The night before the caravan departed from the Ehime estate, Kakashi sent a small message via pug to Naruto. The group was crossing into Grass Country on the third day of travel when Kakashi was awoken by a familiar prickle of chakra. Recognizing Naruto's signature, he continued to doze.
Minutes later there was a shift of a weight on the caravan tarp. Kakashi waited for Naruto's traditional joyous greeting, but was met with silence.
"Stop it," he said, knowing that Naruto's hand was reaching for his mask.
Kakashi's mouth twitched in amusement. Honestly, he didn't really care if Naruto saw his face or not. Of his three students, Naruto was the only one who had not had the privilege. This was a lesson in manners Kakashi was determined to hammer in Naruto's head.
Kakashi rolled off of the wagon and landed gracefully on the ground. Naruto chose to remain on top of the wagon, his legs dangling from the edge.
"So…" Naruto began with a wide smile on his face, the mischievous one that had exasperated many an Academy teacher. God help the world if Naruto became an interrogator, for the world would surely break apart.
"So?" Kakashi responded back automatically.
"Sakura?" Naruto continued.
Kakashi picked up the train of conversation immediately. "Sakura," he affirmed.
Naruto crossed his arms. "I have seen you in action. I know how you got your nickname, so you don't have to copy everything I say."
"Mmm… I'm surprised she told you. She seemed quite embarrassed by the entire thing."
"A lot of people are embarrassed by you. I had to explain to a villager a few months ago that you were my sensei and that I wasn't friends with a hobo. The villager whacked me on the back of my head with her broom when I said that. She said I should have treated you with respect." His face crumpled strangely, as if he found that idea hilarious and unbearable.
Either that or he was constipated.
"Maybe if you had worn more than three pairs of clothes when you were gone on your mission people wouldn't have had that problem thinking you were a lazy mooch."
Kakashi ignored the sly insult. "Is there a point, Naruto?"
Naruto flipped onto the ground and landed next to Kakashi. "Did you change your mind about Sakura?"
"No." Kakashi slowed his pace to allow the last wagon of the caravan to gain some ground.
"That's kinda ballsy, trying to sweep her away from underneath what's-his-face."
Kakshi said nothing as he listened to the clip-clops of the horses slowly growing quieter.
"What happened when you met Sasuke?"
A frown appeared on Naruto's lips. "Hmph. I don't know if I should say anything. Although I guess it's only a matter of time before you find out."
"Who am I going to tell?"
Naruto kicked a rock on the ground. "Okay, okay. The first thing you have to know was that I wasn't originally part of the mission. Sakura was assigned to work with a few people that I don't know very well, one of them was her boyfriend at the time. Everything was fine and they completed it, but when they were coming back from the mission they found Sasuke. Sakura's boyfriend was attacked and captured so Sakura went back to rescue him while the third member of the team was sent back to Konoha to report. On his way to the village, he ran into me. I decided to find the others and the third team member continued on his way to Konoha.
"It was easy to find them, they hadn't traveled far. And when I got there, I thought it would be like old times, a small fight and some words and then we would go different ways without really hurting each other." Naruto's voice turned bitter.
"But not this time, Sasuke was angry. Sakura was sitting on a blanket with her chin on her knees and her boyfriend was unconscious on the ground next to her. He was yelling at Sakura when I got there, he said stuff about her boyfriend, stupid stuff, you know? Sasuke was acting jealous.
"And I kept waiting for Sakura to say something but she didn't. She didn't say a single word.
"So I started to defend her, and Sasuke looked at me with surprise, like he hadn't even noticed I was there before. We fought and this time Sasuke didn't hold back at all. I ended up having an army of shadow clones hold him down so we could escape. When I turned around to see if he was following us, I could see him standing at the top of the hill with a smile on his face. Sasuke could have followed us if he wanted to, but I guess that wasn't the point.
"Sakura had been silent was because she had been crying the whole time." Naruto made a face of frustration. "I thought Sakura was over that phase, you know? I'm not happy that Sasuke feels that he can't trust us or Konoha or whatever. But it's not anything that can be helped. He felt like the village betrayed him, and it will never be his home. But Sakura didn't stop crying and she wouldn't eat. When I got back to the village I learned that Sasuke used Tsukuyomi on her. Sakura hasn't been the same since. She dropped out of active duty, she dumped her boyfriend, and she didn't volunteer at the Academy anymore. Instead, she spent her entire day working at the hospital.
"After that I moved to the border to help rebuild. But I'm waiting for any rumors of Sasuke. I'll never forgive him for what he did to Sakura."
Kakashi frowned. "And you just let Sakura take care of this situation on her own?"
"I didn't have a choice!" Naruto's voice grew louder as he grew more frustrated. "I'm not a healer! I don't know where to start. She wouldn't tell me a single thing when I was there in the village. She went around town acting like everything was fine, but everyone could see it in her eyes. Ino promised that she would watch out for her and send me a message if I was needed." He sighed. "Compared to last year, she is not that bad, so I guess she's healing."
Kakashi's brow furrowed. "And you don't know anymore than that?"
Naruto shrugged. "I wish I could tell you more, Kakashi-sensei."
They walked in silence as Kakashi contemplated Naruto's explanation. There was a large piece missing in the story: the reasoning to Sasuke's actions. It rankled Kakashi and he knew the answer would elude him for some time.
Naruto shook his head, his eyes squinting at the large caravan that rattled down the mountain ahead of them. "Sakura's marrying this guy because she's running away. I'm not saying that she won't be happy or he's a jerk. But how does a girl who has actually put her hands in a guy's chest become a trophy wife?" Naruto stopped walking, patiently waiting for an answer.
"When she forgets who she is," replied Kakashi. He nodded at Naruto and ran forward to catch up with the caravan, leaving Fire Country behind.
Kakashi could testify that Tsukuyomi was a terrifying attack and it was difficult to recover from it. But he also knew that Tsunade was excellent at alleviating a great deal of the pain, which meant that the issue was mostly psychological.
Kakashi passed Sakura on his way to the front of the caravan. She was sitting on top of a wagon, clumsily attempting to monogram her name on a handkerchief. Kakashi shook at his head and her fruitless endeavor; the wagon was bumping along so it would be impossible to stitch properly. It appeared she had lost a part of her common sense as well.
It was a long journey to Snow Country and Kakashi hoped he could remind her who she was by then.
And if he failed, there was always the trip back.
Every night, the wagon formed a spiral and all of the people gathered in the center by a giant bonfire. The people would gather and share stories as they waited for the cooks to prepare the food. The daimyo did not isolate himself from his servants, encouraging his company with tales of his own. Sometimes they would be one large group, at other times they would separate into groups of similar interests. It was a comfortable atmosphere, and this was one of the reasons that Kakashi had no issue with being Lord Ehime's favorite shinobi. The trips were largely comfortable journeys with little action, big pay and great entertainment. But this normally pleasant journey was marred with Sakura's presence. For Kakashi had observed with increasing irritation as the days progressed, that Sakura had sat obediently at her betrothed's side. She stayed away from the bodyguards and other ninja, and she stayed away from him.
Kakashi would be the first to admit that stealing Sakura away from under the client's nose was an audacious move. And he would have been less impressed with her had she made it easy for him. But his irritation was not borne of the circumstances- rather it was the attitude she exhibited. When Sakura sat next to Norio she held his hand, she would give a demure smile, and she… tittered . A high pitched fangirl-esque noise that was completely foreign to his ears. The Sakura that he knew would have punched that girl in the face. Sakura's real laugh was more of a guffaw, shamelessly unrefined but genuine.
This new version of Sakura fit into that circle of nobility and Kakashi did not like that one bit. He was beginning to grow apprehensive, to doubt his own vow and determination. Not that he would stop his pursuit of her hand; what sort of man would he be to give up on Sakura so easily?
" Hee heee hee."
He felt a muscle in his jaw twitch as he heard Sakura's mutated laugh sound nearby. Darting a glance at her, the soft light of the fire made her hair glow unnaturally. There was a simple smile on her face and Kakashi found himself marveling that Sakura had managed to retain a fresh quality despite several days' journey. It was easy to imagine her dressed in the finest silks, her hair twirled up and welcoming visitors into the magnificent Ehime estate with a gracious smile.
"Hmph, if you ask me that chick must have been a worthless kunoichi."
Kakashi's visions were interrupted as one of the guards spoke, a gruff man whose blond hair was turning gray. He was a familiar face; Kakashi supposed he was one of the people regularly employed by the daimyo. What was his name? Kenta? Kenji?
"Is that what you think?" asked a teenage servant, whose posture still exhibited that particular slouch from an unexpected growth spurt. "They say she's one of the best there is out there. I think that Norio-sama is lucky, Yori."
Ah , thought Kakashi, the guard was Yori. Well, he was close .
The lone woman of the group gave a derisive laugh. "She's pretty enough, I'll give her that. But you have to be kidding me if you think that uptight little wallflower is any good at fighting."
Kakashi scrutinized the woman, noticing the band around her upper arm that identified her as a kunoichi from Grass Country. She was pretty, albeit plain, and there was an attitude to her posture that indicated confidence. Peeking underneath the armband was a long jagged scar. She was definitely not a medic-nin.
The kunoichi spit a wad of tobacco out of her mouth and spoke once more. "I've never heard of her, and if she's as good as they say she is, I think she would be in the Bingo Book by now. And with that color of hair, I know I would have recognized her description at least. I think that the whole thing is some sort of set-up to impress the other countries, like we're the stupid ones that can't recognize an imitation kunoichi over the real deal."
"Yeah that's what I was saying," said Yori. "I don't really mind who Norio-sama marries, it's not my business. But if they are going to be advertising her background as a ninja, some people are going to test her to see if it is true. And if she is not up to the challenge, it is going to make my job harder."
Kakashi then recognized the man as the head of the security for the Ehime estate, responsible for the hiring of guards and the one who hired security during travel. His interaction with Yori had been minimal after an incident a dozen years ago that led to Kakashi reporting directly to Lord Ehime. He couldn't recall seeing the man around since then. Perhaps the man still held a grudge against him or it was simply a chance that they had not crossed paths.
"I think you should know that Sakura is more than capable of handling herself in a fight," Kakashi said. He felt the audience's attention shift towards him. "She's one of the most enthusiastic ninja that I've ever had the pleasure of working with."
The woman leaned over a smug smile on her face. "I noticed you used the word enthusiastic, not talented."
He cursed internally at his poor choice of words, a mistake that the Grass nin had seized like Naruto on a ramen fit. It wasn't that Sakura lacked talent, it was all too easy for him to imagine the unfiltered satisfaction on her face right before she delivered an earth-shaking punch.
Matters were not helped when Sakura chose at this time to give another high-pitched giggle.
"Sakura's talent is often overlooked because of the circumstances in which her abilities lie," he said, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the distaste on Yori's face. "She is a medic-nin, and when she isn't busy in the hospital researching she's often playing second fiddle to other jonin such as myself."
The grass nin rolled her eyes. "Oh, she's a medic-nin . Everyone knows that those ninja have meager talent anyway. They can't fight properly so they have to hang around the back and hope no one sees them. I bet it would take ten seconds for me to beat her to a pulp. "
Kakashi tilted his head, making it very apparent to the rest of the people in the circle that he was judging the Grass kunoichi. The woman's scar on her arm showed she wasn't afraid of close combat. She had numerous pockets, probably for the dozens of weapon's that she had hidden away. Ninjas from Grass relied heavily on poisons for their success. All of these were skills that Sakura would have an easy time overcoming.
"You could try, but you wouldn't get very far," he replied.
The woman scowled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Kakashi shrugged, feeling as if had done enough talking for the night. "It is something you will have to discover on your own. Talk to her, she'll surprise you."
With his vague statement delivered, Kakashi headed to a nearby wagon. He would have to wake up later to watch the wagons while everyone else slept. Best to get some rest now.
Sakura stared at the map that Norio had unfurled and desperately hoped that she looked interested. Honestly when she had asked what had happened to part of the caravan, she hadn't expected a two-hour lecture on the history, uses, and politics of the silk trade. A few of the wagons had branched off deeper into Rock Country. Among the travelers was Suzu, a kunoichi from Grass country.
The woman had approached her a few days in the journey and asked to borrow a senbon. Sakura admitted that she didn't carry senbon because it was a weapon that she had never favored. That led to a conversation about weapons and which weapons were the most dangerous. She was somewhat disappointed that Suzu was in charge of leading part of the caravan in a different direction. It was nice having her around.
"Sakura." The radio by her wrist crackled as Kakashi's voice broke through.
"Yes," she replied, somewhat relieved by the interruption.
"Do me a favor and stay in the wagon. I think we are about to be attacked." Norio stopped rolling up the scroll in his hand and stared at the radio.
"Shouldn't I be going outside to help you?" Sakura asked in puzzlement.
"No." There was a pause, and when he spoke once more his voice had taken a business-like tone. "We are traveling through Grass Country." The static died as Kakashi turned off the radio.
"Attacked?" Norio turned to Sakura, his eyes shining in excitement. "Attacked? In all of my travels, I have never been attacked before."
Sakura looked at him in surprise. "Never?" The sheer idea astounded her.
"No. Yori was excellent at providing guards for me during my travels. There were a few incidents with robbers but it was not a real challenge. Hatake was always responsible for the caravan and most robbers deemed it too much of a risk to attempt. I do remember an assassination attempt when I was a child, but I was too young at the time to be frightened."
He leaned forward in eagerness. "I do not mean to be rude, but why did Kakashi ask you to stay inside? While I have never seen you in battle, I am told you are efficient in combat."
Sakura leaned forward to keep her voice low. "We're in Grass Country; a great deal of their attacks focus on using poisons. Kakashi wants me to avoid the initial confrontation so I can heal any of the injuries."
As she spoke, she heard an odd noise outside of the wagon that gradually grew louder.
"What the hell?" It was as if a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, the air was filled with the rhythmic tap of rain. Sakura saw Norio raise his hand to move the curtain from the window, and she yanked his hand and pushed him down to the ground.
"You don't know what's out there," she hissed, as she stared at the window.
The sound died off in seconds, only followed by the yelling of guards, and screeches of the horses. It sounded as if a few of the wagons had tipped over as well.
"Go boys," yelled a foreign voice, "you know what to do."
"Yes, Boss!" cried a legion of men.
Sakura moved from the floor, and moved the curtain over ever so slightly to peek outside. She saw dozens of men pass her window as they made their way to the back of the caravan. When she saw no one else pass, Sakura decided to open the door.
Norio grabbed her arm. "What are you doing? Hatake told you to stay in the wagon!"
She gave Norio a look of annoyance as she removed his hand from her arm.. "I heard him. But you didn't understand the message he was sending me at all." She shut the door to the wagon and looked around.
The entire caravan had come to a standstill; there were dozens of people lying motionless on the ground. She swallowed with difficulty, trying her best to ignore the welling of fear. Placing her hand on the nearest man she noticed he was still breathing, although unconscious. She went on to the next person, only to notice the same results.
"What is going on here," she muttered. With the third person she flipped him over and then gave a gasp. The man was covered in tiny needles. It was if he had been attacked by some sort of porcupine. Looking properly at her surroundings, she noticed that the needles were even on the wagons, making the noise that Sakura had mistaken for rain.
On other people, there was a single arrow, long but slim.
Not too far away was another man with blondish-gray hair. He was still conscious, although his movements were severely hampered by his paralyzed legs.
"What happened?" Sakura asked as she began to delicately remove one of the slim arrows from his leg.
"Attack," the gruff man replied. "Not that you were of any help. They've stolen the horses."
Sakura stopped her careful breakdown of the poison to look at the nearest wagon. The horses had been stolen, leaving the wagons without something to pull them.
"Don't worry, I'll get them back," she said as she continued to heal the man.
Sakura had been warned of making promises before, knowing that sometimes it was impossible to keep them. But Kakashi, she was certain, was still conscious. She had seen him transport out of sticky situations and she had the utmost confidence that he was biding his time before his plan went into effect.
"Yeah, right," a voice said behind her. Before Sakura could move, she felt an arrow enter her backside, causing her butt to go numb. Her body recognized the foreign agent immediately and was already hard at work at combating the poison. She tried to raise her arm to remove the arrow, but she was having a difficult time moving.
"Don't even bother; this stuff could knock out a horse," said the thief. He cast her a smug smile, climbed on his horse and galloped away.
"Argh!" Sakura yelped as she felt a hand grope her, and then yank out the offensive arrow.
"Goooo," the blond man said, his words becoming slurred. "Get ush back the horshesh."
Sakura staggered to her feet as she was removing the poison from her body. The gruff man had fallen asleep like the others, leaving Sakura aware that she was mostly alone in solving the situation. She swore at Kakashi under her breath as she wondered where he had disappeared; she swore at the thief who had the audacity to shoot an arrow in her rear end. It made it difficult to remove the poison, and she couldn't see properly to heal the wound. But she was feeling better and the thieves were escaping, so she left the small injury for later. She needed to chase after those thieves.
Targeting the horses was sort of brilliant. While there were plenty of people interested in buying gold, tapestries, and even silk, there was a limited market for that sort of thing. The thieves could stuff their pockets all they wanted, but they would have a hard time getting away on foot. But the horses that were transporting the goods were used to hard work. They were horses that would be bought by the average farmer without hesitation, as opposed to a rare jade statue. It also made for a quick getaway.
And right now, the thieves were riding away on the horses, leaving the entire caravan without transportation.
If she let them escape, who knew who long it would be before they were able to move again. Not to mention the humiliation that this would cause since she was one of the few people still awake.
And so Sakura ran after them.
And ran after them.
And ran after them.
It wasn't too long before she realized a tragic flaw in her half-assed plan.
She was out of shape.
Oh yes, compared to the average civilian she was considerable ahead of the curve. But running full out on a field and chasing thieves on horses required a hefty amount of endurance, the kind she didn't have after spending almost a full year in a hospital. And even when she did train, it was exercise in aim and flexibility. Rarely did she spend time running laps around Konoha.
Why hadn't she paid more attention to Lee's training?
Even with the assistance of her chakra she could feel exhaustion settling in. It was a depressing situation. She hadn't seen anyone seriously injured at the caravan, she was the only one who could eliminate the poison, and she was one of the few conscious. It was a lot of pressure on her shoulders and she should be conserving her chakra. But if she didn't get the horses back, she would be the laughing stock of the entire estate.
Despite the burning in her legs, she stepped up the pace.
Not far off she could see the canyon that was the border into Rock Country. The caravan had passed through this spot not even two hours ago; the stone walls were the only thing visible for the entire morning.
And Sakura caught a break. It looked as if the horses were feeling some pain of their own; some of them had grown tired of the running and were beginning to slow. Pretty soon she was right behind the riders. Now all she had to do was stop them.
Changing her direction slightly, she made for the cliff walls, running across them to cut ahead. When she glanced down at the ground, Sakura noticed that the thieves hadn't even noticed her presence.
Smirking, she reached out her hand to grab a protruding rock. It snapped satisfyingly under her hand. Reaching into her pocket, she grabbed a pair of exploding tags in her pocket and stuck them on.
By now she had gained a bit of distance and Sakura could here the voices of exclamation as they noticed her presence. She jumped off the cliff wall and landed on the ground and spun to face the thieves. She had to wait for just the right moment.
"Three.." The horses were still galloping towards her and it looked as if they had no attention of stopping.
"Two..." Sakura snapped her wrists down, a rock in each hand.
"One!" She tossed the rocks in front of her, causing the air to fill with a healthy amount of dust. A few rocks came flying in her direction and she caught one that aimed straight for her head.
She heard the horses whiney and their hooves stop as they came to a standstill.
"Don't you move!" She screamed at the thieves, some of whom flinched with her words. "If you do, I'll block the exit entirely. Let's see how long you survive in Grass Country without a passage to Earth."
"Who's gonna stop us?" exclaimed one man. Sakura scanned the group of thieves to identify the speaker. Alas, she noted with amusement, they all looked similar. "You may be pretty, but I'm not scared!"
"Yeah!" cried the rest of thieves at the same time as they raised their arms in front of them. Sakura cocked her head in puzzlement; then raised her arm as she heard the distinct clicks of arrows being released. Sakura raised her arm to shield her face and let out a yowl as the needles struck her.
"That's not going to work," she declared as she immediately started to break down the poison.
"She's not going down, why isn't she going down, Boss?" The crowd of thieves was looking at her with absolute shock. Sakura smiled smugly, despite the exhaustion creeping in her bones.
"I don't know!" out a deep voice. "Minion! Didn't I tell you to set up a special attack for the ninja?"
Sakura winced as she removed the pesky needles from arms and legs. The tip was designed with a barb, making each one irritating to remove. It also left her skin pockmarked with tiny, bleeding holes.
"Yeah. I did! I shot her with the giant arrow!"
"But that should have been enough poison to knock out an elephant!"
"Ha!" cried Sakura. "I specialize in this sort of thing. The compound is effective, and powerful, but it's incredibly easy to break down. This isn't going to work against me."
The group of thieves watched in amazement as her minor injuries were healed before their eyes. "Oh yeah? Well, we're stronger than you!" cried the man with a deep voice.
Sakura didn't reply, choosing to pick up the rock by her foot and crush it.
"I'm still not scared," the man called back, only this time he sounded like a big fat liar.
Sakura wiped her face with her wrist. A steady stream of sweat was beginning to pour down her face and she still had to conserve some of her energy to heal the others. Most likely she would have to take an energy pill just to get back to the others.
"That is enough."
Sakura sighed in relief when she heard Kakashi's voice. She could have easily blocked the passageway into Rock Country with a nice punch of her fist on the side of the canyon. But then she probably would have had to open it back up the next day, which was something she'd rather not do.
Kakashi landed next to her.
"You are going to get off of those horses, line up against the wall, and sit there patiently for us to come back with the caravan. And then Lord Ehime will decide your punishment."
Sakura tried not to stare at him, only glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Although he spoke with confidence, she could tell he had been hit with one of the arrows. His movements were stiffer than normal, and there was sweat pouring down his neck.
"No we aren't! We are gonna sell our loot and be rich!"
"Hmm... well I'm afraid I can't allow that. You see, I promised a man I would lead him to his daughter, and that is what I am going to do. So, I could fight you, but that means I would have to get rid of the bodies. I really don't feel like being a grave digger today. What about you Sakura?"
"Nope. Although I could make a big hole in the ground and we can just toss them all together…" she rubbed her chin dramatically.
"Excellent suggestion! I suppose the choice is the Pit of Death." Kakashi clapped his hands in front of him.
"No! No! Wait!" The boss flung himself off of his horse and flattened himself facedown on the ground "Please don't kill me!"
"What about your employees?" Kakashi asked.
The boss looked up. "You can kill them if you want," he replied before he lowered his face back down. There was a crowd of indignation from the thieves; they were clearly unimpressed by their leader.
"Hey!" cried one as he leapt off his horse. "I left my job at the sake house for this work!"
"I've been working with you for five years!" cried another. "I was gonna get a promotion as lead stableman when I left my old job."
"I let you sleep with my wife on the promise of extra money!"
The crowd of thieves were lowering themselves from their horses and approaching their leader with unhappy looks and mutters.
"Sakura," whispered Kakashi. "Will you get their attention for me?"
She raised her arm perpendicular to her chest and with a sweeping motion thumped the canyon wall. A large crack sounded as the rock split open, silencing the thieves.
"How about a compromise?" asked Kakashi. "You give us back everything you stole and we give you your lives and your freedom?"
"How do we know your gonna keep it?" One man stepped forward to speak for them, a large balding man with enormous buck teeth.
Kakashi shrugged. "Your other choice is the Pit of Death."
"Oh." The newly appointed leader scratched his head. "I'll take the freedom."
"Don't forget me!"
The failed thieves were nodding their heads emphatically as they dragged their former leader away. Sakura watched them trudge along in amazement. She couldn't quite understand how a group that brainless managed to get as far as they did. Popping her back, she turned around to Kakashi, who was examining the horses.
"Guh," she muttered. "How are we going to get them all back?"
Kakashi chuckled. Seconds later there was a poof as a legion of shadow clones appeared.
Sakura felt herself flush. It was such an obvious solution, but Naruto was the one who used Shadow Clones. It was weird watching all of these identical Kakashi's raise themselves onto the horses. Sakura had gotten it in her head that he was unique, and multiple Kakashi's didn't seem to fit his profile.
She grabbed a horse of her own and followed.
"What took you so long?" Sakura asked, wincing as she felt a pain in her rump. She had forgotten about the minor injury.
"Removing traps," replied the nearest clone to her right. "They were assembled on the ground to trap the wagon wheels as they passed. We would have had to dig every wagon out if they were activated. I had to disassemble them from under the ground."
Sakura noted he did look a bit dustier than normal. "I was clipped by one of the needles when I finished. It took me forever to catch up with you. Good job, by the way."
"Thank you," replied Sakura. "I bet you thought I couldn't handle it."
Kakashi shook his head. "Of course I thought you could handle it. I didn't know if you would try or if you would stay with the caravan."
She rolled her eyes. "We needed the horses, of course I would try."
"You have been with Norio the entire journey, I didn't know if that would change."
"I have not!" Sakura snapped. "I've talked to other people. You're just annoyed I've been avoiding you."
"He's wrong for you. He doesn't understand you're a ninja," the Kakashi clone said simply.
"He understands me perfectly!" she retorted.
He raised an eyebrow. "I'll bet you my most humiliating story that he doesn't."
Sakura gasped. "Okay, what do you have in mind?"
Kakashi rubbed his chin in thought. "If Norio lets you heal everyone without minimal interruption I tell you my story. He is allowed three disruptions. If he tries to help you, nobody wins. But if the first thing he does is hold your hand, then I win a dance to every formal celebration we attend."
"A dance?" Sakura asked, rubbing at the side of her leg. That didn't sound too bad; it wasn't very likely that she would attend one of those with him anytime soon. She nodded. "You have yourself a deal."
Kakashi chuckled. "I thought so."
When they got back, Sakura set to work on removing the poison. Some of the people were already awake, the effects of the poison had already dissipated. Some people had been hit with dozens of them, leaving them sluggish and numb.
The people who were hit with the small arrows were the worst off. The tip of the arrow was easily broken off, often leaving the end inside. And she learned that a great deal of her patients were sissy, prone to wiggling, and whimpering. Sakura found it was easier to revive them after she eliminated the poison and the arrow.
"You are covered in dirt."
"What?" Sakura looked up from her drooling patient to see Tomio, the elder brother, standing next to her.
"You are covered in dirt," he repeated. "A lady should not be so filthy."
Sakura stared at him in astonishment. "I'm trying to heal a patient. I'll worry about the dirt later."
Tomio frowned and then walked away.
"Hmph, I can't believe he said that," she muttered as set to work once more.
She was so involved in her work that she didn't notice Norio's approach until she stood up to move to another wagon. He was staring at her hands in fascination and clasped them in hers.
"You have such skill to mend," he said in awe. "I have heard the stories, but I did not truly understand until now."
Sakura smiled at the compliment; a smile that promptly died as she saw Kakashi give her a pointed look as he passed.
"Dammit!" she swore. "I mean... I just…I'm getting tired and I really need to finish," Sakura stammered as she gained freedom of her hands. "Excuse me."
The travel for the remainder of day was a wash. By the time Sakura was finished healing everyone, she was exhausted. Not to mention that quite a few of the wagons had been tipped over in the attack. She spent the remainder of the day watching the servants check the horses for injury. The cook was even kind enough to bring her a bowl of soup to where she sat. When she was done, she made her way to Norio.
"I think I'm going to sleep," she said to him. "I'm worn out."
Norio reached forward to give her wrist a squeeze. "Very well. Good night, Beloved."
Sakura grunted in reply, her body too sore for her to think of a poetic response and the annoying little welt on her bottom was still throbbing. Sakura hobbled along to search for her wagon. She found it toward the back; the guard's wagon took a weak priority compared to the ones with cargo. Slipping inside, she took care to close all of the curtains.
Her wagon was shared by all of the guards. It contained a small desk in the back and eight beds. The only other items were the guard's belongings which were tucked into corners or shoved under beds.
Not that anyone had really brought much with them.
She pulled out her bag from under the bed and successfully found a small mirror.
"Ah-ha," she said as she found it and propped it against a canteen on the tiny desk. Sakura tilted her head. Hearing nothing, she spun around, looked over her shoulder and slowly eased her shorts down to get a view of the injury in the mirror. She poked at the wound with her finger, unable to quite see it at the awkward angle. A few more pokes revealed the answer to her injury.
"Oh no," Sakura muttered as she realized the source of her irritation. She had taken great care to remove the whole arrow when she treated everyone. But the imbecile who yanked it out of her bottom had left the arrowhead. She hadn't noticed it at first because of the numbing side effects, and then she had been so busy with everyone else. Sakura had been allowing the tiny barb to dig itself deeper with every step she took. What had begun as a slight itch was now making her entire buttcheek sore.
She shifted, craning her head to get a bitter view in the mirror.
"Is everything alright in there?"
Sakura froze when she recognized Kakashi's voice.
"Yes," she said in an unconvincingly high voice, praying that he would go away.
"Then why were you hobbling?"
If he already saw her walking strangely, he already knew she was injured. At least he had the presence of mind to stay outside of the wagon. "Because I felt like it. Why do you always ask annoying rhetorical questions?" she shot back.
"To show everyone how smart I am." A pause. "What happened?"
"One of the arrowheads is embedded in my skin."
"Oh. Why didn't you take it out before?"
Sakura ground her teeth in annoyance and humiliation. "Because I can't really see it," she muttered.
"I can't really reach it."
She heard Kakashi's foot land heavily on the single step outside of the wagon. So she yanked her shorts up hurriedly right as she heard his hand twist the doorknob. Sakura smiled at him innocently as she watched him from his position in the doorway.
"I'll be more than happy to remove the stick from your ass."
Sakura felt an immediate longing to throw something heavy at him. "I didn't say anything about that!"
"The mirror you placed behind you gives me an excellent view of your rear," Kakashi explained. He stepped into the wagon fully and clicked the tiny door behind him shut. "You wouldn't have that there otherwise. Turn around."
"What? No!" She tugged the edge of her skirt down in protection. "I can't let you do that! It's inappropriate!"
"Don't be ridiculous," Kakashi replied in an infuriatingly mild voice. "This is a perfectly understandable situation. It is simple first aid to remove a splinter from a fellow ninja."
"A splinter under the skirt of a woman you are trying to knock up!"
Kakashi narrowed his eyes. "Keep your voice down. Other people might have the wrong impression if they hear you."
She snorted. "I'm surprised you care. If people overheard us, then Norio would find out, and I'm sure that's just a little bit of the drama you would love to cause. Then it would be a matter of time before he dumps me to find someone that is neat and perfect."
Kakashi's eyes flicked to a spot over her shoulder. "I prefer discretion to scandal any day. Besides, I want you to come to me because I'm the right choice, not because I'm all that is left."
"I don't care; I'm not going to let you help me."
"Fine, then who will?"
Sakura opened her mouth to reply, and then snapped it shut. "Oh no." She saw Kakashi's nod.
Most of the caravan was composed of male staff since many of the females had stayed at the estate to keep it running. The few females on the trip had consisted of guards of some sort. As she looked at the various belongings of the other ninja, she realized that she was the only female left. The few that had journeyed had branched off in another direction, including Suzu, the kunoichi from Grass.
So her choice was Kakashi, a random stranger, or Norio. She had a feeling that Norio would decline the request; his propriety was too stubborn to go beyond a casual holding of her hand. And a random stranger would be a nightmare to explain if word got out, not to mention the teasing she would receive in return. Logically, Kakashi was the best choice; she had done a fair share of medical procedures on him that were in violation of the personal space he held on so dearly. Normally, she was certain that he would pay her the courtesy of extending the same privilege. But his goals were currently more self-serving than she liked.
Maybe she could hold off until Snow Country.
"Snow Country is still two weeks away," Kakashi replied, somehow reading her mind.
"Please don't embarrass me," she pleaded.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Kakashi replied as he placed a hand on her shoulder.
Sakura reached into her pocket and handed him a pair of tweezers. He pulled the rickety chair forward and placed her hands on the back of the chair.
"Now pull down your shorts and bend over," he said.
She removed a hand from the chair to elbow him. "I am not here to fulfill your weird little fetishes."
"I need light to see," he answered as he pointed to the weak lamp on the table. "If you don't bend over the shadow will make the arrowhead harder to see. And I'd rather not have your backside exposed to the door."
"Oh." Sakura could feel the heat rise to her face again.
"You have a dirty mind," he said as he placed her errant hand onto the back of the chair once more.
They stood there staring at each other.
Kakashi sighed. "Sakura, you have nothing to fear from me. I promise I won't discuss this with anyone else."
"Not even to tease me about my underwear?" she asked, inwardly relieved that the pair she was wearing was reasonably clean and cute.
"Don't be silly. I saw your underwear ages ago when I broke into your apartment. I already came to terms with your fondness for polka dots a few weeks ago."
Sakura pressed her lips together and made no move to follow his instructions. Kakashi nudged her shoulder with his hand, coaxing her to turn around and slowly guided her to fact the other direction. His hand slid slowly, but firmly against her back, pushing her forward. Sakura heard him tug the lamp that sat on the table forward to get a better view, the heat tingling near her left buttcheek. The other hand was motionless against her rear.
His next step was to flip her skirt above her waist, the material resting at the small of her back. His fingertips played at the edge of her shorts.
"Ugh… what's taking you so long?" She asked, pleased that her voice did not give away her nervousness.
"I'm trying to make sure I don't tug your underwear down as well. Unless you want me to look?"
Sakura hated the innocence of his question, as if wasn't quite aware of the perverse little game they were playing. She opened her mouth to give a tart reply, only to squeak as he slid her shorts down in one smooth action so they landed at her ankles.
She felt his hands at the base of her ankle and slowly trailed up, past her calves, knees, and thighs. Sakura remembered seeing the servants apply the same method to the horses they treated in the afternoon. His hands slipped between her thighs, encouraging her to adjust her stance with a slight nudge. Moments later she felt his fingers prod at the injury with the tweezers. Sakura bit her lip as she concentrated on the tiny bursts of pain. It was easier than thinking it would be for his fingers to drift.
Ugh, is he done yet?
Sakura stamped her legs in impatience and jerked back when she felt his hair against her bare cheek.
"Don't do that," Kakashi chastised with a small pinch behind her knee. "You're worse than the horses."
Sakura didn't respond, not trusting her voice after the explosion of goosebumps down her back and legs.
"All finished." She heard him set the tweezers on the table.
"That's it?" Sakura had expected the humiliation to be worse.
"I could do more if you'd like." He stood in front of her and Sakura tugged back on her shorts.
"Er… no." Sakura had already begun to plot methods of revenge against his wandering hands. Yet, he had stayed clinical; it was something she had not been anticipating.
"I didn't think so," Kakashi replied as he raised his hand and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. His thumb grazed purposefully against the thin scar behind her ear, following it down to her jaw. Sakura flinched, knocking the tiny lamp to the ground.
In the darkness, Sakura was all too aware of the shake of her body and her own ragged breathing.
She could see Kakashi's silhouette from the meager window light, his thumb at her neck where it could easily feel the rapid beat of her heart. Sakura tried to speak; it wasn't as if she was frightened of him. But her mind had stalled and all she could utter was a small whimper.
Kakashi's hand dropped to his side and moments later she was alone in the wagon. Sakura stared at the fluttering curtains; Kakashi's touch still burned along her cheek. She raised her hand to touch the scar behind her ear.
"Ikuye," she whispered.
Outside, Kakashi listened to Sakura as she began to sob. A part of him wanted to go inside; he did not want to walk away with her crying. But his more logical side argued that her pride and his discomfort would only make the situation worse. So he grudgingly headed back to the campfire. As the sound of Sakura's cries faded into Yori's laughter, Kakashi mentally tucked away a few questions.
What had he done that caused her to shake?
Why had she begun to cry?
And who was Ikuye?