Author's Note: Hello, all! I'm terribly sorry to have kept you waiting. Things have been a little crazy, trying to graduate university and all. I hope a barely dark nine page chapter can help smooth things over. And I am already working on the next installment, so hopefully it won't take as long.
Thank you to everyone who has favorited, alerted, and reviewed this story. And also to those who have PMed me. All the feedback and encouragement has really helped me out.
Disclaimer: Not mine. And I have no money.
Symbols of Femininity
In Which Abduction Happens
Sakura couldn't sleep. Actually, she didn't know why she was trying. It would just be much easier for everyone if she took a full watch for the night. Then the boys could sleep all night through, and she might have a presentable reason for being grouchy in the morning.
Snorting in thought, Sakura shifted from her back to her left side. This brought her face close to Naruto's. As though sensing her movement, the blond licked his lips in his sleep. Rolling her eyes, she couldn't stop the soft smile from running across her face.
This trip of theirs had been his idea a little while back and they only recently had time "to redefine team dynamics", as was the reason he gave Tsunade. Of course she had rolled her eyes and given a long sigh. But she had also smiled as the four left her office. She understood.
Of course, Sakura's excitement at being with her original team slipped after that first night in one tent. She didn't know everything that happened while they were fractured but she sure learned new quirks fast. And it had been some time since she had spent a night with them, so the medic wasn't sure what she was expecting.
It wasn't quite this.
All three of them snored as some point during their sleep cycle. It would start with Naruto who snored loudly and obnoxiously. Somehow it had a happy sound to it, of course, and sprawled out on his back, mouth gaping open, the throaty chortle sounding snore suited the young man to a T.
Kakashi was next. His was a start and stop pattern. It seemed as though he was alert enough for his own snore to wake him but lazy enough that he didn't care to bother waking all the way. He slept at the feet of his team, before the tent flap, protecting them he said. His younger colleagues believed it was so he could make a quick escape should they try to see his face.
Finally, Sasuke would round out the night. His was the softest, as though making any noise while so vulnerable was detestable. And he only snored when he slept on his back. He didn't sprawl like Naruto. He just had this annoying habit with his legs. Sakura, who always slept in the middle of the group, was now used to waking up in the night (when she was lucky enough to fall asleep) to find the Uchiha's legs migrating to her sleeping bag. However, this was something he had done even in the days of Genin Team 7 and it was no longer a big deal to find he'd hooked an ankle around her own in his sleep.
Smiling, Sakura recalled the first time she'd tried to explain to her boys that their nocturnal noises kept her awake.
Naruto had outright denied any snoring whatsoever. Of course when Sasuke rolled his eyes in disbelief, the two had gone fist-to-fist.
Kakashi had been more understanding. Apparently, she wasn't the first female to ever mention it to him. He'd said that if it got to bother her, merely put a pillow in his arms for him to cuddle up to.
Sasuke's reaction had been priceless to her. When she explained he was keeping her awake, his eyes had widened minutely and he looked very startled (for Sasuke). She'd been happy with this reaction because at 17 he'd become almost emotionless.
But they had never seemed to grasp that being awake all night left her exhausted. They still wanted her up, awake, and training with them.
This brought her to her current situation. In a rare event of full cooperation, the three men around her had coincided their sleep cycles and now were snoring all at once. It might have driven her up the wall on most nights, but tonight she was feeling benevolent. The noise merely brought a smile to her face for a moment before she gave up and began to get up. This would be a fine time for a long bath in the stream they found yesterday.
Naruto yawned and scratched his head as he came awake. These training trips were the best. They had to be the greatest idea he'd ever had.
Things had been different when first Sasuke rejoined them. It seemed as though the Uchiha avoided everyone in creation, even after his punishment began to lighten, and Kakashi felt guilty and responsible for his students. It was Sakura that worried Naruto though. She had immediately withdrawn from them all and thrown herself into her medic-nin work. They all knew she was trying to avoid uncomfortable situations with Sasuke. She was also trying to spare Naruto and Kakashi having to explain things to her more than once. When they all trained together she just couldn't concentrate if the Uchiha was nearby. Sasuke ignored there was anything wrong, until Sakura stopped coming to training.
The first couple of times she had sent word through Ino that she couldn't get away from the hospital and things were okay. Then she stopped sending word. Kakashi had gone once to see if she was sick. When he came back, his visible eye had shown concern and Naruto knew something had to be done.
That had been some time ago, and while things had improved, they still weren't as good as Naruto wished.
So, he'd gone to Tsunade alone and laid it out for her. He told her of Sakura skipping practice and how the old team was suffering. They wouldn't be able to work nearly as well together if they didn't all practice together. He also spoke personally. He missed his best friend. They'd become close in their search for Sasuke. Yes, he had loved her before, but now it was more than that. He relied on her without reservations, and he was proud to say he was there for her.
The Hokage had called Team 7 together and presented the "mission" to them. With varying degrees of excitement, they each accepted. Now, Naruto couldn't be happier. Sakura didn't run from Sasuke anymore and the dark man didn't act like a walking glacier.
Now, scratching his head and smacking his lips, the blond looked around their tidy little campsite. Kakashi was poking the remains of their fire, his hair dripping from a quick dip in the nearby stream. Sasuke was barely visible on a tree branch, meditating. Sakura was nowhere in sight.
"Morning!" The blonde chirped happily as he crouched next to his backpack and began scouting for breakfast. "Sakura-chan at the stream?" He pulled out a piece of bacon of indeterminate age and sniffed it skeptically. Tossing it he looked for a granola bar he knew should be in his pack. When his question went unanswered for awhile, Naruto looked up curiously. "Guys?" The other two were staring at him. "Where's Sakura-chan?"
Kakashi coughed and said, "We thought you knew where she was. There was a note…" He began digging in his pouch.
Sasuke jumped down from his perch, landing softly. "So you didn't wake up earlier and go back to sleep?"
Rising to his feet, Naruto's face hardened. "Where is Sakura?"
A note appeared in front of his face.
I woke up early with Naruto. He's fallen back asleep and I'm not ready to train yet so I'm going for a walk. Be back later!
It seemed even the birds were quiet as Naruto read the note. After a moment, his hands clenched and tore the paper. "She didn't leave this."
Kakashi nodded. "That's what I thought. I didn't think she would sign something as Sakura-chan. And she has definitely stopped skipping practice."
"That and," Sasuke paused, "Naruto never wakes up early."
Naruto couldn't hear them. His blood was boiling. Sakura was missing. His teammate. His best friend. His Sakura. Someone would pay for this forgery.
Fortunately, Kyuubi was more than willing to help. His presence was roiling, unfolding, and spreading within his young host. Naruto could feel the power filling him and had no choice but to follow his instincts. Raising a fist to his face, Naruto closed his red-tinged eyes and carefully sniffed the shreds of paper in his hands. Kyuubi howled his answer. Naruto darted off without looking to see if the others followed. Instinctually he knew they wouldn't even waste time packing up the campsite. They were two steps behind him, following his lead.
Sakura was theirs. She belonged to the three of them. Whoever took her was going to pay dearly.
Sakura was almost at the end of her tolerance. The pain laced through her body like blazing pins and needles. Her lower back had given up and gone numb half an hour ago. She couldn't feel three fingers on her right hand. There was a pain behind her eyes that warned her she was about to pass out. Add in what felt like a gaping hole in her left side and crying would no longer be enough to find some relief.
Hung from the ceiling by her wrists, her toes were barely brushing the floor. They'd put some kind of gloves on her and not only did it inhibit finger movement, chakra was almost impossible to gather. The torture had also taken most of her clothes, leaving the kunoichi in her chest bindings and training shorts.
A soft shuffle alerted her to a returning presence but she couldn't find the energy to lift her head. If they were going to beat her more she needed to store the healing energy.
"Where are your companions, whore?"
Ah, there was the meaty question. It was the reason why she was here. And it didn't surprise her one bit that it had to do with her team. She was just a distraction from the main event. Everyone always preferred to overlook an unpleasing side dish. Inner Sakura sighed as she once again was shadowed in importance to her star boys.
She ignored the question for too long and a hand shot out and left her with a split lip and ringing ears. Gasping, Sakura glared at the floor. They would get nothing from her.
Her torturer grasped her chin and lifted her head, bringing her green glare to meet harsh dark brown eyes. Pain making her eyesight blurry, she wasn't able to make out much more than his eyes. And if she had the mobility, she would spit on him.
"Silence is not the answer I'm looking for, kunoichi. We already know that you travel regularly with the three men we're looking for." He patted her cheek condescendingly. "We might choose to be nice if you were helpful."
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She felt him lean forward, anticipating her speaking. "Fuck you," she rasped out. "I travel alone."
The man sighed, closed those dark eyes in mock regret, let her go, and moved out of her line of vision. This left her looking at the wall of stone before her. Great place they brought her to. She had managed to see glimpses of a small modest house before her captors dragged her into this stone cellar and hung her from the ceiling. It was cold, damp, and she was certain that mold on the wall was glowing. Then again, it could be the pain in her eyes playing tricks on her.
"Sure you do." When the whip hit her upper back, Sakura couldn't stop the scream that escaped her. "Well. What do you think these men you don't know will do when they come for you and see you like this?"
The thought brought a smile to her face as she pictured their reactions. Another strike of the whip made her grit her teeth. When the shower of salt rained into her wounds, the young woman nearly bit a chunk through her cheek.
"A smile?" He chuckled darkly. "I know the men you travel with, Leaf-girl. Seeing you in such a state will disgust them. They are men of great strength and to have a burden such as you must be a trial for them." He dug the handle of the whip into her spine. Spots appeared before her eyes. "They will leave you alone. They will replace you."
While the thought of her men made torture a little easier, the thought of being replaced brought back a level of insecurity she hadn't felt since Sasuke first returned to them. It was the loneliness that made her scream in agony, not the fall of her chest bindings and the application of senbon to her breasts. Subsequently, she didn't hear the door break down or the shout of animalistic rage. Even though her scream ended and she was left panting, Sakura didn't come back to herself until her bonds were released and she fell to the floor.
Or she would have fallen to the floor if strong arms hadn't caught her and lowered her battered body gently. Blinking her vision clear as much as she could, the medic-nin felt unbound relief as she saw Kakashi above her, a fierce look upon his face.
"Sasuke, don't let the bastard die just yet. We need information. Find some clothes for Sakura instead." There was a grunt, the wet splat of a broken body landing, and the Uchiha's comfortingly familiar light footsteps. "And Sasuke," the footsteps paused, "if you happen to find where Naruto ran off to, drag his ass down here before he does something irreparable."
The answering "Hn" that drifted back held so much anger Sakura shivered. That slight movement brought Kakashi's gaze down to her. He still looked fierce, especially with his sharingan exposed. But the fear that had gripped her before was gone now. The boys were here. They would watch over her until she got enough chakra back to heal herself.
The last thing Sakura was aware of before she slipped into a smiling unconsciousness was the feel of the chakra inhibitors being ripped off her wrists and an inflow of comforting green power.
The next time Sakura opened her eyes she was nowhere familiar. The damp rock walls surrounding her were confusing. The smell of a fire close by was not comforting and she couldn't see any of her teammates. Barely thinking about it, she threw out some chakra in a light net pattern around her to sense what she could.
Cloth rustled behind her head and she felt some stress leave her.
"Sakura." The deep voice still had the damning power to make her stomach flutter pleasantly. "If I were an enemy, you'd be dead now." Of course, what the voice said still pierced through her heart.
Rolling her eyes, the medic began testing her body's abilities. Taking stock of her wounds was top priority. "No one but you and Naruto can sense that netting, Sasuke. I've done it countless times before."
It was still a little painful to be around him. Naruto had given the Uchiha full forgiveness, but she and he had never resolved what was between them. Sakura felt a little unnerved by being vulnerable alone with him. Gathering her chakra, she slowly began to sit up.
Immediately, Sasuke was there, hands on her back to support her. He let her go at her own pace merely shifting so she wouldn't fall down and have to start over.
Her right hand didn't feel good at all. When she was fully up, she looked down at it and sighed. All her fingers were in splints. 'Let's fix that.' She would need both hands for the wound in her side. She pulled the wounded hand into her lap and covered it with her left. She felt Sasuke shift beside her, but her concentration was already inside herself.
It took only a second to find that glowing power within. Tsunade had made sure her apprentice could access it under any condition, so reaching for it now was no problem. Once she was filled with it, she directed it to her left hand. Fingers twitching, her hand began to glow as the chakra awaited her nudge to flow into the right.
Sakura felt if she closed her eyes she would see the play of bones, muscles, and tendons against her eyelids. Surely, it was a similar to what the Hyuuga family saw through the Byakugan. But as a medic, she knew the sight and was comfortable with it. It was easy to nudge and mend and strengthen the pieces of her hand until she allowed the chakra to escape her. Smiling, she pulled the splints off her now fully healed hand.
"Sakura." That damn flutter was back. "Are you strong enough to be doing that right now?" His doubt in her brought the accompanying pain to the heart.
She didn't even turn to look at him as a quick brush of her hands healed her left knee. "Of course I am. Now that the chakra inhibitors are off I have all the chakra I was saving." Now her right knee was healed. "Where are Naruto and Kakashi-sensei?"
Since she seemed stable with her legs taking balance, Sasuke moved away to where he'd apparently been cleaning weapons before she awoke. "Naruto had to go calm down. Kakashi went to keep destruction to a minimum."
"Calm down?" Her hands slowed as they reached her wounded left side.
He nodded, examining a kunai for nicks. "He's the one who found you." His dark eyes looked at her piercingly then. "He had to leave almost immediately. Said something about Kyuubi smelling too much of your blood." His mouth tightened in anger. "He shredded the guy torturing you and took off before he hurt us."
Sakura had frozen when he said 'torture'. It seemed to bring back memories of her wounds happening. The pain in her back from the last few digs seemed to flare in resonance. Raising her green eyes, she met his gaze. She knew there was pain in her eyes when his eyebrows lowered. He continued to gaze at her searchingly, his mouth opening to say something.
'What?' What could he say to her after revealing he'd seen her tortured state? Not much could make her feel more vulnerable.
A blond and orange blur came from the front of the cave and pulled her into a tight embrace. While she was happy to see him, it was too much too fast. The pain in her left side pulled a shout from her.
In the next moment, Naruto was pulled off her and pushed away. "Damnit, dobe. Don't be so rough. She can't take it."
She sat there breathing heavily for a moment, listening to her friend's stammering apologies and glaring at the ground. She hated that he couldn't show affection like he wanted to. For so much of his life, people had pushed him away. She had promised herself that she would never push him away again. This included letting others push him away for her. If she looked at the other teammate right now, he would see an almost hatred for him pouring out of her eyes. 'Can't take it? I'll show him.' Sakura seethed.
'Prioritize, girl. You're the apprentice to a Sannin. You were just rescued from being tortured. A squabble with Sasuke is irrelevant right now. But Naruto is hurting needlessly. I'm hurting needlessly. And Kakashi isn't here to mediate. Right.'
After assuring herself that she was still in control, Sakura took a deep breath. Pushing back the pain, she began gathering chakra again. "Naruto," she said softly. His apologies quit immediately. "There's no need to apologize." She smiled at him as he squatted on the ground next to her. "I'm healing as we speak."
Gently, slowly, he stroked his fingers down her shoulder. His blue eyes were dark and she could she could almost hear him yelling at himself. "Really?"
Reaching a glowing hand to his face, she healed some light abrasions on his face. He leaned his cheek into her palm as her chakra threaded with his for a brief moment. "I promise it's okay. You just surprised me."
A snort from across the cave broke their gaze and Naruto stood up. His fingers kept up a light caress of her shoulder even as he smiled cockily at his rival. "Sakura-chan is strong. I told you she'd be fine after a little sleep."
It warmed her heart to have him stand up for her. It used to be annoying when she believed her did it to make her love him. But with a little maturity, she came to appreciate the gesture because it proved he cared for her. She'd needed that desperately when Sasuke left.
With his fingertips keeping contact with her arm he sat beside her, shoulder to shoulder. She appreciated this as well. The more she was going to spend chakra healing all of them, the weaker she was going to feel. Just from the overall feel of things she had the worst injuries and now that she'd healed enough to move around, her left side and back were top priority.
Leaning her head down into Naruto's shoulder, she lifted the hem of her shirt… not her shirt. Fingering the dark fabric and without looking up, she said, "Thank you for the shirt, Sasuke. I'm sorry for getting blood stains on it."
"Hn." His eyes were half closed; his head leaned back, watching his teammates carefully.
Naruto's laugh was careful not to shake her. "That's Uchiha-speak for," he pitched his voice low and lowered his eyebrows, "I was the only one smart enough to bring a spare, and better your blood than the dobe's." He threw a rock at the dark youth and chortled when his rival caught it with no effort.
Still smiling, she lifted his shirt to asses the damage. Looking at the wound, she winced. "Am I on painkillers?"
"Kakashi gave you a strong shot," Sasuke continued watching.
She nodded, "Good." There was a gash six inches long just below her ribs, toward the back. What worried her was that it open and oozing brown pus. The edges of her flesh were charred and the area around the wound was inflamed with fever. A couple centimeters more towards her spine and her kidney would have been punctured. Instant death.
Taking a deep calming breath (she was doing that a lot this hour), she laid her hand over it and pulled the power out again. As her chakra cast a pale glow over the immediate area, she raised frightened eyes to look at the men she loved.
"Not a problem, right, Sakura-chan?" Naruto's tense face belied his real feelings. He knew how serious it was and could have been. He was struggling to keep his tone light. She knew it was for his benefit as much as it was for hers. She wouldn't take that humor away from him.
Puffing up her chest, she threw him a thumbs-up. A toned down version of the "nice guy" pose. Anything said now must be the truth. "I'm the best medic around. This is paltry."
Eyes lightening, the blond threw his legs out in front of him, looking at their quiet friend. "Sasuke was all worried for nothing. He paced outside the whole time Kakashi-sensei looked you over."
The dark haired man scowled as Sakura pretended she wasn't blushing. Naruto really shouldn't push things like that. It might only push Sasuke away instead of pulling him closer.
Trying to distract herself from the snickering Naruto and haughty Uchiha, Sakura concentrated on the feel of chakra racing through her body. It caused a low pitched hum in the back of her mind as it pulled muscles and skin back together.
She did have to stop for a moment when the brown pus dried up and flaked off. It made her queasy to know it came from her and her power weakened for the time it took her to take a deep breathe and close her eyes. She knew both guys noticed and appreciated it when they didn't say anything. The only signs they gave were Naruto leaning into her as he shifted position and Sasuke grunted as he brought her a cup of water. After that, she didn't stop until all that was left was a puckered bit of pink raw flesh. Naruto stroked a finger down it gently with a smile when she took her hands off.
Sakura was just beginning to think about how to heal her back when Kakashi got back. One minute, things were quiet as Naruto hummed some new song, Sakura healed, and Sasuke brooded. The next, their former sensei was squatting across the fire from her, flipping his hand up with a cheerful, "yo".
His team was used to this and no longer badgered him the way they did as children. Sasuke gave no impression that he had noticed the man's appearance while Naruto quit humming to grin cheerfully.
Not missing a beat, Sakura whispered, "Are you late?"
Eye crease in place, the older man shook his head. "Nope, I got here right when I meant to." He came around to her, sitting on her right side, opposite Naruto. He reached into his pouch with one hand while using the other to ruffle her hair. "How's my favorite student?"
Smiling at the joke, she ignored Naruto's indignant squawk. "I've been better, Kakashi-sensei. I was just wondering how to keep my modesty and heal my back at the same time."
He nodded sagely. "I was just considering that myself." They stared at each other, her gaze expectant, and his eye giving nothing away. His eyebrow was in a neutral position and he was totally relaxed. "We can send Naruto and Sasuke out, but I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me helping you."
Before she could agree to that plan, Naruto snorted derisively. "Look at the ol' pervert playing nice."
"Hn. Like you're much better, dobe?" Sasuke opened one eye to look at his bright counterpart.
"Better than you, snake-boy." Naruto stood and shook his left fist, walking to Sasuke and putting his face in front of the other young man's.
Kakashi merely watched as the two boys glared and growled at each other until a rustling drew everyone's attention back to the corner where Sakura was seated.
What they saw was a shadow clone of Sakura in perfect condition, holding a blanket up to block their sight. Behind it, they could see the top of another clone's head as she assisted the original clean her back. The clone with the blanket saw their flabbergasted expressions and grinned, waving a little.
Kakashi smiled behind his mask. Or do that.
"How did they find you, Sakura?"
"I don't know. I got up when I couldn't fall asleep and went to the little river we found before for a quick bath." Her eyebrows scrunched up above her puzzled green eyes. "I remember sitting there, admiring the stars, then… nothing. I think they knocked me unconscious from behind."
"Hmmm." Kakashi was silent for a long time. "I think you should review some basics, Sakura."
"What? Why?!" She had excelled at the basics from the Academy on. And he had never before taken that approach with her. "So I was taken and interrogated. That happens all the time, even to the best shinobi. I don't think that calls for a total reconditioning." She threw her hands into the air. "I didn't tell them anything. And Naruto killed the person I had the most contact with."
Tsunade raised a grim face to look at her apprentice. "Don't sugar-coat it for yourself, Sakura. You were taken captive, tortured, interrogated, and you were unconscious for some of the time you were with them. Who knows what happened while you were out?" She looked away from her surprised student. "I agree with Kakashi on this one. You will spend two weeks at the Academy with Iruka, student-teaching. Hopefully it will help you re-learn that we don't carry anything that could identify us, apart from our hitai-ate. And we certainly don't go anywhere alone." She raised a hand to forestall an argument. "Even to bathe, Sakura. The boys can sit behind the trees or suffer being blindfolded."
Kakashi nodded in agreement. Then, offhandedly, he said, "I'd also like to submit Sakura into the hospital to be given a complete medical look over."
The Hokage raised an eyebrow in question.
Without even a blush, the Jounin said, "I found blood in… sensitive places, when I was cleaning her up after we found her."
Sakura blushed for him.
Tsunade nodded. Then raising her hand dismissively, she said, "Kakashi is free to go. Sakura, go to the hospital and tell them what you need done."
The younger woman nodded vacantly. Kakashi thought there was a chance she'd been… taken advantage of while she was incapacitated. He would not put her through this just to embarrass her.
Both shinobi turned to leave when Tsunade cleared her throat and called to Sakura. Kakashi stopped as well, waiting. When the pinkette looked back, she was horrified to see what the Hokage was dangling from one finger.
Catching the light a little less after their shared trial was the bracelet Lee had given her on their date a short time ago.
"You're reconditioning will include the course on what shinobi carry with them on missions. And what they do not. Until then," she slowly slid it from her fingers into a drawer in her desk, "this will stay with me. You may come back for it when you are ready to be quizzed."
With a quiet, "Hai, Shishou," Sakura gently closed the door behind her.