A/N: Although this story is mostly canon-compliant, I do play fast and loose with some of the technical details. It's definitely AU and contains spoilers through Chapter 568. It will eventually get lemony. You have been warned.
Many thanks to Scarlett71177 for putting up with my hand-wringing and supporting all my kooky ideas. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.
There had been a break in the battle, with no sustained fighting for several days. The rumors whispered within the ranks held that several divisions were on indefinite standby. That meant something had changed. Something so significant that control of the war had shifted to their side and they could breathe a little. Sakura feared it was only temporary, a bubble of calm that could be burst at any moment. Nevertheless, it was important to make the most of every opportunity to rest when possible, treat the wounded, and mourn the dead.
The loss of human life was so painful. Painful and frustrating and depressing. Although she hadn't lost anyone close to her yet, Sakura found the cost of this war demoralizing. She had surveyed the last battlefield; the only bodies left to litter the scarred landscape were their own. Those of the opposing army had simply melted into the earth, crumbled to dust, or been bound like mummified remains and hauled away. The information that trickled down to the lower ranks implied that the other divisions had experienced much the same. It left an impression of uselessness – that there had been no cost or casualties for the other side.
Other rumors indicated the real enemy appeared to be on the run or in hiding again, although there was no hope that they would abandon their pursuit of destruction. They were hell-bent, the three men who had been pulling the strings of this war. Tobi, Yakushi Kabuto, and Uchiha Sasuke.
The name of her former teammate burned like bitter poison in the mouth of every honorable shinobi she fought beside, and Sakura kept silent when she heard the cold resolution in their voices. Maybe she couldn't bring herself to kill him outright, but she was done defending him and trying to save him. She was done worrying about him. Sasuke had made his choice and it would have to play out.
So had she. She might be surrounded by uncertainty, danger, and death, but the stranger she'd treated – their conversation and his love letter to her – had pushed her over the edge and into a new life. A life she very much wanted the chance to live.
He must be a really great guy if you're in love with him.
That day – that moment – was the last time she would think of Sasuke in that way. Thanks to the soldier's pathetic words, Sakura had finally seen herself clearly. What she had always believed was love for Sasuke was no more rooted in reality, or based on the person he actually was, than her patient's love for her had been. It had been nothing but insecurity and idealism hanging from an illusion. So much affection and hope wasted.
Maybe it was the war…maybe it was seeing precious, irreplaceable life slip away every day, but the deep conflict in her heart – the pain of loving the idea of Sasuke and loving the very real Naruto at the same time – was gone. She would never be confused again, and could only trust that eventually Naruto would believe her.
For now, Sakura had other responsibilities. She moved around the makeshift hospital, the dingy fabric of the tent rolling in the breeze. She was so sick of this place, although technically it wasn't the same place. As the war had waged on the battle lines had naturally shifted several times. They had pushed north into the Land of Frost and as far west as the Sound, but no matter where the fight took them this hospital tent followed.
The wounded it contained, those with the slowest healing injuries, were lying on mats on the ground. They were cold, tired, restless, and missing their loved ones, and all she could do was visit several times a day to change bandages, tighten splints, and apply healing chakra.
It was easy to understand how they felt; an anxious longing pressed on her heart every minute of every day. But she did her best to be cheerful for the benefit of her patients. One of her very first medical lessons had been that a good attitude could put a lot of power into healing.
Naruto is safe, she told herself for the hundredth time that day. The hundredth time that hour, maybe. Didn't the lull in the battle prove that? An image of his sunny smile sprang to mind and she felt better – for a few seconds, at least. If he wasn't safe she would know. Surely Kakashi-sensei would tell her. Assuming he knew…
Sighing heavily, Sakura resolved again to push the useless worry to the edge of her mind. Reaching the mat upon which Lee was resting, she knelt and examined the bandage on his arm.
"Sakura-san," said Lee, trying to sit up. His green jumpsuit was dirty and stained with his own blood. "It's kind of you to check on me, but I'm fine."
"Your arm is better," she said, nodding in agreement. "But don't be sitting up. This is the third time you've been seriously injured." She gently squeezed his hand. "Rest. That's what you need most, Lee-san."
Without any argument Lee did what he was told, an indication to her that he wasn't doing quite as well as he let on. He was watching her intently as he settled back onto the mat. "What about you, Sakura-san? Are you resting? You looked tired."
"It's kind of you to check on me," she said, echoing his words. "I'm fine."
"But you still have not received any news about Naruto-kun," Lee added thoughtfully, stating the fact as if it were clearly written across her big forehead.
"No, there's been no word," she said. She hated how it added strength to her fear to admit it out loud. "I'm sure he's well and fighting hard – and driving everyone around him crazy." Sakura forced herself to smile then. "A lot has changed forever with this war, but I'm sure Naruto hasn't."
Lee smiled too, but then his expression became one of sheer determination and he struggled to sit up once more. Sakura did not glance toward what had prodded his stubborn streak of discipline into action. She knew without looking.
"Kakashi-butaicho! Gai-sensei! You're back!" Lee said, the thick brows above his eyes set at angles as serious as the tone in his voice.
Sakura focused healing chakra in her hands and applied it to Lee's arm, hoping it would encourage him to at least sit still. She did not address the men herself, but her heart was beating wildly. She didn't know they had returned to camp. Yes, something big had changed.
"How are you, Lee-kun?" said Kakashi.
"I am ready to fight!"
Still focused on treating Lee's arm, Sakura subtly shook her head as a signal to Kakashi that her patient was being overly optimistic.
"Ah, I see," Kakashi said, as much to her, Sakura assumed, as to Lee. "That's good. I'll count on your skill in the next attack."
"That's it, Lee. The power of youth," said Gai, his voice filled with pride.
Lee nodded and made a fist with his unbandaged hand. "Give the word, Kakashi-butaicho, and I will be ready."
"I'm waiting on intel before we move again," Kakashi went on in a lazy tone, "but some new orders have come in from the allied forces headquarters. Sakura, I need to speak with you."
Even as Sakura patted Lee on the shoulder and got to her feet, everything seemed to be spinning. This was the news her worried heart had been waiting for. It had to be. Naruto. She didn't have the courage to meet her sensei in the eye, and as usual his cool voice revealed nothing. Sakura nodded and followed Kakashi outside, Gai remaining behind to visit with his beloved protégé.
The sky was a lighter shade of grey and a chilly breeze had picked up since she had been in the tent with the wounded, but that wasn't why Sakura felt cold.
Kakashi didn't walk more than a few paces before he stopped and turned to her. She noticed then that there was a cut healing above his eye, and several holes in his mask revealed gashes on his face. The right sleeve of his shirt was split from elbow to shoulder, and a thick white bandage had been wrapped around his upper arm. The way he stood suggested he had received only the first round of healing for internal damage and broken ribs. He'd been hastily patched together by an expert.
"You shouldn't be on your feet, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said, taking a step toward him. "Let me—"
He held up his hand to stop her. "A lot has happened, Sakura. You know Naruto and Killer Bee joined the battle – you saw one of Naruto's clones yourself."
"Yes." Sakura was waiting for words that would let her breathe. "Please tell me about Naruto. Is he all right?"
"He's beaten up and tired, but heyah, he's all right." Kakashi's left hand was at the back of his neck. "What a guy," he said, mostly to himself.
Sakura relaxed a little but not enough to smile at Kakashi's admiration. She waited for him to explain.
"He clashed with Tobi, who had an army of jinchuriki under his control."
"Jinchuriki? How could that—"
Kakashi shook his head. "Edo Tensei. Their corpses had been brought back to life and their biju restored – along with a Sharingan and a Rinnegan. Naruto and Bee had their hands full with those seven. Good thing Gai and I showed up when we did." He winced as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.
Sakura couldn't help but wonder how any of them had walked away from such a fight. "What happened?"
"Tobi fully transformed the Four Tails and it…swallowed Naruto."
"I don't know for sure what happened in there," said Kakashi, shaking his head again, "or what Naruto said to it, but the Four Tails broke free from Tobi's control and let Naruto go. After that the fighting went our way. The Four Tails told the other tailed beasts to resist Tobi as much as they could, and to fight with us. With help from the Hachibi and Kyubi, Bee and Naruto and the Four Tails shook Tobi's hold on the other five biju. Tobi has retreated – for now – but—" Kakashi's tone became hushed, reverent. "It was a fierce fight."
Something had gone wrong. "What is it, Kakashi-sensei?"
"Killer Bee didn't make it."
Sakura's heart felt squeezed again. "Where is Naruto now?"
"He stayed on the field with Bee…until the Raikage could get there. Tsunade-sama and Gaara arrived with him. They had been fighting the resurrected Uchiha Madara with the other Kage, but his corpse was summoned away by Tobi and Kabuto – and Sasuke, we're assuming – so they can regroup, now that the tailed beasts—"
Tsunade-sama – the expert who had treated Kakashi's injuries in the field. Imagining the battle scene, Sakura took another step forward. "Why didn't you stay with him? With Naruto? We might not have known Killer Bee, but Naruto did and he will grieve. And blame himself. Why didn't you stay to help him—"
"He didn't have time to grieve," Kakashi said, his tone flat. "There wasn't time for anything. This is war. We had to make the best decision we could and move fast."
"You haven't heard everything yet, Sakura." Sakura bowed obediently and fell silent, and then Kakashi continued. "Before Bee died, the Hachibi told Naruto what we needed to do. The Hachibi was the first to go – as a sign of faith."
Confused, Sakura mouthed the words sign of faith but didn't dare to interrupt again.
"Then, with the help of Tsunade-sama's Creation Rebirth Technique, I could sustain enough chakra to use my Sharingan…to hold the tailed beasts that were stranded in the corpses. One by one they went in. The Raikage and Gaara formed the seals. It wouldn't have worked if the biju hadn't gone somewhat willingly."
"Gone where?" said Sakura.
Kakashi looked her in the eye but said nothing, and a shiver swept through Sakura's body.
"You mean Naruto," she said.
"Heyah," said Kakashi. "He's jinchuriki for eight separate tailed beasts now. Only the One Tail is missing. We don't know where it is but we can be sure Tobi does – and he'll be back to get them all. He won't stop."
Sakura felt weak in the knees, her mind spinning again. As if Naruto's burden hadn't been heavy enough. She couldn't form a single word.
Kakashi's voice was reverent again. "I thought the Rikudo Sennin was a myth, but not anymore. Naruto is the Sage reborn, or something like him."
"Rikudo Sennin," Sakura whispered. For a few moments she was lost in thought. In disbelief. "Y-you said there were new orders?"
"Heyah," Kakashi said with a weary nod. "War or not, the Raikage is taking Bee's body back to Kumogakure for a funeral. Naruto wants to go, and it is for the best if he does."
"I don't understand, Kakashi-sensei."
He heaved a heavy sigh and a bright spot of fresh blood stained the bandage on his arm.
"Like I said, Tobi's strategy – his Eye of the Moon Plan – depends on the tailed beasts. We have taken all but one, and now they are conveniently in one place. Sealed into one person. He will be back to get them."
"What is the plan?"
"Naruto needs time to get control over the biju – to get used to them and try to gain their cooperation. Once he does it will be difficult to take him down – maybe impossible. We need to give him that time. Naruto will travel to Kumogakure with the Raikage, and after Bee's funeral, he will…disappear into the back country for a while – somewhere Tobi wouldn't think to look."
A gust of wind scattered leaves around them, and a lock of hair strayed across her face. Sakura smoothed it behind her ear. "D-disappear? By himself?"
Kakashi shook his head slowly. "Tsunade-sama has asked that you accompany Naruto. Your team bond makes you the best choice, and he shouldn't travel without someone...without a medical-nin – just in case."
If it were possible, her heart was pounding harder than before. "And what about Sai? Will he be going on this mission too?"
"No. He will stay here under my command."
"You will go to the Land of Lightning with two of Killer Bee's subordinates." Kakashi paused as if he couldn't remember their names, but Sakura wasn't falling for it. For some reason he didn't want to say them and she was pretty sure she knew why. "After Naruto has paid his respects, the two of you will move on alone."
"It's Karui and Omoi, isn't it? The subordinates?" said Sakura. She was trying to practice the ninja code she knew so well, and remember to show the proper respect, but just the thought of that bitch beating on Naruto for his loyalty and her hands had curled into trembling fists.
Kakashi laughed uncomfortably. "I knew you wouldn't like the idea. They probably don't either." Then he soberly added, "But their master is dead, Sakura, and these are your orders. The success of Naruto's new mission means everything to the alliance. To the world."
"I understand." That was a lie. She didn't understand anything, but she straightened her frame and steadied her voice. "When do I leave?"
"Immediately. The two from Kumo arrived in camp at the same time Gai and I returned. They're waiting for you to pack the gear and supplies you need. You'll get more orders once you're in Kumo."
Sakura turned to go but hesitated. It would be smarter not to make this personal, and yet it was way too late for that. Kakashi already knew everything. He had witnessed firsthand her declaration of love, what a fool she had made of herself, and how Naruto had put her in her place with his reaction. Kakashi had witnessed her inability to kill Sasuke when it was her duty. There was no point in pretending none of that had happened. After all, Naruto hated people who lied to themselves…
"Kakashi-sensei?" she said, facing him once more.
"Does Naruto know I've been assigned? That I'll be the one meeting him and—"
"I'm sure Tsunade-sama has told him by now. Even if he doesn't know, Sakura," Kakashi's tone was low and serious, "he will be happy to see you. That guy...he—"
She bowed her head in the hopes he wouldn't finish the sentence. Whatever Kakashi was going to say, she wasn't sure she could bear to hear it. Mercifully, he understood her silent request and let it go.
"Please, Sensei. Promise me you will go to the hospital – that you will let Shizune help you?"
They exchanged nods and Sakura turned on her heel.
"If he tries to give you any trouble," Kakashi called after her, "just remind Naruto that you still outrank him."
The trip to Kumogakure with Karui and Omoi had passed without incident. Sakura had expressed her condolences and they had been accepted – a little reluctantly, maybe, but she wouldn't hold that against them in their time of loss.
Otherwise she had kept a discreet distance from her escorts who, despite their grief, did a lot of punching and quarrelling. Instead of wanting to hit them herself, Sakura found an unexpected comfort in their companionship. Their bond reminded her of her own with Naruto, and she wondered if either Karui or Omoi had figured out yet what all that shoving and arguing was really about. The thought made her smile.
Karui was still a bitch for giving Naruto that terrible beating, but during the quiet hours the three of them had travelled, when there was nothing to do but think, Sakura had come to the conclusion that it wasn't Karui's fault. Naruto had taken that beating. He'd let it happen. Sakura knew it was yet another case where he had chosen her feelings – and Sasuke – over himself. That's what he always did.
Maybe now that things were different, that Sasuke was truly no longer between them, they could talk about it. Maybe.
The last few miles up into the mountains were the hardest. Night was falling, and Karui and Omoi seemed to gain speed when the lights of the village came into view above. Sakura kept up with them despite the altitude, becoming more and more aware of the damp chill that was creeping into her bones. It wasn't just the thick clouds that choked out the stars, or the cold mist that hung in the air. She was only minutes away from Naruto now, and didn't know what to expect. Would he be as happy to see her as Kakashi had thought? She wasn't sure.
Once inside the village her guides took her directly to the large building that was a seamless part of the tallest mountain. There was just enough light left to see that it was blue, and that the symbol for lightning was mounted in the center of a series of huge windows. That was the Raikage's office, she assumed. The view from there was probably breathtaking if the sun ever came out.
Sakura followed the morbidly silent Karui and Omoi through the large doors. The interior of the building was only slightly warmer than it was outside, but it was dry and for that Sakura was thankful. They were met in the foyer by a beautiful young woman with white hair, flawless brown skin, and a bosom to rival Tsunade-sama's. Her clothes looked expensive and none too big. To Sakura's eye there was something…feline about her.
"Karui, Omoi, welcome home. The Raikage will see you now," the woman said, indicating the ornate double doors on their right.
Sakura's travelling companions exchanged a look of resolute despair, and she truly pitied them. How would she feel if it were Kakashi-sensei? Or Tsunade-sama? Without sparing a word or even a glance for her, they turned the handles of the doors together. A shaft of golden light angled into the foyer for a moment, and when it had gone the white-haired woman spoke again.
"You are the Hokage's apprentice?"
The woman seemed to ask the question with some surprise. "Yes," said Sakura.
"I am Marui."
"A room has been arranged for you on the floor below, next to Naruto-sama. I hope that will meet your needs."
Naruto-sama? Sakura supposed it made sense; the shinobi of Kumo were well known for their preoccupation with the power of jinchuriki, and Kakashi had said Naruto was something like the Rikudo Sennin now. But something about it didn't sit well, and a different kind of chill was creeping into her bones.
"I'm sure it will, thank you."
Sakura bowed again and followed Marui down the hallway. The way the woman walked made her skirt seem even shorter than it actually was, and Sakura glared at her back as they went down the stairs. The lower level hallway was dimly lit, although the long row of lights was still bright enough to make the polished floor gleam. Each door was reflected so perfectly in its surface that it was almost confusing. None of the doors had any identifiable markings, either. All were painted a pale blue, all looked exactly the same. Sakura reminded herself to count on her next trip so she could find the right door again.
Nearly halfway down the corridor Marui stopped, opened one of the doors, and stood aside. "I'm sure you would like to rest and…clean up," she said, the brow over one eye arching slightly. "A tray of food will be brought to you in one hour."
"Thank you," Sakura said, bowing with more respect than she felt. But if it had meant Marui would leave sooner she'd have bowed twice.
At that moment the door just to the right opened. A few inches at first, then wider, then nearly off its hinges. The bright light behind him made a sort of halo around his head.
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto said.
A flood of different feelings rushed through her at the sound of his rough voice, and they were standing toe to toe before her name had stopped echoing off the walls. Sakura hadn't finished setting down her pack or even had a chance to smile at him and yet Marui was talking again.
"Naruto-sama," she said. Her voice was definitely not rough. It was smooth and silky. Like a sickening purr. "As I was telling your…associate, a tray of food will be brought to you in one hour."
"Okay," said Naruto.
"Is there anything else I can get for you, Naruto-sama?"
Sakura held his complete attention, although he shrugged and said, "I can't think of anything."
"Good night, then," said Marui, who nodded at Sakura before bowing to Naruto and turning back toward the stairs. He didn't give her – or her short skirt – another glance, and the sound of her footsteps faded quickly.
"Sakura-chan." Apart from her name Naruto didn't seem to know what to say.
Sakura took those wordless moments to study his face. There were traces of cuts and scratches, and a deep bruise along his forehead and temple that was still healing. But her immediate impression was that he looked older. Stronger. Weathered. More like a man. And yet…lingering in his posture, and the clearness of his bright blue eyes, was the same sincere boy she had always known.
He seemed to be studying her face too. What he was looking for, or what he could see, she didn't know. Instinct compelled her to put her arms around his shoulders. It wasn't easy to hug him again; the last time she did he had pushed her away.
"I'm so sorry about your friend, Naruto," Sakura said softly, her cheek resting against the pulse in his neck. "And for what you've had to do. Everything changed so fast." It felt as if his hands were resting on her heavy travelling cloak, somewhere around her waist, but she couldn't tell for sure. "Do you know where we're going yet? After the funeral?"
Naruto stepped back, and in one swift motion he had taken her hand, pulled her into his room, and shut the door.