Summary: sakura sees dead people. well, two dead people to be exact. everything changes. sakura-centric. indra/sakura/ashura.
Notes: well, it's certainly been awhile, but I'm glad to say I'm back! I believe we'll have one, maybe two more chapters and then an epilogue. thank you guys for sticking around.
"jonin pt. I"
Sakura examines the wan face of the boy in the bed, feeling older than ever before. Exhaustion clings to every part of her body, causing her to stoop and limp. Her leg aches, reminding her of past failures.
She has only just gotten back from a mission gone south.
She is still flecked with dry blood and gore but none of that matters to her right now. She is still in that place, that remote place that Root has instilled within her specifically for missions. Eyes cold and heart distant, she stares down at the carnage beneath her ragged nails. She brought her team back whole and alive, though no one will celebrate.
After all, her teammates are the agents of Root, the emotionless children who fell through the cracks of Konoha's society to grow like weeds.
And like weeds, they are resilient.
She is resilient.
Sakura gazes down at the symbol of this war, the youth that sparked an outright battle with Otogakure and caused all of the shinobi nations to cast their lots behind one of the two nations.
He is in some sort of coma, in a place that chakra cannot help him. He seems small and frail in the bed, blue veins bright against his translucent skin.
"It isn't your fault, Sakura," Indra says, hand against her shoulder.
Sakura ignores the gesture.
She thinks this is the thing that broke Sarutobi Hiruzen.
Hiruzen truly looks and acts his age now, wandering the streets of Konoha listlessly, a blank look in his eyes. Sakura knows that, much like with her leg, he blames himself for his grandson's condition. How much must his former student destroy his life?
"Haruno," a voice says.
Sakura turns, catching sight of Moegi. She inclines her head slightly, still in that remote state of mind.
"How dare you come here?" demands Moegi, voice hitching. Her eyes are bright with tears and resentment is clear in her entire body language. "You, who did nothing for my team?"
Sakura regards her blankly. "As I have said to you before, your teammates were dead on arrival. I managed to keep you and Konohamaru stable. It is up to him now."
"Why? What good is medical chakra if you can't help him?" Moegi asks.
"Chakra cannot fix everything," Sakura says, glancing down at her prosthetic leg. Moegi flushes with chagrin or anger, Sakura cannot tell. "He is in a place where chakra cannot reach him. It's up to him now."
Moegi strides forward, striking out at Sakura with a fist. Sakura catches her by the wrist, putting pressure on the bones there until she hears a snap. Moegi barely whimpers. "Do not mistake my empathy for passivity. You are acting childishly and I will not tolerate attacks on my person," says Sakura, as she begins to leave that untouchable place in her mind. All she can feel now is weariness and an exhaustion that is marrow deep. "Take care of yourself. Maybe read to Konohamaru. Sometimes people in comas can hear the voices of loved ones."
Sakura scrapes against the bottom of her well of chakra, mustering enough to heal Moegi's wrist. Sakura regrets her decision to injure the emotionally-wrought girl. She doesn't blame her nor is she angry. She releases the girl, stepping out of the hospital room and beginning the trek home.
"Congratulations Haruno," she murmurs to herself as she runs wearily across the roof tops, rubbing a thumb over her hitae-ate. "You're a jonin now."
"Hey now," Ashura says, watching her with concern. "That is something to be proud of."
Tsunade promoted her the moment she returned from the mission, carrying her three teammates as dead weight. She will be in command of her own squad in these following missions throughout the war.
It is a Pyrrhic victory.
"Grab a seat, Sakura!" says Kiba, gesturing to the cushion beside him.
Sakura gracefully takes the seat, Indra and Ashura at her back. She smiles at the overall ruckus of the Rookies, glad for the din. It is a nice white noise to distract her from her increasingly morose thoughts.
After Itachi took over the apartment building, Ino designated one of the empty apartments on their floor as the group dining area. So, in typical fashion, Naruto and Ino decided it was time to celebrate Shino and Sakura's promotions to jonin. Everyone is gathered in the room, creating a cheery, homey feeling as Sasuke and Choji cook up a storm. Karin sits next to her cousin, whispering up a storm. Ino, Tenten, and Shikamaru are discussing weaponry and logistics.
With Indra and Ashura at her back, Sakura truly feels at home.
Akamaru pushes his snout into Sakura's hair, startling her out of her thoughts.
"You alright?" Kiba asks, slanting a concerned look in her direction. "You're a bit spacey tonight."
Sakura nods, allowing Akamaru to nuzzle into her hands as she pets him. "Things are just a little…overwhelming."
Kiba looks at her, not accepting the evasive answer. "I heard from Tsume how your last mission went." Sakura stiffens as he taps his nose. "It would have been difficult not to smell the blood on you and your teammates when you first came through the gates. How are you doing?"
Sakura shrugs, uncomfortable with how exposed she feels.
Kiba sighs. "Cut that nonsense Sakura. I've dealt with Shino and Hinata's odd moods for years now and I can smell the anger simmering under your skin. What's up?"
"I'm just…not sure I can do this," Sakura whispers, eyes scanning the room.
"This!" hisses Sakura. "This celebration. I watched my teammates nearly die less than two days ago and now we're celebrating like it's nothing. We're at war. I've been in the trenches. I've…lost people. People who were beyond the reach of my chakra have died in my arms."
Kiba eyes her for a moment, humming. "You know, everyone in this room is fighting too. We may not be quite as deep in the action like you are, but we are a part of this too." He lays a hand on her arm. "You know; I think being in Root may be screwing with your head a bit. People aren't supposed to emotionless beings. We hurt and bleed and die all the same. You need to remember that everyone in this room is on your side."
Sakura glances around at the joviality in the room. Neji and Hinata are talking animatedly; Lee and Shisui are racing around the room; Naruto is picking a fight with Itachi. This, these people, is her safe place.
Sakura exhales shakily, resting her head against Kiba's shoulder. "When did you get so observant?" she asks.
She can feel his laughter rumble through his body. "Well, I do hope to be a serious Hokage contender one day. I should be able to help my friends."
"Still don't know if I'll vote for you," Sakura murmurs, watching Naruto, his smile bright and shining. "But I am glad to be your friend."
Kiba snorts quietly. "Yeah, well, it's a bit difficult to compete with him. Thankfully, it isn't left up to you."
Sakura laughs, smiling genuinely as the food is brought out and placed on the table. It is good to remember these moments and an old memory flutters in her mind.
Halcyon days, Haku. Somehow, someway, I'll make these our halcyon days. She glances back at her spirits. This time, I won't forget it.
Sakura glances across the table at Jiraiya. He continues to look at her at random intervals, an odd light in his eyes. It makes her wary and off-balanced, especially with the way the Ōtsutsuki brothers hover over her.
"So, you took this ring from Sasori no Akasuna?" Jiraiya asks, lifting the ring to the light.
"Yes. I noticed in my encounters with Hoshigaki Kisame that he wore a similar such ring," Sakura says. "I thought it might be the symbol of an initiate."
"You've met Hoshigaki?" Jiraiya asks, surprise clear in his gaze.
Sakura shrugs uncomfortably, looking away.
They stand in silence for a few long moments before Jiraiya clears his throat.
"In any case, you were correct in your assumptions. This particular ring is engraved with the kanji for 'jewel'…" Jiraiya trails off, flipping the ring in his hand thoughtfully. "Say…do you happen to remember which finger Akasuna wore this on?"
"What a ridiculous question," Ashura exclaims, glaring at the man. He is uncomfortable with the attention he pays Sakura; the lingering suspicion in his eyes. "As if you could remember—"
"His left thumb," Indra says, giving his brother a reproachful look. "Really, Ashura, you should pay closer attention."
"His left thumb," Sakura relays to Jiraiya, tuning out the brothers' light squabbling. (It has gotten much better than what it used to be.)
"The kanji for 'south,'" Inner tells Sakura, speaking for the first time in a long while, "and it was on his left ring finger."
As Sakura informs him, Jiraiya's face pales.
"Kami," he mutters, pulling out a small purple book and flipping through it.
"What is it?" Sakura asks.
The brothers fall silent.
"These kanji…they appear as part of the nine syllable seals," Jiraiya explains, pointing to a page where they are listed. "They are ancient and are traditionally used in meditation. However, they've come to be regarded as magical; mystical in some way. To find them being used here…it doesn't bode well." His eyes go wide. "How many active members are there in Akatsuki?"
Sakura hesitates to answer such an obvious question. "With Sasori dead, only nine."
"And when Orochimaru defected, they had him replaced did they not?"
Sakura shrugs. "I believe so. I think the bomber took his place. Why?"
"I know what they seek to do. It's a folktale…preposterous honestly but still…they always did like fairytales…" Jiraiya is mumbling, pacing the floor in circles.
Sakura watches and swallows back her apprehension. "Jiraiya-sama?"
"I have to go," he declares, stopping and staring at her.
His face is grim and filled with unspoken memories. "Amegakure."
"Look, I'm just asking you to take care of Kiki and water my plants. Seriously, Ino will kill me…"
"Where are you going?" Karin demands once more, glaring up into Sakura's face.
Sakura sighs, knowing that she won't be able to get away without giving some sort of explanation. "Look, I'm joining Jiraiya-sama on a last minute journey—"
"Why?" Karin asks. "Naruto is his apprentice, not you."
Sakura's gaze flickers to her ever-present spirit companions as they laugh at her predicament. Her friends are too perceptive. "Look, it's important. We're playing it off like it isn't because, technically, it isn't a mission. There's a lot of bureaucracy and politics involved but the short story is that Konoha isn't allowed to take missions in Ame. Yes, we're going to Amegakure," she says, cursing the slip of her tongue. "We have some reconnaissance to do."
"Does this have anything to do with that ring you wear around your neck?" Karin asks, eyes drifting to the chain that shows above the collar of Sakura's shirt.
"Yes," Sakura replies. "I can't tell you more than that."
"Sakura!" Karin exclaims, biting back the curses that want to flow from her tongue. Why is her friend so difficult? She grabs Sakura by her shirt, pulling her in. "You don't get to pull this cryptic bullshit with me after you transfer all of the seals on your seeds to me!"
Sakura waves her hands around, trying to comfort her friend. "It's just a precaution! Karin, no matter what happens, the mission cannot fail." Her eyes are solemn. "We cannot allow war to reach Konohagakure's gates. Otogakure is an ever looming threat, but Jiraiya-sama and I have to attend to other pressing matters. So we'll fight the wars in the trenches instead."
"Why?" Karin asks, voice cracking. "Why do you do this to yourself, time and time again? You've given your childhood, your innocence, and even your fucking leg," She ignores the way Sakura flinches. She needs to hear this, "to Konoha. What's next? Your life?" Karin's gaze blurs with the sting of tears. "You're going to end up in an unmarked grave far away from home and from your friends. Is it worth it?"
Karin gasps as Sakura's arms wrap around her in a tight hug. Sakura's hugs are Karin's favorite. They are strong and warm and Sakura always smells of resin and sweat and starlight. When Sakura hugs her, Karin is able to forget Oto and all the painful memories associated with the place.
"This is why it is worth it," Sakura says, voice vibrating into Karin's chest, solid and real. "This is why I will continue to fight. If I end up in an unmarked grave, so be it. Though honestly, what enemy is going to be courteous enough to bury me?"
"Sakura!" Karin exclaims, shoving her shoulder.
Sakura laughs, pulling away. "I tease. In any case, the seals should have been yours in the first place. You are the one who convinced them to join our cause."
"I guess I did, didn't I?" Karin says, a slight smile tugging at her lips.
"Yes, you did," Sakura says. "Don't ever underestimate your abilities, Uzumaki Karin. Your time in Oto…while it was horrible, it has given you a platform."
"I'm going to miss you," Karin says.
"You won't even know I'm gone!" Sakura promises. "So you will watch my plants and my cat?"
"Yes, yes," Karin says, rolling her eyes.
"Now, Sasuke's cooking dinner tonight so I suggest coming over and letting him mother-hen you all he wants," Sakura says, heading for the door. "I need to catch my meeting with Tsunade-shishou."
Karin waves Sakura off, a frown curling up her lips. "Be safe," she asks, prays, pleads to any deity that will hear her. "Kami, please be safe."
"Look, I'm not so sure about this," Indra says, watching Sakura as she falls back onto her bed. He acquiesces when she pats the spot next to her. "Jiraiya, Sannin though he may be, has secrets and he's keeping them from you. It could jeopardize your mission."
"Everyone's allowed to have secrets," Sakura replies, looking at him drolly. "As I seem to recall I have two rather large, somewhat annoying secrets myself."
"Hey!" Ashura yelps, falling into her bed on the other side. "I resent that statement."
"You resemble that statement," Indra snaps, arm resting lightly across Sakura's stomach. "You forgot to add 'talkative.'"
Sakura rolls her eyes and moves Indra's arm to a more comfortable position. She is well-used to their immaterialness at this point, odd though it may be. They are there just…incomplete. She wonders if they, the three of them, will ever figure out how the brothers came back into being and how they continue to grow in power.
Sometimes, she doubts they will.
"That doesn't apply to you though," Sakura replies, snuggling down into the pillows.
"As much as I hate to admit it, I agree with Indra," Ashura says, throwing his leg around Sakura's.
(Sakura adores the way that he doesn't care that it isn't flesh and bone. He never has.)
"Wow, you two agreeing? Must be the world's end," Sakura mutters, snorting when Indra dances his fingers across her stomach in retaliation.
"Don't try to change the subject," Ashura admonishes. "Jiraiya is hiding information that is vital for your mission. Hell, you barely even know why you are going to Amegakure!"
"We're doing reconnaissance on Akatsuki," Sakura replies. "Their leader resides there. I'm sure we'll be surveying him and his organization."
"That's incredibly vague," says Indra. "Jiraiya knows something. Did you see the way he reacted to the rings?"
"I trust Jiraiya-sama. He'll give me the information when it's necessary," Sakura replies firmly.
"We're just looking out for you, Sakura," Ashura says, running soothing fingers through her long hair. "We worry."
"I know you do," Sakura says, reaching out and taking one of their hands. She intertwines her fingers with theirs, used to their cool, inhuman touch. She revels in it now. "And I thank you for caring but I know I can rely on Jiraiya-sama in this. Even if you don't trust him, trust me."
"And if he doesn't deserve your trust?" Indra asks, hand tightening reflexively around hers.
"Well, I suppose we'll deal with that if it comes to it," Sakura says, glancing down at her leg. "Trust me when I say that I've learned the consequences of naïve idolization."
Indra sighs, smoothing her hair back from her face. "Indeed you have. Are you ready for bed?"
Sakura, recognizing the attempt to change the subject, allows it as she nods. "Yeah, just got to remove this," She gestures to her leg, "and I'll be good to go."
"I'm on it," Ashura says, unfurling from his reclining position before gently taking her leg in both hands.
Sakura groans as he releases her leg, the tension of the day draining from her.
"Does your leg truly tax you that much?" Indra asks even as Ashura starts rubbing the stump.
"No, not really," Sakura says. "It doesn't hurt at all actually, just makes me a bit sore you know? My leg is just so much lighter without the prosthetic on," She raises her leg in the air, out of Ashura's pleasant ministrations, wiggling it around for emphasis, "And I won't be able to take it off during the mission so…"
"As long as it does not bother you," Indra says, as if that is the only thing that matters.
Well, actually, for Indra it probably is.
"Not at all," Sakura says, rubbing her thumb along his cheekbone. "Thanks for worrying though."
"Oh we'll never stop worrying about you, Sakura," Ashura announces cheerfully, bounding back into his spot on the bed. He grabs Sakura up in his arms, wresting her from Indra's grasp as he presses a smacking kiss to her cheek. "You'll never have to worry about that."
"Put her down!" Indra demands, miffed at his brother's undignified display. "She needs to sleep and we need rest as well. We have to be vigilant about Jiraiya."
Ashura places Sakura back in place, sticking his tongue out at his brother. "Spoilsport," he grumbles but he dutifully pulls the covers over Sakura as Indra turns out the light.
"Goodnight," Ashura says, breath tickling the downy hairs on Sakura's neck.
"Sleep well," says Indra, crawling back into bed.
Sakura, secure and safe between her two most precious people, whispers, "Sweet dreams."
Kiki leaps on Sakura's stomach letting out a long, low meow.
All is right and well with the world, at least for this one precious moment.
(However fleeting it might be.)
"Hey," Tenten says, stepping in front of Sakura.
Sakura glances at Jiraiya's retreating back before following Tenten into her cramped office in the Tower. Documents and weapons litter every available space in the room and Sakura cannot keep from smiling.
It is all very Tenten.
"What's wrong?" Sakura asks, leaning against the wall. (There are no free places to sit after all.)
"I just wanted to check in with you," Tenten replies, brown eyes brimming with concern. "This whole mission…rather non-mission is worrisome. I cannot believe Tsunade-shishou agreed to such a thing."
"Jiraiya-sama was her teammate," Sakura reminds gently.
"It's more than that," Tenten says, shaking her head. "Look Sakura, were you not in that debriefing?"
"I was there," Sakura says drily. "Tsunade-shishou seemed sad by wouldn't she? She hates it when Jiraiya-sama leaves the village."
"No, it was more than that," Tenten says, twirling a kunai between her fingers. "Tsunade-shishou knows something about this mission specifically that is making her melancholic."
"Maybe it's the fact that Konoha ninja haven't been in Amegakure since the Second Great Shinobi War?" Sakura asks. "It's going to be dangerous Tenten; Tsunade-shishou knows it."
"That's just the point; Konoha was there during the War. Tsunade-shishou was there. Her entire team was stationed there for years," Tenten replies. "She knows something and, based on how vague he was being, Jiraiya knows it too. There's history there."
"We all have histories; you can't hold it against them."
"I can if it puts a friend in danger," Tenten says firmly. "Sakura, you need to confront Jiraiya and ask him about it."
"I will if it becomes necessary," Sakura says. "Don't worry about me."
Tenten sighs, but still moves forward to embrace her. "I can't help but worry. Stay safe, stay strong, stay swift."
Sakura grins at their shared phrase. Before a mission, they recite it to each other. "No worries on that front, Tenten," she says, squeezing her tightly. "I'll see you soon."
Sakura hefts her pack high on her shoulder, staring at Konoha's gates. Unfortunately, Team Seven was called away in the middle of the night for a mission of their own, something about one of Oto's many underground cells. Sakura prays that they stay safe and well-rested on their own.
None of them have a self-preserving bone in their body.
(Not that she does either, to be honest. It seems to be a trademark of Team Seven.)
Sakura wonders how long it will be before she sees these beloved red gates once more.
Sakura turns and ignores Indra's uninhibited groan.
Uchiha Shisui runs her way, a large grin prominent on his face.
"I cannot believe that my pupil was going to leave without a proper send off!" Shisui berates though it is belied by his smile. "That would just be unkind, wouldn't it?"
"Taught by Uchiha, hm?" Jiraiya asks, coming up beside them.
Sakura wonders if he is adding this to his mental collage of facts and snippets about her. Jiraiya regards her as a puzzle and Sakura wonders if he'll ever manage to solve her.
(She doubts it, considering that it is a puzzle even she cannot figure out.)
"Yep!" Shisui says, slinging an arm around Sakura's shoulder. "We're ablation buddies!" He motions to his eye and her leg, "Makes sense right?"
"…Sure," Jiraiya says, trying to keep from offending.
Sakura, however, as a veteran of Shisui's antics, merely shoves him away and laughs. "I don't think we agreed on that name did we?"
"Semantics," Shisui replies, waving it off. "In any case, are you going to use that new technique we were working on?"
"If it's necessary," Sakura says, ignoring Jiraiya's interested look. "It is a bit flashy."
"A bit—a bit flashy?" Shisui laughs. "Sakura-chan, you truly embody the Will of Fire with that technique."
He guffaws at his own joke though Sakura remains unimpressed.
"I told you he was obnoxious," Indra says.
"You are the one who let him become your teacher," Ashura says, shrugging helplessly.
"I'll try," Sakura says. "Really though, you shouldn't want me to use that technique. It'll require a pretty major fight."
"Which won't be necessary right?" Shisui asks, eyes on Jiraiya. He is suddenly very serious and his cheerful demeanor is gone. Sakura realizes this is what he has been driving at the whole time. "Because this is a simple reconnaissance mission. In and out. No assassinations, no high-profile marks, none of that, right?" His Sharingan is out but it isn't active. Not yet. "Because the Uchiha watch out for their own and Sakura is one of ours."
"I am not," Sakura says, interrupting Shisui's threat. "I am of the Haruno clan and the Haruno clan alone. And really Shisui, this is not a conducive way to converse with people. Jiraiya-sama is one of the Sannin; it'll be fine."
"So is the ruler of Oto," Shisui replies.
"So is our Hokage," Sakura says. "Two out of three is good odds. In any case, we need to leave. Are we going to part ways angrily or are we going to hug?"
Shisui sighs, pushing his curly hair out of his face. "Damn it, Sakura-chan, you drive a hard bargain."
"I learned from the best," Sakura replies.
Shisui chuckles, stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Sakura in a tight embrace that lifts her off her feet. "Be careful out there, Sakura-chan," he murmurs in her ear. "Give `em hell."
"Always do," Sakura replies, pulling away.
Shisui smirks, chucking her under her chin. "Alright brat, I'll see you soon. I'm looking forward to the story of this mission."
Sakura sticks out her tongue, waving him off. "I'm not sure if I'll be telling you about my missions anymore; not after the way you embellished the last one."
"Everyone needs to know about their favorite Pacifist Ninja," Shisui calls
"That's an oxymoron," Sakura sings back, before turning back to Jiraiya and heading out.
Her heart is much lighter than it was a few moments before.
"I'll be back, Konohagakure," she whispers, not caring if Jiraiya hears her promise. "Wait for me."
As Sakura settles into the motel on the border of the Land of Fire, she contemplates her friends' concern.
She and Jiraiya have made quick time, surprising Sakura a bit as she knows from Naruto's whining that Jiraiya enjoys moving a steady, sedate pace. He has placed his cheerful veneer aside since their conversation about Akatsuki, acting instead as a serious ninja of high caliber.
It worries Sakura.
She glances over at the spirits, only to find them speaking to each other in low, whispery tones. Their mouths are covered by their hands to keep her from reading their lips. She can tell they are being friendly from their expressions. Sakura narrows her eyes before choosing to let it go, knowing that everyone is entitled to secrets.
As long as someone's life isn't on the line.
Sakura pulls the ring out from beneath her shirt, rubbing along the chain that wraps around her neck. The engraved stone flashes innocuously up at Sakura, but she cannot keep from remembering blood and dust and poison and words dipped in venom.
She clenches her fist around the ring, sitting up.
The brothers look to her, confusion clear.
"I'm going to speak with Jiraiya-sama," she says, pulling on her shoe. "We need to have a little heart-to-heart."
She finds him, as expected, seated in a bar.
What is unexpected is his brooding mood, his lack of flirtation (more like harassment) of the busty bartender, and the large bottle of hard imported spirits in front of him.
"Jiraiya-sama…" Sakura says, grabbing the stool next to him and sitting.
"You're here to ask about this farce of a mission aren't you?" he asks, voice morose as he stares into the clear liquid in his glass. "You've been incredibly accommodating thus far; I'm surprised you resisted asking before now."
Sakura shrugs. "You're allowed to keep information to yourself. I'm the one who chose to tag along."
Jiraiya snorts. "Yeah, I knew I wasn't getting out of Konoha without a tag-along one way or another. Tsunade-hime feels better knowing you're here with me. She thinks you'll save my ass."
"Will I need to?" Sakura asks.
"I hope it won't come to that," Jiraiya mutters, taking a swig straight from the bottle.
"I've done it before," Sakura says grimly.
"Yeah, with Sarutobi-sensei," Jiraiya says, before chuckling wetly. "Kami, like teacher like pupil."
"What do you mean?" Sakura asks, stealing the bottle from his hand and pouring herself a glass. "How are you like Sarutobi-sensei?"
"A long time ago, perhaps when I was a year or two older than you are now, Konoha went to war," Jiraiya begins, suddenly looking his age, face carved with misery and sorrow. "Now my team, Team One, which was, you know, me, Tsunade-hime, and Orochimaru, was one of the best and the brightest.
"We were sent to the frontlines. It was…" Jiraiya shudders. "It was horrendous. We-I had killed before but never on this scale, never had we seen civilian casualties. Not like this.
"Look, Sakura, you can't understand what we saw. Civilians from war-torn countries would travel for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, emaciated, poor, filthy, and destitute to the Land of Fire seeking asylum.
"We…there were these orders you see," Jiraiya says, grabbing her hands and pulling her close. Sakura can smell the alcohol, cloying and strong, on his breath. "We were ordered to turn away anyone who came to us from Sunagakure or Amegakure. If...if they refused then we—then we—"
Jiraiya cuts himself off, slumping onto the sticky counter, dry sobs racking his shoulders.
Sakura, feeling sick to her stomach and suddenly realizing one of the more tragic consequences to war, swallows and places her hand on his shoulder, rubbing in small circles. She glances at her spirit companions who look solemn and wan.
"Was it like this for you?" she signs with her free hand, trying not to cry.
Seeing this man, considered one of the brightest of the shinobi world, crack and break apart…it hurts.
Will this be her? If they go to war with Akatsuki and Oto, truly go to war, will she be broken down and remade into something less human?
Sakura glances down at her leg and grimaces. She's already broken once and doesn't think she'll survive a second time.
"Something similar," Ashura says, mouth lined with pain and tragedy.
Sakura swallows and ignores the way her eyes burn.
After several long minutes, Jiraiya sits up, eyes rimmed with red. Sakura supports him as he sways slightly before calling the bartender over.
Sakura is given another bottle of the liquor and a glass of water. She presses the cup into Jiraiya's hand. Sakura drinks the alcohol straight from the bottle, enjoying the burn.
"Well, when our team was in Amegakure, I came across a trio of orphans," Jiraiya says, voice thick with tears. "They were…well, they were brilliant, prodigies in their own right. They would have excelled as Konoha shinobi. I decided to train them." His gaze is bleak as he stares into the cup of water. "It was a mistake.
"They were fantastic students, quick learners. They were my first students," Jiraiya says. "I loved them like my own children. Unfortunately, I could not stay with them for long periods of time. War waits for no one and Team One had the lion's share of assignments. I set them up in a safe house in Ame, but I could never bring them to Konoha with me because of the laws in place.
"I thought of them as my own children, I still carry the trinkets they gave me when they were young. They were the only bright spot in that whole damn war. For a while, we were happy, then everything went wrong."
"How?" Sakura asks, voice soft as she pushes for an answer.
"The three of them, each of them held a grudge against Konohagakure. They were blinded by hatred of an entire nation. At times, I thought they hated me as well. Certainly, they hate me now." Jiraiya's expression is bleak. "I…my whole team was called back to Konoha.
"I left them behind," Jiraiya says, voice cracking on a bitter laugh, "Can you imagine? Leaving three twelve-year-olds in the very heart of the war? I was a coward."
"Don't 'Jiraiya-sama' me! I'm not worthy of such a title. I was too spineless to defy the rules. I abandoned those children and the Will of Fire at the same time." Jiraiya's eyes slide shut. "And I fear I have damned us all."
"What do you mean?" Sakura says, fear creeping up her spine.
"The orphans? Their names are Konan, Nagato, and Yahiko, though I suppose Yahiko goes by the name 'Pein' now." Sakura inhales sharply. "Yes. Those three founded Akatsuki. They are the ones who ended the Second Shinobi World War."
"And Nagato?" Sakura asks, still reeling from the implications of Jiraiya's statement.
"He died liberating Amegakure," Jiraiya says.
"So what is their goal now?" Sakura asks, twirling the ring between her fingers. "Why the rings?"
"Akatsuki's end goal is what it has been from the beginning: world peace at any cost necessary," Jiraiya says, rubbing at the exhaustion that rings his eyes. "As for the rings…well, it's just a hunch right now. We'll find the answer in Amegakure."
Sakura hums, displeased with the vague response. Still, she has learned much and needs to adjust her plans accordingly.
"Know this Sakura," Jiraiya says, clasping her hand. In that moment, he looks sober, "we create our own worst enemies, one way or another."
Sakura nods and takes his words to heart, engraving them in her mind. She will learn from those who came before her or she will be doomed to repeat their mistakes.
(If she hasn't already.)
"Alright, Jiraiya," she says, standing and hefting him up. He cannot walk on his own. "Hand me your key; it's time for bed."
He releases a lecherous giggle that has Sakura rolling her eyes and the Ōtsutsuki brothers threatening death.
It is good to see some things remain unchanged.
Still, Sakura will never forget their conversation, held beneath flickering lanterns and the sour stench of ale.
She cannot afford to forget.
"So how do you want to do this?" Sakura asks, not even looking up when Jiraiya stumbles heavily into the seat across from her.
"Shush, not so loud," he whines, clutching his head.
Sakura slides a glass across the table to him. "It'll help with your head."
"Kami be praised," he exclaims, taking a large swig and groaning. "Shit, I forgot how bad this tasted."
"Don't complain, you only drank half a bottle." Sakura smirks. "I had one and a half."
"How are you not dead?" Jiraiya demands incredulously, nursing his drink gingerly. "You're a third of my size."
"Medic ninja," she replies drolly, flipping through her papers. Bingo books from the different nations are strewn before her. "Now, again, I will ask you, how do we get in?"
"As you know, it is forever raining in Ame because of Pein. If a single droplet hits us, we're screwed. Genjutsu won't work. This is how Pein has kept Amegakure fortified for so long. They think him a god."
"Even gods can fall," Sakura replies, glancing to her spirits and thinking of their family's legacy.
Jiraiya casts her a strange look and forges on, "Obviously he is not a god. Still, it keeps people from trying to tear the country apart through civil war. The citizens regard Konan as the 'Hand of God,' his angel. Fortunately, I have intel that she is away in the Land of Stone at the moment."
"What are the chances that the other Akatsuki members are here?"
"Quite low. Yahiko and Konan were always possessive of the little that was theirs as children. I doubt highly that they allow the others into their homeland," Jiraiya says.
"We're going on an observation made in their childhood. It's a risky gamble," Sakura replies, pursing her lips.
"Well let's hope you didn't inherit Tsunade-hime's luck," Jiraiya says blithely.
"So, how exactly are we getting in again?"
The slow smirk that spreads across Jiraiya's lips has Sakura concerned.
"This is a terrible idea," Sakura says, a bit green in the face as she tries not to touch the walls around her.
"Nonsense," Jiraiya replies, laughing. "This is genius!"
Sakura shakes her head, shuddering as she lifts her foot and it sticks. Who knew the inside of a toad's esophagus was so slimy?
Indra looks just as ill about being inside a Summoning animal but Ashura…
Ashura is having the time of his life.
He runs about, examining the fleshy insides of the poor toad. He tells Sakura of his observations but Sakura tunes him out. She fears she will be sick if she listens.
It smells…different than anything Sakura has ever experienced. It is a dank and damp scent certainly but there is something else…something alive about it. Sakura supposes that being inside another living being would be that way.
"Are you sure we aren't hurting him?" Sakura asks.
"Who, Asahi?" Jiraiya asks. He pats the flesh near him with a chuckle. "He can't feel a thing. We're too small."
"Isn't this a bit…conspicuous?" Sakura asks. "I thought our main goal was reconnaissance."
"Well…we will certainly be gathering intel," Jiraiya says, scratching the back of his head.
Sakura sighs, suddenly understanding his scheme. She cannot believe she didn't see it coming. "You're confronting him."
"Yes," Jiraiya says. "I will discover what the rings mean."
"And catch up with your former student," Sakura says. "He hates you. This battle…it won't end well."
"No, I doubt it will," Jiraiya replies quietly. "I am glad that you decided to join me."
Sakura snorts, but her heart isn't in it. No, her heart races, her hands are clammy, and she feels sweat bead at her forehead. It isn't because of her location or motion sickness.
Sakura is afraid.
This will be the second time that she is present for a fight between master and apprentice, both of whom outclass her entirely in terms of skills. She worries about the outcome, if it will be anything like last time.
Two hands cover hers, startling her.
"All will be well," Indra says, eyes calm and clear as he stares at her intently over her left hand.
"We're here this time," Ashura murmurs, fingers dancing quick and light over her hand, soothing her. "We have your back."
"We will protect you," Indra says, pressing a kiss into the palm of Sakura's hand.
Sakura's mouth goes bone dry.
"Always," Ashura promises, leaning down and pressing his lips to her forehead. They are warm. "Trust in us."
Sakura nods, overwhelmed. Her fears are assuaged. This time, she doesn't have to go it alone. This time, she has the two people she trusts most in the world at her back.
It'll be okay.
"Er…you alright there Sakura?" Jiraiya asks, glancing at her quizzically. "You were moving your hands in strange patterns."
"Force of habit," Sakura lies, used to hiding the spirits' presence. "The sign language I use requires a lot of gesticulation and when I don't pay attention I often move my hands and arms around."
"If you say so," Jiraiya says, sounding unconvinced. The ground stops moving beneath them. "Ah, we must be here. Are you ready?"
Sakura swallows, looking to her spirits, her best friends. All will be well.
They emerge from Asahi's mouth and Sakura is instantly drenched by the torrential downpour. She moves the wet hair from her eyes, taking in her surroundings. They are standing amidst a large, abandoned construction site. They stand high atop one of the skeletal structure and Sakura stares out for the first time at the skyline of Amegakure.
Her first impression is that it is dreary but for the twinkling lights she can see within tall matte-grey buildings. Every building seems industrial in form, built in varying shades of greys and blues, curling upward with steel and iron. (Sakura marvels that nothing has rusted.) Lines and ladders run from building to building above the water below. Strangely, this cold, distant village seems connected.
Sakura can understand someone seeing this place as home.
"No one will disturb our fight out here," Jiraiya says, taking a seat beside Sakura on the edge of the beam. "You know, heights like these, they always give me a thrill. What would it be, to fall from such a great height?"
Sakura looks down at the endless ocean below them. "Let's hope you never find out."
"It won't be long now," Jiraiya says, gazing out into the rain.
"Any regrets?" Sakura asks lightly.
"Nah," Jiraiya replies.
"That is about to change."
Sakura and Jiraiya whirl, leaping to their feet.
On the opposite end of the unfinished building stands Pein, unaffected by the rain.
"Ah, Yahiko," Jiraiya says. "I've been waiting for you."
"You dare use that name?" Pein asks, voice deadly soft.
"It was the name bestowed upon you at birth was it not?" Jiraiya asks, face innocuous. "It was the name you gave me when we first met. Yes, I dare to use it."
"I have chosen a new name, a better name," Pein replies. "I am Pein, for the pain wrought upon my homeland. Until the world knows peace, I will go by no other name. War breeds war, pain breeds pain; there will be no rest had until there is peace."
"And you seek peace by brute force and fear mongering?" Jiraiya asks, disgust twisting his lips. "As you said, it only adds fuel to the fire."
"The only way to peace is by violence in this world," Pein says, moving closer. Jiraiya and Sakura mirror his movements, circling the edge of the building. "I will remake this world in blood and fire." His voice is a well-sharpened kunai. "As my world was once remade."
Jiraiya flinches away and that is when Pein strikes.
He Shunshins forward and Sakura unfurls her naginata from a scroll and moves to meet him, only to be thrown to the ground, dragged down by a heavy weight. She struggles, confused, watching Pein engage his true quarry.
Jiraiya, in turn, strikes out with his Rasengan, catching Pein in the shoulder.
"Y-you…" Jiraiya says, staring straight into Pein's eyes. "Nagato."
Pein flinches back, flickering away to stand on the opposite side of the beam. "Surprise," he says grimly.
"You…you…what did you do to Yahiko?" Jiraiya demands, Shunshining forward, Rasengan in both hand.
"This is your doing, Jiraiya," he replies, anger clear in his ringed eyes. "Yahiko was killed in the fight against Hanzō. He believed in you until the bitter end."
Jiraiya scowls. "And you chose to resurrect his body? You dishonor his memory, walking around in that body as if it were your own."
"Don't speak of dishonor, traitor!" Pein shouts, expression a storm. "I will teach you the meaning of pain."
Sakura manages to roll off the ledge, catching herself on the next one. The pressure pushing her down abates and she breathes easy once more. "What the hell?" she mutters, catching sight of five more people.
Beside her, Indra and Ashura blanch.
"It-it can't be," Indra says shakily.
"What is it?" Sakura demands sharply, uncaring if anyone else hears their conversation.
"That man…that bastard has perverted father's Six Paths," Ashura says, grinding his teeth. Sakura watches with concern as he flickers with bright, blinding light. "That fucking bastard."
Sakura has no room to contemplate their words as she dives out of the way, rolling away from some sort of dog creature with multiple heads. Across from her stands a shinobi with long hair, one who looks markedly similar to Pein.
Sakura assumes the shinobi is the one who summoned the dog. She strikes out, reinforcing her arm and sending the dog flying before heading to its master.
Ashura gets to the shinobi first, slamming his hands to each side of his head and doing…something. The man disintegrates beneath Ashura's touch.
Sakura turns wide eyes on him but he only shrugs uncomfortably. "They…they took my father's technique, a technique used to help people and twisted it into something cruel. This Nagato…he reanimates dead people. Our father never did that!" Ashura's lips soften into a slight smile. "Besides, I promised to have your back."
Sakura nods, still shocked by the display of brute force. Sometimes, oftentimes, she forgets that Ashura and Indra are two of the strongest shinobi to have ever lived.
"So…you can interact with the world once more?" Sakura asks hopefully.
"Seems so," Ashura says, shrugging.
Indra's lips curl up into a bloodthirsty smirk. "Perfect."
"Our ability to surprise is lost," Ashura warns Indra a bit sheepishly.
"No matter," Indra says smugly. "It will make for a more interesting challenge."
The three split ways, each choosing a different target.
Sakura approaches the tall, thick-set shinobi. Like all the others, he has metal bars in his face.
"Let's dance, big guy," Sakura says, crackling her knuckles. "Katon: Nintaijutsu!"
Sakura's body bursts into flames that lick up her sides and swirl around her. This is a technique that she has been working on for a while now and she is glad to finally be able to implement it in battle. She can feel the warmth all around her and it comforts and centers her.
She Shunshins forward, kicking out at the ninja. He grabs her leg and Sakura's eyes go wide as her flames disappear into the man's hand. She punches him in the throat, startling him enough into releasing her leg as she darts away.
"Immune to chakra attacks, huh?" she asks, bringing Sashimasu back out. "I'm flexible, I can work with that."
She releases another scroll, grabbing the tiny vial that drops from it easily. After her fight with Sasori, Sakura found some of his poison in a small pool left behind in the destruction. It wasn't difficult to reverse-engineer the poison with Ino's help, as well as add some nasty surprises of their own.
Now, it is even more potent.
(Sakura doesn't know too much about fancy dōjutsu, but she doubts that pretty eyes can prevent poison from doing its work.)
She dips Sashimasu's blade into the concoction, staring down her opponent.
All she has to do is land one hit. Easy right?
Sakura ducks beneath the behemoth's fist, surprised at his agility. She flips, twisting Sashimasu around her body, trying to catch the man's body with the blade. He turns, overcorrecting himself and Sakura knows she has him.
She swings upward, catching him across the breastbone. His eyes widen but Sakura doesn't stick around for his retaliation, Shunshining away as quickly as possible. (It helps to have Shunshin Shisui as a teacher.)
Sakura's gaze flicks to the other fights, where Jiraiya is taking on the original Pein and Indra and Ashura are tag teaming the ninja in the headscarf.
He falls beneath their combined abilities around the same time Sakura's enemy collapses, body wracked with the effects of her poison.
The brothers rush to meet her, lifting her arms and checking her over for injuries.
Sakura laughs, pulling away. "I'm fine, I'm fine." Her smile falls as she stares up at Jiraiya who appears to be having some difficulties. "I need to offer my help, in any way I can."
"You always do," Indra says in exasperation though his tone is fond.
"We're with you in this," Ashura says, smile wide and unassuming.
It is hard to believe that, among the three of them, they have taken down five of the Six Paths.
Sakura's eyes narrow on Yahiko, Pein.
One more to go.
Sakura climbs up the different narrow beams, getting closer and closer to the fight. She can tell that Pein is slowly beginning to overpower Jiraiya.
"What happens when one of the Paths is killed?" Sakura asks, still making her way up the building.
"Its chakra is redistributed among those left," Indra says.
"So Jiraiya is fighting the full strength of Nagato?" Sakura asks, swallowing.
Sakura pales as Rinnegan eyes flash in her direction.
She curses, Summoning Ketsueki and jumping on the bear's back. The sloth bear is huge, nearly a tenth of the size of the building.
"How can I assist you, Sakura-sama?" a powerful voice asks, rumbling through Sakura and shaking her to her core.
"That man has committed the ultimate sacrilege. He has reanimated the dead and uses their bodies against their will!" Sakura exclaims.
The Bear Summons follow a certain code of conduct. They believe in rules and integrity and honor. To bring the dead back and use them as puppets…well…
"He shall pay for his transgressions!" Ketsueki cries, her voice pounding through Sakura's head like an anvil.
Jiraiya has Summoned Gamabunta and sits astride his shoulder.
"Ah, Ketsueki!" Gamabunta says. "Haven't seen you for a few centuries!'
"Peace to you, Gamabunta-san," she replies. "Are you here to right the wrongs of this man?"
"I suppose so," Gamabunta says, scratching his head. "Right, Jiraiya?"
"How?" Pein interrupts, eyes trained on Sakura. "What did you do to the other Paths?"
Sakura frowns, averting her gaze.
"I understand what happened to the Animal Path, but the others…I have never seen jutsu like that." His grey eyes flash over Sakura calculatingly. "The Rinnegan gives me access to all jutsu."
Jiraiya turns a speculative glance toward Sakura but she ignores him.
"It wasn't jutsu," she says simply.
"Nagato!" Jiraiya barks, drawing his attention. "These rings…each member of Akatsuki has one. What are your intentions?"
Pein throws his head back, laughing. "Oh you old fool, don't you already know? After all, we all so loved those stories you used to tell us, filling our heads with fairytales." His expression twists in contempt. "You had no idea how much myth is rooted in fact."
Jiraiya pales. "No."
"Yes," Pein replies, vindictive glee clear.
"Ketsueki, dance," Sakura whispers, deciding to take advantage of Pein's apparent distraction.
"With pleasure," Ketsueki says, smirking. "That gravity altering jutsu is quite nice but it doesn't work well on Summons." Her teeth are sharp and bared. "We don't play by this dimension's rules."
Sakura leaps from the bear's head, watching the Summons engage Pein in battle through narrowed eyes.
Pein doesn't seem to be all that concerned, parrying bows with a bored expression.
"We need to get in there," Sakura says, glancing askance to Jiraiya.
She is taken aback.
His appearance is changed. The marks on his face are elongated and he is bearded. Two frogs sit on either shoulder. He looks almost animalistic.
"It's…it's my Sage Mode," Jiraiya says, looking disheartened. "I know, it's hideous."
"No, just…unexpected," Sakura replies, still startled at the changes.
"How do you suggest we go about this?" Jiraiya asks.
Sakura starts, surprised that he is deferring to her on this.
"You're the one who dealt with the other Paths," Jiraiya says and the look on his face is awed and starry-eyed.
"I didn't—" Sakura cuts herself off helplessly, knowing it isn't the time to try and explain. "Right.
"You said he manipulated the way gravity affects our bodies, correct?" Sakura asks, eyes on the ensuing battle. "Well, we need to do something to counteract it. I can augment my limbs with chakra and reinforce them with chakra…" she trails off. "Your natural element is wind, right?"
"Yes," Jiraiya replies.
"Well, there was a technique I heard about in Kumogakure that I was able to replicate with Shisui's help. The Raikage used it with lightning. Basically, you combine your elemental ninjutsu with taijutsu."
"Go on," Jiraiya says.
"Alright, watch me," Sakura says, making the different hand signs. "Fūton: Nintaijutsu."
Sakura blinks through the rush of chakra as wind in its most basic, powerful form rushes over and through her body. She feels light, buoyant almost. Even though she's practiced with each element, it still sends skitters through her at the raw energy.
This jutsu is, after all, an embodiment of the element.
"Smart," Jiraiya murmurs.
Sakura watches as he becomes awash with blue, swirling energy.
"Let's see if it works," Sakura says, dashing forward and pulling Sashimasu from her scroll.
Pein turns toward them, eyes whirling dangerously.
Sakura can feel the added weight, dragging down on her bones but she can push through it. She winces when Pein scowls and increases his jutsu.
"Sakura," Indra warns, watching her.
Sakura glances at him, smile strained.
"Screw this," Ashura says, striding forward.
"Ashura?" asks Sakura, voice barely a whisper.
"We're ghosts," Ashura says. "We play by our own rules."
"I'm coming too," she replies, moving forward, unimpeded by Pein's specialty jutsu.
"Always," Indra says warmly. "There was never any doubt."
Sakura begins to run full-out, keeping an eye on Jiraiya as she does so. He is spewing clouds of poison from his lips, sufficiently distracting Pein. (She wonders if she can bribe the jutsu from him later.) Perfect.
Ashura and Indra move on either side of Sakura, flanking her as always.
Sakura channels pure, chakra into Sashimasu. The blade on the naginata is still dipped in poison. She just needs one shot. One way or another she'll be able to put him down.
Pein turns slightly toward her and Sakura can feel even more pressure placed upon her. She grunts, nearly buckling beneath the strength of the jutsu. Her tendons scream, her bones ache, and she feels near powerless. Even with the chakra reinforcement and the nintaijutsu, she is at her physical breaking point.
Sakura glares back at Pein, a scant few feet away from him.
She refuses to break.
Sakura clenches her fists, dropping Sashimasu as she channels her chakra through her prosthetic leg. It isn't affected the same way flesh and bone are. Sakura balances herself on that one leg and forces herself into a jump, hurdling up towards Pein.
She strikes him with a chakra-filled fist just as Ashura, Indra, and Jiraiya hit him from the other sides.
He goes down, body nearly disintegrated beneath the combined forces of pure chakra, whatever energy the Ōtsutsuki brothers employ, and the Rasengan.
"It's over?" Jiraiya asks, strangely subdued.
He doesn't look at the body…what's left of it.
"It's over," Sakura confirms, grateful that gravity has corrected itself.
Jiraiya nods, Sage Mode disappearing before he slumps over.
"Jiraiya!" Sakura exclaims.
"It's fine," one of the small toads says.
"The Sage Mode always exhausts him," the other says. "He'll be fine."
"The real question is; will you be well?" the first asks.
Sakura looks at Indra and Ashura, grinning up at them through her exhaustion. They are still there. They are her partners.
"I'll be fine," Sakura tells the toads.
"If you're sure, we're heading home," one says. "Come on, Gamabunta; stop siphoning Jiraiya's chakra."
Sakura blinks as the three toads disappear before glancing at Ketsueki.
"Is your mission complete?" Ketsueki asks, crouching down beside Sakura.
Sakura leans against the bear's side briefly, enjoying the warmth and fur. She closes her eyes for a moment and just breathes.
"Your part is done Ketsueki," Sakura says. "I consecrate these bodies to you. Do with them as you please."
Ketsueki's lips part in a vicious grin and Sakura can see the rows upon rows of teeth within her mouth. "With pleasure."
Sakura averts her gaze as Ketsueki begins her feast. Her eyes fall to Pein's fallen body.
Sakura strides forward, plucking the ring from his right thumb. She eyes the kanji on it, shaking her head.
"'Zero.' That's one more down."
Sakura pulls out her necklace, stringing the ring on with Sasori's.
"You're gaining quite the collection," Ashura says, a laugh clear in his voice.
Sakura turns to Jiraiya's pack, eyes speculative.
"What are you thinking?" Ashura asks.
"The job isn't done," Sakura replies, pulling the rucksack closer.
"You…you…" a new voice says.
Sakura whirls, tensing for another fight.
She is shocked by what she finds.
A…man's head sticks out of one of the beams directly in front of Sakura. His skin appears to be split down the middle, black on one side and white on the other. A flytrap emerges from his shoulders.
Sakura stares into his gold eyes, completely unsure how to react to this…being.
She has, of course, seen images in the bingo books but in person he is something completely different.
Self-proclaimed cannibal of the Akatsuki.
"Why are you here?" Sakura demands, scraping at her chakra.
"I go where I please," he replies, eyes trained on Sakura with something akin to wonder. "You…you're different."
"I…I have no idea how to respond to that," Sakura says, still seated in a cross-legged position. "Are you planning on attacking me?"
"No," he replies, still watching her.
"I just killed your leader…well, your leader's puppet."
"He isn't our leader."
"Nagato isn't your leader?" Sakura asks.
"No," he replies simply. "Pein's death does not affect our plans."
Sakura nods, staring up at the man. "So why appear here now?"
"You…you're so similar to her…your chakra…there's something about it." Zetsu moves closer before sharply shaking his head. "No. I was mistaken. You are not she."
He disappears and Sakura exhales in relief.
"Well I'm glad that's o—"
"What the hell was that?" Indra explodes, falling to his knees in front of Sakura. He pulls her into his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Why was he here?"
"Wait?" Sakura says, voice muffled. Indra does not loosen his grip, in fact, he tightens it. "Wait, you know him?"
Sakura can feel the shudder that runs through him.
"He…I remember him. He was there…before," Indra says softly, breath rustling Sakura's hair. "He…told me things." He glances up, tears clear in his eyes as he stares at Ashura. "Even before we went our separate ways he told me things…nasty things. It got worse after the isolation. At the time, I thought he was my only friend but looking back…he drove a wedge between me and everyone I loved."
"Indra," Sakura says, tears tickling at the back of her eyes.
For Indra, silence is a calculated weapon. For Ashura, it is always a weapon turned upon him.
Sakura grunts as another weight is thrown upon her, presumably Ashura's body as he hugs them both.
"I understand," Ashura says roughly, choking on tears and sadness and bile. Bitter rage mauls at his chest. This is his brother and they were driven apart by another's design. "Indra, I am so sorry. I'm sorry I didn't realize, I'm sorry I didn't try harder, I'm sorry that I killed you." He is crying fully, sobs wracking his body and making it hard to speak. "Indra, I love you."
Indra curls tighter around Sakura, shaking. Still, he manages to nod. "I…I love you too Ashura. I'm so sorry."
Sakura hugs the brothers as hard as she can. "I love you both," Sakura says. "Indra, Ashura, it wasn't your fault. You didn't know what was happening. How could you know? You were manipulated and coerced and…and gaslighted into doing what you did. You aren't weak. Kami, you two are the strongest people I have ever met. I love you so, so much."
Indra laughs wetly and Sakura's heart leaps at the sound. "You think I'm strong? Sakura…you are the strongest person I've had the privilege of knowing. You inspire me daily."
It is Sakura's turn to snort. "Yeah right."
"He's right, Sakura-chan," Ashura says earnestly, letting Indra go and leaning back on his heels. "You're a human hurricane."
Indra sighs, letting go of Sakura and scrubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. He clears his throat. "Anyway…that guy, he looks different than he used to."
"What do you mean?" Sakura asks, sniffling a bit to clear her nose.
"His skin wasn't split into two different colors," Indra explains. "He was fully black."
Sakura furrows her brow, trying to figure it out.
"Why was he so interested in you Sakura?" Ashura asks, concern clear in his red rimmed eyes.
Sakura shrugs. "I have as much an idea as you. Indra?"
"I do not know," Indra says. "He recognized something about you…probably about your chakra signature. Who it is…well, that's anyone's guess."
Sakura nods, hesitates, and then leans in for another tight hug.
Indra stiffens momentarily, before melting into her embrace.
Sakura leans heavily into him, pressing her lips up against his ear. "You are not your mistakes," she says. "You are human and I love you regardless of any and all shortcomings."
Sakura feels the tension drain from Indra's shoulders at her words. He makes a small huff of amusement. Indra's arms squeeze her tightly before releasing her.
"So what now?" Ashura asks.
Sakura grabs Jiraiya's bag once more. "We have some unfinished business to take care of."
Sakura glances around the dreary grey surroundings with a pang of sadness. They are in a cave and Sakura finds herself eerily reminded of her fight with Sasori. She hopes for a similar outcome.
"Thank you, Kaori," Sakura murmurs.
"Anytime, Sakura," the small polar bear replies, snuffling in Sakura's hair. "Do you have my payment?"
Sakura pulls a vial from a scroll, shaking it slightly. "Allspice from the Land of Tea. Only the best for the best tracker."
The bear catches it between her paws, smiling up at Sakura. "Safe journeys, my child."
"I'm not sure the Inuzuka would appreciate the slight," Indra says.
"It wasn't a slight," Sakura replies. "It was the truth. Kaori is the best tracker I've ever encountered. I doubt anyone else could have pinpointed a location from a childhood memento."
"Bears are the best," Ashura says in a dreamy voice.
Sakura chuckles at Indra's disgruntled expression before moving forward. She pauses as the ground rumbles beneath her.
"Cave in?" Ashura suggests, looking around in alarm.
"No," Sakura says, eyes narrowed. "It's…it's movement."
The trio listens as the sound grows louder and closer. As it draws near, Sakura's eyes go wide.
She knows this sound.
It's the sound she dealt with after The Incident.
A clunky prosthetic.
Well, many by the sound of it.
Sakura moves forward, coming to a stop when she catches sight of him.
He is, in a word, emaciated. To be honest, as a medic herself, Sakura does not understand how he can even still be alive. His ribs protrude from beneath his skin and Sakura winces at his every inhale, wondering if his chest will collapse. He is held upright by a contraption of wood and metal that moves forward on four legs.
Sakura feels her heart twist at the metal bars that stick out of his spine, so similar to those in the Six Paths and yet…not.
"I've been expecting you. You look…familiar," he says in a tired voice. (It is a voice Sakura heard nearly every day after The Incident. It is her voice from back then.) "I see you've brought the traitor."
"Jiraiya is not a traitor," Sakura replies, stepping in front of the man, protecting him. "He was caught in a very difficult decision; loyalty to his country or loyalty to the children he thought of as his own. Either way, he would betray one of his most precious people."
"And which was better?" Nagato asks, fact gaunt. "A nation with more than enough defenders or orphaned children in the middle of a war zone?"
"Neither is necessarily better. If I were in that position…" Sakura sighs, "well, I would have tried to find a compromise; change the rules as necessary to protect my precious people."
"That is a very naïve mindset," Nagato says.
"And your goal for world peace is not?" Sakura asks, chuckling incredulously. "As long as humans have their free will, there will always be violence and bloodshed and war."
"That is why they won't have free will," Nagato says, Rinnegan flashing dangerously.
"No free will? That's what makes us human! Our ability to make decisions for ourselves is what defines us!" Sakura shouts, fear pulsing through her. The idea that every choice would be taken away…Sakura cannot imagine a worse fate. Sakura would rather keep her mistakes as they are than have her freedom taken.
"Free will leads to fear, anger, hatred, deceit…it is mankind's ruin," Nagato says. "I will rend this world in two and remake it in my image. The perfect image."
"Your world would have no point if people are not allowed to-to live!" Sakura gesticulates wildly. "And how exactly do you intend to—" She cuts herself off, staring at his eyes. "Dōjutsu, right."
Nagato's eyes widen with sudden recognition. "I've…I've seen you before. You're in the bingo books. The 'Pacifist Ninja.'" He scoffs. "And yet you care nothing for peace and the furthering of mankind. You're a disgrace."
"I never asked for the moniker," Sakura says, "and I never claimed to be a pacifist. No ninja can be a pacifist with blood on their hands." Her gaze is distant. "And I am rooted and grown in blood. No, peace is not achievable in this lifetime. Still…"
"I have a dream, just as you do. It is…well, maybe it is an impossible dream just as yours is. Mine is for halcyon days."
"'Halcyon days?' What do you mean?" Nagato asks.
"I'm seeking the happiness and peace of my friends; my precious people," Sakura says. "It may be selfish, but I will do anything for it. I've staked my life on this dream." Her eyes flash to her spirits. "I will die for this dream." She turns her gaze back to Nagato. "More importantly, I will live for the dream."
Nagato smiles bitterly. "I see. And I am in the way of your dream."
"You threaten their halcyon days," Sakura says.
Nagato chuckles, the sound wet and painful in his fragile chest. As fragile as the dreams they share. "You remind me of someone; someone who has long since been lost."
"Yahiko," Sakura says with a nod.
"Indeed. I fear I've lost sight of Akatsuki's original goal: protecting our precious people. I am afraid of what Yahiko would say of me." His face is ancient and wise as he stares at Sakura. "I think I will be seeing him soon."
"You…what?" Sakura asks, startled.
"I can see your resolve and you can see the state of my body," Nagato says. "Just speaking to you…it takes all I have. I am being eaten alive from the inside. Look at the way the prosthetics tremble." Sakura notices the fine tremors among the wooden legs. "Speaking as one amputee to another…make it quick."
Sakura nods, surprised at the tears that gather in her eyes. She wonders if perhaps she could be this man, had Konoha faced war on the same scale during her childhood.
(Sakura thinks she would have been.)
She speaks a quiet prayer as she steps forward, pressing her hand to his chest.
He smiles up at her and in that moment Sakura sees the child he once was, shy and unburdened.
Still, Danzō has been a thorough teacher and Sakura will not be overwhelmed by sentimentality.
(It is a fault of most Konoha nin, including Sarutobi-sensei.)
(But Sakura will not falter, not when her dream is at stake.)
Her chakra overloads his nervous system, leaving him dead.
The machine slumps around him and Nagato falls to the ground.
Sakura kneels at his side, finishing her prayer. She hopes he gets a chance to see Yahiko once more.
"Time to go," Sakura says quietly.
"Sakura—" Ashura begins.
"Where?" Indra interrupts, understanding Sakura's desire not to talk about it, not now anyway.
(There will be time for talk later.)
"Konohagakure," Sakura says, scrubbing a hand across her face. "It's time to call a Kage Summit."
well, there you have it folks. this is only the first of many battles in the war. we'll see what changes have been wrought upon the kage summit by sarutobi-sensei and sakura's diplomatic missions.
(also, jiraiya and his arc sort of took over this chapter. sorry.)