The midsummer sun beat down on her as she dragged her feet down the endless stretch of dirt. The faint scuffle of her boots seemed almost deafening, resonating throughout the small clearing. She let out a tired huff, her breath breaking the eerie silence. A trickle of sweat ran down her forehead before she wiped it away. The back of her shirt was noticeably stuck to her back, shifting uncomfortably against her skin as she moved her arm. Tugging gently at the end of her shirt to loosen it from moisture’s hold, Sakura couldn’t help but grumble to herself.
The Land of Fire’s summers were always relentless, and solo missions always made her feel a bit lonely while she traveled.
Casting aside her petty discomfort, she tried to focus on her surroundings. The village she was sent to was still a few miles away, but she was determined to trek there in one sitting. It was a rather unknown village on the border of Fire Country, so she reasoned that the silence should not be that surprising. She was out in the wilderness, where her main company would be birds and squirrels. She mainly saw trees in the forest on either side of her, not even the rushing of a river or the trickle of a stream to add to the ambiance. Considering everything in her relative location, she was in a rather peaceful area. When she reached the border, things would grow ever so slightly more hectic.
She dismissed her unease as paranoia, and she dutifully continued on.
She tucked an unruly, rose colored lock of hair under her hiate-e, the sweat soaked strands laying flat against her head. Her hair barely dusted her collar, since it had been freshly cut. Despite the mild annoyance it could be when it was too short to be restrained in a ponytail, Sakura never kept it past her shoulders. Konoha heat wouldn’t allow for it to be too long; plus, her unspoken need for it to remain short.
Sakura had grown from the obsessed little girl she once was, and her hair was just another reminder of how she had changed. It was a symbol of the start of maturity.
Her medical pouch shifted against her skirt. She tightened it up, the containments of the pouch clacking against each other softly. The shuffling of her appearance grated on her nerves ever so slightly. Perhaps it was because she had grown accustomed to traveling with Naruto once again after his absence, but the quietness was unnerving to her.
Birds burst out of the wilderness to her left, and her hand instinctively went to her kunai holster. She quickly concealed her chakra by force of habit. She did not see the reason to immediately inspect the cause of the sudden interrupting. Birds were skittish animals; a snake could have merely struck at a rodent, causing the flock in the neighboring trees to flee. She stayed still, however, her hand not moving from its place on the holster, and her eyes scanned the brush.
Then she heard it.
A sickening crack met with a choked cry of anguish. Animals scampered away from the area just like the birds did. The earth rumbled, and a loud thud resonated through the air. Then the overwhelming silence resumed. She picked up on a rather massive chakra signature, and she was unsure as to how she had missed it before. She reasoned that maybe they had initially concealed it before deeming that they were alone. She pursed her lips, her curiosity getting the best of her as she calmly and quietly approached the edge of the pathway.
The scream had sounded rather close, so she did not plan on trekking too far into the forestry. It sounded as if there was no one left to aid as it was. She peeked into the wilderness, instinctively crouching as she entered the woods, aiming to remain hidden from whatever she was stumbling upon. Faintly, she heard ragged breaths. Testing her luck, she wandered closer to the noise. As she weaved around the shrubbery and trees, she saw the large figure that the explosive chakra signature belonged to, and she couldn’t ignore the tremble of fear that rumbled to her core.
He had to be at least two heads taller than her, and his tangerine tresses stood out in all directions like a lion’s mane. His shoulders heaved gently as he stood over the crumpled corpse of what appeared to be a hunter-nin, the trademark mask cracked and bloodied on the late figure’s face. The corpse was not what unnerved her. It was the scaled, ruddy gray tones burned across his skin. A blade protruded from his forearm, the same darkened color as the splotches on half his body. He looked utterly mad as he remained in his place, a deranged smile on his face. Suddenly, he looked over in her direction, mismatched eyes locking onto her frame.
Sakura did not have time to analyze the tell tale signs of the curse mark, or wonder how he had finally sensed her. She had faced many formidable foes in her lifetime, but she knew that it was not the time or place to really deal with the situation she had found herself in.
She backed away from the tree she had halfway crouched behind. If he was going to come after her, it would be best if she played on the defensive. He looked like he could tank several blows she landed on him, even if she used her chakra enhanced strength, Plus, she would have to risk getting close enough to hit him. She could not size up his speed from just a glimpse; despite his size, she could name several brawny ninja that could move at her speed.
As she continued to sum up the situation, bounding away from him but keeping her eyes locked onto his location, she heard a deep laugh. Then he charged at her.
In a flash, he had caught up with her, swinging his bladed arm at her. Sakura had barely enough time to react, leaping to the left to barely avoid his incoming assault. He was quick to retaliate. He slung his arm at her once again, and she moved to dodge. His arm stretched out further, chasing after her as she avoided him. Sakura swore to herself. She would have to keep a considerable distance between them to be utterly assured she could not be hit. In that moment, that did not seem possible.
Even so, Sakura was known to think fast.
Her hands moved on their own accord, and when his arm collided with what appeared to be her body, in a puff of smoke it was revealed to be a log.
Sakura was not far though. Her back was pressed against a tree as she pulled several senbon out of her bag.
“You can’t hide,” the deep, gravelly voice cooed. She heard his footsteps approach her location and before he could strike near her, she fled her hiding spot. She ducked under his incoming kick, jabbing her senbon into his knee. She hurriedly pulled herself upright, not bothering to see how the needles had damaged him; since the quiet grunt was enough to let her know she had at least inconvenienced him. She heard the quiet cling of senbon hitting the ground, and she shifted to an offensive stance. Before she could launch another senbon, she felt the air being knocked out of her lungs and a searing pain spread throughout her torso, her own senbon dropping to the ground.
It was his normal fist that had collided with her chest. Ignoring the biting ache in her system, she used the moment to her advantage. Sakura held onto his fist with one hand, while she swiped at his upper arm with her chakra scalpels.
She felt his arm go limp in her grip.
Her opponent’s eyes narrowed as his arm became useless to him. His blade approached her head, and she swiftly dodged, tugging his limp arm towards the ground with enhanced strength. She managed to topple his balance, and he collided with the earth. She hurriedly dropped his limb, side stepped, and plummeted her fist towards his skull.
Her wrist was caught before she could land the hit.
Before she could retaliate, she felt her world spin and her chest hit the hard dirt. Air left her lungs for the second time, and when her vision had returned to her, she rolled over onto her back — just to see that her attacker had sluggishly gotten to his feet, bladed arm high above him ready to meet her skin. Sakura rolled out of the way as his blade lowered, pushing herself to her feet with labored breath. The ground had ruptured where she had once been, rock and dust settling at their feet.
He did not give her time to rest as he reached for her throat. She held her arm up to block his attack, aiming her other hand, that was equipped with chakra scalpels, for his thigh. He did not fall for it this time, sliding back to avoid his muscles from being filleted. His movements seemed to only be slightly deterred from her senbon previously stabbing his leg’s pressure point.
Sakura gnawed on her lip as she waited for his next strike. The darkened parts of his skin flashed red as it spread across his body further.
She needed out of this fight as soon as possible, for her own good.
If she could render his transformed arm immobile, then she knew she would have a better chance, but she didn’t know if the muscle could be severed normally when the curse mark was active.
It was not like she had many other options.
This time, she charged towards him, rearing her fist back. As expected, he dodged her incoming strike and tried to return one of his own. She grabbed his wrist and attempted to maul his upper arm with her scalpels once again, but he broke free from her grasp and swung the blade towards her. It connected with her shoulder as she tried to dive out of the way. Wincing, she delivered a kick to his gut and habitually brought her hand up to her injury.
He recovered too quickly for her to have time to heal herself, his hand stretching out to reach her. Seeing her opening, she ducked down and charged at him as his hand extended further. With enhanced strength, she landed a hit under his jaw. He stumbled backwards and his arm returned to its normal length. She jabbed an open palm at his solar plexus, forcing him back again.
However, he recovered at record speed, his hand clamping around her neck as she readied another attack. With a choked cry, she felt her feet come up off of the ground. Spots began to gather in the corner of her eyes. Her hands came up to scratch at his hand. He grinned madly as she had trouble focusing her sight on anything. She vaguely registered a hand coming up from behind the man’s face, turning his gaze from Sakura.
“Jūgo. Stop it.”
She vaguely registered the words as she was entirely focused on yanking the hand off of her throat. Suddenly, she was dropped to her feet, and air infiltrated her lungs once again. Unattractively heaving, she looked up at the brute she had been facing in time to see all the discoloration on his body turn a bright red, like lava, before going becoming tan like the other half of his skin. His eyes matched a bright orange, like his hair, instead of yellow with black sclera. Before she could address this man, she then realized who had spoke.
She turned to her side to see none other than the man who left her on a bench in the middle of the night all those years ago.
And it appeared he knew the man who she had been fighting with. She didn't even know why she was surprised; it was obvious this man, Jūgo, as he had been called, clearly had spent some time under Orochimaru to have that ability. It was more shocking that Sasuke actually had ties with someone still.
Sasuke made it clear to them that he did not want anyone around, after all.
“What happened?” He asked, but his tone made it sound more like a command than a question. His sharingan was blazing as he looked between her and Jūgo. She brought her hand up to her bloodied arm and proceeded to heal the injury there, briefly scanning herself for any smaller injuries she might not have felt from the adrenaline. Not bothering to look up, she muttered, “That’s what I would like to know.”
Jūgo seemed to have an answer for the both of them.
“I lost control while taking out that hunter-nin. She stumbled upon me while I was on a rampage,” he said with his eyes cast downwards. His voice had lost it’s raspy edge; he sounded a lot more quaint. He looked over at Sakura. “My bad. I’m sorry.”
She felt a pang of sympathy for him. The dejected tone in his voice certainly caught her off guard, and he sounded genuinely upset with himself for attacking her. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily though; she did not know how trustworthy he was. She may have had bundles of compassion in her soul, but she also had to look out for herself. She gave him a weak smile. “Well, I’m not dead so.”
She felt Sasuke’s eyes land on her, but she did not look up to meet his gaze. She knew better than to let herself look into his greatest weapon. She heard a quiet scoff, and his hand came in contact with her chin, pulling her head up to face him properly. She stepped back, tugging herself out of his grip. He had deactivated his sharingan, but she still was not comfortable staring her rogue teammate in the face.
She briefly reasoned she should be glad that she finally found the elusive Sasuke Uchiha, and that she should use this opening to her advantage. However, it was well known throughout Konoha that Sasuke appeared to be a goner, even if Sakura and Naruto refused to believe that. He did just save her life, much to her chagrin, so maybe that would hold some merit to everyone back home.
“Why are you here?” He asked, breaking her train of thought. His eyes never left her frame, and she couldn’t help but feel like he was scrutinizing her entire being. She bit back, “It’s nothing of your concern.”
“So are you going to fill us in on what’s going on sometime soon, or are me and Karin supposed to just stand here?” A new voice quipped from behind Jūgo. The scuffle of footsteps became prevalent as two people approached the three of them. A white haired man had a rather familiar sword slung over his shoulders, bearing the weight as if it was nothing on his seemingly average frame. A red haired woman stood next to him, her hip cocked as she shifted her weight onto one leg. Her face was set in a sneer, and she appeared to be sizing Sakura up. Sasuke did not even spare them a glance. “Leave us be.”
“Actually, I think I’ll just leave you guys alone. I have places to be,” Sakura hummed, stepping away from the entourage. Before she could get too far, a hand clamped around her upper arm. She stifled the aggravated groan that was building in her throat. Sasuke tugged her back into the group, and so he received an annoyed glare. He did not seem fazed in the slightest. “Jūgo’s arm needs healing.”
She turned to her previous attacker — his arm was still hanging limply by his side. She stepped forward, both her hands coming up to the muscle she had severed. She habitually gave her patient a smile as she mended the muscle. He looked at what she was doing rather curiously, and as the green glow of her chakra reflected onto his skin, the slight tensing of his shoulder let her know she was trying to move his arm already. She hummed quietly, “Please refrain from moving until I’m done.”
She was very aware of all the eyes on her, but she did not find it pressuring (outside Sasuke’s gaze, at least). The same male from before spoke up once again. “Healing the guy you just kicked the shit out of, huh? I bet that doesn’t happen often. He did quite a number on you too though.”
“It happens more than you’d think,” she replied softly, recalling training with Naruto. If she wasn’t too low on chakra after they got done, she would always heal him — she knew he wouldn’t go to the hospital unless she made him.
“Of course it does. All you leaf-nin are softies,” he chuckled. Sakura ignored him, and she dropped her hands to her sides. Focusing on Jūgo, she stated, “Try and move your arm now.”
He experimentally lifted his arm, bending it at the elbow. He wiggled his fingers before relaxing his arm once again. Sakura took that as a sign her job was done. “It may still feel a little numb, like its asleep. That will go away in a few minutes. Similar to how your leg probably felt earlier.”
“Thank you,” Jūgo said softly, nodding at her. Sakura gave him a polite smile, and she turned to face Sasuke. Waving her hand in dismissal, she shut her eyes. “Now that that is done. I will be off.”
“No, you’re staying,” The Uchiha retorted simply. Sakura’s eyes opened once again. “And what makes you think I’ll be doing that?”
“You have no other option.”
“Want to bet?” Sakura tested incredulously. Ignoring the deepening glare she was receiving from the heir, she turned on her heels and walked away towards the site of her mission. She faintly registered Sasuke ordering his companions to do something, but she did not dwell on what he had told them. Before she could get too far, Sasuke flickered in front of her. His hand rest on the hilt of his sword, silently testing her to move around him. Sakura pushed down all of her building frustration; she could not afford an actual fight with him at the moment. Sighing, she retorted, “Sasuke, I’m loyal to Konoha. So unless you’re coming back home, then I will not be working alongside you.”
“You don’t have a choice,” he reiterated, and she noted his grip tightening on kusanagi’s hilt. “There will be repercussions.”
“What are you going to do, kill me?”
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. Sasuke’s hardened glare remained, as if punctuating her own words. She exhaled aggressively. It appeared she really did not have much of a choice. He spoke up once again. “You wouldn’t want the dobe to pay for you.”
That sentence was enough for her to know her fate was sealed.
Having a great sigh, she glared contemptuously at him. Shrugging her shoulders dejectedly, she muttered, “Like you said, I don’t have a choice.”
His hand slipped around her wrist, tugging her in the direction of the camp.