Reference OkojoUchiha's Final Naruto World Map for international traveling.
(Link can be found on my profile)
Big shout out to annria2002 for letting me use her image as the cover for this story. You can find her on DeviantArt also. She's very talented and has many, many sweet pics of all sorts of Naruto characters on there. I suggest you check her out ;)
Beginning of the End
Sakura liked to start her days off from work with a hot bubble bath and a handful of bath beads thrown in. She would soak herself for at least an hour before actually getting to cleaning herself. Sometimes she might thrown in a little personal "me" time, but she liked to save that for de-stressing during her work week. This day happened to be one of those "me" time days, though. Looking back on it, Sakura was glad that's how it turned out. Starting the day off with loose muscles and a nice warm pulsing behind her ears was always refreshing. And with how this one particular day was going to turn out, she needed that happy thought to reflect on.
She carefully pulled her leg out of the soapy water, soap suds and hot water slipping down her milky calf, slowly dragging her fingers down the wiry muscles. Her leg felt smooth as marble, and she was enjoying the feather-light sensation. Sighing, she rested her head on the lip of the tub and let her limbs slip back under the fluffy white surface of the water. There was an echo in her small bathroom at the noise of the motions. She hummed under her breath, summoned a clone for this particular special time, and relaxed.
Afterwards, she enjoyed a healthy breakfast of hot tea and the last remaining chocolate chip cookies in her cabinet. She would have to go shopping later, which she wasn't exactly looking forward to. She was aching and sore from the mild chakra deprivation of the previous fortnight of overexertion. Working overtime for two weeks straight with no time off at the hospital tended to have that effect on a person. It was only by Lady Tsunade's orders that she wasn't going to clock in any time during this weekend. She wasn't even allowed to teach her classes for chuunin interested in the medical career track of the shinobi life. However, come Monday, she was going to make certain she would be back in the saddle.
It humored her that this exertion didn't bother her in the slightest compared to the need to shop. The latter just seemed so negligible in comparison to her work as a medical ninja. There were lives she could be saving right now instead of shopping for a can of diced tomatoes and sour dough; she could list off a number of critical patients in Konoha Regional. Or maybe it was just because she was bad at taking care of herself. Either way, she knew that because she wasn't going to be seeing her headband this weekend, the next three days were going to be as lackadaisical as Neji's humor.
How terribly wrong she was about it all.
The knock that forever changed her life came shortly after noon. Ironically enough, it was Naruto who bore the news.
"Grandma Tsunade wants you," he grumbled. Sakura smiled and cocked an eyebrow.
"Hello to you too, Naruto." She placed her hands on the pale robe draped over her hips and stepped aside for Naruto to enter the threshold of her apartment. Even though she had just started renting this place four months ago, it was already a mess because of Naruto's frequent and unclean visits.
"Hey, do you have any food to eat? I just got back from that mission to Suna and I'm starving." He waltzed into her kitchenette like he owned the place.
"No." Sakura shut the front door and glided across the shiny wood floors to sit at the small fold-out table in her closet-of-a-dinning-room. "What does Lady Tsunade want?"
"Ah, I don't know. Something to do with lemons and oranges…"
"You couldn't possibly mean the fruits," Sakura deadpanned. Naruto glanced up at her with an innocent expression.
"Guess it shouldn't be that important then, right? Take me out to eat, Sakura!" Naruto whined and drawled her name, facing his pink-haired friend with large, watery eyes.
"Pbft, as if. I'm not skirting my responsibilities to throw my hard-earned money down a black hole-" she gave Naruto an expression out of the corner of her eye that blamed him for the cause of cancer- "Help yourself to whatever you find, but I promise you there's not much." She waved at him and stood from the plastic table to walk down the small hallway into her bedroom, shutting the door as she did so.
Her apartment was a junior that put more space in her bedroom than in the living area, like she was some hermit. She enjoyed nights out with friends and party games played in her living room, as cramped as it shouldn't have been. She went to the spas often and liked to go to the library to study and finish Tsunade's research assisgnments with Neji. She trained physically with Lee or Naruto and occassionally with Kakashi, and mentally with Shikamaru. With those four, it was always some sort of challenge she was excited to face. Actually, when she thought about it, the only reason she came home was to sleep and bathe. She even ate out most of the time, whether it be with friends or by herself.
Sakura dressed quickly and dried her hair. She was less happy than she thought she would be, or even ought to be, about being called to Tsunade's office. Hadn't she already expressed her desire for work? Then again, it was more Tsunade's broken promise that irritated her.
"Naruto, is my tonto-" She walked into the cramped living room to see that Naruto had already vacated the premises. He probably hadn't found anything to eat and went to mooch elsewhere. Most likely Kiba's, since they had grown so close safter Naruto returned from his training with Jiraiya more than two years ago.
"There it is," she whispered, and picked up her tonto knife from the bookshelf in her living room.
The day carried the first sunny and warm weather Konoha had seen since late summer last year, forcing Sakura to regret letting her hair grow out to its previously long, and braided length. Maybe she could cut it on her way to Lady Tsunade's office; there was a decent salon nearby. She knew she definitely wasn't going for the hack-and-slash approach like last time (thinking about her lousy self-care in the Forest of Death a little under four years ago caused her to grimace and droop her shoulders). She took a breezy alleyway as a shortcut to the salon, which was ten minutes off course, but she could always teleport to Lady Tsunade's if she was in a hurry.
She could just make out the sign advertising the salon's location when someone shouting her name from behind caught her attention. She turned around, her hair sticking uncomfortably to the back of her neck with perspiration, and smiled at the sight of Hinata.
"Sakura! I heard Lady Tsunade also wants to speak with you," she smiled weakly at Sakura and lifted a shoulder. "We could walk together, don't you think?"
"Sure," Sakura said, choosing to forget her desire for shorter hair as not to be an imposition on Hinata.
Sakura motioned for Hinata to move beside her. When she did, Sakura could see the sun shine in Hinata's long midnight hair like twinkling stars. Her hair hadn't done that when it was short. And come to think of it, neither did Sakura's. Did length make a difference in sparkly hair? She screwed her lip as she thought about this while walking and making light conversation with Hinata. Eventually, she couldn't help but also let her eyes wander to Hinata's breasts. They'd never been that big before. Looking down at her own body, she grimaced at their smallness in comparison. Maybe hair length was also associated with breast size. She inwardly huffed with dissatisfaction.
Sakura smiled at Shikamaru and TenTen, who were leaning against the right wall in Lady Tsunade's office when she entered the room.
Tsunade greeted the two girls with a grunt, reading hastily through a very long scroll. "I'm glad you could finally make it," she said with a clipped tone.
"I'm sorry, Lady Tsunade. We-"
"I don't care about excuses, I just care about the fact that you decided to show up half an hour after I requested your presence." She dropped the scroll in a clatter on her large desk and glared across the room at Sakura and Hinata. Immediately, Sakura regretted her deviation from Lady Tsunade's request. Her cheeks flared with humiliation and disdain. "There is a horrible outbreak of disease in Lemon and Orange Country. Generally speaking, the longer a disease has exposure to the world, the shorter its life. However, this is not the case with the disease that's recently been discovered in Lemon and Orange. In fact, the disease has an increased casualty rate and more widespread infection area the longer it's left unattended."
"So, you're saying that someone is...purposefully making people sick?" Sakura shifted uncomfortably at this thought. It was all too easy for a medical ninja to harm another as is, but this...this was horrifying and disgusting in an entirely new degree.
"Exactly. The level this disease is on does not exist. It is unprecedented. The threat of this going mainland is inevitable if we don't do something. The Desert Kingdom as well as Nature Country have come together with Lemon and Orange and decided that quarantine is the only logical action to be taken with the way things are right now. There's too much trading between those countries for the disease not to be in the former two. They've created a council amongst these four countries during this period of Martial Law, which has requested the assistance of the top medical ninja in the Five Great nations. I am unavailable. That leaves you, Sakura. And since the consensus is that this disease is either man-made, since there are no records of such a disease ever existing before, or man-caused, you would be the ultimate threat to the operation of whoever created or caused this outbreak, which is why I'm sending Shikamaru, TenTen, and Hinata as back-up." Despite the seriousness of the situation and Lady Tsunade's frank choice of words, Sakura couldn't stop the words that came out next.
"I-I can't be the best medical ninja out of Fire, Wind, Earth, Lightning, and Water. That just doesn't make any sense, Lady Tsunade." Sakura held her hands up helplessly, trying to convey the obviousness of this fact. Tsunade folded her hands beneath her chin and watched Sakura with softer eyes.
"Next best," Tsunade corrected with a playful smile and paused for a moment of silence. "You are. I wouldn't send someone out of patronizing pity in a situation this dire." Sakura was quiet after this, understanding the urgency of the situation. There was no time for squabbling over semantics. "Shikamaru, TenTen, and Hinata will be acting as your body guards during this mission. TenTen is a distance fighter, so she'll be able to keep the infected at bay for a time, if you encounter any violent ones. Shikamaru is a long- and mid-range fighter, so he'll be able to help TenTen in this respect; he's also the team captain. Hinata has the Byakugan, allowing her to sense the presence of incoming people. However, I want this fact clearly stated, noted, and at the forefront of everyone's mind...
"Hinata, you were not chosen for this mission because of yourself. It is because Neji is already on a mission in Lightning. But...I did choose you because not only will you be able to assist satisfactorily in this mission, but this mission will also help you grow as a shinobi. You are not the strongest or fastest or smartest in your year, but I do expect you to hold your own." Tsunade held Hinata's shimmering gaze for a moment before looking over the other three young adults in the room.
"Lady Tsunade, before we leave, may I go over a full report of the disease?" Sakura said after a moment of tense self-conscious silence.
"A partial report is all the time we have to spare." Tsunade pointed at a thin file on the corner of her desk. Sakura quickly went for it, and stared at the sparse contents with disdain.
"All the information that is not classified- everything else will be disclosed in Orange. This disease is...startling, to say the least. The initial signs of the disease are listed. The final stages of Type Three are...as obvious as they are disgusting, so there's no need to mention it. Assumed transference is listed: we still don't know the exact cause of the disease, or the entirety of what it does to the human body. That's your job: dissect the disease, figure out as much as you can, find a cure if at all possible, and report all information to me."
Lady Tsunade's voice fell to background noise as Sakura became engrossed with the reading. The information she was reading was disturbing in itself. She could scarcely imagine seeing it, or actually suffering from it. Swollen lymph nodes, blood oozing from the skin, bones as fragile as glass in the hands of a tailed beast, ingested contents expelled from either end of the body, deafness, loss of sight, migraines, the list went on and on. There was so much going on with this disease, Sakura wasn't sure where she should start when she made it to Orange, the eastern country of the intertwined Lemon and Orange. There was massive hemorrhaging, multiple broken bones, and so many other fatal injuries.
"You will boat south through Kawa Pass to southwestern Tea Country, and then take another boat to Nature, then finally Orange. In Nature, you will stay a night in Dakujan in preventive preparation for your stint in Orange. It will take you a few days to reach Nature, and I expect it will take even longer to find correctly observe this disease. If you have any questions while you're in Orange, do not hesitate to send a red-ribbon hawk to Konoha. This mission takes precedence over all others currently in our mission brackets. It is an A-rank mission, so prepare for the worst. Leave as soon as possible."
When it was clear that no one had any questions, and that the briefing was over, they all went their separate ways to pack for the mission at hand. Their plan was to run the rest of the day to a port village on the eastern tip of Kawa Pass, where they would find a vessel waiting for them. The journey south along Tea's western border was long and monotonous, but the quickest route. They stopped twice to spend a night each in local inns. Sakura's saving grace was the several medical scrolls she had brought with her to study.
There were no existing illnesses with similarities to this one- the disease which had coined the name Red Death due to the immense amount of blood loss. The Red Death completely stood apart in comparison to every other disease in Konoha's archives. It was startling, eye-opening. Whoever had created this (it was entirely obvious that a disease like this was created) paid attention to the most minuscule of details. Not only was advanced medical knowledge required, but chakra control, concentration, and stamina. The Red Death was wreaking havoc on every part of the body, it seemed. Sure, she didn't know everything she needed to, like what it did to the circulatory, nervous, and chakra vascular systems; however, she knew with certainty that Type One R.D. ravaged the body and killed the person within twenty-four hours of their initial exposure to the disease.
What could be done for these people? She scrunched her face as she tried to imagine an infected person lying in the boat at her feet right now. They were bleeding profusely, had multiple broken ribs, they were deaf, and vomiting blood, because they had thrown up everything else. They would be dehydrated, possibly seizing, terribly weak from the blood loss, and wouldn't be able to communicate coherently. What would she do? The bleeding would be the wisest maneuver, but what about the internal bleeding? The blood veins popping from the pressure, the rapidly beating heart? No, those would be her first-
A hand on her quivering forearm slung her back into reality. She looked up and saw Shikamaru staring at her with his lazy gaze, but his brow was furrowed in worry. Sakura had bit her lip until it bled; she was shaking and pale, freezing from the icy gulf breeze and spray, and she'd barely slept these last two days. She was a wreck. She was in no condition to treat the infected people. Besides, even if she was in top condition, what could she do for them? She wasn't that good of a medical ninja. She had as many faults as the next person. She could barely use medical ninjutsu in a fight, not to mention-
"Sakura, calm down," Shikamaru whispered, placing his hand over hers and tightening his grip. "You'll be in no condition to save these people and cure the disease if you don't rest. We're all counting on you. Everyone is."
"That's exactly what I don't want," she said with a shaky voice.
She looked up to the starry sky above them. The deep violet hue was speckled with twinkling stars, and Sakura couldn't help but be reminded of Hinata's beautiful hair that somehow correlated to breast size. She dropped her head down and sighed. They would be coming to shore soon for the third night's rest. Tomorrow at mid-morning they would be in Nature. And she wouldn't be in any condition to help. She would hinder, if anything.
Beside her, Shikamaru sighed and stood. He turned around to face the ocean, but looked up at the millions of stars that were sprinkled across the clear night sky. He was lost in thought, considering how to go about the rest of this conversation. Sakura knew this, because it was obvious. He didn't want to say the wrong thing just as much as she didn't want to do the wrong thing. In theory, hundreds of thousands of lives were in her hands. She was presently the only thing standing between them and a swift but painful death.
"You don't have to want responsibility to be accounted for something. Responsibility isn't a desire, a wish, a dream. Responsibility is...an irrevocable possession. Be proud you possess at least that much." He looked at her from the corner of his eye, quirked his lip at her, and walked away to stay in his cabin for the next few hours.
Sakura stayed on port side of the ship, looking at the stars, but not really seeing them. She was worrying about the future, about what she would do. About what would happen to her, and Shikamaru, and Hinata, and TenTen. But no matter how long or hard she thought, what happened would have never crossed her mind in a thousand years.
She was hopeful that way. Naïve, even.