Book 1: River
Sakura Haruno, captain of ANBU, head of squad 3, balanced on the balls of her feet on a tree branch. She was a good fifty feet from the ground, but she seemed unperturbed. At first glance, it would be hard to recognize this hardened kunoichi from the young, naïve girl she had once been. An ANBU mask shaped like that of a cat's covered her face. Her newly developed curves showed beneath the traditional ANBU outfit, though that was hidden beneath her black cloak and hood. Her sword, standard for all ANBU, hung across her back as usual. The twisting tattoo that all ANBU wore was placed upon her arm. Her leaf headband was engraved with the leaf symbol of Konoha, as was her mask. The only thing that could distinguish her at all would be the small errant lock that had drifted from the recesses of her cloak. Bright pink. Sakura sometimes cursed her hair. It was very distinguishable after all.
She was eighteen now. After Naruto and Jiraiya had left, claiming they would return with Sasuke, Sakura had fallen into depression and denial. She'd stopped hanging around with her friends Ino, Hinata, and Tenten. She'd begun training in her free time, just to get the thoughts of Naruto and Sasuke out of her mind. What could be happening? Were they fighting Orochimaru? What had he done to Sasuke? Had he already taken over his body? She hadn't wanted to think about those things. And so she had trained.
It had paid off as well. She'd risen in ranks quickly. She smiled slightly at the thought of what Naruto and Sasuke would think when they next saw her. Weak little kunoichi my ass. Sakura's jade colored eyes softened and saddened as she let out a small sigh. What if Naruto and Sasuke never came back? She had tried to tell herself that such a thing was possible. Shinobi died on missions all the time. She'd been breaking it to herself slowly over the years; training to become stronger so that perhaps…perhaps when she got the news she would survive. She would be able to continue…not break in two at the thought like she had after Naruto's departure.
"Haruno-san, did I catch you daydreaming?" The slightly sarcastic, mostly monotone voice asked as another ANBU figure landed beside her. Sakura turned with a small smile, though it was lost on the other ANBU from beneath her mask. Long brown locks hung straight and loose down his back. From beneath his monkey shaped ANBU mask, completely white eyes stared at her in amusement. She could almost see his small smirk.
Neji Hyuga was also an ANBU squad leader, of team 2. Like herself and Shikamaru (who was the leader of squad 1) he was one of the most powerful shinobi still in Konoha. It was strange, how two people so opposite could become such close companions. She and Neji had begun a deep friendship after Naruto's departure. He had seen her training and had rudely and gruffly explained all of her faults to her, much to her embarrassment. She'd promptly summoned a slug to land on him (a jutsu she'd learned from her training days with Tsunade) and it had begun. He'd taught her quite a few good jutsus, which hadn't been wasted on her.
His sarcastic teasing was only a sign that he cared, which she learned later on. He always called her by her last name, which was slightly annoying (if not a bit gratifying).
"Did you complete your mission successfully, Neji-san?" Sakura asked.
"Hai. As always." Was Neji's bland retort.
"My, my, a bit cocky aren't we?" Sakura teased. "Perhaps you would like to make a bet on that?"
"Oh?" She could almost sense Neji's smirk as he raised an eyebrow, his eyes narrowing in challenge.
"I bet that you fail your next mission, Neji-san. If I win, you have to ask Yoko-san out on a date." Yoko was a young Jônin from the Sand village that was stationed as an ambassador for the new Kazekage, Gaara. Sakura already knew she had a crush on Neji.
"Very well. But when I win…" Neji trailed of slightly.
"Very." Neji answered confidently. "Then YOU—" He was cut off as an eagle faced ANBU appeared in front of them.
"Tsunade has a mission for you Sakura." Shikamaru grinned as he handed her a scroll. Sakura opened it, reading the lines quickly.
"Hai." Sakura turned to them both. "I have to go assemble my team. I'll see you two in a couple of hours, maybe a day. This shouldn't take long. Oh, and don't forget our bet, Neji-san. Perhaps Shikamaru would like to put on a little wager as well!" Then Sakura bowed to them before disappearing.
"What bet?" Shikamaru asked interestedly.
"Hn." Neji just grunted as he swiftly headed back to Konoha, Shikamaru behind him. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow but said nothing else until they reached the gate of Konoha, "I see."
Neji lifted off his mask as Shikamaru did the same.
"Oh?" Neji's eyes narrowed. Shikamaru just grinned slightly, placing his hands in his pockets as he walked towards the Hokage's office. Neji's eyes did not widen as he watched Shikamaru's back, only narrowed. What on earth had he been thinking? Surely he wouldn't have figured out…? Neji stopped himself as they reached the door. No, that wasn't it. Surely he was just assuming something. Neji tried to make this a confirmation in his mind as they headed down the hallway. That had to have been it.
"Apparently Gaara-dono sent a message to Tsunade-dono a few hours ago. I wasn't there to hear the message, but sent to get you and give Sakura her's. Let's find out, shall we?" Shikamaru grinned as he knocked.
"Come in." Tsunade's voice echoed. Shikamaru cracked open the door and walked inside, a silent and contemplative Neji behind him.