The mission sounded simple enough on paper. Save a "princess", one up the boys. Add to that their destination was a tropical island. How could any of the girls pass up a mission like this? The approach to the island was met with the most dreadful storm the genin had ever seen. The blackest sky greeted their tiny boat by hurling bolts of lighting at them like spears. The ocean came alive, furious at being disturbed from its slumber. While hurricane gales battered at the hull, the Skipper wrestled with the wheel urging the girls to take refuge in the cramped cabin below. Shivering with wet and cold, the four girls hugged their knees as the roaring waves had drowned out all other sounds. The last sound they heard was a splintering crack before darkness took hold of them.
The world was wobbling around her as Sakura's eyes fluttered open. The air was heavy with salt as sea gulls cried, circling above like vultures. Her legs and chest were freezing. In a heartbeat Sakura jolted to life, clinging to a piece of driftwood as she drifted among the waves. By some miracle she was not far from a beach. Fearing for her life, she quickly paddled toward the shore. When her feet ran against rocky sand, she screamed with delight. Closer! She was almost there.
"Sakuraaa!" An all too familiar voice cried out to her left. Ino was gonna make it, and Sakura had never been so happy to hear Ino-Pig's voice. Far off already on the sandy dune, Hinata sat on the ground hugging her knees. Meanwhile Ten Ten stood beside her, waving with a relieved smile. When the girls were assembled, they grabbed a hold of each other in massive hug, screaming with joy. When they could have died they lived!
The scene was idyllic, the island was completely unspoiled in its natural splendor. It was almost alien to behold a place so devoid of human life and architecture. The weather was just right, warm but not too hot. Clear blue skies mirrored the ocean all around them. The beach itself was clean of all debris, save for the few pieces of boat that washed up along with the girls.
"What a pity," Ino said wistfully. "We should have brought our swimsuits..." Lady Tsunade had forbidden the girls from bringing anything frivolous, much their collective chagrin. She had expressly forbidden them from bringing swimsuits with scowl that made them shiver. The mission was too crucial to waste time playing around. "Too bad we couldn't get stranded like this with Sasuke-kun." She shot a challenging glance over to Sakura. Hinata was fidgeting, pushing at her fingertips while Ten Ten stretched her arms out.
Sakura knew Ino meant it in jest, given the circumstances, and did her best to play it off that way. "Yeah right! You'd want him all to yourself!"
"Now now, Sasuke-kun is a growing boy," Ino shot back. "I wouldn't be so cruel as to deprive my future husband of his manly needs. Not like some girls." Ino laughed in a haughty way that made Sakura growl and grind her teeth. Even here Ino's arrogance reigned supreme!
"Meh, you can keep brooding boy," Ten Ten interjected. "I already have Neji for that..."
"You like Neji?" Sakura and Ino said in curious unison.
"He does have a certain maturity to him," said Sakura. Ino nodded in agreement.
Ten Ten gave Hinata a sultry wink, a gesture the shy girl didn't understand. "Hyugas are rather handsome, but I much prefer Lee-kun." Ten Ten crossed her arms as if in triumph, which made Sakura and Ino laugh all the harder.
"LEE? Ewww! No way! He's gross." It was inconceivable to either of them that any girl would lower themselves down to such a level. He was such an aggravating, limp wristed weirdo!
"Lee has a way of surprising you. There's more to him than the surface. Even if you have to dig deep to find it."
"Remind me to bring a shovel the next time we meet," Sakura said while sticking her tongue out.
"Or a drill!" Ino added. With everyone laughing Hinata struggled to keep up with forced but well meaning giggles. "What about you Hinata-chan?" Ino asked the shy girl suddenly. "Who do you think is more handsome? Sasuke," Ino spoke his name rather musically. "Or Lee?" She said his name as if spitting out a bug.
"Or Neji?" Ten Ten added, which only caused Hinata to mumble and shuffle her feet ever more nervously.
"I...ah...I am not f-familiar with Uchiha-san or Lee-san so...not that I dislike them! But I don't have those kinds of feelings for them..."
"Hinata's such a good girl," said Sakura. "Being from an important clan, she's probably gonna marry a famous prince or something someday huh?"
Ino clasped her hands together in a most darling fashion. "Ohh! That's so romantic! Are you betrothed Hina-chan?"
Hinata shook her head. "Not exactly, but...I wouldn't mind marrying...someone like the Hokage someday..." Hinata smiled a secret smile as her cheeks flushed. She knew her meaning even if the others didn't.
"Oh ho? Hinata-chan's got a thing for older men huh?" Ino said. Hinata immediately started sputtering and waving her arms around trying to deny it. Ino held up her hands as if trying to mellow out a child. "Hey, hey easy Hina, it's alright. Why don't we change the subject..."
Silence fell over the group and with it a sullen mood. The harshness of their situation was as inescapable as the sun's light. To try and break the mood, Sakura bent down to pull off her sandals and tossed them off to the side. Stepping into the sand with her bare feet she let the warmth of the earth well up and through her. It was little crazy maybe, but by connecting in this way, it helped to ground her. She sauntered forward as the other girls watched. Gazing out into the sea, into the infinite blue, she brushed back her bangs as the breeze caressed her face. She tried to imagine that they were simply at the beach. A desolate beach with no shelter, or access to clean food, water, or people.
"We might be here for awhile." The words bore an uncomfortable weight, but it was not unbearable. Standing as tall and firm as she could manage she turned around to face her team. Ino's eyes were focused on the ground and she hugged herself as if to ward off a chill. Sakura hadn't seen Ino's lower lip quiver like that since they were small children. To think just a few hours ago she and Ino were bickering over who was team leader in this mission. It was all did together anymore. There was a small, secret spot in Sakura's heart that hoped that this mission would be their chance to smooth things out again. How she yearned to laugh and talk with Ino again, just like in the old days. But Ino could be so stubborn.
The threat of never going home again seemed to have sapped her of what stubbornness she had. For Ino sank into the sand and slumped her shoulders.
It was easy to be worried for Hinata, just trying to talk to her seemed to frighten the poor girl. Though she fiddled with her fingers in nervous habit, she remained standing still. Even though her toes seemed to point inward with innocent poise, there was...not a calmness per se, but a sense of conviction. Hinata could be so delicate, and yet she was not down on the ground crying or shaking. She was no leader, but she was still standing. Sakura breathed a sigh of relief. There was more to Hinata that what she appeared to be. That gave Sakura courage. It felt like what few times she had been together with Hinata, she's had to look out for her like a big sister. A random thought occurred to her, didn't Hinata have a little sister? When they made it home, Sakura felt she'd have to get closer to the Hyuga heiress. When.
Ten Ten was even more unfamiliar to her than Hinata was, and taking the situation in her own way. Pacing back and forth, it made Sakura think of a lion in a cage. The two girls exchanged a long glance as if to size each other up. It was Ten Ten who broke away first. The unspoken vote was unanimous. We might be here a while, the words echoed in Sakura's thoughts. Truth be told, there was a part of her that wanted to be furious. To yell and scream in fury and stomp her feet at the unfairness of it all. To fall to her knees and sob until she was dry of tears. This she could not do. Would not. She was a kunoichi, not a helpless little girl. The others were counting on her to see them through this trial. So she gave them all reassuring smile.
"This spot seems as good as any. We'll make our base camp here." Sakura waited to see how the others would react. Ten Ten stood up attentively, while still somber Hinata regarded her with doe eyes. Only Ino remained unshaken from her forlorn stupor.
"How?" She grumbled on the verge of sobbing. "We don't even have any gear!" It was true. Their packs were aboard the boat that had brought them. All of their survival rations, water, rope, all their camping gear was lost in the wreck.
"We'll just have to make do with what we can find," said Sakura. Wilderness survival was just one of the many skills afforded to ninja. If they worked together they should be able to last until help arrived. That didn't make the situation any less scary though. The boat that was bringing them to the island was supposed to be their HQ. They were to retrieve the target, a young noble girl, and smuggle her off the island before the enemy could react. Simple and clean. The only real threat was supposed to be the kidnappers, a motley crew of small time wanna-be thugs playing at being pirates. The storm was an oversight that cost them dearly. The damn thing came out of nowhere when the weather was supposed to be clear for the whole week. Nevertheless it happened. It should have been planned for but wasn't. Now they were stuck on an uncharted island with no way of contacting anyone.
Maybe the Skipper was right about the island being cursed. The thought ran down Sakura's spine like an icy finger. "The Skipper!" Sakura turned and ran back down to the water's edge. The waves rolled in and out, belching out the occasional bit of debris but no sign of the man who brought them here. No order was necessary for the rest of the girls to fan out along the beach, searching for the Skipper. He was not any kind of remarkable man. Just a simple fisherman who had never left the borders of his hometown. Someone who scraped by to provide for his wife and children. He was also the only one who relented when asked for passage to the island. Everyone else they asked shooed them away, telling the same story.
"Those kidnappers are insane," the Skipper had said. "That island is haunted. A terrible evil lurks beneath the surface of that place. No man, or woman for that matter has ever returned from it. Tis especially dangerous for young women, so the stories say." When the girls had prodded him the reasons why it was cursed, he scratched his head and looked over his shoulder. He spoke in a soft whisper that they all had to lean in close. "Tis the island of demon nymphs it is said. A vile Beast lives on the island. It steals the souls of pretty young maidens, not unlike yourselves, and turns them into demons. They go wild and crazy, paint themselves with blood and feast on the flesh of men. Headhunters! But that is not the only danger. Zukalaka Island is vast and full giant beasts. Even the plants are said to have a taste for human blood. No, I won't do it. I cannot in good conscience lead you to your death!" But the man was weak when the girls turned their charms on him. Sakura remembered, acting in accordance with her kunoichi training, there's nothing in this world a good man lives for than to help a pretty young girl in distress. All men yearn for such things, to be protectors. The four of them mewled like kittens, shaming him for his inaction. It was basic human instinct. They assured him that they would succeed in rescuing the "princess", for they were mighty Hidden Leaf ninja. The Skipper went from shaking his head to shaking all over, it was a wonder he didn't fall to his knees and beg to help them out in the end. There was a certain sense of uncleanness that came of manipulating the poor man in such a way. But a wise kunoichi doesn't relent, and uses all the tools she has at her disposal. Being as sweet as could be, the girls rewarded his effort with relieved smiles and compliments. How brave was their mighty captain, to risk such a quest to help four cute ninja out.
He is brave, Sakura insisted. All of them hoped he was ok.
The coastline went on and on for miles and miles in either direction circling a lush jungle. Sakura made the call early that they should stick together no matter what happened. The Skipper had to turn up, if they survived then so should he. The kunoichi broke into a run, their arms flung behind them like wings as they kicked up sand behind them. Ten Ten spotted him first, rolled up in ball and surrounded by timbers. He was hagrid and balding to begin with, dressed in little more than rags which now clung to his skin, the way his skin clung tight to his bones. Lying there un-moving, he could very well have been asleep. No breath passed from his lips, no pulse ran through his wrist. He had since grown pallid and cold as ice in the water's mocking embrace. The girls each shared a held breath, flinching away in terrible awe of the presence of death. Together they buried him further up on the beach, using a piece of splinter to mark the grave.
"S-shouldn't we say something?" Hinata said. The kunoichi circled the grave, their hands solemnly clasped in front of them. Sakura, Ino, and Ten Ten's families were not very pious. Traditional as Hinata's family was, prayer was fit in with the daily routine as a mechanical function. Practiced ritual for its own sake, because that's just what's been done for hundreds of generations. There was little comfort to be had in the grim face of death. But somehow, just posing the question seemed to give the group a sense of direction if not purpose. It wasn't much but it would have to be enough.
Sakura searched for the words to say and spoke slowly. "The Skipper was kind enough to lead us here. He didn't have to but he did. He risked his life for us, knowing..." Her voice broke as tears ran down her cheeks. Ino openly cried into her hands as Hinata hugged her sides looking down between her sandals. Even Ten Ten swallowed hard, doing everything she could to at least look like a tough as nails kunoichi rather than a little girl. "...That there was danger ahead." Despite the idyllic calm from the splash of waves, and the chime of palm leaves as wind passed through them, the girls were far from safe. The kidnappers were still out there somewhere, along with what ever other natural defenses the island had to offer. Sakura clenched her fists as she wiped the tears away. "His sacrifice won't be forgotten and won't be in vain," she vowed. "We will complete our mission. May he rest in peace."
Sakura, acting as she imagined one should, pressed her hands together and bowed her head in prayer. Hoping that whatever kami dwelled on the island, or whatever god the man revered would keep him safe. Ino continued to sob as she imitated her leader. Hinata, more practiced in ritual, fell to her knees to bow in reverence. Ten Ten offered a knowing nod but nothing more.
Not wanting to linger near the dead, the girls dashed away back to where they had landed. After all, Sakura had left her sandals behind. But when they returned to where they had landed, her sandals were gone. The kunoichi came skidding to a halt and drew their kunai in alarm. For in the place of the sandals a grisly effigy stood. A man's severed head sat atop a three pronged stick. Its eyes and mouth were sewn shut in thick leather x's. Stamped across its face was a bloody red footprint, with a slender wooden barb pierced through his nostril. The ears were also pierced in similar crude fashion, with tuffs of jade feathers dangling like earrings from its lobes. A wreath of still green leaves crowned the head. Its hair went sullied, save for the scalp which had been cut away leaving a terrible red gash. Hinata covered her mouth in horror. Ino wanted to scream but some fearful instinct held her back, less whoever left the gruesome thing hear her. Ten Ten maneuvered herself in such away to watch the kunoichi's flank. Sakura's whole body clenched up as she stared at the thing as if it a thousand miles away.
The kidnappers didn't do this, she quickly realized. The men they were tracking were gang of village layabouts. This, this sacrilege was beyond brutal. Could it be the head of one of the kidnappers? Feathers of every color fluttered in an arc from the two prongs, giving the effigy the semblance of desecrated wings. Whoever was responsible knew they were here. They were out there in jungle, waiting. As if to confirm her suspicions, heavy drums echoed in the distance, blending in with the calls of birds and the howls of various beasts. A cruel melody as natural as any other island beast.
"Talking drums," said Ten Ten as she gripped her kunai even tighter. "I read about it in a book. Primitive tribes would use them to communicate between villages, or to go to war..." Sakura broke from her shock to turn and face the jungle. Compared to the bright and sunny beach, the forest was a titanic mass of thorns and darkness. A beast in of its own right, the palm trees seemed more like fangs awaiting tear them apart like the tender morsels they were. The savage drums thundered on like some terrible heart beat. The kunoichi realized they were standing upon a precipice. Somewhere in that emerald inferno a little girl was lost and alone, at the mercy of only god knows what. Sakura, Hinata, Ten Ten, and Ino were sworn to rescue her. There was no turning back now.