Logically, Sakura understood that despite the deadline to reach the port, the best way to proceed was to pace herself. It would be foolish to waste energy speeding off, all for the sake of losing her…traveling companion. It didn't stop the cold-blooded ire at the Hokage for not telling her, and at Madara, for everything he'd done up until the mission.
So she alternated between letting revenge fantasies of the Hokage and Madara play through her mind as she leapt stealthily through the treetops.
But they both knew that according to the maps, the path they were on was the most direct one to the portside village of Yumegakure. It didn't mean either of them was happy about it. The small satisfaction the pinkette got was that aside from that brief interaction as they left the village, Madara hadn't been inclined to say anything more to her.
She wouldn't have it any other way. They were essentially stuck together until the time it took them to reach the islands, so the less he had to say to her, the better. Sakura kept fruitlessly wondering what could have ever made the Hokage think it was a good idea to send them out into the field together, alone. The man wasn't that oblivious. He knew their history of butting heads.
The kunoichi supposed that maybe it wasn't that the village leader was unaware, but that he trusted them to be able to put their differences aside for the sake of the mission. Sakura remembered as Madara had watched on, unfazed as his falcon hunted her cat. Despite not having witnessed any of the murderous intentions he'd displayed on the battlefield, his constant state of arrogance and indifference grated at her nerves just the same. Truly, the odds of finishing the mission without clashing seemed more and more unlikely as she thought of it.
The Hokage slumped forward with a heavy sigh, face between his palms. 'Did I do the right thing? Not telling Sakura-san in advance seems…' He had an inkling of how she'd react to the news. Yet something told him that since she had already been assigned the mission she would feel obligated to complete it out of sheer duty…or maybe sheer stubbornness. Either seemed probable with a woman as feisty and determined as she was.
Sakura and Madara… They certainly had their fair share of…disagreements to work out. Pairing the two of them wasn't ideal from that perspective but both of their skillsets were needed on such an assignment, and choosing anyone else might have been the difference between crucial success and failure. At the very least, they had been gone at least an hour and no one had come rushing into his office to tell him there was a fight in front of the gates.
"Lord Hokage!" His attention immediately fell to one of the sentries that appeared before him, the urgent expression making him anticipate the worst. Perhaps he'd dared to hope too soon.
"Is there a problem?" he asked coolly. Betraying the amount of apprehension he was feeling would be unbecoming, or so his brother would likely say.
"The Inuzuka clan has just arrived, my lord."
"Oh," Hashirama's expression visibly relaxed. "Then I suppose Tsuba-san will be escorted up shortly to see me. For a minute, I was concerned something more serious—"
"There's more, my lord…" The young man straightened, clearing his throat. "The Inuzuka brought along some unlikely arrivals. Three children from the Kaguya clan."
The Hokage's eyes widened. "Kaguya…in the village?" The fact that they were children didn't necessarily mean they weren't a threat. The Kaguya were a fierce clan; no doubt they would raise formidable children to send into battle. However, it would make no sense to send them up against the might of an entire village of shinobi. Surely their clan head, as unhinged as he may have been, would understand that. "Where are they now?" The sentries wouldn't just allow them through. The Inuzuka were expected and had been in route for weeks. But Kaguya children, not so much.
Hashirama followed the sentry's eyes as they strayed to the door. "There was…a small problem. One of the children refused to go quietly when they were told to come with us, and well, ultimately Lord Tobirama was passing by and stepped in. So they're…"
Tobirama burst in, his eyes cold as he glared down at a wriggling child he gripped tight by the back of her clothing. "Be still. This is the last time I'll warn you." The girl, dark-haired, bronze-skinned and not much older than Reira, growled deeply in agitation.
Another smaller child was hanging limply from under his brother's arm, pouting. Hashirama stood in disbelief, but the door to his office opened before he could pass comment, and in came a woman he could only guess was Tsuba Inuzuka, a white-haired young man and several other Senju taking up the rear.
"Harihane, you're making this worse…" the white-haired young man muttered, his eyes fleetingly landing on the angry child, and then meeting Hashirama's gaze. He lowered his eyes in deference.
"Tobirama, what's…" To ask what was going on would be stupid, when he was already well aware of the situation. "Tsuba-san…we meet…at last."
"Looks that way," the woman responded casually, her sharp teeth briefly visible as she gave him a small, wry smile. "Not the best introduction."
"Didn't it occur to you to send word ahead before allowing three fleas to come along?" Tobirama asked coldly. "Do you even know who these children are?"
"W-We're not fleas!" the smallest one whimpered, not even attempting to escape.
"I told you this would happen!" spat the middle child. He believed she'd been referred to as…Harihane. "I told you we wouldn't be welcome in this stupid place! And you know what? We don't wanna be here anyway—so just let me go!" In a flash, she turned and latched onto Tobirama's arm, sinking her teeth deep into flesh with all the ferocity of a mad dog. Ice froze the stoic Senju's features and he snapped his arm with enough force to not only dislodge her but sending her flying until she crashed unceremoniously to the ground at the feet of the boy Hashirama assumed was her brother.
"I can only imagine the brutish ways you were allowed to behave when you were among your own clan. But know this…child or not, you have no allies here. If you are a threat to this village and came here to cause disruptions, you'll be treated accordingly."
The wave of hostility and the dangerous gleam in Tobirama's eyes had Hashirama moving to intercept. "Tobirama, that's enough."
Still seething, Tobirama turned as if to challenge him, face contorted in silent anger.
"You aren't honestly considering letting them go?" The girl Tobirama still held prisoner under one arm whined as he unconsciously squeezed tighter. "Kaguya raze villages to the ground for sport. Every child is trained from birth to know only one thing, a lust for battle and bloodshed. I don't trust—"
"It's the Hokage's duty to settle all conflicts." he interrupted, his own chakra flaring powerfully to push back at his brother's. You aren't wrong, brother. The Kaguya's acts in the past have been atrocious. But so have the Senju's. So has every other clan who's ever pushed another to extinction. Let them speak for themselves, here and now." His tone brooked no argument, and Tobirama, though diffidently, seemed to come back to himself. The white-haired Senju dropped the child to her feet, and she scurried over to her siblings, pressing tightly to her brothers side and looking back at Tobirama with fearful eyes, still quaking. The teenage boy pulled his other sister back onto her own feet, and she fearlessly glowered at the Hokage's brother.
"You can leave us," Hashirama commanded, "Thank you for your vigilance."
The sentry and the other Senju who had come along looked unsure, but one more pointed look from their Hokage and they bowed as they departed.
That left Tsuba, the three Kaguya and Tobirama. The hardest part of the battle was far from over.
The Kaguya boy stepped forward, his sisters still remaining protectively close. "Thank you, for deciding to hear us out," he bowed, unexpectedly mannerly in demeanor and tone. "You're the leader of this village, correct? The one they call…a Hokage." Hashirama found himself being sized up, the way any decent shinobi would in unfamiliar territory.
Hashirama nodded. "And you are…?"
"Jun'ichi," he supplied. "Jun'ichi Kaguya. These are my sisters…Harihane," he pointed at the middle child and she turned away with a scowl, arms folded.
"Hmph!" Her dark hair, cut to her shoulders and partially secured by a bun at the top of head, swayed with the jerk of her neck.
"Kikue!" the smallest child poked her head from behind her brother, introducing herself in a high, prepubescent voice. Unlike her brother and sister, she had softer, rounder eyes, just as dark as theirs. The red dots above her thin brows pulled close together as she frowned up at Hashirama in caution, the messy bun secured lopsidedly on her head held in place by a small bone.
If he didn't know any better, he'd never think he was looking at a child from the Kaguya clan. She had a bit of his sympathy. All children should hold the same bright innocence at her age. That firm belief had been what encouraged him to keep pursuing his dreams of making Konoha a reality, to shelter children just like her from losing their innocence—and their lives—too soon on the battlefield.
Putting on his most reassuring smile, Hashirama bent closer to her, lowering himself to appear non-threatening. He was a tall man, and to a small child like herself, probably all the more daunting. She was clearly still rattled by Tobirama's manhandling, looking unwilling to let go of her brother.
"Hello Kikue," he greeted gently. "How old are you?"
"Nine," she whispered, peeking up at him for only an instant.
"What about the two of you?" Hashirama coaxed.
"Why do you need to know?" Harihane snapped.
Jun'ichi nudged her. "I'm nineteen. Harihane is twelve,"
"And you expect us to believe you pose no threats?" Tobirama grumbled.
"I didn't come here with expectations of any kind." Jun'ichi assured. "But it's true that we're Kaguya in name only now. We've left all ties with the clan and its ways behind." He placed a hand atop Kikue's head, looking Hashirama in the eyes. Hashirama could see sincerity there.
"Then why come to Konoha? You could just have easily been mercenaries," Tobirama said unpityingly.
"That's what I said," Harihane threw her arms above her head. "It'd be better than being trapped in a…a village where everyone pretends to believe in peace."
"Pretends?" Hashirama arched a brow.
Harihane leveled a scathing look at him. "Pretends," she said firmly. "Peace between clans? That's not the way shinobi are. They make truces and then they break them."
"Lord Hokage," Tsuba stepped in. "The blame's mine for this one. I convinced them Konoha could spare room for them."
Hashirama stroked his chin, eyeing Tsuba, the siblings and his brother. "My brother does make…valid points. The Kaguya have wronged nearly every clan in the village right now. The Uchiha especially might take issue with them settling here."
Harihane, chest puffed out, began to head for the door. Jun'ichi nonchalantly reached back to grab her, turning her in an about face.
"But," Hashirama continued. "I'm willing to allow you to stay on a trial basis, under surveillance."
"We don't have the shinobi to spare for that…" Tobirama started to protest.
"I'll take care of it," Tsuba volunteered, stepping forward with a nod. "I brought 'em here, I can keep an eye out for them. You've got my word, Hokage-sama."
Hashirama, satisfied with the suggestion, turned to his brother. "Any objections to that Tobirama?"
"I've got one!" Harihane voiced, "I don't want to."
"Harihane," Jun'ichi clamped a hand over her mouth. "Allow me to do the talking." The former Kaguya heir met Tobirama's stern gaze unflinchingly. "We leave ourselves at your mercy. If I or my sisters cause you trouble, then please, by all means…handle it accordingly."
Tension lingered, pulled taut like a bowstring as Tobirama finally turned away. "Do as you please then, Hashirama. But, if for any reason these three prove untrustworthy, expect me to step in."
Hours into the journey, and Madara was aware of the sun starting to get low in the sky. He could easily keep going, of course. Darkness was the true element of the shinobi, after all. He'd led many raids on enemy clans under the cover of night. But to travel through the night hardly seemed necessary when he—and admittedly the kunoichi—had been making good time.
The prickle of her animosity burning a hole through him from behind had been a constant pressure since they left the village. There were several times when he was sure she would scream at him outright. But no, she'd stayed quiet, stewing wordlessly. The absence of her yelling was welcomed, but disquieting on its own.
After all, despite what Izuna said, he'd never shared an encounter with Haruno where she wasn't yelling at him, glaring at him, and generally cursing his existence be it aloud or in her head. That she could be quiet for so long was a surprise, almost as impressive as the fact that she could match his pace. She hung back, yes, but it wasn't a matter of keeping up, but of keeping away from him. The feeling of wariness was mutual.
The Uchiha wasn't thrilled to learn the medic who would be accompanying him would be the short-tempered, pink-haired woman, but there was no denying the curiosity mixed in with the reluctance. Izuna was so taken with her, praising her medical skills—skills that made her a true rarity for someone who didn't even hail from a prominent clan, if Izuna's praises weren't exaggerated.
She'd also gained the confidence of the others she had gone on the mission with, and from reading Toka Senju's report and witnessing her spar with Tobirama, he knew her to be an absolute brute in taijutsu. Madara had no doubt that what he'd seen in the Senju's courtyard was far from the extent of her abilities. Though they weren't assigned the same tasks, there was no doubt that there'd be points when their missions would intersect. Already they shared a route to Yumegakure and a ship to the islands. Madara looked forward to seeing how she conducted herself on a mission if nothing else.
Smirking, he began to descend closer to the forest floor, noticing how Haruno stubbornly continued to travel in the hire branches, even as the swath of forest they passed through thinned, and the thicker, taller trees became more sparse, making way for a path that had long been cleared for a smoother road with fewer places for bandits to ambush caravans.
Soon enough, she'd be forced to the ground to settle for the night, and Madara expected that would be when they had yet another confrontation. The Uchiha didn't quite understand it himself. Being almost exclusively on the receiving end of her verbal assault and standoffish attitude for no discernable reason was frustrating, and yet not since Naoko was there a woman who simultaneously infuriated but interested him.
She stood her ground against him, unafraid of revealing her temper. Every act of provocation toward her brought out a magnificence shade to her green eyes and a defiant snarl to her lips. Just bordering on pure hatred, there was a dark beauty there. Like watching a stormy sky split apart by a sharp bolt of lightning.
The soft looks and laughter she gave to Izuna, to Hashirama…they were forced to share that side of her. And she seemed to have worked toward a mutual tolerance of Tobirama as of late, but that was hardly special.
He was sure that she'd likely come to tolerate a lot of people. Very few people could say they knew what it was like to be the sole focus of someone's undiluted hatred. But he and he alone got the brunt of all her blackest emotions, and in that regard, owning that small but unfettered part of her made him feel triumphant in the dance they'd fallen into.
Chuckling under his breath, Madara saw the flash of pink behind him as the kunoichi came to the ground, just like he knew she would. She remained a cautious distance from him, standing at the edge of the copse of trees that created a natural semi-circle just off to the side of the road.
She began to slowly circle the perimeter, no doubt looking for a place to settle as far from him as possible. But every corner of the small thicket was equidistance from the middle, and so he spitefully decided that was where he would spend the night.
Haruno noticed, but she did a valiant job of ignoring him as she took off her pack, kneeling and beginning to rummage through it. She produced a bedroll, then provisions he recognized as edibles. Loosening the headband from her hair, she draped it across her knee and let her fingers comb through the pink strands.
Madara could almost read her thoughts as if they were his own. She was looking at him smugly, noticing his own lack of a pack, a bedroll or rations. Truthfully, he was use to traveling lightly. Snuggling down into a bedroll while away from the safety of the compound had always felt…strange. The field wasn't supposed to bring comfort.
Haruno began unwrapping food, dried meat, by the look of it, watching him from the corner of one eye. Madara wouldn't quite call them comrades, village affiliation aside, so he supposed in light of everything, he understood the mistrust. Ignoring her, he wandered from the clearing, a kunai twirling around his finger. Haruno could rely on her carefully packed provisions all she liked, but a true shinobi knew how to gather the resources they needed from the field.
Sakura watched him go, chewing at the jerky in aggravation. "That one is difficult, is he not?"
Sakura snorted, taking a sip from her canteen. "Yeah, tell me about it—" Turning in realization, she choked on her water to notice Mizuchi sitting right beside her. "What are you doing?" she whispered urgently, her green eyes darting between the goddess and the direction Madara had gone. "You can't be here!"
Unbothered, the deity smoothed the creases in her emerald kimono, her legs folded daintily underneath her. "I go where I wish, Sakura."
Bowing her head, Sakura nibbled once again at the food in her hands, appetite all but gone. "I…I know. But I just mean…" she swallowed, "Wouldn't it be bad if he sees you? I mean isn't that why we were being so discreet before?"
Mizuchi cast her gaze upwards to the steadily darkening sky, now a mixture of pink and orange hues. An autumn breeze blew through the clearing, moving strands of the goddess' dark hair. Absently, she reached up to push them behind her ear, and for the first time, Sakura noticed they were pointed, heavy emerald earrings incased in gold hanging from the lobes. "The time for discretion is drawing to a close, I'm afraid. You still are far from ready."
Sakura set the food aside, completely attentive to the goddess's words. "Ready for what?"
"Another test draws near," The deity said instead, evasive as ever. "On the island."
"How'd you know about that?" the kunoichi questioned.
Mizuchi sighed heavily. Something was strange. Mizuchi wasn't exuding her normal confidence, putting the normal amount of distance between them. The goddess seemed almost…jaded somehow, if that were possible. "Sakura, tell me what I've taught you so far. About blighting."
"Right," She dipped her head to indicate she recalled. "Deities use them to…punish humans…control populations. They're the product of humanity's most negative emotions…"
"And the counter?"
Sakura faltered. "T-The counter?"
"Yes. How do you reverse a blight? How do you heal it?" Mizuchi waved her hand idly, urging her to continue.
"You pull it out of the victim," she bit at her lip in thought. "And swallow it, which neutralizes the threat."
"Deities made them, so they can handle the brunt of reabsorbing them." Mizuchi continued. "You, as a human, cannot. Creating blights, such as it is, nearly kills you."
Sakura opened her mouth to declare that she had a handle on it now. That blighting was difficult but no longer as painful for her. "I can learn the rever—"
"I know you can." Mizuchi held a palm up, leaning back in the grass. "But at what cost? And, on what scale are you willing to pay?"
Sakura frowned. "Why ask me now? You didn't care about any of that before. That's why I'm here, on a mission with a man that nearly tore the world apart."
"All of that is yet to happen." Mizuchi reminded her. "Though, there's no way to tell if your presence truly changes much in the end. The fates are fickle."
"The gods are fickle, you mean," Sakura quipped flatly.
Mizuchi's eyes brightened, and her ruby lips rose in amusement. "It seems you are finally beginning to understand."
Madara stiffened, almost sure he'd caught a glimpse of a billowing emerald kimono and long hair darker than a starless night…and horns. There had been horns. All of it was gone faster than he could decide if it was an illusion. Instead, Haruno was quietly meditating on her bedroll. Alone. Madara moved by her with the kindling he'd brought back, setting to work on constructing the fire pit necessary to cook his fresh kill. A pheasant unlucky enough to cross his path.
One reproachful green eye opened as the sticks he'd gathered were dropped to the ground with a clatter, Madara sitting in front of them as he began plucking the bird. Haruno slowly closed her eye again, back to her meditating. There was silence for the next twenty minutes, the Uchiha preparing his own meal and the kunoichi clearly struggling to continue ignoring him.
When the bird was ready to roast, Madara blew the fire to life, watching the plucked flesh start to cook on the spit he'd constructed. As it cooked, his eyes slipped once again to the young woman at the edge of the clearing. Try as she might to avoid talking to him, watching the food roast was boring, and she, unfortunately for her, was the only person around to entertain himself with.
"The heat of the fire won't reach you from that distance," Her eyes snapped open immediately.
"That'd only matter if I was actually cold." She retorted. "Unlike you, I brought provisions for every scenario."
"Preparedness is important for shinobi." Madara snidely observed her pack, her bedroll, her canteen and the food stuffs laid out. "Especially in the absence of actual survival skills."
The apples of her cheeks reddened, and she leaned forward, green eyes turning to slits. "No one understands survival more than a medic. I have to be prepared so that when arrogant shinobi who think they're invincible fall in battle," Haruno looked him directly in the eyes, "I can be there to heal them. If I thought like you do, counting on finding what I needed by chance, who knows how many people would die."
"You're quite confident in your medical ninjutsu." Madara mused. "Izuna tells me you have reason to be. Although, anyone could save a cat," he remarked offhandedly.
Sakura glanced down at the food she'd set aside, quickly stuffing some crackers into her mouth in an attempt to avoid firing back.
'How ridiculous.' Madara thought. The bulging cheeks and round, angry eyes made her the human counterpart to a disgruntled chipmunk. Noticing his pheasant was nearly done, he lifted it from over the open flame.
"You're exactly the kind of shinobi that I was talking about, you know." He heard her say lowly. "The arrogant, reckless kind. How many lives have you saved?"
"I'm not the kind of shinobi who saves lives, medic." Madara pinched a piece of the cooling pheasant meat off between his fingers, bringing it to his lips. "I'm the kind of shinobi who ends them."
Sakura rose with the sun, glancing over to see Madara was no longer in the center of the clearing. The fire he'd made had burnt out. He was up a tree, apparently resting in one of the lower branches thick enough to support his weight.
She still couldn't believe they were actually on the same side, technically speaking. His mannerisms, his way of thinking…in a child's fable, he'd be the handsome but conniving antagonist, trying to lure the heroine away from her happy ending. But she refused to let him lure her away from her mission.
Everything was packed in short order, and she was ready to head out once again. While the Uchiha rested, she'd get a head start. That was the plan, at least, until he stood, already wearing his armor with the gunbai secured once more on his back. When he turned to smirk down at her, his hitai-ate caught the light of the early morning sun, and it infuriated her. Someone like him shouldn't wear the proud symbol of the Leaf village so well.
Sakura shouldered her pack on, leaping into the trees on the opposite side of the road as the copse they'd spent the night in. Any distance she could create could never be far enough, but it was a start. The kunoichi decided in order to avoid launching Madara into orbit, she'd have almost single-minded focus on the mission ahead. With Madara nearby, that was almost a lost cause.