I: Dropping Petals
"It's a harsh world we live in, Sakura, and there's no escaping it."
Clear, deep jade eyes glanced up in concern from their work as the Godaime Hokage of Konoha sipped a cup of tea, her hazel orbs darting over a particularly troubling paper. "Tsunade-shishou? What d'you mean by that?"
The blonde woman bit her red-painted lips, a rare gesture of anxiety, as she set the paper down with a smooth flick sound, crimson nails tapping rather dully on the wood of her desk. "Nothing. I'm tired, that's all."
Haruno Sakura brushed a strand of rosy-pink hair out of her eyes before turning fully around to face her mentor, leaning against her own, smaller desk, installed a couple years ago when she had left Tsunade's tutorship and became her official assistant, a kunoichi powerful enough to equal the Hokage. A moment of pride that had echoed in her cheerful voice for months afterwards. But when she spoke this time, her voice was carefully coated in quiet alarm at the busty woman's morbid words. "You've been reading a lot of those papers," she said in a soft voice, "and I know how much you hate them. You should take a break."
"Nonsense, Sakura. You're my assistant, not my mother. I'm the Hokage, and these papers must be read only by me. Get back to work on that mission report." All business once again, Tsunade waved her hand in a show of airiness at the only kunoichi of the Haruno clan, picking up the thick pile of stapled paper once again and setting back into it with a sigh.
Frowning, Sakura did as asked, sliding her lithe, muscled body into her red chair without a word of protest. But beneath her large forehead, her brain worked avidly. She had never thought of her teacher as an elderly lady, really-- that anti-aging jutsu, after all, worked wonders on Tsunade's still-thirty-five appearance. But for the first time, Sakura was struck with a blinding, terrifying realization: Tsunade was getting old. She was one of the two Legendary Three Sannin still alive, and that meant that she was most likely around seventy-or-so years old. That was a long lifespan for a shinobi, especially one whose Creation: Rebirth jutsu used up a little bit of life's energy every time it was used.
Tsunade's face was becoming creased with more than just lines of laughter; her beautiful, thick blonde hair was streaked with lightest gray and thinning just a bit at the hairline. Her reflexes, also, were not what they had once been-- yesterday, Sakura had been able to land a kick in a rather obvious spot even Naruto, one of the clumsiest ninja, would have been capable to leap away from. And… what was this?
"Shishou!" Sakura's voice held extreme shock as she stood up, glancing into the older woman's small cup. The liquid inside was a misty green, not the usual transparency it always held. "You're not drinking sake! This is green tea!"
Tsunade snapped the cup from under Sakura's nose, taking a huffy gulp and setting it down hard, sloshing the remainder over her desk and nearly cracking the cup. "So, what? Shizune's finally convinced me to drink a little less. I'm still on grouch-mode from withdrawal, so if you'll only get back to your work, Sakura, I'll try not to blow up on you."
"I'm finished," Sakura interrupted, slapping the crisp papers down on her former tutor's desk, "but that doesn't answer my question."
"I don't recall you asking one," Tsunade retorted, never missing a beat as she grabbed the paper-clipped pages and slid them into a folder, tucking them safely into a locked drawer.
"So I'll ask it now," Sakura replied determinedly. "What's wrong with you?"
"Tsunade-shishou, it's something," the pink-haired eighteen-year-old persisted voice stern, slamming her fist on the desk, "and I think you should tell me what. First you scare me out of my skin with that morbid statement, all doom and gloom and 'it's a harsh world', then you suddenly decide to actually listen to Shizune? You never listen to her! Something must be wrong!"
For a long moment, Sakura thought Tsunade was going to hit her. But the Godaime stood slowly, stretching and popping her back with the expertise of a medic-nin. "Sakura," she answered, taking her time, "I am getting old."
Even though she had thought this only moments before, Sakura was so shocked at the words actually coming from her sensei's mouth that she nearly fell back. "What?"
"I'm sure you've noticed. My jutsu is not what it was. I no longer have the amazing stores of chakra I used to. My reflexes are down, I'm beginning to look more my age." She shook her head, long pigtails barely moving from their spots on each breast. "I've shortened my lifespan considerably by using the Creation: Rebirth, and teaching a firebrand like you hasn't helped much, either." She smiled at her student wryly, walking away from the cluttered desks and to the giant glass windows, looking over the broad, cheery expanse of her Hidden Village. "It's about time for me to think of a successor, and, frankly, the whole subject of me getting old is quite frightening. Imagine: me, Godaime Hokage, a Legendary Sannin, the Slug Queen. I'm afraid of getting a few gray hairs."
Sakura chuckled dryly with her, but she knew without even searching her mind that Tsunade was troubled by more than 'a few gray hairs'.
"But," the blonde woman continued, "I haven't failed. The Three Sannin have all been reborn in you, Naruto, and the Uchiha disaster. You have surpassed me. I've kept this village safe and prosperous through all manners of enemies and surprises. I have a few ideas for a successor." Tsunade turned back to Sakura, her hands clasped behind her. "However, there are some troubling reports from Gaara that have left me at a loss on what to do. I'm worried."
"Tsunade-shishou, you know I'll help in any way I can," Sakura supplied timidly, rather upset at the turn the conversation had taken. Her shishou, her tutor… talking about dying? Leaving a successor? Where was the powerful, ambitious woman she saw every day before this one?
"Then you can help me share the burden." Tsunade handed her a small scroll directly from Suna, recognizable by the kind of paper they used. Sakura unrolled it and recognized at once the redheaded Kazekage's handwriting, all hurried strokes and irritated jabs.
Sakura read through it once, then twice, and then finally three times, eyes widening a bit after each one.
Konoha Hokage, Tsunade--
I realize that this is a very impromptu notice on my part, but I feel I must warn you of some dangers that may concern you and your village-- namely, the shinobi Uzumaki Naruto and Haruno Sakura, both, I believe, ANBU jounin, and both, I believe with most confidence, close to you. This may very well be a personal matter to both of us, as I share a connection with these two as well-- it is with a heavy heart I report this to you.
I was called out the other day when Temari, my elder sister, found two of our chuunin, reported missing, dead by the outskirts of Suna. One, the male, had six lines carved in his face, his hair dyed blonde, and with several rather vicious sword-slashes through the heart; and the other, a female, pink-dyed hair and carved-out genitals; I am afraid this is a rather ghastly interpretation of Naruto and Sakura-san, portrayed as a warning in the worst way.
Attached to the female was an old picture of you, most likely torn from a bingo book, with a rather crude drawing of a knife above the head. Again, a rather disturbing warning.
I am not sure who these horrible messages came from (we are investigating as I write this) and why, but I felt you must know of these atrocities at once. I advise you as an ally and as a companion to the two younger shinobi to put them on their guard (maybe convince some of their ANBU Black Ops friends to have a careful eye on them), and to be most careful with whom you correspond.
We will update you immediately if anything else comes up-
Suna Kazekage, Gaara
It was an age-old rule: shinobi do not display emotion. And yet Sakura felt her strong wall of resolve crumbling ever so slightly at the top. "My goodness," she whispered in an exhale, biting her bottom lip rather savagely-- so much, in fact, that she tasted the coppery tang of blood in her mouth soon after. "Who'd do something like this? It's… it's… it's barbaric."
"To put it lightly," Tsunade agreed, taking the scroll from her former student's hands. "The problem is: what to do about it? A sick joke or not, two chuunin were murdered. This makes the criminal or group of criminals chuunin-level or higher, most likely the latter, with no remorse and a strong enough stomach to cut out a female ninja's genitals… they no doubt assaulted her, too, if they're the caliber I'm making them out to be." For a moment, the Hokage seemed lost in thought, until she turned with a snap to face Sakura. "I want you to be extra careful, Sakura. Don't take this as a drill."
Sakura was aghast. "I'd never, Tsunade-shishou! Two innocents were murdered… I mean, this is a serious case."
The blonde woman nodded, sighing in thought. "Sakura, may I ask you your advice?"
The Haruno girl was completely taken aback. To have the Hokage ask her advice? What a changed person she is today. "Of course… although I can't promise it'll be good."
"I'm sure it will be the best you can offer," Tsunade said warmly, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Now, I have a question for you: who do you think would be best as the next Hokage?"
Catching sight of Sakura's shocked expression, Tsunade chuckled. "Don't worry, I'm not liable to keel over just yet. But I'd like to know your opinion. You know practically everyone in the village-- you're more popular than you'd realize. What shinobi would you list as possible candidates as Rokudaime?"
"Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said automatically, a small smile spreading over her features. "Most definitely Kakashi-sensei. And, you know, I'd say Asuma-sensei, as well, if only…"
"It's in the past now," Tsunade interrupted softly. "Keep going."
"Hmm. Kurenai-sensei and Gai-sensei are wonderful, but I'm not sure if they'd be quite Hokage-level material. Plus, the image of Gai-sensei ruling Konoha is a bit frightening." They both shared a nervous laugh, trying to lighten the mood. "Shizune… she's too nervous. Jiraiya's a great candidate, but I don't think he'd want it. And most of the other jounin wouldn't do the job quite as well as it should be done, I think, except maybe Neji-san or Yamato-senpai. And…" But Sakura broke off, flustered, and would not continue; her hand was at her mouth, as if trying to hold back what she obviously wanted desperately to say.
"And?" her mentor prompted.
"Naruto," Sakura blurted, a grin quickly catching fire on her face. "I know it's ridiculous… I mean, he's only nineteen, way too young to become a Hokage… but Tsunade-sama, he's Kage-level material, and it's been his dream since he was small, very small. Before I'd even met him, probably. It would fulfill his lifetime dream."
Tsunade smiled very small, as if trying to keep her cheer from showing. "Yes," she said, inclining her head in agreement, "I know. But he is, as you said, very young. Too young, most would think, to rule Konoha."
"Maybe young and headstrong, yeah," Sakura said quietly, "but he's got the spirit of any Hokage, don't you think?"
"Yes, very much so. Sakura?"
"You never mentioned yourself."
Sakura was clearly shocked; she backed into her desk, almost falling over. Collecting herself as best she could, the pink-haired woman stood quickly, blushing and stuttering like Hyuuga Hinata. "Why would I mention myself, shishou? I'm hardly Kage-level at all!"
Tsunade laughed, a loud and boisterous laugh that slipped a bit of ease into Sakura's heart. This was the Tsunade she remembered. "Goodness, Sakura! You, not Kage-level? You've surpassed me. Doesn't that make you even better than a Kage?"
Sakura mumbled incoherently. "I… I'm not nearly at the level Naruto is!" she protested.
The Godaime laughed some more and led the younger woman from the room, the two of them setting down the staircase together. "You've mastered summoning slugs and minor creatures; you've killed an Akatsuki member; you've developed a couple of your own jutsu; you have better chakra control than even I do now; your medical jutsu is superb, the best I've ever seen; your genjutsu is at Kurenai's level, or even beyond. You're a better kunoichi than I ever was at your age, there's no doubt to it. You'd be a perfect candidate."
"I'd rather not, Tsunade-shishou," Sakura protested softly, a light blush skirting her cheeks from the high praise.
As they approached the glass doors leading outside, Tsunade frowned lightly. "Why not? Being Hokage is an honor very few ever receive."
"I would rather lose all my honor," Sakura said gravely, "than deny Naruto the chance at Hokage."
Tsunade stopped short, staring at her. "Why's that?"
Sakura bit her lip again, sharp pain echoing through her skull. She quickly let go and started to speak, haltingly, choosing her words. "Naruto's my… well, he's my best friend. Maybe even more so than Ino. And… well… life is short as a shinobi, especially, I'd think, as a jinchuuriki, with the Akatsuki forever hunting you. You never know which mission will be your last. And me… well, I can live with not being Hokage. It's not my life's dream. But it is Naruto's, since almost forever. And I can't be the one to take it away from him… it's too cruel." She turned to her once-teacher, sticking out her tongue in a spectacular display of immaturity. "And besides, after seeing you age so much, I'm not sure I'd want the job, anyway."
"Why, you little-!" As Sakura ran off, laughing and calling that she had more important things to do than talk to grumpy, suicidal old ladies, Tsunade had to fight down a smile and paste the proper mask of anger and irritation to keep it from spreading over her face.
The next generation, indeed.
Sakura downed the remnants of her glass in one fell swoop, the sake warming her blood, tightening her muscles. But throughout the feeling of satisfied contentment, one troubling thought remained: those two murdered chuunin. In the likeness of both Naruto and myself… and the knife with the picture of Tsunade-shishou. It may be a sick joke, like she said… but what if someone's really trying to get at us? What if it's a lure, a trap? Sakura, an expert on traps of any kind, exhaled slowly, trying to regain her bearings. Maybe drinking sake and thinking deeply didn't go too well together. But another thing: who could it be? It seems kind of grotesquely juvenile, sending warnings that way… but, then, who could do it? The Akatsuki must still be after Naruto, and they can't love me too much either, after Sasori of the Red Sand. Orochimaru is down for the count, and nobody has any idea where Sasuke is, so…
There was no one.
Sighing irritably, Sakura ordered another sake, tugging on a stubborn lock of pink hair that never seemed to stay in place, and turned around in her seat by the bar, sea-foam eyes sweeping over the contents of the small area. This place was her favorite bar to drink alone… nobody she knew ever came here. There was nobody to come up and hail her drunkenly, no inebriated Genma to flirt with her, no raucously loud Ino and Chouji, her newest and longest-lasting partner… just a bar with a couple ex-shinobi or civilians, an older chuunin couple she didn't know by name, and Hyuuga Neji entering through the front door.
Sakura frowned as the bartender returned with her sake, watching the elite ANBU jounin come through the door, jacket hanging limply from his shoulders. As he approached the counter, she turned quickly so he didn't see her staring at him. But her brow deepened in the middle in puzzlement as the Hyuuga prodigy came up to the seat next to her at sat casually, ordering a scotch. Did geniuses go to bars? And if they did, why did Neji come here by himself?
"Haruno," his voice interrupted her train of thought as he nodded to her in greeting.
"Neji-san," she acknowledged him with a nod of her own, sipping her drink thoughtfully. "What brings you here?" It was out before she could stop it, but she felt herself almost desperate for a normal conversation after Tsunade's earlier that day. "You're usually with your team at Tsuki's, aren't you?" she questioned, naming the popular bar most shinobi went at night.
"Hai," he answered, giving a grateful nod to the bartender that returned with his scotch, "but Lee and TenTen were getting… ah… close, and three is a crowd."
Sakura giggled. "But two's company," she said, lifting her glass. "Cheers to us loners."
With a dry half-smirk, he clinked glasses with her, sipping his drink leisurely. "Were you on a mission today?" he asked her without really thinking, leaning back in his chair. "You're usually at Ichiraku with Uzumaki when I pass by at lunchtime, but Hinata was with him this time."
She smiled. "Aa, I told her to go instead of me. I didn't have a mission, but Tsunade-shishou kept me in the office for a while. She was in an odd mood today, actually. It was kind of creepy."
"Creepy?" the elder man asked, turning to her with a slim brown eyebrow raised. "How so?"
She turned to him as well, taking in the full sight of him: Hyuuga symbol on the shoulders of a cream-colored, long-sleeved jacket that was open to reveal a black mesh shirt. Black pants covered in pockets, tied neatly with a belt with numerous scroll pockets. His traditional ANBU black vest was hanging limply off his shoulders, as well, and his hair wasn't tied, although it was rather messily slipping down his back. "She kept talking about death, and she asked me for candidates for the next Hokage. Also-" Sakura stopped, biting her lips. The information about the murdered Suna chuunin was confidential, and she was not authorized to reveal it. "There's been some trouble in Suna that's rather disturbing. I'm afraid I can't tell you more."
He nodded in agreement. "Who did you list for Rokudaime candidates?"
"Kakashi-sensei, Naruto, Jiraiya," she listed slowly, ticking each off on her fingers. "Yamato-senpai and yourself could also be good candidates."
"I don't to be Hokage," Neji said simply, shaking his head, "so that leaves Kakashi, Naruto, Jiraiya, and Yamato."
Sakura was silent for a moment. "Y'know, I really want Naruto to be Hokage, Neji-san. I'm not quite sure why, but it seems right somehow."
Neji nodded. "I don't know why, either, but it seems that way to me, as well. Probably to anyone that's ever fought him before. But I can't explain it."
Sakura mock-gasped in surprise, a hand fluttering at her mouth. "Almighty Hyuuga-sama doesn't know something! This could be a true sign of the apocalypse; quick, give me a scroll so I can mark it down."
He handed her a cocktail napkin sarcastically. "Will this do?"
"Good enough." And true to her word, she pulled a pen from the pocket of her black vest and scribbled with loopy handwriting on the paper: November 17: Hyuuga Neji didn't have an answer for something! Stop the presses! Smirking, she handed him the napkin back. "Souvenir."
"Mm, thanks." He rolled lavender-tinted eyes at her and put the napkin down, taking another sip of his drink. At the relaxed pause in conversation, he stole a glance at her. Sakura had gone back to a red dress, although this one was styled like the shirt she'd worn at fifteen, going down to mid-thigh and fading in color on the way down. Slits in the dress showed chunky black shorts, and over it was her own black vest. The Haruno clan symbol was bold in the center of her chest, and a white belt was slung low on her hips, various pouches of what he guessed to be medical equipment attached carefully. She had kept her white elbow braces and black gloves, the latter currently hanging from her belt, but had added a kunai holster at her right thigh and had traded in her black boots for regulation ninja sandals. On missions, he knew, she would have her ANBU katana slung carelessly behind her. She had a diamond much like the Hokage's in the center of her ANBU tattoo, and her hair was as cropped as ever. "What are you doing here? You're usually more social than this." Why he was asking, he had no idea, but the pause in conversation had begun to get uncomfortable.
She shrugged one shoulder lazily, finishing her sake. "Like I said, I was a bit disconcerted from Tsunade-shishou's talk earlier today. I just kind of wanted to relax, and a noisy bar isn't the best place to do it." She opened one of the pouches at her hip and withdrew some money, putting it down on the counter. "It was nice to talk to you, Neji-san. We should talk more-- outside of missions. You're all businesslike on them, it's hard to get a friendly word in edgewise." She gave him a joking wink.
He nodded, smirking. "Have a good night."
"You, too. Ja." Sakura smiled at him tiredly and exited the bar, stretching her arms above her head luxuriously. It had been nice to talk to Neji… she'd barely exchanged more than the necessity of words with him, and only on missions. Before Sasuke had left, she'd regarded him as little more than another icy-cold, pompous clan genius. After his team had gone with hers to help Gaara, she'd realized he was much more open than before, and they started exchanging polite hellos in the street. Now, he still wasn't totally different. Still a man of few words (or so it seemed), with dry humor and a sharp wit. Still gorgeous (Hey, I can admit it!) as anything… actually, Inner Sakura had had something like a field day when he'd stretched his arm to take his drink, his mesh shirt opening somewhat to reveal toned muscles.
Sakura groaned to herself as she strolled the moonlit streets, reminding herself that she'd long since sworn off men.
Oh, well. Naruto and Sai have gotten pretty damn gorgeous, and I'm still friends with them without drooling. I can be the same with Neji. It's good to have friends in high places.
…Especially if those friends are drop-dead-
Sakura forcefully pushed away the interjections of her inner self and walked briskly up the steps of the townhouse she shared with Naruto and Sai, willing herself to be quiet. Shivering as she pulled out her key, Sakura rubbed her arms for warmth. It's getting colder, she thought absently, inserting the key into the lock and pushing the door open, instinctively ducking as the homemade traps they'd put it caused a kunai to go flying out the front door and into the small patch of green they used as a lawn, joining about fifteen others.
Sai is cleaning that up tomorrow morning, she thought irritably, closing the door with her foot and relocking it. I pity Naruto the time he comes in drunk and forgets there's a trap.
Willing herself to be quiet, Sakura shed her vest and shoes and tiptoed upstairs to her room, smiling habitually at the freakishly loud snores coming from Naruto's. She kept her door open somewhat (Naruto's snores were actually kind of comforting on lonely nights) and changed into short pajama shorts and one of Sai's old T-shirts, large enough to go almost to her knees.
Sakura brushed her teeth and hair and washed her face, routinely putting her short hair in a ponytail before creeping into her bed and hugging the pillows to her face. For some reason, even with Sai's shirt wrapped comfortably around her petite form and Naruto's deafening snores resounding in her brain, Sakura felt lonely.
And she had no idea why.
After several hours' failed attempts at sleep, after tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling with dead eyes, Sakura got out of the bed, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. The whole day had been disconcerting-- Tsunade's strange talk about death and the next Hokage, the two chuunin made to look like her and Naruto and murdered in the most horrible, stomach-churning ways, and then talking to Neji. She wasn't sure why speaking to the Hyuuga prodigy had added to that, but for whatever reason, talking to him made her slightly sad. I can't sleep like this, she decided mentally, her thoughts weary. For some strange, hateful reason, she felt like crying. Not alone.
Sakura sniffed heartily and exited her room. Not feeling like she could take Naruto's snoring so close, she crept into Sai's room, sliding into the bed with him, willing him not to wake up.
But Sai stirred next to her, sitting up, turning on a dim light groggily. "Ugly?"
"Not now, Sai, please," she whispered, her back to him.
Sai was silent, but he turned off the light again and slid back under the bedcovers. He caught her around the waist and pulled her to him, comprehending human nature enough, for once, to just let her rest against his body and share his warmth. For some reason, he found himself rubbing her back to help her sleep, like a child.
Sakura smiled slightly and relaxed her muscles, thanking whoever or whatever she could for two great brothers, backrubs, and the warmth next to her that kept her, for a little while, from being lonely all alone.
Author's Note: Mmmph... another NejiSaku. I was hoping to get out of that particular rut, but so sue me... it's addicting. However, I feel really excited about this one. I promise I'll finish it, too... visit my profile for details concerning Paper Stars and Contingency, both discontinued and deleted. My apologies. But in any case, I'm coming back to you with a somewhat edited writing style, a whole trunkful of new ideas, and a lot of happiness, so hopefully you won't totally kill me for deleting those two.
Basically, I'm trying to clean up my writing...
Anyway, I know this chapter is relatively short-- it's acting somewhat like a prologue without actually being called a prolouge.
The blue button down there loves you, as do I: constructive criticism and flattering (?) reviews make my day.
Hope you liked the first chapter of Nascence.