A.N: Thanks for your reviews and support! It really helped me get back into this thing.
Many people asked why Kakashi had the seal. He was in Root for a short while when he was younger. No, this is not made up, he actually was.
This is kinda more, hum, darkish than normal.
Also, many thanks to Gladoo89 for edits in this chapter, and to Kyrie Twilight, whose insight was a huge help.
What Doesn't Kill You
[Tense: 1. Stretched tight, made taut. 2. Feeling or showing nervousness 3. Marked by strain or uncertainty.]
Aoi slowly flexed and relaxed all her muscles. They were heavy and sluggish, like she'd been sitting in the same position for a long time. Surprisingly, a lot of her chakra had replenished, and it didn't feel as slippery as when she woke up in this room; the dose of thinners must be wearing off. That meant the mental battle with the Yamanaka had indeed taken hours.
Danzo wasn't in the room - it was just her and the agent, slowly getting up from the floor. He and the chair she was clamped to were the only two obstacles separating her from freedom. If she managed to overpower him, she could steal his uniform and hopefully sneak out unnoticed. But first she had to remove the restraints around her ankles, wrists and neck. They were full of chakra to strengthen them, she could feel it, so breaking them with brute force wouldn't be easy. But maybe with a thin enough scalpel she could try to find the mechanism to trip them open without forcing them.
Only one problem. While her control was returning, it was nowhere near enough for a chakra scalpel yet. She didn't know much about thinners except that they wore out slowly, so she guessed it'd be a while before she'd be able to try something that precise.
The agent had stood up and was now looking at her. Aoi gave him a grin. "So, since it looks like we're stuck here, mind telling me how the battle ended? Did the Hokage win?" Did Shino- she grit her teeth and grinned harder.
The agent ignored her, deep in thought. "Danzo-sama asked me to extract some information from you."
"Oh, yeah. You kind of failed, didn't you? Are you going to try again?" She hoped so. If she could find some way to incapacitate him instead of just throwing him out of her mind, then she'd have a lot more freedom and time to figure out the restraints. On another note, who would have guessed the life she'd spent as Chris was still so ingrained in her mind? She had ignored the memories for years, barely touched them except for those pertaining to the manga. In order to survive, she'd locked that part of herself away. Surprise. It turned out to be useful for something.
"How did you know about the invasion?"
"A magical fairy told me," she replied very seriously.
The agent blinked at her, then took a step closer. Aoi prepared herself for another dive, but instead of that, pain erupted on her forearm. She bit off a shriek and looked down, heart pounding. He'd stabbed a kunai into the armrest. Through her forearm. Blood welled up from the wound, sliding down her arm and pooling on the floor.
"How did you know about the invasion?"
Her eyes snapped to his face, looming over her. His amber, pupil-less irises were hard, unfeeling. "I'm a medic, torture won't work on me." Already she was kneading chakra for the numbing jutsu.
His response was to grab another kunai and stab it through her foot. Aoi barked in pain. That was - the dorsalis pedis artery, it supplies blood to the whole foot - she numbed it quickly but the stream of blood continued uninterrupted. She couldn't heal it while the goddamn kunai was still in her foot. "Does Danzo know what you're doing?"
"I will not fail my mission," the Root drone said. "How did you know about the invasion?"
Calm down. You only need to stall until you can make a scalpel. Shikaku must be looking for you by now - unless something happened to Aris and Daichi -
Aoi forced herself to examine the wound on her arm, then look up at him. They'd had a few serious discussions about torture in the Academy; when it was meant to be used, how to react to it if you were the one it was used on, but it was all theoretical. Ironically, it was Root itself that had given Aoi the best preparation to deal with physical pain.
She swallowed. Pain was one thing, but if he - started cutting off fingers or -
Surely Danzo wouldn't allow her to be maimed. Of course even if she got out of here she'd never be able to speak of what had happened because of the tongue seal, but she was too valuable, right? Both on her own and because of her connections. He wouldn't do anything that would severely harm her.
No, Danzo wouldn't, but this guy... His eyes were impossible to read, and Aoi was aware of the consequences of failing missions in Root. Just get him talking. "How about a trade? You tell me what Danzo is up to, I'll tell you what you want to know."
"No." The Root reached into the pouch at his back for another kunai. This time he sank the weapon very slowly through the back of her hand, being especially deliberate in the way he severed the major chakra pathway between her second and third metacarpals. The chakra she'd been using for numbing slipped out of her control, following the blood.
This was getting worse. She needed at least one functioning hand to make a scalpel - she could only achieve manipulation that fine through the palmar tenketsu. "You know," she said, refusing to break eye contact, "without actually going into my mind, you can't be sure that whatever I tell you is true."
"I have seen enough of your mind for this." The agent brought the words out slowly, tasting each one. He held up his hands between them, letting her see the seals he formed. Aoi's stomach sank with recognition. After the last one, he pointed one of his index fingers up, and a small flame burst from it, like a lighter's.
He let the small flame glow for a moment, its soft whoosh filling up the space between them. Aoi couldn't take her eyes off it. The unearthed memory was too recent, too raw. A shiver ran from her head to the tip of her toes, her fingers curling on the armrests of the chair.
"There are some things you won't be able to endure, Kurisu-san," he said in the ensuing silence. "This is one of them."
Slowly, he brought the fire closer to her face. Aoi tilted her jaw away from it, but the collar didn't allow much movement. Her breathing accelerated. She could feel the warmth now. Getting nervous, she numbed the entire left half of her face and neck, but still felt it, very clearly, when the flame licked the the skin of her jaw, just above the metal restraint. A panicked breath hissed between her teeth, her heart hammering against her ribs.
It's just a burn. You'll heal it later-
There was a fizzing sound. The beads of sweat on her skin near the flame were evaporating. A familiar, nauseating smell reached her nostrils, the smell of cooking meat.
The smell triggered a wave of fear that paralyzed her brain and Aoi lost her tremulous hold on her chakra. She was in the inferno again, choking on the vile stink of burning flesh and hair, watching how the skin in her arms blackened and peeled away, exposing pink muscle underneath that the fire licked at avidly. Her jaw seared with pain not again not again not again not again but she could feel her carbonized dermis crackling and parting as the agent started tracing a path up her cheek, curving it towards the center of her face, and the smell. Aoi made a strangled noise, clutching the chair so tightly one of her knuckles popped.
His finger continued rising and she could see the flame now, feel the small pops and cracks in the skin beneath her eye. She squeezed her eyes shut, terror closing her throat. He let it burn just beneath her tear duct, next to the bridge of her nose, and she turned her face as much as she could, pressed her cheek back against the back of the chair, but it wasn't enough. A half-scream, half-sob escaped her lips. It hurt it hurt the pain wasn't stopping not this again please not again -
The agent removed the flame from her face and leaned back. Aoi kept her eyes shut, her breath coming in pants. The entire left half of her face was in agony. Swallowing, she regained shaky control over her chakra and numbed it once more.
"I'm going to get another dose of thinners," the agent said. "I hope you'll be more cooperative when I return."
She heard the door shut.
Still she didn't open her eyes, taking a minute to calm her breathing. She didn't have time to heal her cheek or any of the other injuries, she had to escape now. She concentrated, pooling chakra in her good hand.
She flexed her wrist so her palm was facing the restraint and extended a blade of chakra out, but it was too thick, it was still too soon, it wouldn't permeate into the metal. She opened her eyes. The left one was irritated, too blurry with tears to be of use. She closed it again, keeping only her right open, and shot a fearful glance at the door.
Concentrate. You have to do it. You can't go through another round of that. She looked back at the shackle. Before she even started extending the chakra again, the door opened.
The Root agent slid his mask to the side, revealing his face. "Hello, Momoru." He shut the door quietly behind him.
The boy gave her a sickly grin. "Hi." His voice was a crackle, almost a whisper.
Aoi was a jumble of emotions, anger, hatred, shock, and the tight grip of fear that still made it hard to think. He was the one who'd been in the exam, it was his fault Shino was probably dead and his fault she was here. If she were free, she would kill him.
But she wasn't and right now, she had to get away from this place. If there was one Root agent who might possibly sympathize enough - one capable of defying Danzo - even though he'd been the one who brought her here but she had to try - "Help me," she croaked.
He walked closer and stared her in the eye. His cheeks were gaunt, with deep, dark grooves under his eyes, and his skin was pale and papery, his lips cracked. "But on one condition." She nodded, hardly able to believe her luck. "Heal me."
"Heal you?" she echoed. That wasn't what she'd expected.
"Kabuto was the only one able to keep my illness at bay, but he's been gone for too long, and I'm dying. I need more time. You're the only medic he trained personally."
The hatred was back, more potent than before. "This is why-"
"Yes. I volunteered for the mission because I knew you'd be in the exam. I didn't even care if you were related to the leak or not, I was going to bring you anyway." He stared, his eyes tracing her left cheek. Aoi didn't know what the burn looked like - well, she could form a fairly accurate picture in her head - but Shin's expression didn't give anything away.
"So you could offer to free me in exchange for me healing you," she summarized, her voice trembling.
"You need me to get out. You don't know the layout, you won't be able to do it on your own."
Slimy bastard. But there was no other option, really. "The Yamanaka-"
"Already took care of him." He bent down to unstick the kunai from her foot, then did the same for the ones on her hand and arm. Aoi immediately started self-healing the wounds. She wouldn't be able to do her face until later - third-degree burns left a lot of dead tissue behind and if she tried to heal it before cleaning it out, it would definitely get infected.
Shin straightened and unsheathed a tanto from the scabbard strapped to his back. He concentrated, channeling chakra that shimmered over the blade. With three smooth swings, he cut her restraints away and stepped back.
Aoi stood up slowly, testing her injured foot. The temptation to beat Shin to death was strong, but the need to escape this nightmare was stronger. She limped past him and opened the door, looking to either side, still with her left eye closed. The corridor was empty, save for the body of the Yamanaka, slumped against a wall - his chest was moving, so he wasn't dead. Aoi suppressed a shiver and took the animal mask strapped to his belt. She also shrugged her green short-sleeved jacket off and replaced it with the black midriff one he was wearing, which was too big on her, but who cared.
When she was dressed she looked down at the agent. She remembered the reflection of the dancing flame in his pupil-less eyes, and something in her cracked. She kicked his face hard with her good leg, feeling his nose crunch under her foot and his neck snap. Now he was dead.
Take that, motherfucker.
Tears started sliding out of her good eye, but she quickly wiped them away. "Which way?" she asked Shin.
Ten minutes later he was shirtless, sitting one one of the beds, while Aoi stood behind him with her hands on his shoulder blades. She could feel the contours of every bone without even needing to use the Diagnostic Palm, he was that thin. "What - happened to Shino, the Aburame I was healing," she asked with false lightness.
Shin shrugged. "No idea. He's probably dead."
Aoi's hands stiffened on his back. She saw red; her thumbs were near his neck.
Shin simply waited.
Aoi's hands relaxed. She'd had enough violence for one day. After a few seconds, his body started jerking with coughs; by the time the fit ended, she had mastered her reaction.
He was already a dead man walking, anyway.
"Kabuto said it had to do with the Fourth Gate," he informed once he could speak again. "It's built in a way that contaminates my chakra. It's spread to my lungs and liver now."
Aoi nodded, forcibly directing her attention to the issue. He could probably live on his liver for a few more months. His lungs were the problem. A dark web of decaying tissue mixed with putrid chakra spread all over them, taking up the space inside his alveoli and preventing the organ from filling with air. The few free spaces it hadn't reached yet were full of blood and pus. It was a miracle he was still alive, let alone could walk.
A transplant would give him the longest life. Maybe if they went back and got the Yamanaka's lungs... But no. She didn't even bother suggesting it. She'd never done transplants before, she'd take too long and she wanted out of this base now. But there was nothing anybody could do to restore the function of his lungs at this point, the web of dead tissue had extended too far. How the hell had Kabuto treated this?
Wait. If she... She wrapped the Yin chakra around the putrid web and then, carefully, delivered normal chakra to it.
The rejection was instantaneous. The chakra in the toxic construct reacted with her foreign unfiltered signature and the tissue broke down. Shin gasped, in pain or relief, she didn't know. She poured more chakra in, further freeing his airspace - but a large part of the healthy tissue had died, too, creating big, useless spaces. His lungs were basically hollow now; at most, she'd given him a few days.
He didn't need to know that. He was breathing more easily, albeit his face occasionally twisted in pain. "Thank you. How long?"
"A couple weeks, maybe, if you stay on oxygen," Aoi said.
His features relaxed. "Good. That's good. I only need six days."
Not like she cared. "Take me out of here."
He nodded, putting his jacket back on. "Where do you want to go?"
Aoi was about to say "Anywhere" but her stomach lurched in panic.
Danzo wasn't going to leave her alone. Not after she ruined his master plan to assassinate the Hokage. She hadn't known he was involved in the invasion when she decided to interfere but that wouldn't matter to him. She was too valuable? Hah. He knew she had information and he was going to do his best to tear it out of her using whatever means necessary. Maybe he wouldn't even be interested in what she had to say - maybe he'd just want revenge. A phantom sensation of flames raced up her cheek despite the fact that she'd numbed it.
There should be antiseptic here, for her burn. "How did the battle end? What's going on outside?" she asked while she opened cupboards and examined labelled bottles.
"The Hokage won, but he's in a coma. The Council is issuing orders temporarily." Shin was watching her, expressionless. "I'd get out of Konoha if I were you. Danzo-sama is going to come after you if you stay, but if you leave, he might be too busy dealing with other things to bother. I can take you to the southwestern exit, it's outside the walls." He paused. "The longer we take, the easier you'll be to follow."
She decided to stuff the bottles in her pockets to use later instead of wasting more time. There was a moment of hesitation. The memory of a campfire talk with Shikaku while her teammates slept. The taste of the tea that accompanied her talks with Hana. Sitting on a park bench, watching the sun set, eating ice-cream with Hinata.
The reflection of fire on hard amber eyes, the flames devouring the room and the beam that trapped her legs -
Survive first. Make decisions later. "Let's go."
The cloud of chakra smoke dissipated, revealing a small brown dog wearing a Konoha forehead protector and a blue jacket. As soon as he appeared, the dog started sneezing.
"Kid, I've told you to call me before you attempt cooking. What did you try to make this time? It smells vile."
Kakashi eye-smiled. "Sorry."
Pakkun twisted his head to the side to look behind Kakashi's leg. They were not in Kakashi's kitchen. There was a body lying on the floor, the woman's intestines spilling out of a cut spanning her front from her navel to her collarbone. She was still twitching. Down the corridor, another corpse lay face-down, a large blood stain on the wall above it. Kakashi himself reeked of blood, his arm completely red from the tip of his fingers to his shoulder, the side of his face and torso mottled with splatters. He also had a wound on his calf that he'd wrapped tightly with a bandage.
The pug frowned. "It's been ages since you got this carried away. You alright?"
"Peachy. But they're coming in groups now. So, if you would..."
Pakkun sniffed the air, grimacing again at the stench of death. "Who're we looking for?"
"Do you remember Orochimaru? Well, like that, except less snakey and more feminine. The trail gets too mixed up for me here."
"More feminine?" Pakkun grumbled. He sniffed again. "Okay, got it." He trotted off.
They arrived in front of a door where the faint trail suddenly changed into a more potent, recent smell that continued down the corridor. More importantly, bloody right-footed footprints led away from the door, in the same direction as the stronger scent. Kakashi glanced at the limp body lying on the floor nearby. Curious, he pushed the door open.
It was a small, impersonal square room, empty save for a single chair in the center, nailed to the floor. There were pools of blood on the floor beneath the chair, some of it coating the armrests, where broken restraints dangled from. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh lingered in the air.
Kakashi's eye darkened.
"Doesn't look very fun," Pakkun said cautiously.
He ignored the small dog and crouched near the chair, reaching out with his clean hand to feel the blood between his fingers. Viscous near the edges, liquid in the center. This couldn't have happened more than an hour ago. Wordlessly, he straightened and left the room, quickening his pace.
He caught up to Aoi twenty minutes out of Konoha at his fastest tree-hopping speed. He would have caught her earlier, but her top speed was fast, fast if she'd been a Chunin even, and she showed no signs of slowing down, despite all the blood she'd lost back there. The footprints had faded a while ago, so at least she'd already healed the worst of it.
All in all, he wasn't very surprised when he was greeted by a shuriken falling on him from above, at an angle, that caught him in the shoulder. He grabbed the wire it was attached to just in time to conjure a stream of lightning that raced to meet the one already on its way. The two identical jutsu clashed in the middle of the wire, causing a bright flash that illuminated the forest blue. Darkness returned as the jutsu cancelled each other out. "Calm down, it's me."
The wire tugged lightly. Kakashi extracted the shuriken and let it go, watching it fly back to where it came from, two trees away. Aoi dropped down from a higher branch to one that was on his level.
Rage sank in his stomach when he saw the prominent burn on her face. It started on the side of her neck, curved over her jaw and then meandered diagonally over her cheek until almost reaching the inner corner of her eye. The center of the burn was pink muscle, edged on either side with curled, blackened skin. He knew that burns took significantly longer to treat than cuts. She must have decided to leave it until she was far enough away from Konoha.
He forced a smile. "So... Root did that, huh."
She was watching him carefully, her stance guarded.
"Look, I know Konoha has... problems, but it's better than most places out there." Really, kid? Pakkun's voice mocked in his head. At least try to be convincing. "Becoming a missing-nin is a very bad idea, trust me." He should know, he'd spent a large part of his life hunting them.
"Can't you," she swallowed. "Just say you found me dead, or something."
Kakashi cocked his head. "Nope. Shikaku would kill me, kill my dogs and then set fire to my house."
"Okay, so, tell everybody I'm dead, except for Shikaku."
He eyed her burn again. It was difficult to make a case with that awful torture wound staring him in the face. He didn't even want to, really. "And what do I say to him?" he asked softly.
"That if I stayed Danzo would come after me for interfering in his plan to kill the Hokage. I have a lot of information and I promise I'll tell him eventually but it can't be," she swallowed again, "allowed to fall into Danzo's hands."
Trackers sometimes had to face controversial cases like these. He hated them. If it had been Naruto, Sakura or Sasuke and that manipulative, power-hungry leech was after them, Kakashi would tell them to get the fuck out. Would Shikaku do it differently?
He hopped to her branch, ignoring the way she visibly tensed, and walked forwards until they were standing face to face. Moving slowly, so she'd see that he wasn't going to hurt her, he got out a flattened protein bar from the depths of his pockets and tapped her on the shoulder with it, smiling. "I'll see what I can do. Good luck, Aoi-chan."
She let out a relieved breath. "Thank you. I knew there was a reason you were my favorite character."
Kakashi blinked, surprised.
Aoi snatched the bar, jumped to the next branch and resumed her mad dash away from Konoha.
A.N.: I, Zbluez, solemnly swear not to end the next chapter on a cliffhanger.
Erm. So yeah. Thoughts? As always, what did you think was good, what did you think was bad, etc.