It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Nine

Sakura has to debrief and deal with the backlash of her time at Orochimaru’s side. Fortunately, Naruto and Sasuke are there for her. Once that settles, though, Tsunade has to deal with the resistance of the Elders to promoting the three of them. Drama, Angst, Fluff, I-5

“All right,” Kimiko, Sakura’s attending Intelligence medic, declared, handing her back her shirt. “You’re clear. No seals or techniques that would turn you, no sleepers that I can find, and you’re impressively healed from Heart In a Net considering that you just about ripped it out by the roots. Have I mentioned how stupid that was?”

“This is the fifth time,” Sakura sighed as she ducked her head through her shirt collar.

“Remember it,” Kimiko directed firmly. “Hokage-sama?”

“Mmm.” Tsunade frowned at her, arms crossed. “I still don’t like that new seal of yours. It could kill you far too easily. By all rights it should be named a forbidden technique.”

Sakura made a face. “Do you want to try to take it off?” She really didn’t look forward to that at all. Besides… well, never mind.

“No, I suppose not.” Sakura tried to ignore her leap of pleasure at those words as Tsunade ran a diagnostic palm over her shoulders again. “The surgery to sink this into you was very thorough, and getting it out would be even chancier than taking off that one of Sasuke’s. Besides,” her lips quirked, “you don’t want to let it go, do you?”

Sakura winced a little. “It’s not… I mean, it’s just…”

Tsunade laid a hand on her shoulder. “Sakura. It’s all right to like being strong, you know. That’s what makes us all keep moving forward. You’ve demonstrated pretty conclusively that you want that strength to protect the village. I’m not worried.”

Sakura bent her head. “Thank you, Tsunade-sama,” she said softly, feeling another small band of fear loosen from around her chest. She looked up with a tiny smile. “You heal hearts too, I guess.”

“Ah, go on with you.” Tsunade gave her a little shove. “If Kimiko’s cleared you, you’re ready for the fun part.” Both medics gave her alarmingly cheerful and toothy smiles and chorused, “Paperwork!”

Sakura contemplated this with a sinking stomach. “…you’re sure you don’t want to poke at the seal a little more?”

…It was at this point that I first started acting as a mission commander for a variety of Sound ninja, both genin and chuunin. I suspected, after the first two missions with entirely different teams, that Orochimaru was using my own experience to help train the Sound-nin to a higher standard; most of them did not possess the sophistication or training one would expect from an established village and tended to rely too heavily on their martial skills alone.

Sakura put her pen down and shook out her hand vigorously. In some ways, this was an easy section, a lot easier than putting her sparring with Kabuto into words. And then, in some ways, it might be the hardest. She had liked most of her teams, at least once she’d kicked a few asses and they knew to take her seriously. She thought most of them had liked and respected her, in the end. After all, she’d helped them. She’d made the missions a success and pointed them in a professional direction.

And she’d also killed their leader. If she ever met them again, they’d be completely within their rights, under the loose accords of the villages, to kill her. They might well try.

The part that actually troubled her was that she didn’t mind too much. She didn’t like the thought; she’d like it a lot better if they all decided that Orochimaru had been a sucking leech of a madman and they were all better off without him! But if the Sound shinobi, many of whom had never lived in Orochimaru’s personal base or seen his madness first hand, chose to blame her and seek revenge… well, that was their choice. She’d live with it.

And she could still look back and feel that she’d done a good job both ways: placing herself to kill Orochimaru after getting all the information about Sound that she could, and also doing her professional best to lead and improve the Sound shinobi under her command. She was… proud of them. Proud, even, of the skills they might be about to turn on her.

She was starting to wonder if this was what people really meant when they talked about Intelligence and twiddled a finger knowingly next to their temples.

Sakura took her chair in the incongruously bright, warm debriefing room in the basement of the Intelligence complex. She folded her arms tight over her stomach, and waited for today’s first question.

“First of all, Haruno, are you sure you want Hatake Kakashi to be here for today’s work?” Miuhara asked her as he pulled up his own chair on the other side of the table. “I know he was your jounin-sensei, but I have to tell you he can be pretty brutal when he’s doing Intelligence work.”

Sakura managed a small smile. “He could be pretty brutal as a teacher, too. I’m sure.” She trusted Kakashi-sensei’s judgment, and right now she felt very in need of some extra, trustable judgment. She was starting to doubt her own.

“All right then.” Miuhara nodded and Kakashi-sensei propped himself quietly against the soft yellow wall just behind her shoulder and out of her sight. Typical, Sakura thought with irritated affection.

Miuhara was paging through the thick folder of her report, but it was her other debriefer, Hitomi, who asked, “So about Kabuto. You said he was acting for his own purposes all along; do you think he’s going to take Sound for his own, now?”

Sakura shook her head, unhesitating. “No. I don’t think he has any interest in leading or ruling, himself.”

“What is he interested in, then? Research, like Orochimaru?”

Slowly, trying to put months of observations together, Sakura said, “The game. I think… I think that’s all he really cares about. I think that’s why he really stayed with Orochimaru, because Orochimaru played it too.”

“Hmm.” Miuhara frowned down at a page. “You said he defended Orochimaru without hesitation, at risk of his life, and yet was working against him the whole time.”

“Yes. That’s it exactly.” Sakura leaned forward, chasing the thought, trying to make sense for herself as well as for them. “I think that was the challenge he set for himself. To do everything Orochimaru wanted of him, to protect him even, and still successfully betray him in the end.”

Softly, Hitomi asked, “Like you did? Was that why you felt such a connection with him?”

Sakura flinched. “I…” She was quiet for a long breath, and finally whispered, “Yes.”

“Was that any part in your reasoning, when you let him go?” Miuhara asked neutrally.

“No.” That answer came to her quickly, surely, and she raised her head again. “No. That was plain calculation. I was running out of time, and if he could take me hostage he’d have a very strong position against Naruto and Sasuke. He offered something we wanted, too, and that tipped the balance.”

Miuhara nodded. “Good. Now, you just said that Orochimaru played the game, too. In your report, you emphasized his implication, on dying, that he had never assumed you were loyal until very near the end. Can you expand on that?”

Sakura’s arms tightened. “In retrospect, it’s very clear,” she said a little stiffly. “He probably always assumed I was an agent for Konoha. He… lured me. He showed approval for my apparent self-interest and eventually gave me a technique that is both very strong and does not control me. That seems contradictory, but all during the research process he was offering me bait. Leadership of teams; the respect of the Sound shinobi, especially as he appeared to trust me at his side; approval for every time I pushed back against him and for my planning abilities; my… my name.”

“Your name?” Hitomi murmured, eyes sharp over her folded hands.

“He didn’t call me by name, for a long time. It was always ‘kunoichi’. But when…” she had to swallow, “when I demanded more tests on the last version of the seal, more tests on other people, because I knew it would give me more time to gather intelligence on the bases, then he called me by name.”

“And if he thought all along you were an agent of Konoha,” Miuhara completed her logic coolly, “it follows that he was seeking to draw you into just that position, where you would be complicit with his atrocities. And he rewarded you for it.”

“Yes,” Sakura whispered, arms curling tighter. “And it worked.”

“How so?” Miuhara asked, perfectly calm. “Do you have any intention of performing that kind of forbidden experiment?”

“Not that,” she said roughly. “But I liked it! Even knowing what he was, what he was doing, when he recognized me, I felt…” She ran out of words and clenched her hands, frustrated.

Kakashi stirred against the wall. “You created your cover out of a part of yourself you don’t usually show or let run free,” he said quietly. “And Orochimaru saw that part and understood it, and showed approval for it.” He paused and added, lower, “And that part of you meant it when you swore loyalty to him and to Sound.”

“Yes.” Sakura was curled in so tightly now she was bent over her knees, hot, furious tears dripping onto the fabric of her pants.

“Do you believe you will betray the Leaf?” Hitomi asked.

“No,” Sakura said, rough and tight, but sure of that at least.

“Do you believe you would have stayed with him if he had not continued to seek Uchiha Sasuke’s life?” Miuhara asked, gently.

That one froze Sakura for long, tight breaths. “I… in the Net… in the Net, yes,” she whispered at last, shaking, eyes fixed on her knees, wide and blind. She covered her face with her hands and shuddered, breath choking in her chest.

Warm, strong hands settled on her shoulders. “And if someone had come to release the Net for you?” Kakashi-sensei asked, matter-of-fact.

Sakura clenched her hands together and pressed them to her chest, to her heart, biting her lip hard. She remembered the way Sasuke and Naruto had taken care of her that first night, the way they still showed up every day, to walk her home from Intelligence or to train with her after dinner. She felt the sureness, down at the bottom of her heart, that had driven her hand through Orochimaru’s chest, and finally she whispered, “If someone had released me… if my team had come for me… I would have come back.” She looked up at Miuhara and Hitomi, sitting quiet and unjudging at the table, and took a long, trembling breath. “Yes.”

Miuhara smiled. “I’m glad. Let’s take a break, then. We can continue when you’re ready.”

Sakura nodded and stood, though she needed Kakashi-sensei’s hand under her elbow for a moment to keep from falling over again, and went to wash her face.

Sasuke leaned against the tree across from the front doors of Intelligence, waiting for Sakura. Naruto had walked her home yesterday and he’d been scowling when he came to see Sasuke after. He’d said she looked like someone had dipped her in bleach and wrung her out. Sasuke had asked how Naruto knew anything about bleach, considering the condition of his apartment, and promised to wait for her today.

Whatever was going on with her, he needed to see.

So he waited, nodding silently to the occasional greetings of other shinobi as they emerged or entered. Both he and Naruto were becoming familiar sights, he supposed. Well enough; they were Sakura’s team, and the other agents might as well get used to them now.

He was starting to wonder if this was exactly how Kakashi had become so fanatical about teamwork and supporting team members. Had he lost someone, or had someone lost part of themselves, for his sake?

When Sakura finally came out the doors, he straightened up frowning. Naruto was right; she looked washed out and exhausted, and he found himself hurrying to her side to put a hand under her arm. “Hey. Are you all right?” He frowned more darkly at the building she’d just come out of. “What are they doing to you?”

The smile Sakura gave him was a little shaky, but it looked true, and she put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Sasuke. It’s… well, it’s not fun, I won’t lie, but it’s helping me. In the long run. Like training really hard,” she added, when he continued frowning.

His brows rose at that. “Training, huh?” He didn’t let go, but he did turn and walk quietly beside her.

“Kind of.” She walked slowly, slower than he liked to see, and as they started coming into busier streets he glared people out of her way with no compunctions. Sakura barely seemed to notice, and he wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. At last she said, softly, “He really messed with my head, you know. By the end. Partly because I was already under a technique to help me think and react… skewed. Like I resented you and Naruto, like we’d never come together as a real team. But also because he really was scarily good at that.” She looked up at him, eyes dark. “You know.”

He remembered years of solitary rage and desperation, and the few months when that desperation had been fed, tantalized with the promise of fulfillment and rest. And he shuddered. “I know.”

“So, it isn’t fun to talk about, and have Miuhara-san and Hitomi-san pick apart everything I did and heard and saw. But it helps. It helps me figure out how I really think and feel, so no one will be able to do that to me again. Or, at least, not so easily.” Her shoulders straightened and her chin lifted a little at that, more the Sakura he knew.

“Okay. I guess I can see that.” He looked down at her as they turned onto her own street. “Can we help?”

Her smile broke out like sunshine. “You already do. I promise.”

They stopped at her door and he said, quietly. “You… you did this for me.” Trying to find words to express his astonishment and fear and frustration, seeing the price she’d paid, he finally burst out with, “Why?”

Sakura’s smile turned bright and sharp as a knife. “Because you’re mine,” she said, making him blink, and added, softer, “You’re ours. That’s all.”

Theirs. Hers and Naruto’s. And because of that, she would do this thing and think almost nothing of it. Sasuke shook his head, helplessly. How was he supposed to make sense out of that? Only family did things like that.

The thought echoed in his head, and he flinched from it.

Sasuke swallowed, staring down at her blindly. He had no family. His family was gone. His whole clan. He had nothing left but the madman who killed them all, and that was why… why everything. But Sakura would do this for him. Naruto, who argued with him by reflex, like breathing, Naruto would, he was certain, say the same. And look at him like he was an idiot for questioning it, into the bargain. They were…

They were his team! He shook his head violently. They were his team, that was all. That was why. Team, like Kakashi-sensei always said. (Family dies. Not family.)

“Sasuke? Hey, Sasuke?” Sakura frowned and poked him in the arm. “Did you skip lunch today or something?”

“No,” he muttered, “I… I just…” He swallowed down a rush of queasiness, of almost-fear. There was nothing to be afraid of; they were his team. “Never mind.” He hesitated. “Sakura…”

“Hm?” She cocked her head, eyes clear and patient.

Ignoring the sudden stares of the civilians around them, he stepped forward and gathered her up, holding her tightly. “Thank you,” he whispered against her ear. “For… everything.”

After a startled moment, she hugged him back, just as tight. “You’re welcome. Always.” She pulled back a little and smiled, softly. “And thank you, too. I don’t think you know for how much.”

“Maybe I know a little.” He let her go, hands sliding down her arms. “So. More talking about it tomorrow?”

She made a face and nodded.

“Okay. We’ll wait for you again tomorrow, then.” He waited until she was safely inside before taking to the roofs to head back to his own apartment.

Sakura stood in her underwear with her hands on her hips, staring at the clothes tossed over her dresser. It was obvious once you looked at them, piled layer on layer.

She’d worn a completely different outfit every day this week. One day her old red tunic and snug shorts. Another, her actual chuunin uniform. A third her black pants from Sound and her net shirt. Yet another, a dress she barely remembered buying before she left. She’d cycled through one after another, as if her clothes could tell her who she was now, and never even realized it.

Kakashi-sensei was probably laughing.

All right. This wasn’t a question she could answer by random dips into her wardrobe. It was something she had to decide. Who did she want to be? And what did that person want to wear today?

Slowly, she sorted and folded her clothes. It was easy to hang up her dresses. That hadn’t ever really been her day to day style. After a moment of hesitation she folded away her red tunics and blouses also. They were bright and cheerful and… too young. Too young for how she felt now. Her hands clenched in her black Sound clothes as she folded them and she had to stop and bite her lip and remind herself of the things she’d come to understand about herself in the past week. This was part of her, yes. But only part. Still, her fingers lingered on her black leather vest. It zipped down the front, the same as many of her tunics did. She’d never quite seen that before.

She laid the vest on the bed. Perhaps… perhaps this was something she would keep. A reminder that, even as deep under as she’d gone, she’d still found a tiny connection to keep. She’d still known who she was, at the very heart.

And who she was was a shinobi of the Leaf. She knew more of what that meant, now, and she wouldn’t turn away from it. This was her calling. Thoughtfully, she pulled out her Leaf uniform pants and laid them on the bed too, looking at the combination.

That might do.

She dressed, wrapping her calves snugly and pulling on her sandals, and tied her forehead protector. When she took a breath and turned to look in the mirror, she smiled. That looked like someone she knew. Like a self she knew.

There was still something, though.

After a moment’s thought, she reached up and tugged at a strand of hair. It was cut at her shoulders these days. It was attractive enough, and easy to care for. But right now she was remembering when it had been even shorter, a time when that had been her mark of determination. Perhaps that would be right to have again, now. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she was just being silly or overthinking this, but… all of them had changed over time, hadn’t they? Outward signs of inward changes. Naruto wore black or blue, these days, aside from the ever-orange jacket. Sasuke had slowly left off wearing his high-necked shirts and started wearing wrapped tops, that and a belt that hid more shuriken than the local weapons shop. Naruto had teased him about stealing from Tsunade-sama’s closet until Sasuke had rolled his eyes and pointed out a few essential differences in fit across the chest.

Looked at that way, Sakura was actually behind on her changes. She nodded firmly to herself in the mirror and hopped out her window, heading for Ino’s house. And just because she was in an impish mood, she snuck up behind Ino silently, in the flower shop, and tapped her on the shoulder. "Hey."

Ino jumped and spun, lifting the scissors she’d just been cutting ribbon with, poised to slash or stab. Sakura grinned. "Tense today?"

"Sakura!" Ino exhaled explosively, lowering the scissors. "Don’t do that!" She paused and frowned. "Since when did you get that good at stealth?"

Sakura’s mouth twisted. "This last mission. It was… kind of intense."

Ino’s eyes darkened and she nodded silently. Ino had entered Intelligence, too; Sakura didn’t have to say anything else, and Ino wouldn’t press for details. Sakura inhaled, relaxing into her friend’s understanding. "So, hey. I want to get a haircut; what’s the best place to go to, these days?"

"Still Kitagawa’s," Ino said promptly. "Thinking of a new style?"

"Yeah." Sakura smiled a little wryly, running a hand through her hair. "I just want something a little different. Shorter, I think."

"Hmm." Ino eyed her steadily for a moment. "Okay. Let me tell Tou-san, and I’ll come along and introduce you."

Sakura smiled more naturally. "Thanks, Ino."

Ino escorted her through the streets, keeping just a hair ahead, passing on gossip with plenty of expansive gestures that kept the other people around them at a little distance. Ino really was pretty perceptive, Sakura reflected; she was a kind and good friend.

Of course, Ino was also an insufferable know-it-all, and, once they were at the hair-dresser’s, engaged Mie-san, the senior stylist, in a long discussion over the pros and cons of different styles for Sakura’s face shape and hair texture. Sakura shook her head wryly and cut in. "I just want something very short and easy to take care of," she said firmly. "Nothing I have to spend a long time on in the morning. Something that looks good even if I slept in a tree the night before and finger combed it when I got up."

"Ah, a working hairstyle." Mie-san sounded a shade disappointed, but her eyes also gleamed at the prospect of a challenge. "Well, now, let me see."

Sakura suffered herself to be washed and conditioned and turned this way and that while Mie-san muttered over her hair. Eventually the clippers came out, and there was more muttering and snipping here and there, and hand-long hanks of silky pink hair, dark with water, started to fall around the chair. Eventually there was a reassuringly small bit of blow-drying and some reassuringly basic brushing, and Mie-san whisked her towel away. "There! What do you think?"

Sakura stood and looked in the mirror. Her hair was short, a soft mop of flyaway strands with unpredictable waves and flips here and there. "Does it really do that?" she marveled, running a hand through it.

"Oh yes. Your hair has surprising body for such a fine texture, especially if you don’t blow-dry it."

Sakura smiled, standing straight. She looked like someone confident. Someone who knew who she was. For the first time in a long time, longer than eight months she thought, her outside felt like it matched her inside.

She really had fallen behind on her changes.

"I like it very much," she said softly. "Thank you."

"It suits you," Ino offered, head cocked. "I wouldn’t have thought it, but it does."

A style she had chosen for herself, rather than listening to what other people thought was pretty. Sakura grinned. "Yeah. It does, doesn’t it?"

A summons came for her team five days later. It directed them, not to the mission room or even the Hokage’s office, but a room on the ground floor of the Hokage Residence. They gathered outside it, glancing questioningly at each other, but before anyone got up the guts to suggest just going in, a vision in long pale robes came sweeping down the hall to meet them.

Sakura stared at the Hokage, and the boys stared with her. She’d never actually seen Tsunade in her formal robes before.

“Tsunade-baachan?” Naruto sounded just as startled as she felt. “Why are you all got up like that? And why did we have to wear our uniforms?”

Tsunade sighed and waved them into the room, kicking her robes out of her way as she walked. “We have a bit of a situation.”

The room looked like an extremely formal version of her office, wood paneled and hung with banners, with a huge desk in front of what was nearly a throne, and sumptuous chairs set out before it. Other people were there ahead of them, and Sakura’s eyes widened further as she realized that half of Tsunade’s council was here—all three of the Elders. But not the ANBU or Jounin Commanders or the clan heads. So this is important, but she doesn’t want to give it too much weight. Her eyes narrowed. “Tsunade-sama? Who are you receiving?”

Tsunade settled herself at the throne-desk and smiled tightly at her. “The Daimyou of Sound Country.”

Sakura’s breath drew in sharply, and she was glad when Naruto and Sasuke closed in at her shoulders. “Why?” Sasuke growled, sounding more like Naruto for a moment than himself.

The Elders stirred and gave the three of them dour looks, but Tsunade’s mouth just quirked. “Take it easy, we’re not giving Sakura up to them or anything.”

Relief flooded through her, but Sakura couldn’t help asking, “Why not? If it’s required for the village to save face…” The Elders were giving her slightly more approving looks, now.

“Orochimaru was our criminal,” Tsunade declared firmly. “Our claim on his life had priority. So.” She beckoned. “Sakura, come stand here beside me and look as calm as possible. You two,” she pointed to the boys, “stand at the door and make like guards and keep your mouths shut.”

Only a few moments after everyone sorted themselves out, a small bell by the wall rang. “Here they come,” Tsunade murmured, straightening and folding her hands on the desk before her.

The Daimyou that Shizune escorted in was accompanied by two shinobi of Sound, and Sakura had to bite her lip to keep from twitching when she recognized them. One of them was Tomita, and the look of betrayal he gave her before fixing his gaze firmly on the wall twisted her heart. There was no other way, she wanted to explain. I never wanted to hurt any of you.

But she couldn’t say that here and now. Might not ever be able to say it. So she took a breath and fixed her eyes in turn on Naruto and Sasuke. She was deeply grateful to Tsunade-sama’s foresight for putting them there, the reminder of why it had needed to be done in the first place.

The Daimyou barely let Tsunade get her greeting out before he interrupted. “Hokage! You have sent shinobi of the Leaf to attack my country and kill the leader of my hidden village! What do you have to say for yourself, in face of this?”

Tsunade raised her brows, and suddenly it wasn’t at all hard to believe that she was older than the man in front of her. “I sent my shinobi to execute a criminal of our own village. I regret any inconvenience this may have caused you, but if you harbor such creatures I’m afraid you must be prepared for a certain amount of inconvenience.” As the Daimyou drew breath to respond, she held out a hand to Shizune, who placed a folder in it. “For example,” Tsunade cut over his first syllable, “in searching Orochimaru’s bases for any of our citizens he may have taken, we discovered quite a few of your citizens. Some we released before they could be harmed, but some, I regret to say, had already fallen prey to Orochimaru’s experiments.” She laid out three large, glossy photos on her desk and pushed them across to the Daimyou with delicate fingertips, as if she didn’t want to touch them too much. Sakura could guess what was in them, and didn’t blame her.

The Daimyou, after one look, turned pale and pressed his sleeve over his mouth.

“Perhaps,” Tsunade said softly, “you were not entirely aware of Orochimaru’s propensities for this kind of thing.”

“I… no, I never…” the Daimyou stammered, horrified eyes locked on the images. “Those were really…?”

“Considering that he did not limit himself to missing-nin but captured shinobi in good standing from other villages, as well,” Tsunade noted coolly, “I believe you are fortunate that we got there first, and with a tightly targeted assassination rather than a general attack that might have decimated your village as a whole.”

The Daimyou swallowed and rallied a bit. “Tightly targeted!” He pointed at Sakura, “That woman had her fingers in just about every Sound mission for half a year!”

Sakura felt she had the rhythm of this down by now. She tightened her clasped hands behind her and ventured to answer for herself. “My only target was Orochimaru, my lord. The other work I did, I did to the best of my ability and in good faith.” She cocked her head, actually starting to enjoy this. “Are you displeased that the capital’s mayor is no longer conspiring with the capital’s criminals? Or that the lord of Kouzen is no longer—”

“Enough, enough,” he cut her off hastily. Sakura inclined her head and continued to look politely inquiring. Beside her, Tsunade coughed into her fist, clearly fighting laughter.

The Daimyou harumphed and glowered. But after a few moments, the glare faded and he gave Sakura a more thoughtful look. “So,” he said slowly. “You say that you don’t wish to damage my country, or destabilize it. Wise of you, considering the border we share with Fire. But the fact remains, my hidden village is now missing a leader.”

“We do regret that necessity,” Tsunade-sama allowed, hands folded immovably again.

The Daimyou smiled. “Then you should have no objections to making a good-will gesture that will fix the problem.” He pointed to Sakura again. “Give me her, to be the new Master of Hidden Sound.”

Stunned silence held the room for a breath and Sakura had to bite her lip again to keep from squeaking with shock.

“An interesting proposal,” Tsunade said at last, slowly. “I take it you were, in fact, satisfied with Sakura’s work? Aside from her mission of execution, of course?”

The Daimyou flicked his fingers at the photos with distaste. “Even that would appear to have been in the country’s interest.”

Tsunade looked up at Sakura and said quietly, “I won’t make it an order. This is too heavy a job for anyone but a volunteer; I should know. But if you wish to accept it, then you may.”

A dozen thoughts spun through Sakura’s mind: her pleasure at the respect of the Sound-nin, the betrayal in Tomita’s eyes, the utter mess that the village and bases must be now, the potential for an alliance that would strengthen Leaf, the fact that she would have to stop thinking like that and shift her allegiance…

Her eyes fell on Naruto and Sasuke, and the spinning stopped.

She took a breath and met the Daimyou’s gaze. “I’m sorry, my lord. I don’t believe I could serve Sound with my whole heart.” Logic, lagging behind today, finally kicked in and she added, “I’m not at all sure it would serve you best to have two Masters in a row come from the Fire Country, either. It would set a bad precedent, and I fear the shinobi of Sound would always have to doubt my true allegiance. Especially after their experiences with Orochimaru.” She lifted one hand, palm up. “May I suggest, instead, appointing Naridasu Katsuhito? He is the most professional of Sound’s jounin, and I believe he would do well for the village.” He was certainly the one who had seemed to be hiding the most distaste for Orochimaru’s ‘research’. Since the Daimyou was looking disgruntled, she offered, “If you do wish to permit an alliance between Sound and Leaf, I would be entirely glad to aid in training your chuunin and genin further. I’m sure any of our trainers would be. That was…” she couldn’t help glancing at Tomita, “that was my pleasure.”

The Daimyou snorted, but the corner of his mouth quirked up. “You bargain well, girl, I’ll say that. Very well. I’ll consider Naridasu, and I’ll hold Leaf to that offer of aid.” If he noticed Tomita stirring beside him, he ignored it in favor of fixing Tsunade-sama with a stern look. “Next time you have evidence that one of my people is engaged in criminal activity against my own country, bring it to me before you start mounting covert operations across my border.”

“If it is at all possible, of course,” Tsunade-sama murmured. Which was not, Sakura noted, a yes. From the way the Daimyou harumphed some more, she thought he’d noticed that too.

“Ninja!” He stood, shaking his traveling robes into order, and swept out without another word.

Sakura let her breath out as the door closed behind him and his attendants, and leaned on the edge of the desk. Her knees were shaking.

“You handled that very well,” Tsunade told her, clasping her shoulder for a moment. “Get your breath back and take your boys off before they both glare holes in me for even considering sending you away.”

Sakura laughed a little. “Yes, Tsunade-sama.” Another breath and she walked steadily enough across the room to where Sasuke and Naruto were indeed glaring a bit. “Hey, cut that out. I wouldn’t leave Konoha.” She smiled, and tugged on their sleeves. “I wouldn’t leave my team.”

“You’d better not.” Naruto was nearly pouting at her. Sasuke just hustled them both through the door and down the hall, as if he were afraid the Hokage would change her mind.

“I won’t, I won’t, I promise,” Sakura laughed for real, light-hearted. She could never leave this. Never.

She rocked to a stop as they emerged from the building, though. Tomita was waiting for her, leaning in the shadows of the great doors. “Tomita,” she said softly.

“Did you really mean it?” he asked, not looking up from his crossed arms. “That you liked the work you did with us?”

Sakura took a slow breath, remembering the things she’d found and spoken during her debriefing last week, feeling the silent support of Naruto and Sasuke close beside her. “I meant it. Orochimaru was a menace, to my people and yours both, but Sound itself, the village and not his headquarters… you’re good shinobi. If I really had been unaffiliated, I’d have been glad to stay.” It was far more tangled than that, but those were the only parts she was going to explain to an outsider, even a maybe-ally. There was one more thing, though, she could give him. “I took that mission because Orochimaru threatened what was precious to me. If I had stayed,” she said quietly, out of the surety in her heart, “I would have killed him for Sound’s sake, in the end.”

Finally, he looked up at her, and the earlier betrayal had become only the shadows in any shinobi’s eyes. “I believe you.” He straightened up and turned to go, and hesitated. Finally, with a quick breath, he spun back to face her and saluted her, fist to his heart, sharp and precise as he had that day on the border. “For that truth.” And then he was gone in a swirl of smoke.

And Sakura turned and reached out blindly for her teammates, blinking back the wetness in her eyes as their arms wrapped around her.

“Hey, it doesn’t matter what another village thinks about you, right?” Naruto asked, anxiously. “I mean, since you know we care about you.”

“I’m just glad,” she said, husky. “I know it was the right thing to do. I know I did well for them whenever I could. I just… it’s good to know he believes me.”

“You have an end to it, now,” Sasuke said, quietly.

“Yes.” Sakura looked up, feeling the words match the shape of the world around her. “Yes, that’s it. An end. Not stopping, but… an end.”

Sasuke nodded, silent.

“Hey.” Naruto pulled Sasuke tighter against them. “Quit worrying. We’ll get an end for you, too.”

Sasuke looked aside at that, color rising just a shade on his cheekbones. Sakura and Naruto smiled at each other, pleased and complicit. “So, hey.” She nudged them both. “I think we deserve a treat. How about Dangoya for tea?”

Naruto perked up. “And then we can do Ichiraku Ramen for dinner!”

“This,” Sakura said trenchantly, “is why my mother has hysterics every time I talk about moving out; because she’s afraid I’ll start eating like you.”

“Your mother,” Sasuke observed with cutting accuracy, “is afraid you’ll live like any other shinobi and not bother getting married, and then she won’t get to orchestrate a grand wedding reception.”

“Yeah,” Sakura sighed. “That too. Okay, let’s do ramen, so she can worry about that instead.”

Not stopping, she thought as they made their way down the steps, never stopping. But finding the ends to their life threads. That was a good way to live.

The three of them could do that, together.

A week and a bit after their visit from the Sound Daimyou Tsunade sat at her regular, human-sized desk and folded her hands against her mouth, frowning into the air. “Another one.”

“Nii, who holds the Two-tails. The more stable of Cloud’s two hosts,” Asuma confirmed. “It’s all over Cloud; the whole village was in an uproar when we got there. For a while I wasn’t sure they’d let us leave again, diplomatic mission or not.”

“What does Akatsuki think they’re doing?” she demanded, aggravated, raking a hand through her hair. “They’ve been mercenaries for two generations! And after this they’ll never get another job from any of the great villages!”

“Could they be trying to become a village themselves?” Nara Shikaku suggested from where he leaned a hip against her windowsill. “Gain enough power to settle somewhere and hold it against their enemies?”

“That’s looking like all of us, at this rate,” Asuma noted dryly, teeth clicking on his senbon.

“If they have all of the tailed beasts under some form of control, they might yet stand against us all,” Shikaku murmured.

Silence followed that extremely unwelcome thought.

“All of them.” Tsunade tried to imagine it. “How could they possibly control all of them, though? Even if Itachi can control one host, I can’t imagine any form of the Sharingan that would allow him to control more than one. Maybe they just want us not to have them.”

Asuma glanced at Shikaku. “Do we have any agents in Akatsuki at all?”

“Not for about ten years, now, according to Morino and the ANBU Commander.” Shikaku didn’t look happy. “That was just about the time Itachi joined them; he’d have known who the agents were.”

“He having been ANBU. Of course.” Tsunade sighed. “We’ll try again. I imagine Cloud and Rock will be too. Hopefully one of us will get someone in and find out what the hell Akatsuki thinks they’re doing.”

Before they found out the hard way, she hoped.

"All right, then." She rolled up onto her feet, and beckoned Shikaku after her. "Thanks, Asuma. I’m glad to know about this before this month’s meeting."

She strode down the halls of the administrative building, turning over one possibility after another in her thoughts, and none of them made any kind of sense. Akatsuki couldn’t possibly have the hosts they’d taken so far under control; they must have killed them and be hoping to do whatever it was they were doing before the beasts could revive. She looked up as Shizune fell in beside her, handing over a folder, and smiled a little; this was a much more cheerful thing to think about. "You got it all in order?"

Shizune nodded brisk confirmation. "All three of them have fulfilled the usual requirements. This should be easy."

"Mm." In Tsunade’s experience so far, nothing was ever easy with her Council. But it should be simple anyway.

Shikaku stepped ahead of them to get the door to the meeting room where the monthly Council met and Tsunade took a breath and swept through, head high. A fast glance around the green-draped room showed the ANBU Commander and the three Elders all present, and she nodded to them. "Let’s get started, ladies and gentlemen."

She listened with half an ear as Shizune reported on the arrangements for this season’s chuunin exam in Hidden Valley, and Shikaku listed the jounin who had volunteered for the good-will mission to Sound. It was a shame they couldn’t really send Sakura herself back, but her teammates would never let her go without them and Tsunade had bigger fish to fry with those three, right now.

"We should definitely send Yamanaka Inoichi," Utatane said, folding her thin fingers on the solid, old table. "He has experience in the Interrogation unit. He’ll be able to find out how much threat Sound still is to us."

"Inoichi is certainly just the person to lead the mission," Tsunade agreed, knowing there was an edge in her voice and unable to help it. Unsure she even wanted to help it. "He has an even temper and a diplomat’s manners, which is just what a good-will mission needs."

Mitokado snorted, and Tsuna reminded herself yet again that she couldn’t strangle her own first councilors just because they were a couple of war-crazy old goats. Shame, that. "If calm is what you want on that mission, you should send Aburame Shibi too," the old man suggested, sarcasm clanging in every word.

Tsunade bared her teeth at him. "An excellent suggestion. His self-possession will be very valuable, and I’m sure a little quiet would be appreciated by everyone." Shizune coughed meaningfully behind her and Tsunade made herself sit back. She knew she shouldn’t let these two get to her, but it had been a very long time indeed since anyone dared treat her like some raw graduate.

Danzou stirred. "If two jounin are going on this mission, that will stretch the village a little thin. Especially considering the recent Akatsuki incursions among the great nations."

Tsunade picked up the folder she’d dropped on the table, wondering one more time exactly what contacts Danzou still had among Intelligence that he always knew about the classified reports. "A very good point. Fortunately, we have three chuunin who have been nominated for promotion this quarter." She slid the topsheets across the table to the Elders and the ANBU Commander and waited.

"Completely unacceptable!" Mitokado exclaimed.

"All three of them have been properly nominated by jounin who were not their field-teacher," Shikaku pointed out a bit dryly. "All three of them have displayed mastery of high level techniques in at least two elements and completed the minimum number of B-rank and above missions."

"Haruno-kun is considered, by all those who know of her recent mission, to have displayed unusually good judgment under high-stress conditions," the ANBU Commander added quietly, hands tented under his cat mask.

"Haruno, certainly, but you can’t possibly promote Uzumaki." Mitokado dropped the topsheet with an air of finality. "The kind of missions a jounin goes on are far too great a risk." He frowned and added, "And he’s only displayed mastery of one element, hasn’t he?"

"Wind, yes." Tsunade had her hands folded so tight her knuckles were white. "And yang chakra. The Nine-tails’ chakra, to be precise."

"That cannot possibly count toward the promotion requirements," Mitokado nearly sputtered.

"What’s your problem with Naruto?" Tsunade asked bluntly. "You certainly wouldn’t try to tell me that my yin mastery doesn’t count." Not if the old goat wanted to live to see sundown, anyway.

"He’s the village’s Sacrifice! His training with you has kept him in the village, and that’s as it should be. The idea of sending him out like any other jounin is preposterous."

And if he were formally promoted, Tsunade reflected grimly, there would be a lot of pressure to do just that. "Sacrifice" or not. Which was the idea. "So you want me to withhold the rank that he’s earned from him? Set him apart even more? Keep alienating him from the village we all hope he’ll protect?"

"Tsunade," Utatane broke in. "It’s not just that. In time, Uzumaki may demonstrate the ability to take on jounin level missions, but right now you can’t deny that he’s still very immature."

"And how will he gain maturity without experience?" Tsunade argued.

"Vital as this question is," Danzou murmured from where he’d been sitting quiet and still, "I believe the nomination of Uchiha Sasuke is even more problematic. An immature shinobi may gain experience, if you are willing to take such a risk, but will an unstable one become any more stable?"

"Both his teachers attest that Sasuke has indeed become more stable over the last two years," Shikaku answered calmly before Tsunade could get her teeth unlocked to tell Danzou exactly what she thought of his argument.

"Stable enough, though?" Danzou shook his head as if sadly. "I have no objection to Haruno, of course, but Uzumaki and Uchiha… no. They need more time. Surely there’s no need to rush them into promotion and possibly unsettle their development as shinobi."

Both Mitokado and Utatane settled back and nodded firmly in agreement, and Tsunade breathed deeply to keep from screaming with frustration. Just as any jounin could nominate a chuunin for promotion, enough of the Council could block the nomination. With all three of her Elders standing firm, they were deadlocked and she couldn’t very well call in the noble clans on a promotion question; that would open the door to all sorts of accusations of favoritism and factionalism. "Very well," she said through her teeth. "Shikaku. Inform Haruno of her promotion. Shizune, clear some time in my schedule tomorrow; Naruto and Sasuke deserve an explanation. And an assurance that their Hokage does not doubt them."

And on that note, the meeting broke up. Tsunade went to get some stomach soothing tea from Shizune’s stock and wondered if it would be too extremely disrespectful to pray at the Senju’s Touki shrine for her Elders to die peacefully in their sleep, someday very soon.

The next day, though, it wasn’t just Naruto and Sasuke who came to her office at the appointed hour. Sakura was with them too. In fact, she was the one who actually marched up to Tsunade’s desk while Sasuke and Naruto waited by the door. She threw her promotion letter down and crossed her arms.

"Is it true that Naruto and Sasuke were supposed to be promoted and were blocked?" she demanded, nearly glowering.

Tsunade pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair. Apparently Danzou wasn’t the only one who could take advantage of the Intelligence grapevine. "I’m afraid so," she admitted. "I have every faith in them, as do the field commanders, but a majority of the council has to approve jounin promotions."

Sakura’s eyes narrowed and Tsunade would be willing to bet the girl had understood exactly who was left in opposition to her partners, if the Hokage and the field commanders had no qualms. More significantly, given Tsunade’s win/loss record, she thought Shizune would be willing to bet, too. "I see. Well." She snapped her hands together in the Tiger and spat pointedly at the letter, which went up in flames. "You can tell them that they can take my promotion, fold it in corners, and stick it up their asses! I’ll advance with my team or not at all!" With that she whirled and strode out of the room leaving a small pile of char on top of Tsunade’s desk. Naruto, grinning all over his face, swaggered out on her heels. Sasuke paused to give Tsunade a brief bow and a definite smirk before following.

When Shizune came in five minutes later, Tsunade was still laughing. "Tsunade-sama?" she asked, cautiously.

Tsunade wiped her eyes as she caught her breath again. "That girl is going to be a first councilor herself one day, you know she will." She dissolved in chuckles again. "Naruto will change Konoha when he’s Hokage, all right! I don’t see how he could help it with those two beside him!"

A/N: I’m positing some differences in vocabulary in how people refer to the tailed beast hosts, here. I’ve translated jinchuuriki as "Sacrifice". But whenever someone refers to them as "hosts", that’s yadonushi, which is a considerably less dire and freighted word. I really think that friends and (sane) family would be more likely to use something like that than jinchuuriki.

As for the Council I’m constructing here, we don’t even meet Danzou until part two, but he sits with the group deciding who gets to be the new Hokage; clearly Kishimoto decided he was going to be an important part of the village’s governance. This begs the question of why we never saw anyone but Utatane and Mitokado taking part in governance decisions in the first half, and why we keep seeing far larger groups advising the other Kage. To reconcile all this, I invented the office of "first councilors" to serve as the Hokage’s immediate advisers and widened the Hokage’s Council to include the heads of the noble clans and the field commanders. I posit that there’s actually a four-way balance of power (Hokage, Elders, clan heads, field commanders) and that what counts as a majority varies depending on how the "sides" are divided up on any given issue.