making a dull thud as they hit. "Soon," he replied obliquely, watching Naruto's reaction with amusement. "But first, show me how dedicated you are by doing twenty laps around Konoha."
Naruto pumped his fist. "You got it, Taicho!" He threw a glance over at Sai, who was still sketching. "Coming, Lazy?"
The other boy didn't glance up. "If that's an affectionate nickname, Naruto-kun, I'm sure you can do better."
Undaunted, Naruto jogged on the spot. "So? Are you coming?"
Sighing, Sai put down his paper and got to his feet. "I don't really need the workout, but perhaps the challenge will be useful to my growth."
"Challenge?" Naruto echoed, stretching his arm across his chest.
Sai nodded, coming to join him in the middle of the training ground. "Sure. The part where we race and I beat you." Kicking off, he blurred from the ground and disappeared through the trees.
Naruto gaped, watching him leave.
"Awareness and reaction," Yamato reminded him, yawning and moving over to where Sai had left his things.
Aw, crap. "Just giving him a head start." Naruto grinned and sketched a salute before kicking off and chasing his teammate through the forest. "Oi, Sai! Wait for me!"
- - -
Tsunade eyed the gigantic pile of paper on her desk and wondered how many more sheets it would take before the whole thing toppled right over. It was a neat pile, a sturdy one. Probably the best way to get it to fall would be picking a random sheet right out from the middle. Then Shizune would come in to help her clean up, and she'd chastise her for being so careless, and while the tongue-lashing went on, Tsunade would be able to slip out for a bit of relaxation.
The paper was calling her, urging her to touch it. A corner of one piece was even peeking out, tempting her to give it a tug. Almost before she knew it, her hand was reaching out and she was closing the gap between her fingers and the pile, and she was nearly there, it was almost in her grasp--
Only a whisper from the pile and she was thwarted by a knock at the door. Ah well, Shizune was probably wise to the paper-trick, anyway. "Come in," she called, sitting back in the chair and arranging her arms under her bosom. She pasted a frown on her face and hoped it looked like she'd been interrupted. (She had been, of course, just not in the way she probably should have been).
The handle turned and the door opened, and she was surprised to find it was her young apprentice who made her way inside. She hadn't spoken to Sakura since she'd sent them off to intercept the Akatsuki spy. It hadn't been certain that they'd meet up with Sasuke, but it had been probable, and she'd been interested in what the girl's reaction would be. She'd wanted to see if Sakura had managed to outgrow the crush that had brought her here two years ago. The ANBU, Yamato, had given her a brief rundown of everyone's responses , including Sasuke's, but he'd also given her his own insight into what the remaining members of Team Seven felt. The Sakura who'd just walked in to her office was vastly different from the pale-faced girl who'd approached her the first time. She was dry-eyed now as she had been then, but she wasn't trembling at all. There was still determination hardening her face, but it was a hot determination now, fueled by anger rather than pain.
"Tsunade-sama," the girl said respectfully, coming to a stop near the wide desk and bowing her head.
Tsunade leaned forward, intrigued by this unexpected meeting. "Sakura, what brings you here today?" She was playing it politely because any distraction from the Rice country's petty infighting or the Grass country's approaching inflation was music to her ears. The longer she could put off doing the paperwork, the happier she'd be.
Sakura put her hands on the desk in a confident gesture Tsunade couldn't remember ever having seen from her. "I've come to ask for further training," she said clearly, not beating around the bush. It was still a case of déjà vu; they'd been in this position once before. But Tsunade wasn't certain what had prompted this one. It didn't seem quite as obvious as the first time around. She had an idea, certainly, but nothing definite.
She decided to weasel out Sakura's motivation.
"I'm sorry, Sakura," she said, slipping in a note of regret. "As far as chakra-strength goes, I've already taught you everything I know. Any further improvements can only come from you applying yourself to training and repetition."
The girl's face fell and her confidence cracked. Tsunade felt a momentary stab of pity for this younger version of herself. "I just... I just want to help him," she said quietly, not really looking anywhere.
Tsunade frowned. She was still caught up in the Uchiha? She'd been certain Sakura had moved on, from what the ANBU captain had said. Yamato had given her a complete report and since Tsunade had always had a low regard for Sasuke, the rundown had done nothing to improve it. "Sasuke?" she asked sharply.
Sakura raised her head in surprise. "Huh? Well, yes, of course, but I meant Naruto. I promised him we'd do this together, and I can't back down on that because I'm weak."
Aha! Tsunade's irritation took on a hint of interest. This was more like it. "I see. You want to help Naruto."
Sakura nodded, her brow creased with determination again. "I know I've said this before, but I don't want to be weak."
"I don't think anyone's calling you weak," the Hokage replied dryly. The girl could level buildings with a single blow; no one would dare contest her physical strength. By the same token, however, Tsunade knew exactly what she meant. All the force and power in the world couldn't compensate for working with teammates and achieving a common goal. "But very well." She leaned forward and rested her elbows on the desk, supporting her chin with one hand. "There is one more thing I can pass down to you."
Sakura's face lit up. "Really?"
Tsunade nodded. "Yes. I left this until last because I never wanted it to be a crutch for you. I wanted you to learn and control your own strength first. But you're ready now, and something extra will only help you in this," foolhardy, she thought, "quest of yours."
Sakura blinked rapidly, waiting, drinking in every word. Tsunade waited a moment, because if there was something she liked, apart from gambling and drinking and tormenting Shizune, it was delivering things with aplomb. And then she said, with a trace of satisfaction, "Yes. The last thing I can pass down to you. The scroll and the skill of the Kuchiyose no Jutsu."
Shouten no Jutsu: Shapeshifting technique. That thing where they
thought they were fighting Itachi but it was actually a Sand nin "wearing" his
Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Summoning technique. Naruto does it with toads and Tsunade has the slug thing happening.
kote: wristguards. I think. I googled it and that was the closest match I could find.
Thanks to DS as always, and Nushi for helping me out.