Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ Training for the Job ❯ Volume 2 Chapter 7 ( Chapter 10 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]
Volume 2 Notes: I had a grumble or two about the last chapter, and how I made Naruto too strong because of his immense chakra. I don't agree with that, but I can understand where it comes from, so I think I'd better explain my thoughts on it. Naruto can, as of the fight with Gaara, access the kyuubi's chakra at will (as seen when he first encounters Akatsuki in his hotel room) -- it gives him very rapid healing and immense stamina. It does not, however, make him superior to those around him. His body was dissolving from the intense amount of chakra he was using in the fight with Sasuke by the waterfall, but even so... he was not equal in strength to the Kyuubi. The unprecidented amount of chakra he generates does not give him the kyuubi's strength and durability, nor does it give him his reflexes, size, force of blow, or skills. What it does do is give him limitless power to fight with, increasing his stamina to the point where he may never run fully out of chakra (by this point in the story, at least). Harnessing that power, however, is still his job -- even if he has the same amount of energy as the kyubi, and can use that energy without limit, he still has limits on his powers because his techniques don't let him use as much power as the kyuubi could in its natural form. There simply aren't any human techniques to match what the kyuubi could throw out. Therefore, even though he had such immense power at his disposal, he was STILL weaker then Orochimaru, and therefore still weaker then Akatsuki. In fact, by the end of this volume, I'm estimating Naruto will have just over 1,000 techniques at his disposal and limitless chakra, but he'll still only be at Orochimaru's level and not at Itachi's. But then, I also expect him to grow in the current manga arc (which I am making certain assumptions as to how it will go, the assumptions being the base of some experiences at the start of Volume 3) to the point where maybe, he could match with most Akatsuki members one-on-one... though possibly not Itachi. In terms of comparing just how much chakra the kyuubi has in comparison with others, I'd say the fourth was about equal, though not necessarily an exact match (otherwise, the sealing technique wouldn't have worked, given how the technique seemed to work between the Third and Orochimaru). I'd also say that Kyuubi's powers likely atrophied, somewhat, during the period from Naruto taking him in the seal and the fight with Haku and Zabuza on the bridge, where kyuubi was finally able to 'flex his muscles' again. He's being used a lot more, though, so I figure you could set his chakra amount at just about even with the Fourth. Which means Naruto is about double the fourth's chakra, at the moment. As a very minor spoiler (only because it's not explained in any way -- if it were, it would be a major spoiler), I'll reveal that Kyuubi's own chakra will be greatly weakened by an event taking place in Volume 3. Okay, that's all I've got to say about power levels... Here we go with the conlcusion to Sakura's story, and therefore Vol. 2. For point of reference, time wise, Vol. 2 is concluding both story arcs just over a year before Part 2 of the manga began, and Volume 3 will start a few days after the still uncompleted current manga arc. So there still will be a significant time gap between the two, but anything 'missing' from that period will likely be relayed in future chapters. By the way, because of a certain last-minute decision I made, this chapter will likely be longer then usual.
Chapter 7
SPECIAL NOTE: I would like to thank Kyo Tetsuei for promptly correcting my version of the name given to Ino's father. The name he gave me was WRONG (at least, according to his own reference), but I did look up the site he gave as a reference and found what was given (I, believing that since there was no name in the manga or the anime the character had no name, had given him 'Inosuke.' Kyo said it was Inoshi, but then directed me to a website which listed his name as Inoichi. Ack!). While normally I won't be doing this, since all that was required was a 'search\replace' I decided to make a quick fix and post a corrected copy.
Sakura was quite surprised when she learned that just about every one of the 'rookie nine' in contact with the village was being given 'acting-chuunin' rankings for their next missions. Neji had already achieved the rank of chuunin through the Konoha-only tournament Tsunade had spoken of, and was being fast-tracked into the ranks of the jounin with an acting-jounin ranking. This eased the tension she felt at being given the promotion opportunity, but some awkwardness returned whenever she heard Naruto's name mentioned. It felt... unfair, to her, that she should be given a chance at promotion before him. He deserved it before he left on that training trip with Jiraiya, but he probably wouldn't be able to get it for some time after he returned. However, she didn't refuse the chance. The only person who had given any public indication that they might not leave on their chuunin-promotion mission was Hinata... and that was a rather indirect protest, at that. In fact, she wasn't the one who said anything, it was her father -- he complained that, if she left at that point, it would foul up some 'wedding plans' that were in the works. The hokage had directly intervened, in that case, and Hinata was allowed to go. Sakura wondered, at times, just whose wedding it was Hinata needed to attend, and what sort of excuse Tsunade gave to get the girl out of it. Sakura knew just how hard it was to turn the hokage down, and wondered if she could have stood her ground in Hinata's place... assuming Hinata really wanted to stay in the first place. Sakura wondered about that, too.
Still, she was feeling more and more ready for it. Ino had -- a little reluctantly -- agreed to join her on the mission, accepting it as 'probably her only chance at promotion,' since she felt entirely inadequate for tournament-style competition. And the mission hadn't started, yet, despite her having recieved... well, at least some of the details a month ago. Tsunade was being tight-lipped about quite a few things, which lead Sakura to wonder just what was going on. However, the mission had yet to start -- and Kakashi, despite a brief appearance in town after delivering his reports to the office of the hokage, had left again before she had a chance to see him.
Ino was on Sakura's mind, however. The blond girl had almost gotten over her Naruto problems, save an unusual affinity for the Ichiraku Ramen Restaurant... which Sakura was glad to take her to (using Naruto's money) from time to time. However, that meant they were being drawn into conflicts more and more often, and it was starting to get a little difficult to live with her. Not so difficult she was thinking of moving any time soon, but difficult enough that Sakura began to wonder if maybe they should start setting some ground rules with each other. Something like 'no fighting before breakfast' might be enough, perhaps, if paired with 'no fighting after curfew.' After all, both girls needed their beauty sleep.
Their training together was going fairly well, and the two of them were practicing to work together. At one point, Sakura had a training idea in mind, where they would work together against an obstacle course developed by the always helpful (if not always sane) Gai, with the assistance of Ino's own jounin instructor, Asuma. The two jounin, together, created an obstacle course which was nearly impossible to finish -- they even tried working with Lee and Neji, once, to see if they could get through it. There wasn't much success on their part, and the course was starting to gain a reputation among the more training-oriented members of Konoha's ninja community. Sakura and Ino, being the most experienced at running it, were the record holders of the events... but that record had been set in a rather unusual way.
Sakura had wanted to try it in a team of three. They were arguing back and forth over whether to take Neji (Ino's favorite, since he was obviously the most powerful ninja present who would train with them) or Lee (Sakura's favorite -- she knew Neji was the better fighter, but she suspected Lee's speed and style would serve them better... and the felt that Neji might not be quite as good in the teamwork department as Konoha's 'Green Beast') when Sakura said, "This would be a lot easier if Naruto were here. I'm pretty sure we could both work with him!"
"Well," Ino said, smirking. "Why don't we? Kage bushin no jutsu! Henge!"
In less then a second, a second Ino appeared. The second Ino transformed instantly into a replica of Naruto -- a twelve year old Naruto, who looked even shorter then usual. It took a moment for Sakura to realize the shadow clone was, in fact, the right size -- she had grown, was all. She wondered, vaguely, if Naruto had grown any, and if so, had he caught up to her. Ino had split her 'Naruto' psyche into it, and a surprising thing happened. The clone gained, for a brief time, the same mannerisms and attitude as the real Naruto -- which wasn't the surprising bit, really -- and then started complaining about how he would become hokage, dammit, even if he was a shadow clone! It seemed, as odd as it sounded, as if the Shadow Naruto was free-thinking.
What was even more amazing was that it didn't disappear into a puff of smoke when it was hit. It persevered, and it helped them get farther along the course then anyone had ever managed, before. Finally, however, he ran completely out of chakra, lacking any ability to generate his own, and disappeared. Sakura and Ino both felt the pain of loss when he disappeared, since having him around was like having the real Naruto -- who they both were missing, terribly -- keep them company. Ino tried to rebuild the lost clone right away, but she'd drained herself of too much chakra running the course to manage a proper shadow clone of herself, much less to transform it and give it a copy of Naruto's personality. Nevertheless, they figured that Ino had developed -- thanks to her mindwalking skills -- a brand new technique. They had yet to decide what to call it, but both of them figured it could be quite useful in the future.
Ino had talked her way into getting a couple D-rank 'tune-up' missions before their journey to Wave Country with the hokage (claiming she didn't really need the experience, but she could use the cash to buy a new dress she had her eye on), leaving Sakura the apartment all to herself. It had been a long time since she'd been able to get away by herself for any decent length of time, so she was definitely glad of it. It was a bit of a disappointment, therefore, when the doorbell rang just as she was thinking about how nice it would be to take a shower without having Ino banging on the bathroom door to 'finish up' after just three minutes. She checked herself to make sure she was still presentable, fixed the zipper on her blouse she'd started to unzip in anticipation of her shower, and opened the door.
"Inoichi-san!" she jumped, seeing a light-brown haired man standing at her door. One of the things Sakura had learned never to tease her rival and friend about was that she had been named after her father, but it made for confusing times when the two of them were in the room together. With her roommate gone, though, the confusion was eliminated. "I... come in, come in! What are you doing here?"
The man hesitated, then bowed his head through the door (it was a bit low, but niether Sakura nor Ino-chan were tall enough for that to bother them. It helped them get a better deal on the condo, too) and closed it behind him. "Is... is my daughter here?" he asked.
Sakura shook her head slowly. "She went on a D-rank mission to the farmlands earlier today, and likely won't be back until tomorrow afternoon. Did you want to talk with her?"
The man hesitantly nodded. "I did, and do, but since she's not here I would also like to talk with you. I haven't seen her -- neither my mother nor I have seen her -- since she stormed out of our house that night...."
"I don't blame her," Sakura muttered, letting a little of the anger she felt at the man out. "She had been badly rocked by her mindwalking technique, and you yelled at her for it."
"I know," Inoichi sighed, collapsing onto one of the two cushioned chairs the apartment had. Sakura considered standing, but decided to join him by taking the other one. "I was ashamed of myself even that night, since I know just what that technique can do to its user. I never should have taught it to her at such a young age -- it's just barely not considered a kinjutsu, you understand. But she'd told me, once, that she felt like a 'part-time ninja,' because her techniques were so useless outside of very specific situations, so her jounin instructor was forced to turn down a lot of missions because they just couldn't handle them. So, I gave her a couple new techniques, hoping that it would help her feel a bit less useless... and she was too inexperienced with them to know the dangers."
Sakura nodded. She could understand how both Yamanakas felt, but even more she knew exactly why Ino-chan had decided to use the technique anyway. She, herself, had been very tempted to use techniques she wasn't ready to try during the early stages of her medi-nin training. It was only after seeing what a failure could do that she stopped pushing Tsunade to allow her the chance to 'test this technique I've been studying' before she had really seen just what that technique could do.
"She wasn't ready for it," Sakura agreed. "But, in the end, I think she's much stronger now then she was, before. Naruto's psyche has changed her, yes, but for the better."
The man's face twisted into a grimmace. "Just how the hell could that dem-- brat do anything for her? He's a menace to us all, and he should have been killed the day he was born!"
Ino's father was an elite jounin of Konoha. As such, he should have been immensely faster and more powerful then any genin in the village, even one about to become chuunin. It was a shock to him, therefore, when he felt himself slapped so hard he went flying out of the chair.
"You bastard," Sakura snapped dangerously. "Have you even met Naruto? I don't know exactly what's going on in this village -- I was blind for way too long -- but I know now that the people here have had a grudge against him since the day he was born. He's been spat upon, stoned, hated, and ostracized... and yet all he does is put his life on the line to save all our lives time and time again. Why? Just tell me, why? Does it have something to do with the Uzumaki clan? I've been going through my family scrolls, and apparently both of our families were allied to his. In fact, the blond hair in your family line comes from some intermingling between your two clans! But if I ever try and look up information on that clan in the hokage's records -- you know, the archives which are supposed to contain all of the information Konoha has ever collected? -- I come up with nothing. Was the Uzumaki clan disgraced, and is that why you all hate him? Tell me, because I'm starting to get really sick of people talking this way of the boy who saved all of our asses from Gaara. I'm sick of people talking this way of the boy who tracked down the traitorous 'golden child' of this village, Uchiha Sasuke, and nearly let himself die just so he could keep a promise to me that he would bring Sasuke back. I love Sasuke-kun, still, but even I am starting to get sick of how this village treated him, when I realize that Naruto had to deal with the same problems, and for much longer, yet all he got was people wish him dead. Ino was sickened by you... and I am, too. So speak up -- what is so horrible about Naruto that you can't stand his guts?!"
Inoichi trembled. He wasn't used to seeing anyone defend the demon with such passion, before. Yes, he'd been told off once or twice by both the Third and the Fifth for being too hard on the beast, and the Ichiraku Ramen wouldn't serve him any more after his daughter had explained what she'd seen him due to the boy, but that was to be expected. The hokage's were always too soft on the thing, he'd known, because it looked so much like the Fourth... and Naruto was the best customer at the Ichiraku. His own daughter, in what he believed was a burst of insanity, had defended the creature, as well, but not even she had been this furious. It made no sense!
Shakily, he stood up, wiping a trickle of blood from his lips. "That... thing is a danger, and that is all I can saw and stay within the law. It has nothing to do with the Uzumaki clan, however -- I, at least, still hold that clan in the highest respects. I just refuse to acknowledge that 'Naruto' thing as part of it."
Something about the way he kept referring to Naruto clicked with a conversation Sakura had discussed with her mother, previously. "Naruto has a greater demon inside him, doesn't he?"
inoichi's eyes widened. "I... I am not permitted to say what it is, but--"
"Shut up," Sakura snorted in disgust. "Do you know why your daughter was contracted for the job to search Naruto's mind? Because Gaara went through the same hell as Naruto, and it drove him insane. Naruto beat the hell out of him, and beat him back to sanity... and he wanted to know just how Naruto stayed sane, so that he could as well. And you know why Gaara went crazy in the first place? Because jackasses like you heaped abuse upon him... just for something he had no control over. Do you know how remarkable Naruto is, not because of the demon, but because he's managed to deal with your stupid bigotry all these years without going crazy? Do you want to know what Naruto's goal is in life? It's to become hokage -- so that he can protect everyone, and make everyone 'happy.' I know that much, already, from my own time with him. Your daughter has seen inside his mind, and she agrees with me. Are you so blinded by hatred that you won't even trust her?"
"You... you don't know anything," Inoichi replied. He spoke with a conviction he no longer had. In truth, his own daughter's reaction, more than a year before, had given him great doubt as to his own beliefs regarding the kyuubi-infested boy. He had repeated the mantra in his head, daily, that Naruto was nothing but a beast, a monster, and so he continued to believe so. Even if he was wrong, the danger was too great to allow the boy a chance to prove himself, because if they did and the boy proved to be the demon, Konoha would be destroyed the moment he lost his temper. "The beast--"
"Is not Naruto! Naruto controls the damned demon, you idiot, and all you're doing is making it harder for him to do so!"
Suddenly, realization hit the man like a ton of bricks. Even if Naruto was a demon, he had been living side-by-side with human beings in Konoha for many years. He had grown among them, and now was respected by some of them. But if he was the demon, and he decided to extract vengeance, who would he target? His playmates, who cared for him and helped him all those years -- including his daughter and Sakura -- or the people who harrassed him, hated him, and repeatedly stated he shouldn't be allowed to live. And if Naruto wasn't the demon....
Still. "May I... may I walk in your mind?" he asked hesitantly, not able to meet the fierce glare which had been directed at him for quite some time. "I will do nothing harmful, but I just... I don't know Naruto. I admit that. I also know the demon inside him, and that beast is more horrible then anything my worst nightmares can come up with. Between you and my daughter, though, I am convinced that I may not be right about him. I would like to... I would like to see just what it is that makes him worth the efforts the two of you are putting forth to protect him."
There were only two things that stopped Sakura from refusing immediately. The first, and most obvious, was that he was no threat to her -- thanks to her practice with Ino-chan, she had managed to train up her Overlay Persona to make herself nearly invulnerable to mental attacks. The second was that, for the first time, he had made a distinction between Naruto and the demon. Assuming it really was a demon -- there was something inside Naruto, that was for sure, but Inoichi had yet to confirm that it was a demon, specifically, that they were all worried about. Nevertheless, whatever it was didn't really matter -- Naruto was still Naruto, regardless of what lived inside him.
"You may, on one condition," Sakura said, staring coldly at him. "You know what family I am from, you know what we can do. When you go into my memories... I'm going to be right there with you, explaining just what went on each and every time Naruto did something you might not agree with. Got it?"
Sakura's memories of Naruto were not as full as she would like. She had been concentrating on Sasuke much too often, but she did have some things she was able to show during the mindwalk. She gave a guided tour of her memories of Naruto, starting with the bell training, some stupidity he showed during d-class missions, his first real fight where he was frozen in terror, his declaration never to run again. Not a single question was asked of her, even through the battle at the bridge with Zabuza and Haku. All the way until he saw Gaara, half-transformed and slobbering over the thought of killing. It was here that he paused it for the first time.
"This is what we are afraid of Naruto becoming," he said.
"This," Sakura replied, a slight sneer in her voice. "Was caused because the villagers of the Sand treated Gaara the same way you treat Naruto. This is why Naruto is so extraordinary -- he endures, refusing to succomb to this, and all you people do is hate him for it."
That ended the discussion right there, and Inoichi left her memories. He stared across at the girl, now knowing just how wrong he had been. "I would like to see more, some time," he said, sighing. "But I already have much to think about."
"Ask your daughter for that," Sakura replied. "I am ashamed at how little I paid attention to Naruto over the years I've known him, but she has all his memories inside of her. That would tell you more than I ever could."
With a slow nod, the man agreed. "I will. Which reminds me why I've come here, today. I knew that my daughter needed time, away from me, to adjust to the stress on her psyche that the mindwalk produced, so I was waiting until she seemed capable of resuming her missions. That it has taken over a year for her to get back into service was... unexpected. Now that she finally has, however, I feel that I may be able to talk with her without harming her recovery, and I would like to do so. Could I ask you to tell her that I want to see her when she gets back from her chuunin-level mission? I want to... apologize, and to offer to help train her again. I feel as if I should try and give her the tools to make a recovery from something like this easier, in the future."
Sakura nodded. "I will give her the message, but I won't try to persuade her, either way. If she wants to join you... she will."
* * * * *
As it turned out, Sakura didn't have a chance to speak with Ino-chan for quite some time. By the time she had returned from her D-rank mission, word had come that the hokage was ready for her trip and had requested that they be ready by the next morning. What followed was a rush of preparations, as both girls prepared for the long journey to the Wave. By the time they were done, both of them were exhausted and simply collapsed into their beds for the night without a word to each other. The next morning they rushed to the rendezvous before they were too late.
Sakura was astonished at how many people were coming along. Shizune was being left behind to run things in Tsunade's absense, but she was more than offset by the troop of eight older genins that were present. She didn't recognize the genins, and they all looked relatively out-of-shape for active ninja of their age, but they were still genin and therefore had at least a basic training in combat. It puzzled her greatly, but the hokage decided to answer her question before she could even ask it.
"Meet who you're really coming along to escort. Me? I'm hokage, I can take care of myself, but these people aren't used to serious combat like you are."
That clued Sakura in right away. "Oh! Administrative genin. But... why are they coming? I mean, there's almost a dozen of them here -- do you really need that many just to sign a treaty?"
"No," Tsunade replied. "I don't. However, we've hired the Wave to, ah, build something for us. These genin are going to be stationed there to help look over the construction as it happens. We have construction foremen, an architect, and a few others here, as well. While all of them graduated from the Academy, not a single one managed to advance past that level. It takes much longer to prepare yourself for promotion on the administrative path, so this is actually the first time doing any real work for all of them. That doesn't really matter, though -- they aren't there to build the thing by themselves, just to help and get some experience along the way."
"Ah," Ino said, joining in on the conversation. "So what are they building?"
Tsunade hesitated. "I... well, I can't tell you right now."
Sakura grinned cheekily. "Tsunade-shishou, by now, surely you realize I can keep a secret."
If the hokage flushed, no-one else would have noticed it. Sakura, however, did... and she immediately knew she had her master pinned.
"I... Sakura-chan, please," Tsunade begged. "I know you can keep a secret -- trust me, I know -- but this isn't the sort of thing I can reveal even to someone I trust. It's one thing not to reveal a secret, it is another not to act upon it."
Ino frowned, wondering if maybe she should use her mental techniques to surreptitiously glean the information from the hokage's mind, anyway. She hated when people kept secrets from her, even though she understood why they were kept. However, the hokage was the hokage, after all, and perhaps she had her reasons. There was one reason, perhaps, she might not respect.
"Is this about Sasuke?" Ino asked.
"No," Tsunade replied, leaving no doubt in either girl's mind that she was telling the truth.
"Uh... okay," Ino said, deciding to just leave the matter alone for now. The hokage was easily accessible -- if, at any time, she still felt the need to go traipsing through Tsunade's mind to find out whatever secret was being held, she could do so.
Tsunade looked at the two of them expectantly. "Well? You're the squad leaders for this mission. Get your teams into formation and let's get a move on!"
That, effectively, prevented Sakura from talking to Ino for the entire trip. As squad leaders, they couldn't talk with each other, very much. Instead they had to deal with their own out-of-shape and undertrained genins, reminding them of where they were supposed to be while marching in formation and helping them organize a makeshift mess and set up camp when mealtimes came around. Ino's team had the point position, and Sakura's the rear guard. It was tiring work -- much more tiring then just marching along like the good little genin they were used to being. At the end of each day, both girls were worn out to the point of complete exhaustion, and it was a trial just to wake themselves and their genins up in the morning. Sakura wondered how in the world Kakashi had done it all the time that he was training Naruto, back before the boy had started coming into his own as a... reasonably competent ninja. In fact, she realized, Naruto grew into a decent ninja on this same journey, less then four years before. Life and death situations do a lot for a person, she supposed.
Thanks to the lower stamina and training of the administrative genin, the journey took almost two weeks longer then the time Sakura last made it. Finally, however, they made it to the small port town which doubled as both a harbor and the boarding houses for people to wait in before taking the long journey across the bridge. As long as it was, a normal hiker would need an hour or so to walk across it, but even though the genin were incompetent they still weren't normal hikers.
However, Sakura didn't get a chance to see what her genin could do before Tsunade called a halt.
"Okay, boys and girls," she said, smirking. "The Prime Minister of Wave, Tazuna-san, has made arrangement for you genin to stay here for the next few months. The rest of us will be with you, today, but then we've got other business across the bridge to take care of. Sakura! Ino! Take charge of your squadrons and make sure they're properly billeted, then you're off for the rest of the day. Have fun." She looked over at a brand-new looking pachinko parlor across from the hotel. "Sadly, I can't make any IOUs on this trip, and I'm low on cash, but I think I'll spend the next hour or so over there, anyway. I've got enough for the penny-anty games." Sakura twitched at this display of irresponsibility from her hokage, who just happened to also be her master, who also just happened to be a good friend. Still, there wasn't anything she could do about it.
It didn't take long to get all the genin squared away, and after she and Ino were finished Sakura finally had some time alone with her.
"Can we go to lunch?" Sakura asked.
Ino nodded. "Sure! Give me a minute to get changed -- I may be a ninja, but I can't be seen in a restaurant wearing clothes I haven't been able to change in a week!"
Sakura laughed. "Same here. I'll have a quick shower and a change. Meet in the lobby in twenty minutes?"
Ino looked at her like she was crazy. "You can shower and change in twenty minutes? What are you, a boy?"
Sakura's eyes narrowed. "No. I'm someone whose roommate never allows her more than three minutes in the shower."
Ino had the grace to look embarrassed. "I guess I might have something to do with that, after all. Um, anyway, I need at least fourty minutes."
Sakura chuckled. "Fine. But don't be late!"
In fact, it only took both girls the twenty minutes Sakura had originally asked for to get ready. "So," Ino asked. "You've been here, before. Where's a good place to eat around here?"
"When I was here, this whole country was in the midst of a famine and economically depressed. There were no places to eat, then," Sakura snorted. "Now, it's a thriving center of commerce throughout the region, and, thanks to this bridge, well positioned as a centerpoint between the Cloud, the Mist, and Konoha. Just about everything, here, has been built or revamped over the past three years or so."
Ino shrugged. "Oh, well. I guess we can just walk down the street until we find something decent-looking."
They were a bit surprised to find, along the way, a place called the 'Naruto Ramen.' Laughing to themselves at the name, they figured they could eat there in tribute to their absent friend. It didn't take long to get seated, and finally settled into their orders.
"So," Ino said, enjoying the ramen with much more enthusiasm then she would have a couple years before, "What do you think of chuunin duty, so far?"
"It's exhausting," Sakura laughed. "But I think the extra pay will be worth it."
"I'll say." Ino smirked, slightly. "I've been thinking that, if we succeed here and get our promotions, I'll go celebrate with..."
"With?" Sakura prompted, curious. Her friend was blushing furiously, and she had no idea why.
"Well, I've been looking at some of the female ANBUs running around town," Ino explained. "Somehow, despite the formless uniforms they're required to wear, they still seem rather daringly sexy. I finally figured it out, though -- it's got to be the tattoos most of them wear. So... I was kinda thinking of getting a tattoo."
Sakura shrugged. While it was a bit rebellious for some civilian societies to get tattoos, in a ninja village like Konoha they were quite common -- a fashion statement which wasn't as dangerous as, say, dangling earrings (which could be used in battle to literally rip your ear off) or necklaces made of precious metals (while leather ones would typically break first, a chain or other form of metal necklace could easily be used to choke the wearer), yet served the same purpose as those civilian counterparts.
"So?" Sakura said, not understanding. "I was thinking of one, as well, but I was planning on it as a birthday present to myself when I turned eighteen. I was thinking of a stylized Konoha leaf, travelling down my left leg."
Ino grinned. "Not bad -- you do know how to look sexy, sometimes, after all, don't you?"
"Actually, I was thinking of something a little more... daring."
Sakura blinked. "More daring?"
Ino tapped her bust proudly -- for she had developed in that area quite extensively over the past few months. She'd never be another Tsunade, but she could hold her own with many adults already, in that regard. "Yeah. Daring."
It took Sakura a moment to get what she meant, but when Ino tapped her hand against her chest, again, she finally understood. Wincing, she said, "We use traditional bamboo needles in Konoha. Wouldn't that... hurt... there?"
"It'd be worth it," Ino answered, grinning. "When some boy finally gets a chance to unwrap the surprise. And I've heard of more painful places to get tattoos."
"So have I," Sakura giggled. "You got any boys in mind for that 'unwrapping,' yet?"
With a disgusted snort, Ino shook her head. "Like who? Neji's eyes are too creepy. Lee is... well, just too unique for my tastes. Shino's got that bug thing that I would never be able to deal with -- and I think he's already arranged to marry some other girl, anyway. Kiba smells like a dog. Chouji eats too much. And Shikamaru... well, I suppose he's a nice enough guy, but he's really way too lazy, don't you think?"
Sakura laughed. "There's always Naruto -- I imagine you two would get along pretty good, too."
"Naruto would be a pretty good choice," Ino agreed. "Except he's unattainable. The only girl who stands a shot at him is you, really."
That implication caused Sakura to shift around a little uneasily. "Er... um...."
Deciding not to push too much, Ino laughed. "Maybe I need to start looking at younger men."
"Or older ones," Sakura shot back. "A few of the jounin look half-decent."
"Your jounin sensei -- Kakashi -- looks pretty good, actually," Ino chirped. "Knock a decade of age off of him, and I'd probably go for it."
Sakura wasn't listening. Instead, she was remembering a conversation she had, just before they'd left. She'd almost forgotten about it, but she needed to deliver the message inoichi gave her.
"Your father stopped by while you were on that D-rank," Sakura said suddenly, knocking the humor out of both of them.
"Oh," Ino said, now studying her bowl of ramen as if it held all the answers.
"He wanted to apologize," Sakura continued. "And he wanted to help train you, again, so that you can deal with the mindwalking technique easier in the future. He also wanted to see the memories you have of Naruto."
Ino blinked, looking up. "He does? Why?"
"He saw my memories of him," Sakura explained. "And he's at the point where he can accept that maybe, the way he and everyone in the village has been treating Naruto is wrong. He's still uncertain, however, if Naruto is safe, I think." She paused. "And I think he wants to understand, better, why his only daughter was willing to walk out of his life for someone he's always seen as a demon."
Ino's eyes widened. "You... what do you know?"
"I don't know anything," Sakura replied. "I put two and two together, and figured out that people are afraid of something inside Naruto. Given a rather... unusual conversation I had with my mother, I'm guessing it's a greater demon. So, how right am I?"
Ino sighed. "It's illegal for me to say. I even had to give an oath of secrecy before entering Naruto's mind. I... it would go against my way of the ninja to say yes." She paused. "It would not go against it to say no, but that's all I'm saying."
Suddenly, Sakura laughed. "I get it. Anyway... what about your father?"
Ino shrugged. "I don't suppose your scrolls have any techniques which will help someone without the Overlay Persona protect their minds from a mindwalker, though, do you? I'm not sure I trust my father in this -- maybe I should, since I would in anything else, but dealing with Naruto's memories has left me a little... paranoid, when it comes to him."
"I understand completely," Sakura agreed. "I wouldn't have let him near my mind if I didn't have the Overlay Persona to help me. When we get back, I'll look them up. If I find them, will you go see him?"
Again, Ino shrugged. "I suppose there would be no harm in giving him a chance, if I'm prepared." She grinned at the pink-haired girl. "Whatever happens, though, I'm not moving back in with my parents -- you'll still have to deal with three minute showers."
"If you'll agree to no fights before breakfast or after curfew any more, that'll be just fine with me," Sakura shot back. Both girls laughed, and then drifted on to discuss more pleasant things.
* * * * *
The next day, the two girls found their hokage staring at a dedication plaque mounted on the bridge. They came over to join her and read what it said alongside the woman.
"The Great Naruto Bridge
"Dedicated in the Name of a Boy,
"Who Came to This Land a Stranger
"Who Fought Against Those Stronger Than Himself For People He Did Not Know,
"And Who Sparked the Heart of the People of Wave,
"And Became A Hero,
"In the Hopes that, Like His Will, This Bridge Will Never Crumble."
An engraving vaguely recognizable as Naruto's head was below the text, his forehead protector proudly displaying his allegiance to Konoha. Below the sign was another plaque, listing the contributors who helped pay for the bronze plaque. Sakura and Ino both noticed the names of Tazuna, Inari, and Tsunami along the top, and many other names she recognized as workers on the bridge further down the list. Knowing how much money a plaque like this would have cost, and how little money the people of Wave had when the bridge had been built, Sakura bowed her head to hide the pride she felt in Naruto, knowing just how much this would have meant to him. Ino, while having the same knowledge as Sakura, was not as aware of just how poor off the people had been in Wave. Still, she, too, was warmed by the dedication.
"Does that boy do this everywhere he goes?" Tsunade asked. "This wasn't in the reports, you know -- Kakashi only gave the basic details of each fight, not the specifics of the personal situations involved. It seems, though, that Naruto is more loved, here, then he is at home."
"Actually," Ino replied. "I think all of Team Seven left a mark, here. I've seen restaurants, hotels, and other businesses here named after Kakashi, Naruto, Sasuke, and even Sakura."
Tsunade shook her head, then laughed. "Well, I guess this is good P.R. for Konoha, anyway." Pausing one last time to trace Naruto's face wistfully, she gestured for the two acting-chuunin to start crossing the bridge ahead of her. "Come on, we've got work to do. But there's a change of plan -- I met the Raikage last night, in the Pachinko Parlor. Turns out he's as addicted to gambling as I am, and he's worse at it to boot! He won't ever, though, go beyond penny-anty stuff. The coward. Anyway, I looked over the treaty, found that it was exactly as I had written it, and signed then. Which means we can get on to the second important matter we need to deal with, here -- I have a meeting with Tazuna-san, the recently elected Prime Minister of Wave, and the Daimyo. I need you two to act as my honor guard, so stay sharp. And we're walking, by the way, not running or jumping -- I don't want to get our clothes dirtied up right before an important meeting like this."
Walking the whole length of the bridge was actually more tiring for the three kunoichi then running it would have been, but at least the weather was temperate and there was a pleasant sea breeze coming off the water. Their clothes, indeed, remained clean... but their faces were a bit sweatier then they would have otherwise been. When Sakura saw who was waiting for them at the other end of the bridge, however, she knew it wouldn't have mattered.
"Tazuna-san!" she called, waving to him. He was dressed much as she remembered him, although his clothes were a bit newer and he was a bit more clean-shaven. She also noticed, as she got closer to him, that he no longer smelled of stale alcohol.
"Sakura-chan!" he shot back, his smile widening so great it almost split his face. "I didn't know you were going to be here!"
"Well, the hokage is my new master, so she asked me to come with her as her honor guard," Sakura explained.
"So, how are the others? Did Kakashi, Sasuke, and Naruto come with you?" Tazuna asked.
All three ninja women fell silent at that, and he noticed the awkwardness right away. Sakura, sighing, finally spoke up. "Well... Kakashi is on a mission by himself, and Naruto is on a training trip. Sasuke-kun is... is... uh."
Tsunade had mercy on her student. "Sasuke was poisoned," she explained. "It didn't kill him, but it has corrupted his mind, and he's fled Konoha. It was... unpleasant for just about everyone involved. Naruto tried to recapture Sasuke at one point, and was severely wounded -- it took months for him and those who joined him to recover."
"Naruto has promised to bring him back to me," Sakura finished throatily.
Tazuna's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Did he, now? Then I don't think you have anything to be afraid of. You'll get Sasuke-kun back. That boy... he won't give up."
"I know," Sakura agreed. "But that's why I'm afraid. Naruto and I are going to go, together, to bring Sasuke back. I'm afraid I'll give up before he will... and that he'll get himself killed trying to keep a promise to me that no longer matters."
Tazuna sighed. "Well, this reunion is getting a bit morose, isn't it? Come, come -- if Naruto-kun is still on a training trip, and the two of you are going to be trying to recover him together, then you have plenty of time before you need to worry. Right now, let's get this treaty taken care of and then we'll go have fun catching up with more pleasant memories."
"So the daimyo has agreed without condition?" Tsunade said. "I thought we'd have to renegotiate the treaty, a bit, considering what it'll obligate some of this town to do."
"The only alteration was that I'm to supervise construction," Tazuna replied. "Which may be a bit of a challenge for me -- I've specialized in bridges my whole career. Never done something like, well, this."
"Don't worry about it," Tsunade said dismissively with a wave of her hand. "I'll agree to that provision -- I'd probably have asked for it, anyway, if I hadn't thought you'd be too busy as Prime Minister to do it. And I've brought eight of my own people to help you with the technical details -- they're young and inexperienced, but they'll manage the job nicely with your help."
With a wink at Sakura, Tazuna nodded. "I know better, now, then to doubt Konoha ninjas... even if they are 'young and inexperienced.'"
It took almost no time to sign the treaty -- which was quickly hidden away, before either Sakura or Ino could see it -- and then they went to Tazuno's place to eat a home-cooked meal by his daughter. Inari was there, proudly proclaiming that he'd been accepted to Konoha's ninja academy, although he wasn't allowed to start for a couple years, still (and there was a twinkle in both Tazuna's and Tsunade's eyes when he said that). It was after dinner that Tsunade informed the girls they'd be going back to Konoha the next day -- as full-fledged chuunin.
"But... isn't this considered a B-rank mission, at least?" Ino asked, confused. "There hasn't been even a hint of trouble the whole time we've been gone!"
"You won't always be attacked just because there's danger of an attack," Tsunade noted.
Sakura shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know... considering what the chuunin exam was like when we tried to take it last time, this seems a bit too easy to get promoted."
Tsunade snorted. "If it was as hard to get every promotion as the chuunin exam gets, we'd never be able to handle a b-rank mission or above, because we'd never have enough chuunin or jounin to do it. Don't worry -- this actually wasn't the easiest chuunin promotion on record. You really did have to display some chuunin-level skills, just to keep your genin organized, and, hey, the mission is a success -- we didn't lose anyone on the trip, now, did we?"
Sakura couldn't say anything back to that, but had to wonder... when Naruto came back, would he be able to get this coveted promotion so easily? Or would he, once again, have to show himself as better then anyone else just to get half the respect?
* * * * *
It had been almost a year since Sakura had gotten her promotion to chuunin. In that time, she had trained harder then ever before, still not believing herself to deserve the chuunin ranking she'd been given. Still, she was pleased with the extra money -- she'd further enhanced her wardrobe, and while she refused to wear the chuunin vest she felt as if she looked older and more like a woman then ever before.
Right now, she was waiting in the hokage's office for Tsunade, staring out the window. She had seen a messenger toad earlier that day, which meant a letter had arrived from her wayward friend and teammate... or at least from her wayward friend and teammate's master. Naruto hadn't been writing much, even after he finally broke cover. According to one of the three letters she'd gotten from him, since then, he wanted to write more... but apparently, some days when he might have a chance, his training left him unable to. She wondered, vaguely, if the blood splotches on the parchement were any indication of just why he was unable to write. Just what was Jiraiya training him in, anyway?
She was, to be quite frank, bored. She'd been training non-stop, and that meant she had essentially given up anything resembling a social life. Recently, even her after-training conversations with Ino had to be suspended -- the girl and her father had, indeed, reconciled. In order to make up for his mistakes, inoichi had taken her on a training trip in order to enhance her mindwalking abilities and to give her a few new techniques. Much to both Sakura and Ino's surprise, he had reacted much the same way to seeing Naruto's past as Ino, herself, had.
"Sakura!" Tsunade called, stepping into the room with a wide smile on her face.
"That Naruto kid... it seems he's returned to Konoha...."
* * * * *
Notes: That very last scene is taken directly from the manga (well, visuals and dialog, anyway), which means (ta da!) we're done with Volume 2... finally. Now, about the fic... that's right, folks -- Sakura knows there's a demon in Naruto. Or at least she suspects it, greatly -- which seems to agree with how she acted when Naruto 'revealed' the secret to her in the manga. She doesn't know everything -- that it was Kyuubi, that the fourth died sealing the demon inside Naruto, none of that, but she has a pretty good idea something is there. That, by the way, was my 'plan change' which resulted in the longer chapter. I was rereading that part of the manga, and said to myself that, from that image, she had to know more than I've already let her know. So, I figured I'd give her some idea of what was going on, so that she can come to terms with it as much as she already seems to have. Oh, and if anyone is interested, I have no Ino pairings in mind -- the only candidates I can see her having from the manga (Chouji and Shikamaru) are either not really right for her (Chouji) or taken in another one of my favorite Naruto pairings (Shikamaru, with Temari). If she finds romance in this fic, it'll have to be with a new character. I include this spoiler only for one reason: I don't want a flood of people telling me, because of this chapter, to pair her up with Shikamaru. Hell, I'm not sure Shikamaru's even going to make more than a cameo appearance in this story -- not enough time to give her the romance she deserves. I was thinking about leaving her romantic interest 'present, but unnamed' in the end, so that I might either come back to it with a side story (VERY unlikely) or allow others to use their imagination -- possibly leaving Shikamaru 'unattached\unnamed romance' as well, as a sop to the Ino\Shika crowd (I don't dislike the pairing, per se -- I can definitely see where it comes from, and I probably like it about as much as the alternative I've mentioned, but I find Temari\Shika a much more likely pairing in canon, and therefore support it more). All this is, of course, assuming I don't kill off one or the other of them (heh heh... er, it's very unlikely I would. My first choice for a good guy to sacrifice\kill off, if I need to in order to support the story, is Lee... not because I dislike Lee, but because he could have such a GOOD fight to the death that I'm almost considering killing him off, anyway, just to show it. Lee's fans won't be (too) disappointed in his death if it happens, trust me -- it'll probably be the best thing that could have happened for him). At any rate, next chapter will be the first chapter of Volume 3. I've mentioned just when the timeline will set it before, and I'll mention it again next chapter, so I'm afraid you won't just won't be seeing Sakura and Naruto's reunion... unless you actually read the manga, since it's supposed to be identical to that. You will, however, be able to see them together again. Over the next two volumes, you'll see more about tattoos, the thing Wave country is building, Sasuke making an appearance or two, and a reorganized Team 7 which will include Sakura, Naruto, and (surprise surprise -- it's not like I've spent two volumes and almost fourty thousand words setting it up or anything) Ino. Promotions to chuunin, jounin, etc., the fate of Naruto's promises, and Just What The Hell is Going On With All the Treaties and Spying and Haruno Bloodline Limits and Arranged Marriages and... um, well, you get the idea. And someone has a baby (but it's not Sakura or Naruto). If this is enough to get you interested, great. If not... uh, sorry?