For a Season
"How are you holding up?
"I'm fine." Sakura huddled deeper in her cloak as she released a heavy sigh. She had not been in Water Country for five minutes and she felt soaked to the bone by the heavy, humid air that was still quite chilled as the sun had yet to even rise.
Crossing the channel at night had been a dangerous prospect, but there weren't many passenger transports that went between Fire and Water no matter the time of day and they had a rendezvous to make. Their only recourse were the captains of the cargo ships, who were crusty, disagreeable types that all seemed to have something against both ninja and the idea of common courtesy. Sakura was more than a little grateful for the ANBU detail flanking her and her team or they may have never been able to negotiate a reasonable fare.
She smiled at the red scarf that was slipped into her hand and glanced up into the masked face of the ANBU Captain beside her. His hood was pulled up to hide his hair, which was as much a dead giveaway as hers, but she knew the rounded slouch of his shoulders well enough to know him by extension. "Thank you, Hound."
Clumsily, she began to fish the scarf up under her cloak. It was a nice little memento and would be a small comfort while in Water Country. She sighed miserably as she stared out at the harbor and what she could make of the town built up around it, both of which were almost entirely obscured by the rolling clouds of mist that enshrouded the island as a whole. For approximately the nine-hundredth time, she swore that Tsunade so totally owed her more than a paycheck for her cooperation.
She turned as she was tying the scarf into place. "What is it?"
Udon approached her, sparing a backwards glance at the others of their team. There were twelve in total; all of them medics and all of them at least four years her junior and none of them ranking above Chuunin. It disturbed her briefly how young they all seemed and looked to her right then. Young and cold and terrified, as well they should be because they were in Water Country. She had fought with Tsunade for hours trying to get medics with more combat and field experience assigned, but to no avail. What made it worse was that Tsunade had the same misgivings and had apologized again and again for the arrangement, but nothing could be done. It was getting to be spring in Leaf, which meant an influx of missions. An influx of missions meant outgoing teams in need of medics to accompany them and since her team was "not expected to engage in combat", she got the short straw.
Sakura really wish that the Council would leave her and her squad out of their petty political games.
"When are they coming?" the boy asked, his arms folded under his cloak. "If we stand outside in this damp much longer we will be the ones in need of medical care."
"Advise your subordinates that whining isn't very becoming of any shinobi. Even Leaf-Nin."
Hound didn't turn to acknowledge the voice, but Sakura and Udon did and the woman scowled upon spotting the approaching Mist ANBU. Like the hunter-nin of the island, they wore long robes over their armor, which was just visible from beneath folded collar, but their masks were painted with blue instead of red. Unlike Leaf ANBU there was no distinguishable animal motif, but the four, wavy lines etched into the foreheads of each mask made it very clear where they belonged.
Udon shot Sakura a narrow, annoyed look and followed on her heels as she stepped forward to greet the men. She bowed shortly and the boy mirrored her. "ANBU-san, I am Haruno Sakura the chief medic and head of this squad. This is Sanuki Udon, my second."
The leader surveyed the group quietly and Sakura noted with some trepidation the slightly defensive stances taken by the Leaf ANBU in response; the way they stepped forward to place themselves as much between the Mist-nin and the medical squad as they could. Hound hovered nearby with one hand held out in a quiet, subtle signal for his men to hold.
"Hn… I never enjoy being demoted to babysitting."
Udon, not so subtly, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his middle finger and Sakura gently nudged him as she turned on the others. "Everyone, get ready to move."
She turned then to Hound as Udon stepped away to oversee the others.
"Make sure the boys don't kill each other while I'm away," Sakura said with a wide smile as she adjusted her backpack. "I'll be reporting to Tsunade at the end of every week, so I'll go ahead and try to get a letter to you and the boys too."
Hound nodded and was just about to turn away when he paused. "Six months?"
Sakura took a breath and nodded. "Six months."
With another, short nod he moved to rejoin the other ANBU as the medical team stepped forward with their packs across their shoulders and their hoods protectively pulled up over their heads. Sakura did a quick head count and then ushered them to move ahead of her.
This, Sakura thought, was a nightmare. The first mission on which she had to lead a team had to be to Mist and it had to involve twelve other lives. She felt nauseous. Leading wasn't her area of expertise and while they would be looking to her for protection and stability, she was just as nervous and sickened by the idea of six months in Mist as any of them.
Tsunade definitely owed her more than a paycheck for this.
The mission was a relatively simple one. In order to strengthen the bonds between Leaf and Mist (since Mei and Tsunade getting smashed together once a year didn't really count), requests were made by each. Mist, having apparently won the political version of rock, paper, scissors or however such things were decided, was allowed to draw first blood and detailed a problem with their village's medical capabilities. They were sorely lacking skilled medics or any semblance of order in their hospital and they requested that Leaf help them amend this. Mizukage-sama had, apparently, named a preference for Sakura specifically.
Sakura was flattered at having been hand-picked and she knew enough to place the blame for that particular honor squarely on Tsunade's shoulders. The woman was a notorious talker when drunk.
She looked to Udon, who had fallen behind the pack to fall in beside her. The Mist ANBU were keeping their little group herded in a cluster that they surrounded on all sides, which Sakura appreciated. She would've appreciated it more if they'd also resist the temptation to bully her subordinates by barking at them whenever they got the slightest bit out of formation, but she'd ignore that. For the moment.
"What is it, Udon?"
The boy looked annoyed. Hell, they were all annoyed. And half-drowned. No wonder Mist-nin were so cranky all the time. She was damp to her bones and it felt like she'd never be dry again. "Everyone's exhausted," he said plainly. "No one here is accustomed to this climate, soon our elevation will begin to increase, and it's a fair bet that no one slept last night. We need a rest."
She looked to the nearest Mist ANBU, who was almost twenty yards to her right and flickering in and out of sight between the damp, blowing foliage of the canopy. "I don't think that's on their schedule."
"At this rate, we'll be of no use when we get to the village," Udon replied.
Sakura sighed and let her pace falter, falling back from the boy and the group to the ANBU in the very rear of the pack—the captain, if she was correct about the white trim of his collar.
"What's the matter, Leaf?"
She blinked at the man as she fell in beside him. That was… bizarrely friendly. Not that it gave her the warm fuzzies or anything, but she'd take anything that wasn't a barked order or frosty silence at this point. "My people are exhausted from their journey here," she began. "Most of them were pulled directly off shifts as our hospital and haven't slept in more than a day."
"How is that my problem?"
Sakura narrowed her eyes. "They're about to fall asleep on their feet and your men will be responsible for carrying them into the village if they do: that's how."
He spared a glance her way, indicated by the slight cant of his mask towards her. "Do they really baby you like that in Leaf?"
She scowled at him. She was tired, wet, and in no mood to be jerked around. Huffing air through her nose, she kicked off of the next branch with just enough force so as to land on the next just ahead of the Captain and snap it with chakra-shrouded feet.
This sent them both careening down to the forest floor, where they landed in the muck and mud with damp plops.
The Captain and Sakura both got to their feet and while he drew a kunai she was attempting to wring the water from her hair. A combined choir of medics and ANBU chorused a shout of "Captain!" from overhead.
"What the hell was that?" the man demanded, his cold stoicism giving away to audible anger and she realized in that second how young he actually sounded.
Sakura flipped her hair back over her shoulder and fixed him with a cold look. "Clumsy me. Sorry about that," she replied dismissively. She looked up to the damp canopy overhead and whistled for her team before turning again to the Captain. "Are you hurt?"
"Of course not," he scoffed, sounding even more like a child and convincing Sakura that if he was in fact younger than her, he had a tirade coming about respect. "I don't know what sort of stunt that was but—"
"I don't have time to be lectured," she cut in with a flap of her hand. "I have an exhausted team to attend to. I promise that we'll be on our way again shortly."
She turned away from him then and made a beeline for Udon as he landed on a nearby buttress root, which she leapt easily onto to stand beside him. They watched in silence as the other ANBU, with the exception of the handful that lurked in the canopy to secure a perimeter around them, gathered around the captain. "That," Udon began, "Is not what I meant."
"You wanted to stop and we've stopped," she replied, reaching under her cloak for her pack and removing a leather pouch. "I don't see the problem."
Udon's face turned a peculiar shade of exasperated red in response.
Sakura smiled. "It'll be okay, Udon," she whispered. "That's the advantage of diplomatic immunity."
"I distinctly remember a lecture on never taking advantage of immunity," the boy protested. "Do you remember when we were in Suna? You argued with Gaara-sama for twenty minutes about whether or not we deserved special treatment."
"Yes, but that was totally different," she replied as she undid the ties of the bag and removed a single soldier pill.
"How's that?" Udon demanded.
Sakura smiled and forced the pill into Udon's mouth. "I like Gaara-sama."
He made a face as he crushed the pill with his teeth. "I just think that it's a little early to be making enemies," he replied. He was visibly distressed by the taste and eventually slapped a hand over his mouth to refrain from spitting the pill out. "You really need to refine this recipe, Senpai."
She ruffled his hair gently and shook a handful of the pills out into her palm and then handed him the bag. "Make sure the others get one a piece," she said. "I'm going to go make peace with the natives."
Udon made another face unrelated to the taste of the pill. "Well, you don't have to go overboard."
"But you're right," she replied. "If they don't like me or trust me they won't let me, or any of you, treat them later on and that's going to totally void the point of our coming here."
Before he could argue, Sakura hopped down from the buttress root and landed atop the muck below, hoping that this whole "swamp" scenario was not going to be a recurring motif of the landscape. She already hated this mission enough and the idea of having to traipse through wetland wastelands was not boosting her morale.
Six white masks turned in unison to look at her, which was, quite frankly, intimidating as hell.
Steeling herself, Sakura straightened and then offered out the hand holding the soldier pills. "Back there," she began with a vague gesture and her eyes focused exclusively on the Captain, "That was a little sloppy on your part. I mean, I know the standards that Leaf has for their ANBU must pale in comparison to Mist's, so for me to trip you up there would have to be something hindering you. How long have you been on duty? A few days? Maybe a week or more? Odds are you were the closest team to the harbor and that's why you were sent to meet us, but I'm guessing that this will be the first time any of you have been back to the village in a while."
There was no response, but Sakura didn't waver. It was conjecture, pure and simple, but it was not impossible. If the statistics were correct, Leaf had more ninja than Mist and even they at times were ran ragged trying to complete missions. She couldn't imagine how Mist managed to complete missions, control their criminal population, and protect their village with so few hands available without driving their men to exhaustion.
Of course the fact that the village did manage all of these things somewhat justified the Captain's dig about Leaf babying their ninja.
It also brought Mist's infamous defection rate into a clearer light.
"These are soldier pills. A special, Leaf recipe," she went on. "They'll give you enough energy to fight for three days and three nights straight… or they'll at least get you back to the village standing on your own two feet." She lifted one from her palm, making it a point to show it to them all, and then popped into her mouth before crushing it with an audible, open-mouthed crunch. "So, do I have any takers?"
Stony silence met her but she found herself already regaining the will to dismiss it as energy flooded her tiring limbs.
"Tell you what," she began again, reaching out to the ANBU closest to her and taking his hand before he could pull away. She dropped the pills into the palm of his glove. "You guys think about it. I have to attend to my people."
Sakura flipped them a salute and turned away to march back across the marsh, where her team seemed to have been waiting with baited breath as they all released a collective sigh when she was within "safe" distance. She smiled cheerfully and then knelt down next to one of the youngest of the group. Suki was a fresh from the exams chuunin with wide, violet-blue eyes and long, lank brown hair.
"What are they doing?" she asked in a whisper as she reached out to heal a cut on the girl's cheek, likely acquired from a branch lashing her in the face.
The girl blinked and then with all of the subtlety of her age, looked at the ANBU. "I can't tell."
"Ugh," one of the other girls, Midori, sighed with audible frustration. She was taller, closer to fifteen, and one of Sakura's better students. She was also blatantly staring at the Mist team. "One of them, who I'm guessing is the bitch, is acting like the guinea pig. He just put it in his mouth. And now he's choking."
A giggle chorused through the group but was silenced by a stern look from Udon.
Sakura finished Suki's cheek and patted the girl on the head as she got back to her feet. "How's everyone?" she asked.
Various complaints made the rounds but there was a general consensus that they all at least felt better, though not drier or warmer.
She smiled and helped Suki back to her feet before turning to look at the ANBU team, folding her arms as she did so. "We're good to go," she called to them, feeling a bit smug. It was the best she had felt all day.
Upon arriving in the village, Sakura had to admit that she was impressed. From what she could see of Mist, which admittedly wasn't much since the abundant, low-lying clouds of dense fog severely limited visibility, it was actually a rather impressive place. Impressive if a bit incredibly inconveniently located. From the gates through the streets, she occupied herself with thanking every deity in heaven for soldier pills because the trek up would have brought her to her knees otherwise.
In short, she had gotten her wish. With relative swiftness, the swamps had been left behind to be replaced by craggy and treacherous mountains. Indeed, the pioneering peoples of Water Country had been ballsy (and not particularly bright if you asked Sakura) to decide to lay claim to these cliffs. She was pretty sure that she would have just given up and found a different island to settle.
A burly guard with a truly manly beard greeted them at the tower entrance, eyeing their headbands with skepticism as he nodded them through.
In fact, all of Mist had a severe staring problem as everyone they had passed, first in the streets and now in the tower, stared.
Sakura ignored them.
Udon gave them dirty looks.
Two of the young medics made faces and were promptly cuffed by Udon.
On an upper floor, the ANBU detail left them and a young chuunin approached them. He was as thin as a rail and reminded Sakura of a younger version of one of the Leaf counselors who Naruto had always claimed reminded him of an oil slick.
"Honored visitors," he greeted with a curt nod and a tone that gave Sakura the impression that they were all suddenly being talked down to. "Your rooms are this way."
Udon and Sakura shared a look but followed.
The medics were divided three to a room, except Sakura who was given her own two room suite. She smiled apologetically at Udon, who had been stuck with the only two boys of the group. He shook his head in a good-natured attempt to pretend that he wouldn't have preferred disemboweling himself. He insisted that he didn't understand boys that age anymore and denied that he had ever been so young as to find basic parts of the anatomy funny.
It was at these times that Sakura gleefully reminded him of the harem jutsu.
"Haruno, if you would please step this way, Mizukage-sama has requested to see you immediately after you were settled."
Sakura gaped at the chuunin. "I'm not settled." She hadn't even had a chance to wring the water out of her hair!
He stared owlishly at her. "I'm sorry, but she should not be kept waiting."
And she was not about to step foot in the official office of any Kage looking like a drowned rat. She had laughed herself hoarse once when Kankuro had showed up in Tsunade's office with smeared paint and she was not about to climb aboard that particular boat. "If you could give me just ten minutes…?"
The chuunin stared at her and then heaved an enthusiastically pained and exasperated sigh that spoke volumes of how much he did not like her right then. "Fine."
Sakura dashed into her room. Udon followed her in and bolted the door shut.
"I want to go home," he announced, watching nonplussed as the woman stripped with one hand and emptied her entire pack onto the floor with the other. She then threw herself onto a scroll and a set of dry underwear before hurtling herself across the room. "Let's defect. It wouldn't be anything new for them. We'll tell Tsunade-sama that they turned on us at the gate."
"Where's my brush!"
Udon kicked aside a hideous orange jumper, a tasteless black half-shirt, and a raggedy jounin sweater before coming up with the much needed item just in time for Sakura to rush back into the room wearing just her bindings and panties. She snatched it from him and was off again.
There were men in Konoha who would have paid for the snapshot of that image.
Udon would have paid to instill some modesty in his senpai, who had obviously been so long removed from caring about such things when among her teammates that she felt just as comfortable around him. The cherry red his face turned didn't earn him any sympathy either.
"Senpai, I…" He trailed off, blinking when Sakura reappeared wearing a plain red dress that skimmed her knees over a black sweater with her usual boots, gloves, and hip pouch. She carried her white jounin vest under one arm as she fussed with her ponytail. "How did you get changed so fast?"
"Oh please, Ino and I have wrestled ourselves into kimonos in under ten minutes," she replied with a flap of her hand. She blinked at him. "You should have changed too."
Sakura smirked a little. "When?" she asked and shrugged into her vest. "You're on your way to the hospital as far as I'm concerned."
Udon blinked. "Senpai!" he protested, dogging her out of the room. "I'm exhausted!"
"So am I," she replied. "I'm sorry, Udon. I planned to go myself to make the initial assessment, but I have this meeting now." She rolled her eyes. "I don't even know what the point is. I wasn't going to speak to the Mizukage until I had something to say to her about the hospital."
"Does it have to be done yet today?" he asked with clear reluctance.
"While we have daylight left," Sakura said. "The more we do today the less time we waste tomorrow."
Mei looked amused.
Ao did not share her sentiments. Not that what the ANBU was reporting wasn't an entertaining little thought—if a little hard to believe—but he had principles and this bitching violated every one of them. He wondered moodily how best to go about explaining, without stepping on Mei's toes, that he was very sorry the little Leaf girl had scared him and that maybe the rank of captain was too high a call for him and his fragile state of mind to fulfill.
Mei shot him a knowing smirk, her hair obscuring her eyes just a little from his angle and he looked heavenward in exasperation. Her smirk grew and she looked again to the ANBU Captain standing at attention in front of her, having finished his report.
"Did you catch her name?" Mei wondered.
The captain was rightly taken aback by this. "I did not, ma'am. Forgive me."
"Hm. Damn," she murmured.
"Is there someone in particular that you are expecting, Mizukage-sama?" Ao asked because he could detect a prompt when one was given.
Mei didn't answer. Instead she looked to the door and a second later someone knocked on it from the outside. "Come in," she called.
A chuunin stepped inside and ducked into a bow. "Lady Mizukage."
She stared at the top of his head expectantly. "Well?"
"The head medic from Konohagakure has arrived."
Mei brightened. "Oh? Well, bring her in!"
He scuttled backwards without straightening and a moment later a young woman entered.
Ao knew better than to judge by appearance. He had lived too long and had seen too much to be fooled by something as shallow as looks. After all, traps never looked like traps if the job was done right. Even so, he was taken aback by the girl. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting from a "head medic", but this girl (and she couldn't have been anything more than that—a kid) was not it. She bowed low, her ridiculous pink hair swinging forward and then back when she straightened again, her hands clasped behind her. She was petite and slender, unremarkable in everything except her unusual coloring, the amber-colored rhombus embedded at the center of her forehead, and the unusual intensity of her aura.
She certainly was not someone he expected to trouble an ANBU captain in any significant fashion.
"I'm sorry," she said, glancing between the Captain and the Mizukage. "Am I interrupting?"
"Of course not," Mei replied. "We were just finishing."
Ao glared at the Captain and then looked at the medic again. "Tell me," he began, earning a curious look, "Has Leaf discovered anything that might balm wounded pride?"
For just a moment the girl looked confused by this, but then glanced at the Captain and quickly looked away again. "Ah… no."
Mei smiled indulgently at the ANBU, her chin propped on the back of one hand. "I thank you," she said. "You're dismissed."
Ao made a mental note to have a talk to the ANBU as a collective. Apparently they needed to be refreshed on what was expected of them as the elite of Mist and that if any of them found themselves ill-equipped to handle such trifling problems as a perturbed young girl, they were encouraged to turn in their masks and whatever dignity they had remaining.
He was distracted from this thought by Mei, who had risen to her when the ANBU had turned and as soon as the door closed behind the man, she practically pranced around her desk and embraced the girl in a crushing hug. "Sakura-chan!" she chirped. "I'm so happy that you could make it!"
The girl's hands hovered uselessly at her sides, apparently not sure whether to return the embrace or attempt an escape. "You know me?" she wheezed out.
Mei laughed and released the medic. "Of course," she replied, lifting a hand and playfully poking the gemstone in the girl's forehead. "You're Tsunade's apprentice. I've heard a lot about you." She smiled. "I hope your journey here was pleasant."
The medic made a face behind the woman's back that Ao lifted an eyebrow at. "It was… fine."
Ao caught Mei's eye and she smiled, amused by the lie. "I heard that there was a little bit of trouble along the way," she said as she lowered herself into her desk chair. She beckoned the girl closer with a crooked finger. "I heard that you handled it quite promptly."
The medic's cheeks pinked. "Ah, Mizukage-sama, I'd like to apologize for that. Please do not let my behavior reflect on my village or my team."
Mei nodded. "Just as long as you promise not to allow my captain's behavior to reflect on my village." She smiled, again. "Deal?"
The girl looked visibly relieved by this and smiled too. "Deal."
Mei hummed and then looked up at Ao, who raised an eyebrow expecting and order. "Ao, this is Haruno Sakura," the woman said. "Sakura-chan, this is Ao, my bodyguard and counselor."
He nodded at the girl, earning a nod in return.
"He'll be accompanying you during your stay in Mist."
Ao did what he could not to react to this. He had tried to block it from his memory that he was being demoted to babysitting.
Haruno's eyebrows lifted to meet her hairline. "Mizukage-sama—"
"Mei. Call me Mei, Sakura-chan."
"Mei-sama, I am perfectly capable of protecting myself. This is completely unnecessary."
Mei smiled. "Possibly," she agreed with a nod. "Still, Ao will accompany you."
Haruno opened her mouth again, possibly to protest, but stopped short when Mei stood again and moved around the desk to lean her weight into it.
"So," she began, "I'd like to see your particular talents for myself."
The medic lifted an eyebrow. "Are you injured in some way, Mei-sama?"
"No, but Ao is."
Ao really wished she'd just leave him out of this.
"Ao, come here."
He rolled his eyes and moved to join her in front of the desk, shooting the Leaf-nin a bored look before rolling up his right sleeve and revealing a bandage wound tightly around his forearm. It'd been a careless mistake on his part, the result of underestimating an opponent armed with some exceptionally powerful fire techniques that he had not been able to overpower.
Haruno stepped forward, pulling her gloves off and tucking them away in her hip pouch before nearing the desk. Ao watched her curiously as she ducked around to the side of the desk and grabbed a waste paper basket filled with furiously crumbled up documents. She placed it in front of Ao and then guided his arm over it. She blurred through a series of hand seals then and with one delicate swipe of a glowing fingertip over the bandages, they were cut clean and fell away into the trash.
Mei's eyebrows lifted at this. "What was that?"
"Chakra scalpel," the medic murmured, sounding distracted as she began inspecting the burn. She sounded far away, distracted. "How old is this burn?"
"Who treated it?"
"I did," Ao replied.
She glanced up at him and then back to the wound. "Hm."
"Hm?" Mei looked curious.
"If one of your medics had done this I'd never let them near another patient."
Mei laughed outright and Ao eye the top of the very pink head in front of him. He was not a fan of criticism, especially not coming from some kid. However, she ignored him and made a few more hand seals. A green glow engulfed her right hand, which she then placed over the burn, her skin not quite making contact with his.
It was a strange sensation that Ao recalled only vaguely. It'd been a long time—years maybe—since he had allowed a medic to tend to him, generally not trusting those at hospital to be trained any better than he was. He'd heard horror stories about medics with less than precise control doing more harm than good.
It reminded him of Haruno's trick with the bandages. He had to give her credit for one thing: he sure as fuck couldn't do that. He didn't know anyone in Mist that could.
He watched with interest as the wound began to fast forward itself through the healing process, the burned flesh eventually giving away to healthy and unmarked skin within just minutes.
"Did you debride the tissue yourself?" Haruno asked as the last bits of the wound closed and vanished.
Ao shifted his weight and pulled his hand back when she released his wrist. "I did."
He wanted to ask what exactly that meant, but he held his tongue. With any luck she'd always be so inclined toward silence.
Suddenly his arm was seized by Mei and Ao dug his heels into the floor in an attempt to not be pulled straight off his feet by the woman's beastly strength. She examined his arm with interest and then gave him a look. He didn't see it often. Being a woman in possession of two bloodline limits, Mei was a tough sell when it came to talent but she was clearly impressed by what she saw here. If he'd allow himself to do so, he would have to admit to the same. He didn't know much about medics, but from his memory none of theirs had ever been able to heal anyone as quickly as that and with so little effort.
Mei seemed to read his thoughts. "Can all of your medics heal as fast as you, Sakura-chan?" she asked, turning back to the girl.
Haruno had fallen back a few paces, her hands behind her back. "To be honest, no. My medics in particular are… inexperienced." She visibly hesitated, chewing over her next words before pressing forward with: "Mizukage-sama—"
"Mei," Mei corrected insistently as she returned to her seat and flapped a hand at Ao, who stepped back into the background again.
"Mei-sama," Haruno said, ducking her head in apology, "I feel that I must tell you now before too many expectations are heaped upon them that my team is very green. Many of them are still genin with little to no field experience. Frankly, this assignment is over their heads and I apologize if we do not perform as expected, but I ask too that you be patient. It is what it is."
Mei made a soft noise in reply and Ao caught her eye when she looked his way again. "I am not unfamiliar with political games, Sakura-chan. It's an unfortunate consequence of negotiations; villages always feel the need to throw their weight around when they can," she said. She shifted in her seat to drape her legs delicately over one arm of her chair as she rested her back against the other. "For whatever it is worth, I am sorry that your team was placed in the middle of this one. As for their performance, I'm not concerned. Konoha's medical capabilities far outstrip our own so even your most green medic is more than likely to outshine our staff."
Haruno smiled at this and bowed again. "Thank you, Mei-sama. I hope we perform to your expectations."
Mei hummed softly, a noise that her husky voice turned nearly into a purr as she evaluated the girl. "Sake?" she proposed.
"You will have to forgive me, ma'am, but no. I sent my second to begin evaluating the conditions at the hospital and I really should go assist him," the Leaf replied evenly.
"After your journey? You should be resting," Mei argued, her lips pursing tightly in a frown. "I can't have anything happen to Tsunade's prized student. She would never forgive me."
Haruno smiled. "Tsunade would grind me into dust if she thought I was slacking off while there was still daylight. Sake or no," she replied. "You'll have my full assessment of the hospital and my ideas for bettering the situation before the end of the day tomorrow. Please, excuse me now, Mei-sama."
She bowed and without another word departed.
Mei watched the doors closed and then began to smile. "What do you think?"
Ao hummed. "She's young," he said and he reflexively braced himself because age was always such a sensitive thing with Mei.
But the woman didn't react beyond nodding her agreement and he relaxed. "Talented," she added. "You don't see chakra control like that very often."
"Young," he repeated because it was the one thing that stood out.
Mei glanced at him and smirked. "Ageist," she teased.
"That implies that I have feelings one way or the other about her," Ao replied. "And I don't. It's just something to keep in mind. The men might not take kindly to her."
"The patients or the staff?"
Mei made a quiet noise in agreement. "True." She turned her chair toward him. "Ao, you know how important her success is to the village."
He snorted and sidled closer to the desk, his arms falling to his sides. "Of course I do."
"Then you'll help her if she needs it?"
"Mei, I'm not a—"
"A babysitter, I know." She sighed. "Consider it a favor for an old teammate."
Ao eyed her, even as she tipped her head back and smiled at him in that way that made an embarrassing number of men forget themselves. "Fine," he muttered.
Mei reached out a hand to him. "Thank you."
He rolled his eyes and then for a second took her hand and squeezed before releasing it just as quickly. "Spoiled brat," he threw over his shoulder.
She let out a bark of surprised laughter and he moved for the doorway.
1. Rest assured that I have NO idea what I'm doing. This is basically the bastard child of my love for random side characters and my love of snark meeting and having dirty, sweaty sex.
2. On that note: I love Ao. And Mei. And basically everyone they've ever introduced from Mist. Its history is actually very neatly fleshed out and very dramatic for being so rarely mentioned. It's one of those rare occasions where I actually enjoy Kishi's writing. We're talking, like, unicorn rare here.
3. As for the characters in question: I made Mei and Ao old teammates because it seemed to fit to me-why he's her bodyguard, why he lets her smack him around (and it is very clearly 'lets' because dude is badass and he should be able to fend off a slap or two if he wanted), and because I just wanted it that way, all right? I also erased the little running gag of Mei freaking out over her age. Truth be told, it really isn't that funny (not even with cultural context considered) and it seems juvenile. I prefer to think of Mei as a bratty teen-aged girl, a femme fatale, and a total badass all rolled up together in one character rather than just an infantile Christmas Cake-that really, really tired trope you see pop up now and then in anime.
4. Yes, Sakura has her Yin Seal and I think I want to clear something up here: the Yin Seal is simply a means of storing a massive amount of extra chakra. From what I understand, it's required for the regeneration technique that Tsunade uses, but that isn't its sole purpose. I imagine you could use it just to replenish your chakra.
5. Yes, Udon is once again her assistant. No, I'm not going to let that go. Is this set in Blind Spots continuity? Not at all. I just really like that set up.
6. This is labelled romance and in all honesty, I'm adding that as a "just in case" sort of thing. Right now, all I have planned is the barest, tiniest, ittiest bit of UST. But I don't trust me and neither should you, so consider the label fair warning.
Now, here is where I ask you to do your part: review. I hate asking so point-blank, but in this case it's particularly important, because I want to know what you guys think of this. It's something I think is completely new and I'd like to know that others are on board with me.