Disclaimer: I don't own, kthxbai. I do own Gaara's sleepers, though.
Full Summary: After Sasori's defeat, a powerful jutsu was handed to Sakura by Chiyo, swearing her to secrecy. Now, a few years later, Sakura has to bear with a mark that might change her life forever. How can she deal with the derision of one of the most notorious families in Konoha without hurting the owner of her heart?
Chapter I - The Sealing
"It seems that it has finally receded."
Sakura let out a contained puff of breath. The heart monitor showed that hers was beating a bit fast, but it was perfectly understandable given the circumstances. It was a rather strong beating; the sound of her heart pumping resonated through the bolted enclosure such as this private room. The process was excruciatingly painful, but she knew she needed to be strong in order to complete the task at hand.
She knew that she's gotten out of her mess quite fairly. After hiding the damned thing for almost four years, she was sure her shishou was short of pissed off with her. In fact, there had been a glint of disappointment in Tsunade's eyes when she finally confessed her secret to her.
That was why she was biting that kunai hilt, to prove to the Hokage that she was strong and she could handle the unorthodox gift Chiyo-baa-sama had given to her before she performed the jutsu that saved Gaara's life... in exchange of hers.
She could feel her blood running in slow, lazy little streams on her back. She mentally grimaced at the mental picture, but she steeled herself to the final phase of the procedure.
"Now..." Tsunade said, and Sakura felt a concerned undertone in her crisp voice. "Are you sure you don't want to be unconscious for this?"
"No, shishou, I'm fine," she said with a sigh. Gathering all her remaining courage and clinging to Inner Sakura's fierce presence, she steeled her bearings and waited with a bit of anxiousness.
Sakura let out a choked whimper when Tsunade's chakra began the healing mixed with the required jutsu to put up a ward over the wound. After much probing and picking over the 'thing', she was half-relieved that it was almost over.
But when the searing pain engulfed her senses, she couldn't do anything else but scream.
She felt the burning on her skin; the jutsu was warding up the wound and soon it would be finished. But right now, she scalding heat on her back was overwhelming her sanity. She felt as if she had been hit by a Katon jutsu, sweltering in the blazing flames, combusting her body and scorching her soul.
Sakura passed out.
Several hours later, she woke up in a hospital room. Frowning, she started to sit up when a deep voice startled her.
"You should be resting, Sakura," said Kakashi, looking up from his red covered book. "Tsunade-sama said that you needed to be in bed for the next few days."
"Damn it," she interjected with a tired growl. "I just want to go back home."
"I'm sorry, Sakura, but you need to stay put," by his cheerful façade, she understood that he knew pretty much nothing about the entire ordeal she had just endured. Tsunade probably hadn't seen fit to go over the details of her procedure with him.
Well, she certainly didn't feel the need to enlighten him just yet.
Let's hope he doesn't press his luck sneered her inner self in frustration. Tired as she was, she shushed Inner Sakura with a mental punch and sent her flying to the deep recesses of her mind.
Kakashi watched her mulling over her thoughts while lying down again on the blankets. She showed a myriad of emotions on her face, seething anger, disappointment, embarrassment... and finally, something close to defeat. Tsunade hadn't directly told him the news that his remaining link with Team Seven had been checked in the hospital, but he found out nonetheless. But now, she didn't care to play dumb with him and ordered him to stop being a lazy ass and take care of Sakura while she worked out some things, as if she was suffering from the after-effects of a deficiently performed jutsu.
He didn't believe it, because he knew that Sakura was anything but clumsy when it came to her jutsus.
And being a shinobi of word, he waited by Sakura's bedside. It wasn't that he didn't want to take a nap, perched in his favorite tree branch in the KIA Monument clearing, but the Hokage's words made him really curious about his former pupil's condition.
"Can I ask you something?" Sakura turned her head to look at him. Seeing his brief nod, she continued. "When you countered Sasuke-kun's curse seal... how did he react?"
To say Kakashi was dumbstruck was an appalling understatement. Why now? Why was she asked this, out of the blue?
"He... passed out?" he tried. "I don't really know what you mean, Sakura."
"That's exactly what I meant, Kakashi," she whispered with a sleepy smile. "I guess that the pain was too much for even him to bear."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. Sakura was being too much cryptic for his tastes, but when he stood from the windowsill and wandered over to her, she was already asleep.
It was a week later that Tsunade finally allowed her to leave the hospital. Making her way back to her home with slow steps, she realized that Kakashi hadn't pressed on the seemly random matter about Sasuke and his curse seal. She pondered about the recent events a lot in her mind while she was confined to that sterile and obnoxiously restricting hospital bed.
She was patient, yes. But certainly, she wasn't stupid.
Sasuke might be gone for good, but that didn't deter her from achieving what she wanted. Being stronger, being faster, being the best in her field, living up to her status as kunoichi and medic-nin. And also, bringing Sasuke back, because that's what Naruto wanted.
Naruto wanted his only brother back.
Arriving finally at an empty home, with rotten food in the fridge and a thin layer of dust on the furniture, she ignored everything in order to do the thing she had wanted to do since she awoke in the hospital she labeled as her playground.
She was going to pamper herself with a nice, scalding and long shower.
Discarding her clothes on her way to the bathroom, her eyes wandered to the big mirror she had on her bedroom wall. Seeing her naked form and not paying attention to the fact that Naruto might be back already from his mission with Kiba and Chouji and was likely to drop by any minute now if Jiraiya didn't convince him to spend a pleasant afternoon peeping at the girls in the nearest onsen, she turned her back to her reflection and peered over her shoulder.
There it was. The very same thing she considered a precious gift from a parting old woman and a comrade in battle –whereas she were from another village, traditions and nature, it didn't matter–, the thing that had elicited a very sharp exclamation from her shishou, once she had finally managed to see it through a tattered shirt due to a harsh sparring with her protégé.
A seal encircled the mark now; it was an undulating dark green circle, as if protecting the nothing but tiny cherry flower in bloom that was engraved between her shoulder blades.
She snorted, sarcastically amused. Now it looked more beautiful with the green circle around it. But it was a counter seal nonetheless, despite its artistic look.
Too bad she had never activated the jutsu that Chiyo gave to her. It was dangerous, the old and wise kunoichi had said with a wisp of a breath. It was the very base for that same jutsu she performed on Gaara. A life-force gathering seal, just like Tsunade's Creation Rebirth jutsu, but with some twists and addendums.
But then again, Chiyo-baa-sama was a very wicked woman. A trickster, who liked to play dead just to see people freaking out and fussing over her just for kicks, shits and giggles, Sakura thought with a wistful smile as she stepped under the hot water, allowing herself a deep contented sigh.
In her book, a hot bath was the most remarkable simplification of the pure bliss concept.
As the water cleared her mind, she recalled the last time she had seen a curse seal activated. That time Sasuke almost killed that Sound-nin just for messing up with her, and no matter how chivalrous it might seem to an outsider, the sight was terrifying for a naïve twelve-year old girl.
Now she was a bit older and a lot wiser, and despite the fact that she was almost twenty it didn't mean that she was still innocent. She had seen a lot in her missions, she had to hold a lot of people that died in her arms because it was simply too late to save them. Too much for a kunoichi with perfect chakra control, but it still hurt.
Lifting and twisting her arm, she reached the seal with the tip of her fingers. It felt a bit tender because of the tremendous pressure that the warding put on the seal itself. She didn't question Tsunade's rushed decisions though; she trusted her mentor's knowledge with these kinds of things.
But Sakura couldn't help but think that the warding was a bit too much. After all, the mark had never given her much of a problem in the past four years.
Finished drying and dressed to go back out, she caught again a glimpse on her clean persona. She shook her head after a quick appraisal and an even quicker combing of her short hair.
She had changed.
Sakura arrived at the Hokage Tower rather early for her meeting with Tsunade. It was a good sign that she bumped with Izumo and Kotetsu, who were lounging on the reception desk in front of the Slug Princess' office.
"Oi, you two," she greeted, with a playful tone. "Is she alone?"
"Tsunade-sama's in a meeting with the Hyuuga Clan right now, Sakura-chan," Izumo answered with a shrug. "And by the looks of it, I think it will take longer than she expected."
The pink-haired kunoichi let out a sigh and plopped on one of the chairs. "Does she even remember that she told me to be here at this time?" she half-whined.
"We don't know, Sakura-chan," added Kotetsu, stretching his arms over his head in a lazy manner. "She hasn't stepped out of that office since she arrived this morning."
"Whoa," Sakura blinked, arching a rosy brow. "Not even for lunch?"
"Nope," confirmed Izumo with a lethargic smile. "And we're sure that her sake supply is not coming until tomorrow."
Great, Sakura thought. A sake-deprived Tsunade was worse than a ramen-deprived Naruto. Moody, snappy and vindictive sometimes, it has been said that the Hokage liked to torture her best jounins and ANBU operatives into doing the lamest missions ever when they pissed her off, just for kicks, shits and giggles.
Now, she wondered with a cringe if Tsunade-shishou actually picked up those nasty habits from Chiyo-baa-sama. After all, the old Suna Elder and Tsunade knew each other from somewhere in their pasts.
But she never got an answer from her inner self because the door banged open and a very angry Tsunade stomped out, with her hands on her hips. Scanning the waiting room in a sweep of her honey-colored eyes, she spotted the poor soul that was about to pay for her present crankiness.
"You," she barked, pointing at her already cowering prized student. "Inside, now. And the two of you, make yourselves useful for one damn time and fetch me the rest of Team Seven."
"Yamato-taichou, Kakashi-sempai and Sai-san?" asked Kotetsu, earning a glare of doom from his boss.
"And Naruto too. Bring me that damned knucklehead before he hears it from somebody else and goes ballistic. GO!"
While the two chuunin poofed away, Tsunade sent a glower towards Sakura, which prompted her to scurry inside the office with no more questions. She knew that her shishou was angry beyond belief by just looking at how the older woman clenched and unclenched her hands while trying to regain some sort of composure.
But nothing prepared her to confront those who she met inside the office.
A nice, good chunk of the Hyuuga Clan turned their heads towards Sakura as she entered the office. The Clan Head, Hinata's father, scowled at her with open hostility.
Dumbfounded, she stayed near the door, intimidated by those silver angry stares. She spotted Hinata making her way shyly towards her, but an ANBU with long black hair grabbed her by the arm and shook their head.
Just what the hell is going on?! Inner Sakura raged. Why the hell am I getting those glares if I didn't do anything to the Hyuuga!
"Sakura," said Tsunade, appearing to be a lot calmer than her previous demeanor. "I'll explain why I summoned you here in such a short notice from your hospital discharge as soon as the rest of your team gets here."
The pink-haired young woman nodded obligingly and tried to lock up her doubts and earlier discomfort under an impassive mask, failing miserably and settling on a frown. The minutes ticked away slowly, until a polite knock in the door broke the heavy silence that has descended upon the office since. Tsunade looked at Sakura, who moved with barely concealed haste to open the door.
"Hokage-sama," greeted Tenzou with a quick bow, entering the room. Behind him, Sai and Kakashi strolled in a graceful manner, greeting their leader with their accustomed aloof waves and hypocritical smiles.
"Tsunade no baa-chan!" yelled Naruto, entering the last but always the loudest. This earned him a rattle from Sakura as she kicked the door closed.
"Shut up!" she hissed, angry at herself and angry at the blond for attracting the Hyuuga's glares again upon them. "Just shut up, Naruto, please."
Properly prompted, he did close his trap and looked at Tsunade with a familiar confused look. Sakura looked at her as well, giving the Hokage her private appointed shishou-student look that said: 'do tell already, for the love of the gods.'
Tsunade smiled sadly and crossed her fingers in front of her face.
"This is a classified meeting," the Hokage began with a crisp tone. "Sakura, bolt the door and seal it."
Nodding once more, she let her chakra accumulate on her flying hands, performing a jutsu that Tsunade taught her. The door made a metallic sound, like that of a katana being slowly drawn, to reassume its silent aspect.
"Thank you. Now straight to the matter at hand, and I'm going to be blunt with this. Recent information from ANBU and the Hunters Squad gave the Council and me enough reasoning to conclude that Uchiha Sasuke is... dead."
Sakura's knees buckled on their own accord, but her fall was stopped by a strong arm wrapped around her waist. Sai held her trembling form while Naruto looked thoroughly stunned, flanked by a rather shocked Yamato.
"Ugly, pull yourself together," whispered Sai in her ear. But she didn't pay any attention; she just let him support her because her mind was swirling with the horrible magnitude of the information. Seeing this, Tsunade continued with a deep frown marring her features.
"I'm sorry to break this out to you like this," she said softly. "But the information gathered showed the rising of his body as the new leader of Orochimaru's group. And the three-year mark for Orochimaru has passed with nothing more than a few jounins killed in action while trying to convey the Uchiha's whereabouts."
She smiled at Kakashi's surprised appeal. "You know perfectly well what I think about his defection. He was to be brought to Konoha in order to be punished by leaving without notice to his superiors."
Naruto was shaking under Yamato's restraining. Everybody thought that he was going to explode in rage, but he did not. Sakura felt several glances at her, but she kept her head bowed and her eyes fixed on Tsunade, while Inner Sakura was chanting repeatedly inside her mind.
You will not cry, Sakura, you will not cry in front of these people.
Instead, she voiced her first disbelief. "How are they sure that Orochimaru is in his body? For what we know, maybe Sasuke had killed him."
This earned her the surprised stares of everybody in the room, Tsunade's being among them. Not because of her intervention, but for her detached and dull manner of addressing the matter.
And, for the fact that she removed the endearing term from Sasuke's name.
"Maybe it's him, Sakura," she answered truthfully. "But that marks him as an S-class nukenin, no matter what big favor he did to Konoha by killing Orochimaru. But, how can we be sure about such thing?"
As in a very disheartening tennis game, all heads turned to Naruto. He lifted his head, showing red eyes that blazed with barely restrained rage and pain.
"That's not Sasuke," he growled. "He wouldn't do such a thing to Konoha."
"How can you be so sure, Uzumaki?" the question came from no one else than the Hyuuga Clan Head, Hiashi. "How can you be so sure that his loyalties still lie with Konoha, after more than seven years of the Uchiha's defection?"
"Because he didn't harm any Konoha ninja, that's why," Naruto countered, his whiskers widening in his anger. "He only battled the ones that were trying to stop him!"
"That's nonsense, Uzumaki," Hiashi went on with a cold sneer. "A traitor is a traitor no matter his motives to leave the village--"
"You shouldn't speak about what you don't know, Hyuuga-sama," interjected Sakura, shaking herself free from Sai's grasp and placing herself in front of Naruto in a protective manner. "We knew Uchiha Sasuke. We knew about his past, and certainly, we understood his reasons for leaving us," her voice wavered for a minute, but she found an inner strength by openly defying the Hyuuga Leader. "He didn't do anything to Konoha; he just left to accomplish his goals. And we made the promise to bring him back," she added, feeling Naruto's chakra compose itself. Sakura didn't need to turn her head to see that the azure color had returned to her best friend's eyes. "And we will."
"And what if you can't, Haruno-san?" another Hyuuga spoke. She knew that this old man was part of the Konoha Clan Council, Hyuuga Hideki; she had to put up with the chocolate-haired man's stupidity once her parents passed away and she had to join the Council as the one remaining Haruno.
"What if your team fails again and Uchiha kills your teammates?" Hiashi added with deliberate harshness. "What if you end up dead as well?"
"If we can't bring him back..." Sakura's hard voice reverberated through the air. "We will be the ones terminating his life as it was ordered by the Bingo Book."
Another heavy silence struck the office. Nothing was heard from the outside, not even those chirping birds that were making a nest near Tsunade's window.
A ninja never shows emotion, Inner Sakura repeated in her mind. Drawing strength one more time from her other self, she threw glares to the Hyuuga Council geezer and to Hiashi. Sensing the tension about to crack, Tsunade pried for the general attention again by waving two mission scrolls on her hand.
"These are for all of you," she said with an ease she was very far from feeling. Having half of the Hyuuga Clan in her office was a feat less than funny. "Team Seven will go to Sound in order to confirm our information and will go back without engaging the enemy, do you understand?"
All of them nodded. Sakura was shocked, to say the least, as to why her shishou was giving them this mission, knowing perfectly how she and Naruto felt about infiltrating Sound... and more than that, about encountering Sasuke.
"Furthermore, Naruto will go with Jiraiya and Team Eight to Sand to gather some information we need. Team Seven will consist of the remaining members. And don't even think about arguing with me, Naruto, do you hear?"
He nodded, not trusting his mouth right now.
"Also," Tsunade continued. "Hyuuga Hinata will replace Haruno Sakura on this mission. Her abilities and Byakugan will be very useful in the surveillances." As she saw her student about to protest, she snapped. "You will remain here in Konoha until you feel better, understood? I'm withdrawing you from the active roster and the hospital shifts until I'm sure you're healthy and sound."
Feeling all the glances on her again, Sakura nodded in defeat while fighting down an uncomfortable blush. "H-Hai, Hokage-sama."
"In addition, Haruno Sakura will be guarded by the Hyuuga family until further notice," Tsunade said. "If I'm right, and I'm really hoping that I'm much more wrong than Jiraiya's vocation, you and Naruto surely will be targeted by Sasuke... or Orochimaru, whoever is in that body."
"What," Sakura hissed, merging her outer with her self inner for a moment. "I'm perfectly capable to defend myself, shishou, I don't need a babysitter!"
"I'm aware of that, Sakura," Tsunade countered straightforwardly. She knew about Sakura's distrust in the Hyuuga Clan since they found out about their rejection and utter scorn on Naruto and Hinata's relationship but she knew there was no other way. "But this is a mission, for all you lot. And you will be doing it nonetheless! Besides, you have just been discharged from the hospital, so you'll be unable to do any physical exercise for a while."
Damn it! Inner Sakura roared in extreme anger, but both of them knew that Tsunade was right. That damned seal needed to heal without any chakra prodding in order to rejoin her normal routine again.
"Now there, Hiashi, are you happy now?" Tsunade addressed to the Hyuuga with a scowl. "I fulfilled your request, now I demand your lot to fulfill mine," as she saw him opening his mouth to counter-snap, she waved her hand. "Everybody is dismissed! Get the hell out of here!"
With a growl that resumed all the tensions that were hanging on everyone's heads, Naruto looked at Sakura briefly and poofed out. Sakura, instead, gave a weak smile to Kakashi's look of concern while walking to the door and placing a glowing hand on it, casting out the sealing jutsu.
"I'm okay, Kakashi-sempai," she said, mindful of the Hyuuga's stares. The least she needed now was a scolding for not addressing her elders appropriately. "I'll see you when you get back. Be safe."
Kakashi understood the pleading look she threw at him while they exited the Hokage's office. "Okay, Sakura-chan," he replied curving his eye in a fake smile. "We'll see you later."
Outside the Tower, she heaved a sigh and started to climb down the long flight of stairs that would lead her to the streets and her home. She really wanted to bury herself under her fluffy pillows and cry herself to sleep and she was going to do it, damn it.
"Haruno-san," the old Hyuuga called after her. "Our Compound is at the end of the Winter Street."
Sensing another tantrum from her inner self about to be thrown, she only nodded.
"I'll be there in an hour."
"I'm afraid we can't have that, Haruno-san," the Councilman Hideki replied with a polite smile. "Hokage-sama was very clear about your... uhm... protection, and as you might understand, we have to take upon your care until she says it so."
Sakura rolled her eyes blatantly and lifted two fingers in a certain peace sign.
"I need to pick up some things in my house, Hideki-san, so if you excuse me, I won't have any Hyuuga perusing over my personal stuff. Good afternoon."
She jumped and leaped away from the Tower, while Inner Sakura cackled all the way home.
Letting out a satisfied laugh as she entered, she quickly gathered some essentials and scrambled them in her pack. 'Surely this torture won't last more than a week', she mused while throwing her toothbrush and a few panties inside, among another clothes. She had the feeling that she was about to be locked up from the looks of the entire madness of a situation she was in, but she pushed that thought away. Even the Hyuuga Compound had to have some exits, no matter how secured it was.
"Are you ready yet?"
Startled, Sakura jumped and whirled around, two kunai balanced in each hand. Her eyes widened when she recognized the owner of that deep voice.
"What the hell are you doing in my house?!"
Much love to Celtic Oak for her awesome betaing skills!. :3