When In Middle Earth: The edited, revised and face-lifted edition:
When in Middle Earth, do as the Middle-Earthlings do. Sakura finds herself in the midst of Middle Earth, immersed in a war she has no part in, saving a world and people she doesn't know, and why? Because Naruto would be disappointed in her if she ever got back and told him she hadn't...
The long over-due chapter.
In which Sakura learns important and interesting things and occasionally frightens people.
The Lord of The Rings, its associated characters and components are copyright and property of its author J. R. R. Tolkien, the actors that played them, and the director of the trilogy of films of the same name, Peter Jackson. The character Sakura and any components associated with the manga and anime 'Naruto' are property and copyright of Masashi Kishimoto
Sakura lingered in the long shadow of a pillar, hip pressed to the groove that ran the length of the stonework, and watched the strange non-confrontation between Aragorn and the long-haired man in blue and chainmail. It had become a habit to wander the halls at night; a sort of restless drive to move, to be anywhere but that bed, in that room, and so tantalisingly close to that one floorboard that hid her guilty trophy. The stranger seemed entranced by the mural on the wall, and the shards of a sword that lay almost ceremoniously in the arms of the stature before it. Sakura watched him pick up and cut himself on a shard with an inward snicker; she could almost hear Iruka-sensei's reprimand in her head. Naruto had done something similar with a kunai once. She pressed her nostalgic smile into the stone; guess that made this man a baka too.
Sakura was still unsure on her feelings toward Aragorn, and sidled a little closer into the shadow when he appeared. The stranger flustered and left, Aragorn lifted the shard with infinitely more care and replaced it reverently. And then he gripped his sword hilt and placed his own broken blade on the pedestal with the other shards. Sakura barely realised she'd moved forward until his shoulders tensed and they both noticed she was beside him.
She shuffled, suddenly uncomfortable.
"I noticed it was broken, on Weathertop," she admitted. She let her gaze roam obviously to the mural behind them; a fallen man and an upraised sword. "But this makes me think it's important."
Why am I even saying this? What am I even saying?
She shuffled slightly as her memory pushed at her.
"Renewed shall be blade that was broken?" she murmured, almost to herself. She'd thought at the time the pretty poetry must have meant something more…
"Yes," said Aragorn. He was looking at her in that surprisingly gentle way again. It was, she realised, not unlike the way he'd looked on Weathertop, before the fighting, when he talked about Arnor. When he spoke again, he sounded like he was reciting from a book.
"In the moment when all hope was lost, Isildur, son of the King, took up the handle-shard of Narsil, and cut the ring of power from the very hand of the Dark Lord himself."
His fingers rested lightly on the hilt of the sword, the very same, Sakura thought, as the one depicted in the mural.
"This is Narsil?" she asked, head cocked in curiosity.
"This is Narsil," Aragorn confirmed quietly. "The shards of Narsil have been passed down as an heirloom among the Dúnedain. I brought the shards here myself, when I came into the hands of Elrond, and became Estel."
So he grew up here. A Ward of the house? Elladan and Elrohir called him brother. Sakura's lips quirked a little. I wonder if that's when he met Arwen.
"Estel, huh? Is that an elvish name?"
"Quenya," he nodded.
Sakura smiled tentatively. "Perhaps I should give you a title in my language, give you a full set."
The remark wasn't as casually teasing as it might have been in the past, but it was a decent effort at a peace offering, she thought. She was emotionally wrung out. But somehow, here in this moonlit garden of pillars and away from that room, she wanted to talk to Aragorn. He took her shoulders and bent to her eye level.
"I would be honoured. If you will allow me the same honour?"
She felt his honesty and it made her tremble. Sakura nodded.
"Gwathel," he named her. "Sister at arms."
Emotion choked her.
"Sakura?" He was concerned again, dammit.
"I…" I'm honoured, she wanted to say, I'm touched. Do I deserve it? Can you call me that still? I can't-
"You cannot what, Sakura?"
She said that last bit aloud, damn, she thought they'd had the worst of this conversation…
"I can't go home, Aragorn," she whispered. The confession pressed through her lips before she could stop it and hung in the air between them. His fingers were tense on her shoulders. His eyes were shadowed by his hair and suddenly Sakura couldn't look him in the face. "Even if your wizard friend could undo the mistake that sent me here, I can't go back. I can't be a kunoichi without my chakra. I can't fight, I can't-"
Aragorn's fingers pressed gently against her mouth.
"Then stay here," he said. "Fight here."
Sakura looked at him as though the thought had not once occurred to her.
"I will teach you the sword, the bow," he shook her once, a rallying gesture, "If your homeland will not see your worth then stay here among those who do." Aragorn lifted his head and the light shone on his solemn, earnest expression.
I'll bring him back, Sakura-chan... Sakura thought distractedly; Naruto wore the same expression then.
"I will not let you fade into nothing, Gwathel," Aragorn said.
It's the promise of a Lifetime.
She swallowed down the lump in her throat.
"I still owe you a debt."
"You owe me nothing." His hands were warm on her arms; stark contrast to her own super-cooled skin. She wondered if he felt the difference. There was a twitch, a tingle in the pads of her left hand fingers.
"Let me go with you anyway."
Even Sakura wasn't sure where that vulnerable, needy demand came from; but she wasn't certain that she wanted to take it back. Confusion and indecision curled in her gut. She was looking at his chest and not his eyes, again… then, the fabric shifted in Sakura's vision and she felt Aragorn press a kiss to her forehead. She knew enough to understand that the gesture was platonic and significant, but it was so alien to her own culture that Sakura did not understand what that significance was. But she understood the squeeze of her shoulders that meant reassurance, and the tone of his voice when he told her to go to sleep.
Whatever strange little ritual of forgiveness and acceptance they had just concluded, Sakura walked back to her room with a lighter heart. Her forehead tingled like a stuck promise.
"An elf came in the gate this morn'," Gimli whispered gruffly, "different. Blonde. Not many o' those here, except that doctor o' yours. Might be he's the one we're waiting for."
He watched the back of her head bob up and down. It was true; the elves of Rivendell were almost all dark haired, with only a few notable exceptions. In fact, she'd seen only one other, when Aragorn had taken her to the armoury. The elvish weapon-smiths were intrigued by her throwing knives and stars; a good sword in exchange for their study was a fair price for both parties. The blonde elf had been inside when Aragorn stepped through the door and they had greeted one another as old friends. Haldir, she thought his name was. He'd reminded her of Neji, especially when he spoke; he had the same tone of habitual condescension. Haldir and Glorfindel, though blonde, nonetheless had the same firmness of features that the denizens of Rivendell seemed to share. The elf Gimli was referring to was more delicately built and, from a distance at least, his features were finer.
"I saw him," she said, turning her head slightly so that she was clear. "He was dressed differently too; shades of green. Lots of leaf motifs."
A derisive snort gave her Gimli's opinion of that. Sakura's elbow wobbled a little and she paused to reaffirm her balance before slowly lowering herself again. She could feel the dwarf peering at the back of her head, so she hurriedly pressed on before he could threaten to get off her back. She needed weight for her push-ups and hobbits were just too light.
"Have they even told you what this mysterious meeting is about yet?"
Gimli grunted something negative and dissatisfied-sounding.
"Nought in sufficient detail. But something has certainly stirred them up." She was forced to steady herself and still when she felt him move. "I've got to confess, Lassie, I didnae think you had it in yeh, but that was a solid hundred just now. I'm impressed."
Sakura huffed a winded laugh. When she turned her head, his face came into her line of vision.
"Wait until I'm back in shape and you see me do it one-handed," she said. He slid off her back and stretched, chortling.
"I'd like to see the elf's face when he catches you doing that."
Sakura just shook her head fondly and moved into her katas. Gimli grumbled about inadequate practice grounds and made himself comfortable with one of his battle axes across his knees, only to retrieve a whetstone and rag from a pouch on his belt. The schick…schick…sound was oddly soothing as she moved through her sequence, slowly but surely increasing her speed with each run through. For a moment it almost felt like she was back at training ground seven with her team…
She heard Gimli inhale in surprise, but she herself had heard Aragorn approaching some time ago; he was stealthy, but he had nothing on Kakashi.
"You're a little early," Sakura remarked, winding down her kata, "or have I spent too long warming up?" Katas had become a sort of contemplative time for her; meditation in motion. It wouldn't be the first time she had lost herself in thought.
"I am early," Aragorn agreed, "but it seems we must cut short our lesson today. As of now, Lord Elrond is expecting no further guests, and as Frodo and yourself are sufficiently healed, he has deemed it fit to host a dinner this evening." Here, he turned and bowed to the dwarf still in company and said: "I believe your delegation awaits you in your quarters, Master Dwarf."
"And I suppose the blasted 'council' will be after. They've kept us waiting long enough to see some action," Gimli hefted his axe onto his shoulder and strode forward to brush a kiss across Sakura's knuckles. "By your leave then, my lady. My lord." He dipped his head to Aragorn, who returned the gesture, and strode out of the clearing.
Aragorn offered his arm. Truth be told, Sakura felt rather self-conscious taking it; the majority of her acquaintance with Aragorn had consisted of camping, hiking and fights to the (un)death. The chivalry seemed… odd. A lot of the customs in Middle Earth felt odd to her. And it was likely she was going to see a lot more of that tonight, especially if the dinner was especially formal…
"I have no idea how to behave at a formal dinner in this culture," she realised, and then, because she had grown up with Ino, "I have nothing to wear."
Aragorn chuckled beside her.
"The last Homely House is known for their exceptional hospitality and not without reason." He stopped to face her outside 'her' door. "This will be a great meeting of cultures, Sakura. You will not be the only stranger to elvish customs." He gently squeezed her shoulder, "Trust me when I say that it has been taken care of."
When Aragorn said it was 'taken care of', he apparently meant that she had a maid. He probably didn't mean Arwen, who was not only in Sakura's room but blithely ignoring all entreaties from the flustered maid about propriety and privacy and her job. Or at least, that's what Sakura assumed from their body language. They were speaking elvish of course…Quenya…whatever. Sakura clamped down on the reflexive need to check the floorboards in the next room; she pasted on her fake smile over her discomfort.
"Do you not help your friends ready themselves for an event?" Arwen asked in the common tongue, which only seemed to make the poor maid more red, before positively skipping over to Sakura and taking her hands. "I have never shared the experience before," she whispered, "would it be a great imposition?"
Sakura simply shook her head bemusedly. Arwen in this moment reminded her of a rich nobleman's daughter she'd once guarded; entranced by the simple novelties of common life. Of course, she rather suspected an ulterior motive, because Arwen had already proved to be clever, not to mention that she and Sakura were allies at best, not friends.
"Excellent," she said, to the maid, more dignified, "you may assist us both."
Sakura was grateful for it, because the undergarments laced up at the back and were surprisingly fiddly when one did not have the ability to conjure up a clone for the purpose. She was also grateful for the elvish fashion of long-sleeved dresses with tapered sleeves. The design hugged her forearms and extended over the back of her hand in a point; meaning that only the tips of her bandaged fingers were exposed. The neckline was lower than she was used to though, and she spent some moments tugging at the hemline before giving up on her exposed collarbones.
It was Arwen who styled her hair, and she sent the maid out expressly for the purpose.
"I apologise," she murmured at last, to the thin braids she was plaiting.
"I appreciate the apology," she said, picking her words, "but it's not really necessary. Aragorn already explained that the sword thing was more teasing than anything else." She slanted a look at Arwen, who had gone still. "Or, he implied it in any case."
Arwen resumed her plaiting.
"I am also sorry for causing an undue rift between you," she said softly.
"Oh," said Sakura, "you meant the river thing then?" Arwen's soft laugh blew across her hair.
"I do not think I have met another who would put less value in grievous personal injury than in a grievance with a friend," she patted some stray hairs into place. "I meant to apologise for my role in your injuries; the flood was mine."
"And the choice was mine," Sakura stilled her hands to turn and face her. "I am sorry for doubting you," she hesitated, and added, "my lady."
Arwen's laugh was tinkling.
"Arwen, when we are alone," she smiled, "A friend of Estel is a friend to me."
"Sakura," said Sakura, "Likewise. Now," she stood and took a moment to admire the braids curling away from her temples in a simple, elegant style. It made her forehead look a little wide, but then, what didn't?
"How does a young lady behave at this event?"
Merry and Pippin descended upon her the minute Sakura into the dining hall. The cheerful hobbits wasted no time in stealing her away from Arwen – "By your leave milady"- in favour of steering her towards Frodo, Sam and another much older Hobbit enjoying a pipe on the adjoining balcony. The old hobbit had thin white hair and impressively bushy white eyebrows, almost (but not quite) as bushy as Gai-sensei's, and was introduced to her as 'Uncle Bilbo'. She bowed to him, only to be waved off.
"None of that now, my dear, I hear I have you to thank for my favourite nephew's continued health." His face crinkled with a smile. She and Frodo exchanged equally awkward smiles.
"I did what I could, sir," she demurred, "The healer Glorfindel and the lady Arwen did much of the work."
"But they didn't though."
Merry and Pippin, even Frodo, had looked ready to object, but to her surprise the rebuttal came from Sam. He flushed under scrutiny.
"Not that they didn't do a lot for Mister Frodo, goodness knows he mightn't be here without them but," he lifted his chin, "it weren't an elf as took a blade for them on Weathertop," he nodded to Merry and Pippin, who nodded vigorously in agreement, like a row of bobbing-cat toys. "Or who knocked a Wraith clean off the tower, or who dragged one int' the river to make sure it took 'em all." He stopped and shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"Is all that true?"
The hobbits shifted immediately from righteous indignation to bristly attention. Bilbo eyed Frodo curiously. It wasn't normally in his nature to stare so hard at a man.
Sakura merely raised an eyebrow at the man; it was far from polite to butt into a conversation like that, in any culture. She recognised him as the man from the mural hall last night. Not a physical threat, but his bearing was quickly catalogued after the ninja fashion. He seemed to remember himself suddenly and sheepishly bowed over her hand.
"Ah, forgive my intrusion. Boromir, son of Denothor, at your service. I have been hearing a great many rumours about you my lady."
"I'm weary of rumours, myself," Sakura said lightly. "They are almost never entirely correct."
"Well said, Miss Stranger," said Frodo with a brittle smile. "Ah, it seems dinner is getting underway. Please excuse us sir, I must escort the lady to her seat."
It was not as awkward as it could have been to take Frodo's arm; Sakura was not tall herself; and as they moved toward the next room she ducked her head to whisper to him through the veil of her hair.
"Are you rescuing me?" she asked, amused.
"Merry and Pippin have said that you don't wish to talk about that experience," he murmured back. "And I didn't care for the way he looked at you. Like a valuable racing dog." He caught himself hurriedly; no doubt worried that she would be offended by the comparison. But, since Sakura was thinking 'like a valuable weapon', she thought Frodo's comparison was actually kinder. She squeezed his arm in thanks.
She met Gandalf at the dinner table, where she was seated close enough in view of Arwen that she could copy her movements. The cutlery was strange enough in and of itself without there being two sets.
The wizard's introduction might have been more welcome to her had it come sooner, being as he was Aragorn's friend, aide, and the man who could possibly send her home. But her arm was cold under the bandages and she could not quite summon herself to be truly glad to see him, nor to be truly comfortable in his presence. Talking to Gandalf felt, in equal parts, like talking to Kakashi at his most cryptic; all conversations within conversations and layers of meaning; and like standing in front of the Third Hokage, whose kind eyes and unassuming presence could draw out all of your secrets before you had even realised that there was something you didn't want to tell him.
"I have heard many a tale of your exploits, my dear, I wonder if you would indulge an old man?"
Was that an invitation? An opportunity to talk to him about my situation privately? Aragorn has talked to him. It's a little late. Or does he want to confirm these 'rumours' that I keep hearing about?
Sakura looked him over, and returned to her earlier thoughts about Kakashi and the Sandaime. Probably both.
"Perhaps tomorrow, sir. The gardens are beautiful in the sunlight." He nodded in response and smiled in a way that seemed almost approving.
All too soon it seemed that dessert was cleared away, the last of the glasses drained, and the assembly dispersed. The sun was setting, casting a warm orange glow across the grounds as Sakura slipped away to the western terrace. With a critical eye, she examined the circle of chairs. A stone pedestal stood in the centre, and behind it a high-backed throne-like chair was placed, most likely for Lord Elrond. She was alone still, and slowly walked the circumference of the circle. From each place, no matter where one sat, each person would be able to see all the others, and each would have a clear view of the pedestal. She finished her circuit just as a scuffling sound emitted from the bushes ahead of her, behind the opposing row of chairs. She raised an eyebrow.
"I recommend moving a little further down the bank, the bush will hide you better and won't rustle as much if you move accidentally." She said, as if to herself, before directing her voice over her shoulder, "And those alcoves over there will be a better choice than the pillar, they cast a better shadow and are less likely to be checked." The terrace went silent just in time for Aragorn's arrival.
He held a seat for her, and she cocked her head in surprise. His eyebrows raised.
"I assumed I'd be asked to leave," she confessed. "It's a private meeting, yes?"
Aragorn's mouth quirked at the corner.
"It is," he acknowledged, "and you have more than earned your place in it." He paused, as if reaffirming something to himself. "I believe there will be things said at this meeting that you ought to hear."
She felt her own eyebrow climb but she took the seat and waited with Aragorn while the rest of the company trickled in. She batted a smile to Gimli and nodded to Glorfindel as they took their seats. The man Boromir looked for a moment as if he might speak to her again, but with the weight of Aragorn's stare on him he rethought, and took his seat in silence. At last Gandalf arrived with Frodo, and the last two seats – those opposite Sakura and Aragorn – were filled. The air was tense, and expectant.
Elrond stood gravely, and extended his arms as if to encompass the whole circle.
"Strangers from distant lands, friends of old," he began, "You've been summoned here to answer the threat of Mordor." His speech was grave, compelling, and foreboding. Sakura sat forward in her seat, and with practiced ease began to commit his every word to memory. He spoke of unity, and destruction and darkness and doom. "You will unite or you will fall."
Sakura couldn't help but think that Naruto would have jumped in to play hero already.
"Bring forth the Ring, Frodo."
The hobbit slowly approached the pedestal, and hesitated a moment before placing the gold band in the centre. His hand hovered for a moment, and then he retreated to his seat, slumped as if he'd not slept in days. Immediately whispers broke out among the circle. They were silenced as a man rose from his seat – the same man whom she'd seen in the hall of murals, who had cut his finger on Narsil, the same man from whom Frodo had felt the need to rescue her – and his voice carried strongly around the terrace. He began walking toward the pedestal with slow steps, his eyes fixed on the ring, as he spoke of a symbolic dream. He was a good speaker, Sakura noted, a leader of some sort most likely. She didn't fail to notice that as much of his speech was directed at her as at the innocuous jewellery on display.
He made as if to gesture toward it – mere punctuation to his speech – but his hand swept too close and for a moment hung suspended, fingers reaching. A moment of clear-cut understanding dropped into Sakura's stomach like a lead weight. She knew that feeling. The air seemed to grow thick in her ears, her eyes drawn as if in tunnel vision to those fingertips so close to that metal-
Her soles were tingling-
Gandalf flew from his seat. A dark and terrifying language spilled from his mouth, and echoed around them. Sakura jerked as if slapped from slumber. The tunnel vision cleared and the whisper at the edge of her hearing faded. The elves looked pale and pained.
"Never has that foul language been spoken here," Elrond reprimanded harshly, a hand at his temples. Gandalf withdrew, but did not apologise, stating that such evil would be spread everywhere ere long.
I don't know or care what that was but I don't want to feel it again. What the hell is that ring doing to me?
Whatever peace Aragorn had brought with him was grating away. She felt raw and on edge in a way she'd not since facing down Sasori. Or Sasuke, an unbidden thought added.
Boromir, though, was not finished. He raised his hands placatingly, enticingly.
"It is a gift to the foes of Mordor." He then spoke of his people, whose blood supposedly kept the lands of the free races safe. "Give Gondor the weapon of the enemy; let us use it against him!"
His voice was impassioned, and Sakura could not deny that he was persuasive; he had a silver-tongue and no mistake. She didn't like it. And by the look of his body language Aragorn didn't either.
"You cannot wield it." He said it as absolute fact. "The Ring answers to Sauron alone."
She saw the change in Boromir before he'd even finished puffing himself up.
"And what," the man turned to Aragorn, derision in his voice, "would a Ranger know of this matter?"
Sakura's fist clenched. The tingle was back in her fingers and the irritating tickle did nothing for her temper. Chakra-less she may have been but Sakura was trained to be aware of foes much faster than anyone in this circle. She saw the shift in the muscles of the blonde elf behind the man Boromir, the confrontational set of Boromir's shoulders and most of all, Aragorn's tense form beside her.
"What would a steward?"
The words were out before she had really thought about them, but she did not think they merited such a look of absolute shock. Offense perhaps. She had only learned of Boromir's position through dinner. It was then that Sakura came back from her instinctual plateau long enough to realise that she had such a detailed impression of Boromir's expression because she was, in fact, suddenly right up in his face. She gone from sitting some feet away to standing and in his personal space between one blink and the next and the brains in the circle were just beginning to catch up.
The pads of her feet erupted in pins and needles. Startled breathes were starting to rush out around the terrace. Boromir was frozen in absolute surprise.
Shushin? She flash-stepped, she must have, but HOW? Thoughts, scenarios, flashes of text book pages and chakra theory skipped across the inside of her eyes; her brain flagging and discarding explanations in quick succession and yet always coming back to the simplest and yet most inexplicable explanation of all; she still had her chakra.
"Gwathel," Aragorn's voice broke into her internal dialogue. She felt the touch of his fingers on her wrist.
Sakura schooled her features into something utterly unimpressed, levelled the look at Boromir, who had recovered enough to be properly wary of it, and stepped back. But she didn't return to her seat. Sakura took up a position behind Aragorn's; making her position quite clear. Boromir barely seemed to notice, what with the way he was looking at her – like she'd just brought all of his dreams to him on a plate. It was a greedy look. The look of a man making plans; a watered down version of Orochimaru's first delighted glimpse of Sasuke's talent. Her chin lowered and her eyes narrowed.
Gandalf stepped into the pause in the proceedings.
"Aragorn is right," he said - Sakura saw Boromir tense at the name – "the ring is bound to the will of its master. It cannot be used. There is only one course open to us. The ring must be destroyed." Mutterings broke out among the gathering, loudest of which was the steward.
"One does not simply walk into Mordor," he said, letting the words hang on a hand-gesture.
The wizard rebuffed him.
"There is yet hope," Gandalf chided, leaning on his cane, "The birds bring news from my friend and kinsman, Radagast the Brown, bearing tidings of eight riders returning and regrouping in the dark places. Howsoever they recover only the shadows know, we can only hope it shall not be too fast. But there you have it: eight riders, where once there were nine."
It was only when the terrace was silent, when she expected more muttering, that Sakura realised just how prolific the rumours had gotten. It was also about then that she noticed a certain neutrality of expression in the wizard and the Lord Elrond, and concluded that they had planned this part.
The shameless, underhanded, sneaky bastards should be ninja.
"She said that she used an… energy, a magic of her own people and the basis of her remarkable gifts. Strength, healing, even illusions and stranger things besides…"
Aragorn paced before Lord Elrond and Gandalf, searching for the words to explain Sakura's sacrifice.
"If everything else of me was stripped away, that's what would be left," offered Glorfindel, from a chair in the corner, "those were her words. The notion of a soul besides the mortal body is not new, though I doubt any creature has yet thought to question what a soul might be made of. It is as plausible a theory as any."
Aragorn nodded his confirmation of this. He continued, paraphrasing as much as he dared;
"She cut the ring finger from the Wraith's hand, assuming correctly that the ring the source of its immortality in some way, and made to follow up with a direct strike to the breastplate, however" his mouth twisted, "she had successfully damaged the armour in an earlier skirmish and it gave way. Her hand passed into the body of the Wraith, her energy released uncontrollably, and tore the creature asunder from inside."
Here he sighed, knowing that Sakura did not desire this to be common knowledge. She feared weakness in a way he did not fully comprehend, and to admit the price she had paid… it was clear to Aragorn that she did not want pity.
"Can we be certain the creature is destroyed?" This from Lord Elrond, his voice a mote of low concern.
"Sakura believes it so."
Gandalf hummed thoughtfully around his ever-present pipe. It was testament to his distraction that he let the smoke curl lazily and did not blow rings.
"She gave no more detailed explanation than that?"
"I have told you what she said."
Aragorn's reply was easy, but Gandalf did not miss the way his shoulders tensed. He waved his hand placatingly.
"I was not implying concealment, on either of your parts," he said, giving the Ranger a pointed look under his impressive eyebrows. "I merely question the details of the encounter. Magic, that is not magic? Techniques capable of undoing the undead and whisking whole persons leagues away from home? It is a worrisome thought, is it not?"
Aragorn frowned at this, but Elrond indicated his agreement.
"Whether concealment is her deliberate aim or no, her potential cannot be ignored. A Wraith-Slayer in our time of need? Fortuitous indeed."
"It is not fortuitous to Sakura," came Aragorn's answer.
"I do not deny that her injuries are grave," Elrond rebuked calmly, "but we must have a full account. She must be made to speak of it, and quickly. We are not so fortunate in our friends that we can ignore such an ally, nor a potential threat. Estel…"
"I'll have no part in it."
For a long moment, Aragorn and Elrond looked hard in the other's eyes. Then Elrond's lips thinned and Aragorn bowed stiffly out of the room.
"Wraith-Slayer," breathed Boromir, and Sakura heard the capital letters in the title. Her mouth twisted in distaste. "Then the rumours are true…"
"I suppose that depends on what rumours you have heard," Sakura quipped, body language defensive.
"A warrior-witch – a girl sorceress come to aid us-"
She sneered and Boromir bristled.
"You are saying you will not aid us?"
The accusation stung and Sakura was in no mood to humour it.
"My will isn't in question. Rather, I haven't eight more limbs to sacrifice." If this bitter rejoinder wasn't enough to stop her accusers short, then the pointed wave of her bandaged arm was. Her voice was like cold poison. "I will never use my arms as I once did."
"And well it is, I say." Mutterings erupted around the circle. The speaker was one of the dwarf contingents and Gimli immediately turned to him with angry eyes. "How's a witch to be trusted?" he went on, shaking Gimli off his arm. "Are we to take a Ranger's word for it?"
"Aragorn is no mere Ranger, and that was no mere endearment he called her," the foreign elf chimed in with contempt, "but of course one would hardly expect a dwarf to understand such subtleties."
"And just what did he call the lass, exactly?" Gimli growled, somewhere between offense and protectiveness.
"What does it matter!" –this from another member of the circle, flushed with emotion- "Let the Wraith-Slayer take the ring. Why should we not pit one witch against another?"
"I'll not trust the Ring to a witch!"
Everyone was shouting. Sakura herself had long since ceased listening with any real attention. Aragorn was on his feet and protectively in front of her while Sakura merely stood with clenched fists and her head down, glaring through her bangs and beating down the impulse to shushin back to her room, retrieve the Wraith's ring and slap it down on that pedestal right next to its master, just to watch the fools react.
"Stop it. Stop it; leave her alone!" Frodo snatched up the Ring from the pedestal and suddenly Sakura gasped, like a drowning man breaking the surface. She pressed a hand to her frantically beating heart and looked to the hobbit. Frodo was addressing the circle, but he was looking at her. "I will take it."
Silence fell in the face of that selfless declaration.
"I will take the ring to Mordor," Frodo said, voice quiet, as if he was talking to only her. "She has done enough."
She didn't react, at first. Frodo was obviously waiting for her to say something, but Sakura was watching others. Behind him, she saw Gandalf close his eyes as if pained…or resigned. He put his hand on Frodo's shoulder and offered a reassuring smile.
Next to her, Aragorn shifted his weight but did not move from her side. She canted her eye sideways.
He'd had a similar expression when she'd…met…Arwen. Torn.
She tilted her head back to look him in the eye.
"I already said I'd follow you," she reminded him quietly. "And I can't say I want to see him get hurt either."
"Sakura you are not yet sixteen," he snapped. Someone inhaled in surprise, and quickly pretended they weren't listening in.
"I didn't necessarily say I would follow with your permission," she reminded him, smirk creeping onto her mouth. "And my age is besides the point, in any case. Frodo is only just of age, for a hobbit." Sakura touched his arm. "I told you before I don't abandon my comrades so easily, ne?"
She turned them both toward a group where three hobbits had come out of hiding and were being scolded by Gandalf in full view of the circle.
"We'll just have to go with him together. Ne, Oniisama?"
It was morning, and quiet, and Sakura was in the garden spinning leaves on her toes. She was, of course, exercising her fine chakra control in her feet. She'd flash-stepped. Without thinking; she had channelled chakra to her feet and flash-stepped and she could not for the life of her remember why she had thought that was impossible when she had damaged her arms. Idly, she wondered if she could channel chakra through her right elbow… the Morgul-blade had pierced close to the joint, and yes, attempts to force chakra through tended to rebound like a collision with a brick wall, but surely half an arm was still worth something?
Sure, no chakra in the hands meant no hand seals, no medical jutsu, hell, no jutsu except what didn't require hand seals, and no mountain-crushing punches. She was without a doubt, damaged goods. But chakra in her feet meant water-walking, and tree-hopping, and flash-stepping. Damaged, but not yet written off.
So Sakura practiced every chakra control exercise she could think of in the hope of forcing her big brain to never forget something like that again, and put her mind to adapting to fighting without jutsu. She neatly tucked away in her mind her thoughts on just what, exactly, might be the cause of that little lapse in memory.
When Gandalf found her, she was practicing her swordsmanship against thin air, while balancing on a moving stream. He seemed content to watch her, so Sakura ignored his presence until she finished the set.
"I have heard many a tall tale these past days, my dear; I must confess, of all, I did not expect that one to be the truth," he said at last, with a wry shake of his head. He shuffled forward and gestured toward her feet, "Ah, may I?"
Unsure as to quite what he wanted, she settled for a raised eyebrow and a nod. Sakura straightened from her stance and slid the practice sword back into its scabbard, barely noticing the rippling water beneath her as she alternated the flow in her feet.
"Amazing," breathed Gandalf, prodding the stream bed under her with the end of his staff. He even made a pass under her feet underwater, but there was nothing holding her on the surface at all. It was as if the water deigned to be solid for her and her alone. Standing still, she even bobbed. Sakura took a moment to enjoy the expression of amazement. He shook his head as if to clear and withdrew his staff, then looked at her in a considering manner. Sakura fought the urge to fidget. Gandalf tucked his walking stick against his side and held out a hand for her, as if to help her off the stream. "Well then, my dear, shall we talk?"
He was good, she'd give him that. A trifling anecdote about Pippin's table manners and the hobbits became the topic of discussion. And that left the door wide open for such topics as Frodo, Frodo's condition, and Merry and Pippin's night-time excursion just a couple of days past…and of course, her involvement in all three. And just like that the conversation returned seamlessly to the river, leaving Sakura wondering furiously as to when exactly she'd lost her hold on the conversation.
Her prickly ninja nature held out for only so long before he dropped the bomb: "So tell me my dear, what is your purpose here?"
She frowned incredulously. "Wraith-slayer, apparently," she scoffed, falling just short of flippant. "Are we not doing subtle now?"
'A ninja never shows emotion. Compose yourself dammit!'
Gandalf hummed thoughtfully, eyebrows drawn down.
"Come now miss. I am old, not blind. I have eyes and ears, and eyes and ears that travel. The news of the lost Ring Wraith is but one among many impossible things I have recently heard. Most peculiar, is it not, that such a thing that has never been seen or dreamt of should occur, only when a stranger from a distant land arrives in Rivendell with injuries even Lord Elrond has scarce seen the like of before?"
Here, the old wizard strode across the room and stood before her tall as a tower and twice as unmoving. "Peculiar: a word often misconstrued as 'dangerous'" he said quietly. "I do dislike to be misconstrued, do you not?"
'A true ninja never shows her emotions. Don't forget.'
Sakura raised her chin. At her full height she scarcely came to his, but her gaze was strong, resolute, and direct into his eyes.
"I don't know about peculiar, Mister Wizard, but I am certainly dangerous." Face like an ice block, Sakura raised a hand and prodded him in the chest. "Luckily for you, I am also on your side."
His fingers snaked around hers and clasped her hand roughly. Too late she realised it was her left. 'Calm down,' she told her speeding pulse, 'what could he possibly tell from a touch?'Nonetheless she pulled away quickly.
"I'm on your side," she whispered, as if repeating it would take away his doubts…and hers. But he was looking at the hand she cradled to her chest, and didn't seem to hear her.
"Will you not show me?" He had no need to elaborate. She held his gaze for a long moment before she let her eye fall.
It was truth, Gandalf realised with minute surprise, not defiance. Truth laced with defeat, even shame, but truth.
"A result of your injury?" A distinctly defeated nod and a shrug were his answers this time, and Gandalf let his hard exterior melt away. He sighed pityingly. "I have heard too many account of your selfless bravery, and fearless defence of our Halfling charges, to truly doubt you Miss Stranger." He smiled as it the name the Breelanders had attached to her were the most wonderful of jokes. "And if it were not enough, Aragorn is willing to swear by you. You should be honoured – a Ranger's trust is not easily earned."
Sakura held his gaze.
"Neither is mine," she said quietly, and let the challenge hang in the air. The old wizard merely dipped his head to her.
"Our preparations are almost complete. We leave in three days," he said. And then, inexplicably, he patted her hand.
She blinked, wondering what, exactly, she'd said to earn that twinkling in his eye.
After a long Hiatus I have decided to return to writing fanfiction. Don't be tripped up by the change in username, I'm still me. I can't promise that the updates will be regular, but I can say that this fic is not yet abandoned.
Thank you to those who have stuck with it all this time, you inspired me to start it up again.