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survival of the fittest

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They’re on a sort of celebratory for-old-times’-sake last mission because Naruto will be leaving on his training trip with Jiraiya in about two weeks. It’s a simple B-rank retrieval mission, their task of recovering a precious artefact from some old shrine near Takigakure – a virtual cakewalk compared to the other missions Team Seven has been on. They've even been joined by Team Ten so nothing at all should go wrong.

 

Which is why, inevitably, something does.

 

“Don’t touch anything, Naruto,” Sakura reminds her teammate just in case because it’s Naruto. “There are a lot of different seals all over this shrine, and we don’t know what they’ll do if they're activated.”

 

Two minutes later...

 

“Oops?” Naruto says when his curious poking of an unknown seal on an eagle statue ends with said statue shattered into a million pieces on the ground. He rubs the back of his head sheepishly and opens his mouth to undoubtedly come up with an excuse or crack a joke about his clumsiness but Sakura doesn't even have time to punch him in the face before the seal activates, blue light expanding forward towards Sakura and Shikamaru who is slouched beside her. And before either of them can even think about jumping out of the way, the seal swallows them both without so much as a heartbeat’s warning.

 

“Damn it, Naruto!” Sakura screeches even as the words are snatched away in a vortex of whirlwind movement and whistling wind in her ears.

 

Over the next several weeks, this won’t be the first time Sakura curses Naruto to an eternity of no ramen.

 

 


 

 

“We’re in Earth Country,” Shikamaru says flatly, voice tight with pain as Sakura tentatively examines his broken leg. There are two breaks in the femur, and there are also hairline fractures all along the tibia and fibula. Considering their circumstances, it’s pretty damn bad. “Landscape’s unmistakeable, and the people hate us on sight. This is so troublesome.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Sakura mutters, doing her best to conceal how much her voice wants to shake. Judging by the knowing look Shikamaru flicks at her, she fails miserably. Sakura ignores him and busies herself with looking around for a makeshift splint. Problem is, all she can see is rock, rock, a few shrubs, and more rock. How on earth do the people here survive? Perhaps other parts are better?

 

“You’ll just have to bandage it as tight as you can,” Shikamaru decides for her, already five steps ahead of her (of course he is) and moving on to more important issues. “Unless you know a few medical jutsus that might help?”

 

His voice is carefully neutral, clearly doing his best to not inject any expectations into his words to avoid putting any more pressure on Sakura. It only serves to make Sakura feel even guiltier.

 

“I- No,” Sakura admits, flushing helplessly at her uselessness. “Shishou only just started me on dead fish recently.”

 

Shikamaru shrugs and nods in a resigned manner that makes Sakura’s shoulders hunch. “Bandages it is then. We should probably find some shelter too. The sun is setting so the temperature will drop, and if we meet anymore Iwa-nin... well, I think we both know we just got lucky last time.”

 

Sakura nods hurriedly, mind flashing back to half an hour ago when they were unceremoniously dumped barely twenty feet away from an Iwa patrol of some sort, all Jounin and murderous the second they caught sight of the leaf symbol on her and Shikamaru’s forehead protectors. They ran for it of course, and they managed to move from an area with a landscape of a lot of dirt to a landscape of a lot of rock, but neither of them could outstrip the older shinobi forever, especially on their home turf, and it was only sheer luck that saw them take a desperate swan dive over the edge of a cliff to lose their pursuers. Sakura was fortunate enough to have learned how to circulate her chakra so that the uneven ground dozens of feet beneath them only shattered upon her landing. Shikamaru however didn't, breaking his leg and scraping a deep ugly gash along his left arm on a protruding rock, both because the drop was too far and because he was distracted with protecting both of them from an attack that one of the Iwa-nin launched at them, a landslide of boulders that would've stoned them to death if Shikamaru’s shadows didn't succeed in shattering them.

 

As she pulls out another roll of bandages from her medical pouch, the first having gone to wrap Shikamaru’s arm, Sakura can’t help thinking that the Nara would've been better off if he was stuck here with someone else. Even Ino would be better because while the blonde is at about the same level of strength as Sakura is, she’s also Shikamaru’s teammate and would know how to work together more effectively.

 

Still, Ino isn’t here, and nor is anyone else but the two of them. They’re stuck in Kami-only-knows-where in Earth Country with at least one squad of Iwa-nin on their asses. Shikamaru is wounded, she’s inwardly panicking, and the entire situation looks worse than dire.

 

So basically, in Inner’s words, now is not the time for her to lose her shit just because her remaining self-esteem issues have decided to crop up. Shikamaru can’t walk right now so it’s up to Sakura to make sure they’re both hidden away well enough to evade their enemies.

 

“Right,” Sakura announces, tying the last knot firmly before clambering to her feet, rolling her shoulders to loosen her muscles, and then securing Shikamaru’s pack around her waist along with her own. Then she pumps chakra into her arms before bending down to lift a startled Shikamaru onto her back as gently as possible without jarring his left leg. Not for the first time, she gives thanks to whatever existing higher power for leading her to her Shishou. She doesn't even want to think about how much tougher this would be if she doesn't have her chakra-enhanced strength. “We’ll have to find a cave of some sort. There has to be one with all these rocks.”

 

“Hm,” Shikamaru points left. “Try that way. It is a cliff face after all, and those often have at least a few natural recesses tucked away.”

 

Sakura nods obediently and Shunshins off in the designated direction. Even though Shikamaru has only been a Chuunin for a few months, he’s still technically Sakura’s superior now that it’s just the two of them, not to mention she’s more than happy to defer to him. She’s book-smart, with a genius-level IQ, and secretly (because Ino’s never approved of old-man games), Sakura can also play a mean game of shogi, but Shikamaru is the one who knows how to strategize and plan in real life, he'sa genius too, and right now, even with a broken leg, he’s still better off than she is.

 

Sakura only has her super-strength, unpolished (she can only break little boulders at this point in time, unlike Tsunade who can smash mountains with a finger), and without an unlimited amount of chakra to fuel it to boot. She can carry Shikamaru around though, and handle all the legwork. She hopes that will be enough to take some of the burden off of the Nara’s shoulders while he thinks of some way to escape their situation.

 

Because Sakura certainly can’t.

 

 


 

 

“What are the chances that someone will come rescue us?” Sakura asks as they huddle together in the deepest, darkest corner of the cave they've found. They don’t dare light a fire in case it will alert Iwa of their location but with how cold the night has quickly become, Sakura can’t say she’s not tempted to risk it. Lucky for her, self-preservation still wins by a relatively large margin.

 

She senses more than sees Shikamaru side-eye her as if assessing her mental fortitude before answering somewhat grimly. “...Honestly, not high. For one, they have no idea where that seal has sent us, and even if they did, Konoha’s not exactly on the best of terms with Iwa, especially after the last war. Judging by the patrol earlier, we’re probably pretty close to Iwagakure, and I hear Iwa-nin guard the land surrounding their home for miles in every direction as if the whole area is part of their village. We’re probably on that land right now, or we were and we were seen, so it would be difficult to extract us without the Tsuchikage’s permission.”

 

“But if Tsunade-shishou does get permission...?” Part of Sakura already knows the answer but she still wants Shikamaru to tell her differently.

 

Shikamaru just sighs and shakes his head a little. “Even if she could, I don’t think she would. I wouldn't. It’s a bad move, politically. Any Konoha-nin allowed access to Iwa territory would be under surveillance at all times, might even meet a few ‘accidents’ along the way, not to mention the Tsuchikage will probably wrangle at least one favour out of the Hokage in return, and the cost of that just isn’t worth the lives of a Genin and a Chuunin as new as I am.”

 

Sakura bites her lip almost hard enough to make it bleed. She wants to deny this, claim that Tsunade would strike a bargain with the Tsuchikage if it means getting her out, but that’s selfishness and arrogance and wishful thinking talking. The Hokage must always put the village first, and while she’s certain that Tsunade has grown rather fond of her, Sakura isn’t so important in the greater scheme of things that Konoha would send a rescue party just for her. And while her own parents would want her back more than anything, the Haruno Clan is nowhere near influential enough to hold any sway over the Hokage’s decisions, not to mention, last she checked before leaving on that joint mission with her team and Team Ten, her mum and dad were off on a two-month-long mission in Iron. It’s doubtful they're even back yet, much less heard the news about their missing daughter. On the other hand...

 

“What about you?” Sakura asks hesitantly. “You're the heir to the Nara Clan, aren’t you? Your family would try to get you back, right? And the Naras are close to the Yamanakas and Akimichis too.”

 

Shikamaru sighs again, and Sakura is suddenly struck by how tired he sounds. She mentally slaps himself. Of course, Shikamaru is injured, and he would be weaker than usual, with less energy, especially after the day they've had. She only gave him one painkiller earlier, not knowing how long they might need the little bottle of pills to last, and they haven’t had anything to eat either.

 

“My old man will try his best,” Shikamaru is saying. “And with three Clans up in arms about it, Hokage-sama might be persuaded to attempt a rescue. But like I said, they probably don’t even know where we are, and it’s Iwa. Konoha’s been on bad terms with them since the era of the Shodaime. They don’t even like it when we’re just doing missions out in the rest of Earth Country, much less seen so close to Iwagakure. And after that invasion with Orochimaru and Suna, we can’t afford to risk any conflicts with them. Or any other hidden village from the Great Shinobi Countries for that matter. Not for a while at least.”

 

He falls silent after that, breathing measured in a way that tells Sakura that the pain isn’t as muted as she thought. Shifting, she gropes blindly for Shikamaru’s hand, giving it an awkward pat when she finds it. “Okay, then I guess we’ll just have to find our own way back. We can talk more about it in the morning. Why don’t you get some rest? I’ll take first watch.”

 

She reddens with embarrassment a second later because taking first watch implies actually sitting at the mouth of the cave and keeping watch, not hunched together in the back with her temporary teammate. With a grimace, she prepares to shuffle out of the warm cocoon of the two blankets covering both of them, only to stop when Shikamaru’s hand finds her wrist and halts her movements.

 

“Don’t be troublesome,” He mutters into the darkness. “It’s not like either of us can do much even if you do see them coming. You've already set up pretty good traps that might catch them by surprise if they come. You don’t want to freeze to death by squatting outside, and it’s better if you get as much rest as you can, when you still can.”

 

Sakura blinks owlishly, taken off guard. She supposes that does make sense, and it makes her smile a little when she realizes that Shikamaru is also trying to look out for her in his own way. Wordlessly, she settles back down, drawing the blankets up around their chins to hoard what warmth they have between them.

 

They sit there in silence, neither quite able to drift off yet as their ears strain for the softest of footsteps or muffled voices carried on the wind. Shikamaru’s hand is still clasped around her wrist, palm right over the pulse point, and Sakura doesn't shake him off because it’s a comforting gesture that she’s grateful to have.

 

“...When we get home, I'm going to kill Naruto,” Sakura remarks quietly as a gust of icy wind leave frozen kisses on her cheeks. Beside her, she can feel a shiver wrack Shikamaru’s frame.

 

“Yeah?” Shikamaru sounds faintly amused. “I’ll help. We can hide the body in the forest behind my house.”

 

Sakura grins, just a little.

 

They both doze off into a fitful sleep eventually but Sakura feels a little better about their situation seeing as they can still share a smile and a joke.

 

 


 

 

“You can’t go alone,” Shikamaru says for the fifth time in the last hour, and while Sakura thinks his concern is sort of sweet, they don’t have time for this.

 

“We need food,” Sakura argues (again). “At the very least. I’d like another change of clothes too but I’ll be happy with food. The town doesn't even look like it sells any sort of medical supplies so I’ll probably skip out on that too. And we’ve run out of water as well so I have to go.”

 

Shikamaru’s jaw tightens here because all the water they did have was either used yesterday to clean the bloody gash on his arm or finished off earlier this morning between the two of them.

 

“Come on, Shikamaru, I’ll be fine,” Sakura coaxes with more confidence than she actually feels. A voice in her head – not Inner – is screaming that she doesn't want to go, not without company, but that voice needs to shut up because she can’t be a scared little girl right now, not with Shikamaru out of commission and no food. It’s been almost twenty-four hours since they faceplanted in Earth Country, and their last meal was six hours before the seal whisked them away. They need food, and Sakura is the only one who can get it.

 

“In and out,” Sakura continues insistently, reaching up to tug at her brown-dyed hair. She can pass for Shikamaru’s sister right now if it isn’t for her green eyes. They've also tossed their forehead protectors and usual attires. Their respective Clan symbols – at least for Shikamaru – are a dead giveaway, and Sakura’s typical outfit is red, enough said. Right now, they're both wearing nondescript dark clothing that doesn't scream ninja but is also subtly tailored for easy movement. “I've dyed my hair, changed my clothes, and I’ve got enough money for necessities. I promise I won’t even window-shop for pretty dresses.”

 

Shikamaru snorts, one corner of his mouth tipping up in a half-smile, but the pensive frown creasing his brow doesn't go away. “...I wish you'd been born with eyes that didn't stand out this much. People will remember them.”

 

Under normal circumstances, Sakura would be insulted by this warped, backhanded compliment but right now, she merely waves it off. Heck, she wishes she doesn't have green eyes at the moment. Shikamaru advised against using a Henge just in case she bumps into a ninja who might pick up on her usage of chakra, and then she’d be in trouble. “I’ll be fine. I won’t linger. It’s a small town, and I can say I'm just travelling through if anyone asks. Twenty minutes. Thirty tops. I'm more worried about leaving you alone.”

 

“Your genjutsu will hold, and it’s not like I can’t perform jutsus even if I can’t stand,” Shikamaru sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “How troublesome. Fine, I guess we don’t have much choice. Thirty minutes. If you're not back by then, I'm going to assume something went wrong.”

 

Sakura nods resolutely, neither mentioning the fact that even if something does go wrong, there isn’t much Shikamaru can do about it. Instead, she once again checks the area where Shikamaru is tucked away behind a crop of rocks and surrounded by the strongest genjutsu Sakura knows, but also lit with just enough sunlight for Shikamaru to wield his shadows if he is found. He’s about as safe as he can be stuck in Iwa territory.

 

“I'm off then,” Sakura forces a smile and then flashes away before her courage fails her, not stopping until she is closer to the small town they found that morning. There are a few more trees around but it’s still mostly rock and dirt painting the landscape. Taking a deep breath, she forces herself to walk into the town like a normal civilian, knapsack over one shoulder, expression mildly interested in her surroundings, but overall unremarkable, boring, beneath anything more than a cursory once-over.

 

In and out.

 

She can do this.

 

 


 

 

“Travelling through, dear?” The old woman behind the counter studies Sakura with a smile that doesn't reach her suspicious eyes. “I haven’t seen your face around town before.”

 

Sakura plasters on her cutest smile. “I am travelling through. I'm on my way to visit my daddy.”

 

Some of the suspicion fades as the woman rings up Sakura’s purchases. “I see, I see. By yourself?”

 

Sakura glances away, letting her expression fall as she sighs rather dejectedly. “My mum, she divorced Otou-san a long time ago, and she says she never wants to see him again, but I begged and begged because he’s my dad you know? And I've never even met him. Anyway, Kaa-san finally said I could go by myself since it isn’t that far away. I have to go straight there though; no detours except for supplies. And I can only stay there for a week.”

 

The old woman smiles again, and it still doesn't reach her eyes as she hands Sakura her groceries. It makes Sakura uneasy but she keeps it behind her harmless little girl facade, hoping that Iwa civilians in general are just this mistrustful and not because the woman suspects her of being a Konoha-nin.

 

“Well, I hope your reunion with your father goes well,” The woman says, and Sakura dimples another bright smile and thanks her before ducking out of the store, keeping her strides calm and unrushed. Instincts tell her to run, run as fast a she can possibly go, but she has to pretend that she is just an Iwa civilian, an insignificant twelve-year-old girl and not an enemy kunoichi.

 

It’s nerve-wracking.

 

But nobody stops her, though she does get a few inquisitive stares as she makes her way out of town again. She does her best to look oblivious and carefree, someone who doesn't have secrets to hide. Once she’s walked far enough from the village, she passes under the shade of a tree before Shunshining away like the hounds of hell are at her heels. By the time she’s well away from civilization once more, Sakura is almost trembling from both adrenaline and heart-pounding relief.

 

It seems she will live to see another day.

 

 


 

 

“You’re okay?” Shikamaru looks as relieved as Sakura feels when she returns, bags of food and bottles of water in hand. The Nara scans her up and down with sharp eyes, evidently looking for signs of damage.

 

“I'm fine,” Sakura croaks out, and then clears her voice before starting again. “I checked the place for a map but they didn't have one. The cashier lady looked kinda suspicious of me though so I want to move to a new location before breaking out the snacks. Is that okay?”

 

“Of course,” Shikamaru nods at once. “Let me hold the food.”

 

Sakura’s mouth twitches into a wry smile as she hands the bags over. “I’ll still be carrying all of it, you know. And you.”

 

Shikamaru makes a face. “Don’t remind me. Ino will never let me live this down.”

 

Sakura chuckles a little as she eases Shikamaru onto her back again, but there’s less humour in the sound than she wants because she is reminded of just why Shikamaru is hurt. “I won’t mention it if you don’t.”

 

Shikamaru just grumbles something under his breath before voicing plaintively, “Eh, she’ll probably weasel it out of me anyway. Most of the time, it’s just less troublesome to tell her what she wants to know.”

 

“Ain’t that the truth,” Sakura murmurs, and she catches Shikamaru smirking a little out of the corner of her eye. The thought of her first friend brings a more genuine smile back to her face as well even as she takes one last glance around to ensure that they haven’t left anything behind before flitting away at top speed once more, in search of another place to hunker down in.

 

They have food now, and water, enough for another week, maybe even a little more than that if they ration properly. In the meantime, while they’re jumping from hiding place to hiding place every few hours, Sakura lets herself believe that they’re getting just a little bit closer to home.

 

 


 

 

Seven days later, sore from sleeping restlessly on hard ground, tensions reaching summit levels from yet another trip into a different town for more supplies, exhausted from toughing out the rough terrain of Earth Country’s rocky mountain range in an attempt to cross it and get home, and anxiety at an all-time high after almost running afoul of three different Iwa shinobi patrols obviously tracking them, Sakura isn’t so optimistic anymore.

 

“Why didn't you tell me you were running a fever?!” Sakura demands, voice shrill with frustration and suppressed fear. A fever is the last thing they need; a fever means infection is threatening to settle in, and considering the fact that Iwa’s medical system – at least outside of Iwagakure – seems to be sorely lacking and Sakura hasn’t been able to scrounge up anything useful from the last town, they're running out of bandages to the point where she’s discarded her near-empty medical pouch and simply pooled everything into Shikamaru’s pack, and they've had to make do with less gauze each time Sakura changes the dressing on the gash running almost bone deep along Shikamaru’s arm, with more time in between changing them, so the infection doesn't really come as a surprise.

 

Shikamaru’s lips thin and a stubborn expression flits across his face, now constantly stressed with pain because the painkillers have run out. These days, he can barely hobble a few feet away for bathroom breaks, broken leg dragging behind him, but she lets him do that much alone because – for now – it’s just too embarrassing for both of them if she has to help him do that too. “We have enough to worry about. The fever’s nothing. It’s just the cold air getting to me. It’ll go away.”

 

“I'm a medic-in-training!” Sakura hisses, forcing a water flask into Shikamaru’s grasp before placing a hand against his forehead again and sending out a wave of chakra to both assess and soothe. “I may not be able to catch all the symptoms yet but once I know they're there, I do know how to monitor them. This isn’t nothing, Shikamaru, and it’s not just gonna go away!”

 

“Well I didn't tell you because I knew you’d react like this!” Shikamaru retorts, voice rising briefly as his own aggravation gets the better of him. “Panicking’s not exactly helping anyone, Sakura! It’s more likely to get us killed than a fever is!”

 

Sakura reels back, feeling like she’s been struck, and Shikamaru instantly winces with regret. “I didn't mean it like that-”

 

“No, no, you're right,” Sakura spins away to face the opposite direction as she runs a weary hand through her brownish-pink hair, dusty and oily from days of not being able to wash it. Neither of them wants to waste what water they have, especially with the long journey ahead, and they haven’t been able to find a river or even a stream yet. “I'm sorry. I know you'd be better off stuck with someone else. Just- drink water, okay? And try to eat something.”

 

When she turns back, she finds Shikamaru watching her with unnervingly focused brown eyes.

 

“I didn't mean it like that,” He repeats evenly, unyieldingly. “You've been great, okay? You got us food and water, you've been carrying me around and taking care of my injuries, and your genjutsus have been hiding us. I'm just pissed at myself because I haven’t been able to do anything.”

 

Sakura stares for a long moment, dumbfounded. “...You saved us that first day. If you hadn't managed to destroy those boulders, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. And you're the one who remembered that this mountain range runs along the border. I’d probably have picked the wrong direction if it was up to me. And you're the one who managed to skirt us around those Iwa patrols looking for us because you could predict how they would move. It’s not like my genjutsus can hold up when I'm running around.”

 

Shikamaru shrugs, taking a small sip of water. He looks... just a tiny bit embarrassed. “Okay, I’ll give you that one. I just- don’t like sitting on my ass all the time. It feels like I'm not doing anything.”

 

Sakura quirks a lopsided smile as she plops down beside him. “I thought Naras like sitting on their asses all the time.”

 

“When there are clouds and grassy fields,” Shikamaru corrects, a smile of his own surfacing on his face. “The weather’s been threatening to rain for days but it just won’t rain, and we’ve got a bed of stone under us. I never want to move to Earth Country. Ever.”

 

Sakura huffs a tired laugh, leaning forward to rest his elbows on her thighs. “...I really want to go home.”

 

“Yeah, me too,” Shikamaru’s shoulders slump a little, and it’s times like this that Sakura remembers that the Nara is only about six months older than she is. They're basically the same age, same generation, fellow Academy graduates for all that Shikamaru can sound more mature at times.

 

Sakura straightens. “Get some rest? Please? Night’s falling anyway.”

 

Shikamaru grunts an agreement, passing back the water and giving Sakura a look when she opens her mouth to tell him to drink a little more. She subsides reluctantly and tucks the flask away, breaking out the blankets instead. At least she managed to get her hands on two more of those. Earth Country is really cold at night with nothing but unforgiving stone all around. She supposes she should be grateful that they're not stuck in the Land of Snow.

 

Again, they don’t bother with a fire even though there is some wood they can use from the handfuls of trees they've passed. They haven’t bumped into any trouble for about a day now so perhaps their pursuers have given up (“I doubt it, Sakura; Iwa-nin are ruthless when it comes to their enemies. They're pretty ruthless with themselves. Their Tsuchikage says die, they die.”); either way, they're not going to risk it.

 

“Hurry up,” Shikamaru prompts, one corner of the four blankets lifted, and Sakura quickly places their pack within arm’s length before scooting over to the Nara’s side and tucking the blankets around her end to block out the chill. Shikamaru’s hand wraps around her wrist per usual, Sakura burrows closer to his side, and they settle down yet again to wait out their eighth night in Earth Country.

 

Sometimes, when there’s nothing but wired silence all around them, like now, Sakura’s mind wanders back to her team, to her friends, and she wonders what they’re doing now. Are they looking for her and Shikamaru? Have they given up?

 

Giving up isn’t in Naruto’s vocabulary though, especially since this entire situation is the knucklehead’s fault in the first place, accidental or not, and the blond won’t rest until he finds them. That, at least, Sakura can count on. Naruto will even put off his training trip, she’s certain.

 

The problem is, she can’t be sure whether or not Naruto will find them at all, at least not until she and Shikamaru get themselves out of Earth Country and send up smoke signals or something to alert their allies that they’re still alive.

 

Right now, neither Sakura nor Shikamaru can count on Team Seven or Team Ten or anyone else to save them. Right now, she and Shikamaru will have to save themselves.

 

 


 

 

“You brought a shogi board along?” Sakura has been poking through their supplies again. She saw the board earlier – a foldable set – but since it wasn't exactly necessary for survival, she didn't pay it any mind until now.

 

Shikamaru stirs from where he is curled up under the blankets. He’s been getting more and more tired lately, talking even less and sleeping more, health getting worse despite Sakura’s best efforts, so she’s hoping that the mention of shogi might rouse him a little.

 

“Necessity of life,” Shikamaru emphasizes stoutly. “Do you know how to play?”

 

Sakura snorts, unfolds the board, and begins setting up the pieces. “Yeah.”

Shikamaru’s head cocks to the side, a glint of speculation sparking in his eyes. “Any good?”

 

Sakura smiles demurely at him. “I'm... decent.”

 

Shikamaru’s smile curves into an almost competitive smirk, and he reaches for his opening piece.

 

Shikamaru wins the first two games.

 

Sakura uses them to learn his playing style and adapt before trouncing him in the third. She thinks that he looks a little too happy at the loss but he beats her again in their fourth game, though that ends up being a close one. When the sun sets, they're both as happy as they possibly can be in their current situation. It is one of their better days.

 

This is the last better day they’ll have for a long while to come.

 

 


 

 

“Sakura.”

 

Sakura blinks blearily at her companion, hands pausing in her current task of rationing even more of the food they have left. Why does this mountain range have to be so damn large?

 

“I think... I think you should go on alone.”

 

Sakura stares, and then stares some more. It takes a full five seconds for her brain to process what the Nara has just told her. Even then, the only thing that comes out of her mouth is a flat, “What.”

 

Shikamaru sighs, struggling into a sitting position, and paling visibly when his left arm is jostled. In contrast, his cheeks remain flushed with fever. Sakura knows he’s burning up even though he’s been shivering constantly day and night.

 

“Let’s be honest here,” The Nara says tersely, expression determinedly closed off. “We both know I'm deadweight right now. You're running yourself into the ground carting my ass across these mountains.”

 

“That’s not true!” Sakura protests, bristling defensively. “I can still keep going-”

 

“For how long?” Shikamaru interrupts brusquely. “Sakura, you look like hell, and you're not even the sick one! When was the last time you slept? You think I don’t know that you've been staying up at night trying to keep my temperature down?”

 

Sakura’s hands clench in her lap. “So, what, you want me to just leaveyou behind?”

 

“You’ll have a better chance of getting back to Konoha if you’re only fending for yourself,” Shikamaru says this with matter-of-fact indifference, like he doesn't care what happens to himself. Sakura hates it because she can see the glimmer of fear in his eyes. “Under the circumstances, it’s a logical decision to make. If you go on alone with all the supplies, chances are better that at least you’ll make it home. I’d give it seventy-thirty odds in your favour. If you continue taking me with you though, the probability of even getting out of Earth Country virtually drops to zero. I can even buy you some time by taking out at least a few of the Iwa-nin tracking us. Give them a false trail to follow instead while you go on ahead. Use your head, Sakura; it’s common sense. If you ever want to see your parents again, see your team, your friends, save Sasuke, leaving me behind’s the only way.”

 

Sakura is shaking. She feels like she’s choking on the maelstrom of emotions gathering in her chest. Shikamaru isn’t kidding. He’s pulling all the stops, manipulating her emotionally by reminding her of her friends and her family and Sasuke while at the same time giving her statistics and appealing to her practical side. And now he’s watching her expectantly like he’s waiting for her to see reason any second now, and then she’ll up and leave him just like that.

 

He underestimates her heart.

 

“Well then,” Sakura’s voice sounds stilted. “If that’s what you think-”

 

Shikamaru looks equal parts relieved and resigned.

 

“-then from this point on,” Sakura continues evenly. “All your opinions will be ignored.”

 

Shikamaru does a double-take that would've been comical in any other situation. It stings a bit, in truth. Does he really think so little of her? That she’d actually choose herself and leave him to die?

 

“What?” Shikamaru looks at her incredulously. “Wait, what do you mean-”

 

“It means your idea’s been rejected!” Sakura’s voice rises to a shout before she can curb it. “Dismissed! Disapproved! Trashed! And if you even imply something like that ever again, I will punch you in the face, don’t think I won’t just because you’re sick!”

 

Shikamaru is outright gaping at her now, though he only flounders for a few seconds before picking up his jaw again. “Sakura, it’s the only way-”

 

“No.”

 

“Sakura, think-”

 

“No.”

 

Sakura-

 

No,” Sakura bites out, and she’s furious when tears well up in her eyes. Angrily, she dashes them away with a rough brush of her arm over them.

 

Shikamaru’s expression softens for a split second before hardening again. “Technically, I'm your commanding officer. I could order you to go-”

 

Sakura is rather proud of the vastly unimpressed insolence she manages to convey just by raising her right eyebrow because it’s enough to shut the Nara up. She crosses her arms and glares defiantly at the Chuunin. “Do you know what Team Seven’s motto is? It’s the very first thing Kakashi-sensei ever taught us. He said, ‘Those who break the rules are scum, but those who abandon their friends are worse than scum.’ I’ll say this right now – your orders can kiss my ass, Shikamaru. I'm not leaving you behind. You can’t make me leave you behind. Dying isn’t an option. We’re both going home, and you can stick your zero percent probabilities where the sun doesn't shine. Are we clear?”

 

It’s Shikamaru’s turn to stare, disbelief warring with something like stunned gratitude. Sakura just scowls back long and hard and adamant. It takes an entire minute before he finally heaves a sigh and drops his head into his hands. “You are so troublesome. You're worse than Ino, and I didn't think anybody could be worse than her.”

 

Sakura huffs, letting her shoulders relax as she returns to the food packages in front of her. Oddly enough, her hands are perfectly steady this time. “Ino-Pig would kill me anyway if she hears that I just left you to die. So would Chouji-kun, and I’d have Asuma-san on my back too. And your entire clan. Scratch that, more like three clans. And Kakashi-sensei would be disappointed, and Naruto would be even more disappointed, and he has those big blue eyes of his that nobody wants to deal with when he’s upset.”

 

Shikamaru releases a ragged laugh at that. “We’re still going to kill that idiot when we get home though, right?”

 

Sakura glances up with lopsided smile. “Of course. I'm totally looking forward to it. Between the two of us, he won’t know what hit him.”

 

She counts the humour and the returning shadow of hope colouring Shikamaru’s face in that single moment a hard-earned success.

 

 


 

 

They get caught.

 

Of course they do. Their luck is bound to run out eventually because – as Sakura has learned – that’s the sort of life people from Konoha usually lead, and it seems Fate has decided to turn Lady Luck against them sooner rather than never.

 

It’s Sakura’s fault. Shikamaru’s fever has been getting progressively worse over the past six days to the point where he’s unconscious more often than not, and Sakura’s chakra levels are running dangerously low from simultaneously trying to keep the fever to semi-serious instead of critically serious, keeping the infection plaguing the Nara’s injury at bay, as well as carrying their supplies and Shikamaru around. It’s been taxing, especially since her stamina has never been the greatest, and only the horrible thought of never seeing her friends and family again, and of watching Shikamaru die, keeps her on her feet and moving forward one step at a time. She doesn't even have enough energy to spare for the occasional Shunshin anymore.

 

Which is why they get caught. She’s exhausted, slogging over the harsh terrain, and she slips up. She knows that a group of Iwa-nin have been shadowing her on and off for two days now, though it was a feverish Shikamaru who pointed it out to her first before succumbing to oblivion at last, and even with Shikamaru on her back, she’s managed to avoid them without the Nara’s tactical instructions up until she makes a mistake somewhere, or maybe they picked up on Shikamaru’s wavering chakra signature because they’re not far enough away, or even hers because her usually impeccable control is wearing itself down. Whatever the reason, just as the sun is setting again on the ninth night in this increasingly nightmarish situation, Sakura finds herself surrounded on all sides before she can even reach for a kunai.

 

The leader of the group is heavily scarred and flinty-eyed and terrifying, and the first thing out of Sakura’s mouth, pathetically enough, is a cracked, “We don’t mean any harm! We just want to go home!”

 

It’s not enough, the shinobi’s cruel sneer says.

 

Of course it isn’t.

 

 


 

 

They leave Shikamaru tied up but alone for the most part, much to Sakura’s relief. He’s unconscious and not about to wake up even with a bucket of water thrown in his face – not very useful for interrogation. They don’t leave her alone though, and she encourages it, striving to keep their attention away from the boy who has pretty much become at least three-quarters of her reason over the past two weeks for surviving up until this point.

 

“Why were you so close to our village?” Scarface demands for the bazillionth time.

 

“I told you!” Sakura spits out a mouthful of blood, hurting everywhere, face involuntarily tearstained, and mentally cursing every Iwa-nin in the vicinity to the deepest depths of hell. “It was an accident! One of my other teammates accidentally activated a seal, and it caught the two of us in it and dumped us here! You think we want to be here, jerk?! Your country’s accommodations aren’t exactly five-star!”

 

She gets yet another hard slap to the face for that, and she chews furiously on her split lip to contain the pained cry threatening to burst from her throat. She’s probably going to be tortured until she dies, and most likely, Shikamaru will go the same way, though she does hope that they’ll at least give him a painless death, but she isn’t going to give them the satisfaction of breaking her. When she was younger, still a kid, she once got into an actual fistfight alongside Ino with a few older girls stupid enough to bully both of them, and in the aftermath, Ino’s dad patched both of them up and commented that Sakura could be a rather scrappy girl for someone so small. Sakura didn't understand at the time, that scrappy could also mean fierce and tough instead of just hot-tempered or feisty, but she recalls Ino grinning over at her with a scrape over one eye like it was the best compliment in the world, so Sakura took it as such. All she really cared about at the time was the thrill she felt despite her fear because Ino was watching her back and vice-versa, and the pride that came afterwards from defending her only friend was something she cherished close to her heart.

 

(She forgot that feeling for a while, when stupid crushes and rivalries filled her head, and she decided that Uchiha Sasuke was more important than half a decade of friendship.)

 

So she’s not going to let these shinobi break her spirit. She’s survived an invasion and an out-of-control Gaara and Orochimaru and Sasuke abandoning them; these Iwa-nin don't hold a candle to that. This is just physical pain, and physical pain she can handle, even if she cries. She’s always been a crybaby; her tear ducts were born like that. It doesn't make her weak.

 

“Do you really expect us to believe that some random seal just happened to send you and your Nara friend deep into Earth Country?” Scarface barks, looming over her. “You're Konoha-nin!”

 

“So what?! We’re fucking Genin!” Sakura snaps back, half-true but it can’t hurt for them to think that Shikamaru is a supposed baby ninja too. She also keeps the fact that he’s the Nara heir to herself. “You think we’d be sent to, what, infiltrate your village and nab important information or something?”

 

This at least makes the other two shinobi mutter amongst themselves. Scarface looks less convinced as his lips pull back into a sneer. “We’ll see about that. Let’s see what your Hokage says when we send word that you were caught trespassing. Even if you two weren’t up to anything, it’ll be easy enough to fabricate a few lies and put some pressure on your village. At the very least, you can be used as leverage.”

 

Sakura gurgles a copper-flavoured laugh. “Yeah, good luck with that. Hokage-sama-” (Don’t call her Shishou or even Tsunade-sama; don’t let them know you're her apprentice; don’t let them have a single advantage over you more than they already do.) “-isn’t gonna hand anything over to you in exchange for a few measly Genin.”

 

It hurts a little to say it out loud but it’s the truth. She’s had reality slapped in her face more times than she can count over the past year, and she knows that the path she has chosen to walk on isn’t nice or kind. It’s bloody and filled with betrayals and deaths and heartbreak at every turn, but it’s something she has come to accept because it’s become her world now, well and truly.

 

She receives a sharp kick to her already broken ribs, and the blow leaves her wheezing for breath, trying to draw air into her lungs as her head spins with agony.

 

“Tie her up and put her back with the other one,” Scarface orders, glowering balefully at her for her cheek. “We’ll take them back to Iwa. That’ll take several days. Maybe it’ll be enough time for Pinky here to wise up and confess.”

 

Sakura meets his gaze with her right eye, her left temporarily swollen shut from an earlier punch that hurt like a bitch. She bares her teeth in a bloody mockery of a grin. “In your dreams, Ugly.”

 

The next strike to her temple knocks her out.

 

 


 

 

They break almost all the bones in her left hand. It secretly pains her on more than a physical level because she’s training to be a medic, and functional hands at all times are kind of important to medics. Nevertheless, she only tells them to go fuck themselves.

 

They leave a deep enough gash down one of her cheeks that she knows it will scar if she ever survives beyond the next few days. She cheerfully tells them that she’s never been much of a looker in the first place. Too big a forehead.

 

They break another few ribs. She asks them if their imaginations have rotted after spending so much time with nothing but piles of stone for company.

 

Sarcasm becomes her new best friend. It’s practically her automatic defence mechanism at this point. At the back of her mind, she’s fervently thankful that none of them think to turn to rape.

 

And then, on the fourth day in the charming company of her captors...

 

They threaten Shikamaru.

 

Injury to herself, Sakura can handle. Injury to her sick, dying friend whom she has become closer to in the past two and a half weeks spent in Earth Country than she ever has in all the years they were at the Academy together, Sakura can’t handle.

 

Shikamaru has protected her to the best of his ability since day one in spite of his injuries, steering them around the enemy shinobi hunting them until he simply couldn't anymore, even attempting to get her to leave him behind that one time just to give her a better chance of survival. Over the past few days, the Nara’s breathing has become laboured, and the few times he did reach temporary consciousness, Sakura’s fairly certain he didn't even know where he was, and he always drifts away again soon after. It takes everything she has to bite her tongue and not scream at her captors when they sling him carelessly over one of their shoulders every time they travel.

 

Today however, Scarface finally seems to have grown bored with Sakura’s screw-you attitude. So he tries a different method.

 

They don’t bother tying her hands and legs together anymore, not until they settle down for the night anyway, so Sakura can move. All of them, including herself, just believe her incapable of doing anything significant in her state and with three Jounin guarding her.

 

All of them are wrong.

 

To Sakura, it feels like the next several seconds happen in slow motion, slow enough for her to see and hear and remember everything with crystal clear detail.

 

Scarface smirks at her, watching her reaction as he pulls out a kunai and plunges it into Shikamaru’s left arm without a heartbeat’s hesitation before proceeding to carve a jagged line through tissue and tendon and muscle and even bone.

 

Shikamaru jolts awake with a hoarse scream. The sound is chilling, and only gets worse when Scarface twists his weapon and shoves a foot into Shikamaru’s gut to keep him from instinctively tearing himself away.

 

The other two Jounin look on without an ounce of compassion. Their expressions are empty.

 

Sakura stops breathing. Blood roars in her ears. And something in her snaps.

 

Sakura is a medic-in-training. That means something. It means that she has already memorized every pressure point in the human body. It means that she already knows how to cause pain, how to stop blood circulation, how to numb, how to kill, without a jutsu or an actual weapon in her hands even though she can’t heal yet.

 

She knows how to do all that. Theoretically. Tsunade has already cautioned her to not use any of those skills in real life until she has gained more experience. Until she can heal the damage she doles out just in case.

 

Sakura is a medic-in-training. But she’s also a kunoichi, and dealing death without a cure is part of her job description.

 

The first Jounin never even sees her coming.

 

Sakura explodes from her spot on the ground, shrieking with pure, unadulterated, hysterical wrath as she launches herself onto the nearest Iwa-nin like a feral wildcat. Her wounds are a thing of the past as she crashes into the shinobi and jabs a pressure point in the man’s neck with so much force behind it that the artery she’s aiming to block bursts instantaneously. He’s dead almost before he hits the ground.

 

It’s her first kill. That fact is acknowledged and shunted to the back of her thoughts almost immediately.

 

Sakura doesn't wait. She’s already throwing herself at the second Jounin within the time it takes to draw a single breath. This time, her target manages to pull out a kunai and rip a jagged line from her collarbone to her sternum, as if that will stop her. She’s on him before he can strike again, teeth sinking into his arm in a desperate move that echoes of the one she pulled in the Forest of Death. The shinobi bellows with enraged pain and tries to shake her off but she doesn't let go, and she barely registers the way her low chakra reserves suddenly spike with the force of her killing intent, and the Iwa-nin’s entire forearm is immediately crushed between the combined death grip of her teeth as well as the left arm she has hooked around his when she latched on to him earlier. The man howls, Sakura doesn't care, and her unbroken hand grapples for another pressure point on the inside of the crook of his elbow. In another half a second, he’s completely paralyzed from head to toe. Sakura lets go.

 

However, before she can round on Scarface, Scarface is already grabbing her by her hair and hauling her back, and with a deft twist of his arm, he flings her clean across the clearing. The half-crazed screams coming from her own throat cut off abruptly when she smashes into the side of a boulder and crumples at its foot, coughing up blood and almost blacking out from the agony coursing through her entire body.

 

“A medic, huh?” Scarface towers over her, features twisted with hateful condescendence as he kicks her onto her back. “Not bad for a little Genin, I’ll give you that, but I'm afraid your little stunt is going to cost you. I have orders to capture you and bring you back alive. I doubt anyone would care if you lost those pretty little gemstone eyes of yours in the process.”

Before she can even blink, a large hand wraps around her throat and pins her to the ground with it, and she chokes and claws futilely at the band of human iron locked around her neck. Black spots invade her already blurred vision but she catches the glint of a kunai anyway, and she hates that the last thing she’ll ever see is this son-of-a-bitch staring down at her with mocking sadistic eyes.

 

 

“Go to hell,” She rasps out, rebellious to the very end.

 

Scarface smirks and shrugs, lowering his kunai to her face. “Someday, perhaps.”

 

“How about now?” An achingly familiar voice snarls from somewhere over Scarface’s shoulder, and the Iwa-nin suddenly goes rigid, a look of shock passing over his face. “Have a nice trip. I hope you burn, bastard.”

 

And then Sakura is gasping for breath as the hand around her throat lets go, and she’s gagging and sucking in air while Scarface rears back, fury and pain staining his expression as a kunai – the same kunai that the Iwa-nin most likely left behind in Shikamaru’s arm before coming after her – drives straight and true into his heart from behind. One, two, three seconds later, Scarface topples to the side, the life in his eyes fading rapidly as he too meets his end.

 

“Sakura!”

 

And then Shikamaru is there, somehow staggering forward on a broken leg and clearly standing only with the help of a miraculous rush of adrenaline, but gloriously alive, and Sakura sags with relief. She thinks a part of her was expecting him to be dead, killed off by Scarface shortly after the stab to the arm before the Iwa-nin came after her.

 

Shikamaru is near-white and stumbling with every step but he drops down beside Sakura, tosses the bloodstained kunai to the side, and leans towards her with a blatantly horrified expression on his face.

 

“Oh god,” He mutters, his still able hand hovering over her like he has absolutely no idea how to touch her without hurting her even further. At this point in time, it’s probably near-impossible. “Tell me you can heal some of this. Shit, I can’t believe I was sleeping for- how long has it been?”

 

Shikamaru’s voice cracks a little on the last word, guilt burning in his eyes, and it’s this that urges Sakura upright – somewhat – despite the numerous contusions, gashes, and broken bones she has sustained.

 

“Four nights, three days,” Sakura slurs in a wrecked voice, raw from her shrieking moment of madness. “Since- Since we were caught I mean. And you weren’t exactly sleeping, you know. You were pretty out of it for two days before I- I got us captured. Today’s the fourth day we’ve been with these guys. Though I guess we’re not- we’re not exactly captured anymore. Thanks for the save by the way.”

 

Shikamaru stares at her like he hasn’t the faintest clue how to deal with her, and Sakura doesn't have the energy to ask him why he looks like that.

 

“Thanks for the-” Shikamaru heaves a sigh before reaching out and brushing his fingers along the undoubtedly hideous cut running down her right cheek. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, Sakura doesn't mind. They’ve been sleeping together since this disaster began, and she’s used to having Shikamaru at her side. Heck, if she doesn't suspect that it would hurt too much, she wouldn't mind a hug right about now either. Any physical contact from a safe source would be welcome after the literal torture she’s been through. Shikamaru seems to understand because his right hand moves down to circle the wrist connected to her undamaged hand, palm over her heartbeat like he’s taken to doing pretty regularly. For some reason, it seems to comfort him in return, and Sakura’s not about to deprive him of it.

 

“I should be thanking you, damn it,” Shikamaru gripes wearily. “Now tell me how to help.”

 

Sakura hesitates because Shikamaru’s not in any state to be moving about, but the Nara just gives her an uncompromising look that tells her to start talking, and she relents, mostly because she’s just too damn tired to argue. If Shikamaru hasn’t died yet with his arm in that messy a condition, he’ll survive a little longer until she can do... something about it.

 

“I can’t heal anything more than shallow cuts,” Sakura informs him unhappily. “And even that’s... My chakra’s pretty low. Bandages will have to be enough for now.”

 

Shikamaru nods curtly, climbing to his feet again with difficulty. Sakura has no idea how he plans to work with a broken leg. It’s not even in a proper cast. “I’ll look around. These guys have got to have some supplies on them. Sit tight, don’t move.”

 

And that’s the last thing she hears before she nods off or maybe passes out a record-breaking eight seconds later.

 

 


 

 

When Sakura comes to again, she feels a bit like a mummy from all the bandages wrapped carefully around most of her injuries, hiding open gashes from view and holding bones in place. Even her left hand is meticulously bound as best as Shikamaru knew how. She sits up, grimacing at how much her body just feels like one big ache, everything throbbing and sore. Focusing her mind and pushing the pain aside, she looks around, automatically searching for Shikamaru first.

 

The Nara is huddled two feet away, blankets that she recognizes from the Iwa-nin’s belongings covering him while she has their own four blankets. Shikamaru’s breathing is shallow and raspy, and he looks even worse than before, grey-skinned and gaunt, but the area they’re in has been cleared of all bodies, three scrolls – sealing scrolls! – sit neatly on her right, along with an assortment of other poached possessions like weapons, money, two first-aid kits, and a map. Her own remaining weapons are piled to the side as well, along with Shikamaru’s pack. Everything is organized with painstaking precision.

 

Nara Shikamaru is a godsend.

 

Sakura pushes herself to her feet, shivering from the cold morning air, but she ignores it in favour of hurrying over to Shikamaru’s side to examine first his leg then his arm. The leg doesn’t even look borderline okayish – the area around the broken parts of the leg is now worryingly swollen and hot to the touch despite the new bandages and splint. The Chuunin also attempted to wrap his own arm but it’s sloppy and half-hearted as if Shikamaru saved it for last and was too exhausted to put any real effort into it before slipping into unconsciousness again, and Sakura feels her gut twist with shame even as she scrambles to tend to it as best she can with only one working hand. She’s the medic (-in-training) here, the one who’s supposed to look after the both of them. Even as she thinks this though, she can already hear Shikamaru pointing out that that should mean he should be the one fighting, and he hasn’t been, something she would argue against in return.

 

We can share the jobs then, Sakura thinks now with a wry smile. We make a pretty good team, don’t we?

 

She pauses when she finally gets a good look at Shikamaru’s arm, and she can’t help shuddering. Infection’s setting in there as well, and it’s worse than his leg, which is already bad enough. At this rate, the Nara will have to amputate, and that would be it. Shikamaru’s ninja career would be over. No hands, no seals, no jutsus, not to mention a slew of other problems as well. Even a prosthetic of some sort won’t do any good because the fingers wouldn't be deft enough to form the various seals that Konoha-nin favour with any decent sort of speed, and Shikamaru’s no puppeteer either.

 

She stares down at the gruesome injury and swallows hard. Should she try? She doesn't even have Shikamaru’s permission but the Nara hasn’t so much as twitched even while she was peeling the blood-splattered bandages away from the oozing wound.

 

She knows the theory, knows it inside-out. Tsunade wouldn't let her step foot in the hospital without reading a ton of medical texts first. But Sakura knows better than anyone how different theory is compared to applying it in real life, and so far, the only things she’s done at the Konoha Hospital is fetching and carrying, and observing other medics when they’re working.

 

Yet what choice does she have? If she leaves it, Shikamaru won’t have much of a future even if they do make it home. Heck, the infection could spread and kill him before they make it out of these thrice-damned mountains if she doesn't do something about it.

 

She closes her eyes. Shikamaru has left everything up to her. He’s gathered everything he thinks could help her on their journey, and probably killed the last Iwa-nin himself before dragging all three off and burning their bodies or something equally effective that won’t leave much of a trace if any, and definitely nothing to connect back to them just in case they cause a diplomatic incident or something for killing Iwa shinobi (to be fair, they started it). And now it’s up to her to decide what to do. Shikamaru trusts her to make the right calls, and Sakura has no desire to fail him or herself.

 

Perhaps... Perhaps she can simply attempt to destroy the infection? She doesn't want to risk healing anything only to realize too late that she missed something after closing up the wound. But if she can kill off some of the bacteria eating away at Shikamaru’s arm, then maybe it’ll buy them enough time to make it back home.

 

She has to try. There isn’t any other choice.

 

 


 

 

“-kura! Sakura! It’s just a dream! Wake up! Sakura!”

Sakura bolts upright, confused and wild-eyed with a scream trapped in her throat but she senses the familiar presence next to her, and it’s a balm to her nerves as she struggles to recall where she is. “Sh- Shikamaru?”

 

Shikamaru’s face swims into sight, eyes like bruises, concern scrunching his brow. “Are you alright?”

 

Raising an unsteady hand, Sakura nods as she pushes back some of her hair from her face. It’s tangled and dirty, and she must look utterly revolting but even she can’t bring herself to care at this point. She blinks and sees Scarface in her mind’s eye, jeering at her as he looms over her broken body. She isn’t broken though; she survived. She has to remember that.

 

She jumps a little when an arm loops around her stiff shoulders and gently guides her forward until she’s resting against Shikamaru’s chest. Her ribs complain but they're not threatening to puncture her lungs so she doesn't waste any time curling even closer into the Nara, and the arm around her tightens protectively in response.

 

“This is so messed up,” Sakura’s voice comes out on a dry sob. “This is like- what, the sixth nightmare in three days? And I've only slept five hours at most. No more than seven for the past week.”

 

“It’s normal,” Shikamaru says, calm in a way Sakura envies. “It’s not like I don’t have them, and I wasn't even-”

 

He bites off the tail-end of that sentence but Sakura shudders all the same. “Tortured, yeah, I know, I'm glad.”

I'm not,” Shikamaru retorts, pausing at the reproachful look Sakura shoots him before amending, “Well okay, I am, but not at your expense. ...I’d have traded places with you if I could.”

 

A helpless smile flits at the corners of Sakura’s mouth, and something warm glows in her chest. The conversation itself eases the nightmares dancing behind her eyes. “I wouldn't have wanted you to. Besides, you got the kunai to the arm.”

 

“Doesn't count,” Shikamaru dismisses, gingerly flexing his left arm. “Besides, you fixed it.”

 

“No I didn't!” Sakura protests, glaring half-heartedly at the Chuunin. “And I've already told you to stop moving your injured arm around like I have ‘fixed it’! I just killed some of the infection and numbed the wounded areas; the infection’s not even all gone, and the injury itself hasn't disappeared! I didn't wrap it again because I thought bandages make a great fashion statement, you know!”

 

Shikamaru looks close to rolling his eyes but holds off on the action, probably more because of the on-and-off headache he’s been having than because Sakura is scowling at him. “It hurts less, and I've managed to stay awake more often than before; that’s a major improvement in my books so don’t be so troublesome about it. I didn't know you could fret so much.”

 

“I don’t fret!” Sakura objects. She gets a skeptical look for her efforts. “I just don’t want you getting any more injured than you already have been; so sue me.”

 

Shikamaru sighs in a way that somehow conveys both fond exasperation and grim concern. “Between the two of us, you're worse off than I am now, and you're still the one carrying me around.”

 

“I’m fine,” Sakura automatically deflects, and Shikamaru doesn't argue. They both know the truth what with the evidence right in front of them, that Sakura is too pale and too thin, just like Shikamaru, and with way too many torture-inflicted injuries to really belong anywhere except in a hospital bed. But she’s also the only one of them who still has two working legs which means she’s still their only way of moving forward.

 

Above her, Shikamaru chuckles a little, sardonic humour colouring the sound. When Sakura peers up at him enquiringly, the Nara clarifies, “What a pair we make, huh? I never thought I’d ever end up in a situation like this, even on a mission gone wrong.”

 

Sakura snorts out a genuinely mirthful laugh. “Well I'm the total opposite then. This kind of thing is right up Team Seven’s alley. Anything that might go wrong for other people will go catastrophically wrong once Team Seven gets their fingers into it; that’s the sort of life I lead. I mean, did you hear about our first C-rank mission?”

 

Shikamaru cocks his head. “Nothing detailed, just a few rumours going around that you helped free Wave Country from some tyrannical businessman.” He glances down, looking entirely at ease even with Sakura pretty much using him as a backrest. “Can you tell me about it?”

 

“Well, nobody said anything about it being classified, and right now, I actually couldn't care less,” Sakura shrugs and switches to story mode. “It was Team Seven’s first ever C-rank mission – an escort mission to Wave; how much easier could it get?– but it went sideways before we were even halfway to our destination – got attacked by these two mercenaries – and then it became a full-scale A-rank by the time we got there ’cause Zabuza the Demon of the Hidden Mist showed up. Everything after that basically went downhill – we were almost killed several times over, Kakashi-sensei ended up killing Haku – Zabuza’s apprentice – when he jumped in to save Zabuza, then Zabuza died killing the guy who hired him because the asshole tried to double-cross him in the end. So Gatou – he’s the businessman and the one behind it all – died at Zabuza’s hands after causing a whole lot of grief on all sides, and Team Seven earned their first victory from that fiasco. Naruto got a bridge named after him, we got home without any further surprises, and then we got chewed out by the Hokage and Iruka-sensei for not calling for backup at the very least. But we got paid for an A-rank instead of a C-rank, and by the next day, the boys couldn't wait to get their hands on another mission ‘as exciting as the first one was’. Naruto’s words. The end.”

 

A long silence follows. Sakura watches with a tiny grin tugging at her cracked lips as Shikamaru shakes his head in a long-suffering manner as if he can’t even imagine going through all that himself.

 

“Too troublesome for you?” Sakura teases.

 

Shikamaru scoffs. “Way too troublesome. Team Ten’s first C-rank mission consisted of bodyguard duty for some merchants travelling between two small towns in western Fire Country. Took four days, round trip, and we got home with hours to spare. The whole thing was pretty boring. And annoying. Ino complained about the state of her hair the entire time, Chouji ran out of chips and pitched a fit, Asuma-sensei smoked and sighed at us a lot, and I called them all troublesome at least eight times a day. I'm pretty sure the merchants weren’t all that impressed by the level of maturity coming from Konoha’s best and brightest.”

 

Sakura splutters out a laugh, and then forces herself to stop when her ribs shift in a way that they definitely aren’t meant to. Shikamaru immediately sobers, eyeing her apprehensively. She elbows him lightly. “And you say I fret, Shika.”

 

The shortened name rolls off her tongue without thought, and when her brain catches up, she fumbles for an apology, but Shikamaru only raises an eyebrow briefly before giving the impression of a mental I-don’t-care shrug and rolling with it. “I'm fairly certain I've said this before: you look like hell, and that was prior to those Iwa-nin catching us. You look even worse now.”

 

“Trust me,” Sakura fires back dryly. “You’re not looking all that beautiful yourself, Nara.”

 

Shikamaru really does roll his eyes this time. They both look like they've been through the wringer, and not just because of their wounds and overall bad health. There is also the consequences of eating less for two and a half weeks straight, especially since the Iwa-nin didn't give Sakura more than water for over three days, and Shikamaru was unconscious for even longer than that, so even with the food they have now, pilfered from their captors, most of it stay in their sealing scrolls because the two of them simply aren’t hungry very often, though Sakura does bully Shikamaru into eating from time to time, and Shikamaru does the same for her, ensuring that they’re both receiving some nourishment. Then there’s the lack of a river big enough to wash in, though – much to their delight – they did stumble on a tiny stream a few days ago and could refill their water flasks.

 

“Right then,” Sakura announces, reluctantly pulling away from Shikamaru. “Now that we’ve established that neither of us will be winning any beauty pageants in the near future-” (Her traitorous fingers involuntarily twitch towards her face for a fraction of a second; she sees Shikamaru’s gaze follow the motion.) “-I say we get moving again. The trees have gotten thicker lately. That should mean we’re almost past these mountains, right?”

 

“Mm-hm,” Shikamaru hums in acknowledgement, leaning forward to fold up the blankets strewn around them. “How are your chakra levels?”

 

Sakura prods at them. “About half. Almost half. You?”

 

“Near full,” Shikamaru reports shortly, a contemplative look passing over his features. “Sakura, there will be a border check.”

 

Sakura blinks, and then turns sharply to face the Nara again. “Border-? But when I entered Wave-”

 

“Wave’s different,” Shikamaru expounds. “People are mostly free to come and go from the smaller countries but the hidden villages from each of the Five Great Shinobi Countries have different forms of protection for their borders because they have more manpower and more to lose in the event that someone invades them or starts a war or whatever. Earth and Lightning have actual guards and checkpoints along their borders, and the parts in between are regularly patrolled by shinobi. In our conditions, we probably wouldn't be able to make it across without getting caught, especially since they've probably all been warned about us, and the number of patrols will have increased. So going through a checkpoint would probably be best; no one gets in or out without papers that can hold up under inspection but they also wouldn't be expecting us to walk out in broad daylight.”

 

He pauses in his explanation but upon seeing Sakura’s avid interest, he expounded, “Water Country is protected by- well, water. By the time you cross the channels, sentries will have seen your ship coming long before you actually reach the shore. At the same time, it’s a bit difficult for them to secretly transport an army over to invade someone in return, which is half the reason why they have an unofficial policy of ‘you don’t mess with us, and we won’t mess with you’. They stay out of everyone else’s political affairs for the most part and keep to themselves, with the exception of the Shinobi Wars.

 

“Wind on the other hand is the only country that doesn't really bother with guarding their border. Suna and the other villages in Wind are surrounded by sand in all direction, and not many people would want to deal with such a harsh environment just to attack a country whose economy isn’t all that great either.”

 

“Oh,” Sakura spends a few seconds digesting all this. This information isn’t in any scrolls that the Academy assigns, nor is it in any reading material in the library that a student or even a Genin can get their hands on so she supposes that children from the big clans have other resources. She wonders if it would be terribly rude to press Shikamaru for more history and knowledge of the world. She knows that clans typically go to great lengths to guard their secrets.

 

“I can tell you more later,” Shikamaru is smirking shrewdly at her, and Sakura tinges pink. “It’s just a more thorough knowledge of how other countries work. You’ll probably learn it from Tsunade-sama sooner or later but we can pass the time now if I tell you other stuff along the way.”

 

“I’d like that,” Sakura quirks a slight smile. “What about Fire Country?”

 

“Ah, we have patrols,” Shikamaru shrugs. “They sweep their assigned portions of the border a few times a day.”

 

Sakura squints at him, puzzled. “What if someone sneaks past them when they're patrolling other parts? In that case, stationary checkpoints like Earth and Lightning would be better, wouldn't it? It’s not like anyone would have difficulties surviving in our forests if they know what they're doing, and there are tons of places to hide in Fire.”

 

Shikamaru looks cynically amused. “Yeah, that occurred to me too, but we’re supposed to be the nice village, which I suspect is why someone tries to screw us over every time I turn around these days. After the whole invasion thing with Sound and Suna though, and then the thing with the Sound Four and... the Uchiha, Tsunade-sama has upped the security. More patrols to cover the borders – I’ve been sent out myself several times – and I hear she’s already refurnished a few of the old outposts built around Fire.”

 

Sakura grins in reflex at the mention of her Shishou, ignoring the bad memories that Sasuke brings up, and even that fades in comparison as her mind goes back to mulling over their current problem. “So... how are we going to get out of this country then? Henge? We still have Scarface and the other two’s passports and papers. We can bluff our way past.”

 

Shikamaru inclines his head. “It’s a good idea. One problem – my leg will still be broken no matter who I pretend to be. There is no feasible reason for an injured Iwa-nin to leave Earth Country for any mission, especially now when the guards at the border have probably been alerted about two Konoha-nin running around with unknown agendas. Not to mention even if my leg wasn't broken, our Henges would have to be one hundred percent perfect for even a chance at getting past the guards. I know you've got good chakra control but you’re not at full strength at the moment.”

 

The Nara actually has the gall to stop and give her a disapproving look as if to reprimand her for using her chakra to continuously lower Shikamaru’s fever and stave off the infection ravaging his injury. Sakura makes a face at him, unrepentant.

 

“So what do you have in mind then?” Sakura prompts because Shikamaru always has something in mind.

 

Shikamaru’s gaze turns inward and focused. “I was thinking... Kage Bunshin. Do you know how to perform that jutsu? Kinda ironic but I don’t know it.”

 

Sakura blinks, her own brain clicking away as the pieces fall into place. “I’ve never tried it but I'm sure I know how. God knows I've seen Naruto do it hundreds of times.” She tests her chakra reserves again. “I... don’t think I’ll be able to produce more than one clone though, especially if I have to throw in a Henge on top of that.”

 

Shikamaru is already shaking his head. “Not you, just me. I need you to teach that jutsu to me. I’ll create three Kage Bunshin and Henge them into those Iwa-nin. They won’t affect me too much even after they're dispersed so, since you already know the theory, you can try healing their broken legs, right? I know you won’t try on me but there won’t be any long-lasting consequences if you attempt it on my clones. Might hurt a bit but I'm already hurting anyway. Even just a patch job to get them moving would be fine.”

 

He pauses, and Sakura nods slowly in grudging agreement. She knows that there will probably be at least some mental backlash once the shadow clones disperse but Shikamaru has a strong mind, and Naruto never seemed too affected when swathes of his clones were obliterated. So long as she doesn't mess up too many times and gets it right after a few tries at most, she’s confident that Shikamaru will be able to handle it.

 

“Okay then,” Shikamaru nods in approval. “With the Kage Bunshin as the Iwa-nin, you and I will go out as captives-”

 

“-with one of the Bunshin carrying you,” Sakura chimes in, enthusiasm growing. “And all you’ll have to concentrate on is making those copies perfect, and since your chakra levels are almost full even with you being ill and all-”

 

“-they’ll still stand up to inspection if I concentrate while pretending to be unconscious,” Shikamaru continues with a slight smile. “We can go with the cover of a bargain being struck, and the Iwa-nin are in charge of escorting us to an exchange point or something-”

 

“-and what with the border being so far away from Iwagakure,” Sakura finishes triumphantly. “We could say that they just haven’t received news from the Tsuchikage yet about us being captured and contact being made with Konoha!”

 

Shikamaru grins, the lines that have aged his face over the past few weeks momentarily falling away. “Exactly. The details need to be ironed out, and I’d like to stake out the guard rotations to pick out the one with shinobi who look the most gullible, maybe the youngest of the lot, but that’s the gist of it.”

 

Sakura beams at him. “You're a genius, Shika.”

 

Shikamaru scoffs, arching an eyebrow at her. “Not too bad yourself, Haruno. You kept up just fine.”

 

Sakura brightens at the praise. Shikamaru isn’t one to hand out compliments so it means something when he does, and it goes double for her because she genuinely values Shikamaru’s opinion.

 

“There are a few problems that might crop up,” Shikamaru becomes thoughtful now. “For one, the guards at the checkpoint might ask for a note of some sort from the Tsuchikage to prove our claim-”

 

“Oh I can do that,” Sakura supplies quickly. “I’ve seen paperwork and signatures of a bunch of kage on Shishou’s desk – including the Tsuchikage’s – so if it’s just a signature, I can forge that. As for the rest...”

 

“We’ll see about bluffing our way through, but the less we have to do that, the better,” Shikamaru frowns pensively. “Also, I’ll need to get the Iwa-nin’s personalities down to an art form.”

 

I know what they’re like,” Sakura cringes. “With each other and with prisoners. I can tell you in detail. I'm more worried about the Iwa-nin we’ll be masquerading with. What if the real Iwa-nin were supposed to check in with someone and they didn't? Iwa would've been alerted by their absence, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Shikamaru sighs and kneads his temples. “That’s why I don’t want to go with the simpler plan of disguising ourselves as weapons or something and letting the Kage Bunshin carry us out. They’d be otherwise empty-handed, no hostages, no nothing, and they wouldn’t even have a proper mission scroll to verify that they’re going on one outside of the country; the guards would get too suspicious. As it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. I got rid of their bodies so no one will have any hard proof that they’re actually dead. If the issue comes up, we’ll just have to bluff through that too. Say they dropped off the radar for a bit before returning to the village with us, and that it just hasn’t gotten around yet. Failed communications again. This is the best plan we have but a lot of it is still a gamble. I have odds at forty-five-fifty-five at best, and not in our favour. It’ll be a minor miracle if we pull this off.”

 

“It’s a miracle we’re still alive,” Sakura points out dryly, squaring her shoulders. “Don’t go jumping on the pessimistic bandwagon now, Shikamaru. We’ve got a plan that might get us out of this country safely, which is more than we had half an hour ago. Sometimes, you've got to throw logic out the window and just believe. ...God help me, I sound like Naruto.”

 

Shikamaru snickers at her expense, looking less gloomy. “Naruto would be pumping his fists and hollering to the heavens that we will succeed and return home in no time, and that we must never give up. You're not quite at his level yet, though you're certainly more optimistic than I am.”

 

“You’d be too if you were part of Team Seven,” Sakura retorts good-naturedly as she stows away the last of their belongings before handing the bag to Shikamaru. “Optimism is a requirement if you want to survive all the depression and insanity that comes with the package.”

 

Shikamaru just shakes his head, both of them flinching minutely when Sakura hoists him clumsily onto her back once more. His broken leg is briefly jostled because her left hand is mostly useless nowadays.

 

“I like Naruto and all,” Shikamaru mutters tersely. “But I'm not sorry to say that I am very glad I didn't end up on his team.”

 

“As if you would've gone anywhere but with Pig and Chouji-kun,” Sakura huffs, as she begins walking southeast again. She rarely uses Shunshin these days, and when he’s awake, Shikamaru tends to scold her when she attempts it.

 

Shikamaru doesn't reply right away, and when he does, Sakura almost drops him in surprise. “...We would've made a good team.”

 

Sakura contemplates this before matter-of-factly disputing it. “Nah, we wouldn't have, at least not back then. I was too much of a fangirl. You would've hated being stuck with me.”

 

“If I could stand Ino in her fangirl phase, I could've stood you until you outgrew it,” Shikamaru assures sardonically. “Besides, that goes both ways. I was even lazier back then. And Chouji... well he wasn’t lazy, per se, but he wasn't particularly motivated either. None of us were until the Forest of Death.”

 

“It takes a while for teams to gel,” Sakura agrees quietly. “And near-death experiences too. Most of the time anyway.”

 

She’s thinking of Sasuke now.

 

Shikamaru plucks the thought right out of her head. “What happened to you three anyway? Sasuke seemed closer to you two after everything that happened, even after getting that Cursed Seal. And you're the one who stopped him when he went nuts in that clearing.”

 

Sakura shrugs, swallowing hard when her ribs protest at the movement. This is the first time she’s really talked about Sasuke with anyone. Part of her is glad that Shikamaru doesn't tiptoe around the issue like almost everyone else does, thinking she’d break or something. He simply asks with straightforward candour, and leaves it up to her to answer or not. If she doesn't, he won’t push.

 

“...We weren’t enough,” Sakura admits. “We weren’t strong enough to keep him. Naruto was closest I think, but he wasn't enough alone. Kakashi-sensei... he tried but I think he went about it all the wrong way and only pushed Sasuke-kun away in the end even though Naruto and I both knew that Sasuke-kun was his favourite. And me... well I was pretty useless. I didn't really see Sasuke-kun as a real friend – or even just a real person instead of an ideal – until after the Forest of Death, and by then, I suppose it was too late. I tried too, to give him a reason to stay, but half the time, all I knew how to do was cry. I even guessed that he’d try to leave that night, I was there, to meet him before he left, and even then, all I could do was cry and beg him to stay. It definitely wasn't enough. He knocked me out and left me on a bench, and by morning, he was long gone.”

 

“...He left you outside unconscious in the middle of the night?” Shikamaru demands more than asks, and Sakura blinks at the uncharacteristic harshness of his tone. Sensing her perplexity, Shikamaru growls, “Anything could've happened to you! Just because we’re the nice village doesn't mean we don’t have people who might want to hurt unconscious twelve-year-old girls in the dead of night. And it was late October when he left!”

 

“...Well, it was nowhere near as cold as nights on these mountains,” Sakura reminds him weakly. “And... he thanked me before he knocked me out.”

 

“Oh, well that makes everything okay then,” Shikamaru reinvents sarcasm. “Explain to me again why you want to save this guy?”

 

“...You really don’t like Sasuke-kun, do you?” Sakura remarks, sweatdropping.

 

“It’s not whether I like him or not that’s the issue here,” Shikamaru grumbles. “Although personally, I don’t, but then, I’ve never been close to him anyway. I remember how he looked down on all his classmates and even the teachers back at the Academy like he thought he was the second coming of the Shodaime. It got on even my nerves a few times. But that’s all in the past so it doesn't really bother me anymore. It’s not even the fact that he abandoned Konoha that I have a problem with now. That’s his choice. But he left you, and Naruto, for power. Naruto almost died, and at the Uchiha’s hands, trying to get him back. Hell, a lot of us almost died going after him. And even if you're over your crush on him, you still care about him, don’t you? And he broke your heart anyway, didn't he? He’s your teammate at the very least, and teammates aren’t supposed to betray each other like that. Chouji hates confrontation, hates standing up to people, but he’ll back me to the hilt when it matters, and Ino’s a drama queen who complains about everything we do, but at least I'm certain she won’t bail on us when push comes to shove. For a while, I thought Sasuke was like that for you two, but clearly, he wasn-”

 

“That’s not true!” Sakura interjects abruptly. “He’s- He has been like that, several times. Saved Naruto, saved me, and we had some really, really good times together before everything went to hell. The Cursed Seal changed him, made him focus more on revenge, more on gaining power. It’s not- It’s not completely his fault. That’s why Naruto and I – we’re going to get him back. Like you said, he’s our teammate. It’s our job to get him back, to protect him, even if it’s from himself, and we will. We just need to get stronger. I need to get stronger, and not just for him, for myself too. So I can hold up Team Seven as well. So I won’t be a burden to the boys.”

 

Her breathing is ragged by the time she finishes, too many words using too much air, and her skin feels too tight as her ribs push and shift under it, and her muscles are strained even with her chakra helping her. On her back, Shikamaru stills.

 

“...He doesn't deserve that,” He says when he finally speaks, and it sounds an awful lot like he doesn't deserve you.

 

Sakura doesn't agree because it’s never been about deserving when it comes to Team Seven. If that were the case, the only one who would deserve anything would be Naruto who is the most selfless moron she has ever met. The rest of them are too selfish, too self-centered, too lost in their own worlds for too long, so it’s a good thing it’s not about deserving when it comes to them. It’s about each other, about their team, about helping each other find their way home when they’re lost, and Sasuke is lost, so it’s up to the rest of them to guide him home, to give him a home to return to, and a reason to stay.

 

Still, Shikamaru’s opinion warms something in Sakura’s chest that someone out there cares enough about her to put her first even if it’s not entirely fair to Sasuke. Sasuke has never seen her as anything but a burden even if he does go out of his way to save her when she’s in danger. Naruto cares about her but no matter how kind he is, or how many times he pledges – earnestly – that he’ll always protect her, Sakura isn’t so blind as to miss the fact that for Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke will always come first. Rival, friend, brother – Sasuke is all those things to Naruto, and Sakura can never match that. Same with Kakashi who hides behind his porn but is equally hurt that one of his students, his favourite student and star pupil, has abandoned them for Orochimaru. Compared to that, fangirl Sakura who’s always lagging behind and getting in the way doesn't even make it into the same chapter much less onto the same page. She’s lucky to be in the same book.

 

That’s okay though, even if it hurts. She knows that she’s only just started getting stronger but she’ll hold up her end of Team Seven all by herself one day, and she’ll fight right alongside them when they go to confront Sasuke. If she manages to get them to stop seeing her as a burden, then that will be enough for her.

 

Shikamaru though... If there’s one thing Sakura doesn't regret about this whole disaster in Earth Country, it’s that she’s found an unlikely but steadfast friend in the Nara. Shikamaru has grown protective of her but he acknowledges what she can do in a way that Naruto rarely does, Sasuke never has, and Kakashi hasn’t even noticed, even after she started training under Tsunade. Shikamaru takes her at face value when she says she can do something, and doesn't waste time doubting her. He includes her when he’s making plans, and he listens to what she has to offer. He’s straight with her when he has a better idea, and doesn't sugar-coat anything when he tells her that he thinks she’s doing something wrong, yet he’s not mean about it either. He’s protective of her without being intentionally or unintentionally overbearing about it, lets her pull her own weight, and for this, for all these things and more, Sakura is equally, fiercely protective of him in return. She’s literally carried him over mountains after all, and she spent three days mouthing off to hardcore Iwa-nin just so they’d concentrate on torturing her instead of Shikamaru.

 

“You're sweet,” Sakura decides as she starts up her trek across the mountain range again.

 

She doesn't have to look to know that Shikamaru is scowling at the back of her head, embarrassment undoubtedly painting his face.

 

 


 

 

It takes three days of on-and-off Shunshin before they reach the border.

 

The land beyond it redefines a sight for sore eyes.

 

The shinobi patrols between them and that land, not so much.

 

The Plan takes another three days to prepare. They hide their chakra and huddle on a cliff edge behind some trees within a genjutsu, and they take turns spying for seventy-two hours straight until they're sure that Guard Rotation Number Three – a group of four Iwa-nin – will be their ticket out. That patrol consists of two of the youngest shinobi out of all three squads (Chuunin, Shikamaru predicts), and the other two are Jounin but slightly careless and very arrogant. They enjoy sitting in the shade of their stone guardhouse and ordering the two younger shinobi around.

 

Before they reach the border, Sakura has also successfully repaired the broken leg of a Shikamaru clone after five attempts, though she’s sure that it’s nowhere near perfect and Tsunade would murder her for the sheer crudeness of the procedure and the end result. Still, the clones can walk steadily enough, and that’s all she and Shikamaru care about at the moment.

 

Four weeks, two days, and eight hours after they were dumped in the heart of Earth Country, Sakura and Shikamaru sets out to leave it behind once and for all.

 

The Plan goes smoothly.

 

A mission; let us pass.

 

We’ve got our papers here.

 

Hurry up; we’re on a schedule.

 

What? Do we look dead to you?

 

Fools, what’s wrong with your communication line? Haven’t you heard the Tsuchikage’s orders yet? We’ll be squeezing those Konoha pacifists for all their worth if they want these brats back. It’s not like they can afford to lose anymore fresh blood after Sound and Suna nearly trampled them into the ground.

 

Right up until the very end. And then, in true Konoha fashion, because the universe just loves fucking with the people in their particular village for kicks at random times, the whole thing goes sideways.

 

They are literally two steps from the border.

 

One of the Jounin fuckers wishes them luck, smirks cruelly, and slaps at Shikamaru’s broken leg.

 

Shikamaru involuntarily jerks from where he is slung over shadow clone number two’s shoulder, features spasming with agony.

 

Scarface’s Henge flickers and disappears before the entire Bunshin blinks out of existence. Shadow Clone Number Three twitches, and then disperses as well with what sounds like a deafening pop.

 

There is a shocked moment of unmitigated silence. Even Mother Nature shuts up.

 

(“Worst case scenario,” Shikamaru says. “We get caught, and we’ll have to fight our way out.”)

 

(“Worst case scenario,” Sakura corrects him, thinking of Tsunade. “We get caught, and we’ll have to fight our way out without killing anyone. Unexplained disappearance in the mountains is one thing; a murder scene at the border could mean war.”)

 

(“Worst case scenario,” Shikamaru overrules her with finality, resolve simmering in his eyes. “We die. That’s not an option. You're the one who told me that. So if we have to kill them, then we kill them. End of story. We’ve gotten this far already; excuse me if I’m not going to place Konoha above your life. That might make me a poor excuse for a Konoha-nin but at least I’ll have a clear conscience if I'm ever written up for dereliction of duty.”)

 

Troublesome!” Shikamaru all but spits out like a swear word, and within the space of a heartbeat, he rolls left off of the Kage Bunshin’s shoulder, lands awkwardly in a heap on the ground even as he dispels the clone, presses his suddenly unbound hands together into a rapid series of seals, and snaps out, “Kage-Kubishibari no Jutsu!”

 

And the area promptly erupts into a flurry of lethal movement.

 

Shikamaru’s shadows move like ominous lightning compared to their speed during the Chuunin Exams, and before the Chuunin on the far left can blink, a large silhouette of a hand is already snaking up the front of his body and closing like a vice around his neck. The Jounin beside him, a second quicker than the Chuunin, leaps aside, but Shikamaru’s other shadow-hand merely lunges forward, snags the Iwa-nin’s ankle, and yanks him back to earth with a merciless twist that breaks the shinobi’s leg from the knee down.

 

Sakura isn’t idle while this is going on. The moment their cover is well and truly blown, she shakes off the loose bindings around her wrists and flings herself at the Jounin who forced Shikamaru to give them away in the first place.

 

(“Besides, if it comes to a fight,” Shikamaru continues bleakly. “We can’t face them with any other intention than to kill. In terms of physical prowess, they’re way above us, especially the Jounin, no matter what their personalities are like. In a battle against them, we only have two advantages – the element of surprise, and the fact that they have orders not to kill us if they can help it. We have to use that, and we can’t hold anything back, or we’ll be dead by sundown.”)

 

Chakra gathers in her right fist just as Tsunade has been teaching her, and without hesitation, Sakura drills it into the unsuspecting Jounin’s back. She swallows against the sick feeling rising in her throat and forces her punch to drive past skin and cartilage and muscles and organs until she reaches the spine.

 

Everything folds so easily under her hand.

 

She pulls back a bloody fist as soon as she crushes the spinal cord, backing up a step as he topples to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. He doesn't get up.

 

Ironically enough, it’s the Chuunin who manages to injure her.

 

Sakura can’t bite back the strangled scream that trips from her throat when a kunai buries itself into her back. The only reason it doesn't plunge straight into her heart in a perverse parody of the finishing blow Shikamaru delivered to Scarface is because she’s already moving, and instead, the blade slides home just to the side of her hammering heart.

 

She feels it rip into her left lung before it pulls back out.

 

She crumples to the ground, and then immediately, instinctively, frantically, her chakra begins circulating up to repair the potentially fatal internal damage even as she twists in place, half-blinded by pain and tears and choking on her own blood yet her mind remains desperately fixed on Shikamaru and home and livelivelive-

 

The back of her heel slams down against the ground, instantly shattering the earth into dozens of uneven pieces of rubble and debris, and she senses more than sees the Chuunin go down with a startled shout. All she knows is that the enemy is down, and vulnerable, and that’s enough for her.

 

She misses a few seconds, maybe more.

 

However, the next time she becomes lucid enough to recognize her surroundings, she’s crouched over the Chuunin like a rabid dog, splashed with gore and her right hand elbow-deep in the very dead Iwa-nin’s chest cavity, ribcage crushed to bits, and an assortment of other organs ripped apart under her hand.

 

She thinks she feels sick. Mostly, she’s just numb.

 

Shikamaru is yelling at her.

 

“-have to get outta here!” The Nara is shouting, and only the edge of pain in his voice, barely kept at bay, snaps Sakura firmly back into the present.

 

She pulls away from the Chuunin, and it feels like blood is everywhere, the stench in her nose, her own coating her mouth, her enemies’ slicking her hands, and even though she’s distantly aware of being grievously injured, she’s still as rock-steady as she can be when she staggers over to her companion.

 

Shikamaru has a deep cut running from the right side of his forehead down to his cheek bone, thankfully curving just above his right eye even though blood from the wound is dripping into it. Five shuriken are buried in his gut, though he’s already jerking out two of the ones not quite as deeply embedded as the other three in his abdomen and lobbing them to the side. The two Iwa-nin he was fighting are both dead, the Chuunin’s neck neatly snapped and the Jounin looking like a pincushion with half a dozen long needles made of shadows running through his head, neck, arms, and torso. It doesn't look like he received a particularly kind death. There is also a multitude of the unbending threads running through the now-near-collapsed guardhouse and slicing apart the trees around them as if Shikamaru lost control, though all the spikes are already dissipating even as Sakura swiftly takes note of them.

 

“I lost control,” Shikamaru pants as he wrenches out the other three shuriken, winds a tight coil of bandages around his stomach without a thought for finesse, does the same for the injury to her back, and then grinds his teeth together as he lets Sakura lever him onto his unbroken leg before hefting him onto her back literally single-handedly. Her left hand isn’t magically fixed so it’s tucked into her side as she straightens up. Neither of them care that she’s leaving crimson streaks on Shikamaru’s clothes. They’re already bloody anyway.

 

“I’ve only ever seen my dad perform Kage Nui,” Shikamaru makes a pulling motion and the last of the shadows disappear instantaneously, consequently leaving what remains of the guardhouse to cave in on itself. “I'm not supposed to use it myself for at least another year but desperate times call for desperate measures. I’ll consider myself lucky that I didn't run myself through. You- Are you okay? Can you run? We’ve got minutes before someone comes to check out the commotion.”

 

Sakura is nodding and sprinting past the border before Shikamaru is even finished asking. Her chakra is working overtime as she Shunshins like a madwoman away from Earth Country, legs pumping as she simultaneously carries Shikamaru and keeps her internal organs functioning.

 

“I saw that kunai,” There’s something weird in Shikamaru’s voice, something that reminds Sakura of the eye of a storm perhaps, calm for the time being but destruction already raging on the horizon, and all of it just waiting in the wings on all sides for an opportunity to unleash itself completely.

 

She’s only heard it once before, right when Scarface was about to gouge out her eyes.

 

The anger of a ninja from the Nara Clan – whose tempers are renowned to be hard to spark and slow to rise, but even harder and slower to cool once it is provoked, especially without reaping extensive payment from the guilty party – is a frightening thing to behold, yet Sakura can’t muster up even a shred of fear.

 

“Internal bleeding?” Shikamaru presses next, composed but insistent.

 

Sakura finds herself nodding again. She doesn't talk. She doesn't think she can. She’s already multitasking beyond her limits, and if she opens her mouth, she’s afraid that her legs will stop working or her chakra will forget what to do or she’ll just collapse and not get back up.

 

Shikamaru doesn't say anything else either. He doesn't waste breath asking ‘can you handle it’ or ‘how long can you run’ because they both understand that she’s handling it the best she can under the circumstances, and she’ll damn well run until she collapses because they're out but they're not free, not yet.

 

Instead, Sakura sees – out of the corner of her eye – multiple Bunshin of themselves – just basic clones this time – running off in every direction, false trails laid out even as the air tingles around them. It takes another few moments before Sakura realizes that Shikamaru is weaving a rudimentary genjutsu around them.

 

“When we get back,” Shikamaru mutters, and she’s grateful for the constant stream of words because they keep her grounded in reality. It’s probably why the Nara keeps talking; Shikamaru isn’t one for continuous chatter but he is perceptive and he knows how to prioritize when necessary. “Remind me to polish up on my genjutsu. In fact, I'm polishing up on everything.”

 

Sakura would laugh if she has the breath for it, or maybe not even then because she knows that Shikamaru is completely serious, and she knows that she’ll be doing the exact same thing.

 

She coughs, and something wet drips down her chin. Dimly, she feels Shikamaru’s hands convulse from where they’re clutching her shoulders.

 

He doesn't tell her to stop though.

 

She doesn't stop.

 

 


 

 

Sakura runs and runs and runs and runs, and she doesn't stop even when the blurred landscape around her changes from lots of grass and hills and spread-out trees to lush forests and the familiar feel of-

 

There are voices, frantic and disbelieving and relieved, and there are hands, clasping her shoulders, holding her up, trying to take Shikamaru from her, and it’s the last that makes her lash out, makes her pull yet more chakra from the bone-dry well of her reserves, curl it around her fist, and hurl it in the direction of the closest perceived threat. She doesn't feel the telltale flesh-on-flesh smack that means a direct hit. Instead, the blow ends up skittering past her target, and colliding with the trunk of a tree instead.

 

The entire thing is reduced to splinters in half a second, and she thinks she hears whispers of holy shit and glad she’s on our side in equally horrified and reverential tones.

 

She doesn’t care about that. All she cares about at this point is keeping Shikamaru safe until they get home, and she needs to get them home, and these bastards are in her way-

 

Another enemy comes forward, and she chucks a handful of shuriken at them before stomping her foot in a childish but very effective move, making the ground shake before literally breaking apart around her.

 

Distantly, she’s aware of Shikamaru yelling again, though this time, she’s pretty sure it’s not at her.

 

“-moron are you, Naruto?! Back off! Do you really think she recognizes any of you in this state?! Go get the Hokage here! And my old man! Move it!”

 

And then-

 

“Sakura? Sakura,” Shikamaru’s voice is urgent and gentle and soothing in her ear, and Sakura instinctively calms a little, still keeping an eye on all the hazy figures around her. Why can’t she make them out? Did someone poison her with something that affects her eyes?

 

“Sakura,” She concentrates on Shikamaru’s voice. “We’re safe; we’re home. You can put me down now. Do you understand?”

 

Safe? Home?

 

“I need you to put me down,” Shikamaru tells her quietly. “And I need you to stop using your chakra. You should’ve stopped ages ago but we had to- I need you to stop using your chakra or you are going to die. Can you do that for me? Sakura?”

 

Stop using her chakra? But how is she going to defend them if she doesn't use it? How will she be able to keep running and carrying Shikamaru?

 

But... Shikamaru said something about safe and home and that’s-

 

“Home?” She says out loud, voice faint and small like a child’s even to her own ears.

 

“Yeah, we’re home,” Shikamaru assures steadily. “We got out and we got home, just like you said we would.”

 

And because it’s Shikamaru, and there’s pretty much no one she trusts more than him at this point in time, Sakura lets herself relinquish the white-knuckled grip she has been bracing Shikamaru to her back with ever since she started running.

 

She feels Shikamaru sliding down onto the ground, and she hears the sharp intake of breath that indicates his left leg has been jolted in a way that’s bad for broken legs, but then the Nara’s arm is wrapped tightly around her shoulders, pulling her close, and when he murmurs a firm, “Rest, Sakura. I’ll take care of everything else.”, she obeys because she trusts Shikamaru, and she knows he’ll watch her back when she can’t.

 

That’s the last coherent thought she has before darkness invades her eyes and drags her down, down, down into oblivion.

 

 


 

 

Sakura wakes up the way she’s learned to wake up over the past several weeks. Like flipping a switch, her brain turns on, and her senses flare and touch on everything around her even while her body remains completely lax.

 

Except there is something wrong. Her senses feel muddled and stifled, like she’s being held underwater while trying to feel the wind, and her mind runs through every possibility before settling on the most probably one.

 

She and Shikamaru have been captured. Someone’s drugged her. And she can tell that Shikamaru’s chakra signature, even as muzzy as she feels, is not in the room.

 

However, she can also tell that she has not been chained up or tied down.

 

Their mistake.

 

Cautiously, working through the drugs in her system, she pokes at the room once more without opening her eyes.

 

A relentless beeping sound comes from somewhere on her left a few feet away from her head. A... monitor of some sort? It’s the first thing that occurs to her because she’s heard plenty of them back when she was in Konoha and following Tsunade around at the hospital.

 

So whoever has captured them probably wants them to live, at least for now, and Sakura knows she was critically injured but... she isn’t anymore. Her chakra reserves still aren’t back at full strength yet, not even half, but it’s still better than the clammy chill of chakra exhaustion she remembers feeling before she lost even that awareness. Their captors have healed most of her other injuries as well. The worst ones are on the mend, and the less serious ones are bandaged and won’t slow her down. Even her left hand is functioning again, though her fingers ache every time she flexes them.

 

Another mistake on their part.

 

However, the drugs in her system are muddying up her senses, and she doesn't know how she’ll fare on her feet, but overall, her situation could be worse.

 

She probes the room once more, meticulously, and doesn't feel another presence so, slowly, she peels back her eyelids and takes a look around.

 

A room, four white walls all around her. Medical equipment on her left side, and there’s an IV-drip stuck in her arm. She wastes no time pulling it out; god knows what’s in it.

 

She scans the room again. Her bed has bedrails, like an actual hospital bed, which, what? There are a few plastic chairs as well, scattered around the room, and a plain wooden bedside table. Other than that, there’s a door, closed and presumably leading into the rest of the building, and another doorway at the far end. She glimpses a sink, which must mean that’s the bathroom. How nice; her captors have provided her with a means to drown herself should she choose death over whatever plans they have in store for her.

 

She sits up, and then almost throws up when her head spins and black spots creep into her vision. With more effort than she likes, she shoves the dizziness way, focusing hard before vaulting over the bedrails and onto the ground, light as a cat. Again, she’s woozy as she straightens up, jittery under her skin and weak like she’s had a really bad fever or something (she recognizes the lingering symptoms of chakra exhaustion), and at the same time, her head feels stuffed with cotton as well. Even her movements feel clumsy, and she knows that that’s the drugs’ doing.

 

Maybe her captors know what they’re doing after all.

 

Unfortunately for them, Sakura does too.

 

She can’t get rid of all the drugs circulating her system but her instincts direct her chakra into shoving her way through the fog weighing her down, cleansing her own bloodstream as the seconds tick by. It clears her head a bit, just enough to put an objective in her mind and calculate how she’s going to accomplish it.

 

Find Shikamaru and get out.

 

She observes her room once more. If this is the room they've put her in, it’s logical to assume that there are others like or identical to it, and that Shikamaru will be in one as well. There’s a window, locked, but only with a latch. There might be a seal she can’t see but it’s the best way to escape. Worse comes to worst, she has enough chakra to blow a hole in the wall.

 

She takes a step forward, and then hastily grabs the bedrails as the entire world tilts. Damn it; stupid drugs.

 

She takes a deep breath. She can’t stall here. Her weapons are nowhere in sight, obviously, but...

 

She half-stumbles, half-hobbles over to the bathroom. There’s a mirror. Perfect.

 

As quietly as she can, she directs her chakra into one finger and presses it against the mirror. She cringes at the noise when half the mirror shatters and rains down onto the counter instead of just a small corner of pieces like she wanted. Tsunade could carve out a single piece without breaking anything else.

 

Still, she can’t hear anyone running to her room so she carefully selects a moderately-sized piece with a jagged wicked-looking edge, and then she makes her way back to her bed, and rips off a strip of the blanket to wrap around one end to protect her hand.

 

Weapon acquired. Time to get out of here.

 

She limps for the door, tries the doorknob, scoffs at the fact that it’s unlocked, and then leaves it shut as another wave of nausea washes over her. She leans against the wall for a few seconds, jaw clenching and unclenching as she fights off the effects.

 

And then she stiffens when her ears pick up the muffled steps of someone approaching her room.

 

She forces herself to remain relaxed but alert, and as soon as the footsteps stop, and the door swings open, Sakura strikes.

 

It’s a woman, a nurse by the looks of her uniform, and no forehead protector. She hardly registers on Sakura’s danger scale so Sakura simply knocks her out with a well-placed chop to the neck instead of outright killing her. The woman only has time to blink in surprise before she drops like a sack of potatoes, and Sakura doesn't hesitate to drag the woman inside and out of sight, kicking the door shut before going about tying the nurse’s hands and feet together with more strips of cloth, gagging her, and then leaving her in the bathroom.

 

Reaching the door once more, Sakura only pauses long enough to be certain that no one else is coming, and then she swings it open, ducks out, and takes in the hallway in a fraction of a second before turning on her heel and racing up the hall towards the next room.

 

Because even halfway drugged to her gills, Sakura would know the agitated spike of Shikamaru’s chakra signature anywhere.

 

Just as she reaches the open door of the next room over, a blur of orange and yellow comes flying out, and Sakura doesn't even hesitate as she moves forward, one leg extending in a roundhouse kick and booting the shinobi all the way down the hall. The orange-clad figure makes an ‘oomph’ sound when Sakura hits him but it’s lost in the wake of the colossal explosion of said figure crashing into the far wall at the end of the hall.

 

Sakura doesn't stick around to watch her handiwork. Instead, she’s barrelling into the room like a mini hurricane, eyes zeroing in on Shikamaru – alive, on his feet, weight on his right leg, left leg in a brace, but up and about, hands forming seals and trapping two people in place – who in turn, swings his gaze around to meet hers as soon as she appears.

 

There’s no need for any verbal exchanges between them as they move in tandem. Sakura pitches her makeshift dagger at the most dangerous-feeling shinobi – dark hair, tied in a ponytail, scars on his face but nowhere near as many as Scarface; for some reason, he reminds her of Shikamaru but he isn’t Shikamaru so he’s fair game – in the room, adrenaline pumping through her body. He dodges, easily, but she only needs him distracted for a few precious seconds just so she can race past him and swipe a kunai from the holster on his leg without faltering for a moment.

 

“Kunai!” Shikamaru barks, and Sakura is throwing it at him even before he finishes forming the word. She sprints past him just as he snatches up the weapon but doesn't hold on to it, simply changing its course of direction instead and letting it fly straight and true towards one of the ninja that his shadows are restraining. The kunai snags the blonde kunoichi’s outfit and pins her to the floor, and then his shadows are yawning and stretching before flinging whoever his other trapped opponent is through the open doorway as well.

 

Sakura sees all this from a peripheral view as she streaks across the room, and she knows without looking that Shikamaru is already sliding seamlessly to the right to stand in front of her, covering her as she flips over the empty bed, draws back a chakra-fuelled fist, and smashes open the hard white plaster that stands between them and freedom, demolishing the window and most of the wall all in one go.

 

“Let’s go!” Sakura shouts, and the words aren’t finished leaving her tongue before Shikamaru is there, beside her and still guarding her from the rest of the shinobi assembled in the room as they prepare to launch themselves out of their escape route.

 

“Wait!” One of the older ninja – not the scarred one – takes a step forward, only to freeze again when Shikamaru’s hands start forming another set of hand seals. “Just wait a second, both of you! Shikamaru, it’s me, Asuma! Goddamnit, I knew I should’ve knocked that nurse out when she increased your dosage. You don’t drug people who’ve been stuck in enemy hands for a month no matter how much pain they're in! Everybody knows that!”

 

“Apparently, she didn't,” A new voice rings out, and a beautiful blonde woman strides in, followed by a shorter dark-haired woman and the orange eyesore from before. It’s the blonde lady who makes Sakura pause, mind suddenly whirling as her thoughts scramble for purchase.

 

“Sakura,” The woman calls out, firm but kind, and Sakura stills, the murkiness in her head swirling and parting at irregular intervals. “Look at me. Come on, girl, you’re better than this. Focus on me; who am I?”

 

Stiffly, Sakura fully turns to face the blonde, and her head pounds out a throbbing rhythm in time with her heartbeat. The woman’s bold features and strong presence tug at her memories but it’s so hard to think about anything beyond get Shika and runrunrun because those two things have practically been wired into her thought process for weeks now and-

 

“Sakura?” Shikamaru’s voice cuts through her thoughts, and a callused hand wraps around her wrist in a familiar gesture.

 

Sakura shifts, instinctively moving closer to Shikamaru as she squints at the woman. She fights through the fog and seizes at her memories, pushing and pushing and pushing until-

 

“Sakura,” The woman repeats, gaze steady as warm brown eyes focus on her, never wavering. “Your chakra should already be breaking down the drugs in your system. Concentrate. You're not in Earth Country anymore. I know your instincts are heightened but you need to get them under control. You're safe; you're home. You can stop now.”

 

Sakura starts, and her memories rush up like water from a fountain, and the woman isn’t just the woman anymore, not just a stranger, she’s-

 

“Shishou!” Sakura gasps, and Tsunade breaks out into a wide smile, proud and so, so relieved, but she doesn't make any move to step forward, nodding instead at Shikamaru.

 

Sakura understands immediately and quickly turns to Shikamaru who looks confused and tense and ready to pick her up and get them the hell out of there even with his leg in a cast.

 

“Shika, it’s okay,” Sakura promises softly. “We’re home, remember? Back in Konoha. You told me, right before I passed out... however many days ago.”

 

“...Konoha?” Shikamaru’s brow knits, and he runs a hand over his face, rubbing absently at the cut scabbing over on his face. It will scar, just like the one on hers. “We’re back?”

 

“Yes,” Sakura can’t hide the heartfelt relief in her voice if she tries. Still, she tries to lighten the air with a nudge at the Nara’s ribs, mostly because she knows that Shikamaru would know that she wouldn't joke around if they were really in trouble. “And you said I could rest and you’d take care of everything. You forgot to request a shared room.”

 

Something dark flickers through Shikamaru’s eyes, and he straightens in place, eyes narrowing. “...I did request a shared room. Then I woke up in this... place and you weren’t here so I thought-”

 

“-we’d been captured,” Sakura nods, making a face. “Again. Fucking Iwa-nin probably wouldn't give us such nice accommodations though. Weather’s crappy in Earth Country anyway, and it’s sunny outside right now.”

 

“And their food wasn’t great either-” Shikamaru agrees, shoulders slowly loosening as his eyes become a little clearer.

 

“-and their hospitality could've used some work-” Sakura adds with a faint note of holyfuckwemadeithomealive hysteria creeping into her voice.

 

“-and would it have killed them to plant a few more trees,” Shikamaru finishes on a long exhale, and his hand reaches up to rub at his forehead again. “I have a headache. How troublesome.”

 

“Consider yourself in good company then,” Sakura murmurs wearily, dropping the line of banter. “I feel like shit. I think I ripped some of my stitches running in here.”

 

A rustle sounds behind her, and on reflex, Sakura is already whirling around, fists raised. Simultaneously, Shikamaru steps forward, looking ready to sic his shadows on the next person who so much as twitches. And then they both stop, glancing at each other before dropping their defensive stances. Somewhat.

 

“Sakura... -chan?”

 

Sakura thinks it says something about herself and Team Seven in general when she recognized Tsunade before she is able to distinguish Naruto.

 

“Naruto,” Sakura returns, and she inwardly winces at how wary she sounds, her fight or flight instinct still cranked up high. Now that she isn’t fully focused on escaping, and shutting everything else out, she realizes that she’s in the Konoha Hospital, in a roomful of people she knows – Ino still stuck to the ground and pulling futilely at the kunai in an attempt to free herself without ripping her clothing, Chouji only just picking himself up and re-entering the room, Asuma watching Shikamaru with concern marring his features, Tsunade and Shizune and Naruto obviously, and...

 

“Oh my god, Shika,” Sakura blurts out in horror. “I attacked your dad!”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and then some of the tension lifts from the room as huffs of laughter comes from more than one source. Nara Shikaku himself looks faintly amused, mouth twitching into a crooked smile as he appraises her with contemplative eyes so much like his son’s. Sakura remembers that he didn't say anything when she and Shikamaru were attempting their needless getaway but she notices the way his hands are hanging at his sides instead of stuffed in his pockets in the classic Nara slouch, as well as the fact that there is sunlight pouring into the room from the broken wall, and she knows without asking that both she and Shikamaru would've at least been held back from running too far from the hospital by Shikaku’s shadows which are undoubtedly stronger than Shikamaru’s, if only to prevent them from causing further injury to themselves. Neither of them would've gotten farther than the front gates of the hospital, if that.

 

When she raises her eyes again seconds later, Shikaku is studying her with knowing approval. She grumbles a little under her breath. She doesn't mind this perceptiveness from Shikamaru but it’s a little disgruntling to be reminded that it’s a Nara trait and she might as well be an open book to them when it comes to observations.

 

“He doesn't mind,” Shikamaru interjects, interrupting her thoughts. The Nara heir is peering at his father, finally with some recognition, and his entire expression seems to brighten.

 

Indeed, Shikaku just waves a dismissive hand in the air. “Aa, don’t worry about it, Sakura-chan. I should’ve had Shikamaru moved into the same room as yours in the first place.” He pauses, a thoughtful look on his face. “You're very strong for a mere Genin.”

 

Sakura blinks, taken aback by the compliment, but she doesn't have time to come up with a thank-you before Shikaku is ambling forward towards his son. Sakura forces herself to move aside and not bristle at the Clan Head – this is Shika’s father, idiot – watching instead as Shikaku reaches for Shikamaru with deliberately slow movements so that his son has plenty of time to see him coming. To his credit, Shikamaru only stiffens briefly before lurching forward and letting his dad wrap him in a tight hug, an uncharacteristic but understandable display of open affection despite their audience.

 

Sakura smiles a little, wishing for her own parents but...

 

“Shishou?” She glances back at her mentor, recalling her empty room. “Are my- Are my parents home yet?”

 

Tsunade’s expression softens as she shakes her head. “I'm afraid not. You two have been gone for approximately five weeks, and back in Konoha for another week now. They're not due back for another month or so, and I can’t send them a message while they’re in the middle of a mission.”

 

“Oh,” Sakura hates how weak her voice sounds. Her head jerks up when Tsunade finally moves forward, motions as careful and unhurried as Shikaku’s was.

 

“Your parents aren’t back yet,” Tsunade quirks a smile and spreads her arms. “But I hope you don’t mind giving me a hug after all the stress you've put me through over the past month.”

 

A half-laugh that contains more gratitude than humour trips out of her mouth, and before she can hold herself back, Sakura is flinging herself forward into Tsuande’s waiting arms. She’s instantly folded into a fierce embrace.

 

“You crazy, crazy apprentice,” Tsuande murmurs into her – now even shorter – hair. Someone must've had to cut some of the hopelessly tangled mess off just to clean her up. “How is it even possible for you to turn a simple retrieval mission into a month-long jaunt in Earth Country? I'm not letting you out of my sight for at least the next three months. You hear that, Shizune? Sakura’s on village arrest for the next three months!”

 

“That’s unfair!” Sakura objects half-heartedly into Tsunade’s blouse. “It’s not like I wanted to go! Earth Country sucks! Tell her, Shika!”

“I never want to go back there again,” Shikamaru agrees wholeheartedly, and when Sakura finally pulls away from the hug, she sees that the Nara heir has done the same. “By the way, Hokage-sama, we may have left a bit of an incident for you to deal with.”

 

“Oh?” Tsunade arches an eyebrow even as Sakura steps back to stand beside Shikamaru. “Would it have anything to do with the missives that the Tsuchikage has been sending me demanding to know why Konoha-nin have been causing trouble in Iwa? And if I've interpreted his wording correctly, he’s also accusing us of killing some of his shinobi-”

 

“Like we had a choice,” Shikamaru cuts in, and there’s a crystallized note of sheer viciousness in his voice that makes the rest of Team Ten look at him with alarm. The Nara heir doesn't even seem to notice, eyes burning with darkened fury. “Those Iwa-nin deserved it. They tortured Sakura for three days just for kicks.”

 

“...Technically, it wasn't just for kicks,” Sakura denies feebly at the same time that Naruto exclaims, “They did what?! Baa-chan, you didn't tell me that! You just said she was badly injured!”

 

And then the blond is flailing forward, rushing towards Sakura, arms outstretched as if to grab her in a hug, but in that moment, all Sakura can see is Scarface looming over her, hands extended to wrap around her throat and pin her to the ground and a kunai in his other to gouge out her eyes-

 

Crash!

 

She jumps half a foot in the air, the hospital room coming back into focus just in time to see Shikamaru step in front of her and punt Naruto back across the length of the room, sending the blond careening into the far wall.

 

“I'm pretty sure I made myself perfectly clear the first time around, Naruto,” Shikamaru says mildly, but there’s a steely edge underscoring his words. “Back off. Don’t rush at her like that.”

 

“She’s my teammate!” Naruto protests loudly. “I have to make sure she’s okay! It’s my job to protect her-”

 

“Protect her? You're the one who sent us to Earth Country in the first place! Next time Sakura tells you not to touch something, don’t touch it!” Shikamaru’s ire finally peaks. Irritated, tired, agitated from all the people crowding the room, and probably beginning to feel the pain of his injuries again now that the painkillers they are on are slowly starting to wear off, the Nara evidently needs someone to blame to make himself feel better, especially since people seem to have been insisting on separating him and Sakura ever since they returned.

 

It makes sense in a convoluted way, at least to Sakura since she feels the same. Everybody else – even Tsunade and Naruto – makes her feel on edge, however slightly. For weeks, it was just her and Shikamaru against the world. Unless it was the two of them, everything else – from the natural elements to illness to injuries to Iwa-nin – was labelled The Enemy. Now that they're finally back home, it’s surprisingly difficult to simply switch off that particular mindset and go back to the level of normal that they were before their five-week-long ordeal.

 

In front of them now, Naruto looks hurt and guilty, his face twisted up horribly, and his shoulders hunched. Perhaps it’s mean of her but – at the moment – Sakura just can’t muster up any reassurances or words of forgiveness. At the moment, she just doesn't care. All she really wants is some peace and quiet in a relatively safe environment, with Shikamaru in her line of sight and some time to get some real sleep.

 

She reaches forward to touch Shikamaru’s elbow, attracting his attention. “Don’t get so worked up, Shikamaru. It’s just Naruto.”

 

Calm down, Sakura says without words. He’s not a threat.

 

Shikamaru inhales shortly before nodding once. He still looks uneasy, like he’s just waiting for everything to blow up in their faces, and then they’ll be running and hiding and fighting for their lives once again. Sakura probably doesn't look any better.

 

“Alright,” Tsunade claps her hands together. “That’s enough. You two can tell me what happened later. Right now, I'm moving both of you into a room together so you can get some rest. Neither of you brats are supposed to be out of bed for at least another few days.”

 

Sakura thinks this is the best idea she’s heard in weeks, and Shikamaru looks to be in complete agreement.

 

“Oh, Shishou,” Sakura pipes up, sheepish. “I- Before, I thought we’d been captured so, uh, when a nurse came into my room, I may have, possibly, knocked her out, tied her up, gagged her, and left her unconscious in the bathroom.”

 

Tsunade blinks at her before enquiring neutrally, glancing at the shard of mirror embedded in the wall that Shikaku was previously standing in front of, “And I suppose you broke the bathroom mirror to acquire a weapon? And ripped up the bed sheets to tie that nurse up as well?”

 

Sakura shrugs rather defensively. “I had to use what I had on hand.”

Tsunade’s mouth quirks up. “That’s my girl.”

 

Shizune sighs deeply. “Tsunade-sama, please.”

 

Tsunade shrugs as well, utterly unrepentant. “I’ll bet that’s the nurse who upped the drug dosage in their IVs in the first place, in which case, she deserves it. Go untie her, Shizune, and then tell her she’s been demoted back to intern.”

 

Shizune doesn't look particularly surprised by this verdict. In fact, she may have even looked just a little pleased as she bustled out of the room.

 

“Now that’s enough excitement for one day,” Tsunade glances down at Ino, bends down to deftly wrench the kunai out of the ground to let her up, and then waves her free hand in the air. “Everyone out; this room is completely wrecked. Sakura, Shikamaru, I'll have a room prepared for you.” A sly grin. “Two beds or one?”

 

Sakura is too exhausted to blush. Besides, there’s nothing to blush about seeing as their sleeping arrangements have been shared warmth under a pile of blankets on a mattress made of rock and dirt for weeks now.

 

She exchanges a look with Shikamaru. The Nara shrugs, casually drifting to her side so that they have the entire room’s occupants spread out in front of them and no one behind.

 

“Doesn't matter,” Sakura tells her mentor as they trek out of the room after everyone else goes first. “Any flat surface will do.”

 

“Just make sure we’re in the same room this time,” Shikamaru contributes decisively.

 

Neither of them pays any mind to the odd looks coming from Naruto, Ino, and even Chouji. It’s enough that Tsunade simply acquiesces.

 

 


 

 

The next time Sakura wakes up, it takes her a few minutes to figure out where she is, mostly because this time, she isn’t drugged on morphine anymore, she doesn't sense any immediate danger around her, and Shikamaru is a warm comfortable weight curled up beside her.

 

And then she blinks open her eyes, groggy and heavy-limbed but in that solid-night’s-sleep sort of way.

 

“Good afternoon,” A woman’s voice greets her from somewhere on Shikamaru’s other side. Sakura instantly tenses, chakra already flowing down to her hands as she twists out of the pile of blankets on top of her and rises to hover over Shikamaru’s sleeping form.

 

Only to pause when she finds a woman with long brown hair and a kind face smiling at her. She sparks a memory in Sakura’s head, and it only takes a few seconds for her to match this woman to the one who used to pick Shikamaru up from school back when they were still attending the Academy.

 

Sakura hastily backs off. “Um...”

 

The woman’s smile widens cheerfully as if Sakura didn't just consider attacking her. “Hello, Sakura-chan. I'm Nara Yoshino, Shikamaru’s mother. It’s good to see you awake. You've been sleeping even longer than Shikamaru has.”

 

“Oh, uh, nice to meet you,” Sakura can’t believe how awkward this is. Her social skills seem to have deteriorated. She glances down at Shikamaru who is currently snoring softly away, hair still down and messy instead of tied up in his customary ponytail. She blinks and then cranes her head around at the other – empty – bed. Wait; they weren’t sharing a bed when they went to sleep, were they?

 

“Shikamaru moved over here when he woke up a few hours ago,” Yoshino explains patiently, gleaning Sakura’s bewilderment. “He wasn't sleeping very well alone, and you were tossing and turning as well.” Her smile turns mischievous. “You two are very cute; I have pictures! I’ll give you copies later, okay?”

 

Sakura stares incredulously at her, wondering whether or not she should be scared of this woman. And then the door slides open, and her head snaps around, though she manages not to gather chakra into her fists again.

 

Her paranoid reactions are going to get old fast.

 

“Ah, you're awake,” Shikaku says by way of greeting as he steps into the room, closing the door around him. “Unless you need to use the bathroom, I've been told to tell you that you're not to get out of bed or the Hokage will have my head on a platter. How are you feeling?”

 

“Fine,” The automatic answer slips off her tongue with much-repeated ease. Shikamaru asked her that more than once, and vice-versa, and their answers were always ‘fine’ or a variation of the word. They quickly learned to read all the unsaid ‘not fine’ things behind it.

 

As Shikaku comes around to take a seat beside Yoshino, eyeing her rather skeptically along the way, Sakura glances down at Shikamaru again and wonders why his parents look so utterly unconcerned with the fact that their son is sharing a bed with her. Obviously, there’s nothing more than companionship between the two of them, and the need to keep the other in sight at all times, but Sakura can see how other people may think it strange.

 

“Shikamaru told us some of what you two went through in Earth Country, Sakura-chan,” Yoshino begins again, and Sakura shifts in place, gaze flicking back to the woman. Is Yoshino going to chew her out now for letting her son get so badly hurt?

 

Her jaw drops just a bit when – quite unexpectedly – Yoshino leans forward, eyes shining with unmistakeable gratitude, and bows her head a little as she reaches out to gently take Sakura’s hands in her own.

 

“Thank you so much for bringing our son home,” Yoshino murmurs sincerely, and there are actual tears in her eyes.

 

Sakura gapes. “I- Wh- What?”

 

Yoshino smiles again as she clarifies, “Shikamaru told us how he’d broken his leg on the very first day you two were transported to Earth Country, and you've been carrying him ever since, all the way through the mountains, and then all the way back home to Konoha. And I know enough about torture-inflicted injuries to tell that Shikamaru had barely any, while you were covered in them, so thank you for protecting him.”

 

Sakura feels the heat rising in her cheeks, especially after peeking at Shikaku and seeing the Clan Head watching her with subtler but similarly warm regard. She clears her throat for lack of anything better to do before stammering out, “Shikamaru would've done the same thing for me. He did do the same thing. I wouldn't have lasted an hour there if he hadn't stopped an attack from our first run-in with a group of Iwa-nin, and that’s how he got his broken leg in the first place so it was sort of my fault anyway that he couldn't- ouch!”

 

“Don’t be troublesome,” Shikamaru mutters, removing his elbow from her side as he stretches languidly before cracking open bleary eyes. “Wasn't your fault.”

 

Sakura softens into a half-smile as Shikamaru pushes himself up into a sitting position. At this point, Yoshino has let her go and now looks like she wants to start fussing over Shikamaru so Sakura shuffles over to the edge of the bed and prepares to lever herself off of it.

 

A hand curls around her wrist. “Where are you going?”

Sakura turns back, startled as she glances down at Shikamaru’s hold on her and then the Chuunin himself and then his parents. “Uh... family reunion and all that, Shika? I’ll be over there.”

 

“We already had the ‘family reunion and all that’ while you were still sleeping,” Shikamaru dismisses, tugging her back down. “Stay.”

 

Sakura gives him a look. “I'm not a dog.”

 

Shikamaru makes a face at her. It pulls at the almost-healed scar newly adorning his features. “Troublesome.”

 

Sakura scowls right back, her unrestricted hand coming up to rub distractedly at the fresh scar she knows decorates her own face. “Oh, trust me, I'm not the only troublesome one here.”

Shikamaru doesn't shoot back a witty remark, eyeing her instead with a measured gaze. “...You look fine, you know that?”

 

Sakura blinks. “Huh?”

 

Shikamaru grimaces, glancing over at his mother who gives him an encouraging look of all things, before turning back to her and nodding at her scar. Sakura hastily drops her hand back into her lap. “You keep doing that, ever since that bastard Iwa-nin gave it to you. It doesn't matter, you know. You look fine.”

 

He looks slightly embarrassed when he finishes but he holds her gaze like he’s trying to will her into believing what he says, and Sakura blushes a little at being caught out at all. It’s not that she’s particularly vain (anymore) but, well, it’s her looks, and her looks have always, always been something that either made people laugh at her (before Ino) or made people envy her (after Ino). She knows it’s stupid, that looks are shallow at best, but habits die hard, and while she’s certain that she doesn't really care about how pretty or ugly she is now, if only because the cost of it bought two lives in exchange, the scar will still prod at her like a scab for a little while longer.

 

Still, she can summon a small genuine grin for Shikamaru. “Thanks, Shika. Don’t worry; I just don’t want to give Pig any more ammunition against me, that’s all.”

Shikamaru’s eyes narrow knowingly but he plays along all the same, snorting and leaning back against his share of the pillows. “You two are so troublesome. She was already here earlier, one minute fussing over whether or not you’d let her hug you, and the next minute ranting about how the both of us were inconsiderate asses for disappearing for an entire month. As if it’s our fault.”

 

He pauses, and they simultaneously cock their heads in an eerie reflection of each other, both of them picking up the approaching chakra signatures of-

 

Sakura is expecting it this time so when the door slides open once more, the motion careful and obviously executed with the room’s patients in mind, so she doesn't jump and only looks up to meet Ino’s startled blue eyes. Chouji and Asuma are behind her but they make no move to hurry her.

 

When it looks like Ino isn’t sure what to do, Sakura decides to go first. She waves weakly, a half-smile making its way onto her face. “Hey, Ino-Pig.”

 

Ino instinctively twitches but there is no mistaking the overwhelming amount of relief bubbling to the surface of her emotions as she lets go of the doorway. “I see you're finally awake, Billboard Brow.”

 

Another beat of silence, two, three, and then Ino is flinging herself forward, deliberately making sure that she isn’t towering over Sakura by stooping down as she closes in on the last few steps (they’re both thankful that this bed doesn't have bedrails), and Sakura is spreading her own arms as her first friend crashes into her, arms braced around Sakura’s shoulders as Sakura herself clutches back just as tightly, tears stinging her eyes for the first time in weeks.

 

“You freakin’ idiot, Sakura!” Ino wails, words muffled. “Homicidal forests and snake invasions not good enough for you? You just had to go take an extended vacation in Earth Country with no one but the lazy imbecile over there to help you?”

 

“Hey,” Shikamaru protests half-heartedly. “I’ll accept the lazy part but imbecile is going a bit too far.”

 

“Shut up,” Ino snarls without any real ire, cheeks blotchy when she pulls away to scowl at Shikamaru over Sakura’s right shoulder. “We’re having a girl moment here, can’t you tell? I can’t believe you let Sakura carry your butt over an entire mountain range and across two countries. What kind of a shinobi are you?”

 

Shikamaru rolls his eyes even as Sakura releases a wet half-laugh. “You can’t blame him, Ino. He had a fever that he didn't tell me about for days-” She shoots a pointed glare at the Nara who blatantly ignores it. “-and he still managed to help me evade at least half a dozen Iwa patrols on our tails. Otherwise, we would've been caught a lot sooner than we were.”

 

A choked silence follows this announcement, and Ino’s arms tighten around Sakura. Sakura exchanges a look with Shikamaru who only shakes his head and heaves a sigh.

 

“It wasn't that bad!” Sakura attempts in an upbeat tone. Judging by the unimpressed looks from absolutely everybody in the room, it doesn't work. She deflates. It looks like her acting skills aren’t up to par quite yet.

 

“So then, um, where’s Naruto?” Sakura asks instead in a wildly transparent attempt at changing the subject.

 

“He’s around,” Chouji offers immediately as Ino nudges her to the right so that the blonde can perch on the edge of the bed without unwrapping her arm from Sakura’s waist. “You didn't, er, react very well to him the last time you were awake so he’s just been drifting back and forth between the training grounds and the hospital for the past couple of days.”

 

Sakura instantly feels bad. Even if it was sort of Naruto’s fault that she and Shikamaru ended up in Earth Country, it was an accident, and really, anyone could've knocked over that artefact in a moment of clumsiness. That’s not to say she isn’t going to smack him over the head for this once she’s back on her feet but she certainly isn’t going to hold it against him, and she really does want to see him now.

 

“He’ll probably come by later to see you again,” Chouji continues earnestly. “If you want, when we leave, I could find him and tell him you want to see him?”

 

Sakura smiles gratefully at the Akimichi heir. “That sounds great, thanks, Chouji.” She pauses before enquiring hopefully, “And... what about Kakashi-sensei?”

 

“...He’s been at the Memorial Stone quite a few times since you got home,” Asuma is the one who volunteers this piece of information. He looks a little awkward. “More than usual, I mean. He was very worried when you were missing.”

 

“Oh,” Sakura mentally shrugs, pushing aside the disappointment she feels. Asuma doesn't say that Kakashi will come by later, or has come at all before, and that alone is telling. She’s not stupid so she knows that her – former? – sensei hasn't come to see her at the hospital at all, and that’s fine. She knows he hates hospitals with a passion, and she’s not particularly high on his list of priorities. She’s not Sasuke, she’s not even Naruto, and most of the time she was under his tutelage was when she was still in her fangirl phase. She wouldn't want to come see her either. Besides, Asuma has said that Kakashi was worried about her when she was missing, so Sakura can take comfort in that at least. It’s almost more than she expects.

 

“If you want,” Asuma has a strange look on his face when Sakura looks back up at him. “I could go get him for you.”

 

Sakura hastily shakes her head, wrinkling her bed sheets when her hands involuntarily clench for a second. Having Kakashi forced to come see her is somehow even worse than him not dropping by at all. “Thank you, but you don’t have to do that, Asuma-san. Kakashi-sensei doesn't like hospitals very much so it’s only natural that he’d stay away. I'm sure I’ll see him sooner or later when I get out of here. Besides, it wouldn't be him if he wasn't later than everyone else to come see me.”

 

The words taste like ash on her tongue because the selfish part of her wants to rise up in arms and screech about how unfair it is that Kakashi doesn't care enough to come visit her. She swallows that down though; she’s tried being selfish for so many years and look how that turned out – Sasuke gone, and Team Seven in shambles. No way is she going to go back to being a self-centered little brat again.

 

“So, anyway,” Sakura begins again with more cheer than she actually feels. “When can we get outta here? I'm sick and tired of the hospital already, and I actually have to come back to work here once I'm cleared for duty again.”

 

“That’s not happening anytime soon, Sakura,” Ino scolds. “You're still on the mend, and your parents aren’t home, remember? Who’s going to look after you?”

 

“Uh, me?” Sakura tilts her head with some bemusement. “Last I checked, there’s nothing wrong with my legs, both my hands are fine now, and I’ve known how to work the stove since I was seven years old. I’ll be fine.”

 

Ino’s expression becomes mulish as she crosses her arms. “Absolutely not! What if something happens? What if you get a relapse?”

 

“I’ll be fine,” Sakura repeats. “Shishou won’t let me out of here if there’s risk of a relapse anyway.”

 

Ino looks wholly unconvinced, and she isn’t the only one, but no one seems to want to drag Sakura into further argument at the moment.

 

Sakura doesn't know what they're so worried about. She’ll be perfectly fine. Navigating her own house is by far the easier and more preferable option than – say – navigating Earth Country.

 

Ino sets her sights on Shikamaru and launches into another scolding fest. Shikamaru heaves a sigh and sags against Sakura’s arm instead, using her shoulder to prop his head up in an attempt to tune his teammate out and sleep with his eyes open at the same time.

 

Sakura doesn't bother shrugging him off, not even under the scrutiny of five other people in the room. She and Shikamaru are finally home, relatively safe and gradually recuperating, and for now, that’s the only thing she cares about.

 

[End]