Chapter 37

Disclaimer: You all know the routine. I do not own Naruto, but I do own Harken and a few other characters in this cracky AU universe that I made up.

~0~

The echo of soft feminine laughter and the tinkle of the bells was all that Sakura left in the wake of her sudden exit.

Naruto looked at everyone around him. He pointed to the exact spot, in an exaggerated jab that enunciated the disbelief the blond seemed to feel, that Sakura had been standing in just moments ago, "Did that just happen?"

Neji could only shake his head at Naruto's antics.

"Well, at the very least, this should be rather interesting," Haldir murmured.

He had never had to chase and catch a shaman before. He smiled at Meesha and Tyoril, his eyes twinkling merrily at the prospect, "This should be fun."

He knew that none of these nin knew exactly what they could be in for. At least that was the feeling that he got, when he saw a mischievous sparkle in the young shaman's eyes.

Tyoril mimicked Neji in that he just shook his head, obviously perplexed by Sakura's strange behavior. He wasn't certain how playing silly games was going to help the situation, but either way, they wouldn't be able to get anything done until someone caught her.

Itachi turned, his eyes narrowing in the direction Sakura went. He said something that pulled everyone's attention to him, "It seems she went in the direction of the forest."

Tenten openly smirked at the announcement, "Well, that was a mistake on her part wasn't it?" She cracked her knuckles, excited by the prospect of a challenge. Catching someone running along the ground was all too easy. She glanced at Rock Lee, "Are we going to give her a head start then?"

Before Rock Lee could reply to his teammate, Meesha shook her head and interrupted briskly, "That's probably not a wise decision."

Sasuke shot the woman a sidelong glance, a piercing look that gave away the fact that he was trying to read into her expression. Somehow, he had the feeling that this was going to be a lot more trouble than it was worth. If there was one thing he could say for certain about his sister in law, was that she was trouble, even at the best of times.

Kakashi snapped his favorite book shut, and slid it into the inside pocket of his green vest. His navy mask crinkled when he smiled, "I suppose we have a stray shaman to catch. If it gets too crazy, I'll summon Pakkun."

The three shrine warriors decided that they had stood around long enough, and took off at a dead run towards the tree line. They all came to a stop when the breeze picked up and once again, they were subject to the tinkle of Sakura's playful laughter, and jingle of the bells that adorned her slender wrists.

They all exchanged a look, when the trees themselves started to sway beneath the light gusts of wind that danced through vivid green canopies.

Meesha glanced at Itachi who had stopped at her side. She murmured under her breath, "I don't think even you'll be able to catch her."

The probing stare that swung her way, only caused her to smile. She could see the question in his dark eyes.

"I can't hear the spirits speak, but I know well enough to realize - that though your wife's intentions, are not in the least bit harmful - are rather mischievous."

Itachi followed the trail of the redhead's openly amused gaze. A frown fixed itself to his face when right at the entrance to the forest beyond, were Sakura's shoes.

-o-

Beneath the canopy, Sakura practically glided across the forest floor. She couldn't help but laugh, because the spirits were laughing right along with her. They, it seemed, rather enjoyed this game that she had created. Air, earth and water had let loose with an abandon she hadn't quite expected, causing the trees, born from them to sway.

Branches curved and grappled at her lithe form, as if they too longed to join the game and catch her. She dodged, jumped and spun to avoid the oaks and ash. It caused her to giggle, and she gently patted the trunk of a particularly rambunctious oak. It was a strange, but exhilarating feeling that curled from the deepest pit of her stomach, flaring all the way through her limbs. In her mind's eye, she had the feeling that she just opened an untapped and closed door. She had no idea that in opening herself up so completely, that it would entrench her connection to the elemental spirits on a deeper level that was beyond all rational explanation. One that she would never even have thought possible.

Sakura had challenged everyone to a game that had only been meant as a practice session.

Earth and air, had slipped her out of her shoes. It was as if, she was being invited into their house to play. Before she had ran barefoot in the forest, only for her feet to be torn up in the effort to escape with Hana in tow. Now, she was practically skating over the forest debris, the air itself carrying her ever faster.

Sakura turned her head to look over her shoulder, when she heard Naruto's excited voice, "There she is!"

Giving in to the euphoric instinct that had seemed to take over her, she brush her palm over the trunk of an ash. A soft giggle left her, and she turned to watch as all the trees in the woods surrounding them waved long and sturdy branches, moving sideways just enough that several of the shinobi chasing her, missed their next leap completely.

Naruto was the first one to hit the ground first with a loud curse.

Sakura covered her mouth to stifle the laughter threatening to bubble to the surface. Turning around once again, she weaved with apparent pattern around the trees. The tips of her fingers caressing the branches as they continued to bow and curve, trying to pin her against the bark of their trunk.

When she passed through an open section, where the sun filtered onto the crown of her head, Sakura was forced to come to a immediate stop when Haldir jumped out right in front of her.

She hopped back once, and tilted her head to the side and he caught her green eyes with his. Mirth danced in the depth of his eyes when he mouthed, "Caught you."

Sakura just smiled in response, and cupping the palm of her hand to her mouth, she bade the spirits in a sing song voice, "Dance."

Haldir's grin faltered when not only did the dirt around his feet turned to mud, it started to gyrate beneath his feet, making it impossible for him to keep his balance. Sakura hopped over him, just as he tumbled face first into the forest floor.

The leaves of the trees cackled beneath the twisting flow of the breeze.

The shinobi exchanged telling glances.

Neji barely sidestepped a branch that took a swipe at him. It was all he could do not to rub his eyes and pinch himself, when he watched Sakura flit out of sight once again. Her playful laugh and tinkling bells echoed all around him from every direction. He arched a brow, when Tenten's who was several leaps ahead of him, had a branch shift right from under her feet.

She managed to catch the branch with a gloved hand to keep herself falling. Or at least that's what he thought, until he watched the tree, for the lack of a better explanation - literally shake her off.

Before Tenten hit the hard forest floor, he altered his course and caught his teammate in mid air. As soon as his feet hit the ground, the earth beneath him decided to pull the carpet under his feet. For the first time in many years, Neji lost his balance and went sprawling to the ground with his teammate in tow.

Tenten could only sputter red-faced, when she hauled herself off of Neji sprawled form.

Neji ignored his embarrassed teammate while he did his best to regain his feet. Suffice to say, the ground beneath him, did not seem as if it wanted to comply with his wishes. The Hyuuga did not bother to muffle the aggravated curse that spilled from his mouth.

Tyoril stopped and held his hand to both of them, even though it was obvious to Neji that he himself was having a difficult time standing up right.

It was hard for the Hyuuga to believe that this was reality happening, and not a well constructed genjutsu. The query full of disbelief left him before he could stifle it, "Does Sakura know genjutsu?"

He winced when he almost lost his footing again. Neji only caught Itachi's smirk as he flashed by.

"Bastard," he grunted, before taking off after the other shinobi.

Rock Lee released a painful groan when a particularly nasty willow, slapped at the back of his legs as he passed by. Tenten's face paled when she realized that she was going to have to cross paths with that particular tree as it settled, and seemed to lie in wait for her to go by.

"Oh hell no," she all but snarled as went the long way around it.

Meanwhile, Itachi forged ahead, watching the others and the reactions to their actions as they attempted to catch up with his wife. The ground below turned to mud, and the air around him wisped by, as if it were taunting them. He caught glimpses of Sakura flitting all over the place, her impish laughter ringing in his ears.

It was as if he were chasing after an evasive forest nymph or a tennyo whose hagoromo he had been tasked to steal, like a fairy-tales in a child's book.

Sai quickly drew and released an ink bird from his parchment. His dark eyes narrowed when the wind picked it up and blew it away.

Kakashi drew up next to him, and chuckled, "I doubt Pakkun would appreciate being called for something like this, but I must admit I'm tempted."

"Aa." Itachi could only agree with the other ANBU Captain. Knowing that particular summon, he would bet that the old dog would just outright refuse Kakashi.

"Maybe we should discuss with the Hokage when all this is over with, that Sakura be hired for the chuunin exams. If I didn't know her, I would think this was a well constructed genjutsu."

Itachi's obsidian orbs narrowed tellingly when he caught a glimpse of Sakura disappearing beyond another section of trees, just northeast of him.

Tyoril test swung his sword, practically slapping at the wind as if to bat the annoying bluster away from him. He shot Meesha an irritated look, "It looks like this is the doing of the spirits. It seems that her chakra is not involved in this, because I cannot redirect."

"Her sole intention is to escape capture," Meesha replied and then glanced up at Sai who tried to once again send another ink animal after Sakura only to fail in the attempt. She watched with a wry twist to her lips when the ink just splattered as if something had punctured it.

"There is no way, that she is this fast on her own," Sasuke's irritated tenor was smothered out by the sound of Sakura's laugh. The sound caused him to frown darkly. That woman was going to regret her challenge, if he managed to get his hands on her first.

Unbeknownst those chasing her, Sakura found herself chasing after the wind spirits that tickled her ear lobes and the watery mist that came to coat her face. She caught sight of fire spirits blinking in and out of view in the shadows, lighting her way through the darker shadows of the canopies.

It amazed her, how the elemental spirits played in unanimity with one another. So lost in her euphoria, she missed the shadow that flit overhead. She stopped dead in her tracks, when Sasuke leapt down from the canopy above. The cantankerous expression on his face, caused her cover her mouth with her hand, to stifle the laugh that wanted to surface.

He cracked his knuckles, "You've no where else to run." His brown eyes focused just past Sakura, but she could feel all the chakra signatures behind her. Essentially she was surrounded, but not to the extent that he would have her to believe.

"Catch me then, if you think you can," Sakura winked at him, her joviality plain on her expressive face.

Irritated by her mischievous expression, his hand snaked out and he managed to grab her wrist in a rock iron grip. He smirked triumphantly at her when she halted to stare at him, green eyes shimmering with jollity.

Just when he thought he had won, Sakura twisted in such a way that it was as graceful as a gazelle bounding away from a predator. His fingers slipped off of suddenly very most skin. Before his mind could grapple with the concept that she had just escaped him, a blast of wind pushed hard against his chest, causing him to falter back several step. He fall flat on his backside before he had time to regain his balance.

Meesha wordlessly placed a hand under his arm and hauled him to his feet before he had the chance to protest.

It was all Sasuke could do not to growl when her wine colored eyes met his, her amusement at his expense plain on her face.

She leaned over and whispered while poking him gently in the chest with her forefinger, "Do not chase her with ill intention. The spirits can sense that in you."

Before he could snap at her to back the hell off, she had already turned and left him still standing in place staring at her retreating back.

Itachi jumped down next to Sasuke. He glanced at his fuming sibling and shook his head, "Force has never worked on Sakura."

Tenten and Rock Lee fell into pace with Kakashi. Lee announced, "We're not going to catch this elusive blossom, unless we work together."

Rock Lee had already seen what had happened to everyone who had tried to physically make a grab for her. He had already decided that he did not want to end up like they had.

"Yes, apparently we are rather outnumbered in this particular chase," Kakashi sighed.

Tenten frowned, "What do you mean?"

"She has countless spirit beings assisting her, if I'm to understand these shrine warriors correctly," Kakashi wasn't even going to comment on the fact that the trees moving on their own. The First Hokage wouldn't have known what to think of all this had he witnessed it.

Neji had refrained from doing so early on, but he gave in and switched on his byakugan, and his silvery eyes narrowed. He panned the forest ahead of him, the lines around his mouth intensifying when Sakura's laughter did nothing but taunt them all. Even with his enhanced abilities, he only caught sight of her feminine form beyond the trees as she seemed to frolic about.

He could completely understand why Sasuke was irked by it.

He would never admit it out loud, but he felt insulted by her blatant mockery.

Sai stopped to wipe the sweat off of his brow, "I don't think we're going to catch Ugly like this."

Naruto finally plucked a leaf out of his jagged, bedraggled blond hair, "Yeah, this is not working."

Everyone came to a standstill when Itachi blitzed ahead of them all and came to a stand still. He met their varying expressions of confusion, before announcing, "This is my hunt."

Haldir smirked after the shinobi and shook his head at the Uchiha's bald-faced statement. He turned around and strode over to Naruto and placed a hand on his shoulder, "So what's this ramen you've been talking about?"

Naruto blinked thrice at the shrine warrior. His brows shot up rapidly, seeming to disappear into his hairline, "You've never heard of ramen before?"

"I have to admit that I haven't. What is it? Is it something I can eat?"

It was all Naruto could do not to gawk at him.

Sasuke clenched his teeth at his brother's random dismissal.

Meesha glanced at the others, her usually sharp gaze full of confusion, "Should we just leave them be?"

Tyoril shrugged and looked at everyone else, wondering about the sudden shift as well.

Sai on the other hand, pivoted on his heel and set to following Naruto and Haldir back to the village.

Neji gestured at Rock Lee and Tenten to come to him. He glanced at the trees that had finally gone still. He had to admit the sight alone itself was a relief. They complied and looked at him with the unvoiced question on their faces.

Wordlessly he turned and also headed towards Konoha.

Kakashi cleared his throat. He told the others still remaining, staring at the place Itachi had been, "Perhaps this will be for the best."

Meesha shook her head, "In all my days, I've never seen such a thing."

"Oh, so this is the first time you've seen a shaman do something like this?" He was curious despite himself.

The red-haired warrior nodded her head, "I honestly believe that we will never be able to catch her when she's in this particular state."

Tyoril dipped his head, ducking his chin in agreement, "I hate to admit it, but I think you're right."

Sasuke shook his head at the irony of the situation. Once again, his brother was in pursuit of the woman, and somehow he had the feeling that there was more behind his brother's words. The way his eyes had softened just as he had turned to chase after Sakura, could only make Sasuke wonder what it was about Sakura that drew his brother so strongly.

Finally he let it go. He really didn't want to think too deeply about it, truth be told. He waved his hand at the group still lingering behind, "Let's go back."

-o-

Tennyo - Tennin which may include tenshi and the specifically female tennyo are spiritual beings found in Japanese Buddhism that are similar to western angels, nymphs or fairies.

Hagoromo - "dress of feathers" In some legends, tennin are unable to fly without these kimonos (and thus cannot return to heaven) In a Noh play Hagoromo, which bears a number of similarities to the Western swan maidens come to the earth and take off their hagoromo. A fisherman spies them and hides their clothes in order to force one to marry him.

-as borrowed by wiki-

A/N: As a side note, it makes me think of the lore of the selkies. I just couldn't help the mention, to be honest.