Hey everyone, sorry this took so long. I got distracted for awhile but here's a nice Christmas present for y'all. So without farther delay, here is:
Chapter 14: Return and Departure
Eighteen year old Sakura Haruno tried to rub the sleep from her eyes as she stood in the Hokage's office. Confusion ran rampant in her brain as she pondered not only her own presence but that of Shikamaru and Kiba as well. Though it was not uncommon for Tsunade to wake Sakura early for training over the last four years, it was never at four in the morning. She turned to ask her two fellow shinobi why they were here when the words died in her throat. Anger quickly replaced her confusion as she starred at the Nara heir, who was asleep on his feet.
"Shikamaru," she seethed, violently shaking him. His black eyes tiredly opened and focused on her blazing green ones.
"What do you want?" he asked in a dull voice.
"Do you have any idea why Lady Tsunade called us here?" she demanded in return.
"Haven't the foggiest," he replied his eyes drooping closed. Before Sakura could reply the door burst open and a stoic faced Tsunade strode into the room, a scroll with a broken seal in her hand. She set the scroll on her desk and turned to face the three Chunin.
"I'm sorry for pulling the three of you out of bed this early, but it had to be done," she said, an air of authority floating around her. Whatever this was the three young ninja knew it was important. "I know you are not aware of this, but forty-eight hours ago Suna was invaded by Shinobi of Iwa and the followers of Orochimaru."
"What! How is that possible?" demanded a now very awake Shikamaru.
"Initial reports suggest sleepers," replied Tsunade. Shikamaru seemed to accept this answer and fell silent again. "However they managed it, Iwa was able to get within two miles of Suna's walls before being detected. The stroke was sudden and the response slow. Heavy civilian causalities are expected. Now, those that did make it out are believed to be making their way here, for that reason I have dispatched all available Jonin and ANBU operatives to link up with them and escort them to the village. That leaves only one real loose end, the Kazekage is missing. We do know he got out of the village, but where he is and whether or not he's even alive in an unknown. With all the higher ranking personnel already deployed, the following mission falls to you: Find the Kazekage, confirm his status, and get him to the village, dead or alive.
Shikamaru, you'll be team lead. Kiba, it's up to you to locate the Kazekage, his last known position was two miles northeast of Suna heading in that direction. Sakura you'll provide medical support for your team and, if necessary, the Kazekage and his guard." Tsunade fell silent allowing time for any questions. It was Shikamaru who took the opening.
"Lady Tsunade, only a three man team for a mission like this? I'd be more comfortable with four," he said.
"Yes, the fourth member of your team has already been briefed and is readying their gear," she replied. "You have fifteen minutes to ready your own equipment and return here." Moving with calm efficiency the three left the tower and returned to their residences to ready themselves for the biggest mission they'd ever undertaken.
Sakura burst through the gate of the Namikaze estate at a dead run. She slowed just enough to open the door to the house before resuming her mad dash and flying up the stairs to her room. Inside she quickly removed her causal clothes and slipped on her uniform. It was comprised of a white tank top under a pinkish red top and a pair of black loose fitting pants, then she checked her medical bag, making sure it had plenty of bandages and medicinal herbs. Finally she picked up her flak jacket, it was different from most of her peers, while still possessing the six double ended pouches, it was a tan color bearing a red cross on the left breast signifying her as a medical ninja. It had been a gift from Shikamaru upon her graduation from Tsunade's tutelage. She put the jacket on, attached her bag to it and headed down stairs to grab a couple of days rations. Finally she put on her boots and raced back to the tower where she found her two teammates. Kiba was wearing his normal black leather jacket and navy blue pants while Shikamaru wore his black turtle neck and flak jacket. Reunited they all went back to the Hokage's office. Inside they found their fourth teammate.
It was a young man, roughly nineteen. He was wearing a pair of black pants and flip flop style sandals. On his torso was a white shirt, his left arm was covered by a full sleeve while his right arm was completely bare, with a metal bracer on his forearm. An ivory handled sword was strapped to his back and kunai ran down the outside of both his legs. When he turned to look at them, they saw that he was wearing a Konoha headband that covered his right eye. His sun colored hair fell down the right side of his face to his nose effectively covering his right eye as well. Sakura had to only look at him for a split second before she recognized him. Before the other three people in the room knew what was happening, she launched herself at him wrapping her arms around his neck. She caught his lips in a fierce kiss, lost in the feeling of his arms around her. After a few brief seconds, she broke the kiss and rested her head on his chest.
"Naruto," she murmured happily. He squeezed her tightly for a second before whispering in her ear.
"Love, we have a mission," he said, effectively breaking her out of her stupor. She quickly released him and backed away, instantly missing his body heat. She looked at her teammates, a feint blush on her face. Each wore a soft smile knowing exactly what she had gone through the last four years, missing the one made for her. The clearing of a throat snapped them all back to reality. They had a missing Kazekage to find. They looked at the Hokage before bowing in unison and departing.
The four Shinobi were silent as they sprinted through the vast forest that surrounded the leaf village. Naruto was on point, left eye scanning the forest ahead. Kiba followed with Akamaru, their noses on high alert for any hidden dangers. Sakura was next in line with Shikamaru bringing up the rear. They stuck to the ground, using the well-traveled path to maximize their speed. As they traveled Sakura's mind wandered to the last four years.
Part of her was annoyed with her love for not coming to see her the minute he returned, but the more rational side of her knew that, with the current situation, that was a childish thing to do. She stared at his back over Kiba's shoulder as he led them farther and farther from Konoha. She wondered just how much the fourteen year old boy who left the village those four years ago had changed. He seemed a bit more open in that brief exchange they had had in the Hokage's office, but they hadn't had a chance to really talk and Sakura had to believe that they most likely wouldn't until they finished this mission. Part of her resented that, she had pictured his return in her mind hundreds of times.
She would be cuddled up on the couch in the sitting room of their home reading a book after a long day of training. Naruto would walk in weary and beaten down from his travels. They would share a loving kiss and tight embrace for several minutes. After which he'd go upstairs to shower while she would make him a cup of soothing tea. Once his shower had finished they would sit on the couch, enjoying their tea, and talking about everything that had happened in the last four years. Then, at some point late in the night, they would drift off to sleep in each other arms. That's how she'd envisioned it anyway, but instead she had gotten news of invasions and a missing Kazekage.
Sakura came out of her trance and looked back at Naruto, her eyes focusing on the sword on his back. Once again, she pondered how much he had changed. What had he learned? Had he mastered the Sharingan? Had he found some way to forgive himself for Sasuke's death? Had he thought of her in the last four years?
As she thought of how his last four years had been she found herself remembering her own.
Sakura watched Naruto's retreating back as she fought to hold in her tears, she wasn't going to see him for a very long time. Three years at least, Jiraiya had said. Even after he had faded from sight Sakura stood unmoving, hoping against hope that he would suddenly reappear. Haru eventually gave her one last squeeze on the shoulder and turned to leave. Still, Sakura remained, not leaving until Izumo came to her to tell her that the sun was going down and they had to close the gate. Finally, reluctantly, she turned and headed for the Namikaze estate. Her walk was slow and labored, not since her parents death had she felt this lost and alone. In her head she knew that that was ridiculous, she had plenty of friends. But her heart ached. Its reason for beating had just left the village. Finally, after what seemed like days, she reached the home she had shared with Naruto for only two weeks. She walked through the gate, closed, and locked it behind her, and went inside. She kicked off her sandals and went upstairs with the intent of going to her room, but instead she turned and went to Naruto's, which was right next to the master bedroom. She stood in the doorway for a moment before running across the room and collapsing on the bed. She buried her face in his pillow, inhaling his scent. Her tears returned full force. Finally, after hours of crying, she fell asleep, curled up in a ball, with one thought running through her head over and over: 'What am I supposed to do now?'
For the next several days no one saw hide nor hair of Sakura. She took to holing herself up in Naruto's room holding his pillow and wallowing in her grief. After the first day the pillow stopped smelling of Naruto, causing Sakura to truly fall into despair. Her last connection to him was gone. She only left his room to eat, something she only did when the pain of her hunger forced her to. Sakura had given up on life. It was then that her rescuer chose to arrive.
His worry for her finally overriding his desire to not intrude, Lee leapt the tall gate and ventured into the house. Sakura heard him enter but did nothing as she heard him wander the house in search of her. Finally, after ten minutes or so, he stumbled upon her. She looked miserable, her hair was matted, her face was grimy and tear stained, and her clothes were wrinkled. It took him only seconds to decide that he was nowhere near qualified to help her in the way she needed. Instead, he coaxed her downstairs and onto the couch before thrusting a cup of tea in her hands and left, promising to return. And return he did, with her best friend, and the one person she needed most right now, Ino. After begging Sakura to get better Lee departed. Ino took to nursing Sakura back to health with gusto. After bathing and clothing the girl she all but dragged Sakrua out of the house. Ino was gentle, softly reassuring her that Naruto would be safe and would return before she knew it.
It wasn't until two months after Naruto's departure that Sakura would smile again.
Finally knowing that she couldn't be depressed any longer, Sakura set her mind to find a way to better her skills. Her first thought was to ask Kurenai for Genjutsu training, the Jonin happily agreed and started almost immediately. Sakura's progress with Genjutsu was steady, her confidence growing each passing day. With her new found confidence she elected to join the chunin exams that year and was able to pass along with Haru, Ino, Shino, Kiba, and all of Team Gai. After her promotion, Sakura finally did what she had wanted to do since Naruto's run in with Kisame, she asked Tsunade to train her as a medical ninja.
Juggling both Genjutsu training and Medical Ninjutsu training was not easy, Sakura often found herself staying up well into the night to read a required text or practice a technique. However Sakura was grateful for the busy schedule, the more time in her day that was taken up by her studies and training, the less time she had to feel sorry for herself. For three years Sakura trained in this manner, her skills and knowledge growing day by day. Finally, the day of her graduation arrived. With this feat, Sakura became only the second deployable medical Ninja in the village.
Sakura had to smile as she remembered the three years she had spent training, it hadn't been easy, but Sakura couldn't bring herself to regret a single second of it. She had grown as a person as well as a ninja. She felt that now she could stand next to Naruto and be able to not only keep up with him, but also help him should her ever be hurt.
They ran well into the night before Shikamaru finally called them to a halt. They made camp quickly, deciding against a fire so not to give their position away. Sakura laid in her bed roll staring into the trees above her at Naruto's unmoving form. With a final smile she drifted off.
Naruto's left eye scanned the vast forest canopy watching for any movement, regret running through him. He had meant to spend his first few days back doing nothing but spending time with Sakura. Instead Tsunade had met him, Itachi and Jiraiya at the gate, telling them Naruto was need for a mission while Itachi had to leave with Kakashi immediately to escort refugees. The young man had simply bowed, handed his bag to Jiraiya and raced out of the village. Naruto had readied his own equipment and headed for the tower.
A loud commotion to the west suddenly split the air causing Naruto's head to snap in that direction. He could see light cutting through the trees, shouting and cries of terror told him that someone was under attack. As he stared at the light Shikamaru leaped up next to him, his own gaze facing east.
"Sounds like a battle," said Naruto not moving from his spot against the trunk "we gonna help?"
"No," replied Shikamaru "Lady Tsunade's orders are clear, we are to find the Kazekage. I know it's cold but refugees are not our priority." He gazed down at his friend expecting him to object, he was shocked at what he heard.
"Very well," replied the blonde "get back to sleep I'll wake you in an hour for your watch." Shikamaru stared at Naruto with wide eyes for a second, before dropping off the branch and heading back to bed. Naruto looked back towards the light in the west, already the commotion was dying down, sounded like the attackers had been subdued. Heaving a sigh he adjusted his body against the tree and settled in. the hour passed slowly, giving Naruto time for his mind to wonder. He thought about many things that had happened on his journey. The triumphs, the failures and the hardships he had faced. But in all of this, one thing stuck out in his mind, and that was his missing of the pinkette that slept fifty feet below.
Every thought that hadn't been about training had been focused on her. He missed seeing her after a day of training, hearing her soft words of comfort, and feeling her arms around him. The brief time they had spent in each others arms had, in reality, only made that longing worse. For he had held her for but moments, a blissful eye blink. Then she had be taken from him and they had had to leave on this forsaken mission.
A bird taking flight startled him out of his thoughts and he watched the animal fly off into the distance. Sighing he leaned back against the tree. He looked up at the moon his thought drifting back to another time he was staring at the moon...
Naruto's hands were tucked under his head as he looked up at the full moon, his thoughts far away, within the confines of the Namekaze estate.
"What are you doing up here?" asked a voice behind him. He turned to see Itachi standing above him, his coal eyes looking quizzically at him.
"Oh hey Itachi-sensei," replied Naruto turning to look back up at the moon, "I was just thinking."
"I've told you before Naruto, you don't need to call me that," replied Itachi looking up at the moon as well. "I'm not really your sensei."
"Yeah well, I still consider you to be," replied Naruto. Itachi shook his head.
"So what are you thinking about?" he asked.
"Sakura," came Naruto's short reply.
"Ah the girl with pink hair back at the village," observed Itachi.
"Yeah," sighed Naruto.
"She is special to you I assume," ventured Itachi.
"She's the whole reason I'm doing this," replied Naruto
"To protect her?" asked Itachi. This time Naruto shook his head.
"No that's not it," he said "you think it would be, but it's not. It's just that she's constantly worrying about me, especially after the whole Kisame incident. I guess I want to become strong enough that she won't have to worry about me anymore. You know?" Itachi sat down next to the blonde shinobi.
"I think, you're a fool," replied Itachi. Naruto turned to look at him, confusion and a bit of anger evident on his face. "Sakura worries about you because she cares for you, if she were ever to stop worrying it would mean that she had stopped caring."
Hearing the wisdom in his teacher's words Naruto turned to look up at the moon.
"Huh, I guess I never really thought about that," he said after a silence.
"You miss her," said Itachi, it wasn't a question. Naruto had been very broody the last few months and Itachi was beginning to realize why. Naruto sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees.
"I didn't think it would anywhere near this bad," he said "I can't bear it."
"Look Naruto I can't really claim to know what you're going through, leaving the woman you love behind like that," said Itachi "but I do know what it's like to leave someone you care about behind." Naruto looked at him with a questioning eye. "I left Sasuke behind, my little brother, the one person I had left in the world. It was a daily struggle to not go back to him, I had to remember why I left in the first place. I left to protect him. My advice to you is find a reason, a good reason, for leaving and let that drive you. If you can't find a reason then we might as well turn back now."
Naruto had stayed on that roof well into the morning in an attempt to find that reason and when he did, it was something that he felt proud of and once he had told Itachi the older man had smiled. He was here to grow stronger so he could protect Konoha and everyone in her and one day earn the right to be called Hokage.
Naruto looked up at the moon. Seeing that roughly two hours had passed since his conversation with Shikamaru, Naruto dropped out of the tree and shook him away.
"Hey Shikamaru, it's time," he whispered trying not to wake up their teammates. Shikamaru sat up rubbing his eyes.
"Been an hour already?" he asked groggily.
"Actually been about two," replied Naruto slightly smirking.
"Alright, I got it. Get some sleep, we'll be moving in a few hours."
Naruto nodded and moved over to his own bedroll, which was laid out next to Sakura. He lay down on top of it, pillowing his arms under his head. Sakura turned in her sleep and curled up into his side, her head resting on his shoulder. Instinctively Naruto wrapped his right arm around her shoulders and pulled her tight to him. It wasn't much, but he would take what he could get.
Shikamaru roused his team early, just as the sun broke through the trees. They resumed their break neck pace towards the Kazekage's last know location. They traveled in silence, stopping only to eat. It was after noon when Kiba suddenly called them all to a halt sniffing the air, Akamaru mimicked his master. Naruto slid to a halt looking back over his shoulder at the Inuzuka. They two continued to sniff for thirty or forty second before Kiba called for them to follow him and darted off the trail heading north.
Naruto raced after him.
"What is it?" he called.
"I can smell the Kazekage," called Kiba "His scent is riding a southern breeze, I'd say he's about two or three hours north." Naruto didn't respond, there was no need to, their mission had begun.
True to Kiba's word, the team stumbled upon a a heavily guarded camp, two and a half hours later. It was pandemonium. The camp was under heavy attack by Iwa ninja numbering in the forties at least.
"Secure the Kazekage," Shikamaru ordered his team. The four broke into the clearing weapons drawn. Naruto beheaded one Iwa ninja as he stood over a Suna comrade. Without stopping to help his ally up Naruto raced for a group of five or six Iwa who were fighting a ninja wielding puppets. The puppet master was doing an excellent job but was tiring. Naruto leaped over his shoulder his sword catching the evening sun rays, he landed in a low stance eyeing his enemies. The Iwa shinobi took a second to recover, but quickly launched an attack at their new foe. Naruto leaped to meet them and cut one down immediately. He parried a second's kunai attack and delivered a heavy thrust kick into the mans chest knocking him to the ground. However before he could deliver the kill stroke a third shinobi attacked. Naruto, holding his blade in a reverse grip blocked the attack and spun, he hooked his right leg around the man's neck and brought him to the ground. With a quick twist he snapped the mans neck.
Naruto stood back up to meet the man he'd knock down earlier. The man readied a heavy polearm called a Naginata. Naruto gripped his sword in both hands and brought it parallel to his face. They raced at each other. The Iwa shinobi swung his long weapon at Naruto's face. Naruto bent his back and head backwards, his momentum continuing his forward movement. The weapon pasted harmlessly over his head. Using his slide Naruto brought his blade up into the man's chest. Naruto slid another three feet before coming to a complete stop. He turned and saw his foe laying in a pool of blood.
Seeing that his own enemy was dead, Naruto turned his gaze to the rest of the battle field. The surprise of the Konoha ninja had turned the tide, the Iwa were routed, those still alive fled into the trees. Naruto returned his sword to its sheath on his back and turned to face the puppet master. He was surprised to see a familiar face looking back at him. Though he couldn't place the name he knew that this man was one of the three Sand siblings that had attacked his village years ago.
"You," he said.
The Sand shinobi looked confused.
"Me what?" he asked.
"I know you," replied Naruto.
"No way!" exclaimed the puppet master "You're that kid with that crazy eye." Naruto inclined his head affirmative. "Well it's a good thing you guys showed when you did, we were on the brink of defeat."
"Is the Kazekage here?" Naruto asked bluntly.
"Yes he is," came a reply from his right. Naruto turned to the speaker, it was Shikamaru and standing next to him was a young man clad in the white and blue robes of the Kazekage.
"Gaara?!" he gasped aloud.
So that's that. Hope you liked and hope you all review.
"Even if the marrow is barren of promises; nothing shall forestall my return."