YOU MAY BE SLIGHTLY CONFUSED BY THE FOLLOWING CHAPTER. I KNOW I WAS, AND I WAS THE ONE WHO WROTE IT. THUS, PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING AUTHOR'S NOTE, AS I FEEL IT CLEARS UP THE MAIN QUESTIONS PEOPLE WILL HAVE ABOUT THIS CHAPTER. I WILL LAUGH AT THE IGNORANCE OF PEOPLE WHO REVIEW SAYING, "LOL YOU PUT UP THE SAME CHAPTER TWICE LOSER." They will be vilified and then used as human sacrifices.
Some people seemed to be confused by the flashback-thing that I'd posted up previously as a separate chapter, so here's my explanation for it: I'd meant it as a part of Chapter Four, but after the whole broken arm incident I decided to just post what I had up already because I hadn't updated in a long time and figured you reviewers needed SOMETHING. ;D But then that confused people... so I've merged Chapter Four and Chapter Five into one big old Chapter Four. That's why the previous Chapter Four is just a placeholder-author's-note-thing now. I hate those. And for those of you that are concerned that I skimped on you, the rest of the chapter WITHOUT the scene at the beginning is still a respectable seven pages long. I know it's not as much as what some people manage to write per chapter, and I know it's been a while too, but I've had to struggle with a broken arm and writers block and finals and moving and SAT prep classes and... yeah. So cut me some slack, please. xD
Also, I thought I'd made this fairly clear, but in case I didn't, this flashback is of Sakura with her team THE FIRST TIME AROUND. It's not a scene found in canon, but I figure the team must have experienced something like it at least once in their time together, considering how close they were. So I wrote it as best as I could, since I wanted to contrast their closeness before with their distance now.
After the flashback the chapter shifts to "present day." Again, I tried to make the shift clear, but just to be safe, I added little "context" tags at the top of each shift to be extra-obvious. Usually I hate them and think they only belong in spy movies, and I feel like there are better ways to set up the scene. But it really wasn't working out any other way, so there ya go. Context tags w00t.
ALSO. One of my reviewers threatened to kill a kitten for each day I didn't update. Wow, way to use negative reinforcement! Anyways, I'm sorry for the kittens I was unable to save. Let us all have a moment of silence for the kittens forced to give up their lives in the line of duty. I hope this chapter was worthy enough to buy the remaining kittens a reprieve from the unfortunate fate that befell their brethren. -sad face-
also i didn't proofread and it's been a while so please forgive continuity errors/typos!
Eight Years Ago
Sakura had a beautiful, perfect memory of them once, the first time around.
It was a hot night. Warm nights weren't uncommon in Konoha, especially not during the summer months, but nights like these, humid oppressing nights when it was impossible to sleep were uncommon. She was still twelve then, and Sasuke still lived in the village. Naruto still shone bright like a comet whenever Sakura closed her eyes. And they were all (mostly) still idiotically optimistic, innocently believing that the blood and gore and ugliness of death, killing, destruction would never touch them, would quietly pass them by, even if they were ninja. Especially because they were ninja, because then that meant they could use their amazing abilities to fight off all the evil in the world, didn't it? But that was back when they thought that only the good people in the world were leaders, only the good people in the world had power over ninja. Only the good people in the world could make others do their bidding.
So Sakura lay in her bed, tossing and turning. She'd kicked off the covers long ago, because the very thought of warmth made her feel sick on a night like this, on a night when there was clearly too much warmth to go around. Honestly. A breeze blew in through the wide-open window, but it was a pale imitation of cold. Cold. She'd almost forgotten what the word meant. What the sensation it described felt like.
And she stared up at the ceiling as the minutes ticked by. Hours? No, they had to be minutes, but they might as well have been hours. And right when she was on the cusp of almost-sleepyness, right when she felt she might be able to ignore the heat for a few hours at least, she heard voices outside her window.
"Neh, do you think Sakura-chan is still awake?"
"Well, find out, dobe."
"…How do I find out?"
"Get a pebble. Throw it at her window."
"Like this one?"
"Not one that huge, idiot. That'd shatter her whole window. And probably wake up the neighbors, too."
Sakura sat up ramrod-straight. Shatter my window! Whatever that Naruto-idiot was planning, she'd better get out there and stop him in his tracks.
Pouting, she threw her legs over the side of the bed and hoisted herself up, grimacing as the light pink flannel of her tank top clung to her sweaty skin. Sweat was disgusting. Why did girls sweat, anyways? For guys, it was okay. They actually looked kind of cute when they sweat, all panting hard and exhausted. But for girls, sweat was Not Beautiful. And Sakura didn't even glisten like all those proud Amazon warrior-women in the fiction stories. She sweat and she stank. Life was so unfair sometimes. And really, the heat was ridiculous.
Her hands grappled with the window of her room. It was always just a little stuck at first, and it opened with a loud creak that could be heard for miles around. There was a specific way to open it without the squeak waking up her parents, and it took Sakura a few minutes to get the proper leverage to do so.
She saw Sasuke and Naruto waiting in her backyard. Naruto was in the middle of hoisting a rock that looked far too large to even be considered a pebble, and Sakura had a brief motherly moment when she thought to herself now what does that boy plan to do with that mountain of a rock? She frowned as she realized that thought sounded almost… affectionate. Well, that wouldn't do.
"What are you doing, you idiot?" she hissed down instead. "I need my beauty sleep!"
"As if you were getting any kind of sleep in the first place, Sakura-chan!" retorted Naruto.
Sakura paused contemplatively. The blonde did have a point there.
"Get down here," muttered Sasuke.
Sakura paused. Well, it seemed Sasuke wanted to go along with Naruto's inane plan as well… whatever it was. That meant Naruto couldn't have thought up of something too stupid, right?
"Weeelll…" wavered Sakura. "Why, though?" she insisted. She couldn't agree to any plan without knowing what it entailed. "Why are you guys out so late at night?"
"It's too hot to sleep!" complained Naruto.
And that thought made Sakura pause again. Because it was too hot. It was so right, what Naruto said. She wanted to do nothing at all… not even sleep…
And soon afterwards, she somehow found herself down there with them, lying there on the surprisingly cool grass as the flies buzzed somewhere in the distance, all three of them staring up at the impossibly perfect night sky. It was the most beautiful, untouched, frightening thing she had ever seen her life. And she felt utterly complete like that, with her two team members on either side of her.
They didn't talk for a whole hour, just stared and stared at the sky speckled with celestial dust, even Naruto. All three of them sensed something that night, something deeper, something beyond them, some sense that perhaps they would never be like this again. They lay there. Breathed. And Sakura realized all of a sudden that even though they were only twelve, even though she had only known the two of them for a year, she couldn't imagine life without them. Like she couldn't imagine life without an arm, without a foot, without her mother, without that annoying little newspaper boy who biked across her street everyday and woke her at five in the goddamn morning with the incessant ringing of his bell.
The air blew across her face, and Sakura realized with a start that it felt cool. Perfect, just like the night. And abruptly she was hit with the inexplicable urge to cry. Because something so perfect couldn't last, just like a perfect blooming rose couldn't last, which was a sign for her, a sign for them, a sign for the future.
"Hey…" she whispered, breaking the silence, the beautiful silence, because she was afraid that if she didn't, she would start sobbing.
"We… we're a… team, right?" she asked them tentatively. She wasn't even sure what that question meant. She didn't know what she was asking or what answer she was looking for, only that suddenly there was some horrible feeling inside her chest building up. And she felt like it would explode and take her with it, take her and her wonderful boys, and the only way to stop it was to… to find something. Some answer. But she didn't know what question it was the answer to, so she asked them the first thing on her mind.
Naruto snorted. "Well, duh."
And when Sakura glanced over at Sasuke, she noticed him doing the eye-rolling thing he always did whenever someone asked him a painfully obvious question, the eye-roll that said Well of course you idiot, what else?
"I just—I hope we stay a team forev—for a very long time," she told them. She was going to say forever, but she remembered all of a sudden with the horrified clarity of a child that nothing in the world of the ninja was forever. And the word forever might scare them off, too. And then her mind took a more morbid turn…
She remembered reading somewhere that the average mortality rate for a ninja was thirty-five years of age. She did the math in her head. They were twelve—nearly a third of their life was gone already. Kami, nearly a third…
As a single heavy tear rolled silently down her cheek, Sakura realized that she had never felt quite as old as she now did.
"That's silly, Sakura-chan," Naruto told her.
"We're a team forever."
"But—nothing in the ninja world—"
"Yeah, yeah, they all say that nothing in the ninja world is forever. But everything is forever, don't you see? This moment's going to pass and we'll have other moments, but it's still going to exist forever. A moment doesn't just disappear. And if you wonder where it goes, well, I know. It stays behind, in our memories and minds. And even when we have white hair and the gross old-people smell, we're going to remember this and remember that we were a team, and so will our friends and parents and future children, so really we'll be a team forever, Sakura-chan."
"Don't think too much, dobe. You might hurt yourself."
"And Naruto's forgetting something," added Sakura snottily. "A beauty like me will never get the old-people smell." And Sakura smiled at them, at her own silliness, because if Naruto was right then that meant she was safe. Safe with the knowledge that together the three of them would last forever. Safe with the knowledge that they were eternal. Safe with the knowledge that they were always going to be a team. Because what did it matter when she or Naruto or Sasuke might die if they lasted forever?
She'd never lose them.
Let it be this way forever, she remembered thinking.
Sakura had a beautiful, perfect memory of them once. And she hated it because it was a lie. Because they'd never be like that ever again.
She had been foolish. She'd hoped that with a single trip to Ichiraku's ramen stand, Team Seven could go back to the way it had been. But they were not the same. They weren't a team. They hadn't been through any of the same experiences together. Naruto, while still hyperactive as ever, had none of the foresight and maturity the other Naruto had gained through years of experience. Sasuke was still the same arrogant prick, and he had yet to lower his guard to his team. And Sakura… well, she was different too.
Their meeting had eventually degenerated into Naruto and Sasuke insulting each other, while Sakura sat silently in the middle. She wanted to say something to them, some magic speech that would make them somehow remember the past she'd had (would have?) with them. But if anything, that was Naruto's arena of experience, completely overturning one's worldview with a few impassioned inspirational words, and it was all Sakura could do to sit there, silently, attempting not to scream at them in frustration.
So she had awkwardly excused herself from their meeting after spending only an hour with them, because every time Naruto smiled or Sasuke scoffed she would remember that these people were imposters, not really her boys, and she couldn't stand that. And now it was night and she was lying in her bed and staring at her ceiling and she wanted to sleep but how could she when everyone she had known were dead to her in her own way…
These people were strangers to her. Every time Naruto glared at Sasuke or smiled at Sakura, his blue eyes unshadowed and clear from years of hardship and betrayal he had not yet experienced; every time Sasuke turned his obsidian gaze to her, his eyes dark but not yet quite the cesspool of amorality she had come to expect from him; every time, Sakura realized that these people, these strangers were not her boys. They looked like Sasuke and Naruto, and in fact had some of their very same habits, but there were jarring differences that cruelly reminded her that no, this was not the Sasuke and Naruto that she knew.
It was during that meeting that she realized she had outgrown them. It was an alien experience for her, so accustomed was she to watching their backs. But it was true. She had years on them. She had experience and knowledge and skill that made what they knew seem like child's play. It was child's play. Was this superiority what Sasuke had felt all those years when he hung out with them? It was an intoxicating feeling, Sakura realized, yet it was entirely isolating. She couldn't relate to these people. Was this what geniuses felt like? She supposed that if it was, she couldn't envy them.
She was glad she had gotten this… second chance, if that was what it could be called, but sometimes she felt so very lonely. And… what about the people she had left behind? The Naruto she actually cared about? Hinata, Ino, Tenten? Tsunade-sama, Kakashi-sensei? What was happening to them while she was gone? Had her other world ceased to exist when she had woken up in this one? That thought was far too terrifying to consider, so Sakura cast it out of her mind.
Did the real Naruto (yes, she supposed both Narutos she knew were real, but it was clear in her mind which Naruto was more real) think she was dead? Was she dead—well, no, of course not! She knew that this... state that she found herself in could not be caused by a genjutsu, now. But it could still be a product of her… perhaps… confused mind, as disconcerting as the idea was to consider. It was likely that after the injuries Sasuke had given her, she was in some sort of coma. Coma patients were known to suffer vivid hallucinations, weren't they? Straining her near-photographic memory, Sakura struggled to recall the one vague paragraph she had read about comas in one of her textbooks. Unconsciousness, as deceptively simple as it seemed, was not a phenomenon well-understood by ninja.
…A coma is a profound state of unconsciousness. Comas may result from a variety of conditions, including but not limited to intoxication, metabolic abnormalities, progressive neural diseases, strokes, and hypoxia. During a coma, the brain is on its lowest level of alertness. A comatose patient cannot be "awakened," fails to respond normally to pain or light stimulation, does not undergo sleep-wake cycles, and does not take voluntary actions. Upon waking, comatose patients often require substantial physical and psychological therapy to begin functioning normally, and some do not ever fully regain control of their motor functions or higher thought abilities. Some patients who have awoken from comas describe feeling the sensation of "floating" and experiencing hallucinations similar to those which occur during intoxication. They also report that moments of awareness, during which they could hear and recall everything that was spoken in their vicinity…
But she hadn't experienced any strange voices in her head or the sensation of being jolted out of a dream, which many coma patients described during her studies. And she was fairly certain that she was still sane. After years of such a high-stress job, many shinobi learned to recognize the signs of battle fatigue, medic-nin especially.
She wasn't crazy, she wasn't stuck in a genjutsu... so she supposed she had actually traveled back in time, as preposterous as that sounded.
But… did that mean that all her friends, everyone she knew… did that mean they were all gone?
Sakura spent the rest of the night in sleepless contemplation, unable to come up with an easy answer to that question.
The next month passed in a blur of D-ranked missions, during which Sakura struggled not to reveal her brute strength. Still, the menial missions did wonders for building up her endurance and muscle mass, once she overcame Naruto's initial reluctance to let her do any work. After the Ichiraku incident (which was what she called it in her mind), Team Seven had settled into an uneasy routine of ignoring one another, which was broken occasionally by the sheer ridiculousness of Naruto's antics. She wondered if Kakashi-sensei had started to regret passing them now, seeing as the blossoming teamwork they had shown in the infamous bell test had mostly come to a standstill.
In the meantime, Sakura further worked on redeveloping her skills as a kunoichi by spending extra time at the training grounds, working on the accuracy of her kunai throws, and by running a lap around Konoha each morning to further build up her endurance. She was no Rock Lee, but as she got less and less sore after her daily runs, she began considering upgrading to two laps each morning instead of the usual one. She had once been able to run ten laps around Konoha, a feat that was achieved only through years of hard work, and Sakura looked forward to regaining that distinction.
It was around that time that Sakura began wondering: wasn't this approximately the time that the Hokage had assigned them the mission to Wave country? She wasn't particularly keen on repeating the experience, but at the same time, it had been their first life-or-death experience together as a team, and wasn't that going to be valuable to the development of their teamwork? And when they did get their inevitable mission, wouldn't it be better to stick with the one she knew?
Then she decided not to worry herself too much about it. She had been a jounin-level kunoichi, after all. To her, a C-rank mission would hardly be a step up from a D-rank mission, and she had a feeling that she could even handle an A-rank mission as long as she had Kakashi-sensei by her side.
The Hokage, in the middle of grumbling about thrice-damned power-hungry council members thinking that they could try to steal his power just because they thought he was getting old and senile—which he wasn't! (and weren't all the council members old and senile, too? he thought indignantly to himself), looked up in surprise as Kakashi entered his office. "Kakashi," he asked curiously, "what are you doing here?" It was a strange sight to see the lazy, silver-haired man in the Hokage Tower. What made it even stranger was that Icha Icha Paradise was nowhere to be seen, as well. What was going on here?
"Team Seven needs a C-rank mission," declared Kakashi suddenly. Sarutobi thought wonderingly that his tone could almost be mistaken as serious, but then decided that that was ridiculous.
"Why?" Was that… a frown he noticed behind that navy blue mask? But Kakashi didn't frown. He was far too apathetic about the world to care about something enough to frown about it.
"They're not developing well as a team," explained Kakashi. His upside-down-smile-definitely-not-a-frown-because-that-would-just-be-ridiculous-on-Kakashi deepened. Deepened! thought Sarutobi incredulously. "I knew I saw something during the bell test… but it's gone now."
"And you think a C-rank mission would help them develop?"
"Maybe if they were put in a more serious situation, they would work together as a team."
Sarutobi looked contemplatively at the piles of mission scrolls littering his polished oak desk. "We do have more C-rank missions than usual this week… how would you rate the skill of your team, then?"
"Sasuke ranks anywhere from a high-level genin to a low-level chunin. Naruto, besides his mastery of Kage Bunshin, hasn't really shown anything outstanding yet except for his large chakra stores. Sakura, while she displays strategic potential, has a low chakra store and a low endurance level, meaning she can't do anything advanced yet. They could be considered an average genin team," stated Kakashi bluntly.
It sounded like some sort of low-level bodyguard mission would be ideal, decided Sarutobi. Kakashi could even start explaining to them about basic bodyguarding strategies… after all, someone needed to focus on protecting the client, someone else needed to focus on eliminating any potential outside threats, and the third usually had to go between the two, assisting them and also scouting for potential threats. In fact, it seemed like just the type of mission to jumpstart their development as a team, as each member would fall into their natural niches and work together. And he was fairly confident that Team Seven wouldn't fall apart under the pressure; he'd gleaned from reports that, at the very least, Team Seven wasn't openly hostile to each other, which was more than he could say for some teams.
Sarutobi nodded, having made his decision. "I've got some C-rank bodyguarding missions lined up. Let me see…" He began rustling through the many scrolls, nearly growling in frustration as some of them fell off the edge of his desk. He decided to ignore them for now and have some intrepid bodyguard clean them up later. Served them right for refusing to give him a moment of peace. Finding the scrolls he was looking for, he exclaimed, "Ah! We have two available, actually. The first is to escort the daughter of a local noble to one of the border towns of Fire Country. They're not expecting any trouble, but there have been reports of bandits—just civilian ones, not trained bandits—so they want some assurance."
"And the second?"
"Hmm… wait, let me open it up properly… here! The second is to escort a… bridge builder to Wave Country. He's not expecting any trouble at all, so I don't see why he requested a team… Oh, but the trip is long, which is why I marked it as a C-rank instead of a D-rank. Additionally, you might run into some trouble with a few thugs once you reach Wave Country. We've received some intelligence that a minor gang leader is attempting a takeover in that country. But the thugs would likely be nothing a trained genin couldn't handle."
Kakashi mused, "I've heard Wave Country is nice this time of year."
Sarutobi agreed, "So it is. And if you do run into some thugs, your team could test out their training in a practical setting."
"Then… give us the second mission," decided Kakashi.
Humming in acknowledgement, the Hokage made a mark of it in the scroll and said, "Alright, then have your team report to me after they finish their latest D-rank mission, and I'll give you some more information about it. Now, get out of here. I've got paperwork to catch up on," he added grumpily. He was relieved when he noticed that Kakashi's frown seemed to disappear.
Nodding in thanks, the jounin-sensei excused himself, and, bowing, left the Hokage's office. The old man thought cantankerously that he was definitely getting far too old for this job.
Sakura stood uncomfortably in the Hokage's office. The first time she had seen him, it had been like seeing a ghost—it was seeing a ghost—initially all she could see was the lifeless corpse of a tired old man, his back stained red—and she'd had to swallow convulsively to keep from throwing up her lunch. All these people around her, all these people that would soon be dead, stirred up memories best left alone. But after reporting to him routinely after the completion of all their missions, Sakura had almost begun to get used to seeing the old man again, and was now only mildly uneasy in his presence.
He was reviewing their after-mission report as slowly and thoroughly as always, and Naruto was fidgeting impatiently beside her. Next to her, Sasuke stared impassively at the wall ahead of him. The familiar position still brought back memories that made her eyes sting… slightly.
The Hokage, setting the report down on his desk, drew himself up and began, "Now, Team Seven, Kakashi, your next mission is to—"
"No!" interjected Naruto. "No, no, no, no, no!"
Everyone in the room turned to stare curiously at Naruto.
Naruto continued determinedly, "We're ready for a harder mission! I swear, if we have to catch Lady Shiniji's cat one more time—!"
Sarutobi and Kakashi exchanged an amused glance. It seemed that the team hadn't yet realized that the Hokage was about to offer them a C-ranked mission anyways. "Well, that's perfect, because I—"
"Please, Hokage-sama," came Sasuke's quiet, impassive voice.
Then, everyone in the room turned to stare in shock at Sasuke.
The Hokage gave Sasuke an impenetrable look before smirking softly, deciding to play with these cute little children for a bit longer. Flipping through the scrolls with almost impossible slowness, he said as if with great reluctance, "Well… if you guys really want a C-rank mission that much… I'll see if there are any available. I can't make any guarantees though…" The tension in the room was almost palpable. "Oh!" he declared brightly. "There's a C-rank mission available right here! You're to escort a bridge builder to Wave Country." His and Kakashi's smirk deepened.
Naruto hooted in joy, and even Sasuke looked relieved. Sakura relaxed, but she noted out of the corner of her eye the superiorly amused looks on the Hokage's and Kakashi's faces with a sense of puzzlement, before deciding to ignore it. Who knew what these perverted old men thought, anyways?
Irregular knocking interrupted Sakura's thoughts. It was an unspoken rule that the Hokage was not to be interrupted when debriefing the new genin teams unless there was some emergency, so she wondered what was happening. Sakura looked up in curiosity at the Hokage, who declared amusedly, "That'll probably be your new client right there."
A gray-haired, bearded man with drink-reddened eyes wobbled in uncertainly, clearly drunk, waving his sake bottle around wildly. "What's taking so long to fill my mission?" he grumbled at the Hokage as though not really expecting an answer.
Glad to see the old man who had made such an impression on her in her youth, drunk as he was, Sakura rushed over to him and steadied him, telling him, "Sir, you don't look very steady on your feet!"
Charmed, Tazuna stared down at her with wide eyes before gently patting her on the top of her pink head. "Now that's a real ninja!" he declared to the rest of the room. "Why is she stuck with idiots like you guys? Especially the short one with the stupid face?" He gestured ridiculingly at Naruto.
"I am not stupid!" protested Naruto vehemently after he caught on that Tazuna was insulting him.
Pointedly ignoring the incensed blond, Tazuna decided suddenly, "I want her to fill my mission! A real lady like her, she's going to grow up to be a fine ninja!"
The Hokage shrugged. "We've already assigned her team to your mission, so you don't need to worry. Her team will be coming along with her, however, as she's a genin. Genin are beginning ninja, and they must always complete their missions in groups of three."
Naruto fixed Tazuna with a vicious glare. "I don't like this old fat dude one bit!" he whined pitifully, pouting at Sakura. She shrugged at him as though saying, Well what do you want me to do about it?
"You watch your mouth, boy!" retorted Tazuna. "And… fine… I agree to put up with those two, as long as they agree to stay on task during the mission!"
Kakashi, looking sheepish, rubbed his hair and told Tazuna, "I'll have to come along too. I'm their instructor, so I'll be watching them the whole time."
The bridge builder waved his hand dismissively. "Fine, fine! You're an experienced ninja, right?" At Kakashi's nod, he practically sighed in relief, then tried his best to hide it. "All the better! Can't have too much protection against bandits these days!" he laughed nervously.
"Who would want to steal something from him, anyways," mumbled Naruto sullenly, sidling closer to Sakura. Sasuke rolled his eyes.
Tazuna apparently had better hearing than Naruto thought, because he turned around and, highly affronted, exclaimed, "Hey, you little brat! I'll have you know that I am a very famous bridge builder, renowned throughout my country!"
"How can a bridge builder be famous? Who's ever heard of a famous bridge builder?" retorted Naruto disbelievingly.
Sakura rolled her eyes at the antics of both, feeling deeply relieved. She had to hide her smile as the Hokage sharply ordered Naruto and Tazuna to stop their bickering, and told the rest of the team to start their packing.
She wanted to smile because everything was almost back to normal, for the first time in a long time.
And she wondered: was it fate, then, that her team had gotten the very same mission the second time around as well?