Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots (meaning the ones you don't recognize!) are mine. This fanfiction has been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
Title: The Chance
Summary: Sakura discovers just how different it is to go on a mission led by Uchiha Itachi. Non-massacre AU.
A/N: Here's another of my attempt at a one shot. Hope you'll enjoy it.
The Chance by elle6778
She would show them.
Emerald eyes narrowed in determination. Yes, she would definitely show them.
Cha! Naruto and Sasuke would not know what hit them when she was done. Never again would they think that she was only suited to be a base medic in the hospital in Konoha. How could they even think of something like that? Had they forgotten how she could easily shatter a mountain with a single punch of her fist?
Growling softly under her breath, Sakura drew back her glowing fist and slammed it into the ground for what seemed like the hundredth time, even though it was much less than that in reality. Fuelled by her fury, her tightly controlled chakra fractured the earth and sent cracks radiating outwards from the point of contact. Large chunks of rock shot straight up in the air before they fell heavily to the ground in front of her.
Panting with a mix of anger and exertion, Sakura glared at the mutilated training ground before her.
It was too dangerous for her, they had said. A male medic was more suitable, they had said. It was best that she stayed in Konoha this time round, they had said. Well, they had said a lot of things that she did not want to hear.
A small voice in her head, too quiet and polite to be Inner Sakura, told her that she was overreacting. It told her that Naruto and Sasuke had not meant to belittle her when they said it was best for her to stay behind. They obviously cared for her a lot and would never hurt her deliberately.
How was she supposed to react then? She had wanted to go on a mission with them, but they preferred to take a different medic. Granted that the medic was a male shinobi, but what could he do that she could not? Why had Naruto and Sasuke chosen a male medic to go this morning instead of taking her with them? It was a long mission as well, which meant that she would not be seeing them for a few weeks. This was not the first time they had done this to her either and as usual, Kakashi had said nothing to stop them.
So much for being a team.
Glowering darkly, she spun around to leave, only to stop short when she realized that her path was blocked.
A pair of onyx eyes was staring straight at her.
Already in a foul mood, she only graced Sasuke's brother with a curt nod before she slid around him. As she walked away, she could feel his eyes on her back. She expected it to cease but five steps later, her shinobi senses told her that he was still staring at her. For some reason, that irritated her further and her steps promptly halted.
She spun around, arching her brow questioningly. "Yes?" she snapped tersely.
He did not move from the spot or even say anything in response to her. Not that it was surprising. Although it was rare to see the ANBU captain in Konoha, it was not the first time she had seen Uchiha Itachi. And each time she had seen him, he was like this, contemplative and intense. It was fine when he directed that look towards someone else, but this time he was looking at her. What the hell was he thinking?
Growing increasingly impatient with his silence, Sakura scowled. "If you're after Sasuke, he has left on a mission."
"I am not looking for Sasuke."
So he could speak after all. Crossing her arms over her chest, she asked, "Then what are you doing here?"
"This is a Leaf training ground, is it not?" he asked smoothly, his expression betraying none of his emotion.
Realizing that he was effectively chiding her, Sakura's hackles rose. The urge to stomp up to him to wipe that bland look off his face with her fist was almost overwhelming. Fortunately, some smidgen of sanity prevented her from doing so. From what she had heard around Konoha, not to mention from Sasuke, Uchiha Itachi was not someone to be taken lightly. The fact that he had been made an ANBU captain at the age where most other shinobi were still genin said a lot about his skills.
Gnashing her teeth together, she gestured to the rubble-filled grounds. "Well, knock yourself out." Hopefully literally, she added to herself.
For a moment, she thought she saw amusement flash across his features, and then it was gone. Brushing it off as a figment of her imagination, Sakura spun around and continued to walk away from the training grounds.
She might as well go back to her safe job in the hospital now that she had vented her frustrations.
Two weeks had passed since Naruto and Sasuke had left with their male medic, leaving her teammate-less in Konoha. Since then, she had been busying herself in the hospital, patching up the injuries of wounded ninjas. She loved her job. She really did. But she had also wanted to go with Naruto and Sasuke on this mission. After all, it had been two months since her last one and she could not help but fear that she might end up getting rusty.
The threat of such a thing was enough to drag her out of bed two hours earlier each day for the past two weeks. Sakura had added those two hours to her usual one hour training sessions in the morning, determined to keep her skills polished even though she had no missions lined up in the foreseeable future.
The only problem was, people had begun to complain.
Because her chakra-laden attacks had made sure that Training Ground Three was no longer fit for anyone else's use unless, of course, they were planning to train their balance on rough, jagged ground. Well, at least she had been keeping to one training ground. It could have been worse, right?
The intensity of her training did not go unnoticed by her shrewd shishou. And that was possibly why she was currently standing in Tsunade's office, peering at her shishou questioningly.
Tapping on a pile of paper, Tsunade asked, "What is the meaning of this, Sakura?"
Sakura blinked. "Complaints?"
Tsunade smacked her palm on the pile. "Yes. Complaints."
"Is this about Training Ground Three, Shishou?"
"It's not only about the training ground. When you start demolishing things at five in the morning, people will notice."
Sakura cringed. Oops! "Sorry."
Her shishou eyed her assessingly. "You're restless."
"This is because of the mission Naruto and Sasuke are on?"
The mere mention of it immediately brought forth a surge of annoyance. "You know I could have gone with them, Shishou."
"I know, Sakura. But they have their reasons for wanting a male medic."
Deciding to keep her opinions to herself this time, Sakura ground her teeth together.
Tsunade smirked. "It's just as well, then."
"Just as well what?"
"I'm assigning you on a mission."
Sakura instantly brightened. "A mission?" Then her excitement dimmed a little when she realized something. "But Naruto and Sasuke are not here."
Waving about a dismissive hand, the Godaime replied, "It doesn't matter. You're heading out with another team. At least it will stop the complaints for a few days."
Now this was unexpected. Apart from Kakashi, Naruto and Sasuke, the only other shinobi she had teamed up with in the past were Yamato and Sai. She wondered if it was any of them, or maybe both of them.
A flying projectile jolted her out of her contemplations and Sakura caught the envelope before it could hit her face.
"Mission brief," Tsunade explained. "Study it tonight and meet up with your team tomorrow morning at six."
Curious about her mission, Sakura pulled out the sheets of paper. Her eyes immediately widened when she saw the little mark on the top right corner. A wide grin slowly spread across her features as it sank in. Shannaro! This was more like it. It was an S-rank mission!
"Who are in the team?" she asked, growing increasingly excited at the pending challenge.
"Not anyone you worked with before."
"Oh." She did not know what to think of that.
The Godaime arched a brow. "Is that a problem?"
"No!" Sakura quickly said. "I'm flexible. Very flexible."
Tsunade smiled. "Good. And Sakura?"
"It's not that I think you couldn't manage, but try to stay out of the fights if you can on this mission. Keep to your medic tasks."
Emerald eyes narrowed slightly. Oh, no. Tsunade did not just say that. "Why?" Sakura asked, trying to keep her tone level.
"You will see when you meet up with them tomorrow."
Sakura blinked at the cryptic words, wondering what she had let herself in for.
So this was what Tsunade had meant yesterday when she told her to stay away from the fighting. She was going out on a mission with an ANBU squad. And not any ANBU squad either, she thought with some trepidation as she eyed the three shinobi standing outside the tall Konoha gates. Each of them were clad in the standard issue ANBU attire, complete with the masks hanging around their necks.
There was Shino, the specialist bug user, one of Konoha's best trackers. Standing next to him was Genma, the relentless flirt and master of weapons. And then there was their infamous captain.
This was unbelievable. There she was, Haruno Sakura, a jounin medic who had been hankering for a mission for weeks. And now look what she had gotten herself into.
A guest spot in Konoha's top ANBU squad.
Her encounter with Sasuke's brother in Training Ground Three instantly came to mind and she groaned inwardly. Hopefully, the Uchiha did not remember how rude she had been to him. She should have kept her mouth shut then. But it was too late to regret it now. She would behave professionally around him this time.
Her trepidation grew as her feet brought her closer to the three ANBU who were watching her silently. She wondered what they were thinking. Were they expecting someone more experienced? More skilled? What was Tsunade thinking anyway, assigning her to an ANBU squad? This was not what she had expected at all. She had expected a mission with a regular jounin team.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped up to the Uchiha. "Haruno Sakura reporting for duty."
He regarded her silently, his eyes traveling down to her jounin attire. Sakura suddenly felt defensive, even though she knew that the Uchiha should not be expecting her to wear the ANBU regulation outfit. She was not an ANBU operative after all.
Then to her surprise, a mask was thrust under her nose.
"This is yours for the duration of this mission."
A little hesitantly, her hand came up to take the mask from him, noting that it was similar to the rests' with its painted mouth and stripes of whiskers. Being with an ANBU squad obviously necessitated the use of the mask. And the fact that their captain carried an extra mask confirmed that he already knew that she was not an ANBU operative.
From what she had gleaned from the mission brief, she should not be surprised that Tsunade had assigned it to an ANBU squad. They had to track down some Rock-nins who had managed to kidnap a Hyuuga jounin a few days ago. The fact that they had managed to do so was enough to tell Sakura that the enemies were not to be underestimated. What was worse was that the kidnap had not come to light until yesterday, which meant that by now, those Rock-nins should already be back in their own country.
Glancing up from the mask towards their captain, Sakura nodded. "Thank you, Uchiha-san."
"Hey, hey! There's no need to be so formal!"
Sakura's head snapped to the side to find Genma beaming at her. Senbon sticking out of the corner of his mouth, he seemed to be the most vocal of this ANBU team and she hoped that his presence would make it easier for her to fit in. However, despite his easygoing attitude, Sakura had heard that he was vicious in battle.
"Good thing we need a four-man cell this time. It's not often that we get a kunoichi is this squad, you know?" he continued with a laugh. "I can't wait to see what you can do."
What a way to turn up the pressure on her to perform well, she thought dryly. Forcing out a smile, she responded, "Let's just hope that you're not disappointed."
"No lady will ever disappoint me, Sakura," he batted back flirtatiously.
Shaking her head as she chuckled, Sakura turned to Shino. With his sunglasses and the high collar under the ANBU vest, the Aburame hardly needed the mask to hide his features.
"Sakura," he began quietly. "We never worked together."
Not sure what to make of the bland statement, Sakura simply nodded. The last time she had come close to Shino was during their chuunin examinations five years ago, when most of them were only twelve. And now, at seventeen, Shino was already an ANBU operative.
"It is time."
The Uchiha's proclamation brought her attention back to him, only to see him pulling up his mask to cover his face. Following his example, Sakura strapped the mask on, instantly feeling a little disoriented by the obstruction in front of her face.
"Let's go!" Genma exclaimed.
Anticipation and determination coursing through her, Sakura streaked together with the three ANBU into the forest surrounding Konoha. This was her very first mission with an ANBU squad, and she would not let them down.
Sakura had anticipated some teething problems with her presence in this team. Not only she had not worked with any of them before, there was also the fact that they were ANBU operatives. Unlike Naruto's and Sasuke's relatively informal approach to their missions, Uchiha Itachi's ANBU team was tightly regimented. It was obviously not a problem for Shino, who never spoke much anyway. Genma, too, fitted in perfectly with the squad, adopting a professional air once the mission began.
Therefore, she was surprised to find that things had gone rather smoothly so far. They had traveled for the past one day with only brief breaks in between, downing soldier pills whenever their strength dropped. Every once in a while, Itachi would call out an instruction, keeping their attention focused. Quickly developing a wary respect for their captain, Sakura admitted that it was definitely a change to work with someone like him, compared to Kakashi, Naruto and Sasuke.
At the moment, they were speeding through the trees, heading north-west. Shino was in the lead, tracking the travel path of the kidnapped Hyuuga with the help of his bugs while Itachi and Genma flanked her front and back respectively. Judging by the way the lush vegetation gave way to sparser bushes, Sakura estimated that they would soon cross the border to Earth Country.
At Itachi's quiet voice, all of them halted instantly. Casting their captain an enquiring look, she waited until he turned to face them.
"Rest for now. In three hours, we will cross the border."
Itachi had been driving them forward for so long that she was stunned to hear his words. When he offered no reasons for his action, Sakura followed Shino and jumped off the tree branch. Genma was right behind her, landing by her side on the ground below.
Sakura sank to the grass, leaning against a tree. She was too pumped up with adrenaline to rest and she fought the urge to fidget. Glancing around, she noted that only three of them present. Itachi must have gone off to secure the area while they rested, she surmised.
"You better relax while you can."
She slid her gaze sideways to find Genma laying flat on his back not far from her. His mask was pushed up to rest on the top of his head, revealing his closed eyes and he was once again chewing on the end of a senbon. Taking a deep breath, she shifted attention to the ground and plucked a blade of grass.
"I can't relax," she admitted.
The senbon in his mouth twitched. "When Itachi orders us to rest, you better rest because you can bet that things are going to get damned hectic soon."
Without opening his eyes, Genma smirked. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
Sakura was about to say that it was unlikely that this would be a regular thing for her when Itachi suddenly appeared, breaking her train of thought. He was facing her but with his mask on, she could not tell if he was looking at her or at Genma. Then her spine stiffened slightly as the Uchiha came towards them, stopping right in front of her. Slowly, he lowered himself until his mask was level with her face.
"Haruno. Do you understand your role?"
What on earth was he asking? "I thought I'm here as a medic," she ventured cautiously.
"You are expected to act in the best interest of the mission."
His voice was smooth but the way he was looking at her through the holes in his mask brought forth a shiver of anxiety. Was this when he would tell her to stay out of their way? Did she come all the way out here only to be pushed aside?
Genma interjected then. "The Godaime refused allow a non-ANBU to join the squad unless it is a medic," he explained quickly. "Itachi just told her what she wanted to hear. You're expected to work fully with us."
"Oh." Not certain that she fully understood what was going on, she prodded, "So, does that mean that I won't be standing back while the rest of you fight?"
Genma snorted. "That's very unlikely."
Brightening at the prospect of being a real part of the squad, Sakura sat up straighter. Cha! This was really the chance she was looking for. A real chance to prove herself.
"You are in Sasuke's team, are you not?"
Wondering what was the relevance of Itachi's statement to the mission, Sakura nodded once. She then watched as Itachi pushed his mask up, revealing his chiseled features. A stray thought entered her mind then, that like Sasuke, Itachi was a very good looking man. Sadly, his icy reputation and his arrogance was sort of off-putting.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, growing slightly unnerved by the contemplative look on Itachi's face.
"Who is the team leader?"
Sakura blinked at the unexpected question. "Um… We just work together. I guess normally Kakashi is the one who ends up being the one giving orders."
Not that the three of them always complied with the Copy-nin's instructions. Wincing inwardly, Sakura recalled how Naruto and Sasuke would shoot off more often than not when Kakashi told them to hold back. The chain of authority was practically non-existent and it was not helped by Kakashi's laid-back approach.
From what she had seen so far of the Uchiha, she knew that he would not tolerate such a thing. Her thoughts were confirmed when the Uchiha spoke, his eyes never leaving hers.
"In this squad, you will obey my instructions without question, is that clear?"
Uchiha Itachi exuded authority even though he never raised his voice and for a moment, something within her wanted to rebel. Fortunately for her, she had the presence of mind to simply nod at the Uchiha, swallowing her initial impulse. It would not do to antagonize her captain just before the mission.
Especially when said captain was Uchiha Itachi.
All too soon, their brief three hours of rest had passed and they were once again traveling through the forest. This time though, there were a palpable tension in the air, especially after they entered Earth Country. She could tell from their tense postures that the three ANBU around her were prepared for any eventuality.
True to Genma's prediction, their journey was soon interrupted by a group of shinobi from the Hidden Rock Village not long after they crossed the border. Between the four of them, they managed to take down the two teams of Rock border patrol, allowing them to continue tracking the kidnapped Hyuuga's trail.
Shino's bugs soon led them to a building constructed solidly of stone. It was a veritable fortress and Sakura could not help but wonder how they would get in. Even though this was not the Iwagakure's main stronghold, it was obvious that it was well-protected.
She glanced at the Uchiha. "Yes?"
Her eyes widened at his words before her attention darted back towards the large stone structure. Tsunade's warning came to mind then. But then again, so did the conversation with Itachi and Genma earlier. Tsunade was not here, therefore the choice was clear. Besides, she had been itching for some action, right?
"Destroy it." Itachi paused briefly before he added mockingly, "Unless you're incapable of doing so."
Affronted by his insinuation, her eyes immediately narrowed. He had seen her demolish an entire training ground, so why would he question such a thing unless it was to rile her? She might be just a jounin medic among the elite ANBU operatives, but she would show Itachi that she was not a dead-weight in this squad.
Drawing her chakra to her fist, she tensed in preparation before she pulled her arm back. Then a deafening crack sounded as her chakra-laden fist connected with the base of the wall. In seconds, the wall fractured and crumbled down, leaving a gaping opening staring back at them.
Genma laughed out loud. "Damn! Itachi sure picked the right one for the job this time."
"He always does," Shino murmured behind his mask.
"Those fists of hers can do some real damage, huh," Genma added, turning to Itachi.
She did not know what they meant, but she was happy that she had managed to create an entry point for them into the main hall. This was so different from what she was used to because no matter how strong she had grown, Naruto and Sasuke always felt as if they had to protect her. It must be from the time she had been the weakest in the team, back when they were still genin, but it was irritating as hell.
"Brute force is useful at times," Itachi acknowledged as he jumped over the rubble into the building.
Brute force indeed, Sakura thought testily as she followed through. Like she had no other skills to speak of. Uchiha Itachi did not know what else she was capable of. But she would make sure that he knew by the end of this mission.
Before she could draw another breath, shouts rang through the air, telling them that the enemy forces had been alerted to their presence. Knowing that things would get stickier now, Sakura flexed her fingers, trying to ease her anxiety. It had been a long time since she was thrust right in the thick of enemy territory on a mission.
The first wave of Rock-nins came upon them quickly and Sakura immediately sprang into action. Adrenaline coursing through her veins, she swung her chakra-laden fists at every opponent who had the misfortune of coming into contact with her. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Genma releasing a rain of senbon towards the Rock-nins while their captain took a significant number out with his fire jutsu.
Then she felt a heavy flare of chakra behind her. Glancing briefly over her shoulders, she caught a sight which made her jaw drop.
Shino's arms were raised and his black bugs were streaming out from his sleeves, forming a large wall-like mass between him and the Rock-nins. The sheer number of bugs were unbelievable and she wondered how Shino had managed to fit so many in his body.
"Shiranui, Haruno, move forward," Itachi ordered crisply as he streaked towards a darkened tunnel leading away from the main hall.
Casting an anxious glance back at Shino's lone figure, Sakura hesitated. "But Shino is alone."
Suddenly, Itachi was so close that her breath hitched in her throat. The man was undeniably one of the most intimidating persons she had met even though one could not tell from his constantly impassive expression. The only outward sign of his anger was the steely look in his crimson eyes, visible through the holes in his masks but there was no mistaking that she was currently the object of his displeasure.
"You will follow orders without question."
"I am not my brother, Haruno. And this is not Hatake's team."
His tone brought forth a spark of anger but once again, there was something about him which stilled her tongue. She was so used to talking back and questioning things that she had not thought twice about doing so a while ago. Now, it was more than clear to her that the ANBU captain had no intention of entertaining her questions. There was only one leader in the squad and he expected to be obeyed.
This time she complied instantly, running alongside Genma as they slipped deeper into the tunnel. The sound of her steps were subtle, almost drowned by the pounding of her heart. The thing was, she was not sure if her heart was pounding because of the stress of being in enemy territory, leaving Shino behind or because of her reaction to Itachi's annoyance.
"Shino can handle it."
Sakura blinked at Genma's quiet words. Grateful for his reassurance, she nodded at him and sighed. "Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut," she murmured quietly.
A soft chuckle came from behind the mask. "Don't mind the captain. He is always wound up during a mission, even though you can't tell from that face."
Her eyes went to the speeding form in front of them, taking in the tightly coiled muscles of their captain's upper arms. Genma was right. Itachi seemed tense. Shaking herself inwardly, she told herself to just concentrate on the mission.
A metal door loomed before them, blocking their path. Sakura's steps faltered, wondering if they had taken a wrong turn. Once they were in front of the door, they stopped.
Stopping, she glanced at the Uchiha. "Yes?"
"Limit your chakra and break the stone around the hinges," Itachi instructed.
"In other words, don't let the tunnel cave in on us, alright?" Genma added.
She nodded firmly. Heeding their words, she called forth a small amount of chakra to her fist and proceeded to drive it into a particular piece of stone next to the door. As expected, the stone shattered and the hinge became loose. Without a pause, Itachi stepped forward and sent the door flying with one single kick.
Path cleared, they continued to streak forward again.
As they reached a four-way junction in the tunnel, Sakura heard the thundering sound of footsteps coming from the left. The enemies were heading straight for them.
"Shiranui," Itachi called out firmly without breaking a step.
"You guys go ahead. I'll deal with them," Genma proclaimed, instantly understanding their captain's intent after so many years of being in a squad together.
Itachi glanced at her over his shoulders. "Haruno, speed up."
They left Genma behind as they rushed forward but this time, Sakura did not protest. She had learnt her lesson when it came to Itachi. Much as she hated being ordered around, Itachi was the captain here and he had every right to do so. And besides, if Shino and Genma trusted his decisions, who was she to think otherwise? They had been in his squad for some time now, if she recalled correctly.
Soon, the tunnel ended at a large chamber which served as a prison. All around, there were vertical steel bars running from floor to ceiling. The prisoners behind the bars were in various states of unconsciousness.
Including the one they came for.
It took them only a few seconds to incapacitate the lone guard. Just as she was about to rush to the bars, a commotion from the tunnel drew her attention. Sakura immediately tensed when she counted the individual chakra signatures. There were around ten of the enemy forces heading towards them.
Itachi raised his arm and tossed a ring of keys in her direction. Catching it, she glanced back and forth between the prison bars and the Uchiha.
"Release and heal him. Quickly."
Her eyes flicked towards the tunnel opening, wondering how she was supposed to follow his orders when there were so many enemies headed towards them. Then recalling what had happened earlier when she questioned him, she kept her mouth shut and simply nodded.
"I will handle them," he assured her just as she turned to the bars.
By the time she found the correct key to release the lock, a wave of enemy forces had begun to enter the chamber. Ignoring the sound of furious battle behind her, Sakura focused her concentration on the pale Hyuuga slumped against the wall.
He was unconscious and there was dried blood all over his body. Her heart wrenched when she saw the sliced skin around his eyes. It was obvious that the enemy had been trying to learn the secret of Byakugan without taking out the Hyuuga's eyes. Probably because they did not know if those eyes would survive outside a Hyuuga body. Angry at the treatment of her fellow Leaf-nin, Sakura hoped that Shino, Genma and Itachi would teach them a lesson they would not forget.
Hands glowing with healing chakra, she swept her palm over the wounds, intent on healing the Hyuuga. Sweat beaded her forehead underneath her mask as she concentrated, keeping in mind that Itachi wanted this done quickly. The longer they stayed, the higher the chance there was of the Rock-nin's back-up arriving.
When the last of her patient's wounds had closed, Sakura withdrew her chakra and hefted the unconscious Hyuuga onto her shoulders. She quickly spun around to find Itachi staring at the last of the enemy nins. Her lips parted when she realized that he was probably using his Sharingan to cast a genjutsu on the unfortunate nin. Itachi turned around then, and their eyes locked through the holes in their masks. A shiver ran up her spine at the crimson orbs staring back at her. Knowing Sasuke as well as she did, she knew just how lethal their bloodline limit could be and could not help but feel a little wary.
Their gaze broke when Genma rushed into the chamber.
"We are clear to go. Shino is keeping watch outside."
Itachi nodded. "Take the Hyuuga, Shiranui. Haruno is low on chakra."
Sakura's lips parted, surprised at his perceptiveness. Perhaps this was why he was held in such high regard. Uchiha Itachi missed nothing. Before she could utter a word, Genma had already hoisted the Hyuuga onto his own shoulder and urged her to leave.
As they ran along the tunnel leading to the exit, Sakura took in the large numbers of bodies littering the stone floor. Many of them were dead but there was still some left alive. All she could think of was that the Rock-nins would now think twice about kidnapping any Leaf-nins. Good, she thought with narrowed eyes as she recalled how injured the Hyuuga had been.
Soon, they exited the tunnel and then joined Shino outside the main chamber. No words passed between any of them as they left the compound, heading south towards their own country. This time, they were moving faster than before. Thankful that Itachi had made sure she was not weighed down by another body, Sakura managed to keep up.
Before she knew it, they were safely back on the Fire Country side of the border. Pushing his mask to the top of his head with one hand, Genma laughed, a joyous sound which echoed through the forest.
Punching one free fist in the air, he hollered, "Congratulations, squad. The mission is a success!"
Taking off his mask, Shino eyed the other man over his sunglasses. "Don't drop the Hyuuga," he cautioned.
Exhilaration coursed through Sakura when Genma's words sank in fully. She had just completed her first ANBU level mission. Pulling down her own mask, she inhaled deeply, letting her lungs fill with the foresty scent of Fire Country.
"So, Taishou, sake on you tonight when arrive at Konoha?" Genma asked, placing a senbon in his mouth as he secured the unconscious Hyuuga against his shoulder with one hand.
Itachi shook his head once, but there was no mistaking the gleam of amusement in his eyes. Like the rest of them, he had pushed his mask away from his face. Sakura noted that the tension in his form was now gone, even though it had been barely perceptible in the first place.
Shino intoned quietly, "Shiranui, you should know better."
Leaping sideways in a single step, Genma smacked the back of Shino's head. "What's with the glum voice again? Honestly, Shino, just chill for a bit. We just finished a mission."
Sakura laughed out loud when the Aburame lowered his sunglasses fully to glare at the grinning Genma. She snuck a quick glance towards their captain, noting that the corner of his lips was slightly tilted. He must be really pleased with the outcome of the mission to exhibit that little physical sign.
As they began to move again, Sakura could not help but wonder what Naruto and Sasuke would think of this mission.
Their feet tapped lightly against the concrete floor as they made their way up to the Hokage's office. Knowing that Tsunade would require her to report on the medical side of things, Sakura had decided to go together with the ANBU captain.
On the rest of the way back, she had thought over her experience with the ANBU squad. While mulling over how it had affected her, she had gained a new appreciation for her teammates. Although Sasuke had always been professional voice in Team Kakashi, she could always count on Naruto to provide a bit of lightheartedness in their missions. Team Kakashi's missions had never felt as intense as the one she had just gone through with the ANBU squad. It was only at the end that Genma had allowed himself to ease up.
On the other hand, the ANBU mission had raised her confidence in herself. She should not have any doubts in her skills but after years of feeling as if Naruto and Sasuke were constantly looking to protect her, she could admit now that she had felt lacking in some ways. The fact that she had managed to successfully complete this mission confirmed that she was anything but lacking.
Now all she had to do was to convince Naruto and Sasuke of this little fact.
Her steps faltered as she heard the loud voice coming from Tsunade's office; Naruto's voice to be specific.
"I can't believe it!" the blonde bellowed.
"Shut up, dobe!" came Sasuke's calmer voice.
"She sent Sakura on a S-rank mission, teme! Why should I shut up?"
"That's enough, Uzumaki!" Tsunade bit out impatiently. "She should be back soon."
"But why! There are so many medics around. Why Sakura?"
"Uchiha requested her specifically."
Sakura glanced sharply at the stoic figure beside her. Itachi displayed no indication that he had heard anything, but she was certain that he did. It came as a surprise that he had specifically asked for her. In fact, she did not even realize that he knew who she was in the first place. Genma's words from a couple of days ago suddenly made sense. The Uchiha had selected her to go with them.
"Itachi requested Sakura?" Sasuke asked quietly, even though there was no mistaking the astonishment in his tone.
Tsunade chuckled. "Why are you surprised? Sakura is the most skilled medic after Shizune."
"But it's an ANBU mission! An S-ranked ANBU mission! It's far too dangerous for her," Naruto yelled agitatedly. "You wouldn't even send me and teme on those missions alone!"
"Sakura is not ANBU," Sasuke muttered thoughtfully.
Sakura's eyes narrowed as their words reached her. Too dangerous? This was the problem, wasn't it? Naruto and Sasuke always thought she could not handle herself. Hands clenched into fists, she was about to rush down the hallway to storm into the Hokage's office to tell them what she thought of their perception of her abilities.
Then she felt a firm hand on her shoulder. Surprised, she shot a glance at Itachi.
"Wait and listen."
Her lips parted in surprise. It sounded almost as if Itachi was interested in what was happening in there. Why? Was it because Sasuke was involved? It was no secret that Sasuke looked up to him and would do anything to prove himself to Itachi. But how did this involve her?
Tsunade spoke next. "If going with ANBU is too dangerous, then you should have take her with you in the first place, hm? I think you don't give Sakura enough credit. If she is good enough for an ANBU squad, she is good enough for a jounin team."
Naruto sputtered, "B-But…"
"She's right, dobe," Sasuke interjected. "Itachi wouldn't ask for her if he thinks that Sakura is a liability. He wouldn't protect her."
Sakura felt herself warm at Sasuke's acknowledgement. Finally.
Itachi's word jolted her out of her thoughts. Without a word, she followed the Uchiha as he closed the short distance between them and the Hokage's office. He knocked on the door and waited for Tsunade's call to enter before he pushed the door open.
"You!" Then Naruto's eyes slid past Itachi and his features immediately brightened. "Sakura!" he yelled.
Sakura braced herself for the impact as Naruto rushed over to hug her. Then she laughed slightly as he pulled back to run his eyes over her, his hands holding her shoulders as if he was not planning to let go soon. Sasuke had appeared behind him but his greeting comprised of a single inclination of his head instead of Naruto's more exuberant version. The concern in his eyes was real, though.
"Are you alright?" Naruto asked, his features suffused with anxiety.
"I'm alright, Naruto," she assured him, peeling his hands off her shoulders.
"You went on an ANBU mission!" Naruto accused with a frown. "You could have gotten yourself killed!"
Grinning, Sakura replied, "I'm quite alive, thank you. And it was a successful mission."
"So it went smoothly?" Tsunade asked, turning her attention to the older Uchiha. "You retrieved the package?"
Itachi inclined his head. "He is in the hospital."
"His condition, Sakura?"
"I've neutralized the drug in his system. Apart from dehydration and lack of chakra, Hyuuga Hiroshi is fine. Both of his eyes are intact."
Tsunade's eyes gleamed with approval. "Good. I expect a full written report from both of you."
"Itachi. Come back in two days. I have another mission lined up for your squad."
The Uchiha nodded. "Haruno Sakura should be present for the briefing as well."
Jaw dropping, Sakura shot a sharp glance towards Itachi. When the Uchiha refused to look at her, she pinned her gaze on the surprised Godaime. What on earth was Itachi trying to say? That he wanted her on his team for their next mission?
Naruto's voice pierced the air. "WHAT?" Spinning towards Itachi, the blonde continued indignantly, "Wait a minute! You can't drag Sakura off with you on your ANBU missions whenever you feel like it, damn it!"
"Why not?" Itachi asked quietly. "Her skills are useful."
"She is not even ANBU!"
"Something that could be rectified easily," Itachi remarked, his expression as impassive as ever.
"Sakura is coming with us on our next mission," Sasuke declared flatly as he locked eyes with his brother. "I'm sorry, Nii-san but Sakura is already in a team with us."
"Yeah, she is our teammate," Naruto snapped, glaring at the older Uchiha.
"You are not able to replace her?" Itachi asked evenly, completely unperturbed by Naruto's fury.
Sakura sucked in a sharp breath just as Naruto and Sasuke both cried, "No!"
Itachi raised a brow slightly before he spun around to face the door. "Very well. If you insist."
It was only when she saw how Naruto and Sasuke sag in relief that she realized just how tense they were. She supposed it was to be expected. After all, Itachi out-ranked them and if he insisted, protocol would compel Tsunade to instruct her to join Itachi's ANBU squad. It was not as if she did not enjoy working with the squad. It was on the contrary, in fact. But Naruto and Sasuke were closer to her heart and given a choice, she would prefer to remain with them.
Itachi paused next to the door. Without a single glance at her, he intoned, "Haruno. Keep the mask. You will need it another day."
Sakura swore that a choked sound came from Sasuke. And as expected, Itachi's words was enough to set Naruto off on a tirade again.
"Sakura belongs with Team Kakashi, damn it! She won't have time to run along with your ANBU squad!" Naruto yelled heatedly. "Go get some other medic!"
"Uzumaki!" Tsunade scolded with a frown.
"Shut up, dobe."
Itachi cast a glance at his brother. "If you wish to keep her, perhaps you should ensure that she has no reason to leave, Sasuke."
For a long moment, Sasuke simply stared at his brother. Then, slowly, he nodded. "I understand, Nii-san."
Sakura grinned inwardly as she eyed the door long after the older Uchiha had left. Even though it was not intentional, Itachi had done what she had not been able to do for the last few years.
Itachi had made Naruto and Sasuke see her as an equal, or at least, begin to do so. And she was grateful for that chance.
Maybe one day, she would think of a way to pay him back.
A/N: I hope you've enjoyed that. The sequel to this is a multichaptered fic called The Centerpiece. Please review if you could, okay?