Chapter Fifteen

Throwing Gauntlets


Drag. Drag, drag, drag…

Everything lately had been a drag. Danzo was a drag. Temari was a drag. And Kakashi…

Kakashi was a major drag.

Said man looked over his porn and gave Shikamaru his usual one-eyed stare. "Oh. You're here again."

Shikamaru didn't even know what he meant with that. Lately the copy ninja's passiveness had been getting on his nerves. It was not in Shikamaru's nature to exert this much effort in an endeavor, but Kakashi had been pushing him to his limits with his obvious indifference on the things going on around him. While Shikamaru had been more than convinced to just lay back, watch and relax as things unfolded naturally in the Leaf, Temari had to choose the right time to nag him as well. He was not having a nice week.

Women. They will be the death of him.

But then again, that was just him looking for someone to blame for his unrest. Even before Temari had shown signs of anxiety towards the events in Konoha, he had made sure to visit Kakashi at random days at a time in hopes to clear his head of the big feeling of 'bleh' muddling his thoughts as of late, even when he had forced himself several times to just forget about it.

Because while Shikamaru's nature dictated his body to want results with the limited possible effort, it was also in his nature to be loyal to his friends. And there were times when the latter won over the former.

And so once again, today, he found himself sitting on the floor in front of Kakashi and Gai's shared cell, elbows resting on his knees and fingertips touching to form the usual square with his hand, a sign that he was in deep thought.

Lately, this was the only thing he had been doing: thinking. It had been three months since he had received Danzo's seal on his tongue. He had spent majority of those three months looking in the mirror with his tongue sticking out, as if looking at it long enough would unravel the secrets behind it. He had heard about this seal Danzo used on his subordinates in Root, but he had never really thought much on how strong the bind was. Because of his lack on information about it, he had been schooling himself not to talk to anyone much, even in his private time, in fear of the seal. For all he knew, Danzo might actually be capable of using it against him.

The only exception was Temari, of course. Damn her. He was meeting her tonight for dinner. For… a date.

Double drag.

He did not even know why he was so anxious about it. He knew he shouldn't even be considering it. But she had been persistent. And he found resisting too… bothersome to consider.

Gai was sleeping soundly on the bunk across Kakashi's and it seemed like at the sound of the copy ninja's voice, Gai stirred from his slumber, turned over on his side and blearily looked over to Shikamaru.

"A visitor? You should have woken me up, Kakashi," Gai said, pushing himself up to a sitting position. A chunk of dark hair at the side of his head that had been pressed onto his pillow was standing out at an odd angle, and he spent a few minutes trying to flatten it out.

Kakashi smiled from under his mask, his exposed eye crinkling at the side as he did so. "I didn't want to disturb your beauty sleep, Gai. I know you've been up all night patrolling the border."

Shikamaru's head shot up suddenly. What did Kakashi just say?

Gai yawned, stood up from his bunk and stretched his hands over his head before bending forward to touch his toes. "Nonsense! I do not know the definition of 'tired'."

Shikamaru's hands were instantly on the cell bars, his fingers curling tightly around the cold steel. "What do you mean you've been guarding the border?" he demanded.

It didn't look like the two men heard him.

"Don't worry. I have it covered tonight," Kakashi said, his gaze returning to his dirty book.

"It's okay, partner. You pulled an all-nighter three times in a row last month. I can do better. I shall do five all-nighters this week!" Gai declared happily.

Shikamaru couldn't believe his ears. He rattled the bars to catch their attention. "Hey!"

Gai turned to him. "Yes, my boy?"

This was something he did not expect at all. But it was, indeed, a pleasant surprise. When he had proposed to have Kakashi released to fill in the mission as a mediator between the Kumo ambassadors coming over this month, he had been elated when Danzo actually gave in to his plan.

The last thing Shikamaru had expected was Kakashi refusing to accept the mission.

He had given demands, for one. Demands that Danzo was not willing to give in to. Kakashi had wanted every single jounin in the prison released.

Shikamaru had not been surprised when Danzo had adamantly turned a deaf ear on these demands, of course. He was not a stupid man. He knew that with everyone freely roaming about the village to organize groups no less than two or three, mutiny was not far behind. And so Shikamaru had given up on that chance of getting Kakashi out of his cell. He was not worried about the ambassador; Shikamaru can out-smart – even if he couldn't out-talk – any ambassador any day, and Hyuuga Hanabi's eyes were no longer a problem for him, especially since he had heard just yesterday from Yamato that Shizune was going to keep the little Hyuuga under her wing, along with Ino.

But still… what on earth were they talking about these little excursions to the border, when it was obvious they were in jail?

Gai did a few jumping jacks, shook his arms out, then said ever so casually, "I suddenly have a craving for some tea."

"Oh? I'll have barley, then," Kakashi said, raising his hand but not his eyes.

And even before Shikamaru could react, Gai was no longer in the cell, but was standing beside Shikamaru, tapping his toes on the pavement a few times before easily walking away. He disappeared down the stairwell, humming to himself.

Shikamaru stared after him, eyes widening in disbelief.

What… what just happened?

Shikamaru slowly turned back to Kakashi. "How long have you been doing this?" he demanded.

Kakashi shrugged, snapping his book shut and laying it gently on the bed. "Let's see. Since we got in here?"

Shikamaru was in complete awe. "You walk out of your cell in broad daylight?"

Kakashi leaned his elbows on his knees. "No. We usually go out when the sun's down. This is the first time we're doing it before night fall, really. Patrolling the border started the night we were stuffed in here. We do it in pairs with the people in the other cell, expect for Ibiki. We let him stay put."

Shikamaru couldn't help himself. He smiled then asked, "Why Ibiki-sensei?"

"Because no one bothers us when he's watching."

Of course. Shikamaru's smile broadened despite the irony.

"We do it discreetly, although I don't think we had Danzo fooled. His spies might have spotted us several times throughout the months. We personally didn't care."

It was starting to get pretty funny. Shikamaru found himself shaking his head ruefully. "So, he never said anything?"

"We've been doing it for three months now, but he hasn't said so much as 'boo' to us."

"So you've been doing this discreetly for three months. So why is Gai-sensei out there right now, indiscreetly, getting you barley tea?"

And that was when Shikamaru noticed the twinkle in that one eye of Kakashi's. "Because, Shikamaru, today is different."

Shikamaru's eyebrows raised slightly, fingertips touching fingertips. "Different?"

Interesting. A drag, though. And very troublesome, and he'd rather not know it but Kakashi looked like he was going to tell him, anyway.

Or show him.

Because one moment, he was pressing his fingertips together, and the next moment there was a puff of smoke and a small slug was sitting on his hands.

"Shikamaru-kun. It's been a while."

And Shikamaru did not even know why, but for some weird reason, he knew this was going to happen sooner or later.

And what timing for this to happen now. Temari was waiting for him for dinner.

Perfect.

Kakashi was watching him with that one-eyed gaze. "Don't worry about it," he said. "You don't have to hold your tongue too much anymore."

Shikamaru could only smirk. It was not a shock for him to find out that Kakashi knew all along.


If people were going to ask Sai if he had a conscience, he would have just smiled at them and walked away. Of course, no one had ever dared asked him such a question in his seventeen years, and that was because people didn't go asking around if Root agents bothered to develop one.

But maybe right now – maybe, just a little – he was feeling a tad guilty for having to disobey Sakura.

She had told him not to break down Noa's door.

"What… what have you done?" Noa screamed angrily as she came bounding out of her kitchen to the living room, looking absolutely hassled.

Sai frowned. He didn't know why people asked such questions when the answer was plain as day. He raised the hand holding a piece of door with the knob still attached. "I broke it to get in. I'll fix it later."

Sai could practically see the fumes coming out of Noa's ears. She lunged forward with a cry, snatched the doorknob from him and hurled it across the room. It hit a poor, unsuspecting vase on one of the shelves. Sai watched as it shattered into pieces onto the floor. He had been in Noa's house before, and he couldn't help but notice that there were many other broken things in her living room compared to the last time he had dropped by.

"Why are you mad at me? I just came here to deliver water. The well's finally operational." Sai backed away a bit when Noa glared at him evilly. "Didn't you want water?" he asked.

"I don't want anything that comes from you!" Noa snarled, her hands gripping her skirts angrily. Was she always this angry?

"Why do you hate me so much? It's just water. It's just a door."

"Get out! Get out, get out, get out!" Noa nearly flew towards him, teeth bared and nails flashing as she tried to claw at him.

Sai sighed in resignation as he caught her wrists easily on either hand. "Please don't do this. It's hot outside, and I don't want to waste energy. I have the noon's shift in water distribution after this."

"Then get the hell out of here!" She tried to kick him on the shin.

Sai dodged effortlessly. Noa nearly lost her balance and Sai steadied her quickly. "I can't. I need to talk to you about something."

"Well, I don't want to talk to you! I know what you want to ask. But this doesn't concern you. Outsiders should just stay outside!"

Sai set his jaw grimly. She was right. If it were up to him, he would have just left everything alone and waited for Sakura to master the scroll, get rid of it, look for a place to leave Valu, and get out of Gifu as fast as he could help it, even if he had to stuff Sakura into a bag and throw her over his shoulder if she wouldn't come peacefully.

He frowned even more. Lately, just the mere reminder of Sakura would send a string of thoughts through his head concerning the pink-haired kunoichi that were more than unwelcome in his subconscious.

And he hated it.

It had been but four days since he had confessed (for the second time) his feelings for her, and after Katsuyu's very short visit to report about Tsunade-sama's status, Sakura had conveniently set aside his feelings and covered it all up with a fake enthusiasm that even Sai, given his lack of skill at deciphering things that concerned emotion, could tell was a mask.

One, because Sakura was being nice to him.

Nice.

To him.

Sakura was only nice to him when he was hurt. And even when she was nice to him when he wasn't hurt, she would make sure that he would hurt more if he ever pointed it out to her.

But ever since he had confessed to her in front of the fireplace – where she had shot his feelings down – she had been doting, and happy, and very, very un-Sakura-like. Tenten was one to notice this change, and had in fact confronted him about it a couple of days after he had poured his heart out to her.

It was one of the strangest conversations Sai had ever had in his life.

"Hey. Sai, anything good happen?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Sakura's been acting weird since… I dunno, since two days ago?"

"What's wrong? Is she feeling all right?"

"Ah, no. She isn't feeling bad or anything. She just feels… different."

"It must be because of Katsuyu-sama's news. It's the best we've had in months."

"Nah. I don't think that's it. Did you… did you guys talk about something? Because every time I talk to her about you… she just… "

"She just what?"

"She giggles and changes the subject when she would normally just answer me with dry sarcasm. And she'd… blush."

"Oh. That's probably because I told her that I love her."

"WHAT?"

Sai only realized that he had said the wrong thing when Tenten squealed like a little girl and started drawing heart shapes in the air with her fingers while saying, "I knew it! I knew it!"

He had asked the weapons mistress not to tell Sakura that he had blurted it out to her.

"Are you kidding me? I wouldn't tell her even if I wanted to. She'd probably kill me," was what she said, and Sai believed her.

"What are you staring at? You're creeping me out!"

Sai gave a start and he stared down at the small girl who was looking back at him uncertainly. Her wrists were still trapped in his hands. He immediately let go, and she sprang a few feet away from him, rubbing her wrists warily.

"What's wrong with you? For a moment I thought… "

Sai narrowed his eyes at her. "You what?"

Noa bit her lower lip uncomfortably. "Nothing. Just get out of here."

Sai shook his head. "I'm not leaving without answers."

That got her all riled up all over again. She grabbed the nearest thing she could get her hands on – which was a cactus in a pot sitting on her desk – and threatened to throw it at him. "Answers to what? What do you want to ask me? Wasn't it enough that you ignored me when I told you that you and your stupid Sakura would bring Gifu pain? Don't tell me I didn't warn you! Because that was the first thing I did when you got here three months ago!"

Sai felt his cheek twitch uncomfortably. "Don't call her stupid. She's not stupid."

"Well, then you're stupid!"

"That may be the case, but there was more to it that my stupidity that caused some foreigners to come here and attack. You said they were after a healer. What did you mean by that?"

"I meant what I meant! They came here again like they did six years ago!" Noa was clutching the cactus in a pot so tight in her hands that her knuckles were turning white. "And they would keep on coming if they found out Gifu had a healer. And they would take her. They always do." Her voice faltered at the last sentence, and she lowered the potted cactus back on the desk.

Sai blinked at her, warily watching her hand as it finally let the cactus go. Could it be… ?

"Is that the reason why you keep chasing away people who come to take the job?"

Noa turned away with a pained face. "I have no choice, do I? My grand-mama died for this stupid colony, because she wanted to stand up and fight for the people who don't even give a care what happened to them. I don't even know why I stayed." She turned back to him. "Healers in this part of the wind country are scarce. Most of them are recruited by the ninja village of the Sand, back when this woman called Chiyo was still alive. I'm not sure who she is, but I heard she teaches people to heal… to heal like how Sakura heals. With chakra. My grand-mama was one of those who studied under her when she was young. She was born in Gifu, but traveled alone to the Sand to learn."

Sai raised his eyebrows at the girl. Well, at least that explained why Noa was a little bit knowledgeable with the jargons of the ninja world. Was she taught by her grandmother? "Was she a kunoichi of the Sand?" he asked.

It got the weirdest reaction from the girl. "How dare you!" Noa suddenly cried indignantly. "How dare you accuse my grand-mama of being like, like… you people! She was not a kunoichi! She wasn't a murderer!"

Now that got Sai genuinely confused. "A murde – what? You think we ninja are murderers?"

"Oh, don't play dumb with me. You get paid to kill." Noa sneered at him. "You killed that man in the Healer's house like it was nothing."

Sai seldom got mad. No. He never got mad. But for some reason, Noa accusing him of being a murderer did not sit well with him, especially since he found her reasoning quite twisted. He normally would not care because he had killed many a time before, but for some reason, having Noa label him – having her label Sakura – without even knowing anything about them did not sit well with him. He crossed his arms over his chest. "As far as I can remember, I killed that man to save your life. And if I'm not mistaken, you didn't pay me to do so."

Noa was, as expected, not convinced. "You're all the same. You and your precious little Sakura, and your three friends."

"Sakura is a ninja, but she's helped this village more than she needed to," he pointed out.

"And because of her, Riho's dead."

And before Sai could even stop himself, a kunai was in his hand he had cornered Noa against a wall, his weapon pressed against her slender neck. "You know as well as I that Sakura had nothing to do with Riho's death." He narrowed his eyes at her. "You will never blame Sakura again, or I will kill you. For free." The kunai slipped back into his sleeve and the smile was back on his face as he backed away from her.

Noa, whose eyes had widened the moment Sai had rammed her against the wall, quickly had her hands around her throat self-consciously. Her green eyes were still trained on Sai's smiling face.

"I understand now, how you feel like you have to protect this place because this is your home," Sai said. "But for someone who claims that she can read people's hearts, it's a mystery that you can't understand Sakura's feelings. Ironically, you two have the same ideals, so much that you hating her is a mystery to me."

"We aren't the same. How dare you compare me to her," Noa hissed.

Sai eyed her, not really quite understanding fully where she was coming from. "You, Noa, don't quite understand. Couldn't you read her pain? Do you even know why we had to come here? Do you know how much Sakura had to go through just to survive?" he asked, then added in a whisper, "You know nothing."

He did not know what he had said that made Noa back away a bit, her eyes trained on his face as if she was seeing him for the first time. She blinked up at him, then said, "I see you…"

Sai frowned, not sure what she was trying to say. "What?"

Noa took that time to take a step forward. "I see you. You always kept it in, and there had been moments – like, split-second opportunities that you'd let your guard down. But right now, you're wide open. You're… you're… wide open!" she exclaimed, almost as if she was seeing something great.

Sai did not know what made him feel suddenly naked being in front of her. Given, this was probably one of the very rare moments he had let his emotions get away with him. Noa was watching him.

He returned her gaze coldly, and her face fell. It was not good to let his emotions run away with him. Not in front of this girl, at least.

"You've told her you love her," she said weakly, and there was something in her eyes that he had not seen there before. Was she… was she feeling sorry for him?

Sai didn't know what to say. He had asked help from Noa to assess his feelings for Sakura before, but he had not expected her to pity him. In the few seconds she had let his emotions get away with him, Noa found out that Sakura had not answered his feelings, or even tried to acknowledge them.

But he realized one thing.

He didn't care.

Ninja were not born in this world to pine away beautiful, pink-haired women while trying to escape possible hunter nin who could be after them.

"Why did you let her get away without finding out her feelings for you?" Noa suddenly demanded. It was probably one of the most inappropriate questions given the setting. After all, how was he to know that Katsuyu was going to pick that time to appear out of nowhere and tell them that Tsunade-sama was doing well?

Sai shrugged. "This isn't the time to nag her about trivial things like 'feelings.' I might as well tell you, because Sakura's job might inevitably fall in your hands after, but we're planning on leaving Gifu."

That had the girl pausing for a brief moment, and she was blinking at him in disbelief. "When?" she asked faintly, her arms dropping to the side.

"As soon as we find Valu a place to stay. And as soon as Sakura is ready." His mask was immediately back up, and his trademark smile was plastered on his face. "Aren't you happy? With Sakura gone, the trouble you're convinced she brings with her would disappear."

And that actually made Noa duck her head as if in shame. But that could only be Sai's interpretation of her actions. For all he knew, she could be doing a happy dance deep down inside.

He sighed, then turned to her. "You and Sakura may be different in so many things, but just like you, her home matters to her as much as yours do. Gifu has been wonderful to us, even if you deny us your hospitality. But you've provided Sakura a place to call a home – if temporarily – and for that, I'm forever grateful. One of these days, maybe when everything's over, I'll be back to thank you one way or another. Remember that." He reached out to Noa, who still had her chin down, eyes hidden behind her fringe of red hair, and gently rested his hand on her head. That got her to look up at him with those wide green eyes that reminded him so much of Sakura.

"I've lived my life denying myself the capacity to feel because my job requires me to do so," Sai started, giving her hair a gentle ruffle before turning away from her. "You, on the other hand, are gifted with this skill to 'read' a person's feelings without having to do anything. In many different ways, I could say I envy you. But now that I look at it, it's the reason why you've grown to guard yourself around the people who try to get close to you. I don't know if it's the selfish intentions they have in their hearts that make you hate them, or their kindness they show towards you that make you fear the possibility of them leaving you again. Either or, if you don't change, you'll just end up wasting your life putting up walls around you to keep everyone away." He looked over his shoulder and gave her a small smile that he felt like giving genuinely.

"I'm not sure when we're leaving, but in case we don't see each other again – because I know you don't enjoy the company of murderers – I guess it's better to say goodbye now. So, goodbye. And take care."

Noa did not say anything, and he left her house without bothering to look back. He kind of felt sad. He had been hoping that by the time they left Gifu, he'd have made a friend in her. She wasn't really all that bad.


After finally receiving the best news in months, Neji had been left in a good mood the whole week. Sai and Sakura had reported to them that Katsuyu-sama had come to deliver the message that Tsunade-sama was back on her feet. That, and of course the fact that they were able to fix the well and they could now take baths.

After successfully filling and dragging several barrels full of water back to the healer's house to bathe, he came round front to find Tenten dancing around in little circles with baby Valu in her arms. Much to Neji's surprise, Lee was dancing around with her as he clapped his hands happily, singing some nursery song Neji hadn't heard in over ten years. He could hear Valu's giggles over his singing.

Neji felt his cheek twitch as he stood by the door frame, unhappy that Lee was coming anywhere near the baby when he was that filthy. "Lee. Get away from there and take a bath before you spread your germs on Valu."

Lee and Tenten looked up from the baby, noticing for the first time that someone had invaded their playtime. "Neji, welcome back," Tenten greeted happily. "You won't believe this. Valu actually likes Konoha kiddie songs."

Lee laughed, but did was Neji told and stepped away from Tenten and the baby. "I am sorry, I could not help it. He is so tiny and adorable. He laughs every time I sing."

Neji couldn't help but smile a small smile at their excitement. He could not help but realize Tenten's excitement when taking care of the baby, and the way Lee's eyes would light up when he was given a few hours to rest before his shift for the water distribution to play with Valu. Neji crossed his dirt-covered arms over his chest and jerked his head outside towards the back. "I got us water. Go on and take a bath so that you can hold the baby. I know you've been dying to."

Lee nodded excitedly and he wasted no time in making a funny face towards the baby before making his way across the clinic. He paused in front of Neji for a while. "Would you like to take a bath together, Neji? I shall scrub your back and you can – "

"I'll pass," Neji injected quickly. He had taken a bath with Lee in the river in a mission a few years ago. The man had no shame when it came to private parts and dangly bits, and gave the stupid excuse that physical excellence was something to be boasted about. It had been worse when Gai-sensei tried to join them. Ever since then, Neji had made sure to time his baths in rivers during missions when Lee was away gathering firewood and Gai-sensei out to set traps around the camp.

Lee did not look too happy at his refusal, but hung his head and made his way out the clinic to the back where Neji had left the water barrels, anyway.

Tenten was smiling at him from the middle of the clinic as she resumed her little dance. "I'd have thought you'd jump at the opportunity for first dibs at a shower."

Neji gave a one-shouldered shrug. "If Lee cleans up first, you can ask him to watch over the baby, and you and Sakura could bathe together after."

Tenten's eyebrows shot up inquiringly, then she smiled as she did a full turn, earning a high giggle from the child. "Are you worried about Sakura, too?"

Neji frowned. After hearing from Katsuyu, he had actually expected Sakura to be the most excited about it. But for some reason he could not understand, the pink-haired kunoichi looked like she had been out of it majority of the time for the past four days. Admittedly, he was a bit worried that he had even checked if it had anything to do with her chakra. Given they were still considerably low, he did not think her lethargy had anything to do with it. Sai had already told them that they were leaving the colony back to the Fire Country after tying a few loose ends here concerning the child and something that concerned a scroll. It was best if they traveled in their best condition.

The Root Agent still hadn't been too clear about their plan, and Sai had promised to be more specific after the well was made and the water distributed for the colony. Neji was looking forward to it. He was worried about home. He was worried about his family. This was probably the first time he had been away from his clan without any communication for months and he did not know how Danzo was running things in Konoha, but he hoped his Uncle and his cousins were doing all right.

He looked up just in time to see Tenten do another full turn before meeting his gaze. "Why don't you come over here and give little Valu a kiss?"

Neji grimaced and unconsciously backed away. "I'm dirty."

Tenten gave him a small smirk. "Or maybe you just don't like kids?"

Neji felt his left cheek twitch, and he could almost feel the dried up grime crack on the corner of his eye. "That's not true. I'm very popular with children," he said, feeling slightly insulted. Perhaps it was because he had not been aware that Tenten thought of him that way.

Tenten sighed as she eyed Neji with sparkling eyes. "Really now? It never really struck me you were gifted with baby-sitting. I can vaguely remember you complaining a bit when the Hokage assigned you for a three-month instructor duty in the Academy the moment you became Jounin."

Neji's jaw tightened and he felt his face heat up at the memory. Well, all right, so he did not specifically enjoy being around eight-year-olds who thought they were 'all that' when they weren't even Genin yet. And hadn't those Inuzukas been especially rowdy? Just the memory of it made him shiver. "It depends on the child, then," he cleared his throat uncomfortably.

Tenten finally gave him a break, and she looked back down at the baby in her arms. "I was just playing with you, Neji." She nodded, then smiled as she looked back up at him. "I don't doubt you will be a very good father."

And Neji did not know which was more embarrassing; Tenten making fun of his Academy escapades, or her telling him of his potential of being a parent. He cleared his throat again, then turned away from her completely. "Have you packed your belongings?" he asked in a desperate attempt to change the subject.

"There wasn't much to begin with, so everything's sealed in scrolls. I'm planning to stock on food and water the day before Sai decides to leave. Until then, I'm just slacking off."

"And Sakura?"

That earned him a frown from Tenten. "She's been upstairs for a while now. I tried to call her down for lunch an hour ago, but she said she wasn't hungry."

Neji rubbed his chin with a finger, trying to peel off a bit of dirt off his face. "Was she sick?"

Tenten shook her head, and strangely she was back at giggling and playing with the baby again. "Oh, no, no. I doubt she is. Well… maybe a bit heartsick?"

"What?"

She giggled again. "Nothing."

Girls were a mystery. No wonder Nara Shikamaru thought they were scary. He knew better than try to understand what was going on in their heads.


She did not even know how many hours she had been staring at the scroll in her hands, but she didn't know if it had done any good with her decision. She had mastered it, if by mere theory, and it had been hard. But now the harder part still had to be done.

And that was to destroy it.

Sakura shook her head vigorously before slapping her cheeks twice. She did not enjoy the fact that one of the most precious scrolls in medical ninjutsu history had to end in her hands. Surely, now that Tsunade-sama was all right, she didn't have to get rid of it anymore, right?

I mean, everything's going back to normal again, right?

Sakura frowned. No, just because Tsunade-sama was back on her feet, this did not mean she had a concrete plan to overthrow Danzo. But… was 'overthrow' the right word to use in this situation? Before they left the Leaf, Shizune had mentioned that it was Tsunade-sama's orders not to oppose Danzo, because a hidden village needed a Kage who would be able to function enough to keep any outsiders away. Sakura did not want to accept this fact before, and she was still having a hard time trying to digest it, but she knew that it was because of her personal feelings on the matter. She knew that she should trust Tsunade with her orders, but she just could not bring herself to entrust her home to a man who lurked in the shadows and struck when the Hokage and the whole village was down and defenseless.

Sai had convinced her that Danzo was not a man to leave the village hanging if ever other villages tried to invade, but she still hated the fact that she was chased away from her own village and had to go into hiding because the man wanted to get his grubby paws on someone else's scrolls.

But Tsunade-sama's orders were still orders. She didn't have to like anything she was required to obey. But still… having to burn the scroll was something she could not get herself to accept.

Come to think of it, she still could not accept majority of the things that were happening right now.

Although Katsuyu had already informed them of Tsunade's condition, she did not give them further follow-up orders on what they should do from then on. They still did not know where Tsunade was, what she was doing and what she was waiting for. And this did not sit well with Sakura. Now she didn't have a choice but to do as Sai had planned for them, which was to leave Gifu and set off someplace 'safer' for her.

The memory of Sai made her cheeks warm. Stupid, stupid Sai! Stupid Sai for confessing to her that he loved her when he obviously didn't understand what that meant. She didn't even know why it bothered her too much. She could just brush it away and pummel him till near-death for giving her a hard time but she didn't know why she could not bring herself to do so. Maybe it was because he had pointed out many times that she had a habit of covering up her weaknesses with violence. And she would rather die than admit that his confession made her weak. Because it did not!

Not really…

Not… really…

She felt her blush deepen.

"Argh!" she cried out in frustration and pushed the scroll aside. It rolled a few times on her mattress before falling over the edge onto the floor with a dull thud. She eyed it weakly before bending over to pick it up.

Sakura looked up when she heard footsteps. After a while, Sai's head appeared over the landing as he paused half-way up the stairs.

"Sakura," he started, tilting his head to acknowledge her before hiking up the rest of the way up into the landing. She noticed he had changed out of his dirty clothes and it looked like he had just washed and taken a bath.

Sakura didn't know what made her look away. It had been like this since Sai had declared that he loved her. And she hated it. She had been confessed to by boys before – Naruto and Lee were two of the most eccentric of them all, and handful of patients in the hospital she had tended to in the past – but for some reason Sai's silent, if anything, calm 'whatever' face was what made him stand out among them. He hadn't even demanded an answer from her at all.

As if he didn't care.

"Are you still mad at me?" Sai asked suddenly as he paused at the foot of her cot, those dark eyes of his trained on her intently.

It was so much like Sai to assume she was 'mad'.

She looked down at the scroll in her hand, shook her head. "I'm not mad." In the corner of her eye she saw Sai shift his weight from one foot to another.

"You've been uncomfortable around me for a while. I don't like it," Sai said flatly as he sank down on the mattress and tried hard to meet her eye.

Gathering whatever courage she could muster at the moment, she met his gaze. Bad idea. He had that sad, puppy-dog look in his eyes that he could have learned to do from some stupid how-to magazine way back when. It was strange. It would have been easier to look away, but she couldn't. Instead she found herself probing him with her eyes. The way how his relatively longer, newly washed hair fell over his forehead, and the evident tan line peeking from underneath the loose collar of his undershirt. She had to fight the urge to reach out and touch the tip of his peeling nose. He had changed so much in the months they were in Gifu. He had become rougher. Wilder.

She had always known him to be quite refined, and seldom used his hands at anything other than painting when he was not on missions. Those hands he had resting on his knees now looked roughly battered and bruised from all the digging he had been doing over the days. All of this for the sake of their mission.

All of this for me.

Sai reached out with one of those battered hands and traced her jaw line with a very rough finger. "I can hear you thinking. What is it?"

His finger stopped on her right cheek, and Sakura did not know what made her keep on looking at him. She could easily have brushed his hand away. She had done so, many times before, but now if anything, she felt like she was gravitating towards it.

She dropped her eyes down on the scroll in her hands. "I don't know what to do. I don't… "

The fingers on her cheek vanished and she saw them travel down her forearm to land on her hand holding the scroll. "What don't you know?"

Sakura laughed weakly and took that time to tear away her eyes from him. Her grip tightened around her scroll. "I'm not sure. A lot of things, I guess." She was not about to tell him that one of the reasons she was bothered was because he had told her he loved her. "Now that Tsunade-sama is well, I was expecting everything to go back to normal. I was expecting her to make everything better. But I'm still running."

Sai's hand immediately withdrew from hers. It was a sudden movement that it made her flinch. She was not blaming him, although the way he pulled away from her gave her the impression that he thought she was. He did not say anything.

Sakura swallowed hard. "Uhm, I mean, I understand the reason why we have to move. I know that being here endangers more people than just me. Katsuyu-sama can reach us anywhere we go anyway, so there's really no reason to stay… Uhm, you know… until after we find Valu a place to stay."

"And after you've learned your scroll." He paused, then, "Have you learned your scroll?"

"I have," she said in a half-whisper.

He was a bit taken aback. "You have?"

Sakura nodded. She fiddled with the scroll with her fingers then forced herself to look up at him again. She found him looking over to the window where the last rays of the sun were disappearing over the sand dunes to the west. She could make out the final lights reflecting in those dark eyes of his.

"Are you ready, then?"

Now, that was the question.

"Sai, I don't want to destroy the scrolls," she said earnestly.

That earned her a blink from him.

"You're better than that," he said, his eyes still fixed on the view outside their window. "You're better than putting your feelings over your mission."

He was just being level-headed. Orders were orders, after all. But still, it irked her. How could he say such things to her as if he knew her? He acted as if he knew her when he didn't even come close! Her grip tightened around the scroll. She should have known better than to think Sai, of all people, would understand.

This was Sai. He couldn't possibly understand.

He finally tore his eyes away from the window and decided to just stare down at his lap. Sakura bit down on her lower lip to keep herself from raising her voice at him. She did not want to give him the satisfaction of having made her lose her temper. Well, it wasn't as if she had been losing her temper lately. If anything, she had been avoiding encounters like these for the past days.

But right now, he was testing her patience. Or maybe she was testing his?

"The Hokage gave her orders. And that's what we should follow," Sai said when Sakura didn't respond.

She shook her head. "I know that. But… if we destroy it, then… it'll be all over."

She had never really considered herself sentimental when it came to material things. Ninja were trained to never get attached to ephemeral objects, and sometimes, people. Sakura had always had a problem with attachments. Letting go was something she could not do without a great deal of time and effort. Since Sai had always been aware of her feelings for a certain Uchiha Sasuke, she had been sure he would have understood.

But then that would have been asking for too much.

"Sakura," Sai said as he finally abandoned staring at other things and gave her a pointed look. "If Danzo-sama gets his hands on that scroll, then all will be over."

Sakura had accepted the fact that the Sixth was after her because of these scrolls. She had taken them without questioning and ran away from the Leaf in a heartbeat, but there had always been a question as to why Danzo even wanted it. Another thing that bothered her was the honorific Sai had placed at the end of Danzo's name.

She could not remember a time when he had ever spoken of the Root leader. Given that she never did try to bring the subject up, but right now it made her wonder about Sai's loyalty to Tsunade. Katsuyu had warned her about Sai. The summon familiar had not specifically told her that Sai was the enemy. But she did not give her any good vibes in completely trusting him, either.

"Sai," Sakura started, and finally let go of the scroll, reaching out behind her and leaving it on top of her pillow. She quickly inched towards the Root agent in a rare display of bravery. "Sai, tell me about Danzo."

And in a rare display of emotion, Sai's eyes widened and for a minute Sakura actually thought he looked frightened. It lasted for but a second before his stoic expression returned like a veil falling over his face. "About Shimura Danzo?" he asked as he stared down at Sakura's knee which was poking his thigh. "You want to know about Shimura Danzo?"

Sakura didn't know what she was going to get from knowing about the man. It was not as if she was going to be able to make use of whatever information she was going to get from Sai. She already knew Danzo was strong without asking anyone. But there were things that were still bothering her about the man that she knew Sai would be able to enlighten her.

"Why does Danzo want this scroll?" Sakura asked. "Tsunade-sama knew he would be after it, and she asked me to run away with it."

Sai narrowed his eyes at her. "That's not the only reason why she wanted you out of the village. You've been reckless and resisted the Sixth. And that was after Tsunade-sama told you to stand down. And the Sixth wanted your head for treason. Or have you forgotten?"

Sakura was taken aback, but only slightly. Well, maybe she had forgotten. Just a bit. She did not back down and instead grabbed Sai's forearm. She noticed how dark he had become compared to her, whereas he used to be so pale. "But he's still after this scroll, right?"

Sai was watching the hand she had on his forearm. "Everyone who wants power would want that scroll. You of all people should know what it stands for."

Oh, she knew, all right. "It's the only Jutsu that come close to – "

"Immortality," Sai finished for her, his eyes still on the hand resting on his forearm.

"What? So Danzo wants to, like, live forever?" Sakura asked incredulously. Why was it power-crazy men desired to live till all eternity, anyway?

"It it's for the village, then yes, he wants to live forever."

Sakura's grip on his forearm slackened, then gave him a determined look. "I can't allow it."

"Then burn the scroll," Sai said simply. "Get rid of it, and we wouldn't have any more problems."

He got her. He was right. He's always been right since the very beginning of their journey together. He had accused her of wearing her heart on her sleeve, and now she could not even get rid of a single scroll because of her feelings.

Damn him.

And damn her and her stupid pride for hating him because of it.

And damn him for telling her he loved her and still act as if nothing out of the ordinary happened between them.

"That's the problem," Sakura said. "I want to keep it. If ever someone tried to take it away from me, I can protect it. I swear I can."

"Well, I don't think you can," Sai said bluntly.

Okay, now he was just insulting her. She pulled back her hand, and without thinking she sent a fist flying straight for his face.

And much to her surprise – and annoyance – he blocked it easily with a palm.

He watched her with curious eyes, and it was then did she realize that the sun had completely abandoned her in the darkened room that would be no sooner be drained of whatever warmth it had retained from the hot hours of that day. She could hear busy movement below, unmistakably Team Ten getting ready for the night. She could make out heavy footsteps making their way from one side of the clinic to another, obviously Lee lugging firewood from the entrance to the hearth. Then there was the sound of Tenten talking, followed by Neji protesting, then Valu crying.

Sakura gasped when Sai gently squeezed her fist with those rough, hard-worn fingers of his.

"You've been training hard to master that scroll almost to point of exhausting your chakra everyday, and you tell me you can protect it? From the very first time I met you, you've shown me how you can throw everything into a punch. Especially when you're angry. This was not an angry punch, Sakura. If you hesitate like this, you wouldn't be able to protect anything."

Sakura pulled her hand away quickly. "That's because… that's because it's you."

"You were pulling your punches because it was me?" Sai asked, and Sakura could make out in the dark one of his eyebrows rising. "I don't even know if that should make me happy or make me worry." He stood up and Sakura watched him make his way to the table near the window where their little oil lamp sat along with several matches. He busied himself with getting a light on before reaching over to close the window shutters.

Shadows started to dance all around Sakura as Sai hung the oil lamp on the hook over the table.

Sakura stood up from her cot. "Tell me about Danzo," she pleaded.

"I can't," was his reply.

"Why can't you?"

"Because I can't."

"Because you don't want to?" Sakura accused.

"Because I can't." Sai turned to face her. His expression was as unreadable as always, but there was something in his eyes that she had never seen before. He looked… disappointed. "I'm sorry. But we have to get rid of that scroll."

"But – "

"You were ordered to do so. You've learned what's inside it. You don't need it anymore."

"But – !"

He was before her in a heartbeat. One moment he was standing by the lamp, the next he was a few inches away from her, his hands on her shoulders.

"Danzo-sama wants that scroll," Sai said as he shook her lightly. "You don't have the power to keep it away from him."

"Well, where is he?" Sakura asked, brushing him away, starting to get a bit angry. "We've been running – I've been running – for three months now, and I haven't even seen a shadow of you Root scum!"

And Sai froze. The hands on her shoulders relaxed. His arms dropped to his sides and he took a step away from her.

She instantly bit her lower lip in regret. She had never known herself to be verbally abusive. Well, given that she never knew Sai to be affected by anything of the like… But still, she had not considered herself to be this… mean. Especially since she knew that what Sai was saying was right.

"Sakura," He said after a while. "That's our job. People from Root move behind walls, under shadows, as silently as possible. You're not supposed to see them. Not supposed to see us. You have to remember that they can be anywhere, all the more when we leave Gifu." He hesitated a bit, his eyes darting towards the scroll Sakura had placed on her pillow. "My mission is to protect you, but I'm just one man, and you acting like… like this… it worries me. We don't need the scroll. Get rid of it."

But Sakura was not Sakura if not stubborn. It was her turn to reach out and grab the front of his shirt with both hands. "I can protect it, damn it! I swear I won't be a burden to you! Once we find Valu a place to stay, we can leave as soon as you want to, but I'm leaving with the scroll intact!"

Sai watched her with slightly hooded, if not bored-looking eyes. Sai had always tried to plaster a smile on his face ever since they had first met. He was not smiling now. He seized both her wrists in one hand, shook her grip off his shirt. "Fine. If that's how you want it to be." His eyes narrowed at her and finally that missing smile crawled back onto his lips. For the first time ever, Sakura actually thought he looked menacing.

Sakura swallowed. "T-that's what I want, yes." She clenched and unclenched her hands, uncomfortably wishing Sai would let her go.

Sai continued to watch her without even moving a centimeter, that smile frozen on his face. Then, without warning, he yanked her so hard she yelled in protest and started dragging her down the stairs.

"What are you doing?" she demanded as she missed a step and hit her shin on the landing. She was not used to being manhandled like this. Sai didn't even so much as glance back at her. She watched his head bob up and down lazily as he continued down the stairs as if he wasn't dragging a girl behind him.

The other inhabitants of the house were as surprised to see them descending from the second floor. Tenten, who had one of Valu's bottle in her hand and looked like she was about to step out of the clinic, was by the back door. Neji was standing beside her, in his arms was a crying Valu. Lee was crouched down by the hearth where he had successfully lit a cheery fire. All three of them looked up when Sai started down the stairs with Sakura in tow.

"What's going on?" Tenten asked warily as she eyed the two of them the moment they stepped into the clinic.

"That's what I want to know myself," Sakura said as she tried to free herself from Sai's mean grip again. It was no use. She had been using her chakra too much to study that scroll to free herself.

Lee pointed at Sai with an accusing finger. "Let go of Sakura at once! It is obvious she is trying to resist you."

Sakura gasped when Sai finally did let her go. She scuttled as far away from him as possible before he had any other ideas of changing his mind. She took shelter behind the Healer's desk, rubbing her wrists gingerly.

Neji's pale eyes shifted from Sakura to Sai then back again. Tenten hurriedly retrieved the crying baby Valu from him, whispered something to Neji, then after giving Sai and Sakura one final worried look, hurried up the stairs to the second floor of the house.

"What's this all about?" Neji asked diplomatically.

"He was bullying Sakura just now!" Lee exclaimed.

"Lee, let me handle this," Neji said, and the Taijutsu master quickly fell silent.

Sakura opened her mouth to tell them that it was nothing but a misunderstanding, but Sai beat her to it.

"Sakura's putting her feelings over her mission," Sai said plainly, that smile not leaving his insolent mouth as he nodded at Neji.

Neji's eyebrows rose instantly, but wisely did not say anything.

"I'm telling you, I can handle it!" Sakura insisted. She shrank behind her desk when Sai's eyes trained on her. "The scroll was given to me. I decide what to do with it. You stick to your mission, and I'll stick to mine, all right?"

The smile on Sai's face fell a notch. "You of all people should know what Root agents can do. You've fought – and lost – to them before. And they can be anywhere once we start heading for the Fire Country. I don't think you're capable of holding your ground if you face them. And to tell you honestly, I wouldn't know what to do if by any chance we have to face Danzo-sama himself." He turned away from her.

Sakura didn't even want to know what he meant by that. She did not even realize Neji's face darkening as he crossed his arms over his chest. Perhaps she was just being stubborn, but she was not about to give up one of the most important scrolls in her craft because she was afraid she would not be able to keep an evil man's paws off of it. Perhaps it was just her childish belief that she had had enough of getting those things precious to her swept away under her nose without being able to do anything about it.

Danzo had taken away her home. She was not about to let her take this from her as well.

Sucking in a breath, Sakura straightened and planted both her hands on the desk in front of her. "Sai, I want to keep the scroll. Please?" She was begging him. Why on earth did she have to beg for this?

Lee let out a strangled sound that made him seem like he was choking.

Neji sighed as he shook his head.

Sai returned his gaze to Sakura once more. But this time, the smile was completely gone. "Since you asked so nicely, then fine." He made his way across the clinic towards her, mimicked her by planting both his hands on the desk with her. "On one condition."

He was talking as he always talked, and there was nothing really intimidating by how he leaned forward close enough for her to see those bits of peeling skin on his nose. It took all the courage she could muster not to back away from him.

"W-what?" Sakura asked nervously.

"Fight me," Sai said simply.

Sakura blinked.

Lee started to choke.

Neji shook his head ruefully before he sighed again and slowly made his way up the stairs, as if saying, 'I saw this coming but I don't really care what happens afterwards.'

"Excuse me?" Sakura asked, unable to believe what he had just told her.

"I love you," Sai said.

Lee shrieked somewhere in the background.

Sakura felt her face burst into flames. "What?"

Sai smiled toothily. "Fight me. Surely, you can defend a scroll from one Root agent. Prove to me you can protect that scroll and I'll leave you alone. All right?"

She did not know how to take his challenge. Shaking herself from the sudden curve ball he had just thrown at her, she nodded briskly before swallowing hard. "Bring it on."


TBC