A/N: So yeah, we all know this song and dance by now. The updates become more and more irregular, eventually slowing to a crawl and in the end ceasing utterly. Sadly, life and my drive to write have taken a turn down that avenue. As it stands, I won't be able to finish Ouroboros according to the schedule I had planned.
HOWEVER, that does not mean I will leave you with nothing. Having thought long and hard about this, I realize that I can either just stop, or I can at least give you a quicker version of what's to come, a highlight reel if you will. Pacing is gonna go out the window and a whole lot of buildup will be impossible to show, but you'll get an ending. It might not be the grand end we all wanted (and I am so, so sorry for that) but there WILL be an end, no matter what the heck I must do to get it out there. My current plan is aiming to wrap this up within 3-4 chapters (and eventual epilogue). So yeah, here we go again then.
The waiting was among the worst parts of her current existence. As she sat silently in her master's laboratory, waiting for him to be finished with the ritual that was taking place, Sakura knew that she just had to sit quiet and be patient. At the same time precisely that left her almost queasy with anxiety and worry. Whenever she sat silent her thoughts began to dig into her, forcing themselves into her mind and refusing to leave. She hated it, hated how it made her think of all the things she just wanted to shut out because it hurt too much to think about it.
Shouldn't she be proud of her performance? She had managed to outwit the Kiri ninjas and snatched the key for her master right under their noses, using a technique she'd only recently learned. All that was great, maybe even master would acknowledge it...
But why did it have to be Chojuro?
Of all the shinobi that could have been there, why did Chojuro have to be there? Why did he have to be the one she had controlled like a puppet? He had been so good to her when she was in Kiri, always kind and protective when she felt alone and lost in a strange new place. He'd even tended to her when she was sick from the mutations, made her feel safe and cared for. In the end, she had even ended up having a crush on him, a crush that hadn't quite died even three years down the road.
Yet even as Sakura asked herself that question the answer was clear. She didn't want it to be but she couldn't deny it. It was because Chojuro had carried something for her as well. It was too obvious with the way he'd instantly rushed to her side and forgetting all about the battle as she fell into his arms. She'd ensnared him so effectively because he loved her, because he was too enamored with her to consider the possibility that she'd play him, use his love against her and take him over as a puppet to strike down his kage and steal something they couldn't afford to lose.
She was vile. She knew she only had her master. She knew that she had to stick with him, that he would see her through in the end somehow. Yet the fact remained that she had to do all these awful things. It ground into her very soul and she couldn't – simply couldn't – numb herself to it. There was still something inside of her that wished she didn't have to do this, that made her want to be back in Konoha as an academy student with her friends, that all that happened never had taken place.
How did master do it? How did he stay so impassive despite everything? Had he just never cared, or had the treatment they subjected him to in Konoha truly cut his bonds with the village through and through? Whatever it was, Sakura clung to it now. She was in a terrible place, surrounded by maniacs and murderers, but she had to hold it together. Not for her sake but for her master's sake. Whatever she could do for him, she had to do it. Even as a small part of her was telling her she made no sense, she still clung to it. She'd come this far for him and if she let go now it'd all be for nothing.
So she waited in the darkness, all alone and fighting the doubt that wouldn't go away.
For all the sublime qualities inherent in the process of sealing a bijuu inside the immense statue, Naruto found the ending slightly anticlimactic. The ritual ended, Pein fell silent and eventually departed, leaving the rest of them to stand there looking after him. No words about what they were supposed to do here next, nor any commendations for their performance (though Naruto was not overly surprised by that) or indeed anything. Instead, Naruto and Sasori looked to each other, both of them hiding behind their masks where they stood. Yet even through that, the two could communicate in looks what wasn't said in words.
"As... intellectually stimulating this entire affair has been," Naruto commended after a while, giving a pointed glance in Hidan's direction, "We must be off now as well."
"Hopefully someone else, not very picky about who, can actually get something done in the future." Sasori said with a sarcastic rasp in his voice.
"Until next time," Naruto bid them farewell mildly.
"Preferably far from now," Sasori finished as the two leaped down from the statue's fingers and left the chamber.
"So petty, Sasori-san," Naruto said with the same mild tone in his voice as they marched through the endless, dark corridors with the distant echo of their footsteps and their voices bouncing back at them.
"As amusing as it was to watch you browbeat that death-worshipping Neanderthal, I can only abide him for so long," Sasori said, "Do you realize we are spending twenty four hours in the presence of those dunces? Typically, I would have done away with them after an hour."
"I don't know, I try to approach it as a new specimen," Naruto said. "The same reflex that made me poke dead rats with sticks as a child is what helps me endure those people's presence. How does Hidan not forget how to breathe? How soon will Kakuzu attempt to sexually express his love for money? Little thought-experiments like that."
"I won't comment on the fact that you're associating Kakuzu and sex," Sasori drawled in response. "Some thoughts are too repulsive for me to approach."
"Ah yes, wouldn't want to upset your delicate sensibilities," Naruto said airily, Sasori giving him a glacial glare.
"Good, because if you don't behave you don't get to accompany me to Tanigakure," the puppeteer told him, leaving Naruto to raise an eyebrow behind the mask.
"I shall remain quiet then," he said evenly, not showing how surprised he was at what Sasori just had said. He was not fully informed of precisely why Sasori regularly went to that particular village, but he knew it was one of the more important "private errands" the puppetmaster ran. Until now he had been secretive about it yet now he was inviting Naruto along. This was a not inconsiderable show of trust and Naruto knew well that it was for the best to make an absolute minimum of fuss right now, lest Sasori rescind the offer. Sasori grunted and turned back to the corridor, speaking up again after a few seconds.
"Seems you had a point about the usefulness of playing nice with people, I haven't enjoyed this kind of silence in months," the puppet-master commented after a few seconds.
"That is one victory, at the very least," Naruto remarked airily, unable to contain himself and getting only another small grunt from Sasori. While he wanted to make a remark about the man's constant grunting he could at least hold himself back from that.
"Good for you," Sasori drawled.
"You two are goddamn adorable," a hoarse voice said behind them. Naruto did not even need to look to know that it was Zetsu who had appeared behind them. The spymaster of the Akatsuki was staring at them with his hollow eyes, a wry smirk on his face. Naruto turned around to face him with irritation bubbling up inside of him.
"Always nice to be noticed by one's illustrious senpai," Naruto drawled. "Allow me to breathlessly gush over this for a while."
"What do you want, carrion feeder?" Sasori asked bluntly, glaring at Zetsu.
"Oh, a few things," Zetsu said mildly, "Mainly I wanted to congratulate you on a job well done. And also... did you pitch a semi when your old lover showed up?" The man-plant hybrid's voice turned lewd and he leaned in a little. "She's quite the looker I'll admit," he leered, "I can only imagine how she'd taste. Maybe you could give me a hint?"
"Aaand we're taking a sample," Naruto said calmly, suppressing the part of him that was incensed by Zetsu's provocations, as he tore out some strands of hair from Zetsu's head. "Really, if you're going to attempt to get a rise out of me, you should keep a decent distance. Still, thanks for the DNA, I'm sure I can do many an interesting thing with this," he continued as he placed the sample into a small test tube. "Shall we, Sasori-san?" he asked, giving Zetsu no time to continue before they both turned around and left him. Zetsu's little spiteful tantrum about being questioned was an irritation, nothing else.
"Sure, sure, walk away from the man giving you a mission from Pein-sama," Zetsu said behind him and Naruto stopped in his tracks. Damn it, was that madman giving him no rest?
"And making puerile comments in the manner of a fourteen-year-old was obviously more important," he said acerbically as he turned to look back at the man. "But sure, let is hear it," he said, folding his arms.
"You're going to prison, professor," Zetsu grinned. "Hozuki castle more specifically."
"Delightful," Naruto said, feeling a small chill run down his spine. Hozuki castle was infamous for a reason. Once you entered you never left unless the village wanted you back. Hozuki castle was, in a way, one of the constants in the shinobi world. "Care to elaborate on why or is your ability to convey information as pitiable as your ability to gather it?" he asked.
"Maybe we should shove him into a pot somewhere," Sasori offered. "Plants tend to be stressed out by being moved around."
"Or at least water him," Naruto agreed. "I believe I have some things we could use as fertilizer."
"And prune him," Sasori added as he waved the razor-sharp stinger of his tail back and forth a little.
"Fuck me with your little two-inch dicks you are SO funny," Zetsu drawled. "Anyway..."
"Apologies Zetsu-san, I do not swing that way." Naruto cut him off with a mild voice. It was an infantile remark but he made it anyway.
"What 'way' would you even be swinging if you wanted to fornicate with plants?" Sasori asked, taking the ball and running with it.
"I think the term would be Dendrophilia in the case of trees," Naruto mused. "As for other plants, I don't know if there is an actual term for it. Let us call is Zetsuphilia for the time being.
"A great leap forward for the science of perverts and deviants," Sasori smirked.
"Are you two finished?" Zetsu asked patiently, glaring at them. "Hozuki Castle. Break into it. Let the inmates out. The Elemental Villages are closing ranks and Pein-sama wants as much chaos as we can give him. The greatest prison break in history should do the trick. Feel free to get to it anytime soon."
"Are you well versed in the language of flowers, Sasori-san?" Naruto continued now for the heck of it, folding his arms and placing one hand under his chin. "I think this arrangement is trying to convey a message, but I'm not sure what the meaning is."
"Just piss off, will you?" Zetsu asked as he stepped backwards, fading into the wall and leaving them behind.
"There really is a certain satisfaction in being obnoxiously low-brow, is there not?" Naruto asked, genuinely smiling under his mask.
"I'm not sure the loss of dignity is worth it," Sasori said dryly as his tail retreated in under his cloak again. "But you are correct, there is."
"Now to find some way to arrange the greatest prison break in history," Naruto wrapped up with a dry voice. "What do we know?" he began, looking to his companion as he thought about it. "Hozuki Castle. Run by the Hidden Grass. Touted as the ultimate prison. Final destination for loose cannons and psychopaths as well as those without the stomach to do their duty. Makes use of seals to control the prison population." He listed off calmly as he and Sasori began to walk down the hallway again.
"A vast amount of information to be sure," Sasori said sarcastically. "We need more."
"A very perceptive conclusion Sasori-senpai," Naruto fired back with equal sarcasm. "Did you have any ideas or am I doing the heavy lifting as usual?"
"Former prisoners," Sasori said evenly as they entered Naruto's laboratory. "It begins and ends with those seals they use. The kind of people imprisoned there won't be stopped by just some guards. If the seals are removed they'll break out."
"A standardized seal, most probably," Naruto said, walking up to a blackboard there and beginning to take notes. "Three options. One: the one who places the seal on them is the conduit, kill him and his seals fade with him. Two: the seals are self-contained and we'd have to remove them one by one. Three: some kind of artefact to sustain the seals without the seal-user's presence. The first option would be the most simplest but potentially the most troublesome. If the seal-user is a high-level shinobi surrounded by bodyguards we will have a pitched battle on our hands; one I'd prefer to avoid. Second option would take longer time but could potentially be easier as long as we stayed hidden. Third… whatever artefact is used would be under heavy guard and/or hidden. I dislike treasure hunts." He muttered as he and Sasori began to speculate about what awaited and what possible options they had in either case. After a while Naruto looked around, realizing Sakura was nowhere to be seen. "Vexing… I told her to wait here." He sighed, inwardly becoming all the more worried. Chojuro had been there during the fight and Naruto hadn't forgotten the bond that had developed between the young swordsman and his apprentice. Sakura had exploited that brilliantly, but now, when it all was over… he himself had been bitter and regretful after clashing with Mei, yet Sakura had been forced to make Chojuro her puppet.
"Go find her, I'll prepare for the journey," Sasori told him and Naruto nodded. Steadily, Sasori was being more and more helpful these days. That was a good thing, admittedly, but right now he had other concerns. Stepping out into the corridors, he began stalking them to find his apprentice. This was the last place in the world where he wanted to be unaware of her location. Nearly every last one of his vile "colleagues" would be problematic for Sakura to deal with. If it wasn't the possibility of outright violence, they'd most likely try to screw with her head or maybe even sexually assault her. These vermin had no limits.
It was first after a good while that he managed to find her. As it turned out, she had walked out of the building and was standing on one of the roof terraces. Stopping in the doorway, Naruto took a moment to watch her, hoping to at least somewhat gauge her mental state from how she was acting when she thought no one was around. She was not pacing around or crying, which was at least something (and the absurdity of his situation became clear once again when THAT was the baseline). What she was doing, however, was training.
Standing in the pouring rain, Sakura was surrounded by a series of clones transformed into various other shinobi and as they launched themselves at her, she used every last bit of her skill to avoid and defeat them. Naruto silently watched as his apprentice demonstrated the full range of her agility, speed and precision. She was dodging two of her attackers using the faintest of moves, each strike passing her by only a hair's with from her clothing. Snaking her arm around one of her attacker's, she sent him flying into the air with a graceful, powerful twist as she ducked under another blow and swept the new attacker's legs from under him before kicking him in the gut hard enough to dispel him. Naruto realized she most likely had summoned more clones than the six currently attacking her and he decided to just enjoy the scene.
Her face was impassive, focused, and she moved with the grace of a master. Naruto silently concluded she was brilliant: probably even Jonin material. He was thinking it a lot these days he admitted to himself. Sakura really was too good for her own good. Was there anything he could throw at her where she simply would fail? If she hadn't been so able against Kimiko she would have been captured and brought out of here. If she hadn't been so canny and ruthless she would have been able to use Chojuro against Mei. But she had. This jewel of his would not leave his side, would not fail him even as he silently begged that it would before it got shattered. As Sakura went through a series of acrobatic leaps and bounds that had her in essence running circled around her remaining opponents he sighed to himself. What could she have become had she remained in Konoha? Some students slogged through their development, each improvement hard-earned, yet Sakura soared, exceeding his expectations again and again.
As Sakura came to a stop she panted slightly, having only moderately exerted herself. It was only a second, however, before she looked up and spun to face him, eyes wide.
"M-master." Her voice quivered as she bowed deeply before him. In an instant all her confidence vanished and she seemed like a trembling waif before him. Naruto was so dismayed by the sight that he for a moment entertained the thought of walking up to her and tell her just how brilliant she was. The naked worry and uncertainty in her eyes cut into his very soul. She who could do so much was still so weakened, so hurt, by this damnable distance he had committed to keeping for her sake. She seemed so ragged, so terrified, by his sudden appearance.
He couldn't, however. If he told her how brilliant she was he wouldn't be able to stop. If he let it all out he couldn't imagine her remaining calm and such a naked display of emotions and relief would be like the smell of rotten meat to the carrion-feeders they were surrounded by.
"A satisfactory performance," he therefore said evenly. Satisfactory… suddenly he hated that word. "I told you, however, to wait in my laboratory. We have work to do." He wasn't going to dwell on an oversight he in truth wanted to just ignore. The look on Sakura's face told him that even that little comment had an effect. "Come with me," he told her, beginning to walk down the hallway when she came up to him. She walked in silence and Naruto tried to think of something to say. He had been mostly silent with her for three years. Could he not think of something? Anything?
No. Nothing he could say at the very least. Not when the walls had ears. He hated is so much but knew that if Pein caught wind of how much Sakura actually meant to him she was most likely dead and that dog of Pein's, Zetsu, could be anywhere. Then again… Naruto got an idea, a crazy idea which could go wrong in many a way, but an idea nonetheless. He knew that he had the method, but what would the message be? What could he even say? Another project he supposed, but it was one he would have to do. No more delaying on Sakura. His delays had caused her too much grief as it was. He looked to her for a second, half-opening his mouth before he decided to take a measured risk.
"Don't look so skittish," he told her. "Your impressive performance in Water Country gives you leeway enough that I'll overlook this and more, but I would advise against trying your luck…" he spoke disinterestedly. The flash of relief that went over Sakura's face was brief but intensive, forcing Naruto to look away. Had he starved her of trust so much that she became so happy for so little? He was a vile man, necessity or not…
Sakura trembled inwardly still but now it wasn't from fear, but rather happiness. Her "impressive" performance in Water Country "gave her leeway". That meant master acknowledged her success… she actually had triumphed now, she had managed to do it and not even master could find any flaws in what she had done! She, she actually meant something, she was someone! It was… it was pathetic… she was like a dog, licking up breadcrumbs of approval. It was her breadcrumbs, however, and it was all she had.
Glancing up at her master, she wondered how he looked behind that mask. It was almost as if the master she knew from Konoha was gone, replaced by a featureless, emotionless mask. Did he look as disinterested as he sounded? She clung mentally to the word "impressive". That was a good thing, no matter how you looked at it. She had earned his approval and in the world where she was it was all she could hope for. She was improving, she was becoming better, more worthy, and as long as she could do that she had a place left. Even Master Sasori had acknowledged her in the end, hadn't he? That's why he taught her. Maybe… maybe in the end even Pein and the others would acknowledge her? She couldn't have her home or her friends back, but respect was something at least.
Entering the lab, Sakura silently stepped to the side to give her master room but did not escape Sasori's glance. The puppetmaster locked his gaze onto her and Sakura forced herself to calm down, meeting the gaze steadily. Master Sasori… when had he become her master, she wondered. She didn't know but Master had given his approval early on, saying it was foolish to turn away skillful teaching, no matter the source. Sakura silently wished that Master was as quick to give feedback as Master Sasori. Sakura had never doubted where she stood with the puppeteer: instead always getting instant feedback. But then again, master was the one who had made her what she was.
"Girl," Master Sasori said, pointing at the blackboard. "Tell us what you see." Sakura looked to the blackboard, her brow furrowing as she poured over the notes there, all written in Master's quick, crisp hand, detailing the three possibilities for the construction of a seal. It was all speculation, guesswork, really, and Sakura told them that. The fact that Master Sasori began to chuckle when she was done and Master didn't move a muscle made a stab of fear shoot through her heart again. When Master spoke up it was not to berate her, however.
"There's something to her interpretation." Master said dryly, "We are wasting time debating what we must study. The question is where we find samples."
"I told you, former prisoners." Master Sasori's voice was equally dry, "My contact in Tani might have former inmates. We can check in with him."
"An actual plan, how astounding," Master said mildly. Sakura never knew what to do in times like these. The passive-aggressive ribbing that came now could be traded for in-depth debating in a heartbeat which, moments later, turned back into sniping at each other. She therefore fell back into the shadows where she belonged.