***

I don't own Naruto. Masashi Kishimoto does. And I am fine with that. It's a new chapter. YAY!

***

Days passed unheeded as the pink-haired medic labored over Kakashi in an effort to drag him back to the world of consciousness. Healing Kakashi had become a form of therapy for her, a method to hold back the burgeoning depression resulting from Sasuke's exile. Despite her best intentions, Sakura caused her comrades to miss their departure deadline. Her hesitation to leave was duly noted by Tsunade, resulting in the young kunoichi receiving an ominous summons to the Hokage's office. Although Sakura walked into the office expecting to be chewed out for obviously shirking her duties as an ambassador, the young woman was ill-prepared for what her master had in store. She sat in stunned silence as Tsunade began recounting her rescue at Sasuke's hands and the resulting discussion that determined his fate.

".... It was actually the Uchiha boy's idea to be exiled. He apparently wanted to cut his ties with Konoha without being hunted down for the rest his life. I can't really blame him." Tsunade sighed rubbing her temples a bit. "It was sheer hell trying to convince the damn council that we should let Sasuke fly free. Apparently the boy has some idea that he can subdue Sound on his own."

Tsunade's pink-haired apprentice made no reply. She couldn't muster the brain power to be coherent. Too many thoughts and emotions were fluttering through her mind at rapid speeds, crashing into each other and bouncing off of her skull. She was unsure of how to react to all the information she was absorbing.

"So I bet you're wondering why I would even bother to depart this stuff to you." Tsunade stated, her voice becoming slightly gruff, "I was never one for all the coddling nonsense. I'm far from the most sensitive woman on this planet. I've seen far too much of reality to be affected by flights of fancy and emotion but... You are my apprentice. I have watched you grow from an unsure little girl with a mop of ragged pink hair to a young woman with enough inner strength and intelligence to one day surpass me. Although you never said as much, I know how the departure of the Uchiha boy affects you."

At that statement, Sakura looked away from the sharp amber eyes of the Hokage. She felt a great deal of shame at being so transparent to everyone. 'Tsunade must think I am a disgrace to appear to so weak...'

"You came to me an undisciplined genin with no self-esteem and a broken heart. Even then, I saw the greatness in you. In this world of war and sorrow that we live in, a part of being a shinobi is knowing that it is unwise to indulge too much of our emotions. However, your heart is your greatest strength as well as your greatest weakness. Your heart drives you to achieve the impossible but then you blame yourself for things you have no control over."

The young woman could feel herself begin to tremble with suppressed emotions. It took so much effort to remain composed before the strongest woman she knew. It would not do to shame herself before the Hokage.

"Sakura, look at me..." the older woman commanded, waiting patiently until her apprentice hesitantly complied. "Sasuke is driven by his own demons and would have left no matter how strong you were or how much you loved him. Stop blaming yourself. Stop trying to hide from the facts. You're suffering and holding yourself back for no reason. I will not allow you to continue this nonsense. You are a talented kunoichi with a duty to me and this village. Even though you try to hide it, you hold doubt in your own abilities. You are not useless nor are you the little girl left behind anymore. Find acceptance in that. This life we lead is full of heartbreak so learn to guard your heart. You can't fall to pieces, not now. Not ever."

"I understand..." Sakura replied evenly, despite the lump forming in her throat.

"As a woman, I have loved and lost. I know what it means to mourn but I also know that I have to continue to fulfill my duties to the ones who need me most. There are many who rely upon you. I have been patient enough. It is time for you to return to Suna."

"Yes, shisou."

"I will handle Kakashi's recovery from here on out. Although shutting yourself in a hospital room day in and day out with a semi-invalid is unhealthy behavior, you have managed to achieve the almost impossible. His vitals are strengthening daily and his spike in brain activity is remarkable. I congratulate you on your success." The Hokage continued as her voice softened. "You are dismissed Haruno. Hinata and the Suna ninjas have already been briefed on their upcoming return. Get some rest. You have a long trip ahead of you tomorrow."

Sakura left the Hokage tower on autopilot. She was still trying to sort through the mess of her emotions. Part of her already knew that if she went home now she would never be able to rest, not after the talk Tsunade had given her. The young woman did not want to think too deeply on her master's words. However they seemed to spring unbidden into her mind, filling her with restless energy and a slow burning rage. At this rate, the increasingly unstable kunoichi would snap. Rather than taking Tsunade's advice, she ended up on the training grounds bordering the village. It was only then that the she let loose her explosive fury.

The ground split beneath her feet as she smashed her fist into the earth. A tree to her left became her next victim, splintering in the wake of her anger. Another tree exploded, and then another as Sakura unleashed her pent up frustration on everything in her sight.

If you leave... to me... to me I would be just as alone as you...

I love you with all my heart...

If you were to stay with me... there would be no regrets...

Please, just stay with me...

Or take me with you if you can't stay here...

"How could I be so foolish!!!" she yelled as she shattered a huge boulder. Anger roiled in her gut as she remembered how naively she pleaded with Sasuke to remain by her side when he first left Konoha. She recalled every time that she threw herself in his path, wanting him to notice, wanting him to love her. He rejected her when they were 12 and he managed to throw her love back in her face once again.

Somehow he managed to coax a confession from her after his return, prompting her to make a vow to do anything for him. He taunted and teased her. He knew that he would be departing soon enough, leaving her to nurse a wounded heart again. It was unfair. The knowledge of his betrayal sent another blinding surge of anger coursing through her body as she decimated her surroundings. Sakura didn't even realize that torrents of tears poured from her eyes as she let loose cry after cry of sheer fury. Her emotional storm eventually ended in an explosion that lit the ravished training grounds with a flash of blinding light.

In the aftermath, Sakura did not know if she lay on her back in that smoking crater for mere minutes or hours. She could only concentrate on taking one ragged breath after another as her anger dimmed into resignation. A steady stream of tears slid across her dirt smudged cheeks and into the fine pink hair at her temples. She didn't bother to wipe them away. Instead she watched the stars blur in and out of focus while listening to the stillness all around her. The sky above faded to a menacing grayish black as clouds rolled in. The young kunoichi could feel the numerous cuts and bruises she acquired during her rampage. Rather than heal them with what little chakra she still had, she let the aches and pains remind her that she was indeed still among the living.

Eventually, her breathing evened and the tears dried, leaving salty streaks on her dirty cheeks. Overhead thunder rumbled a sign of an oncoming downpour. When the first drops began to fall, the young woman rose slowly and pulled herself out of the hole that she unwittingly dug. It was then that the rain fell in torrents, washing the mud and grime from her skin. She stood there for a moment with her face raised to the sky, letting rain pelt her. In that moment, Sakura willed her heartbreak to wash away along with the rain. It was then that she made a silent vow.

'I will guard this heart of mine from now on. I will never again forget who I am and what I am capable of. Never again will I let myself be so foolish. Never again will I love an illusion. Never again will I let my self worth be decided by those who cannot appreciate who I am. Never again will I cry for a fool... Never Again...'

With that vow, she squared her shoulders and left the training grounds.

***

Hinata could not help but to watch Sakura carefully as they traveled toward Suna. There was something about her pink-haired team leader that was different. The Hyuuga heiress had yet to put her finger on it but the young kunoichi was certainly changed in someway. Perhaps it was because Sakura was unnaturally silent when they gathered at the gates of Konoha. Her commands were concise and her eyes held none of the brilliant energy that personified the young medic nin. Hinata wondered what had brought on this sudden shift in her friend's persona but did not think it wise to question the young woman nimbly leaping through the trees now. The Byakugan user did not wish to ignite the young woman's mercurial temper with unnecessary questioning. Sakura seemed content to keep her thoughts and feelings private and the black-haired young woman respected her privacy. The Sand Jounin, Eiji and Masao, eyed Sakura warily and kept their distance. They figured she was having 'woman's problem's' and didn't wish to be caught in the crossfire should she explode.

Sakura leapt from branch to branch blissfully unaware that she was the subject of silent scrutiny. Her body ran on autopilot as her mind wandered aimlessly. She was exhausted and she had no one to blame but herself. Her tantrum yesterday cost her quite a bit of chakra and hours of rest. After retuning to her makeshift quarters in the temporary dormitory for Konoha ninja at 2 am, she barely had enough time to take a decent shower, pack and grab a few hours of sleep before meeting her team at the gates at 6:30 in the morning. During her slumber, most of her injuries managed to heal but at the cost of her chakra reserves. Now Sakura was running off of sheer will but it would not be long before she would have to take a rest.

'I need to take a break before I collapse. I won't be any good unless I get a little rest and a bit of food in my stomach. If an enemy were to attack us now... I couldn't fight or heal anyone in this condition.' The pink haired woman sighed inwardly.

The kunoichi and her teammates continued to speed through the forest until they came upon a small clearing. Sakura jumped down from the trees and signaled the other to follow her.

"We've been going for the last ten hours. Let's take a break for an hour and then continue. We're in the River country, the home of Akatsuki's first known hideout. It's inactive now but we should keep up our guard. Hopefully we will be on the edge of the Wind Country before night falls fully and we can settle into camp. Hinata, I could use some of that dried meat you packed." After giving orders, the medic nin slouched against a large boulder and wiped her perspiring forehead.

Hinata approached Sakura cautiously with a small portion of their rations. The Hyuuga clanswoman could see that the other woman's features were pale and drawn. "Sakura, why don't we just make camp here for the night?" the shy woman asked quietly as she handed over some dried meat and vegetables.

"I'm not sure I want to risk it. We've wasted enough time in Konoha." Sakura replied tiredly. "The River Country is not that stable and we are too close to the Rain Country for my liking. Since Pein's disappearance, Amegakure is without a ruler. Who knows what the Rain nin are up to."

Hinata understood her reservations but could not help but to think it might be wise if her leader didn't push herself so hard. As the sole medic nin of the group, Sakura would not only need to defend her teammates but also heal them. At this point, she barely had enough chakra to do either.

"I understand but we do have two trained Jounin with us and at the rate we are going, you'll suffer from chakra exhaustion if we don't take a substantial break." Hinata pressed on.

Sakura sighed, covering her eyes with one delicate hand as she struggled to think, "You're right, Hinata..." She muttered. Pinching the bridge of her nose slightly to ward off an oncoming headache, the pink haired kunoichi continued, "Alright... Slight change of plans. Let's make this area our camp for the night. There's no point in rushing into the desert when night is creeping up on us. Eiji, scout the surrounding area. Hinata please set up camp. Masao, gather firewood. I will help Hinata get things situated here. You two should each take a headset. If you encounter any trouble, contact me immediately."

Once Eiji and Masao departed, the two young women worked silently to set up camp. Hinata was dying to know the cause of Sakura's fatigue but hesitated to pry. Even though she knew Sakura since she was in the Academy and grown close to medic nin over the course of their stay in Suna, she did not want to overstep her bounds. After she observed the pink haired woman frequently pause in her tasks to stare absently at nothing in particular, the Hyuuga heiress finally decided to speak up.

"Are you okay Sakura? You seem a little out of it." She whispered, fixing her companion with her lavender-eyed gaze.

Sakura let loose a bitter laugh and ran her fingers roughly through her pink tresses before replying, "I look that bad huh?"

Hinata replied anxiously, shaking her head in denial, "No... no... It's not that... I mean you just don't seem yourself today and you're so tired. Are you ill? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"I don't seem myself..." Sakura echoed more to herself that her teammate before falling silent. Rather than answering immediately the young kunoichi made a show of rolling out one their sleeping bags, slumping slightly as she smoothed the fabric repeatedly.

Hinata could tell that something was indeed amiss. "Sakura..."she whispered worriedly.

"You're right you know. I'm not myself." Sakura replied in a stilted voice. "I can't be myself anymore or whoever I was all these years. I placed all my faith in love, in being loved. I thought for so long that if I got stronger people would notice. I was hoping he would notice. I guess I failed."

"That's not true Sakura. You're one of the strongest kunoichi I know. That's what admire so much about you." Hinata countered. "I know how much you love Sasuke. I wouldn't know what to do if I was in your position... I don't think I could be as strong..."

"But I'm not strong, don't you see?" the pink haired woman replied, turning to look at Hinata with dull green eyes. "I'm not really that strong. I've been walking around for years, hoping that people would pity me. Moping and crying for a guy that barely noticed I exist. I did it all for the wrong reasons... I didn't set out to become a ninja with a set goal in mind. I just wanted to protect the people I love, to protect Konoha. Somewhere along the way I stopped doing it for me and started existing just to prove myself to him... to Sasuke. It's so hard to break the cycle once you start and then all the sudden you wake up one day and find yourself not satisfied. It wasn't enough that he left me once to fulfill his own desires... I..."

"Well, it's different this time. This time it was the Council's decision to exile him. He didn't leave on his own." Hinata replied, trying her best to console her friend.

Sakura shook her head slowly as she spoke, "It doesn't matter. Sasuke Uchiha wanted to stay in Konoha as much as the Council wanted him there. He's not coming back this time. Even if he remained in the village, nothing would have changed anyway. It's time that I accept that and move on. I've been chasing windmills for so long and now I have to adjust."

"Oh Sakura," Hinata whispered.

"Don't... I don't want pity." The young woman looked away and then shrugged slightly. "I've been playing the pity card for too long. It's about time I actually start living for me. Love is all great and dandy but for now I'm alright with the friends I have and the village I live to protect."

The Hyuuga woman nodded in understanding. The women finished preparing the camp in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Masao and Eiji returned without incident but the former warned that he noticed a small cluster of weak chakra signatures to the east. After summoning a shadow clone to investigate, he discovered that it was a ragtag group of 6 rogue ninja from the Earth Country.

"They are more than 1000m from our campsite but they seem to moving slowly in this direction. There is no telling if we will cross paths or not. There chakra signatures appear pretty weak but who knows if they know how to suppress their chakra or not."

Sakura squared her shoulders at that bit of information, and spoke authoritatively, "Well, we should keep alert. No building fires until after sundown. We all will have to secure the premises with traps. I brought quite a few explosive tags. During the night, we all do shifts. Eiji you're first, then Hinata, I will go after that and then Masao. If we leave at sunrise, we should make it to the border between the River Country and the Wind Country by noon. From there, Suna is a short stretch."

The team secured the premises just before sunset. Afterwards, the group settled in for a quiet evening. Masao and Eiji chatted quietly with Hinata. Sakura sat off to the side, reading some scrolls Tsunade had given her involving complicated jutsu that the Hokage thought she could master. Despite her efforts to remain alert, she could feel herself begin to doze. Sighing in resignation, the young woman decided it was time to get some sleep before her shift began. She fell asleep as soon as she crawled into her sleeping bag. Her other teammates noted this in hushed voices.

"It's about time she retired. She's been on the verge of collapse for hours." Eiji whispered.

"All the events in Konoha of late are taking its toll on Sakura-san. She has a lot of responsibilities now." Hinata noted.

"True. For a chuunin, she's got a hell of lot going on with her." Masao muttered then grunted when Eiji elbowed him in the side none too gently.

"Excuse my crudeness, but she does man." Masao grumbled, rubbing his abused ribs. "I mean I don't know if I could manage being the Hokage's apprentice, ambassador and head up the medical program in Suna all at once. Shit, I can't even do that now."

Hinata giggled quietly at their antics. "I'm used to crudeness. My teammate Kiba never spares me when he goes on a rant. He says learning as many curse words as possible gives you character."

"Sounds about right to me. A little curse here and there never hurt anyone. You should try it sometime Hinata-sama."

Eiji leveled Masao with a glare before butting in. "Don't let him be a bad influence on you Hinata-sama. You're representing Suna here idiot. Behave like it."

"I'm not a bad influence. Sakura-san said at least 40 curse words as she pounded that gatekeeper into the dust." Masao retorted.

Eiji shuddered at that memory. "You're right. She's rather formidable when she's mad. Today, our team leader seemed a bit out of it though."

Hinata sighed quietly, "The exile. She took that pretty hard. That man was her former teammate."

Eiji murmured, "I heard all about Sasuke Uchiha in Suna. He's quite an infamous character. I've seen him in our bingo books too. Plus everyone has heard about the Uchihas and their extermination."

"Yeah," the Hyuuga woman replied. "His defection from Konoha caused an uproar. Everyone was shocked, none more than his teammates. They all were really close."

As the night deepened, their conversation faded into silence. Masao and Hinata retired to catch as bit of sleep before their shifts. Both Hinata and Eiji's shifts passed without incident. Sakura decided to use a soldier pill before beginning her shift just to ensure that her chakra levels would be sufficient. During the course of her shift, she tried again to read her scroll but she could not concentrate. Instead, she spent the remainder of her shift staring at the stars. When Masao tapped her shoulder, signifying the end her shift, Sakura merely nodded and leapt into the trees. From the treetops, she could get a better view of the black velvet sky and the oncoming sunrise.

Her contemplative mood remained unbroken until hours later when a kunai whizzed past her shoulder as she sped through the trees towards Suna. Sakura felt her senses sharpen as she shouted commands to Hinata and Eiji. Masao was already engaged in combat with one of the attackers.

"Hinata!" Sakura commanded sharply.

Hinata scanned the forest quickly before giving a succinct reply, "Three below, two to the left, and one on the right. We're surrounded."

"You two handle the ones to the left and right. I'm going down to help Masao!" she shouted before diving to the forest floor.

"Look it what we have here guys," a tall scruffy man drawled upon her arrival. "Such pretty company..."

Sakura curled her lip in distaste at the appearance of the rogue ninja. The Rock Nin were low level ninja in torn, dirty clothing. Their chakra levels were no higher than chuunin. Without preamble, she slipped on her gloves and cracked her knuckles.

"Oh I think the girly wants to play. Nobu is busy. Come on Seiji. Let's give Pinky what she wants," said the tall scruffy man as he leered through his oily bangs.

A short, bald man with jagged scars spanning his face stepped forward and licked his thick lips. He chuckled menacingly, "Heh, this will be fun Ken."

The pink haired kunoichi didn't even bother to retort. Instead, she cast a glance at Masao before shouting, "Masao jump!"

Without further warnings she raised her fist and punched the ground with such force that the earth exploded. A jagged crater formed beneath her feet as she leapt away quickly. One of the attackers, the one identified as Seiji, fell into the crater with a shout. Midair she formed the necessary hand signals to close the crater, effectively crushing her one of her opponents.

"You fucking bitch!" Ken cried as he charged at her from behind wielding a katana.

Sakura barely had enough time to pull a kunai from her pouch to block his attack. Sparks flew from the impact. The force of his blow pushed her backwards into a boulder. Twisting in the air, she tried to rebound of the large rock rather than crashing headlong into it. As soon as her feet touched the stone, it exploded.

"Damn it." She hissed as bits of stone embedded in her flesh. The explosion sent her through the thick trunk of a tree and to the ground.

"Now I've got you." Ken chuckled as he approached.

Grabbing her broken ribs, Sakura rose to her feet. She could hear the sounds of battle all around her but she refused to be distracted. Instead her leaf green eyes narrowed menacingly at her opponent as she pulled out another kunai.

"Don't worry Pinky. I'll take it nice and easy on ya'." Ken leered before he charged again.

Ken's swordsmanship was shoddy and crude. Therefore, it was not very difficult to defend against his blows. However, the power behind each of swing made the Hokage's apprentice grit her teeth as she bore the brunt of it.

"Just give in baby. I could use a little birdie like you..."he chuckled.

Sakura growled as she pushed him back a good distance. She could feel her wounds healing rapidly, even as she gasped for air. Before Ken recovered, she performed a series of hand seals before disappearing from sight.

"Ha... so you're running now. I love me a game of hide and seek." Ken sheathed his sword and formed a few hand seals of his own.

The ground began to ripple violently. Roiling and crumbling. The pungent earth and decaying leaves fell away to reveal Sakura's huddled form. The young girl unfurled, staring at her attacker in fright.

"That's right girly. We Rock ninja can control the land." Ken growled. "Now submit or you'll regret it."

"Okay...I give." she sighed meekly. And then she laughed, "Or not!"

"What do you mean 'or not' you..." Ken snarled in confusion.

A moment later he let loose a bloodcurdling scream, as a tap at the base of his neck sent sparks of his vision and crippling pain through his system. The ninja went rigid and fell to the ground.

Sakura knelt before the man and pressed her finger to his temple. Her face was perfectly blank as she spoke, "I have no more time for you."

With one touch, the young kunoichi shut down the Rock ninja's central nervous system. He was not quite dead, but he would be in a few hours. Scanning her surroundings, she discovered that Masao had defeated his opponent and joined Eiji and Hinata in fighting the other three rogue ninja. That fight was drawing to a close as she leapt into the trees.

"Fuck..." Masao mumbled as he struck the last ninja with poisoned-laden senbon.

The man dropped several meters to the ground below, dying on impact. Sakura watched the man fall with a dispassionate glance. She hated death more than anything else but in matters of defending her life she would not go down without a fight.

"Is everyone alright?" she asked quietly, surveying her teammates.

"We're all in one piece. Those stupid ninjas were more of a nuisance than an actual threat." Eiji muttered as he wiped his bloody hands on a small rag he obtained from somewhere.

"All the ninja are accounted for. Apparently, they were rogue bounty hunters." Hinata said. The Hyuuga girl had a few scratches on her cheeks but she was otherwise fine.

"Well I will give you all a simple scan to make sure everything is all right and then we'll keep moving. We can't afford to waste more time." Sakura stated.

***

Another chapter is done. It's time for a break from the angsty bits, I say! Since the series started, Sakura has only been seen doing 5 justus while her teammates are all advancing. That makes no sense to me at all. Anyways, we get to see our favorite Cherry Blossom grow up. The next few chapters will involve her daily life, random situations, training and perhaps some development on Sasuke's side of the world. Who knows? Please be patient. The confrontation is coming. Hope you enjoy this new chapter and my attempt at a fight scene. As always, keep reading and let me know if you like what you see. ;-)

P.S.

If you see anything in need of correcting, let me know! I'm won't get offended I swear. I don't have a beta-reader and I can't fix what I can't see. Having someone beta my work would only cost me more time in posting. I admit I am human and make mistakes in my haste. So be a dear, help me out!

***