A/N: Ask and ye shall receive. I've had a few of my faithful readers ask if I could do an author's note to let everyone know how I'm doing.
I am currently living in Korea for the summer and traveling around—seeing Buddhist temples, palaces, and enjoying life near Seoul. I've been super busy with my English degree (as most of you have suspected, I am planning on becoming an actual writer one of these days), so updating has been difficult. But I am still working on this story!
As always, I am so grateful for everyone that reads and reviews my stories. I love each one of you and every time I get a review, I feel so happy! I hear a lot about how my story seriously makes some of my readers' days, but I wanted to let you know that you also make my day!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto
Sakura's eye twitched as the sun rose in the far off distance, but she followed Suigetsu and Jūgo up the tall mountain. She could feel exhaustion crashing down on her like an unwanted weight on her shoulders. Sakura stifled a yawn and pressed off of a ledge.
Team YOUTH and Team Seven had woken up early that morning after having—what was supposed to be—a restful night. But between Suigetsu's snoring and Karin's cooing over Sasuke, Sakura didn't get much sleep. And the worry over Hinata wasn't helping much either.
When they had woken up—or in Sakura's case, moseyed on into the kitchen after a sleepless night— Kakashi and Gai had already discussed the options of strategy. Gai and Kakashi would stay at the house, needing to be around since Team YOUTH still had its mission to fulfill (after all, escorting the elderly through mountainous regions was a hard task in and of itself), and also to be ready for when Naruto arrived.
In Shikamaru's note to Team Seven, he had explained that one of Naruto's clones was on their way. Further decoding of the original message explained that it wasn't actually one of his clones, but rather the idiot Hokage himself heading straight to Hinata's side. It was to be kept under lock and key—no one could know that Naruto had left the village. Sakura bit back a growl of frustration.
She understood his urgency to save his wife, but he seriously needed to remember his position as Hokage. Her gaze softened as she pushed onward. But that was Naruto. He wouldn't have become Hokage if he didn't have that giant heart of his.
So while Kakashi and Gai waited for him, Sai, Sasuke, and Karin would dispatch as a team and Sakura, Jūgo and Suigetsu would break off into another.
Sakura wasn't about to protest. While Suigetsu made her blood boil, she knew he was a strong shinobi that would have her back in battle. But even more than that, if Hinata had been found just by Team YOUTH without Gai… Depending on Hinata's state of mind, she might not have been able to receive them too well. Better to greet her with at least one familiar face.
But the real reason, of course, was the difference in strength. Depending on the enemy, they would need to have at least one of the legendary Sannin on each of the teams. If their opponent were stronger than Suigetsu and Jūgo, Sakura would be able to destroy them. And same with Sasuke—while Sai and Karin were strong, they still would need Sasuke to have their back.
Sakura leapt up into the air, finally reaching the top of one more mountain. She glanced at Jūgo.
"Anything?" she asked.
He narrowed his eyes at the bug in his hand. While it had seemingly known where it was going before, now it was twirling about in his palm confusedly. "No." He looked back at her. "I think the scent's been lost."
Sakura's brow furrowed. She pressed the communicator on her neck to speak. "Sai."
"Ugly," his voice crackled over the intercom.
"How're things on your end?" she asked, eyebrow twitching in irritation at his insult.
"Not too good," Karin offered up. "But I can sense someone's chakra up ahead."
"How far?" Sakura asked.
If the bug that Shino had sent wasn't working, then they would have to rely on Karin.
"Maybe…six kilometers?" Karin half-said, half-asked.
Sakura nodded. "Got it." She set her gaze on the fiery red haired kunoichi in the distance. "We'll follow you."
Suigetsu saw Jūgo staring intensely at his palm and he glanced back at him.
Suigetsu was still freaked out that they trusted a bug to do the dirty work of finding Hinata. Shino had only sent two—in case one of them died when the carrier hawk got hungry along the way. If something happened to the search teams, at least Gai and Kakashi would have the back up bug.
"What's up?" Suigetsu asked. "Bug doing okay?"
Suigetsu sneered. Jūgo really did have a kind heart. He loved animals, and would probably add the feather to his nature collection back at his home.
Jūgo clenched the object tightly in his hand. "You might want to check this out."
"No way," he said, sticking his tongue out. "Bugs are nasty."
But Jūgo looked down at his hand once more.
Instead of an insect, a single bloodied and black hair entwined itself in his fingers.
"Be gentle!" the old hag shouted, smacking Kakashi upside the head.
"Hai, hai," he said tiredly as he carried her frail body up the mountain.
Gai, who was trailing close behind, held her things, balancing one of her bags on his head. "YOSH!"
Kakashi let out a slow sigh. They were supposed to be waiting for Naruto's arrival at that rickety old home Team YOUTH had been inside for months. Their mission was simple: guide travelers through the border of Tsuchi no Kuni.
At the house, they had left a map and a note for Naruto—just in case he arrived while they were still out and about. Kakashi, being the only one left, was roped into helping Gai with his mission.
For a D rank mission, it was surprisingly difficult. The elderly woman smacking Kakashi on the head repeatedly was not helping matters. Every time he hopped from ledge to ledge, she would whine about her achy bones and give a sharp swat with the back of her hand.
"I'm a lady, you hear?" she growled.
"Hai, hai," he repeated, rolling his one good eye in irritation.
He looked over to Gai. Sparkling in the sunlight and shouting on and on about youth, his eyes shone. Kakashi squinted. Was there an ocean in the background…?
He shook his head. If Jūgo, Suigetsu, and Karin weren't already a little bit off, being stranded with Gai would have driven them off the edge. Even with the crazy antics, Kakashi understood why Naruto had sent Team YOUTH away for a short period of time—the villagers of Konoha were scared enough as it was having Orochimaru and Sasuke back. There was no need to terrify them further.
In order to prove that they were a part of Konoha, Naruto sent them on mission after mission. Each time they came back with a successful mission, the inhabitants of Konoha grew more and more trusting. And to further their relationship with Tsuchi no Kuni, he dispatched them to assist in maneuvering through the borders. Naruto's decision caused many villagers to brush away the dark past of Team Hebi/Taka and fully embrace Team YOUTH.
Although Lee wasn't too happy with his former sensei's attention being spread, he accepted the fact that Gai was needed elsewhere. Kakashi couldn't help but feel that the time apart was overdue. He glared at the cheerful man, rainbows sprouting out from behind him and the ocean he had hoped he hallucinated (clearly, he was wrong) shimmered as waves crashed passionately in the background.
Yes. Some time apart was seriously overdue.
"Be careful there with Jūgo's regular!" Gai laughed happily. "She asks for him every time!"
Kakashi's eyebrows went up. It was hard to believe that Jūgo, ever patient and ever kind, would deal with that old hag on a regular basis. Then again, maybe it was because he was so gentle that she requested him.
"Are the birds going to come today?" she asked in her crackly old voice.
"Mikasa-san," Gai said, "The birds only come when Jūgo is here."
Kakashi felt the woman slump against his back in disappointment. Gai had mentioned before that she was a widow—her husband had passed away during the Fourth Nina War, leaving her alone. She had no children, no grandchildren… Apparently, her only joy was visiting with people along the border when she traveled back and forth from Hi no Kuni to Tsuchi no Kuni.
The swat of the old woman's hand to his head brought him back to the present. He frowned. He wasn't a horse. She didn't have to swat him every damn time to keep him going.
Sakura sat still, her gaze set on the setting sun. She shifted, pulling the blanket closer around her shoulders as wind blew by.
They had spent all day following false leads. Team Seven and Team YOUTH had followed the bug, only for it to lose the scent. Then they had followed Karin's trail, but the chakra signals kept disappearing on her.
"It's these mountains," Jūgo had explained after Karin started pulling her hair out in frustration. "They aren't just for show." He then glanced down at a frustrated Sakura. "I'm sure you've noticed how exhausted you are."
Sakura wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead, trying to ignore the anger from taking over.
Jūgo was right. These mountains weren't just for show. Like Konoha, whose defense was the nicely dense forest surrounding the area, the mountainous regions were Tsuchi no Kuni's best form of defense. It made tracking almost impossible, and with the wind constantly changing, the bug was having difficulty keeping the scent of its female companion.
Sakura had hoped that Karin's ability would have come through—but the caves made properly following their targets unbearable. By the time they could see one target in sight, they disappeared just as quickly into the treacherous caves. And Team Seven, being unfamiliar with the land, could not risk following deep into the darkness.
The snap of a twig alerted Sakura to someone's presence. She half glanced over her shoulder and relaxed when she saw Jūgo.
"Sakura," he said calmly.
"Jūgo," she replied.
He smiled gently and held up a small capsule. "Do you mind…?"
Sakura's eyes fell on the bottle and she smiled in return. "Of course not." She reached in her pouch for her water supply. She tossed it his way. "Knock yourself out."
Jūgo caught it with one hand. He popped open the bottle and poured out one tablet. Sakura watched.
"Are your mood stabilizers still working?" she asked.
Jūgo gulped it down and wiped the back of his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yes."
Sakura nodded and turned back to watch the sunset. Jūgo had approached her after the war, asking for a way to control himself when Sasuke wasn't around to keep him in control. Since the issue was more psychological, she recommended trying mood stabilizers.
Thus, the experiments started. For a solid year, Sakura searched for the right combination of natural herbs and infused chakra to get Jūgo's killing personality under control. She required much assistance, going so far as to ask Orochimaru for any knowledge on Jūgo's disorder and searching his old records. After that, along with psychotherapy and physical therapy, Jūgo finally found himself feeling "normal".
"I wanted to apologize," he said walking up to her side, a dove resting peacefully on his shoulder. "Suigetsu was out of line."
Sakura smiled up at him. "Arigatou."
She motioned for him to sit, and he did so awkwardly. While he was completely comfortable with animals, humans were a different story. He handed her the jug of water back and she took a quick swig before putting it back in her pouch.
Jūgo looked at her, her pink hair contrasting greatly with the blood red background of the setting sun. They had spent a decent amount of time together as doctor and patient, medical ninja and destructive weapon—but she always seemed so selfless to him.
She didn't have to help him get his killing habit under control. She could have turned to Naruto and demanded he be locked up—seeing as medicinal and mental cases were under her jurisdiction—instead of giving him the chance to get better.
He shifted his gaze back to the orange ball of sun slowly crawling under the blanket of earth in front of him. He was eternally grateful. Like Sasuke had done, she had given him a chance.
He frowned. Which is probably why he felt so conflicted. His nails dug in the rock they sat upon. Jūgo had heard that she had been proposed to. It wasn't every day that the last Uchiha went around demanding women to rebuild the clan with him, so the news traveled fast.
Karin, of course, had been devastated. He thought back to the campsite around the corner of the mountain where she most likely was fawning over the poor guy. When she found out that it was Sakura that had been proposed to, she grew quiet.
At the time, Jūgo had been concerned. But the smile she thought she had kept to herself set him at ease. He didn't need to hear her speak to understand that anyone other than Sakura would have been unacceptable.
He petted the bird on his shoulder tenderly.
"Sakura," Jūgo said slowly.
"Hmm?" she hummed, looking at him.
"I know it's not my place." He lowered his hand and shifted so he could face her properly. "But please give Sasuke a chance."
Sakura averted her gaze. Jūgo was being sincere.
She was well aware of how much Sasuke meant to him. Time after time, trying to find the right medication proved that. The only reason he really wanted to start medication was to make sure he wasn't a burden for Sasuke. He wanted to be strong—strong enough to overcome his bloodlust for Sasuke's sake.
Jūgo lifted the dove up off of his shoulder and into his hands. The sweet creature cooed at his touch, the soft feathers light beneath his fingers.
"Sasuke is powerful," he said, stroking the bird. "And even powerful people need shields." He looked at her. "My job is to protect not only Sasuke…" The dove nestled into his lap comfortably. "...But to protect his heart as well."
Sakura blinked. Was he…? She peered at him. Was he implying something?
Jūgo's orange hair danced lightly in the cool breeze as he took the dove from his lap and set it in Sakura's. She stared down at the half-sleeping creature, it waking up from being moved so suddenly. Warmth emanated between her legs in the area where it was perched.
"Though, it's rather hard to do," he said, "When someone else holds it."
The dove spread its wings and leapt from her lap. It was up in the air before Sakura could blink. Flying away, probably to its family, the dove cooed happily once more.
"All I ask," Jūgo said, "Is that you not break what has been given to you."
Sakura swallowed. But Sasuke…Sasuke hadn't given her his heart. Not really. Not fully.
So Sakura just kept quiet, looking off into the distance. "…You really care about him, huh?"
Jūgo smiled. "I could say the same for you."
Sakura blushed. "You know…I've always…I've always loved him." She wasn't sure why she was telling him this. Maybe it was because Jūgo had opened up to her. "And I wanted to thank you…" She glanced back at him, stars now appearing above where they sat. "For being there for him when I couldn't."
Jūgo watched, uncomfortably, as tears started to form in her eyes. He hadn't meant to make her cry. He dug in his pocket and whipped out a handkerchief. Jūgo held it out.
"Jūgo," Sasuke's voice said, interrupting their conversation.
Jūgo halted in his actions. He stood up abruptly, separating himself far away from Sakura. The pink haired kunoichi stared at him, surprised by his sudden distance. Hadn't they been getting close?
Jūgo stared at Sasuke, watching his eyes. And then he lowered his gaze.
"…I'll go check on the others," Jūgo said obediently.
"Ah, m-matte," Sakura said, standing up as well and reaching a hand out to Jūgo.
He shifted so she could not touch him. Jūgo was well aware of how deeply Sasuke loved her. He didn't need an exchange of words to grasp that. And he would do nothing to her while those onyx orbs monitored them.
"Arigatou," she said, ignoring his cold shoulder and bowing slightly. "For everything."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed, and Jūgo smiled down at the medical ninja. He nodded in acknowledgement and then made his way along the rocky ledge past Sasuke.
Sasuke didn't turn to watch as he left, but he waited until his footsteps could not be heard to speak.
"Orochimaru," Shikamaru drawled out, hands in his pockets as he eyed the lab in disdain. "I have some questions to ask."
The creepy old man paid his guest no heed as he continued pouring a concoction into his test tube. After the war, Tsunade had given Orochimaru an opportunity—he could return to the leaf village as an ally, or he could come as their prisoner and face certain death as punishment for his crimes.
Eager to observe the next generation to see what they would do, he quickly agreed to return as an ally. For the next few years, he had been observed closely, but he never did act out. He only requested that he be able to work in labs once again and work on cures for the elderly as well as honing the ability to prolong life.
Tsunade couldn't help but laugh the first time she witnessed him contribute to the Konoha hospital. Sakura's face had been priceless.
Even with Orochimaru's "good deeds", as the tactician of Konoha, Shikamaru had to drag up his past once again. The markings on the bodies were most definitely compatible with Orochimaru's doings, but according to the Konoha records, Orochimaru had stayed in Konoha during the entire time Team Eight had been dispatched.
"Ask away," Orochimaru said, slowly taking off his gloves and walking over to Shikamaru.
The tactician, ever wary, quickly whipped the photos of his friends out of his pocket and held them up for the mad scientist to see.
"Do you have any idea who could have caused this?" Shikamaru asked.
Orochimaru narrowed his eyes. The markings were very familiar. It reminded him of his own work—beautiful and terrifying. He smiled.
"Nara Shikamaru," Orochimaru hissed out, licking his lips slowly. "A far cry away from that lazy boy you had once been."
Shikamaru didn't bat an eye. "You're one to talk."
Orochimaru let out a hoarse laugh. "Yes, I suppose that's true." His pale, cold fingers snatched the photos away from Shikamaru and he held them up to the dim light. "Inuzaka Kiba." He glanced at the second photo in his hand. "Aburame Shino."
Orochimaru wasn't completely out of the loop. He was well aware that Uzumaki Hinata had not been brought back to Konoha with her comrades. He was also well aware that Naruto was not taking it so well.
"Ten no Juin," he murmured, his thin slit eyes flashing in excitement. "So my experiments have been up to no good, eh?"
"Can you stop them?" Shikamaru asked, but he already knew the answer.
Orochimaru didn't bother turning to face him, still entranced in the beautiful bloodied photos he had in his hands. "No." His eyes lingered on the bodies. "But I understand that Sasuke-kun has been asked to take care of this."
It wasn't a question.
"Ah," Shikamaru answered anyway. "Team Seven and Team YOUTH."
Orochimaru smiled wickedly. "Gai must have his hands full with my children." He tilted his head back abnormally so, causing Shikamaru to inwardly cringe. "Assuming that Hinata-sama has been taken…" He lowered the photos and gave them back to Shikamaru. "…One must assume that they are working for someone."
Shikamaru stared at him. "You don't think they're working alone?"
"It could easily be someone trying to lure our dear Hokage away," Orochimaru said, but his tone seemed doubtful. "And of course, the clone he has here is probably enough to withstand an enemy's attack—"
Shikamaru sneered. He did not ask how the old Sannin knew that a clone was now running Konoha In the Hokage's absence. Orochimaru knew Naruto too well. There was no way he was going to leave his wife to the mercy of a twisted fuck.
"—But the markings seem to be deliberate," Orochimaru said slowly. "If it had been an enemy nation or a declaration of war—would Shino and Kiba really be alive right now?" He tilted his head in amusement. "Would they really have bothered to so carefully cut them in a way so they would not die?"
Shikamaru's eyes widened. Orochimaru knew who the mastermind was.
"I do believe, Shikamaru," he said, laughter at the edge of his voice as he spoke, "You should speak with Kabuto."
Shikamaru's expression hardened. "You think it's him?"
"Really, tactician," Orochimaru said teasingly. "Must I give you all the answers?"
Shikamaru ground his teeth. "If not Kabuto, then who?"
Orochimaru let the teasing in his voice die. "I cannot say for sure." He turned away to go back to his work. "But I have an idea that Kabuto might know."
"I used to always love camping with Team Seven," Sakura admitted slowly after Sasuke had been silent for a period of time. "The stars seemed to shine brighter."
Sasuke didn't agree out loud, but he had to admit he did enjoy his genin days. And when he had gotten back after the war, they had tried working as a team again, eventually parting ways when Naruto was named Hokage.
She had sat back down on the ledge, her legs swinging calmly as if there wasn't a giant canyon beneath her feet. Sasuke, however, remained standing. He watched her back. She was seemingly careless to the awful disappointments that daylight had brought them.
But Sasuke knew differently. She cared for—loved—Naruto deeply. If he arrived and they were no closer to finding Hinata, she would be devastated. Sasuke tilted his head. He had always been rather wary of the relationship they had developed.
Clearly, back in their genin days, Naruto had a small crush on the pink haired kunoichi. Even more obvious was Sakura's love for Sasuke himself. But while he was away…
Did her heart really never waiver? He had heard her conversation with Jūgo—or at least part of it. He wasn't sure what his orange haired companion had said before, but he made it in time to hear her say that she always loved him.
And she still loved him. That was made apparent by the way she touched and caressed him. In the way she spoke and treated him.
Maybe the reason she was so hurt over Hinata being taken wasn't just for her friends' sakes. Perhaps, deep inside, there was a part of her that could truly relate to Naruto on a level Sasuke couldn't.
After all, they had both lost their loves for a period of time. Naruto was currently dealing with the loss of Hinata, and Sakura had already dealt with the loss of Sasuke.
He clenched his jaw. And that brought up the very reason why he was standing there.
"Sakura," he repeated once more.
Sakura's legs stopped swinging so care freely, and her heart stopped. The pounding in her ears ceased to exist as her stomach plummeted down the mountainous canyon, dropping with a loud bang as it hit the ground.
She was quiet.
And so he spoke.
"I left...to get stronger," he said slowly. "I needed to take a path that would give me answers—one that you could not come with me on."
She had wanted to know why he left her. And here was her answer.
He couldn't take her with him. He couldn't have even thought of it. At the time, his heart had been too filled with hatred to receive any love she had to offer him. After killing his brother…
He let out a small, "Ch," of anger.
…After learning the truth, he still had too much hatred in his heart. He could never have returned to her with that poison running through his veins.
He had been ready to kill her, chidori about to plunge through her back and deep into her broken heart. There was no coming back from that path of hatred.
Not for a while.
So he waited. He waited until after the war to return to Konoha—to her side. And he had noticed that she had changed. She was no longer that annoying little girl that followed him around like a lost puppy.
She was wise and beautiful, smart and kind. She had gotten strong to prove him wrong—to prove everyone wrong. And she had succeeded. In the five years he had been back in Konoha, he had watched her grow even more every day. She rose to the position of head medical ninja as if it took no effort on her part.
But he had seen her, when walking home from work in the late evenings, still in her office and looking through documents even when her shifts had been long over. He had watched her work miracles on Jūgo. She went so far as to spend weeks alone with him in confinement when his rage became too much and the separation from Sasuke was unbearable.
She was strong, but she had never been weak to begin with.
"I came back when I had the answers," Sasuke said finally.
I came back for you.
Sakura bit her lower lip, the tears streaming down her face at an uncontrollable rate. But all Sasuke could see was her back.
She didn't say anything in response. Sasuke turned away in irritation. She had wanted an explanation, right? Hadn't he just given her one? He walked away, irritated by her lack of response.
And suddenly, her voice came quietly through the darkness.
"But you still left."
You still left me.