A n d M a n y S h i p s I F o u n d

She had been kept much too busy to notice the absence of the Lieutenant until long after his original disappearance. Aside from the time and effort it took to settle a new crew member, the waters were unusually restless and the ship needed a bit more attention to maintain than was usually required. Even Shikamaru had temporarily forsaken the task of cloud gazing to help keep the vessel in order, and despite all his reflectance and murmuring, he too was supplying his fair share of labor. And to add to the stress of Sakura's occupation, they had veered slightly off course due to Naruto's being so easily distracted by Hinata – a mistake that required several hours to correct.

It had been thoughts of Kakashi that lead to her realization of a lack of Sasuke's presence. She was mulling over the fact that she hadn't the chance to bid her old comrade farewell before he had departed, with all the commotion of Sasuke's attempted escape and the unorthodox circumstances in which the newest member of the crew had been welcomed into their midst, (she did not trust this Sai character, not in the slightest,) he must have slipped into the port unnoticed. And he must have gone, because if he were still aboard the ship, surely she would have spotted him by then. While her mind was on the topic of whom she had and hadn't seen face of recently, she was reminded of Sasuke.

She immediately took off in search of him, expecting to find him up to some form of mischief or another, which was common when she left him unattended to for more than a few moments. She first tried the kitchen, to be met by a cheerful Lee, hoping that she would perhaps keep him company for a while. Upon finding that likewise, Lee had not seen Sasuke for hours, she was unhesitating to disappoint. The only person she cared about finding company with at the present was the missing Lieutenant Uchiha. She did take the time, however, to check in briefly on Sai, who was peeling potatoes as commanded. She noted that he had not done half as satisfactory a job as Sasuke.

Regardless of Lee's multiple attempts at interesting the Captain in something that would persuade her to stay, she soon after wards returned above deck to search her quarters. She had taken special care, after finding him looting through her belongings multiple times, to remove anything that she did not want Sasuke getting his hands on. Even if he had decided to nosy through her room again, which he should have known better than to try at this point, he would be let down and find nothing worthwhile. She quickly made her way to her cabin and flung open the doors, expectant to find that he had once again taken apart half of her bedroom in a quest for something or other he wouldn't succeed in finding. Instead, she found him fast asleep in his cot.

She was startled, to say the least. Of course, she had been around him quite a bit while he slept, whether it was because she was nursing him back to health or simply because it was unavoidable due to their sharing a room – but she had never seen him sleep with such ease, so unguarded and so restful. Usually he fidgeted or kicked, or on occasion, when he was ill, groaned. Now he lay perfectly still aside from the evenly timed rise and fall of his chest and an infrequent twitch in his agape lips. She released the breath that she hadn't been aware that she was holding and took a cautious step forwards to see him easier, staring at him in astonishment.

She couldn't deny that the lieutenant was a handsome man. His features were an odd mixture of both strong and delicate: A hard, shapely jawline, high cheekbones, long, dark eyelashes. She was unaccustomed to seeing his face when it was not drawn into a permanent scowl. Now his expression was relaxed and gentle. Thoughtlessly, she extended a hand to brush locks of dark hair out of his eyes and let her fingers rest tenderly against his forehead, still bandaged where the frying pan had left its mark. A sigh escaped her lips, and with no explicable cause, she was smiling.

She experienced a sudden, uncalled for recollection of the conversation she had with Tsunade earlier, and abruptly recoiled her hand as quickly as though a jolt of electricity had been sent through it. Sakura's face flushed several shades deeper and the unnameable expression that she had looked upon Sasuke with was contorted into a glower. Love was the accursed word that Tsunade had uttered. Such a thing she dared suggest! How such an idea could be born into such a sensible head was something that was beyond Sakura's comprehension. Love, indeed! If anything, the feelings that she harnessed towards the Lieutenant were the exact opposite.

As if to proof this precise point to herself, she decided to be intentionally cruel. She bent and raised one end of the cot, a task which was not easily accomplished, because although Sasuke was slender, he was sturdy – and dumped the sleeping man out of his bed. He hit the floor hard and awoke with a discontented squawk. After untangling himself from a mess of blankets, he sent her a hearty glare with those piercing charcoal eyes of his. Her heart skipped a beat. "I'm sorry!" She spluttered in a fluster, torn between rage and embarrassment. "Were you sleeping there? I didn't see you!"

She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room with a huff. Love! The very idea! How utterly absurd, she thought.

Unfortunately, the only two people she had succeeding in fooling of this thus far were herself and the very man she thought herself to loathe, and the former wouldn't be fooled much longer.

C h a p t e r X I

Treasure Hunt

After a rather rude awakening, I was in no mood to do much of anything but sit on my bed and be angry at the Captain, whom I had unknowingly upset in some way or another and who had decided to extract revenge upon me by throwing me half across the room while I slept. After brooding for a sufficient amount of time, however, I regained control over the seething, angry beast that was my temper and was filled with a renewed sense or purpose. I reminded myself that I had two goals that were to be attended to immediately – first, it was essential that I find my sword, or, alternatively, steal that of another's. My second priority was to investigate the gentleman who had both smacked me in the face with cookware and a glove, acts which I had yet to repay, who had made a rather intriguing comment after I had bested him at fencing. It was apparent that he was aware of my reputation of a swordsmen, something not many common-folk would be familiar with, and he had made a vague reference to a 'they.' And where a 'they' is concerned, there is most certainly always a scandal.

I pushed off the edge of the bed and peered into the vanity mirror set atop the dresser unit in a corner of the Captains room. The proof of its neglect was a screen of dust that had settled on its surface, if her dirty and uncared for appearance wasn't enough evidence that Sakura rarely took time to look in it. I wiped the mirror clean with the sleeve of my shirt and studied my reflection, trying to force my untidy hair back into order by running my fingers through the tangles and ruffling it every so often so it would settle naturally into place. Content that I looked somewhat more presentable, I next searched for the clean change of clothes that was kept by my cot for when needed. These were a better fit than a last, and a good deal more comfortable. Too casual, perhaps, than what I was used to – but I was fairly certain that my uniform had been tossed into the sea shortly after my arrival due to the negative opinion that the people on the ship shared of the military, the Captain in particular.

It was the middle of the day when I set foot onto the deck, and the sun was dead center in the sky and bearing down without constraint on the backs of the crew who toiled to keep the ship in peek condition. I caught sight of Neji as he sunk down to the spot of deck that he had just finished scrubbing and wiped his forehead with the wet cloth clenched in his hand. His eyes met mine, and he glared at me, as though to say, "Why do you get to stay in bed all morning while I'm out here working away my weight in sweat?" I felt a momentary pang of guilt, as I was not a particularly slothful person, and it seemed unjust that I should leave the work to others while I pursued something of my own interest – the condition of my hand irrelevant. But freeing myself and the Hyuugas from the captivity of pirates, and if possible abducting their Captain so she could be safely returned to the society in which she belonged, took priority over being fair at the time being.

The Captain was nowhere in sight, which was magnificently opportune, as she would more than likely become aware of my intentions when I began to ask around. I would begin with Naruto, of course, as I had decided earlier that I would have the best chance of finding the whereabouts of my sword when asking him. There were few people on the ship, that I knew of, that Sakura keep company and confidentiality with more than the loud-mouthed pirate, her ever loyal second-in-command. Naruto wasn't the brightest of the bunch, either, and if it was in fact the case that he had been intrusted with the task of hiding my sword, which I suspected, it wouldn't be too difficult to cause him to slip up and reveal a hint or two.

Naruto was not a difficult person to locate. His coarse voice carried like nothing else, and I could hear him at the helm, boasting to some of his fellow men that he had once laid siege to a military vessel single-handedly. His companions seemed as unconvinced as I was, in spite of Naruto's efforts to convince them otherwise. I inhaled and silently prayed that god would grant me the patience to deal with him. Snapping his neck, however appealing the idea seemed, would not gain me any information on my weapon. I approached, cutting through the group of men he surrounded himself with, who parted for me willingly, and addressed him. "A word, please, if your friends would be so polite as to give us some privacy?"

The other crew members did not need a second hint. They scurried away to return to their designated tasks without any further encouragement, and Naruto, looking as confused as he looked curious, and I were left alone. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" He inquired, a grin spreading across his whiskered cheeks. He clapped my shoulder in what I supposed was a playful manner, but it caused me to desire that I could pluck out his eyeballs. I struggled to keep a straight face. "Finally come to me for advice? I knew you'd warm up to me eventually."

Ha, I thought to myself, the chances of either happening were slim to none. But he had given me something I could work with, and I wasn't going to wait for a better conversation-starter. "... Something of the sorts..." I replied hesitantly, taking time to choose my words carefully. To appeal to his vanity and pride would be the easiest way of achieving that which I wished to accomplish, I decided. "You're on quite good terms with the Captain, I'm aware..." I began. His face went blank, as though he couldn't see where my words were leading. "Would you say she trusts you?"

My question had just the effect that I had hoped for. His face was lit with color, and he seemed awfully pleased with himself as he answered. "Wholeheartedly! I'm one of the few people she's said can leave, you know, the ship, whenever they please! Just waltz off willy-nilly, I can. And I know her name and everything, just like you. Why she would tell you, of all people, though, I don't get." It was an amusing spectacle to watch his face as he spoke – he repeatedly switched between drastic facial expressions. One moment he looked ecstatic, and now, downtrodden. He was obviously unimpressed that the Captain had also decided to share her identity (although she didn't really share it so much as accidentally reveal it) with me as well as him. "When did she tell you, anyway?"

I was not going to stand for having the interrogation turned on me, so I quickly stated the answer to his question before beginning to ask one of my own. "She didn't tell me. I found out. We are old acquaintances, and I happened to recognize her one day. Now, what sort of things does the Captain--"

As if I hadn't immediately started into a change of topic, and had left my reply wide open for discussion, he completely disregarded the fact that I was still speaking and interrupted me with a loud, unintelligible sound. I immediately regretted telling him the truth. The thought hadn't struck me that the knowledge of our previous relationship might be found as fascinating to anyone, but now that I considered it, I suppose it was a rather interesting story – just not one that I was willing to tell someone. "What? What do you mean, old acquaintances? As in you knew her before she joined the crew? How?"

The mere thought of anyone discovering the fact that she and I were engaged once upon a time – and were perhaps technically still engaged, was enough to make my face flush. This, unfortunately, did not escape Naruto's notice. "Why are you turning red?" He asked. I avoided his imploring gaze, staring at the wooden planks under my feet. I could all but hear the impish smile work its way across his features. "What is it? Tell me!"

"Never mind! It's none of your concern!" I spat. He opened his mouth, likely to debate my response, but I didn't give him the chance to speak. "Now, as I was saying. As someone who the Captain regards as reliable, what sort of tasks does she entrust--"

I had managed to distract him from prying further into the history between Sakrua and I, but not in the way I had hoped. There was a flicker of intelligence in his eyes, and he then proceeded to openly accuse me of what he had come to suspect. "I know what you're getting at!" I sorely hoped he didn't, otherwise he would be a great deal less dense than I had measured him to be, and that would make the task at hand all the more difficult. Unfortunately, for once, he managed to surpass my expectations. "You're on the hunt for your sword! The Captain warned me that this would eventually happen, that she did. Ha! Tell you what, you tell me what relations you had with our lady Captain back then, and I'll tell you what I know about your sword."

I certainly hadn't expected him to make such an offer. It was suspicious, certainly, that he would be willing to betray Sakura's confidence just for a bit of trivia, but maybe he was not quite so trustworthy as the Captain had gathered. I weighed the benefits and drawbacks of such an arrangement in my head. I felt that I would rather die than reveal the details of our engagement, but was it really worth keeping them secret when a chance at my freedom was offered to me on a silver platter? "How do I know you'll keep your word?" I asked with skepticism.

He placed his hand at his heart in an over-exaggerated motion. "I swear on my honor as a former solider that I will reveal all and any information on the hiding place of your weapon if you tell me the story behind the Captain and yourself." He said, and he sounded honest enough to me. Besides, I could hardly argue with the honor of one serving the crown, even if they no longer did so, and even if they were, at present, a pirate.

Before I had the time to change my mind, I blurted: "Sakura and I were to be married." His mouth hung open in a perfect "O". He blinked a few times as the words settled in his head, and then his expression twisted into something unidentifiable – an odd mixture of mortification, amusement, and fear. "You mustn't tell anyone, not even Sakura, what I've told you. You understand? Otherwise, I will disembowel you. You have not experienced such pain as I will inflict on you, if you breath a word of this to anyone. Now, keep your end of the bargain. Where have you hidden my sword?"

He didn't answer at first, and simply continued to stare at me with his mouth agape, letting loose a few disturbed laughs. "Married?" He repeated incredulously, eyebrows high. "Engaged? You two?"

"You made me a promise." I growled, lowering my voice to a dangerous, warning tone. I was beginning to think hadn't any intention of telling me in the first place, and was now trying to dodge around it by acting dumbfounded by my revelation. "My sword, Uzumaki. What have you done with it?" I repeated, and this was the last time I would ask. If necessary, I would move on to more violent means of obtaining the intelligence I desired.

"Oh, right!" He exclaimed. "I haven't done anything with it! I know nothing about it at all aside from that Sakura has given it to someone to hide, and that person is not myself." When he finished speaking he smiled at me smugly before doing the only smart thing I had seen him do since our meeting, and he fled out of my grasp. I came after him, but by the time I had forced my way through the numerous onlookers barring my path, he was already safely behind a locked door. I smashed my fist against the door that separated us and muttered curses at him under my breath. From the other side, I could hear him laughing. "Engaged!" He cried in between 'ha!'s.

I had been deceived. He had led me on to believe that he was the sole person who knew of the hiding place of my sword in order to extract a humiliating secret from me. Possibly, he was more clever than I gave him credit for. Not that I would ever admit it out loud. I made a note to disfigure him beyond recognition at a later date – today, I was too busy to deal with him, and I was most certainly too furious. If I indulged in my anger, it would more than likely lead to a mass slaughter of innocent bystanders.

I had already considered that it would be easier for me to acquire another weapon rather than relocate my own, but I had grown severely attached to my sword, and could no sooner leave it behind than I could Hinata. Besides, I was not so easily deterred. I prided myself in the fact that I was not quick to quit. One way or another, I would see to it that my weapon was safely in my hands before I made my escape.

I was beginning to think that Naruto was too obvious a choice. Sakura was by no means a fool, and probably would have figured I would search Naruto first if and when I decided to reclaim what she had taken from me. It would have to be someone else whom she held in high regard, but wouldn't expect me to ask. I searched the faces of the crew, judging their potential, and dismissing them quickly, until my eyes found Ino. She was too flirtatious and irritating for me to want to seek company with regularly, and surely the Captain must have realized this. Because I normally would have avoided a person such as Ino at every available turn, it made her a perfect candidate.

There was no need for me to announce my presence, she noticed me coming towards her right away. "Afternoon, Solider." She called. "And how are we feeling today? It looks like the swelling has gone down." She gestured towards my bandaged forehead. I would have been appreciative of her concern if it wasn't meant in a teasing way, or if it hadn't reminded me of my embarrassing injury. I tried to conceal a frown.

"I'm doing well." I replied for the sake of courtesy. I planned to be straightforward with her – to avoid getting myself into a similar situation as the one I was in with Naruto, and I made no delay in getting to my point. "I didn't walk this way for pleasantries, however. Did the Captain give you my sword to hide?"

She didn't bat an eyelash. "If I were, what makes you suppose I would tell you?" She asked with a playful smirk, shifting her weight from one foot to another in a dramatic display of swishing her hips. Even though it was for my benefit, I paid her motions no notice. She did have a point – few would openly admit that they had been entrusted with the task of stashing my possessions. But what she would not reveal in her words, however, I hoped she would reveal in her actions. She showed no indication of being guilty of my suspicions, but I still couldn't be sure.

"Doesn't hurt to try." I replied in a hard, flat voice. Truthfully, as proved by my previous attempt with Naruto, it could be harmful to try.

She looked one direction, then the other, then back and forth again in a shifty, overly cautious way. She pursed her lips together, then beckoned me closer with her index finger. I more than willingly obliged, eager to hear what I hoped would put and end to my search, which had proved to be fruitless so far. I bent in closer, and she did likewise, and while I expected her to whisper something worthwhile in my ear, she instead grabbed my face in between either of her hands and planted a sloppy kiss on my mouth.

I tore away from her with much indignity, and she threw her head back and howled with laughter. I tried to think of something intelligent and reprimanding to say, but came up blank. Was I cursed to have every endeavor I made in hopes of locating my weapon end in humiliation? It was certainly beginning to seem that way. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and Ino's laughing, without any warning, came to a dead halt. She had blanched, and her wides eyes were fixated on something over my shoulder. I turned to see what she was staring at the find the Captain standing behind us, looking ravenous, startled, and like she was about to cry, all at the same time.

She slapped me. Her bare hand flew across my face with enough force to leave a serious bruise, and my head snapped in the direction which she had forced it. She seemed as equally surprised about the fact that she had hit me as I was, and alternated between gawking at her hand in disbelief and watching the red mark form on my cheek. By now, not a single pair of eyes belonging to a person atop the deck were not glued to us. No one spoke. No one dared to so much as breathe.

If I had thought her behavior earlier today strange – now I thought it perfectly and entirely peculiar. I had been warned many a time that a woman can be unpredictable, but I had never expected such unpredictability as this, and certainly not from the Captain, who although complex, was very stable and rarely steered away from her natural way of behaving.

If it were not odd enough that she seemed shaken by her own actions, instead of reverting back to anger, as would be appropriate and habitual of her, she all the sudden became uncharacteristically timid. Her face turned red from the base of her neck to her hairline, and she scurried away and made a beeline for her quarters. My eyes followed her figure until it disappeared behind the door to her room, which was slammed shut and finally broke the silence that had fallen over the entire vessel. Slowly, one by one, people resumed their work. I looked at Ino, both to hopefully find some answer from her and send her a nasty look for having caused this whole mess. For once, she chose to ignore me, and wordlessly walked off to find something or other to busy herself with.

Even Naruto had emerged from his hiding place to discover the source of all the commotion. He looked as bamboozled as the rest of us, and stared at me questioningly. Fortunately for him, after Sakura's queer actions, I no longer had the energy to feel like maiming him. Women were completely exhausting. I had barely spoken two words to her – in fact, I hadn't spoken any – today, and yet, she had already dumped me from my cot and slapped me, both with no good reason. My frustration over her was even enough to overcome the disgust I had felt at being kissed by the other woman, whose actions were possibly matched to Sakura's in the category of confusing. Women. How any man could willingly resign himself to marriage was beyond me.

I don't know whether it was by courage or stupidity that I compelled myself, but I made up my mind to go after her and demand to know what wrong I had done her to deserve such treatment. I set off after her, only pausing for a few seconds at the door to reconsider whether or not it was for the best to enter. I quickly tossed away all doubts, and knocked once before making an entrance. She had seated herself on her bed, facing away from me, and was absolutely still. "What on earth..." I began, steadying my voice and squaring my shoulders. As if I could intimidate her. "Is the matter with you today?"

She did not reply, or noticeably move, for that matter. "If I have done something to offend you," I continued, "which I often have no reservations in doing – the least you could do is let me know what it is, per say, that I have offended you about. That way, I could reluctantly apologize, if I should so feel the need, or continue to offend you further, if I should feel the need to do that instead, so that I could at least stand on equal ground to your harsh actions towards me."

Again, she voiced not a word in response. I could feel the anger boiling in my veins, threatening to bubble up over the surface. How childish of her to ignore me. How rude! I much preferred her yelling insults at me to her silence. "And now I am to be ignored, am I? First I am to be tossed from my bed, then I am to be slapped, and now I shall be ignored?" I snapped, stepping towards her. "What's wrong? Cat got your tongue? Of all the times he could have spared me the suffering of listening to the obnoxious sound of your voice, he chooses now? What fine blooding timing!" I was not trying to be overly cruel. I was only trying to provoke her into responding.

She had become as immobile and soundless as a statue. "You are insufferable!" I cried, and finally reached over to grab her chin and force her to look at me, just in time to watch the first tears spill out of the corners of her eyes. Her chest heaved and she sobbed. Her watery green irises, rimmed with red and swollen whites, were directed downwards to avoid meeting my gaze. She was biting her bottom lip, and choking back the following sobs that tried to force their way out. She eventually gave up her futile struggle to keep her cries held back, and fell into a fit of miserable wails.

I was stunned senseless. I did nothing when she grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled herself against my chest, neither push her away or embrace her. When I was capable of gathering coherent thought, I reached out to pat her awkwardly on the head. I let it rest in her hair until after her crying had ceased and she looked up at me in such a way that it caused my breath to hitch. She uncoiled one of her hands from the cloth of my shirt and reached outwards with it to touch my cheek where she had left her mark. She stood on her tip toes, and leaned in towards me, much in the way that her friend had. My heart stopped and restarted. She closed her eyes.

I was honestly convinced she was going to do it, but what surprised me more was that I didn't have it in my mind to stop her.

Instead, she slapped me. Again. Then she put her hands against my shoulders and gave me a firm push, so that I stumbled back against my cot. "I detest you with every ounce of being I possess!" She yelled. "I would rather hang myself than fall in--! F-fall 'n...lo... F-ffaa...!" She turned crimson and began to stammer so terribly that nothing she said was comprehensible any longer, until she shrieked: "BEGONE FROM MY SIGHT!"

I quickly did as told, a good more terrified than I had been in a long while. She was completely unstable and mad. I made a hasty escape, barely avoiding an item flung at my head as I went out the door, shutting it behind me. I looked forwards to find myself face to face with the man who had assaulted me with a frying pan, and jolted in surprise. "Sir," he greeted me with his unconvincing smile. "I've been meaning to speak with you."

"Now is not the time." I said curtly, but truthfully. I was in no state of mind to deal with anybody sensibly at the moment, I was still much too staggered by what had just transpired between myself and the Captain – what it had been, I wasn't at all sure. I hadn't the foggiest idea.

"There's no time like the present." He insisted. I sighed in annoyance. "It will only take a moment, if you'd be willing to follow me somewhere more private, the kitchen, perhaps?" I let my shoulders sag in defeat and obliged, trailing after him as he lead the way to the kitchen. I was relieved to find that Lee was nowhere in sight, which was strange, because he rarely left the confines of the kitchen or stopped for a moment's break from working. The man, Sai, I believe it was – continued into the back, where not another soul was to be seen or heard from, before opening his mouth to speak.

"Firstly, I'd like to apologize for the manner in which I stopped you in the market place the other day. You see, I needed to find some way of obtaining the Captain's attention, and you presented me with a good opportunity to do so." I didn't interrupt him, and he went on. "Secondly, I'd like to clarify that I meant you no offense by challenging you to a duel. I, of course, have heard much of your fencing talent, and only wished to see if it was truly what it was appraised to be."

His smile spread at noticing my apparent lack of understanding. "I suppose I should explain, shouldn't I?" He added. "The word of your abduction, and that of the Hyuuga heiress and her cousin, has reached many ears. At the port I recognized you at once, and there are few hats less famous than the one the Captain was wearing at the time." He swept into a graceful bow. "Officer Sai, at your service, Lieutenant."

A l l O f T h e m B u r n e d A s I S a i l e d

Ho ho ho. MEEERRRY Christmas.

Or, for those of you who are politically correct: Ho ho ho. HAAAPPPY Holidays.

-Hides behind protectively fortress built to defend against angry readers demanding to know what I've been doing with myself for these many months-

Heh heh heh... HOLY CRAP, LOOK OVER THERE! IT'S CHAPTER ELEVEN! ... Bonzaaaiii? I lurve you all....?