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TWISTED

 

"Sasuke-kun?" Sakura called hoarsely. "Are you in here?"

 

Something in her tone must have sounded haunted, for Sasuke shot up from his mat like a corkscrew. He looked ready to throw a barrage of kunai – though when he failed to see the danger, he gave Sakura a reproachful look. Fortunately for her, she missed his glare, preoccupied with waking Naruto. After a moment, both boys turned towards her, an unspoken question hanging in the air.

 

Trembling, Sakura said: “Zabuza is alive.”

 

The temperature in the room dropped at once. Even Sasuke looked shellshocked.

 

“No way!” Naruto was the first to regain his voice. “He can’t be! Did you tell Sensei how that bastard’s still around? I bet he’d disagree!”

 

Sakura bit her lip and stared at the floor. The negative hung on her lips, but Sasuke spared her the trouble:

 

“Why haven’t you?” his eyes were glaring holes into her skull.

 

Sakura flinched. “Kakashi-sensei is – recovering. I didn’t want to wake him up.”

 

“Recovering? Hahaha! Sensei’s such an old man sometimes!” Naruto hollered. “I guess being cool makes you tired, huh.”

 

“Che. Makes sense, dobe.” Sasuke glanced at Naruto briefly. “Now I know the reason behind your boundless energy.”

 

“WHAT?!”

 

But Sasuke had resumed staring holes into Sakura’s bent neck. Any other time, his eyes on her would’ve been more than welcome… but not now. Now Sakura feared Sasuke might see the ugly lies written across her forehead.

 

“The idiot is right – shouldn’t Kakashi be up by now?” he asked suspiciously.

 

“Maybe we underestimated his condition,” Sakura ventured.

 

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment, Sakura thought that he was onto her. After an excruciating wait, he said:

 

“We should sleep on this. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

 

Sakura knew at least one person who wouldn’t.

 

Today, Sakura mused sarcastically, was clearly my best birthday ever, hands down.

 

Sighing, she trekked back to her room.

 

How had it even come to this? Where had it all gone so wrong?

 

The day had started off great. Her mom had for once decided not to be annoying and woken Sakura to a perfect breakfast consistent of tea mochis, a favorite sweet of hers. Sakura normally didn’t eat them, but this day was special. This was her thirteenth birthday – the day she officially became a teenager and older than her rival, Ino.

 

Sakura had made sure to let Ino know, too. On the way to her team, she’d stopped by Ino’s window.

 

“How cute. If it isn’t Ino the preteen. Or should I say, the pre-swine?”

 

Naturally, Ino had nearly got an aneurysm.

 

“I dare you to repeat that, Forehead!”

 

“Funny, I thought you’re the one who gets totally worked up in truth or dare,” Sakura sniped back. “Ino-pig.”

 

Ino’s outraged reaction only made the moment of triumph sweeter.

 

Today was her day.

 

Things only improved when Naruto convinced the hokage to assign their team a mission worthy of grownups: an escort mission!

 

Sakura was so ready to prove to Sasuke-kun how mature and smart she was. Between Ino and her, she was clearly the superior choice.

 

The first thing – or person – out of place on this perfect day was the weathered-looking man who walked into the office shortly after. His name was Tazuna, and he was the mission client, the hokage explained. Tazuna’s first impression was dismal, to say the least. He looked old and rough around the edges, and rude, as he proved the moment he opened his mouth. There was also a bottle of liquor in his hand that did nothing good for his sharp tongue, Sakura thought.

 

She should’ve seen it then. Tazuna was the first sign in a long list, the first indicative of the horrors that waited ahead.

 

The second came masked by Naruto’s usual foolhardiness. They’d left the village for the first time, and as expected, Naruto was even more exuberant than usual.

 

“Look! Look! It’s a puddle! Wanna go jump inside with me, Sakura-chan?”

 

Is this his idea of flirting? Sakura wondered. Her inner demon gagged mentally. Pah!

 

By way of an answer, Sakura whacked Naruto on the head. “No way, you moron! I don’t do wallowing in the mud!” Turning to Sasuke, she added: “That’s more Ino-pig’s style.” No answer. She tried again: “Gee, Naruto is so immature. Totally not my type.” She blushed. “My type is the real mature, reversed kind of ikemen, you know?”

 

Whether he knew or not, Sasuke didn’t reply.

 

Sakura was about to add something else to the one-sided conversation, but then, without the slightest warning, team seven was rendered under attack. Two dangerous-looking ninja had leapt upon them from within the puddle, catching the group completely off guard.

 

Naruto, who had been at the forefront, whirled around, frozen. Sasuke meanwhile jumped into action, and so did Kakashi.

 

Except… the hook-nosed attacker was faster.

 

It was over in less than a second. Just like that, Kakashi was gruesomely sliced right through the middle. Entrails flew everywhere, a horrible smell plaguing the air.

 

“Sensei!” A broken scream.

 

Sakura couldn’t stop replaying Kakashi’s horrible death over and over again. Without him… they were lost.

 

The hook-nosed ninja, clearly the leader, paused and glanced around. He saw her. Leered. Sakura knew the moment their eyes met that it was over. Raising his bloody sword, the man sprang forward.

 

Sakura watched him close in – saw it almost in slow motion. Her feet were rooted to the ground. What was she doing? Get away! an inward part of her screamed. Yet there she stood, glued in front of Tazuna, her charge and the man she couldn’t even stand to look at. Still, she brazed herself for the hit.

 

It was then that Sasuke intervened. Lightening-quick, her teammate sprinted forward and intercepted the blow right on time. Terrified and startled, Sakura took a startled leap backwards.

 

It was pathetic, but it happened.

 

Her right foot stumbled over a jutting rock, slipped, and then – caved. Sakura could almost hear the crunching of bones and the blinding, white pain that shot up her spine.

 

Had it been different, had she stepped an inch to the right, or to the left, none of this might’ve happened.

 

But it did.

 

The rest of the altercation passed in a blur.

 

Sakura only snapped out of her pain-filled haze at the sound of a familiar baritone.

 

“Ma…” Kakashi’s voice said suddenly. “Hadn’t expected you to seize up like that, Naruto. Sasuke, Sakura, you did well.”

 

Everyone stared at him.

 

He wasn’t dead?

 

What the…! He wasn’t dead!

 

“Kakashi-sensei! You’re alive!” Judging by the scratchiness of her voice, Sakura noted distantly that she was crying. Had been, for a while now. Her foot felt like it was pulsating with pain, and she could barely even focus.

 

Naruto, to her relief, looked close to tears as well. “But…! I thought you were dead, Sensei! I saw it! That guy…!”

 

Unaffected, Kakashi pursued his usual book. “My demise was a perfectly logical ploy. It had to seem like the largest threat was out of the picture… which was me. So I pretended to be. That gave me freedom to determine exactly what, or rather, who those two were after. They’re the famous demon brothers, you know. Skilled mercenaries and ninja, not just your average joe – they’ve even made it into the bingo book as B ranked threats.”

 

“You mean those two weren’t bandits?” exclaimed Sakura, sniffing. “But then…”

 

“Yes. Sakura-chan, you did well to immediately flank Tazuna,” said Kakashi, nodding towards the bridge builder. “If the demon brothers had been after money, which was unlikely, considering who they are, they wouldn’t have targeted anyone specifically.”

 

“But they did,” Sakura whispered, wide-eyed.

 

“Yes. They did.” Kakashi turned to Tazuna, his stare smoldering. “Isn’t there something you wish to tell us, Mr Bridge-builder?”

 

The old man stiffened. Silence fell over the team like a blanket. Only Sakura’s hiccups were audible in the background.

 

She was ashamed. Hadn’t Sakura promised herself she’d be mature this time? Instead, she was crying like a baby over a sprained foot.

 

While she tried to calm her breathing, Kakashi had crouched in front of Naruto and declared that his wound was poisoned.

 

“Ma, nothing we can do about it. It’s probably for the best. Let’s return to the village. That needs to be removed from your system, Naruto.”

 

Sakura felt relief coursing through her. Thank Kaguya!

 

But then, something happened no one could have accounted for.

 

With a determined shout, Naruto slashed a kunai into his wound. It was bleeding, the dagger buried inside of him. Naruto tore it forward slowly. “I’ll never go back on my word,” the blonde hollered, determination shining in his eyes. “Do you hear me? That’s my ninja way!” By this point, there was a giant gash all across his hand. “If I ever chicken out again, this wound, this pain, will remind me: never, ever will I stop! I’ll keep my promises, and then I’ll be worthy of becoming Hokage! BELIEVE IT!”

 

“Touching display. Though I can’t help but wonder what you were trying to achieve, Naruto,” said Kakashi drolly.

 

Naruto grinned sunnily, as though he hadn’t just stabbed himself.

 

“That’s obvious, Sensei: the poison is out now, see! You don’t have to abort the mission anymore, believe it!”

 

Sakura felt dread pooling in her gut.

 

After Naruto’s sacrifice… how could she ruin it now?

 

Kakashi was surveying them from over his book.

 

“Ma, ma… in light of your valiant display, I suppose we should continue. If you’re all amenable?”

 

Naruto made a celebratory dance, Sasuke gave a curt nod and even Tazuna grinned.

 

Sakura tried telling herself that it would be fine.

 

TWSITED

 

"Fear," Sakura’s Mom said, "shouldn't ever be ignored. Do you know why that is, Sakura? It’s because fear is a shinobi’s voice of reason. It festers inside the mind, it lurks in your subconscious… it’s a shadow that never leaves.”

 

Sakura pouted.

 

“Ino’s not scared of anything, and you aren’t either. Isn’t that right, Mommy?”

 

Mebuki stroked Sakura’s head in silence, offering no answer. “Maybe it’s about time I turn the lights off, huh?” she said instead.

 

“No way!” A yawn. “What if… what if Ami tries something mean tomorrow after school?”

 

“I’ll be on time when classes are over,” said Mebuki calmly. “That brute girl had better not pull anything funny with me around.”

 

Sakura smiled, pleased, until something else occurred to her. “But what if Ami’s mom tries to pick on you?”

 

“Ami’s mom can bugger off, honestly.”

 

“You’re not afraid of anything, are you, Mommy?” murmured a drowsy Sakura.

 

Mebuki had sighed. “You’ll find, as you grow, darling, that fear never truly disappears; it is simply a shapeshifter: in occasion an old friend that will watch your back, or a fiend that will stab it…” she trailed off, lost in thought.

 

“Sometimes it’s the past which makes me afraid…” she glanced at her now sleeping daughter, an unreadable expression on her face, “and sometimes it’s the future which I can’t bear to think about. But aren’t they one and the same story?”

 

TWISTED

 

Sakura’s eyes blinked awake. What was that? A memory? It had seemed so real. Strange…

 

Sakura sighed, the events from a few hours ago coming back to her.

 

It had all been the fault of that stupid stone in her path! To think that something as inconsecuential had gotten her into this mess was beyond Sakura.

 

A bad sprain, she’d told herself when the fight was over. Nothing to worry about. She didn’t even tell Kakashi-sensei about it. After all, it had seemed like the mature thing to do; Sakura didn’t want Sasuke-kun to think her a crybaby.

 

Right. Mature.

 

Only when Zabuza, an elite ninja, had decided to attack them, Sakura had been too slow to even run away like she usually would, meaning Zabuza had used her as leverage against Kakashi. And Kakashi had nearly died because of that. Sakura had been this close to death only a few hours ago. If Kakashi-sensei had done the right thing to do – to leave her at blade point and save Tazuna – she’d be but a memory.

 

Sakura thought back to her strange dream. Funny.

 

She’d never heeded her mother’s words. Fear wasn’t exactly her voice of reason or anything weird like that. If there was something that scared her, she found a way around it, convinced herself that it simply didn’t. Sakura had learned to suppress her fear, locking the feeling away in a deep, dark corner of her mind. Big girls just weren’t afraid, period.

 

But shit. Now she couldn’t think of anything else but that. The fear. It was so deeply unsettling that Sakura thought the feeling might never leave.

 

Going back to sleep would be pointless.

 

Fear was supposed to be an intangible feeling, but Sakura felt it fester in her dreams, saw it in her inner eye (formless, white mist surrounding her, robbing her of reason and sight), she smelled it on herself (cold sweat trickling down her back), she heard it, (her own ragged breaths in the silence), she felt its searing touch, (the sharp edges of a crescent blade, a phantom pain, goosebumps marring her skin). In short: she remembered. And then Sakura would wake up with a start, feeling cold and alone.

 

At some point during the night, she couldn’t even close her eyes anymore, afraid of what would come if she fell asleep again and afraid of what might come to get her while she was asleep. It would be a nightmare either way.

 

Deep down, Sakura knew that the only way to rest at ease would be to verify that there wasn't indeed anyone hiding outside of her room. She had to see for herself that Zabuza wasn't lurking behind the paper doors to finish off what he had started barely a few hours previous, even though Sakura had seen him die.

 

Swallowing a lump in her throat, she climbed out of her futon and silently approached the white sliding door. Opened it.

 

Nothing. There was no one there. She took her water glass and made a quick trip to the bathroom to refill it, a sad attempt to dampen her parched throat. (She was so tense that she could hardly take a sip.)

 

Calm down, Sakura told herself. There's nothing here… She glanced around nervously, wishing she was back in her room. I'm safe, was her mantra. Sasuke-kun will protect me if anything goes wrong.

 

Just to be sure, Sakura peered into the second guest room on the way back to her room. Even in the darkness, she could make out a slumbering Sasuke opposite to Naruto, who was scratching his behind.

 

Gross.

 

Sakura was surprised she was surprised.

 

Without realizing it, she let out a breath. As usual, her gaze trailed toward Sasuke-kun. Back in the Academy, on that last hour before the bell rang, during the dreadfully boring ‘ninja conduct’ lessons, Sakura had used to daydream about what it would feel like to doze off with her beloved Sasuke-kun next to her…

 

Was he secretly one of those restless sleepers, masculine chest exposed only for her?

 

Kyaaaa!

 

Sakura blushed giddily at the thought.

 

To her dismay, she’d been wrong all along; Sasuke-kun slept stiff as a log. Not to mention he was buried in a cocoon of blankets which slightly resembled that of a silkworm. Not that Sakura thought he was a worm! Mortified, she stepped even closer, realizing that not a single a trace of even his aristocratic cheekbones was available for admiration. For a moment, Sakura wondered what would happen if anyone woke up and found her salivating over her sleeping teammate in the middle of the night. Not exactly a welcome thought, so Sakura ignored it, focusing instead on the aforementioned teammate. She could just make out his midnight locks puffing upwards – though her lovestruck mind supplied the long lashes, porcelain skin and soft breaths for added effect. Again, she squealed inwardly.

 

She was feeling safe and even vaguely cozy now – oh, the miracle that was Sasuke-kun! – but her feelings of rabid admiration were suddenly overlapped by a crippling sense of terror. There was someone behind her!

 

The assailant pinned her arms above her head forcefully, rendering Sakura utterly defenseless.

 

Zabuza! She mentally shouted, outwardly mute because of fear. In the yuxtaposition that was her mind, only one thought prevailed: He's going to murder me now. He'd finish what he started earlier. She was certain of it. But then an even worse realization hit her: Hashirama’s mullet, that means he's already killed Kakashi-sensei…! Sakura began to sob, her nails digging into her own flesh, leaving angry red marks in their wake. Please, no–! Please, please…! I'M GOING TO DIE!

 

In her fear, Sakura barely noticed the way her whole body tensed and began to quake, she didn’t hear the terrified clattering of her teeth, or the quiet spasming of her chest as she hiccuped. But her captor did notice.

 

"Ah, Sakura. It’s the real you."

 

Viridian eyes wide and petrified, Sakura turned around. Her assailant was… Kakashi-sensei.

 

Say what?

 

"Sensei…" she breathed faintly, feeling weak in the knees. He let go of her and slouched against the fine paper wall, his expression inscrutable as he stared off into the distance. It occurred to Sakura right then that perhaps she wasn't the only one whose knees had been reduced to jello. But just as she was about to offer making a much-needed cup of tea for the both of them, a new, horrible thought struck her:

 

He's an impostor! the dark, untrusting corner of her mind hissed. It made horrible sense. Zabuza’s used the hengue no jutsu to transform into Sensei!

 

Maybe he wanted to fool her into giving away Tazuna's location, or kidnap her so he could sell her off in the black market. And no matter what she did now, there'd be no escaping it.

 

What do I do now? Sakura despaired internally. Her weapons were all kept inside of her pouch, which was scattered on the floor of her room somewhere, and Sakura was completely defenseless without them (she was quite defenseless enough with them already). She wasn’t like Sasuke or Naruto, she had no other remarkable ninja skill, whereas Zabuza was ruthless and strong. He'd squash her like a pink bug.

 

"Bad dream?" carried on Kakashi's lookalike, apparently picking up on her restlessness, but misinterpreting it. Sakura nodded shiftily, her eyes darting around. 'Zabuzazabuzazabuza' she could only think, repeating it in her head like a mantra. The real Kakashi-sensei was probably lying in a pit somewhere while Zabuza transformed into him and kidnapped her.

 

She had to do something.

 

And in that moment, Sakura realized that fear isn't simply a voice of reason, like her mother had once said, but also the wings that make us go beyond it. Her situation may have been hopeless, but she still acted: in a last ditch attempt at survival, Haruno Sakura gathered her wits and smashed the water glass into Zabuza’s skull. A feeble attack, perhaps, but an effective one.

 

"Sa-sakura–!" he chocked out hoarsely. "Fuck! What are you…?" he clutched his head. There was blood, but Sakura barely registered any of it. Shaking, she picked up a long shard of glass. She wouldn't die. She wouldn't.

 

"Stop…" the proxy implored hoarsely, seizing the sharp weapon on the other end and pulling. Sakura felt her heart drop to her stomach, but didn’t let go, her fingers clasping the glass. There was a brief sort of tug-fight for the shard which ended with broken skin and a stab-wound in Sakura's right hand, right before the glass was torn from her grip.

 

"Calm down, Sakura!" fake Kakashi yelled. "I'm not going to hurt you."

 

With that, he tucked the glass shard into his pocket, raising his hands over his head.

 

"But… but you– you've killed Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura accused.

 

"What? No, that's – that's me…" he said. "As flattered as I am that you saw a need to avenge my death, Sakura-chan, I would rather you wake up your comrades in a situation like this."

 

Right.

 

But most importantly: it really was Kakashi. Sakura blinked, at first relieved that she wasn't about to be stabbed, then overcome by absolute horror – she had done the stabbing – to her teacher, no less!

 

"Sensei!" she rasped, suddenly struck by unbearable guilt. "I'm so sorry…!"

 

Kakashi waved it off, (his bleeding, bleeding, head injury) like one might a casual favor, and Sakura could only feel like her voice didn't sound apologetic enough, even though she was crying so much that she might manage to fill a basin.

 

"…well," Kakashi uttered forlornly after the sixth apology and anxious debt declaration, "I suppose you could lend me a hand in bandaging my head."

 

Sakura nodded vigorously, glad to oblige, studiously ignoring the fact that she could quite literally only lend one hand, for the other had been stabbed and was now bleeding profusely.

 

TWISTED

 

She did manage to pull off the one-handed bandaging – with the help of her teeth. Kakashi didn't seem to so much as notice her unseemly measures, which further increased Sakura's concern. He was too lightheaded to go back to sleep, she then decided, whereupon she sat him down in the kitchen with a hot cup of tea and a ration bar.

 

Sensei needs to eat while he's still conscious, she reasoned to herself. Or at least, conscious in theory. Kakashi seemed content to just drop his head on the table and stop existing. Looking at his sorry state, at all the blood on the table, Sakura didn’t know what to do… but then she remembered Iruka-sensei preaching about how it was crucial that patients should avoid falling asleep after a concussion, and that gave her a goal.

 

With this in mind, Sakura dragged a chair over to Kakashi and began the arduous task of feeding him.

 

Suddenly, he lifted his head just a little and said: “Congratulations, I can sense you’re improving.” Then he dropped his head again. “Please remind me not to be your sparing partner.”

 

And then he was dead to the world.

 

Of course, the first time her teacher praised her happened to be as he writhed in his deathbed

 

Understandably, Sakura had a panic attack, until she remembered she was supposed to look for a pulse and felt it steady and sure under his wrist. So what now?

 

Sakura was not going to risk dropping him off with the boys and having a misunderstanding with Sasuke-kun, thank you very much, she'd had enough misunderstandings for one night. If Sasuke woke up, he might think Sakura was actually Zabuza dragging around an injured Kakashi… it really wouldn’t bode well for her. But she definitely could not bear leaving Sensei downstairs, where he’d be at Zabuza’s mercy.

 

Zabuza’s dead! she inwardly shouted, but it didn't feel reassuring. I've seen it with my own eyes! That nuke nin took him away himself!

 

Like a mad person, Sakura disagreed with herself:

 

But shouldn't there be more than one hunter ninja on his trail? He's so dangerous! And I know for a fact that our ANBU ops always operate in squads!

 

Her inner voice did not answer, something admittedly normal, but to Sakura it was the last straw: she was now paranoid that Zabuza would come back to get her. All sorts of doubts and clues plagued her, all pointing to the fact that the ninja had been Zabuza's accomplice as opposed to being his murderer. Shaking with fear, Sakura dropped off Kakashi in her own room, and then stumbled into Sasuke-kun and Naruto's, a kunai-knife gripped in both hands.

 

"Sasuke-kun?" she hoarsely called. "Are you in here?"

 

Something in her tone must have sounded haunted, for Sasuke's eyes shot open, his stance revealing a startling readiness to engage – though he stalled himself upon seeing just Sakura, quivering alone in the darkness. Fortunately for her, Sakura missed his glare as she was preoccupied with waking Naruto. As soon as the two were up, she tremulously recounted the facts supporting her theory of Zabuza being alive, placing a special emphasis in suspicious behavior:

 

"—the supposed hunter-nin intervened just when Sensei was about to finish Zabuza off, used senbon to deal the final blow, when a kunai would've been much more effective, and then he didn't even take his head with him, but the whole body!"

 

The room was caked in silence. Not even Naruto spoke. Sasuke frowned deeply.

 

“No way!” Naruto was the first to regain his voice. “He can’t be! Did you tell Sensei how that bastard’s still around? I bet he’d disagree!”

 

Sakura bit her lip and stared at the floor. The negative hung on her lips, but Sasuke spared her the trouble:

 

“Why haven’t you?” his eyes were glaring holes into her skull.

 

Sakura flinched. “Kakashi-sensei is – recovering. I didn’t want to wake him up.”

 

“Recovering? Hahaha! Sensei’s such an old man sometimes!” Naruto hollered. “I guess being cool makes you tired, huh.”

 

“Che. Makes sense, dobe.” Sasuke glanced at Naruto briefly. “Now I know the reason behind your boundless energy.”

 

“WHAT?!”

 

But Sasuke had resumed staring holes into Sakura’s bent neck. Any other time, his eyes on her would’ve been more than welcome… but not now. Now Sakura feared Sasuke might see the ugly lies written across her forehead.

 

“The idiot is right – shouldn’t Kakashi be up by now?” he asked suspiciously.

 

“Maybe we underestimated his condition,” Sakura ventured.

 

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment, Sakura thought that he was onto her. After an excruciating wait, he said:

 

“We should sleep on this. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

 

Sakura knew at least one person who wouldn’t.

 

Sakura knew at least one person who wouldn’t. She’d stay up all night fearing for her life and periodically tending to Kakashi’s injury. It was nothing life-threatening, she reckoned, but it did meant that Kakashi would be down when they needed him the most.

 

And, she added spitefully, it was her fault.

 

Yay, grumbled Inner Sakura. Best birthday ever, no doubt about it.

 

TWISTED

 

Some things readers ought to know:

 

-Naruto is the intelectual property of Masashi Kishimoto. This work is non-lucrative.

 

-There will be no pairings, or at least they remain yet-to-be-decided, but I can tell you for sure that none between members of team 7.

 

-The main focus of this story is Sakura’s growth as a person and as a shinobi. I’ve purposely started the tale on a lighter note, but it’ll get darker eventually.

 

-The Kakashi Sakura teacher-student relationship is very important at the beginning, but not necessarily later on.

 

-There is no character bashing in this work, so I’d rather reviewers take their flames elsewhere unless the critique is constructive.

 

-I sound like an uptight old grandma in this briefing, but guys, I’m honestly not! :) I’m a sucker for reviews though. Wink wink.