A/N: I'm glad some of you liked it. Even if a whole lot of you didn't, it's still worth it for those who did. I've decided to make this an entire story, though next chapter will probably be the last.
Just so none of you freak out when you get to a certain part, this in not, I repeat not a Neji/Sakura fic! Neji's just… a little different now. You'll see why later, but just so I don't get any flames about making this a Neji/Sakura fic when I said it was a Sakura/Naruto fic. Just be patient.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto
Sakura was terribly hungry. Three days worth of starvation gnawed determinedly not only at her stomach, but also at her muscles and mind. For once, she cursed herself for being Tsundae's apprentice, for paying attention so raptly during all of her sessions. She knew exactly what her hunger and frailty was doing to her, and it made her all the weaker.
It was noon and the giant golden ball in the sky (a demon's eye, she decided), glared at her intensely, for a transgression that she could not remember committing, though it was obviously something terrible to keep that awful gaze upon her for so long. After burning her eyes give it a look that said, 'like you could do better', she kept her eyes on the dirt and grass below her, to keep her them from smarting. She winced when the grass turned from forest green to bright shimmering blue.
Sakura blinked. It wasn't grass swirling by her ankles, receding, only to break upon them again coolly. Water! Sakura fell to her knees, burying her hands in the cool mud.
She bent her back, lowered her neck and drank like a dog. She gulped down the water until the it filled her hungry stomach and sloshed around in her body, giving her the most delightful, joyous cramps. She brought herself back to the dry grass and emptied her stomach, before going back to fill it again more slowly. Sakura considered taking a bath. The water was cool and fresh, and heaven knew she needed one, but no, it was too risky.
The first day she was gone, Sasuke must have thought her at home, and she put many miles between herself and the village, wandering aimlessly but with mindless determination. In the second, day, after the curse mark had burned and choked her, she figured out that she was most likely going in the direction of either the Village Hidden in the Rain or the Village Hidden in the Grass. Neither prospect was overly inviting, but even more unappealing was the possibility of being captured by one of Sasuke's servants, or worse. The fake Hokage himself.
She jumped into a tree and rubbed her hands on the rough bark, scratching them and rubbing dirt in the cuts unintentionally. She winced as she remembered her master's healing lessons. She ignored the visions of swollen infected hands from her mind and continued on slowly, making sure she covered her tracks well.
She welcomed the dusk, the small time in between the glowering sun and the silent but remote moon, where she wasn't too hot or too cold. Unfortunately, she wasn't the only one who enjoyed this time of day. Insects, amounts that Shino would have been elated with, feasted on her blood as if they had survived a great famine. Though she too knew the feeling of extreme hunger, she felt no sympathy for these miniature vampires and batted them away cruelly.
Finally, the temperature dropped to near freezing and the insects went back to their little hives, where dozens of others waited to keep them warm. Sakura had only her thin rags of clothes and a small hole dug out by the waters of a lake in a small quarry. She hugged herself and looked down at her body.
Her clothes were wrinkled and swam on her. The frayed end of a rope poked out from underneath her shirt, keeping her once-white pants tied to her thin hips. Her bony knees were covered in dried blood, dirt, and grass stains. Her legs were dotted with red and purple welts, from where there were the pest bites of three days. She took her thumbs to one of the worse ones and squeezed, ignoring the warning yells her nerves were sending to her. Her skin tore open; crimson blood and sickly yellow-green poison from the bite spurted out for a moment before the mess became a part of her filthiness. The once-pink mark rapidly turned a deep purple, like an unhealed bruise.Sakura winced a berated herself. Now it was likely to get infected. She continued her self-inspection. Her arms were bloody and swollen from the insect bites and the tears of the trees' scraggly branches. She was still unhealthily thin, but her skin had the healthy ruddiness from the fresh air and clean water.
She leaned her tired head against the rough bark of the tree. Despite the hard and uncomfortable nature of her sleeping place, Sakura rested soundly for the third night (or, more like day) in a row.
Unbeknownst to the sleeping woman, she was being watched. She had been watched for the past thirty-six hours, nonstop. The man's grip on the branch he was clinging doggedly to tightened as the unfortunate girl he had known since the days when they were both genin (though he a year older) whimpered pitifully in her sleep.
Kakashi must be insane. It's obvious that she's not going to attack us, so why wait? She needs medical attention and food, and Sasuke may be here any minute now and we're just sitting here. Angrily, the man slammed his fist into the coarse bark. This is the battle all over again, and I can't do anything! He raised his abused fist again to send it crashing back to the equally mistreated branch, only to have it come to abrupt stop. He turned his head to look into familiar big black eyes, though the smile that once so long ago accompanied it was long gone.
"Neji, my friend, I know how you feel, for I too know the pain of seeing such a beautiful flower slowly wilt over the course of the years, but I ask you to wait a little longer. Soon we will get the word and we can finally rescue her!" Lee finished with a half-hearted smile.
Neji remained silent. There really was nothing to say beyond that point. Lee stayed with him, probably so he wouldn't intervene. There was a crack and both shinobi's attention was diverted to a group of people.
One in front was wearing the white robes of the Hokage. Even Lee's normal level-headedness was lost for blind rage. This man, this imposter, was aspiring to be someone who he had betrayed. Anyone of the past Hokages would be turning in their graves at the sight of him. Lee fingered his kunai pouch shaking while Neji tensed, ready to spring and kill the moment Sasuke found the tree Sakura was sleeping in.
Sasuke's keen eyes scanned the bushes and his hearing absorbed all the sounds as his group moved through the sunlit forest, so unlike the village they thrived in. He had one thing on his mind, one goal that he hadn't had since his brother, which he had long since abandoned; to find the pink haired kunochi.
He wanted to be the one to kill her. He knew already what he was going to say. He was going to call her a missing ninja; a deserter of the Hidden Leaf Village. He was going to slash and Konohona hiate in front of her eyes and tie it around her fragile neck as he used the curse mark to choke her slowly. He was going to break her like the piece of fragile glass she was.
He fingered the kunai in his hand, cutting his thumb on the flat of the blade. He had stopped at her home to retrieve it. The same one she had tried to use on herself so many times before. It would finally meet its mark.
One of his guards approached him. He gave an imperial nod, no more than a fraction of a degree, to signal it was appropriate to draw near him. The man bowed and held up a single strand of curling hair. It was pink.
A moment later, there was a birdcall from a woman that went to scout ahead. The shinobis moved quickly through the dense forest, though Sasuke found it easier than his former Sound ninjas, having grown up in it. They all landed in the same tree. Below them, Sakura tossed fitfully in her sleep.
Sakura had heard them coming. Oh yes, she had known when they were within a half mile of her, but she stayed where she was, preparing traps. It reminded her of the Chunin exams, in the Forest of Death. She had been all alone, and three precious lives were on the line if she failed. Now she was all alone again, but only her life was on the line, and it wasn't that precious to her anymore. No Sound ninja would not find her in the forest screaming 'I don't want to die!' She could care less.
Sakura was far into the forest on the other side of the lake when she smelt the small amount of smoke that accompanied a successful clone murdered. A few moments later, she heard Sasuke's enraged yell. "After her!"
Adrenaline and pure, animalistic instinct to survive spurred her onwards. She jumped from tree to grass, flipped over boulders, and punched her way through trees that dare get in her way. Now was not the time for quiet and stealth. Now was the time to run, to get away, and to alert every being in the forest that she was being pursued and refused to be caught.
Unfortunately, neither the forest nor her malnourished body had the same ideas. Sure, for a while she could randomly crash through anything and not feel the pain of it, for a few minutes, at least. But as the hour ticked by, Sakura's body became heavy and her chest burned with cold fire. Her throat and mouth were dry and every breath was a dagger, slowly slicing its way out of her neck.
Finally, a little less than an hour and a half of running and slowing, a kunai caught her in the leg. Sakura's vision blurred as she hit the ground, from tears of pain or through exhaustion she did not know which.
She felt herself being hauled off the ground and stared dumbly into one of Sasuke's minion's faces. A small snake of guilt and sadness writhed in her stomach. It was a Hyugga. A young one. He was more likely not older than twelve, barely a genin, yet he was serving the Hokage as loyally as she had been willing to at his age. She could not wish a horrible, painful death on him as she could all the others. They, at least, had made the choice to betray their village.
Of course, so have I. She thought sadly. I gave in. I healed people I grew up with for rounds of torture. I healed that dictator when others braver than me worked so hard to give him those wounds and let him control me like a puppet on strings. I did nothing! She thought vehemently.
The Hyugga raised his hand. In it was a kunai. Sakura felt her stomach jump. She wanted to die, she deserved to die, but she did not want to expire like this. At the hands of a traitor's slave, alone where her body would be left for the forest to pick at, at its discretion. She wanted to fight, to redeem herself! She wanted to take down as many enemies as she could with her!
"Now, traitor, you die." The Hyugga hissed. The kunai glinted harshly in the sunlight.
A moment later, a kunai hit its mark.
It was not the Hyugga's.
Sasuke chuckled as he slid the knife out of the Hyugga's head. It had been a good throw, though what could one expect? The man had held the Hokage position for two years, despite being at war with Suna as well as straining relations with Kiri. There was not a country in the world that did not have a good reason to have his head.
Sasuke tilted the kunai towards him, watching as the blood dripped off slowly. Just one movement, one slight bump to his elbow, and the kunai would go into his eye far enough to pierce his brain. There would be no healing him from that; he would be dead instantly. But Sakura knew him better than that. She would not be able to take him down… so maybe his cronies?
Maybe she could try the charka release jutsu Tsundae had taught her. But what am I suppose to do? Her thoughts copied Tsundae's words exactly, not forgetting the gruff way her master had spoken to her. Listen up, girl. If you're going to die, absolutely definitely going to die, then you might as well take as many enemies with you as possible. You will have to learn to do the Five Star Blast jutsu. Not many remember how to this, so pay attention and for the love of the gods above, do not teach this to anyone besides someone who is undoubtedly loyal to this village.
Sakura's thoughts took over. Gather the charka into the center of my body, wait for it to expand, simmer it down, and then move it to my heart. Direct it through the body in equal blasts, pooling it in my hands, chest, brain and feet. Continue to do this until your body is blasted away. The backlash will cause the skin to melt off an unprepared enemy's body.
Sakura got a determined glint in her eye. Sasuke will find a way to shield himself, but not before he gets hit at least a little. Injuries from such a wound that the Five Star Blast inflicts cannot be healed save for master healers. By time he figures that out, the only one that would be willing to heal him will be long dead, and so will everyone else in this glade. Sakura nearly laughed with the horrifying magnitude of her incontestable plan.
All the while, Sasuke had been talking, gloating over his victory. "You almost got away. But now…" Sasuke took a hiate from his belt and slashed it, "… I'll pass judgment on you, traitor."
Sakura backed her head away from the hiate, trying desperately to not let it touch her as if it would taint her. Sasuke stopped his advanced and moved his hand slightly to the side, swinging the hiate, which gained momentum as it swung. His smile slid across his face like water on a glass pane.
"What? Don't you want it, Sakura? It is yours, after all." Sauske inched the long-hunted band towards her face.
Sakura watched it with cat-like eyes. The insignia of the Leaf Village stared back at her sadly. There was a nick metal, near the top. A small tear in the blue ribbon had been carefully sewed. This hiate had seen many a great fight; a myriad losses and wins. This hiate was hers; the very one she had worn the day of the final fight. How badly she wanted to touch it, to feel it in her hair.
But even as she looked on the scratch in the center, she felt that feeling melt away. Those times when she had been lucky to even wear the hiate, when Kakashi could trick her by sending a bloodied genjutsu her way, those were gone. The times when her enmity with her now dead rival was so important, was now meaningless, dust in the wind. Even after Tsunade had trained her, and she had become something her village could be proud of, that feeling of pride and honor that she had waited to return to her along with the hiate, did not. The sense of accomplishment did not swell in her chest. The memories were just that, memories that could be called upon, but could not be relived. Sai, Kakashi, the other teams, Tsundae Naruto, yes, even Sasuke, before he had become what he was, reflected at her in the shiny metal, before moving away from her. Forever.
All this time, Sauske had been talking, speaking meaningless words that fell on deaf ears. Sakura looked behind him, at the dead Hyugga, and felt hate coil in her chest like a cobra. She looked beyond the corpse at his other followers. A man was staring longingly into the brush, and seemed ready to bolt if given the chance. Sakura felt a hint of remorse, but tore her gaze away before she lost her nerve. A woman, young with shiny purple hair, stared admiringly at her leader with (Sakura's snake hissed in disgust) love. Sakura saw her own face, years before, reflected in the woman's eyes, and the way she held herself, presumably ready to rush forward to be accepted into loving arms. The other two men stared at their chief with dumb loyalty.
"… Sakura, it's time to die." Sasuke finished quietly.
Sakura met his gaze. "Yes, it is."
The ninjas, plus one, were hidden in the trees, tensed. They could not come closer than one hundred yards; for fear that Sasuke or the others sensed them. They were so far back that in the dense forest, the only indicator that the malevolent group was still with their captor was Neji's byakkugan.
The lavender-eyed man frowned as he sensed a spike in chakra. "Lee… something's not right…"
"What is it, Neji?" Lee asked quietly.
"It's the Five Star Blast Jutsu, a Forbidden jutsu that is deadly to both the victim and the assailant." Neither man jump as the deep voice of the middle-aged man joined them. "Lee, Neji, we need to move fast. Distract Sasuke and the others, while I grab Sakura. Do not continue your attack once I am gone and do not allow your faces to be seen."
"Right." Neji said, tensing.
"But…" Lee started, unsure.
Warmth flooded through Sakura's body and she wondered why she had not thought of this before. Why not go out in such a splendidly victorious way? She'd kill everyone in the area, and wound Sasuke. If Naruto and the others were out there, they would have a chance. If not… she would see them on the other side.
Her charka moved discreetly, like a band of lionesses. Not even Sasuke could detect the flow of it through her veins and muscles. The kunai bit into her neck, and hot blood ran down her throat, but she did not feel the pain. Her eyes were clear for the first time in years, and she could see that for once, Sasuke was unsure of himself.
Then, suddenly, Sakura's concentration was broken. She was hurtling to the ground, and her body reacted before her broken mind did. Craters three feet deep appeared where her hands were. The ground absorbed her charka faster than a dry cloth did water.
The next moment, wind was hitting her face at a breakneck speed. She wiggled; trying to get free of the grasp of whatever she was sure had her. A hand was clapped over her mouth and outraged voices in the distance grew faint. She kicked, and hit something with a resounding crack.
"Sakura! Stop!" A voice hissed in her ear.
The voice. So shockingly familiar, so long sought-after, stopped Sakura's heart the minute she heard it. Her face turned towards his. A red eye stared back at her, capturing her eyes and confirming who it was. Sakura's mouth twitched oddly. It took her a minute to realize that this was a genuine smile, and it was coming from her. And then she fainted.
"She's experiencing some traumatic shock right now, but from what I can tell, she should pull through."
"She's strong, Kakashi. This won't keep her down."
"It's been two years, Shizune. We have no idea what she's been through."
"The text book answer would be that she is going to be out for a few days."
Kakashi swore lightly under his breath.
"My answer is she will wake up today."
There was no response.
Sakura wanted to sit up and say 'and my answer is right now' or something to that affect, but her bones felt like lead and however many times she tried to move, her muscles would tighten and she would not move an inch. Her throat was too dry to talk, anyway. So she sat, deciding to wait whatever was afflicting her out.
More people came and went. She could hear their voices and felt their stares. A few times she felt someone was in the room, but they would not talk. If Shizune came out and asked them, the person would express amazement and then leave. No matter what, though, there was always at least one person looking at her.
A few hours later, Sakura could feel a dull ache as the feeling came back into her body. She groaned and there was a startle gasp. A cool hand was on her brow. She groaned again, fainter this time, she knew.
"Sakura, if you can hear me, please open your eyes." Shizune's tearful voice rattled Sakura's senses, and her eyes snapped open. Her vision was blurry, but Shizune's dark hair and the tender feel of her hands was all she needed to know that the woman was there with her, instead of just another hallucination. She tried to speak, but her mouth would not even open. Shizune shook her head. "Sakura, you can't speak yet. Blink if you want some water.
Shizune gently lowered a thin, wet cloth to Sakura's lip, which she moistened before parting and sliding the uncomfortable fabric into Sakura's mouth. The pink-haired woman was able to move her tongue around the cloth a few times before giving up out of fatigue. Shizune seemed to sense that Sakura could not take anymore, so she took the cloth away.
Gently the older woman tested Sakura's pulse and fumbled with the IV sticking out of her hand. Sakura swallowed painfully a few times and opened her mouth to speak again. She was able to croak once before wincing. Shizune's face came back into view.
"Sakura, just wait an hour before you try to talk. You've been through a traumatic experience; you know how important it is for you to take it easy. You can move your arms and he water is just beside you."
Sakura nodded and tried to relax. Before she knew it, she fell once again into a deep, deep slumber.
When Sakura awoke, she automatically stretched her senses, looking for unwelcome chakra signatures. She had gotten no more than a two foot radius when she stopped herself. She was among friends now, surrounded by people she knew intimately through the vulnerability of character in adolescence and distantly through the mask of starvation, exile and loss that they all had had to suffer through.
But she did feel a charkra signature as her senses seeped out on their own accord, natural to her now after living so long needing to know exactly what was happening. It was not Shizune's. Sakura sat bolt-up in the bed.
"Hey Sakura, you're finally up."
Sakura heard his voice, and shut her eyes tight against it. He had done this before, many times, when she had been bad; when she needed to be punished.
She was not out of the Village.
She was not with friends.
She was not free.
Sasuke was using a genjutsu on her. He had never managed to do something this elaborate, to make her think that she had been gone for three days. She was probably still back in his office. But always ended the same.
She felt something holding her hand. "Sakura, please, look at me."
She shook her head stubbornly, biting her lip and squeezing her eyelids together until it hurt. She would not open her eyes. She would not see Sasuke's face again; she could not handle it.
She felt her chin taken in a hand, callused but gentle. Sasuke would never let the genjutsu go this far. He probably could not, as genjutsu was his weakest area. Sakura cracked open an eyelid. The sight of him was like a drug; soon she could not help it but open her eyes fully.
He was different than before. His baby-fat that had softened his face when he left was gone now, his face angled, giving him a more fox-like look. There was a small scar along his jaw (where a kunai had missed his eye) and along the expanse of his neck (where a careless assassin had failed to slit his throat); His blue eyes sparkled with youth that Lee would envy. Blonde, tousled hair hung low over his forehead, but the glint of metal and the missed sign of the leaf could still be seen by Sakura.
"Naruto?" Sakura asked, her eyes filling with tears (of happiness of seeing her friend or of fear that this was not real she did not care to know."
Naruto smiled the same smile he had years ago, before all of this started. In that moment, Sakura knew that this was no gnejutsu. Sasuke could never capture this, the one beautiful, shining moment that made three years of torture, starvation and captivity worth it.
His forehead touched her, his hands on either side of her face.