Honestly, I hate Sasuke right now, but it used to be my OTP and all the great fics I've been reading lately have been swaying me back on this angsty ship.

Since this is still under construction, critique and feedback would be super-appreciated.


If there's a graceful way to die, I must have missed the memo.

Naruto's body is sprawled a few feet away. I can feel his cold hand against my bare toes. Every once in a while, they twitch.

My boots? Incinerated in a blast of exploding tags and a well-aimed Katon Jutsu. Rain pelts my face in angry, stinging drops.

I can barely make out Naruto's shaky, wet breaths through the sound of water splattering against the mud. He chokes once, coughing weakly. But just when I am afraid that he will be silent forever, he sputters and begins wheezing again.

I want desperately to crawl over him. His lungs are filling with blood. He's drowning. If only I could get my hands on a kunai and slit his side to drain his lungs. Then, he would be okay until help arrived. Even if I died right here, he would make it.

He would be okay.

But my body melds into the cold mud. I can't will my arms and legs to move. I can't feel my right foot. The rain pours even harder. Water trickles into my eyes, clearing away the blood and dirt. My side aches. I'm probably bleeding internally. The rain tastes sweet against my tongue.

My eyelids droop.

So tired.

Naruto coughs again, a wet, sickening sound. I love him so much, my brother.

I just want to sleep.

"Captain!" a voice shouts through the rain. Heavy feet slosh through the mud. There are a few different voices all shouting. Someone curses loudly.

"Hey! Over here!" one of them calls. The splashing comes closer. A dark figure looms over my face, blocking the cold rain. He leans over and until I can make out wide eyes the color of honey. I recognize the fear. His icy hands shake as he checks my pulse and tilts my head to check for head trauma. I can't really tell if the droplets falling are tears or raindrops.

"She's alive," he announces in a shaky voice.

There are a few sighs of relief.

"Sensei. If you can understand me, look up," he says, looking intently into my eyes. Very slowly, I will my eyes to comply.

"Good. Sensei, I'm going to pick you up. I think you broke some ribs so this will hurt," he informs me. The pain sears through my middle and up my back as he lifts me from the mud. I want to scream but my voice is gone.

But through the suffering and the deep agony that pierces my shattered right leg, I feel undeniable pride.

"T…Taku…mi." I force my aching throat to say his name. His eyes widen.

"Good job," I manage to say before blacking out.

His panicked voice shouts "Sensei!" until the sound fades into the soothing rhythm of the rain.

And from somewhere far away, I hear a voice whisper:

"Sakura, don't you dare leave me alone."


Chapter 1: Sunflowers

Sakura stood in front of the black gate. The rough metal scraped against her fingertips as she lifted the rusty latch and slipped into the front yard. The plastic bag dangling from her left hand rustled as she climbed the steps and knocked on the front door. She listened carefully and heard laughter from the backyard. She unlocked the door with the spare key in the mailbox and left her boots in the foyer.

"Hello?" she called through the silent house. When she passed the kitchen, the smell of miso soup made her stomach growl. After a few more steps, she was at the back of the house. The back door was open. She could see their shadows on the back porch.

"Hi!" Sakura greeted as she opened the screen door with her foot. Her parents looked up at her with identical expressions of surprise. And then, Haruno Hisako opened her arms with a bright smile.

"Sakura! What a wonderful surprise!" she laughed as Sakura enveloped her in a tight hug. When Sakura pulled away, Hisako looked worried. She patted her daughter's arm.

"Honey, I think you've lost some weight," she commented. Sakura didn't reply. Instead, she turned to her father. He smiled. But Sakura frowned. She looked deep into his eyes that were the same color as hers, crossing her arms over her chest. Her gaze darted down to his knee and then back up to his face. Haruno Yuusuke's shoulders slumped.

"Dad," Sakura began in a reproaching tone. She plopped down on the deck in front of him, her hands flaring with green chakra. When her hands made contact with his right knee, Yuusuke sighed. He put his hand on top of hers with a sad smile.

"I can't fool my daughter, the medic," he said. She shook her head as she quickly checked his knee and temporarily soothed his pain. When she finished, she patted the old, gnarled scar.

"Honestly, Dad. If you had gotten this properly treated ten years ago, you wouldn't be in so much pain," Sakura scolded as she deposited the bag of peaches in her mom's lap. Hisako peered into the bag with a smile.

"Thank you, dear. I'll go wash these," Hisako said as she got to her feet. Sakura tugged on the bottom of her skirt as she passed.

"Do you need any help?" Sakura inquired. Hisako shook her head as she went back into the house.

"How are things, Sakura?" Yuusuke suddenly asked, claiming Sakura's attention. She crossed her legs as she thought for a minute.

"I've been okay. I had a couple of emergencies at the hospital this week but it's been pretty quiet. How's the store been?" she replied, leaning back on her hands. She looked into her father's face, more wrinkled than it had been during her childhood. His dark hair, going gray at the sides, was cropped short. There was a new mole on his cheek. She reminded herself to keep an eye on it just in case. Yuusuke scratched the light layer of stubble on his chin.

"Pretty good. Business is slow but your mom and I are getting by," he said. He caught the worried look in Sakura's eyes and promptly scowled.

"Dad….are you sure you're ok?" Sakura asked. Yuusuke sighed. It was the beginning of the same conversation they always had. He reached over and squeezed Sakura's hand.

"Sakura, I may be getting older, but your mom and I are getting along just fine," he replied and she dropped the subject. She knew how stubborn her father could get. Her infamous obstinacy had to have come from someone after all. She opened her mouth to say something else when Hisako reappeared with a tray of washed and quartered peaches along with glasses of iced tea. She sat beside Sakura and watched contentedly as her family ate.

"So, what brings you here?" Hisako asked as she watched Sakura spear another slice of peach with her toothpick. Sakura slowly chewed the fruit as she gathered the words. Seeing her serious face, the smiles faded off her parents' faces. They watched her with wary expressions, steeling themselves for the worst.

"I…was thinking about going back to the border for another rotation," she finally announced. Hisako's hand flew to her mouth. She grabbed her husband's hand, mute with shock. Yuusuke's mouth tightened into a line. He slowly lowered his toothpick, his eyes boring into his daughters'. Identical shades of jade stared at each other.

"But you just got home, honey," Yuusuke finally said as his eyes softened.

Sakura set her toothpick down on the tray and stared her parents straight in the eyes. Her mother, so gentle and so optimistic: she was just like any other civilian parent. She was scared to death of war. Unlike the shinobi clans that hailed those that went to war as heroes, her parents instinctively flinched away from the idea of violence. But Sakura steeled her resolve. She was fighting for people like her parents- people that couldn't protect themselves. As she reminded herself of just why she was choosing to go back to the battlefront, she placed a hand on her mother's knee.

"They need me," Sakura firmly said.

Hisako thought for a long moment, her gray eyes wide with shock. But after some time, she seemed to a wilt a little. She looked at her husband and they both gave sad sighs. She reached out and took her daughter's strong hand in hers. They were almost the same size, both of them with slightly crooked pinkies. But Hisako's hands were soft and Sakura's were scarred from years of weapon-training and overusing chakra.

"If it's what you believe in," Hisako finally relented as she looked down at Sakura's hands.

Sakura pulled her mother into a tight hug, pretending not to notice when she felt tears wet her shoulder. And as she looked at her father over her mother's shoulder, she promised, "I'll come home again."

Two weeks later, Sakura covered her furniture to keep the dust off and cleared out her refrigerator. She spent extra hours at the hospital to tie up loose ends and file the necessary paperwork. Although she trusted the remaining staff to run everything smoothly in her absence, she couldn't help but worry about the smallest details. Finally, after days of cleaning her house in between signing paperwork, Sakura flopped back on the floor of her bedroom and sighed. She stared up at the white ceiling and listened to the birds chirping outside. In just 15 hours, she would be leaving Konoha and travelling for three days to reach one of the camps on the border of Fire Country.

During every spare moment, she had tried to find Naruto but he had disappeared on a mission. It wasn't too unusual for Naruto to be on some classified mission for months at a time. Still, it worried her that he hadn't even bothered to say anything to her. She had begged Tsunade for details but the Hokage had remained mysteriously tight-lipped about the details. It was after the fifth time Tsunade refused to disclose her secrets that Sakura had finally given up and left her stubborn mentor with a fond smile.

Sakura flinched when she felt a familiar chakra draw dangerously close to her house. She squeezed her eyes shut, praying that he was just paying a visit to Rock Lee who lived a block away. Despite her desperate wishes, the footsteps stopped directly in front of her front door. The doorbell rang. Sakura groaned and flopped over on her side. She knew it would be rude to keep him waiting so she reluctantly stood and made her way to the door.

She slowly unlocked the door and opened it.

"…Hi," Sakura said with hesitation, leaning against the doorframe. There stood Hyuuga Neji, his dark hair pulled back with an elastic band. His face, infuriatingly handsome and calm, was unchanged. The proud jut of his noble chin made her stomach roll. His porcelain mask dangled from his fingertips. A backpack sat at his feet, battered and covered with dust.

"…May I come in?" he finally asked. Sakura took in the sweat on his face and the way he was breathing a little too fast. He had come to see her right after a mission. That wasn't unusual. She sucked in a deep breath and smiled. She was aware that her expression was too fake as she stepped aside. Neji gave her a look. The serious look that made her want to wring his neck because she knew that he thought he understood everything about her. And she hated seeing that face on him. It made her believe, for a moment, that he might actually care about something other than her body.

"Sure. Do you want coffee or tea?" she said, playing the part of a good hostess. He paused to take off his sandals. Sakura turned away from him, heading to the kitchen. She listened to his footfalls, light as a whisper. He stood in the doorway, watching her as she filled a kettle with water.

"Haruno," he quietly said. She tried to hide that her hand was shaking as she set the kettle on the stove. It landed with a loud clang that rang through the warm kitchen.

"Haruno," Neji repeated as he took a step forward. Sakura wrung her hands together, refusing to turn to him. His hand felt hot through the fabric of her shirt when he touched her shoulder. A shudder ran through her body. Even though she was so familiar with that hand, it suddenly frightened her. She took a step away from him, feeling his fingers lightly slide off her. As she expected, he didn't make any move to get closer. Of course. That was how he always was. They had been stuck in the same dance for so long, never moving forward and never going anywhere.

"Please… I don't want to hear this right now," she quietly said, trying to keep her voice level.

It had been so much easier not to think about anything. At night, she could almost pretend that his eyes were looking at her tenderly. If she really tried to convince herself, she could imagine that he was calling her name and not Tenten's. But before the sun rose, he would always be gone. Outside of his small apartment, they would go back to being regular acquaintances. It made her sick to her stomach to imagine what he thought of her.

Easy. Desperate.

"I heard you're leaving tomorrow. There is no other time to talk about this, Haruno," he said in his perfectly logical tone that made her want to scream. It was always the same. There was never any emotion in his voice.

"Please… leave. I'm sick of dealing with you… with this," Sakura sighed, suddenly too tired to deal with him. She pressed her palms against the countertop to steady herself. With baited breath, she listened to him stand quietly for another moment before his footsteps creaked across the hardwood floor. He paused by the entrance to put on his sandals. Without any indication that he cared, he picked up his bag and slipped out the door. Sakura listened to his sure steps as he walked down the sidewalk. He didn't hesitate once, didn't turn back even one step.

"You don't need a damn mask," she sighed as she remembered the owl painted in delicate blue strokes across the white porcelain. Pressing her palms against her throbbing temples, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths through her nose. But no matter how much she tried, she found that she couldn't calm down.

With a growl of frustration, she stormed through her living room. She impatiently shoved her feet into her boots and then opened the kitchen window. She channeled chakra to her hands and feet and crawled off the ledge to scale the wall. On the roof of her house, she broke into a run, listening to her feet pounding against the shingles. When she reached the edge of the roof, she threw herself into the air, wind sweeping through her short hair. She landed on the building across the street with ease. She travelled across the village, relishing the feel of getting out of the hospital and using her muscles. At the far end of the village near the south gates, she found a thick patch of trees growing by a small pond. Anyone else would walk past without noticing anything. But she ducked under the foliage, following the faint path pressed into the soft dirt. The ground was speckled with the little flecks of sunlight that made it through the trees' thick cover. After a few minutes, she found the little cottage that belonged in a book of fairytales. Ivy crawled up the sides of the house, sprawling across the dark stone, complete with a brick chimney. There was even a brass doorknocker in the shape of a lion.


She turned to find Sai sitting in the lower branches of a tree with a sketchpad in his lap. As he dropped to the ground and approached her, he carefully closed the sketchpad and tucked it under his arm. He wiped the charcoal on his fingers off on his dark pants. Instead of his usual outfit, he was wearing a blue t-shirt and black sweatpants. Barefoot, he treaded through the grass. It was so different from how he normally looked that it startled her each time she saw him.

"What's wrong?" he asked as he headed back into his house. He didn't ask her to come inside but he really didn't need to. She had visited so many times that she didn't feel like a visitor anymore. Sai ducked to avoid hitting his head against a low wooden beam. Sakura slipped off her shoes by the front door and followed him inside. The walls were plastered with half-finished sketches and soft watercolors. The entire downstairs was his studio. Tubes of paint and discarded drawings covered every available surface. Sai's latest painting stood uncompleted on the easel by the window. Sakura stopped in the middle of the room to just look. It always amazed her that the emotionally crippled person she had known had come so far. Every single piece of work had a title, each one filled with some sort of emotion. Sakura spotted her favorite piece wedged in the doorframe leading to the kitchen. It was a simple sheet of paper with a rough pencil sketch. It was her and Naruto and Kakashi hunched over the counter at Ichiraku, slurping on their individual bowls of ramen. Maybe it was the way that Naruto's mouth was completely stuffed as he ate or the way Kakashi looked amused and irritated all at once or the way that she was smiling, but she never grew tired of looking at the drawing. Sai had even added Ayame and old Teuchi peeking at them from behind the counter. The longer she looked at it, the more she could imagine the salty smell of ramen in the air and the low babble of conversation in the restaurant.

"You like that one the most," Sai observed as he joined her, wiping his hands on a clean rag. He tossed the rag over his shoulder and moved around the room digging through piles of paper and paint-stained rags. When Sakura turned around, he approached her with a sheet of paper that had been torn out of one of his sketchpads. She lightly gripped the edges as she looked into Sai's face. Although he wasn't the most animated person, she could tell that he almost seemed…nervous? When she finally examined the drawing, she understood why.

She recognized Naruto's messy hair and his mouth opened in a huge laugh. His head was flung back, arms stretched out at his sides. The strong wind tangled his hair, pulled at his clothes and sent leaves spinning in the air. And then, towards the bottom of the picture, she saw a woman lying in the tall grass. Her bare feet dug into the soft earth and her arms were carelessly thrown to the sides. There was something so mysterious and beautiful about her smile. She looked so content just to be there, to be herself. But as Sakura looked closer, she saw that the hem of the woman's shirt had ridden up, exposing her flat stomach and a suspiciously familiar mark. She hesitantly looked down, touching the spot where her scar would be. When she looked back at the drawing, she began to recognize the face.

"Sai… is this me?" she breathed. Sai moved away, his bare feet padding lightly against the floor.

"Yes," he simply replied. Sakura turned, her face glowing. She smiled so hard that her cheeks hurt. Then, hugging the sheet of paper to her chest, she closed her eyes.

"Thank you, Sai."

When he didn't reply, Sakura looked around. She still felt his chakra but he wasn't anywhere in the room. A moment later, he emerged from the kitchen carrying plastic buckets. She watched him look up at the roof, set a bucket on the ground and carefully slide it a few centimeters to the left and then to the right. He repeated the process with the other containers before taking a couple of steps backward to stand next to her. Sakura put her hands on her hips, looking from the high-beamed ceiling to the old buckets. It almost seemed as if part of the ceiling was darker than the rest.

"What- Is your ceiling dripping?" Sakura demanded as she watched a drop of water slowly fall through the air and land in one of the buckets with a high-pitched dripping noise. Sai mimicked her, his eyes fixed on the droplets that gathered and fell. Their heads moved in unison, looking up at the ceiling before following the quiet descent of each drop.

"You…should probably get someone to look at that," she finally commented after a minute. Sai shrugged. When she returned the drawing, Sai looked surprised and even a little insulted.

"It's for you." He said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. No amount of refusal would have swayed him. Not with that stubborn look on his face. Instead, she hugged it against her chest and smiled at him.

"Thanks… I've been having a pretty crappy day so this makes up for it," she said. And it was true. All her stress from getting ready to leave and all her frustration from dealing with a certain Hyuuga were so easily forgotten. It would have been absolutely perfect if Naruto had been there with her. As the thought crossed her mind, she felt her smile fade. Sai must have seen it too because she saw him quickly struggle to change the topic.

"Are you leaving tomorrow morning?" Sai finally inquired. Sakura nodded absently as she flopped back on the half of the sofa not covered with sketchpads and opened boxes of charcoal. Sai sat on the arm, one foot dangling in the air. They listened to the water dripping from the defective roof, not really saying anything. Then again, Sakura had never felt pressured to fill the silence with Sai. He was genuinely comfortable in his own skin and that confidence had a tendency to radiate. Over the years, he had gone from annoying, unwanted Sasuke-replacement to one of her closest friends. It was Sai that she went to whenever she wanted to cry over a lost patient. It was Sai that supported her when she stumbled home completely drunk while an equally drunk Naruto trailed after them, singing.

Sakura hadn't realized that she had fallen asleep until Sai was shaking her awake. Slowly, she opened her eyes and found herself staring at Sai's chest. There was a dark gray across his t-shirt that hadn't been there before.

"Sakura. It's almost seven," he said. Sakura blinked once and then yawned, cracking her jaw in the process. Satisfied that she was awake, Sai walked off, wiping his hands on a rag. There was fresh yellow paint splattered across his pants. After a moment, she decided that she didn't care what time it was and dropped her head on the armrest and closed her eyes again. But instead of sleeping, she listened to Sai moving around in the kitchen. The refrigerator hummed in the background as the faucet ran. Sakura heard the familiar sound of Sai cleaning his paintbrushes off in the sink. The wood handles scraped against each other as they fell against the counter.

Then, there were Sai's footsteps, light and measured, just as a shinobi's should be.


With a sigh, she opened her eyes again. Sai was sitting on the floor in front of her, his legs crossed. Still a little groggy, she craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the clock next to his easel on the other side of the room.

Crap. 7:13.

She had been asleep for almost 5 hours. But for some reason, whenever she took a nap at Sai's house, she always felt refreshed. Something about the smell of oil paint and crisp paper and little box of lavender growing in his kitchen calmed her. Or, she realized as she looked at Sai's blank expression, it was Sai's presence. She didn't trust anyone more with her life than Naruto and Sai. Maybe it was just being near her teammate, knowing that she was safe, let her sleep so well.

"Oh, sorry. I completely passed out," Sakura apologized, stifling a yawn. He half-shrugged, letting her know that he really didn't mind. After all, most of her days off for the last six months had been spent here with Naruto, dozing off in the warm sun while Sai drew the scenery.

"I should get home and pack up everything else," she announced as she got to her feet. Sai did the same. Sakura paused when her hands felt strangely empty. She looked back at the sofa and found Sai's drawing pressed between two of the cushions. Berating herself for nearly forgetting, she carefully folded the paper in half and tucked it into her belt. When she turned back to Sai, he looked confused.

"Should I say goodbye now?" Sai asked, genuinely unsure. When she and Naruto had left for their rotations at an ANBU base two and a half years ago, Sai had been on a mission. They had left him letters in his mailbox saying goodbye, but, it occurred to Sakura, that she had never really had to part with Sai face-to-face. It felt a little wrong to be leaving him.

"I guess. I'm leaving before dawn tomorrow so you probably shouldn't see me off," she conceded. When she held her arms out for a hug, Sai's eyes grew wide. He tried to copy her, spreading his arms open in an awkward, stiff stance. She stifled a giggle as she took a step forward and wrapped her arms around him. And slowly, Sai hugged her back, his actions so careful and slow that Sakura nearly burst out laughing. When she drew back, his old fake smile was back on. He was nervous. How silly.

"I'll see you in two years, Sai."

"Bye, Ugly."

And the insult sounded so fond that she couldn't even try to get angry. With one last smile, Sakura squeezed his arm and walked out of the house.

It was still humid outside when she left Sai's home. There weren't many street lights in this corner of the village so she let her feet guide her through the thicket of trees. When she emerged back onto paved road, she took a moment to adjust. It was almost like Sai's little cottage was in a completely different world. It was so quiet, like a scene from a fairy tale, but as soon as she passed the trees, she was bombarded with the sounds of people chatting and laughter from inside restaurants and bars. Sakura took a deep breath and jumped, feeling the air whip through her hair, and landed on the roof of the library. From up here, she could see the entire village bathed in soft lantern-light. But the warm color was swallowed by the dark sky that glittered with millions of stars. As she stared up into the endless universe, an all-too-familiar ache tugged at her heart. So many years ago, she had lain, watching the same sky with the same sense of wonder. To her left had been Naruto, snoring with his mouth wide open. And to her right lay Sasuke. For some reason, under the starry sky, she had convinced herself that they were somehow closer, that they were connected by some bond.

Tilting her head back, Sakura cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, "Naruto, come home safely!"

And in her heart, she wondered if Sasuke was seeing the same stars as she was.

Every once in a while, she would indulge herself with moments like this. She had seen him attack Konoha. She had watched him trying to kill Naruto, his supposed best friend. And the dark aura that had surrounded him had been suffocating. The moment he had stepped foot in the village, she had known that he wasn't the same boy she had loved. She couldn't deny that anymore. Still, she had clung to some small hope. It hadn't mattered that her love was unrequited. After all, she had given up on those feelings when she was 16. All she had wanted was for her team, her precious people, to be reunited.

But during their last fight, Naruto had blurted out the truth about Sasuke's clan and everything had fallen apart. Naruto had defeated Pein, breaking up Akatsuki for good. And Sasuke, leaving his second team behind, fled the village.

Sasuke had always been good at that, running away.

It had been three years since then and Konoha had been at war ever since. It had become a regular thing to see groups of shinobi lying in the ER, screaming and gushing blood. All she could do was try to ease their pain and heal what she could. But lately, she lost more people than she could save. Each night, her feet dragged her into her office, sleeves dyed red. She would huddle up in the black chair, and clamp her wet hands over her ears, trying to block out the sounds of the agony in the hospital. Other nights, she would simply collapse from exhaustion over her desk. When she finally did leave the hospital, she would drag her heavy limbs back to her house. There, she would strip off her clothes and scrub them in the sink until her hands were numb and the water was pink. No matter how tired she was, she would always take a hot shower before finally crawling onto the sofa and fall asleep to the mindless drone of the television.

It would be a lie to say that she enjoyed her job. When she took a step back, she could honestly say that she was proud of her work. But in the moment, there was nothing enjoyable about watching the life fade from someone's eyes. Still, on her days off, she would encounter the wives of shinobi she had saved, the children of civilians she had treated, and they would all thank her. Only then, did she feel like the red staining her skin seemed meaningful.

Sakura sucked in a deep breath through her nose. She firmly grabbed a hold of Sasuke and all her negative thoughts and shoved them back deep into her mind. She was done indulging herself. There was no point drowning herself in the past when there was so much to get done now. With a clear head, she ran back to her house.

The alarm blared loudly at 4 am. But Sakura was already awake. She slipped out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her middle and took a second to shut off the alarm. Her tired eyes flickered to the light switch, but they ached at the mere thought of bright light. So she dressed using the faint light that filtered in through the windows. She rubbed her hair with the towel before tossing it over the footboard of her bed.

A yawn escaped her throat as she pulled on a mesh tank top. But when she put on her standard ANBU vest, she wriggled a little and found that her mother had been right. It felt a little loose in the tummy area. In retrospect, losing weight wasn't exactly a terrible thing for women, but Sakura reminded herself to eat more vitamins. Weight loss as a result of stress was never a good thing for a medic. Next were standard black pants and the medical apron on top. She sat on the edge of the bed as she secured her shuriken pouch on her upper thigh with a length of white cloth. The weight was familiar, almost comforting. Even on her days off, it stayed under her civilian clothes, a constant reminder of what she did for a living. She secured the buckles of her medical pouch across her left hip, listening to the metal and glass click together quietly inside. As she glanced around the room to check to see if she had forgotten anything, she gathered up her damp hair into a messy ponytail on top of her head. Snatching her black gloves off the dresser, she stuck them in her pocket and then found her katana propped up against the door. She hefted the weapon in her hands, testing the weight. She had become oddly fond of the katana during her recent time with ANBU. Whenever she was stuck in battle, trying to conserve chakra to heal, she found that the blade was light and efficient. She strapped it to her back and took one last look at her bedroom. Then, hefting her backpack over her shoulder, she opened the door and walked out.

After a piece of toast and a glass of water, Sakura locked her door, slipped the key into her bag and flitted through the sleeping village. The scent of baking bread spread through the cool morning air as she stopped in front of her parents' house. She hopped over the gate and looped around the back. As she had suspected, her parents were sitting on the back porch, still in their pajamas. Hisako looked up, her graying hair falling out of its loose braid. She gave a frail smile that concealed her concern very poorly. Sakura stepped onto the porch and knelt in front of her parents. Hisako took her hands as tears gathered in her eyes.

"I came back once. I can do it again. Take care, mom," Sakura softly said as she hugged her mother. Hisako nodded as she dabbed at her eyes. She gave a watery smile as she reluctantly released her daughter. Sakura turned to her father. Yuusuke's expression was weary as he put his arms around her.

"Take good care of mom, dad. I'll come home. I promise," she said. Yuusuke drew back and with eyes the same color as hers, he smiled.

"Be safe, honey," he simply replied. Sakura nodded and then with one last look at her loving family, she stood and teleported to Konoha's main gates. When she reappeared in a puff of smoke, there were already three people waiting for her.

"Is this everyone?" Sakura asked, automatically assuming leadership. They nodded in unison, like bobble head dolls. They must have been younger than her because they seemed to twitch with every sound and their movements were jerky. Sakura half-smiled.

"Is this your first time going?" she inquired.

"Ah… yes. Is it that obvious?" one of them nervously replied. Sakura laughed a little.

"Let's get going. I want to get to the base in three days. Don't fall behind," she ordered, sobering. The three other shinobi bowed. Sakura nodded once and then turned on her heel and sprinted out of the gates.

True to her word, Sakura kept up a brutal pace. She jumped from branch to branch as the wind whipped against her face and her calves began to ache. One of her teammates managed to keep pace with her but the other two struggled a little, huffing and complaining under their breaths. Still she ignored this, pushing them until it was absolutely necessary to stop and set up camp. By the third day, her three teammates lagged behind her about one or two steps but she didn't say anything. The muggy Fire Country air was thinning out, giving away to a drier type of heat. The foliage seemed to thicken, closing in around them. Sometime around noon, there was a bird call. Sakura abruptly ground to a halt and her teammates nearly knocked into her.

"Shiroi hane*," she called out to the treetops. It was completely silent for a minute. And then, several meters ahead, something dark dropped out of a tree. Out of the cover of the forest, an ANBU emerged with a fierce red wolf painted across his mask. Sakura let out a little sigh of relief as he approached.

"Ah, a sight for sore eyes. I didn't know you were coming back," Kiba greeted as he gave her a one-armed hug and she could sense his grin through his mask. He tugged his mask down and set it on top of his head. The jagged pink scar on his right cheek caught her attention for a moment. He caught her stare and his smile dimmed.

"Yeah, well, I couldn't trust you guys to take of yourselves. Are you alone?" Sakura quickly replied, forcing her eyes away. She glanced around but she couldn't feel any other chakra signatures in the area.

"Uh there are three other guys on sentry duty around the area and one other guy just went back around ten minutes ago to let base camp know you guys are on your way," he reported. Sakura nodded. With that, the group of five took off into the forest. Sakura let her feet lead her through the maze of trees that she had spent two years navigating. She noted, with satisfaction, that all signs of travel had been covered well. It took another hour of travel before there was another shrill bird call. As they continued forward, Sakura felt the faintest ripple of chakra hit her.

"This barrier's new," she commented as she channeled chakra to her finger and lightly touched her forehead. Everyone else did the same. In an instant, the thicket of trees in front of her vanished, revealing a narrow opening between the tree trunks. Kiba grinned.

"Yeah. Kurenai-sensei stopped by to erect it about a week ago," he informed her as he followed her through the small path. Here, she could barely make out the watch tower covered with vines and ivy so it blended in with the nearby trees. Far up ahead, she could see the city of tents that housed the many shinobi living there. To the far right, she recognized the mess hall and all the way across the base, there was a small wooden building she knew was her own.

"Lady Tsunade did say she was sending someone good over," Shikamaru drawled as he emerged from the central tent. His lazy steps led him straight to Sakura. He firmly clasped one of her hands with both of his. Sakura eyed the cigarette in his mouth with disapproval but she also noted the deep shadows under her friend's eyes and kept her mouth shut. Every shinobi had his crutch. For Kakashi had his porn, Naruto had his ramen and Shikamaru had his cigarettes. She could begrudge Shikamaru at least that. After a moment, Shikamaru's smile faded and he eyed the three new recruits hovering unsurely behind Sakura. He shoved his free hand into his pocket as he plucked the cigarette out of his mouth.

"Ah, you're the replacements for Tenzou-taichou's* squad. He should still be in the mess hall," Shikamaru said, jabbing his cigarette toward a long building at the far corner of the camp. Sakura laughed quietly, drawing his gaze.

"You haven't changed, Shikamaru," she said. Shikamaru followed her gaze to his cigarette-turned-pointer and snorted.

"Neither have you," he replied. They stood together, watching the base camp slowly rise. Sleepy shinobi drifted out of their tents to the showers and the mess hall. Some shaded their eyes from the summer sun, cursing under their breaths. Sakura took in a deep breath of the sweet air and tilted her head up to watch the cloudless sky. From a distance, someone screamed "HARUNO-TAICHOU!" with glee. Several more voices joined. A swarm of shinobi swallowed her in tight hugs and laughter.

She was back.

Reviews, as always, from you wonderful people is always appreciated. I'll be sure to clarify ages and current situations in later chapters.

*Shiroi hane means white wing

*Taichou means Captain