Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 4

The new team wasn't terrible in the way that cold soup wasn't terrible. You could deal with it, maybe even grow to appreciate it over time, but at the end of the day, it just wouldn't be as good as the hotter variety.

(Sakura liked the double entendre of her metaphor.)

The team was made up of a jounin and two genin a couple years her senior. They had lost a team member during Orochimaru's invasion, and Tsunade had declared their mourning period over by assigning Sakura to their group. Maybe Tsunade had hoped that their loss of a teammate could be something Sakura related to, and maybe if Sakura hadn't developed her own plans, she could have let herself.

In a way, she felt bad for the team. They'd put their best foot forward in trying to be welcoming to her, and she was inevitably going to disappoint them. Was this how Sasuke had felt, when he'd made the decision to join Orochimaru? He'd claimed that she was incapable of understanding him, that no one was capable of understanding him. Funny how now, in following in his footsteps, Sakura felt like she understood him better than she ever had before.

Of course, the difference between Sasuke and herself was that when she decided to leave the village, she didn't just up and wander off without a thought to the consequences. She was going to plan. She was going to leave in a way that wouldn't arouse suspicion for a while, a couple days if she was lucky, and she was going to leave for a place that nobody would think to find her.

It had admittedly taken her a while to decide on her future plans. There was a part of her, a very dominant part of her, that had thought about simply going to find Sasuke and joining him. It was possible she'd get killed in the process, but if she went in swearing allegiance to Sasuke, and possibly even Orochimaru, she figured she could at least get taken in as some sort of guard. She could stay close to Sasuke without getting in the way of his ambition and do whatever it took to keep him safe from Orochimaru.

But that was the problem, wasn't it? Orochimaru. Sakura couldn't allow herself to be in that creep's presence for more than a minute, even if it meant being near Sasuke. She couldn't swear any sort of allegiance to him. What would Naruto think? What would she think of herself?

She loved Sasuke, more than anything, but there were depths that she couldn't allow herself to sink to.

This didn't exactly leave her a ton of other options. She couldn't stay, not with this new team, and if she rebelled against Tsunade, that would just get her status as a ninja revoked, or something equally severe. Even Naruto eventually bowed his head when the Hokage gave an order. But if she wasn't going to Sasuke, where exactly could she hope to go? And what would she be doing? She had her scroll to study, but eventually she'd run out of things to practice. (Not to mention money, potentially food…she'd never been the greatest at hunting, even if she could recite every proper camping technique she'd learned at school from memory.)

Sakura needed a goal. She already had the goal of learning her scroll and getting stronger, but she needed a more primary goal that she could dedicate the next couple years to. (Something that would justify running away from the village, getting labelled a missing-nin, and all the wonderful perks that came with that.) So, Sakura changed her focus. If there wasn't anything she could do to help Sasuke, short of getting strong enough to pummel Orochimaru's face into the dirt, then maybe there was something she could do to help Naruto instead.

This didn't mean traipsing off to find him and Jiraiya, of course. She knew Jiraiya had a reputation for going his own way, but she had the feeling she'd be sent right back home to Tsunade the instant Jiraiya caught sight of her. No, she would have to help him in another way, and that way was doing what had gotten her started on her mild crime spree to begin with. She was going to have to gather information. She was going to find out whatever she could about Akatsuki and about the Tailed Beasts, so that when Naruto returned she could help him master his own strength and keep him safe.

From there, Sakura started forming a plan. She didn't want to waste too much time in the village, now that her mind was made up, but that didn't mean she wasn't going to take advantage of the fact that she did have a bit of time to waste. Going on higher ranked missions with her new team meant a higher income, all of which she could put towards preparing for her journey. It also meant opportunities to train. She didn't inform her jounin superior about her newly learned sensing jutsu, but she could still practice it on missions. (Gaining, in the process, a reputation for having incredibly keen senses…something Sakura wasn't going to dispute.)

She gave herself two weeks. Two more weeks of narrowing down a training schedule with Lee, two weeks to build up her wallet, and two more weeks to perfect the jutsu that was going to be the linchpin of her escape plan. In a twist of fate, her sensing jutsu was going to prove essential.

She couldn't leave by the main road, of course. She'd be far too easy to track. That was where Sasuke had gone wrong, and because of Sasuke, the security at the main gate had since doubled. That meant that Sakura had to leave the village in a more indirect way, namely under the surrounding walls. She'd already gotten well practiced at the Tunneling technique, and since it didn't necessarily matter where she showed up on the other side, she didn't need to practice preciseness. All she needed to practice was speed and sensing, so she could avoid anyone that might try to stop her.

The day of her plan's execution arrived, and it took everything Sakura had not to give into her nerves. Spending the morning with Lee almost did her in; thinking about how he'd react when he heard what she'd done…

Well, as Lee put it, getting stronger wasn't supposed to be easy. Going her own way was definitely not going to be easy, and if she let Lee stop her from her goals, then she certainly wouldn't be good enough for Sasuke.

She started planting the seeds of her plan as she spent the day with her assigned team. They usually ate lunch together, and it was easy enough to convince the others that something she'd eaten hadn't quite agreed with her. Eventually, she was sent home 'sick', along with permission to take the next day off. Perfect. That meant that nobody would think to question her absence for at least a day, longer if she was lucky, and all she could hope was that it was enough of a head start to foil anyone who might be sent to retrieve her.

When she made it to her room, step two of the plan began. She'd already begun packing all the supplies she needed for the journey, including a backpack full of water and non-perishable food, as well as a brand-new set of shinobi tools she'd spent her past two weeks savings on. She had shuriken, she had kunai, she had summoning scrolls with traveling equipment, and in the spot of honor at her hip, she had the scroll that had started it all. From there, she had two things to leave behind in her room.

A shinobi was a master of misdirection. That was one of the first lessons she'd learned as a student, and her plan for misdirection was so simple that it couldn't help but bring a smile to her face. Once again, she benefited from being predictable and consistently underestimated.

On her desk, she left her Konoha headband. For dramatic effect, she took one of her kunai to the metal plate, making a long slash across the leaf symbol. Sasuke's headband had come back with a similar marking, so it would help reinforce the second thing she was leaving behind: a short letter detailing her desire to be with Sasuke, and the statement that she was leaving Konoha to go join Sasuke and Orochimaru. She signed the letter with a flourish and left it next to the headband. Her definitive statement on leaving the village. She felt the pit in her stomach that she had been ignoring grow larger as the weight of this sunk in.

She was really doing this. She was leaving her home on a quest for knowledge. She might never be accepted back. She might not even find anything that could help Naruto.

But damn it all, she had to try.

It was still daytime, but thankfully all she really had to do at first was avoid her team. Nobody else had heard the news that she'd been sent home with a stomach ache, and everyone else who knew her would just be assuming she was getting ready to go off on a longer mission. Since she knew that her team would be taking a patrol mission, this made things difficult. They would be on the outskirts of the village, and she had no way of knowing exactly where unless she stumbled into them. However, this did mean that until she reached the outskirts, she had little risk of being uncovered.

More practice at misdirection, she decided. Her initial goal was to appear as casual as possible as she made her way to her predesignated 'digging' point. Since the guards wouldn't be looking for anyone approaching the wall from the inside, she had a small advantage. As long as she stayed within the cover of trees and far enough away from patrols, she had no doubt she could create her tunnel without being noticed. The problem was someone catching sight of her on the other side. She would have to go through her tunnel slowly, preserving energy, so that if she was discovered, she'd have the energy to make a break for it.

It was perhaps because her thoughts were occupied on these possibilities that Sakura didn't notice Kakashi until she quite literally bumped into him.

It would have been startling even if she wasn't planning on leaving the village. Kakashi had been sent on missions near constantly since the breakup of Team Seven, which was part of the reason Sakura had been doing missions on her own before her reassignment. That he was in the village at all was some sort of unlucky 'miracle', and of course since she'd been stupid enough to bump into him, that meant they had to talk. Catch up.

"Sakura!" Kakashi's eyes indicated a smile, and Sakura could feel her heart breaking a little bit. Damn it all, she hadn't even considered how Kakashi would react to her leaving too. But she mustn't dwell on it, she mustn't.

"Hey there, Kakashi-sensei!" She allowed herself to slip into a happy tone, doing her best not to appear suspicious. "Sorry to rush, but…" Suddenly, an idea formed in her head. Information gathering, that was what she was leaving to do. So, she needed to get good at it. "But I'm trying to catch up with my new team. I wasn't feeling so well earlier, so they left on patrol without me, but now I'm feeling better. You haven't happened to see what direction they went, have you?"

"I think I might have seen them by the gate when I came in. By now, they're probably on the east side of the village." Kakashi looked thoughtful, but still beamed at her as they spoke. "I must say, when Tsunade told me you'd been reassigned, I didn't think you'd take it this well."

"Well, someone has to be the grown up of Team Seven, right sensei?"

"Ouch, Sakura. I might almost think you're implying I'm not the grown up."

"Maybe if you had ever been on time, I might be thinking differently!" Sakura couldn't help but feel a bit more light-hearted at the banter. It was so…familiar. Like things hadn't changed. Like things weren't about to change.

She paused, her stomach sinking slightly again, and this time Kakashi noticed. He looked away, off towards the direction of the gate. Thinking about Sasuke and Naruto, Sakura deduced. How could he not be? Kakashi had been a part of Team Seven too. Did he blame himself for what had happened?


"Don't worry, Kakashi-sensei." Sakura found herself speaking without thinking. "I'm going to get stronger. For both of them. When Naruto gets back, we're going to be good enough to take down Orochimaru and anyone else who gets in our way." Kakashi looked back at her, slightly surprised at the outburst. Even she wasn't quite sure why she was saying it. Maybe it was something he needed to hear. "Until then, you keep getting stronger too, Kakashi-sensei. Team Seven is always going to need a leader."

Silence. Then, another smile from Kakashi. He reached out suddenly, putting a gentle hand on her head.

"Don't give up."

There was a strangeness in Kakashi's words, a sort of hidden reverence that Sakura didn't understand. When she looked in her sensei's eyes, it was almost like they weren't even his words at all, but someone else's being echoed.

Before she could process the words further, Kakashi was walking away, giving her a small wave as he left. Sakura put a hand to her head. Don't give up…well, of course she wasn't going to give up! That was the whole damn point of her leaving!

But, even though it wasn't direct, this was almost like getting Kakashi's blessing on the matter. He hadn't shot her down. He hadn't said there was no way in hell she'd ever be strong enough. Simply…don't give up. She could get stronger. She could defeat Orochimaru. She could save Sasuke.

Sakura reached her digging spot without any more interruptions. Her team was on the east side of the gate, if Kakashi was correct, and she was aiming for the southwest side. No risk of them spotting her and questioning, and if another shinobi spotted her, she could potentially argue her way out of trouble, like she had with Kakashi. She was just looking for her team, after all, that was why she was packed and running around the outskirts of the city. She'd worried about needing to run for nothing.

With a deep breath, she focused her chakra outwards. There were two shinobi on the wall nearby that she would have to avoid, and that was about as thin a number as she was going to find. Now was the time.

A few hand signs later and she was crawling through her tunnel to the other side of Konoha's walls. By the time she reached the other side, there were still only the two shinobi in her radius. Sakura peeked out of the tunnel, looking around carefully before catching sight of the wall nearby. Through the denseness of the surrounding forest, it was hard to pick out the shinobi guarding the walls. Just as hard, she hoped, to pick out herself in the trees. She took another deep breath before pulling herself out of the hole, then quickly began to fill it behind her. When she looked up at the guard shinobi again, they hadn't moved. Perfect.

She quietly pulled out the small map she'd bought. If she continued to head southwest, she wouldn't need to look at the map for a while. It would be easier to navigate once nightfall hit, and she fully intended to switch her schedule once she was far enough outside the city limits. For now…just southwest. She kept slow and close to trees at first, waiting until she could no longer see the walls of the village before breaking into a manageable sprint. After about a month of training with Lee, she was already faster, and less winded. She'd be able to run for a long time before needing rest, which was good. She needed to cover ground to get a head start from anyone hunting her…and it was a long way to her destination. Three days, if she ran with minimal rest.

There was only one place that she knew she'd be able to get information about the Tailed Beasts for certain, and that was because Sakura knew that one lived there. She hoped that his connection to Naruto would be enough to at least grant an audience, and she could move on from there.

For now…running. Running until she reached the Village Hidden in the Sand.

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0