Recent memories kept playing themselves through her head, robbing her of sleep. She usually welcomed memories, as the good ones helped to sustain her, and keep her sane. Yet as she stared at the old photograph in the wooden frame, as she had almost every night since that day, those memories felt different. They seemed distant now, as if they were nothing more than a dream that was easily recalled as she woke, but faded later in the day. There were no tears this night as there so often had been in the past. For Haruna Sakura, the events of the past week had changed everything.
Sakura sat alone in her tiny apartment at the edge of her bed. She had gotten her own place when she had become a Chuunin, but it was still only a block away from her parents’ old place. As Sakura thought of the years growing up living in that house, a much younger Sakura stared back at her from the photograph. That Sakura had her long pink hair styled without a single tangle and was smiling without a care in the world. She had been so naive then, her biggest worries being how to avoid her nagging mother and winning the attention of the boys, especially Sasuke.
"Sasuke." Sakura whispered to herself.
He looked so ridiculously grumpy in the old picture that it had the opposite effect. He ended up looking cuter than ever, especially with Kakashi Sensei ruffling his spiky black hair like that. Sasuke certainly had grown, for better or for worse. Thinking about him this way, Sakura wondered if she had really grown up too, or was she was just kidding herself? Her parents still treated her like a kid, after all. Her mother still came over to nag her, and she still behaved as if Sakura’s time as a ninja was just a phase that would soon pass.
"Proper young women weren’t warriors," her mother would often say.
In her mother’s view, it was the job of the woman to maintain the home and raise good little ninja children. And her father . . .
Sakura closed her eyes and shook her head, not even wanting to think about it. Her father was a different matter altogether. But the worst thought of all was the fact that even after all this her hard work, all her research, and all her training with the fifth Hokage, she was still unable to do anything of great importance for either Naruto or Sasuke.
She couldn’t protect Naruto from that masked Akatsuki member, and all her impressive strength and skill was useless next to Sasuke’s twisted logic and that new team of his.
And now . . .
And now tears did well up in Sakura’s pale green eyes as she looked at Naruto with that big stupid grin on his face. Right now Naruto was recovering in the hospital again. That blond idiot just couldn’t seem to keep himself out of the place. Worse than that, they’d failed to save Sasuke . . . again. And this time they were so close! Sakura just couldn’t understand it. Instead of coming back home after defeating his brother, Uchiha Itachi, Sasuke had chosen to continue on with that renegade team of his . . . and that tramp!Indeed, it was the most recent memories that were keeping Sakura awake this night, swirling in her mind again and again like Naruto’s Rasengan. Even the Rasengan was useless against that masked Akatsuki, who somehow just let every attack they threw at him phase right through him as if he were ghost. The enemy ninja made a fool of everyone, including himself at times. It soon became clear that his antics and way of insulting people while sounding like he didn’t mean any harm were all for the purpose of antagonizing and frustrating Naruto in particular.
Naruto, to Sakura’s relief, refused to give into his anger, even when the ninja in the orange and black-swirl mask mentioned that Sasuke was probably already dead at the hands of Itachi by now. This seemed to frustrate the Akatsuki, and he began to get serious. One by one their comrades were put out of action. Kiba and Akamaru fought with amazing synchronization and timing, but their adversary was too fast for even them. Captain Yamato prevented a final killing blow to the man-dog team, but was somehow ensnared and trapped in his own wooden cocoon. Shino, for all his skill, was no match either. The enemy pretended to be annoyed by the swarm of insects sucking at his chakra until for reasons still unexplained, an influx of chakra from the Akatsuki overloaded Shino’s own system, causing him to pass out. Hinata seemed to gain the upper hand, driving the quick enemy ninja backwards with her gentile fist style. She aimed for chakra points instead of physical matter, and it seemed to be working. As she pressed her advantage, Naruto and Sakura had tried to coordinate an attack from the masked ninja’s flanks. Sakura had the wind knocked out of her by a mighty kick to the abdomen, but Naruto was able to hold the Akatsuki down using a wind jutsu that Sakura had never heard of. Naruto had created a vacuum of air in front of him, and it bound the masked ninja in place for Hinata to make a final strike.
But then the Akatsuki caught Naruto in a genjutsu. Naruto writhed on the ground in phantom pain as the masked ninja descended upon him. Hinata got there first, only to be run through the gut with the enemy’s kunai. Her last act was to slap Naruto back to reality.
Naruto recovered quickly, caught Hinata as she fell, and leapt to safety with her. Then Hinata said something so softly that only Naruto could hear here before she passed out. Back at ground level, Sakura struggled back to her feet. She could tell that Naruto was struggling to hold back the horrible power inside of him at that point. She tried to rush to his side, but Kakashi Sensei stopped her. He raised his headband, and targeted the Akatsuki with his powerful Mangakyu Sharingan vortex technique.
But it was to no avail. The vortex refused to form . . . refused to target. It was then Kakashi realized the masked Akatsuki also had the Mangakyu Sharingan but he was too late to avoid the trap, and Kakashi passed out from the severe psychic backwash. It was left to just her and an unstable Naruto.
Their teamwork had never been better. Their combined fury should have been a match for any ninja to ever leap through the trees. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, knowing that failure here was not an option. Sakura even dared to think they’d won when, with an ultrasonic blast she created a sinkhole in the ground while the Akatsuki was engaged in an airborne duel with Naruto’s clones. The ground appeared undisturbed, and the enemy chose to land right where she had predicted. He sank into the loose earth up to his neck in an instant. The Akatsuki looked powerless to evade or even phase Naruto’s attack out as Naruto followed up with his Rasenshiruken, but a powerful ball of flame, unlike anything Sakura would have imagined possible came from the enemy. The intense heat power of the blast was the last thing Sakura remembered before hitting her head against a tree and slipping into darkness.
She awoke to find Captain Yamato kneeling over her. Naruto was passed out not far from them. Yamato explained what happened as Sakura set about healing her friend as best she could. Naruto had been critically burned by the blast, and his body apparently had no choice but to rely on the Kyuubi’s chakra to heal and save him. The masked Akatsuki had actually taken control of Naruto as soon as the chakra began to leak out. The Captain had watched in horror as he the enemy began to extract the chakra cloak outside of Naruto’s body. Yamato described it as a brutal, painful tug of war for Naruto as the Kyuubi within him fought hard to stay where it was. Sakura could barely take the thought of Naruto in so much pain, and pressed Yamato as to what happened next.
The Akatsuki was attempting to undo Naruto’s seals when another of his organization simply materialized out of a nearby tree. Yamato described this one as having one side of his face painted or tattooed black, while the other a pale white. He seemed to have giant carnivorous plant mandibles growing from his back.
This newcomer had only said, "It is over. Sasuke won."
At this the masked Akatsuki seemed surprised. Yamato was close enough to here him speak, and he recited word for word for Sakura what had been said.
"That’s interesting. So Itachi overdid it then. I warned him not to rely on that power too much. No matter. It would seem the time is not yet right to move."
The Akatsuki was indeed now missing the lower half of his mask, and Yamato said he had the features of an Uchiha and a much deeper and more sinister voice than the one the mysterious ninja had been using while wearing the mask. The enemy stopped drawing the Kyuubi chakra from a half-baked Naruto and told him he had other things to attend to, but he would soon return to finish the job.
Presently, Sakura put the photo back in its place on the dresser and stood up. It was no use. There would be no going to sleep at this rate. She decided to go for a walk. Sliding the straps of her shimmering pink satin nightgown off her shoulders, she let the garment slide off her to pool at her feet. Moments later, Sakura tightened her headband with a sharp tug, smoothed her hair over it, and with a satisfied nod that she was meeting regulations, turned and headed out into the quiet night streets of Konoha.