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In Pursuit of Sunshine

Chapter Text

Sakura starts the mission immediately, filling in what she knows to her team as they start making their way in the right direction. She's banking on the fact that she knows somewhat the path the Sound Village Four took in her previous life. Sakura has Hinata running point alongside her, using her Byakugan sparingly to preserve chakra, hoping to find a solid trail of the people that they're pursuing. Pushing as fast as they can, the Genin under Sakura's command all look varying levels of concerned. But she can't deal with that right now. Sakura throws herself into her memories, trying to remember everything she's ever heard about the Sound Village Four. In Sakura's past life, Naruto hadn't been able to tell her much, as he'd gone on his training trip with Jiraiya directly afterwards.

The only information she has is a brief conversation she'd had with Shikamaru. He hadn't said much, that day. Choji and Neji had almost died, and Shikamaru hadn't wanted to talk about it much. If Sakura is totally honest with herself, she hadn't really cared to know back then, either. Back then, it was all about Sasuke, and what happened to Sasuke and why couldn't they bring him back. She could not have cared less about the people who took him. Oh, how she regrets that now.

So Sakura only knows the basics, and she doesn't hold out hope that the situation will go similarly this time. She recalls that there were actually five, not four. The original four being some huge guy that had nearly killed Choji, a spiderlike ninja who had nearly killed Neji, a girl who played the flute who Shikamaru had fought with Temari, and a set of twins sharing a body that Kiba and Akamaru had fought. The mysterious fifth that Lee had ended up fighting was someone called Kimimaro, with a unique bloodline. Sakura cannot remember, no matter how much she digs into her memory, what the bloodline was.

 

 

 

Doing mental headcounts and balancing strengths and weaknesses of all the Genin with her, Sakura starts running scenarios through her head, trying to figure out the best solution, if there is any.
Suddenly, Sakura feels the weight of every Genin beside and behind her. Their lives, all of their lives, are in her hands. Her decisions, her battle strategy against Jounin outside of most of their skill levels, will directly lead to life or death for her comrades. She runs battle strategies through her head, faster and faster, trying to find if there's even an ideal situation, and if so, what it is. Panic starts to creep into the edge of Sakura's vision, and she viciously shoves it down. She can't afford weaknesses. Remembering Kiba, who should have been here, should have been on this mission, Akamaru at his side, is proof enough.

 

At that moment, Hinata signals that she's found the chakra trail, and the group picks up even more speed, showing the desperation of the group to get one of their own back. Neji isn't particularly loved by any in this group, not yet anyway. Of all of them, Sakura is the only one who knows the brave and kind person that Neji grows into. Still, even with the negativity that Neji has sown thus far, the tension and and strong desire to bring him back home, safe, is felt and shared easily. Sakura imagines that Kiba is the one that's tied them together like this. They've lost one of their own before, they've seen the hurt and devastation that losing a single Genin can cause, and none of them want to repeat it. Even if Neji is being, well, Neji, right now.

 

Within moments, they spot the group ahead. Sakura supposes they either thought no one would miss Neji, or that they wouldn't have been able to tell which way they had gone, because the Sound Village Four aren't making any particular effort at speed, which is why the Leaf have caught up so quickly. Her stomach churns, and Sakura tries her best to focus. No more time for long planning, it's the time to act, and Sakura intends to bring every single Genin home, whole. Sakura spots each of the Sound Village Four, and the larger one seems to be carrying a barrel of some sort on his back. Signing at Hinata as they run, Sakura asks,

 

Is Neji inside that barrel?

 

 

Hinata looks at her, pale purple eyes wide, and simply nods. Sakura would swear, except she's trying to keep quiet as they get closer. One of them, Sakura isn't sure which, must somehow notice their presence, because the Sound Ninja pick up speed suddenly. Sakura sees the barrel get tossed into the air, and her heart leaps into her throat.

 

Are they abandoning Neji?

 

 

Another member catches the barrel though, and Sakura feels a brief flare of disappointment. The big guy turns around, facing the Leaf, and stops running, while the rest continue. He has a calm smirk on his face that sets Sakura on edge immediately.

 

Did this happen last time?

 

She supposes it doesn't matter how it happened last time. It only matters how she does it this time.

 

She makes a hand signal for a battle formation, and the Leaf Genin land in a semi-circle around the large Sound ninja. Sakura notes the grounding way that the enemy carries himself, and decides he's likely an earth type jutsu user. He crosses his arms, eyeing them like he's just received a wonderful present, not at all like he's facing down eight enemies. Sakura can feel the eyes of all of her teammates boring into her, but she waits for the enemy to make the first move. It would be foolish to do otherwise. Without a single move by him, Sakura has no certain way of guessing his capabilities, and thus no idea who to pit against him. As if he senses he will need to make the first move, the enemy speaks,

 

"What a wonderful meal the Leaf has sent me. I'll be sure to savor all this chakra before I make it back to the group."

 

He licks his lips, as if eyeing their chakra.

 

 

Well, that's not disturbing at all.

 

 

The enemy starts making hand signs, and at a single one from Sakura, her group scatters, narrowly missing a giant dome that grows out of the ground.

 

 

He must absorb chakra somehow and needs to trap us..

 

 

That counts Naruto out as a potential opponent for sure. With his massive chakra stores and general inability to have a solid strategy, there's no way Sakura can leave her teammate to fight this ninja.

 

"I'll just have to make sure you all can't walk before I get my meal!"

 

That's all the warning they get before the enemy starts lobbing enormous boulders at the Leaf nin. Sakura jumps to the side. She needs to make her decision, and make it NOW.

 

If Choji could take him before...

 

She can't leave Choji alone, though. Last time he'd almost died. Sakura can't afford to take that risk again. As a short distance ninja, Choji is going to need someone mid or long range. It's clear who it needs to be, but Sakura hates doing it, worried as she is about failing. She has to, though. If Sakura herself stays behind for every fight, they'll never save Neji in time. Already hating herself, Sakura calls out,

 

 

"Choji, Shikamaru, handle this! Catch up with us after!"

 

 

Shikamaru gives her a lazy salute from across the field, and Sakura forces herself to take a mental snapshot of her friend. The lazy yet confident way he's holding himself, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, looking like everything in the world is too bothersome to be dealt with. Sakura can't see Choji at the moment, but she has to trust that Shikamaru will take care of him, and strategize a way to keep them both safe. She'll see them again. She has to see them again.

 

There's no guarantee that they'll both be in good enough shape to catch up, but the whole group needs the hope that they can, and Sakura makes for the trees, the remaining Genin following her. Naruto is making some sort of argument about how they're running away from a battle, but Ino seems to have it well in hand, already yelling at Naruto about it. Which is good, Sakura isn't sure she can spare the brain power to argue with Naruto, not when she's already so torn up herself about leaving Shikamaru and Choji behind. She realizes as they begin to catch up with the remaining Sound ninja that Sakura is following the same strategy Shikamaru had, in the past. She can't help but crack a half smile. Even though she's had years of experience, when push comes to shove, she still finds herself using the Nara's strategies and strategic style more often than not. Sakura may be Shikamaru's match on the Shogi board, but in battle, she still finds herself trying to do things the way he would.

 

With the enemy closing in on their sights again, Sakura considers that they may all break off one by one, and perhaps that's what they'd done last time. She had always assumed they'd been trained to work in a squad of three or four, like Leaf ninja are, but it seems that the Sound ninja either haven't trained that way or don't like each other enough to battle as a group. Even with all the Genin she'd brought, Sakura doubts they'd have been able to take on all Four at once, if they worked together. She counts her blessings that so far they have not. Just as before, when the Leaf ninja begin to draw close, a member of the Four split off and turn to face them.

 

 

Their next foe looks a little bit like Iruka sensei, except that he has six arms, instead of two. He also has a haughty look on his face, as if all of them are merely insects, trash to be observed. Sakura wants to wipe it off personally, but she knows she can't. Before Sakura can even signal for formation, the enemy nin opens his mouth and spits what Sakura can only describe as spiderlike thread at all of them. Sakura and Hinata, being in front, manage to dodge out of the way. Ino and Naruto aren't so lucky, and they get hit full force by the fluid. It seems to stick them to the trees they were leaping from. Ino looks absolutely disgusted at this turn of events, and Sakura can't blame her. She would feel the same way in Ino's place. At least, because Ino looks only disgusted, Sakura can rule that the fluid is not poisonous.

 

Lee and Tenten manage to avoid all of the fluid, and are hacking away at the bonds tying Naruto and Ino to the trees, and Lee shouts,

"It's not cutting through!"

 

 

Sakura, who's keeping one eye on the enemy, who is watching them struggle with undisguised joy on his face, yells back,

"What?!"

 

 

The enemy smirks at Sakura, and it's such an insufferably smug look.

"My special jutsu can't be simply cut through. You all are beneath me. Simple pawns in a much larger game."

 

 

Sakura considers for a moment, trying to think through a solution.

What had worked last time? Why did Neji end up fighting him?

 

 

Before she can think through a solution fully, while still looking at the enemy in case he makes a further move, Naruto calls out,

"Nice one Hinata!"

 

 

Turning her face for a quick moment, Sakura sees that Naruto and Ino are now freed, and Hinata's Byakugan is active.

 

Of course. The fluid must be chakra activated in some way, and Hinata's Byakugan can see through it.

 

Sakura can't leave the Hyuga heir alone to deal with this, terrible and smug monster. Who should she leave with Hinata? Who can Sakura afford to leave with Hinata, in this fight? Certainly not Lee, who's too headstrong to listen to anything Hinata would say, he'd steamroll her. Sakura dodges another blast of fluid. If weapons won't cut through it, Tenten isn't a good choice either. Sakura's thoughts are interrupted by the enemy taunting them as he continues to spew that disgusting fluid at them all.

 

"Ah, but they couldn't even be bothered to send a man. Only two boys and little pathetic ladies."

 

 

Sakura no longer has to make the decision herself, as this basic taunt causes Ino to fly into a rage, launching herself at the enemy.

"You're going to pay for that, you good for nothing-"

 

 

Ino continues to yell as she throws a punch which the enemy blocks, sending Ino into a controlled roll. Sakura knows there's absolutely no use trying to bring Ino along once someone has insulted her femininity. Her decision is made for her.

"Hinata, Ino, you've got this! Join us after!"

 

 

Ino doesn't bother with any sort of reply since she started screaming profanity and throwing punches at a faster rate than Sakura thought her friend could manage. Hinata looks nervous, but gives Sakura a nod. Sakura feels her heart clench at the look on the Hyuga's face. Hinata is trusting Sakura with her life. Neji had beaten this guy in a past life... But Neji was the genius of the Rookie twelve, as they'd come to be called.

Starting the sprint after the Sound ninja ahead, Sakura can't get Hinata out of her mind. The timid, often nervous girl, up against someone that spiteful and powerful... Sakura hopes she hasn't made a mistake.

She's doing such a terrible job at hiding her anxiety at leaving Hinata that Naruto himself joins her at the front.

 

"Don't worry about Hinata, Sakura! We just have to believe in her, ya know! She and Ino can take that guy down."

 

 

Oh Naruto, your faith has no bounds.

 

 

Giving her bright teammate a nod, Sakura forces her worries about Ino and Hinata down. If Naruto can believe in them, she can too. She will believe in them. Besides, being distracted by who she's left behind will only hinder them as they go ahead. It's at this point, where Sakura's hopes start to fall apart, because just in front of them are both of the remaining enemy, and the barrel containing Neji is nowhere in sight. There's only four Leaf ninja left, so Sakura either has to spend time fighting this two and hoping they can still catch up with Neji, or she has to leave one or more of her teammates to fight alone with a member of the Sound Village Four. Both sound like terrible options to Sakura. It occurs to her that they may have wanted her to make this exact choice by both staying behind at once, leaving Neji free to finish making his way to Orochimaru.

 

The stand off begins, with neither group saying a word, just looking at each other. Or more accurately, all of the ninja looking at Sakura, waiting to see what she'll do.

 

 

Looking quickly at Naruto, Lee, and Tenten, Sakura makes the decision to trust her teammates. That's what Naruto had just said, right? That Sakura needed to have more faith in her teammates. Well, that was going to be tested right here and now. There's only one teammate she can trust to fight off two heads at once, she realizes. The presence of two people in the same body doubles the ability to see the field and make decisions, so they're likely extremely good strategically. Only one thing can beat superior strategy. Sheer dumb luck. But who to send after the girl that plays the flute? She recalls Shikamaru needing help from Temari, so she must be long ranged, which is Shika's weakness, Sakura knows. Between Lee, Tenten, and herself, there's an obvious choice for long range battling.

 

Decision made, Sakura only has to call it out, and then the final stretch will begin. The two enemy are eyeing their group with a slight bit of caution now, and Sakura supposes they've realized at this point that the Leaf aren't to be messed with, even their Genin. She makes the call.

 

"Naruto, take the twins. Tenten, take the girl."

 

 

The remaining Sound ninja make an attempt to block Sakura and Lee from going after Neji, but a literal storm of Kunai stops them from pursuing them. Tenten yells,

 

"You got it!"

 

Just as Naruto yells,

"Alright! Let's do it, ya know!"

 

 

Sakura is pretty sure she knows what awaits her and Lee in the next field, and she also knows what she needs to do. There's no more room for fear. Sakura realizes with a slight start she hadn't told Tsunade to call for the Sand siblings, and the crushing wave of fear that follows almost overwhelms her, but she quenches it. She can be afraid later. For now, Sakura has to be the leader, has to be fearless. Sure enough, her fears are realized when she and Lee enter a large clearing to see a slightly disoriented looking Neji, and Kimimaro, a terrifying and pale ninja, who stares blankly in their direction.

 

 

Lee sees Neji a second after she does, and calls out,

"Neji! We have found you, help us fight and we will return home to the Leaf together!"

 

 

Neji, who still looks slightly dizzy, manages to scoff across the field at Lee. Then he breaks into a sprint and starts running away from Lee and Sakura. Sakura had fully expected this turn of events. If the startled gasp that comes out of Lee's mouth is anything to go by, the boy had not been expecting Neji to turn down his offer. Sensing the internal struggle of Lee next to her, Sakura places a hand on his shoulder.

 

 

"Beat the crap out of him Lee, and bring him home. I've got this."

 

 

To his credit, and Sakura's eternal relief, Lee doesn't make some statement about how it would be unchivalrous for him to leave her to fight an enemy alone, or argue with her. He simply straightens, and salutes her.

"I will strive to bring my teammate home, no matter the cost!"

 

 

Sakura swears she sees a sunset behind Lee, and she notices that tears are streaming down his face. A brief glimpse at Kimimaro tells Sakura her enemy is also stunned and confused at the excessive display of emotion.

 

 

Maybe he sees the sunset too?

 

Lee gives her a thumbs up and a dazzling smile that's nearly as blinding as the sun itself, then he takes off after Neji at an insane speed.

 

 

Kimimaro makes no move to stop Lee, and Sakura walks forward, towards her enemy, towards the fight. Part of her is glad she doesn't have to leave anyone else behind. This fight is hers and hers alone, and the only person that can get hurt based on her decisions now is her. Her enemy tilts his head curiously at her, and Sakura likewise sizes him up. Judging by his terribly thin frame, he's seriously ill. So the fact that he's standing here is likely due to a strong personality, and if he is able to put up a fight, which Sakura knows he's more than capable of, his bloodline limit must be insanely powerful. He doesn't make any move to be first, so Sakura takes it upon herself to do so. Launching forward, chakra on her fist, she makes to punch Kimimaro in the face. He raises an arm to block her, and a bone grows out of his arm to protect it.

 

This must be his bloodline limit.

 

Deciding to test its strength, Sakura doesn't change the direction of her punch at all, instead throwing her fist into the bone growth. The the bone cracks, and breaks off, but otherwise stops almost all of her forward momentum. A hand covered in bones comes at her, and Sakura shifts, and ducks under the blow, sweeping a leg under the enemy's feet. He jumps, and throws a blow downward, and Sakura rolls to the side and back up onto her feet to dodge. The bone she broke gets pushed through the skin and falls to the ground, a new one growing in its place.

 

So the bones are breakable, like regular ones, but he has a potentially unlimited amount of them?

 

Sakura's only chance is if she can outlast the opponent. Punches and kicks continue to be traded, and soon enough, the ground becomes littered with bone chunks and shards, making footing more treacherous. At some point, Sakura had given an opening that had allowed Kimimaro to grow literally an entire sword out of bone, which Sakura is now contending with. Block with her fists, throw a punch, dodge a slice, a sweep of her legs, a stab downwards. Pushing off the ground Sakura flips over his head, throwing a kick at the back of his head, which the enemy blocks, sweeping her legs to the side to ruin her landing. She lands on her hand, throwing a flying roundhouse kick as she regains her footing. The crack of another protective bone as it breaks and joins the growing pile on the ground.

No attack Sakura can throw seems to cause actual damage to the man behind the bone armor, and her frustration mounts as they continue to exchange blows silently. It's one of the quietest battles Sakura has ever been a part of. Usually there's some banter amongst friendly fights, and some trash talking or angry yells during an enemy fight. But in this field, it's deadly silent, broken only by grunts of effort, the sound of bones cracking, and the dull thud of fists landing.

Sakura decides a change of strategy is in order. They've been fighting a while now, and Sakura isn't getting the upper hand like she'd hoped for. However ill this enemy ninja is, he's hiding it well, or he has more hidden strength than she'd given credit for. Kimimaro stands tall, not doing more than breathing a little more heavily. If Sakura keeps up at this rate, she's not sure who the victor will be. Seeing the bone sword her enemy continues to use, Sakura decides it might be time to use his own weapons against him. She throws a series of punches that get blocked, and when the retaliation stab comes her way, Sakura doesn't swirl out of the way, and flow into her next blow.

Instead, she steps into it, trapping the blade between her arm and side, hissing as it digs into a rib. With her free arm, she reaches out and snaps the bone off at the base of Kimimaro's hand. He looks slightly surprised but still unhurt. Sakura grabs the blade that's still trapped against her side. She may have taken a slight blow, but now she has a weapon too. Her enemy easily grows another sword, while Sakura applies a little bit of healing ninjutsu to her side, so the bleeding doesn't become too severe.

 

The fight begins again, this time a fight between two swords. Sakura had hoped that this plan might turn out to be more fruitful, but it quickly becomes apparent that Kimimaro is a much better swordsman than she is, and Sakura growls in frustration, dropping the bone she'd scavenged as she narrowly misses yet another blow from her opponent. Sakura's fighting style has always tended a little more towards feral, and Sakura decides perhaps its time to lean into that some more, instead of trying to be good at things that she's not. Drawing her two knives from their sheathes, Sakura goes to work again. Except instead of sword on lesser sword, or sword on shorter fists, its a single bone sword against Sakura's light, chakra enhanced blades.

 

She's able to be much quicker in this way, stabbing viciously in and out with her knives, almost as at ease with them as she is with her own fists at this point, weaving in and out, extending her reach. The downside is that Sakura is unable to break any bones by usage of the knives. On the plus side, with her quick dodging and weaving, Sakura draws her first blood of the fight by stabbing into an opening as she rolls to the right, going under Kimimaro's guard and opening a line of blood across his chest. She grins, allowing a feral fire to enter her style. The blows continue again, harsher this time. Sakura takes a small cut here, deals a glancing slice there.

 

 

After a while, she has to draw back temporarily, breathing heavily. Sakura sees that her opponent is doing the same. They seem fairly evenly matched at this point, and it's beginning to become a problem for Sakura's continued well being. She's panting now, sweat dripping down, getting into the numerous small cuts and wounds she's sustaining. Her chakra is under half, and she knows if she needs to heal anyone, she needs to conserve some chakra. But to win this fight, Sakura thinks she may need to use all of it. That thought scares her a little. Chakra exhausted, not knowing what's happened to any of her team. She's supposed to be in charge, she can't run out of chakra. But keeping the blades sharp and powerful is slowly draining her reserves, and Sakura is getting tired.

Before she can think her way out, Kimamaro comes at her first, swinging. Surprised, Sakura tries to sidestep, but doesn't fully accomplish it, earning her a blow on her already injured side, slicing through muscle and causing her to hiss in pain. Sakura defends herself one-handed while applying a little more healing ninjutsu to her side, trying to keep herself in working condition a while longer. Shifting as quickly as she can back to two hands, she goes on the attack, needing to land a serious attack before she runs out of usable healing chakra levels. A flurry of attacks does next to nothing. A glancing blow to her enemy's cheek. She parries his next blow, but her blood slickened hand loses her grip on her knife, and it goes flying out of her grasp, leaving her with one.

She drops into a roll, trying to get to her knife before Kimimaro can get to her. She's not fast enough, and a stab in her leg causes her to choke as her hand closes around the handle of the knife. It's not a serious wound, but Sakura doesn't know if she can put weight on that leg for the moment. The next stab from the bone blade comes right for her heart, and Sakura blocks it with both of her knives, trying to push the blow away from her heart. Kimimaro leans into it, and the blade drops closer to her heart. Sakura pushes back harder, pushing more chakra into the blades, and desperation starts to color the edges of her vision.

With a strong push, almost emptying her reserves of chakra, she shoves the blade up and rolls to the side. A graze in her shoulder makes her hiss but she's still alive, so Sakura will take it. She forces herself up onto one leg, and as she brandishes her knives, she notices that Kimimaro is no longer paying attention to her. Instead, he seems to be trying to fight off a wall of sand.

 

Sand?

 

 

A gravelly voice speaks behind her,

 

"Are you alright?"

 

 

Gaara, of course...

 

Sakura's heart leaps and sinks in equal measure. She's grateful Tsunade sent help for her. At the same time...

 

 

Why did it have to be Gaara?

 

 

Sakura wishes it was almost anyone else. She hasn't forgiven Gaara for what he did in the Chuunin exams. The wounds are still too fresh. She can't help the bite that comes out at her tone, though it's harsh enough even she flinches at it.

 

"I'm fine. Unlike my friend Kiba."

 

 

Gaara doesn't flinch, but his voice holds a hint of what might be remorse when he speaks again.

 

"I... apologize."

 

 

Sakura can tell from his tone that Naruto had gotten through to him, and Gaara was well on his way to being the thoughtful leader that Sakura knows from the future. All the same, she selfishly doesn't want to forgive Gaara for what he did. Luckily, she doesn't have to answer right away, as Kimimaro pulls off an attack that looks somewhat like a literal FOREST of bones, and Gaara is distracted. Walls of sand combat bones, and Sakura seizes the opportunity to patch her leg to stop the bleeding, and ensure she can stand on it to make an escape if she needs to.

 

Sakura sees a blur of orange, and Naruto lands behind her.

 

"Sakura! Do you need help?"

 

 

Naruto already has his hands in the sign Sakura recognizes as the one her teammate uses to make clones. She finds herself impressed with her teammate, for having taken out a member of the Sound Village Four and gotten here so quickly. Looking at Gaara, who's immersed in an intense bone vs. sand fight, Sakura shakes her head. She can't imagine Kimimaro being able to stand against the One tails Jinchuuriki for long.

 

 

"I think we're good here. Run ahead and help Lee with Neji. I think they're at the Valley of the End."

 

 

Naruto nods and runs off without another word. How he can trust Gaara around one of his teammates after what happened to Kiba astounds Sakura, but then, Naruto has a way of doing that. Believing the best in people, even when others can't see it. He's usually right too, though whether or not he actually sees the good in people or his unflinching faith in others inspires them to change, Sakura isn't quite sure. She can only hope that he can work his magic on Neji, and bring him home. Sakura isn't sure she could handle seeing the same depressed look on Naruto's face again if he failed to bring Neji home. It'd been hard enough to see him after Sasuke, and Sakura had been blinded herself with so many negative emotions she'd hardly the capacity to notice others.

 

Turning her attention back towards the battle in progress, Sakura finds herself just in time, as a bone forest starts sprouting under her feet. Looking up, she sees Gaara has a floating cloud of sand, and is looking at her. Shaking her head in frustration at being forced to be close to the boy, Sakura chakra enhances her feet and leaps to the sandy platform, which clings to her and prevents her from falling. Looking below, the bone forest grows thicker and thicker, and it becomes clear to Sakura that this was a suicidal last move attempt by Kimimaro.

After a moment, the forest stops growing, but no sign of Kimimaro remains. Sakura reaches out her chakra sense carefully, looking for a sign of him, and she almost pitches over at the small usage of chakra required. She's lower on energy and chakra than she thought. She doesn't feel her enemies presence anymore, so she feels safe to sink to her knees on the floating sand platform. Gaara guides his sand to gracefully float over the bone forest, towards where Naruto, Neji, and Lee had gone.

 

The silence between Sakura and Gaara starts to feel deafening, so she breaks it.

"You know, you caused me and my village a lot of pain, killing Kiba in combat like that."

 

 

Gaara doesn't answer right away, but Sakura can tell he isn't ignoring her, maybe thinking his words through carefully. After a brief time, as the sand begins to lower towards the ground and the bone forest ends, he answers her.

"Naruto explained it to me. In my village... We don't care for Genin that way. Life isn't... sacred to us. Naruto taught me...."

 

 

He trails off, unsure what to say, Sakura supposes. How would somebody put into words what Naruto is, though? She doesn't blame the Sand ninja for that much. She sighs.

"Naruto has a way of digging into your heart and staying there."

 

 

The sand deposits Sakura and Gaara gently on the ground, and she struggles to her feet. He looks contemplative, then finally gives a sort of nod. Sakura knows this is supposed to be her chance to be like Naruto, to forgive Gaara for what he did in hopes he'll be a better person. She keeps trying to find the words, the ability to let Kiba go. She can't though. It feels like a betrayal of Kiba, to just let his death go. To forgive and even befriend his killer, the person who had extinguished Kiba's life, and long with it, all the dreams and promises and friendships that the Inuzuka had.

At the same time, Sakura doesn't want to hate Gaara, to see him as a monster forever when she knows very well that he just isn't. Gaara doesn't interrupt her thoughts, just stands awkwardly, like he's waiting for her verdict on him.

 

 

"I-I still don't know if I can forgive you for what happened to Kiba. But, you're not a monster, Gaara. Naruto told me that much, and I believe in Naruto, even if I don't know if I can believe in you, yet. You can change, can be better. I just... I just need some time to accept that. I'm not as good as Naruto is, I'm not sure any of us are. He forgives and believes and moves on. I'll, I'll try and believe like Naruto does."

 

 

Gaara crosses his arms, giving a more definitive nod this time. Sakura lets out a sigh of relief. That will have to be good enough for now. The next pressing thing, is to see if Naruto and Lee managed to stop Neji or not, and then Sakura has to check on the rest of her team. She takes a step, and the world wavers. She is dangerously low on energy and chakra, how didn't she even notice? Sakura notices her chakra knives are still in her hands, still glowing with chakra. Growling at herself, she quenches the chakra flow and tucks them away. Even straightening has her weaving on her feet. Swallowing her pride, she turns to Gaara.

 

"Would you mind, uh, helping me to Lee and Naruto? I need to check on them, and see if Neji is with them."

 

 

She doesn't say anything about going after Neji, isn't sure if she even could if he isn't there. All the same, she knows she would run after Neji, for the same reason she's trying to force herself to forgive Gaara now. Naruto believes in him, and she knows from her past that they can be better, that they live up to her teammate's belief in them. Gaara, for his part, motionlessly commands his sand, and the sand props Sakura up and helps her move as she makes her way towards the Valley of the End, terrified of what she'll find, but hopeful all the same.

 

 

 

It's long and slow work, since Sakura can barely walk, and the Valley isn't exactly right around the corner, but eventually, Sakura and Gaara make it. The Valley looks like a bomb went off. Trees are knocked over, there's huge holes in the ground. It looks like they damaged the giant statues some. But where are they? Sakura looks around for them, desperate for a glance of any of the three of them. Gaara nods his head toward the other side of the river, and Sakura allows his sand to carry her across. On the other side, laying on the ground, are Lee and...

 

Neji!

 

 

Sakura feels like crying. Neji isn't gone, he's right there. Naruto is sitting right next to them, looking beat all to hell, but still conscious. Run stumbling towards them, sand supporting her every move, Sakura makes it over to the three of them, dropping to her knees. Naruto looks at her, and though he looks exhausted, he smiles at her, that bright, incredible smile.

 

"We did it, Sakura. We saved Neji."

 

 

Tearing up, Sakura nods at her teammate. They hadn't failed this time. Hadn't lost a friend to Orochimaru. Neji was here, he was safe. They could all go home.

 

"We did. You did, Naruto. We saved Neji."

 

 

Forgetting herself a little bit, Sakura reaches out for Lee, calling medical chakra to her hands. Best not to heal Neji now, in case he wakes up and tries to make a run for it. The second Sakura touches Lee with her medical chakra, she starts passing out.

 

Oh yeah, out of chakra...

 

 

As her vision blackens around the edges, Sakura falls to the ground, and she spares a thought for the other members of the team. Are they all okay? Will Naruto and Gaara be able to get her and Neji and Lee back to the village? Her consciousness starts to fade, and as it does, Sakura could swear she feels strong hands flipping her over, so that her face isn't planted in the grass, and a booming voice that's fuzzy and yet so familiar saying,

 

"Ah, just what I'd expect from a student of my eternal rival."

 

 

Then Sakura knows no more.