Sakura's Choice

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Nor do I have any carrots. -sigh-

Author's Notes: Well, here we are, already 14,849 words, 36 reviews, 3,041 hits, 6 c2s (whatever that stands for, I have no idea really) 19 favorites and 47 alerts into what I hope to be a fanfiction of epic proportions. If not in fandom, then in length alone. So, I'm going to stop blabbering and give you guys what you want! Another Chapter? Hells no! Reader reviews! ... Okay, okay, I'll throw the chapter on afterwards, stop complaining. Sheese.

Masterkeyes2: I have a feeling I'll be answering your reviews first for a while, if I can keep up the work I've put out so far. But yes! Let's see... To answer question #1: I have a basic idea of where I would like to take this story. I spend most of my day at work thinking up little pieces of plot, minor details and such (trust me, if you did my job, you'd have plenty of spare time to think too). I really should get to writing my ramblings down (on breaks, perhaps?) so that way I can sell them on eBay for millions once I turn this into an actual book... Haha, like that'll ever happen. Second question... That's a big no. Let me pull the egotistical author card and quote myself, from chapter two: 'this story isn't going to be taking the easy way at every sharp turn in the road' I'm not sure how exactly I'll change things, but I know that I want to make this story as original as possible, yet familiar to the fans of Naruto, if you know what I mean. And as for you-know-who... Yeah, I like him too. But, I won't give away any absurd changes I may be making to the plot just yet, you'll have to read and find out for yourself! As someone once said, 'There's more than one way to skin a cat'. Third question... Yes! I introduced it so early for a reason, and I think you'll be pretty happy with how much it comes into play, both during training and on the battlefield. As for your fourth question... I myself hated NarutoxSakura fanfictions that had Sakura trailing behind Sasuke half the damn time, then suddenly 'falling' for Naruto for no good reason. Let me put it the way I see it: Sasuke told Sakura that he was disgusted by her. Sakura had a low self-esteem from the get-go (due to her large forehead/rivalry with Ino) so she took his words a lot harder than most would. Instead of getting depressed/emo, however, Inner Sakura has been influencing her towards Naruto, for reasons unknown. Five: 'n0 ur gai narusaku 4lyf n()()b bsidz sasucke iz 2 c0Ld 2 gt da grl lololz' And yeah, the library in my hometown doesn't let you use your own CDs/floppies, already thought about that, hehe.

Darkide: Thanks for the praise on the original-ness/non-OOC-ness/errorless-ness. Heh, that's a lot of 'ness's. I proofread all of the chapters myself, and I've been told I'm a 'grammar Nazi' before, so I'm glad it shows. I hated stories that had noticeable errors, choppy dialog, badly spelled words (some people just ignore the little red underscores it seems) and all-around idiocy. So, at least I know I'm not what I despise! I hope.

Denim88: Let me first say that your chapter two review made me laugh out loud. We would probably both be surprised at the number of people who honestly thought that, though! And as for your comments regarding Inner Sakura... Trust me, I've had those same thoughts. But, I'll be keeping it T for a good while... Although, someday perhaps, it might progress to the legendary 'M' status (Limited Time Only! Check my profile avatar thingy for a 'potential future' picture based on this fanfiction! -had to change original picture idea due to provocative image rule-). As for his eating habits (or lack thereof) think about it this way: When people get depressed, some often turn to food. Perhaps now that Sakura isn't constantly slapping him around (verbally, physically, mentally, ect.) his diet could be a bit more flexible? That's just my thinking, anyways.

PS: The answer to the trivia question: On the thirteenth of October in 1307, countless members of the Knight's Templar were rounded up by the current Pope, accused of numerous sins against God, then tortured, murdered, and burned at the stake. Some consider it the first, and most violent, 'witch hunt' conducted by the Church. And Rick... I have no idea about 42, heh.

Chapter Four: Just Another Mission

Sakura had a feeling today was going to be a bad day.

It started out as every day had before it, really. Well, every day in the last week, to say. Her alarm clock woke her promptly at 5 AM. By 5:45, her freshly-shampooed hair was nearly dry, and her outfit was ready for the day. A quarter after six, and she was ready for breakfast. Her mother was up by then, and they usually split the chore of preparing a small breakfast, then Sakura's lunch. However, today turned out a little differently.

The time was ten after six. And Sakura was already making her way to the training grounds, without either a breakfast or a pre-packed lunch.

Thanks to her mother, of course.

Ever since Sakura had come home the day of the Bell test, her mother had seemed on edge. Her happy retelling of the test only seemed to worsen Hikari's mood. By the time Sakura had headed upstairs to bed, her mother seemed almost livid, for no apparent reason. It was rather shocking: she had expected her mother to be over-joyed that she was an official kunoichi now, but instead the news had almost the opposite effect on her.

It only got worse over time.

The first few days weren't so bad. Hikari didn't exactly warm up to the idea of her going on missions, ones that eventually would involve combat. Despite reassurances that those missions wouldn't come around for a while, the older woman held her reservations, and even went so far as to hint at discussing the matter with her new 'teacher'. Sakura knew that Kakashi-sensei would have refused any combat-related missions anyways: although they were training daily, most shinobi teams spend months preparing for live combat exercises. The D-rank tasks she had been through so far amounted to nothing more than small chores and physical labor.

The straw that broke the camel's back was their conversation this morning. Sakura had just finished re-checking and packing her kunai when she heard a knock at the door. Without even waiting for an approval, her mother barged in, an oddly determined look sketched into her features.

"Uhm... Is something wrong?" Sakura's senses were instantly sharp: even though life was peaceful for the most part in Konoha, there were still dangers to be encountered.

"Yes. Well, no. You should take that off." She pointed at Sakura's forehead, and the girl immediately frowned.

"That's our forehead she's pointing at, we can't just take it off! Who does she think she is?!" "Uhh... Take what off?"

"Your headband. You won't be needing it." Her mother promptly spun in a half-circle, and started to walk away.

She felt anger bubbling it's way to the surface of her conscious thoughts. Who DOES she think she is! "And why wouldn't I? Sasuke, Naruto-kun and I are meeting Kakashi-sensei this morning. Most shinobi tend to we-"

Hikari shuddered slightly, then cut her daughter off abruptly. "You will not be part of that team. My daughter..."

"Your daughter doesn't mind being on a team with that 'knuckle-headed prankster', I'll have you know." Sakura saw where this was going already. Really, she had brought it upon herself. Every time Naruto had annoyed her in the past, she had sought out her mother's wisdom in how to deal with the blond. If her mother thought she was in a state of distress by being paired with him, then she'd just have to change her mind.

"But, honey... You don't know... I can't tell you why you're in dan-"

She had had enough. "If she can't tell us what it is, then it really must not be that life-threatening, damn it!" "If you can't, then don't bother. I'll see you tonight, mother." Grabbing her kunai holster from the bed, Sakura strode across the room, past her speechless mother, and out of the bedroom. A few moments later, the older woman heard the front door slam shut.

Her daughter didn't know what she did, what every survivor of that night knew. That... boy... was part of her team. The woman couldn't help but shudder again at the thought.

Sakura barely even noticed where her feet were taking her, she was so wrapped up in thoughts about the events that occurred nearly fifteen minutes ago. Coming to an abrupt halt, she couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief: There, to her right, was the path leading to the training grounds.

Another few minutes of walking, and the kunoichi found herself at the familiar memorial. What wasn't so familiar, though, was the number of Naruto's standing off to the side, near the three posts the team found themselves sitting at nearly a week ago. "Whoa... I was looking forward to seeing one Naruto, but not half a dozen. Sort of a strain on the eyes, only in a good way." Setting aside her thoughts for the moment, Sakura merely watched the scene unfolding before her.

Near the three posts, there were indeed half a dozen Naruto's, all seemingly standing at random, facing out into the field. Ten yards away, a single Naruto (the 'real' one, she presumed) was juggling a handful of kunai, apparently eyeing his own Shadow Clones. Sakura's confusion at the situation gave way to alertness as the lone Naruto flung a few of the blades across the field, without warning. She immediately recognized what the basic idea was.

Back in the Academy, they had all been taught the basics of throwing both shuriken and kunai, as well as simple catching exercises. Then, during the second half of the semester, Mizuki-sensei had taught them the intermediate projectile weapon techniques.

The situation unfolding before her was an exact replica of one of the first tests he had given them. Splitting the class into three-person groups, they were all given a handful of blunt practice kunai, a few dulled-down shuriken, and a simple stand-alone target board, nearly a foot in diameter. Two of the students were to stand near the target, and the other was to take ten paces back. The distant student would then try to hit the target. What made things even more difficult were the lack of weapons for the defenders, taking deflection (the easiest means of intercepting an airborne attack) out of the question.

According to their teacher, this was a two-fold lesson, for both the attackers and the defenders. The attacker learns how to hit a target that's well-defended, and increases his movement perception and accuracy. The defenders learn to protect a target unprepared, as well as how to communicate with a partner swiftly.

"If you both move to block the same attack, you're wasting your concentration on over-defending. Learn to know what you should block, and what should be blocked by your partner. If you ever find yourself on a mission protecting a target, these skills will be a key to your victory. As some may say... 'The best offense is a good defense' ."

Watching the scene before her, Sakura couldn't help but notice the similarities in the lesson and in the practice.

Two of the Naruto Clones over-reacted, and took a pair of kunai in the chest before dissipating into smoke. One managed to catch one of the kunai bare-handed, and started proudly waving it about in his clenched hand. The other three failed to catch the last kunai, which stuck, quivering slightly, from the middle pole. She finally looked closer, and could tell that there were numerous little puckers in the wood of all three poles, where the blade had landed before.

Naruto immediately burst into laughter, and oddly enough, his four remaining Clones started glaring at their 'master'. A moment later, and Sakura yelled out in surprise: The four had decided enough was enough, and sprinted forward, intent on dive-tackling their twin. The blond could have moved out of the way in time, but Sakura's shout startled him just as he was preparing to leap sideways. She could only wince as a painful thud echoed into the forest.

Sakura made her way over to Naruto, who was lying on his back, alone, having dispelled the Clones after the landing. "I hope we didn't get him hurt! They were carrying real kunai, too!" "Hey, Naruto-kun, are you alright?" She bent down and poked his orange-clad shoulder, eager to get a reaction out of his prone form. "I didn't mean to startle you like that..."

A pair of ocean-blue eyes snapped open at once, and settled on her face. "Sakura-chan!" The last person he had expected to see this early in the morning was now standing beside him, offering a helping hand to return him to his feet. Naruto accepted the out-stretched hand and with Sakura's counterweight, managed to pull himself upright. "What are you doing here so early?"

She debated the question for a second, then decided that the truth was a little too fresh on her mind to discuss right now, especially with the boy before her. "I couldn't sleep, so I decided to come down early. What about you?"

"Oh... Hehehe... I'm always here early!" Naruto eyed her thoughtfully for a moment, and Sakura had the immediate urge to blush. "What's he got on his mind, anyways?! Looking at us all hungry-like..."

"Are you hungry?"

The question caught her completely off-guard. "Huh? What're you talking about?" "He's the one that looks hungry, not us!"

"Well... You look like you skipped breakfast." He patted the front of his pants then unzipped one of the side-pockets, and pulled out a fresh, mostly clean carrot. "Here, have this. It's not much, but it's better than an empty stomach. And besides..." Naruto winked slyly at Sakura, as one person would to another before sharing a well-kept secret. "Kakashi-sensei said that these help improve eyesight!"

Sakura didn't know whether to hit him or hug him. Neither one seemed practical to the situation though, so she accepted the carrot instead, smiling softly. "Thanks, Naruto-kun." She brushed a stray piece of lint off of the vegetable, then nibbled on the pointed end, glancing around in the meantime. "So, you're training this early?"

"Yeah. Normally, Sasuke gets here around the same time as me, so we spar... But, he's late today, so I decided to start without him, heheh."

"I'm not late, you're just early." Both of the shinobi spun towards the sound of the slightly amused voice, to find the aforementioned youth standing against the middle post. Neither had heard him approach, apparently. "And be honest... Our practices are much too one-sided to be considered 'sparring'."

"Good morning, Sasuke."

"It's not my fault that you're a slowpoke! And you're right... They are one-sided!" Naruto's hands flew out in front of him, and in the blink of an eye, another three Shadow Clones sprung into existence. Each one held a mirror image of the original Naruto's expression: A fox-like grin that spoke of mischief. Without a word, the trio charged the still-stationary Sasuke, who was sporting a cocky grin of his own. Sakura sat down in the grass, (after checking it for visible insects, of course) nibbled on her carrot and watched in slight awe as the two's 'sparring' began.

It was one-sided indeed.

At first glance, it was the three Narutos that did all the attacking, while Sasuke tried to either block or evade the blows. However, after watching for half a minute, Sakura determined that there was an unspoken order amongst the chaos of the battle. For a short time, the Clones would go on the offensive, while Sasuke would try to protect himself. Sometimes, simple dodging did the trick. Other times, when dodging was not an option he would block the blow with either an arm or leg, while trying to maintain his body stance. Once or twice, he even managed to use the Clone's proximity to another as an advantage, positioning a Naruto between him and the attacker.

After a minute, things abruptly switched gears. Sasuke became the predator, and the Clones became the prey. Although subtle, traces of Naruto's first training session were present in this exercise as well: the Uchiha was focusing on one Clone in particular, while the other two were defending the 'mark'. Soon after, the training shifted back to it's previous pace.

The 'real' Naruto got bored of watching his Clones fight Sasuke: it was only a matter of time before he dissipated one or two anyways. Instead, he found his gaze drifting to the most interesting feature in sight. Sakura-chan. He watched her stare at the 'battle' for nearly a minute before deciding that it would only be fair that she was included in the training: after all, they were a team. Summoning another Shadow Clone, Naruto approached her cautiously. If he interrupted her Sasuke-gazing time without warning, he was apt to walk away with a bloody nose... If she was in a good mood, anyways. Swallowing the feelings of dread that were quickly surfacing, Naruto got within a few yards of the kunoichi, then finally addressed her.

"Hey... Sakura-chan?"

The girl in question dragged her eyes away from the battle before her, and found two Narutos standing a few feet off to her right. "Yikes, they're popping up all over the place!" "Yes?"

"Well... Uhm... Would you like to... M-maybe... Spar together?"

"S-spar?! That's... That's like one step below going out on a date!" Sakura fought the blush that rose to her cheeks on the thought. Instead, she stuck out her hand. "Sure, just help me up. I think my legs fell asleep sitting here so long."

"Of course!" the Naruto on the left replied enthusiastically, and a moment later, the kunoichi was dusting stray grass blades off of her skirt, waiting for her muscles to waken up. A minute of stretching, and Sakura felt ready enough to begin. Although...


"Hmm?" Naruto turned from the conversation with his Clone and regarded her with an eagerness that was unnerving. "Is anything wrong?"

"Well..." Sakura glanced over at Sasuke, who was still holding his own against two Narutos: the third had stopped to sit down and catch it's breath. "Instead of just two... can I fight three of you? If we're a team, then everyone should train in the same fashion, right?" "The more of him paying attention to us, the better. Cha!"

"Alright, Sakura-chan." A quick hand sign later, another identical Naruto popped into existence beside the first. "How's that?" the three chorused, then grinned at each other.

"Perfect." She cracked her knuckles menacingly, and all three Naruto's faces quickly shifted from cheerful happiness to mild terror. Whenever Sakura-chan started cracking her fingers like that, pain followed. What worried him even more was the eager smile that Sakura still held. Whatever it was that made her smile, Naruto was sure it meant even more pain for him. "The more the merrier!"

The blond prankster could only swallow in fear at the potential beating that was about to occur.

Kakashi watched the three continue their training from a distance, peacefully sitting in one of the many trees lining the clearing that housed the memorial. Even without my assistance, their growth is outstanding! He had already witnessed two of Naruto and Sasuke's sessions, and now even Sakura was joining them. What amazed him the most, however, was their flexibility: despite going through an exhausting live-combat stimulation, both Naruto and Sasuke had completed his regular training tasks, as well as three back-to-back missions, as of yesterday. The pink-haired girl didn't have anywhere near the stamina her comrades had, though. Already, she was slowing down in fighting Naruto and two of his clones. But what she lacked in intensity, she seemed to make up in intelligence and perception. The fight below was in Naruto's favor, but Kakashi already noticed several adroit moves performed by the kunoichi that ranked well above an average Genin. The team was going places, alright.

Their sensei glanced down, and focused in on the pouch strapped to his side. For once, his mind wasn't on the book normally kept there. Instead, it was contemplating the set of documents resting beside Icha Icha Paradise. The orders he had been given by the Third Hokage left nothing to be imagined. Like every single task rewarded to a ninja of Chunin-level or higher, it was to the point and completely without question.

"Kakashi-san, this is your next mission." Sarutobi was now holding out a pair of sealed envelopes, thick with paperwork.

The gray-haired Jonin glanced up from the open romance novel in front of him, his one visible facial feature displaying a rare emotion: utter surprise. "I thought we agreed to put my duties on hold in order to train those three, Sarutobi-sama. Naruto and Sakura will probably be annoyed, and Sasuke..."

"Aha, but who said that the training will be interrupted?" The elder laughed softly, then resumed his 'formal' business tone. "This mission involves the three of your students, so there's no need to worry."

"What ranking is it?" Both men knew how Naruto was feeling about D-ranked missions: the last time they had visited the Hokage's office to turn in another task, the boy had practically thrown a fit, ranting about how he wasn't being challenged. Sarutobi had come close to giving in to his pleas and assigning the team a recent C-rank assignment that had come in from the Land of Waves. Kakashi had come close to hitting the loud-mouth. Luckily, Sakura-chan had intervened, and with a few quiet words, Naruto had lapsed into silence. The grown-ups in the chamber suspected physical threats.

"Hmm. Well, in terms of civilian tasks, it's perhaps at most a borderline C-rank, only due to Naruto-kun and his... Charge." Kakashi didn't even need to ask what the man was refering to: he, like all of the other adults in the village, knew of the boy's 'secret'. One of the more prominent reasons why he had even come out of retirement to teach was to observe the effects of his previous sensei's sealing on the boy. As for the Uchiha... The Third's next sentence snapped the Jonin's concentration back onto the conversation.

"As for potential shinobi skills involved..." Sarutobi paused, and his hesitation spoke words beyond number. "This is to be considered an S-ranked, classified mission. No one will speak of it beyond this room. Once you and your team sign these papers..." the man handed Kakashi one of the envelopes, then continued on. "If they sign, I should say, then no one but you and your students will know of it, and all official records of said mission will be non-existent."

Kakashi nodded. He knew the protocol around S-rank missions, and all the precautions that had to be taken to ensure utter secrecy. The papers in his hands were most likely written by the Hokage himself, and sealed in more than one way. As a past leader of an ANBU squad, he also knew that any mission above A-rank was an extreme rarity: the last rumors of such an assignment dated back to before the Third Ninja War. "But... What's the task? To use a veil of secrecy..."

Sarutobi smiled, then handed Kakashi the second envelope, which was much thicker than the first. "It's all documented in there. I expect you to present this to them before training this morning, and I'll be looking forward to your response by noon. You are dismissed, Kakashi-san"

The gray-haired Jonin nodded, then disappeared in a flash of chakra-created smoke. The Third Hokage visibly relaxed, then reached for his pipe. The worst of the day was over.

Now, he just had to wait for noon to come around. And wait he did.

"An S-ranked mission?! That's so awesome! We get to go on an S-ranked assignment! We get to go on an S-ranked assig-"

"Naruto, please shut up immediately. This is a sensitive matter, and we must hold it to absolute secrecy" Kakashi dead-panned, not even looking up from Icha Icha Paradise. "There's a reason why it's considered classified, you know."

Their sensei had just appeared out of nowhere, interrupting the 'sparring' Sakura had been taking part in. Then, even more surprisingly, he had presented them with a single plain envelope, sealed by the Hokage. According to Kakashi, their newest mission was within.

"Kakashi-sensei, you told us the rank, but..." Sakura glanced down nervously at the paper she had just been handed: a non-disclosure agreement stuffed full of enough legal mumbo-jumbo to make her head swim after even a few seconds of reading. "What exactly is our mission, anyways?"

The Jonin glanced up from his own readings, and shrugged. "I could give you close to a hundred pages of briefing on this task..." Which I'm sure wasn't even necessary, Sarutobi-sama was just trying to keep me away from my precious Icha Icha! "... or, I could give you the short and simple version."

"Short and simple! I've already got a headache looking at this non-closing thing!" Sakura contemplated correcting the blond, but shook her head in agreement, instead. Sasuke hadn't said a word the entire time.

"Alright, alright. Ahem..." The man collected his thoughts for a few seconds, letting the suspense build to an inhuman level. "You three... Are moving."

Naruto was the first, like always, to break the silence. "Moving?! Where are we moving to? Are we leaving the village, or like, moving into the Hokage's tower? Huh? Huh?! We are, aren't we!"

Sakura felt her heart grow cold. We're being sent away? Something's going on here. She knew about Missing Nin, the ninja that had abandoned their home village for whatever reason, and set out to live lives of solitude. According the what Iruka-sensei had said the day after graduation, was that the assistant teacher-turned-traitor Mizuki would have been considered a Missing Nin, if he hadn't been caught shortly after his treachery. "K-kakashi-sensei, where are we being moved?"

"Naruto, shut up for a minute. You didn't let me finish the explanation." The boy being scolded promptly stuck his tongue out at their sensei, then quieted down before Sakura-chan decided to get angry and silence him herself. "Anyways... You three will be packing all of your possessions up, and tomorrow morning, a few ANBU will join us to assist in the process of transporting any cargo. Moving furniture will not be necessary: the rooms you will be provided with come with full furnishings. I expect you to be up at 0600 hours, and ready to go by 0700. You will be escorted to a lesser-known clan house, one on the outskirts of the main village. At 0800 hours, I will brief you on the rest of the mission. Any questions?"

As the blond's hand energetically shot up, Sakura tuned his voice out. "Clan house?! That's like one step below sharing an apartment with Naruto-kun! But... Haruno-san isn't going to like this, not one bit." That train of thought was unquestionable: there was no possible way she could convince her mother to let her move away. A feeling similar to the emotion she had felt at the Bell test began to creep in. This was where it all ended for her. As Naruto paused for breath, she lifted her own hand, and Kakashi raised his one intact eyebrow.

"Sensei... We n-need the permission of our parents... D-don't we?"

The older man seemed to weigh his answer, then spoke in a tone rough enough to make her flinch. "You are shinobi. You are a tool to be used by the Hokage, as he sees fit, in times of war and in times of peace. You are a weapon that is held not in the hands of the blacksmith that crafts it, but in the firm grip of the soldier that wields it on the battlefield. Do I make myself clear?"

"W-well, yes, but..." Sakura could feel the tears welling up behind her eyes, and blinked furiously to fight them off. "My m-mother..."

All at once, Kakashi's harsh tone vanished, his voice gentle once more. "I will speak with your mother about this. I had planned on having an audience with her in the first place, so why not kill two birds with one stone? Let's move on to more pressing matters, shall we?"

As he began describing today's exercises, Sakura let her attention drift once more. She was being saved once again from almost certain failure. First Naruto-kun, and now Kakashi-sensei had stepped up for her, without any hesitation. Deep in thought, the kunoichi mindlessly followed her team mates and teacher across the field.

There was only one way to pay back their support. She had to focus on her training, stand on her own two feet, and become a true shinobi, in order to bring fame, honor and peace to the lands they called 'home'.

After all, a weapon may be a weapon, but it can still have a heart, and a purpose of it's own.

Finishing Notes: Well, that's the fourth chapter for you. Let me address a few issues before I save it and stick it: One, yes I did indeed make up a name for Sakura's mother. To the best of my knowledge, she is un-named in both the anime and the manga, so having a name is an appropriate thing, yes? I chose Hikari because, for those of you that know Japanese (or Wikipedia every other thing) it translates to 'light'. A fitting name for the parent of 'the spring field of cherry blossoms' (again, see Wikipedia). Second issue: Yup, you guessed it. This 'S-ranked mission' is purely AU, and is the start of where this story will branch away from the canon Naruto plot. If you choose to keep reading (I say this because I know that a few of you will not, purely because you can't stand author-made plots) then you'll be seeing ties to the original 'Land of Waves' Arc, but not concerning Team Seven (at least not exclusively). I know which team I will be 'sending' on that particular mission, and you will know too, in time. Trust me when I say that I WILL be tying up all loose ends that leaves in the plot. This isn't just a spur-of-the-moment type thing, I have given this a long, hard thinking-through. Anyways, look forward to chapter five, which should be out in a week or so. And happy Friday the 14th! Mwhahaha.

Not-so-Lucky Thirteen

PS: Read T. H. White's 'The Once and Future King'. If you can make it past the first fifty pages, you're in for one hell of a good read.