"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan."

Linen bandages poked out from under Naruto's hospital-issue pajamas, covering his legs, arms, chest, even across his face. Sakura's fingertips drifted over his wrapped hand, lips lifted in a bitter smile.

He really does look like a mummy.

A sliver of moonlight slipped past the curtains, illuminating a wedge of his face. She'd never seen Naruto looking so vulnerable.

Such a scrappy boy. Always kicking and flailing and never giving up. She swallowed a chuckle. Says it's his ninja way.

When Kakashi found him, he'd been broken, soaked to the skin…and alone.

Sasuke did this. Sakura frowned, a hollow feeling in her chest. He did this to his teammate, his friend. Her valiant Sasuke-kun who'd protected her—protected Naruto—with his own life time and again, had left his best friend to die.

"I'm different from you all. Deep inside my heart, I've already decided on revenge."

As she stared at the bright yellow daffodil on the windowsill, Sakura wondered if Sasuke really was different from her and Naruto.

Revenge. She savored the word, felt it roll around inside her mouth. She wanted to understand what could possibly taste so sweet to Sasuke. The thought of wresting him away from Orochimaru and slashing the evil snake into thousands of tiny pieces left an intoxicating flavor on her tongue.

But what was she willing to sacrifice to make that dream a reality? Her eyes darted to Naruto's blond hair on the pillow, his whiskered cheeks twitching in sleep. Sakura squeezed her eyes shut. Was Team Seven what Sasuke was willing to sacrifice for his revenge?

"From here on out, we all begin new paths."

But Sasuke-kun cares for us. Her fingers slipped into Naruto's slackened fist. He couldn't cut those bonds so easily and leave us behind…could he?

No. The boy she loved could never do that.

"A shinobi who abandons his teammates is lower than trash," she whispered as she squeezed Naruto's hand. "No matter what, we're still the Leaf's Team Seven. We won't leave him out there alone."

Sasuke held his breath to push down the pain. Naruto had beaten him soundly, but he would not limp through the halls of the snake master's lair.

"Sasuke-kun, you are my chosen one."

He didn't care what Orochimaru said or did, as long as he enabled Sasuke to crush Itachi. That's all that mattered.

"Wake up already! I won't allow Orochimaru to take you!"

His breath left in a rush of surprise as Naruto's words screamed in his head. Sasuke quickly inhaled and held it again, a musty stench filling his nose as he erased his friend's words from his mind.

Grasping hands pushed through the bars of the cells that lined the corridor. Sasuke heard distant moans and pleas for mercy. "Take me with you!" a broken man rasped in his face before being beaten back.

"Or, if you can't stay here then, please, Sasuke-kun, take me with you."

Pressing his lips together against something struggling in his throat, Sasuke took short, huffing breaths through his nose, silently turning his heart to stone.

"It doesn't matter how," he hissed through clenched teeth, "just give me power."

A buzzing outside the library windows beckoned. Spring and all of its lush temptations called her name. Sakura pulled her hair away from her sweaty neck and twisted it into a knot. It'd grown long in the months she'd spent training with Tsunade—months spent deeply absorbed in her studies.

Sasuke likes girls with long hair, she thought with a whisper of nostalgia. She shook her head, reasoning it was most likely Ino who'd started that rumor. She'd always worn her hair long.

A kunai will solve that problem. Sakura made a mental note to grab a blade when she was done memorizing the locations of all three-hundred and sixty-one tenketsu.

Sweat dripped from hair that drooped in front of his eyes. Brushing it away with the back of his wrist, Sasuke inhaled and tried again to summon just enough chakra to his left palm—too little and he'd never make the target, too much and he'd have to pay another visit to the snake's personal medic. His lip curled at the thought of Kabuto healing him. A stray lick of electricity forked from his fingertips and he clenched his teeth, working hard to contain his irritation.

Kakashi's voice in his head chided, Sakura has better chakra control than you. That tree climbing felt like it happened a lifetime ago. What had Naruto told him then?

"Sakura says chakra control is about spiritual energy, so we need to keep calm and focus on the goal."

After a quieting breath, Sasuke gripped his wrist, laid a chakra-filled hand to the ground, and pushed.

Just a little farther.

A vivid memory invaded his head—Naruto's arm heavy around his shoulder, the briny scent of sea water, legs shaking with exhaustion as he pushed open the door to reveal the shocked faces of his teammates and the bridge builder's family. More than anything, Sasuke remembered Naruto's contagious joy in their accomplishment.

"We both made it to the top of the tree!"

The corner of his mouth jerked up as chakra flowed easily through his hand. A surge of blue lightning lit a glowing trail in the dirt. Fifteen feet away, a practice dummy burst into flames.

Orochimaru was at his shoulder. His dark chuckling mixed with the crackling of the fire as Sasuke wiped his brow and slid back into his shirt.

"Well done, Sasuke-kun."

Dear Sakura-chan-

We finally made it through Fang Country. Their daimyo's a real nut! He's hooked on the Pervy Sage's stupid books. What people see in them, I just don't know.

Anyway, I've had a ton of adventures out here. There was this guy and he had this giant clam and it kept disappearing and so did a lot of villagers, but me and Pervy Sage came along and… Aww, man! Gotta go!

But don't worry, I still remember my promise, Sakura-chan. We've got six months before Sasuke's in danger and I'll be ready!


Sakura rolled up Naruto's letter and tucked it into her pouch. Six months. It didn't seem like much time until she considered how much she'd accomplished in the last two and a half years.

Being able to heal people was the most satisfying of her new skills. To be able to ease pain with the glow from her hand gave her a real sense of accomplishment. The most exhilarating part of her training, however, was the taijutsu. The earth giving way under her fist was thrilling, but she'd never before felt the rush of battle fever that the boys seemed to thrive on. Now, she understood and itched to get Naruto or Sasuke in a spar.

Training with Tsunade had not been easy, but she was stronger now—she flexed her gloved hand with a smile.

Next time, she thought, I'll be ready, too, Naruto.

"Haa, haa, haa, haa…"

The pile of bodies surrounding Sasuke was waist high and scattered as far as the eye could see. He fought to catch his breath as his knees finally gave out. He thumped to the ground gracelessly.

"You didn't kill them."

There was a lilt of inquiry and an undercurrent of disappointment in his foul sensei's voice. Pushing himself up on his sword, Sasuke sheathed it with a flourish and walked past Orochimaru, summoning all the dignity he could muster.

"I didn't need to."

There's only one man I need to kill, he thought as he forced his body back to the base. Soon, I'll be ready.

The air was heavily perfumed with the flowers of summer as Sakura floated down the streets of Konoha. She felt lighter than a cloud. Nothing could ruin her good mood.

My first solo mission!

When Tsunade summoned her this morning, Sakura ran through everything she'd done during the past week to try to figure out why she was being reprimanded this time—but she couldn't have been more wrong.

"You've got a job to do," Tsunade said as she signed a form with one hand and flipped her a scroll with the other.

Sakura carefully unrolled it. "A mission?" She scanned the brief. "B-by myself?!"

"Yes, by yourself," she barked. "Or don't you think you're ready?"

"No, I mean, yes, I mean…" Sakura inhaled, collecting herself. "I'm ready, Shishou."

"Your mission is in Yu no Kuni. It's a bit of a hike," she said, raising an eyebrow, daring Sakura to agree.

"A walk in the park." Sakura calculated how many days it would take to get to the Land of Hot Springs, knowing she'd spend several nights alone—sleeping unprotected by teammates was a ninja's worst nightmare. She gulped, but stayed outwardly steady.

Tsunade nodded and continued. "Your mission is to impersonate the daimyo's daughter during a Festival of Nations. I cannot impress on you, Sakura, just how important it is that this mission ends in complete success. The gathering is a first in history and could be the beginning of peaceful relations between several hostile countries."

Sakura stood straighter. "I understand, Hokage-sama. I won't fail."

"No, my apprentice cannot fail." Tsunade's emphasis let Sakura know that her performance would be a direct reflection on her teacher, her Hokage, and her village. She needed to be in top form. "Hot Springs Country has prospered under Daimyo Nakamura's rule. He's turned it into a real tourist town."

"Their proximity to Sound…is that a concern?" Sakura could just imagine what Oto's soldiers would do to a beautiful country like Hot Springs.

"Of course. Nothing good can come from having Orochimaru as your neighbor. We need to show Daimyo Nakamura that Fire Country is a strong ally with powerful shinobi who can help him fight Sound."

"Shishou, why am I not assigned to protect Daimyo Nakamura's daughter? Why is the mission to pose as her instead?"

Tsunade sighed. "Sachi's never been seen in public before. She has a chakra skill that you'll find detailed in your mission brief. It makes her father understandably concerned for her safety, so he's kept her hidden. The upside is that you won't need to hold a transformation the entire mission."

Sakura smiled. Her chakra could be better used some other way than a henge.

"But you'll have to participate in Sachi's introduction to society. She's going to be celebrated at a ball in her honor with the idea of marrying her to one of the surrounding country's royal sons to cement political ties."

Eyebrows shooting far up her forehead, Sakura stuttered, "M-married? Me?"

Tsunade waved her hand dismissively. "Don't be ridiculous. You won't be getting married, but you'll have to entertain Sachi's suitors and meet their parents and be the perfectly charming young lady I know you are."

"But…how will she know which man she wants to marry if I'm the one meeting them?"

Snorting, she said, "You're not going to Yu to fall in love, Sakura. It's a political arrangement. That's the life of a daimyo's family. Now, go pack. I need you out the gates before noon. Dismissed."

Running his finger down the edge of a blunt kunai, Sasuke grabbed his whetstone and dragged the blade across it. When it wobbled in his shaky hand, he brought it up to his eye to check the line—warped and unusable.

"Fuck!" He threw the blade across the room and it clattered on the stone floor. Shoving his fingers into his hair, Sasuke fisted his hands to try to stop the pounding in his head. He could not face Itachi in this state.

His heart hadn't stopped hammering since Orochimaru told him the chances were high that the Akatsuki might drop in on Yu's Festival of Nations.

"Daimyo Nakamura is hosting this festival in order to create a larger alliance, but that's not my concern. His daughter, however…" His long tongue flicked lazily out at the air. "None of the idiots at this meeting are aware that the daimyo's daughter has a delectable, little Kekkei Genkai that I would love to taste…and I'm sure the Akatsuki would, too." Orochimaru chuckled. "Bring her to me."

He could care less why the Akatsuki or Orochimaru wanted this girl. All he knew was that she would draw his brother out and Sasuke would be waiting for him.

Breathing deeply, he methodically gathered as many weapons as he could find in his quarters. He would have to check the armory tonight for a few more Fuma shuriken and some wire. With an arsenal on his bed, Sasuke checked each weapon in turn for sharpness and integrity before packing them away in a sealing scroll.

He ran Kusanagi down the whetstone a final time before he was satisfied with its edge. Only after sheathing his katana and checking his wrist seals was he able to settle down for some focusing meditation. His fingers slipped easily into the Ram sign he'd learned at the Academy as he concentrated on his chakra flow, slowing it, evening it. When he'd nearly reached a state of complete balance, he felt a small twinge, a hiccup in the stream. His brows furrowed as he tried to identify the source of the disruption.

"The daimyo's daughter has a delectable chakra skill that I would love to taste... Bring her to me."

The snake's oily purr set Sasuke's teeth on edge, but it wasn't Orochimaru who was causing the spikes in his chakra.

"Or, if you can't stay here then, please, Sasuke-kun, take me with you."

The thought of delivering a defenseless girl into Orochimaru's hands caused unwanted images of pink and green to surface. He couldn't look back. Sasuke gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut until the only colors in his mind were swirling red and black.

My second chaptered fic. Whew! This one was so long in the making. I have so many people to thank for pushing me to finish this.

First, as always, is Unicorn Paige. She gets a whole truckload of bacon stars for putting up with my whining and editing this tirelessly. I'm sick of reading it, but you still manage to make it fresh. You are the best!

And next, Kaze and Kiba and Rivenmist for giggling over all the things a pretty princess could do. So much fun!

I hope you enjoy the story!