Sakura hefted the bundle of medical scrolls she had decided to return to the library. It was on her way to bullying Tsunade into letting her on a mission, and now as good a time as any to deal with the large stack that had been accumulating on her bookshelf. Laying the pile on a table, she rolled her neck as she attempted to decide which scrolls she should put back first.
"Sakura-san, I didn't expect to find you here."
Hinata's quiet voice was a welcome surprise, and Sakura turned with a smile. The Hyuuga was standing with her own scrolls firmly tucked under her arm. She was in casual clothing and had a slightly uncertain smile on her face, but her expression was welcoming.
"Hinata, I haven't seen you months!"
"Things have been a bit busy," the other ninja agreed. Sakura almost snorted. Busy was an understatement. The Hyuuga had been waging a silent political war inside her clan, and for most of it she had had nothing more than the unwavering support of her cousin. Speaking of…
"Neji let you out of the house alone?"
"Not exactly," Hinata muttered, her voice exasperated.
Sakura turned her head and found herself studying Neji's familiar, handsome profile. He seemed relaxed, but there was the faintest hint of heated air, which suggested he had been using chakra recently.
"Neji," Sakura murmured. Turning, tilted her head at Hinata's scrolls. "Do you need any help finding anything?"
"Oh," Hinata said. "No. I have everything I needed."
Sakura shrugged. "I have spent enough time in this place to know where most anything is. Let me know if you ever need help finding something, okay?"
"Thank you Sakura-san."
"Perhaps I'll see you around."
Sakura smiled. "I hope so." It was entirely unlikely that she would see anything of Hinata until the Clan issues settled. She nodded at Neji.
"Good day, Sakura-san." Neji murmured, tilting his head towards the door, his eyes locking on Hinata's. She shook her head in obvious amusement before bowing. Neji mimicked her movements and they turned and silently left the library. Sakura pursed her lips before returning to her own pile of books. There wasn't anything she could do at to help them at the moment. Best to handle her end with Naruto and then let things work out as they would for everyone else.
But first, she needed a mission so she could think.
"Sand?" Sakura repeated, her eyes wide. "You want me to go to Sand. With Naruto. To watch the Jonin trials."
Tsunade lifted a brow her arms crossed under her ample cleavage. "Do I need to have your ears checked out, Sakura?"
"My hearing is fine," Sakura said with scowl. "I just don't understand the request. You haven't let any of us further than half a days run from the village in weeks."
'Since my own trials,' she added mentally.
Tsunade looked at her for a long moment before she nodded to the door. "Lock it."
Sakura blinked at her in surprise before moving to do as the Hokage had requested. Under her fingers the door warmed for a moment as the lock kicked into place.
"Sit down Sakura."
Sakura did as she was bid, her teeth tucked around her lip. She could only think of a handful of times Tsunade had locked the door, and only one other time had she been on this side of it. It was the day she had told her where to find Sasuke.
"I need Naruto to be out of the village for an extended period of time."
Sakura stared at her for a long time. There were two reasons that she could think of that Tsunade would rather have Naruto out of the village than in it and she didn't like either of them. "Sensei?"
Tsunade's long fingers folded together, and when she spoke again, her voice held a note that formed a knot in Sakura's gut.
"Do you remember the details of Gaara's capture?"
"Yes." How could she forget? They had been burned into her brain by the soft tones of his sister that night she struggled to heal Kankuro. The way the Kazekage had protected his own and in the process, had lost his life. Licking dry lips, she stared at her master.
"That would never work with Naruto."
Tsunade frowned. "Perhaps."
Sakura shook her head. "No. It wouldn't. The village might not like Naruto, all of them anyway, but they would never allow a single Akatsuki to humiliate them in that way."
"But what if they could draw Naruto out of this village and into another; another village that he felt strong ties to."
Sakura stared at her.
"The story of Naruto's bridge has done much good over the years, but I am afraid it won't do him any favors with the Akatsuki." Tsunade said in a calm voice. "Kakashi has reason to believe that they will strike soon, Sakura, and Naruto must be far enough that he will not know of the attack until he cannot try to help.
"Are you… are you certain?"
"No." Tsunade admitted. "Nothing in certain I am afraid. There is always the possibility that this is an elaborate scheme to attack Naruto while he goes to Sand, but I don't believe they know Naruto's friendship with Gaara well enough to suspect that I would send him to sand for this."
"Because between you and Sasuke, the council will only allow me to send you. Sasuke may be suitable for hunting Sound, but they see no reason to send him to another village and risk you two leaving him there in some misguided sense of loyalty."
"Sasuke is ours."
"And you are Leaf's." Tsunade said firmly. Her expression softened a little. "Think of it this way, Sakura. If something happens out there, who better to have here to come after you?"
Lacing her fingers together, Sakura sighed. "Naruto won't forgive us if something happens to that village and he was deliberately taken away to keep from protecting them."
"Naruto is shinobi and he will take his orders the same as you." Tsunade said flatly. "The Council has demanded the right to see into this jounin class and I have no reason to turn them down. Naruto is my first choice to go to Sand and you are my second. This is a direct order and if either of you breech it, I will put you both in a holding cell for six months. Do I make myself clear?"