"chūnin pt. V"
Sakura bends over the tapestry, running her fingers down the raised bumps within the pattern. She pauses, scrawling something down on a scroll, and returns to mapping out the pattern of bumps. She knows that she doubtlessly looks ridiculous, but she doesn't mind.
After all, these bolts of cloth are the main way she receives her spy reports.
It was a plan born of her merchanting roots, the ease by which the Haruno clan moves goods to and from many of the shinobi nations. It is simple to get cloth included in Haruno orders from those nations back to Konoha.
Currently, she is reading through a report from one of her Iwa plants, an older guild member who deals in weaponry. She is situated in an alcove of Sarutobi-sensei's abode, an area that he has cordoned off for her use.
Sakura puts down a few more letters, looking over what she has written thus far. She sucks in a breath, running her fingers over the bumps once more to verify what she wrote.
Sakura sits back heavily, vaguely aware of the way her blood rushes away from her face.
Mitsubachi has been disappeared.
Mitsubachi, the prodigal daughter of the Kamizuru clan, a proud member of the Bomb Brigade, and a silent supporter of a future where Konoha and Iwa are partners, is gone, taken by Iwa's Granite Force. Sakura knows, from rumors and whispers while she was in Iwa, there is no chance to retrieve Mitsubachi.
She will be tortured and, upon satisfactory responses, be disposed of in a deep grave, crushed to a pulp by the weight of the earth.
(For people of Iwa, this is the worst of deaths to receive. They utilize sky burials, leaving the body above ground to feed back into the universe. From dust to dust, giving themselves back to the earth from which they emerged.)
Sakura hunches over the tapestry, closing her eyes against the sharp, jagged pain that radiates throughout her chest. She remembers Mitsubachi as she was, wild and unfettered, proud in the face of derision, and uncompromising in her standards. She taught Sakura to make a bomb from scratch. She was the first friend Sakura had in Iwagakure.
And now? She is gone, at the fault of none other than Sakura.
She finishes reading the tapestry, writing out her seed's report on the unease within Iwa, the rising sense of nationalism in the face of the other nations. The tensions are growing and Sakura knows it will boil over sooner or later.
With that task done, Sakura draws one of her scrolls from her pack, summoning a few materials. She cannot honor Mitsubachi by her traditions; she has no way to reclaim her body. However, Sakura can offer her this meager respect.
She places a candle down in front of her, using a simple fire ninjutsu to light the candle. Sakura stares down into the flickering flame, cutting free a hank of her hair and holding it above the flame. The fire licks up the hair, consuming it fully and filling the room with an awful stench.
"I cannot give you the dust of the earth," Sakura says, blinking against the heat in her eyes. "I can only offer you ashes, as befits Konoha." She laughs wetly. "You believed there could be peace among us; perhaps this may be the final bridge between you and me."
She bows her head, shoulders shaking. "I am sorry Mitsubachi. Your death is upon my hands. You died for what you believed in; our shared goal. I will carry your memory with me always and fight to honor your sacrifice. One day, perhaps beyond my lifetime, our nations will be at peace."
Sakura falls face first on her bed, exhausted but scrubbed freshly clean.
(She doubts she'll ever be clean. It is impossible to wash away the blood of those she hasn't even met, will never meet, despite being responsible for their ends.)
She groans, muffled only slightly by the pillow she lays upon.
"Sakura," comes the uncharacteristically hesitant greeting.
"Are you well, Sakura?"
She rolls over onto her back, fighting the scowl that crosses her face at the sight of the spirits.
She wants rest, peace, stillness.
(She hates having to play act, to gamble confidently with the lives of others. It is one thing to put her life on the line on the daily. It is another beast entirely to gamble away other people's lives with one poor decision.)
"What's wrong Sakura?" Indra asks, ghostly hand touching her shoulder.
"It's your spy work again, isn't it?" Ashura asks, nearly vibrating violently with intensity. His eyes are fierce. "Sarutobi is working you too hard, too fast."
Sakura doesn't reply, unable to meet their gazes.
"Damn it Sakura!" Ashura says, glaring down at her. "Talk to us!"
Sakura glares back, unwilling to deal with his tantrum. "Maybe I need to be alone sometimes!" She doesn't notice the way they recoil. "You ever think of that? Maybe it gets to be a little much to share my space with two grown men that no one else can see!"
Her chest heaving, Sakura immediately regrets her outburst. She notices the pained and closed off looks in both of their expressions. She deflates, moving forward to both of them.
"I didn't mean it," Sakura says quietly, placing her hands in theirs. "Truly, I didn't. I just…I am sorry. I'm just…exhausted. It's hard to work with these people; to hold their lives in my hand as I guide them, train them. One wrong move…" She breathes shakily, remembering Mitsubachi's crooked grin. "Well, it's more blood on my hands. That's why I block you on those missions. That's why I keep you away." She feels the tears that burn and sting at her eyes and she brushes them away angrily. This isn't about her. It's about the brothers and she isn't going to make it about her. She isn't going to be selfish. She has to make it right. "I-I said those words in anger and it was wrong of me to do so."
The two brothers do not hesitate to embrace her, arms folding in tightly around her.
"We've all done things that we regret," Indra says, smoothing her hair out of her face. "Sakura, brave heart, you should know by now that you needn't feel shame around us. We've all grown together, through rough and difficult times."
Ashura nods, brushing the tears off her face with gentle fingers. "We're not angry Sakura. I was…I am hurt by your words but I understand why you said them. No one can be around someone else constantly without reprieve without going mad. You need your space at times as do we."
Sakura chuckles wetly. "I really didn't mean to say it that way. I love having you with me most of the time. I miss you when you're away. Your time with Sasuke and Naruto…I hope you get a chance to understand your descendants and also further your renewed friendship with each other."
Ashura smirks, nudging Indra. "Yeah, yeah. We're starting to get along more, try not to gloat too much."
Indra elbows Ashura back with a smug smile, wrapping his arms more securely around Sakura. "He's an idiot for sure, but he's my idiot brother. Someone has to watch his back."
The three recline back on the bed and Sakura finds herself oddly reminded of sharing a bed with Karin or Team Seven, while out on missions. Somehow, this is different. There is something more familiar here, more intimate and deep. It is pleasant and it sends a feeling of tingling warmth down Sakura's spine and through her body.
So, Sakura falls asleep with a content smile on her face, toning out the quiet, good-natured bickering of the brothers.
(She enjoys these quiet moments, this safe haven. With the brothers, she doesn't have to put on a show or facade. She doesn't have to be an expert or play a game with the lives of others. She can simply be.)
"What did you say?" Sakura asks, pausing in her efforts to polish Sashimasu. Karin and Naruto, sitting on either side of her, are still as well.
Kiba glances at her, posture completely defeated. He looks absolutely miserable and Akamaru is exactly the same, all drooping ears and slumped shoulders. "The Hyuuga are not exactly happy about Hinata being disowned without any consequences. They want to seal her Byakugan. Hiashi has fought it for the past few years but the clansmen are starting to look for ways around him."
Sakura frowns severely, looking around at the other Rookies in the room. Everyone, aside from Hinata herself, is present. All are tense and even Shikamaru wears an uncharacteristically deep scowl.
"Neji?" Tenten asks, eyes dark.
Neji nods. "It's true. The branch house of the family resents the fact that Hinata-sama is free to move as she pleases while they bear the shame of the seal." He raises his arms hastily when some glance at him askance. "I am in the minority on this one." His lips twist in a grimace. "No one deserves the burden of the seal."
"And the main house?" Ino asks.
"They do not like the idea of a Byakugan user roaming freely outside of the Hyuuga family. I think that the Kiri nin, Ao, set off this most recent attempt to seal Hinata-sama's Byakugan," Neji says.
"It doesn't help that Ao felt the need to flaunt his ill-gotten kekkei genkai to them," Sakura adds.
"So what do you propose we do?" Sasuke asks, bristling in defense of his friend.
Kiba looks to the Uzumaki cousins, expression solemn. "I know the two of you are the resident experts on fūinjutsu. We think that the sealing is a foregone conclusion at this point. Is there any way that the seal can be modified to keep from giving the main house of the family power over Hinata?"
Naruto, Sakura, and Karin all look at each other. They have been practicing fūinjutsu since the retrieval of the Uzumaki clan's scrolls. Some they copy directly from the scrolls and others they have…experimented with.
"There is one," Naruto says hesitantly. "We were hoping to alter my own seal." He lifts his shirt, showcasing the marks that hold the Kyuubi prisoner. "He's been willing to talk but I want to give him more freedom…" Naruto trails off, thinking hard.
Karin smiles wryly, turning to her friends. "What Naruto is trying to say is that it's possible. How much time do we have?"
"One month at the most," Neji replies. "I think that it can be stalled for that long."
Sakura nods, looking to Karin who grimaces. It is bound to be difficult, even with the three of them working together. Sakura turns to the rest of her friends, all of them united in this.
"We'll need help on this one," she says freely. "Any resources that you can offer us…Neji, we'll need any knowledge you are free to divulge. Tenten, we'll need your help from the medical side of things. Everyone, any input you may have on the matter, even the smallest details…" Sakura trails off. "This is going to be a lot of delicate, finicky work. Still, it's for the best possible cause. Are you in?"
Shikamaru's eyes are dark and alert. It is the most present Sakura has seen him outside of a life or death situation. (It is more than slightly terrifying.) He smiles, more a baring of teeth than anything and Sakura fears for the safety of the Hyuuga who have dared to place Hinata in this situation. (Everyone should be afraid of a motivated Nara.)
Sakura frowns slightly to herself, clenching her fists as she stands before Tsunade. She has a rather major request to make of the woman and she hopes that she can pull it off.
"What is it Sakura?" Tsunade asks, amused by her formality. The girl possesses some odd mannerisms and they never fail to make Tsunade smile. (She has become used to abrasive ninja like Naruto and Kiba and Ino.)
"I…have a bit of a request Tsunade-sama," she replies. "Some information has come through the roots that may allow us to expand our network of sprouts."
Tsunade's eyes narrow. "Go on."
Sakura sighs, hating herself for what she is about to say. She does not want to place any of her friends in harm's way. "Uzumaki Karin was held captive by Otogakure for four months. During that time, she was kept close to Kabuto and Orochimaru. I believe that she possesses information that may prove vital in the planting of seeds within the shinobi of Oto."
Tsunade hums. "Karin has already passed on all relevant information to T&I. She did so upon arrival here. What else could you possibly give you?"
"You had her give information about the weaknesses of the ninja and the infrastructure of Otogakure. From our conversations, I know that she made friends or, at the very least, acquaintances with a few of the shinobi. Some of them have cropped up in reports recently; Suigetsu, Tayuya, Kimimaro, just to name a few."
"You believe that Karin can make contact with these ninja," Tsunade says with the slightest of smiles. "You believe that they can be planted."
Sakura shrugs. "Perhaps. Without a doubt, Karin is going to be the one with the best shot of convincing them. They aren't going to respond to an enemy such as myself, but Karin…Karin was one of them, however unwilling. She knows them as more than just stats and abilities; she knows their stories. She will know the ones who can be planted."
"It's a long shot," Tsunade says, staring down unseeingly at the documents on her desk. "It's been almost a year since she was with them. People change and so do their alliances…"
"All you say is true," Sakura replies evenly, resolute. "Still, this may be our only chance to infiltrate Oto from within."
"Have you discussed this with Karin yet?"
Sakura shakes her head, guilt filling her expression once more. Here she is, offering her friend up on a platter to Konoha's enemy. She also fears bringing up Karin's trauma at Oto's hands. They discussed it a few times and Sakura knows how much it affected her. Sakura fears what she is becoming; willing as she is to play this intricate game called war.
"I knew I needed to speak with you first about this. I fear that, if I told her first, Karin might follow through with the mission even if you rejected it. I'd rather her have as many resources available to her," Sakura says.
Tsunade nods, a wry smile lighting up her eyes. "The Uzumaki, as a clan, are known to be rather reckless with their well-being. I'll speak with Karin and Jiraiya on the matter. I assume you wish to be involved on this mission?"
"Please," Sakura replies, both grateful and saddened to know that her plans will come to fruition. "I-I want to be of assistance. If possible, I would like Yamanaka Ino to accompany as well; I believe she can gain a good deal of poison knowledge from Chiyo-baasama."
"Your connections among the other nations will be plenty of assistance. As long as Ino is available, I see nothing wrong in sending her to learn poison secrets from Chiyo," Tsunade says. Sakura nods, bowing and heading to the door. "Sakura."
Sakura stops, turning back to the woman behind the desk. "Yes?"
For a moment, Tsunade looks dismayed, brows furrowing slightly. For a moment, Tsunade seems to shoulder the burden of the world. Her expression smooths and she looks up at Sakura, a fire burning in her eyes. "Thank you for your service."
Sakura bows once more, melancholy eating away at her. "I've learned of its cost," she says quietly, eyes meeting Tsunade's straight on. "The cost of serving Konohagakure."
Tsunade sighs, closing her eyes when Sakura lets herself out of the room.
"That's what I was afraid of," she murmurs.
"What are you packing?" Karin asks, a grin stretching across her face.
"Well, I tend to seal everything into scrolls," Sakura replies, glancing over at the girl lounging indolently upon her bed. "I would definitely suggest head scarfs and a thick cloak. If you don't have one I can show you where to purchase one," she says, smiling at the excitement that very clearly fills Karin.
"Sorry for all the questions," Karin says, flush rising on her cheeks as she cleans her glasses. "It's just…I haven't left the village since arriving."
Sakura pauses in her packing, moving to sit beside her friend. "Don't apologize for your curiosity; kami knows I do the same. You've never been to Suna before."
Karin brightens once more. "What's it like?" she asks, flopping further back on the bed.
"It's very different than Konoha. It's hot but not in the same humid way it is here. It's a dry heat and at night it gets bitterly cold. The sunrises are absolutely gorgeous." Sakura pauses, staring over at Karin. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Karin looks up at her, wide-eyed. "What do you mean?"
"You are being asked to relive one of the hardest parts of your past. You'll be in a very sensitive, difficult situation," Sakura says, desperate to explain the stakes. She remembers her own exhausting fight to maneuver through the politics in multiple villages and knows that Karin will experience it on a whole new level. "I…" she stops, swallowing. "I gave Tsunade-hime this idea. This…if something happens to you…it's my fault."
Karin leaps forward, hesitating only for a moment before wrapping her arms around Sakura. She ignores the blush that rises to her face at the close contact with her friend, instead focusing on comforting her. "Sakura, I made my choice. Tsunade-sama gave me a choice and I decided for myself."
"But why?" Sakura asks, voice small.
"Because I want to help. Because I want to protect my home and my friends and my family." Her voice breaks on that last word but she pushes through. "Because I want to stop fearing those who oppressed me and tried to break me. Because I am a shinobi of Konohagakure and I will do my part to defend this nation."
"You could die," Sakura says, eyes watering. "I-I'm putting you in a bad situation."
Karin glares at her fiercely. "So what if it was your idea? It's my decision. I know the possible costs." She shudders. "I know. I know better than anyone here what could happen to me if I screw up or if someone turns on me."
"And you'll risk it?" Sakura cannot keep herself from asking. "You'll risk your life and your freedom for this plan?"
"Of course," Karin says with a bright smile. "This is my home now. I'll do anything I can to protect it."
Sakura throws her arms around the girl, hugging her close. "Thank you, Karin. I'll be with you through most of it."
Karin laughs; a joyful, light sound. "Well obviously I have no reason to fear. We'll face Orochimaru together just like last time."
Sakura smiles, linking pinkies with her. "It's the promise of a lifetime."
Sakura cannot fight the grin on her face as they draw closer to Sunagakure. It has been over a year now since she has met with Gaara in person but they have kept up a constant correspondence.
She smiles slightly to herself as she watches Karin and Ino interact with the rest of Team Seven. Karin has never been out on a mission with them so seeing how she fits into their dynamic is interesting. She keeps up well with their quirks, willing to call any of them out on their antics. Ino is immediately in the thick of it, squabbling with the boys like she was born to do so.
Karin and Ino certainly handle themselves better than their Anbu escort.
Yamato-taichou has joined them upon their venture to Suna and the mission with Oto beyond. He is a tall, rather unassuming looking man with average features and dark hair. He appears and acts rather bland, if a bit scary when the team shenanigans get under his skin, which is quite often.
He is also one of Tsunade-hime's top Anbu agents.
Sakura has read his mission logs, a benefit of working alongside Sarutobi-sensei. (He can be forgetful with the scrolls available in his personal library.) Yamato-taichou is incredibly accomplished and has a very personal vendetta against Orochimaru.
After all, he is the result of Orochimaru's experiments.
Sakura catches the way that Yamato's gaze trails after her speculatively at times. The way he focuses in on her prosthetic leg. The way a furrow appears in his brow when Sakura meets his gaze. Yamato is trying to figure her out, her angle in all of this.
She just kind of hopes that he will let it be.
Sakura jolts out of her thoughts as a strong chakra signature makes it way towards them. Sakura exchanges wild looks with Ashura and Indra, falling into a defensive position.
"Stand down Sakura," Kakashi says, smile evident in his voice. "Can you not tell who is coming our way or has it been too long?"
Sakura lowers her defenses, an incredulous look crossing her face. Her teammates exchange looks with various degrees of happiness as Kakashi nods.
"Gaara," Sakura whispers mainly to herself, before taking off, leaving her team long behind her in the sand.
She ignores their exclamations of surprise, focused solely on seeing her friend. She travels across the dunes, senses focused on the chakra signature heading her way. Sakura's eyes are upon the horizon and she cannot keep from smiling when she sees a figure traveling upon some sort of wave of sand.
"Gaara!" Sakura exclaims, moving toward him at even quicker pace.
Gaara pauses, sand wave wavering before he settles on the ground, watching her with wide green eyes.
Sakura doesn't hesitate. She launches herself upon him, ready to wrap him in a hug that is sure to lift him off his feet.
Unfortunately, she has not accounted for Gaara's sand barrier.
She runs into a wall of sand, bouncing off it harmlessly. She can hear Ashura and Indra scolding her, telling her to stop being reckless but Sakura does not heed their warnings.
Sakura stands outside the cocoon of sand, smiling excitedly. "Gaara," she repeats, nearly jumping with nervous energy.
The sand barrier dissipates and Gaara stands before her. He is taller now, face less rounded and skin darkened by the harsh Suna sun. She still stands a hairsbreadth taller than he but she isn't concerned with that at the moment.
Gaara wears an expression familiar to contrition as he tentatively opens his arms to her.
Sakura grins, stepping forward into his ever hesitant and gentle embrace. She inhales the scent of Sunagakure: succulents and sand and bitter harsh wind.
"It's good to see you Gaara."
"I-I'm sorry about the sand barrier; it was an unconscious response. I still trust you—"
"Don't worry about it," she replies, pulling away slightly to stare merrily into his eyes. She takes in the robes he wears; the office of Kazekage fitting him well. "You've fulfilled your dream."
Gaara smiles softly, nearly glowing with an inner light. "Yes. And you?"
Sakura listens as her team comes pouring over the dunes, shouting words of concern and greeting. Indra and Ashura, ever her stalwart companions, stand on either side of her, watching her like hawks.
Sakura grins. "I'm getting there."
Sakura curls up on the roof of the Kazekage Tower, seated next to Gaara. They are watching the sunrise. The fanfare of Team Seven's arrival has passed and Sakura enjoys the quiet companionship of just sitting with her friend.
Indra and Ashura are by her side, apparently still cautious about Gaara.
"How are your spirits?" Gaara asks.
"They're doing well; a little overprotective but doing well."
"And the voice within your head?"
Sakura frowns thoughtfully, thinking about it. "She's been less present recently. I think she's tired."
Gaara glances as her oddly but nods.
"How are your ghosts?" Sakura asks, wanting to change the subject.
"Quieter," Gaara replies. "Please pass on my thanks to Nii-san and Bee-san. Shukaku has calmed down since a lane of communication has been opened between us. He is still…sadistic but it is easier for him to vent his anger through…more acceptable outlets."
Sakura places a supportive hand on Gaara's shoulder, squeezing slightly. He turns to her, smiling softly and covering her hand with his own.
"It is better," Gaara promises. "I am no longer alone. Temari and Kankuro are good advisers. Chiyo-baasama is a stern but fair counselor and guide. I have the entire village of Sunagakure at my back." He turns to her, eyes warm. "And I have Naruto…and you."
Indra makes an uncomfortable noise, causing Sakura to turn a quizzical look to him.
Her question is never completed.
"Sakura?" a voice interrupts.
She turns, catching sight of Karin standing awkwardly by the edge of the roof and playing with the hem of her shirt.
"Hey Karin," Sakura greets happily.
Karin smiles slightly. "Hey. Sorry for intruding. It's just getting late and I wanted to make sure you're alright."
Gaara lets out an almost silent sigh, standing to his feet and assisting Sakura to hers. "Your friends do you credit, Sakura. I forgot your need for sleep. You've been traveling for quite some time; you're undoubtedly tired."
Sakura almost argues but a jaw-splitting yawn interrupts her. She smiles sleepily. "You're right. See you tomorrow." Her eyes go sharp and alert. "Get some rest, Gaara."
He smiles, waving lethargically. "Of course."
Sakura grins, turning to Karin and joining her on the ledge. (She misses the way that Karin glares acerbically at Gaara.) Sakura glances to the spirits that follow her, puzzled by their dark expressions.
Sakura rubs her hands together, the friction only slightly distracting her from her rampant anxiety. She knows Karin is capable. She knows this.
However, waiting has never been Sakura's strong suit. It doesn't prevent her from worrying, not just for Karin's physical safety but also for her mental and emotional well-being. Her time in Oto…it still taxes Karin to even speak if it. Karin's lingering pain fills Sakura with impotent rage on her behalf.
Still, Sakura is Konoha raised and she trusts her comrades with her life. So she sits beneath an outcrop of jagged stone, staring unseeingly out at the sand dunes that shift endlessly around her. She settles into a meditative state, mind distant and drifting as she focuses in on her chakra.
"Sakura," Ashura says, voice pained as he reaches for her.
Indra lays a hand on his arm, stopping him with a firm shake of his head. Now is not the time. Instead, the spirits settle on either side of her, keeping a silent vigil.
Sakura does not know how many hours have passed but the moon is fat and low in the sky and her skin is alarmingly cold to the touch when two figures appear on the horizon.
She leaps lightly to her feet, recognizing only one of the chakra signatures.
This isn't part of the plan.
Heart thumping and adrenaline rising, Sakura strides out to meet them, all the while wondering wildly about Karin's unorthodox plan. Both Karin and the stranger are fully enshrouded to protect from the bite of the sand.
"Karin," Sakura greets cautiously, eyes trained on the unknown individual.
"Sakura," Karin replies. "Could we get the fire going? I'm famished."
Sakura nods, adjusting her face scarf before moving back to the dying embers where she was sitting. While wary of the stranger, Sakura knows that this is Karin's mission and, while Sakura may have set it into motion, she's just along for the ride. She trusts Karin's judgment even in this despite her initial instincts. So she stokes the fire, eyes not flickering even once to the still covered figure. Sakura coaxes the flames higher before cooking the meat of the gazelle that she caught earlier in the day.
Finally, Sakura passes out the piping hot meat before settling down in front of the fire. She can feel the gratitude nearly pouring off Karin in waves. Sakura gives the stranger some food, allowing herself to look into the stranger's eyes, the only part visible. They are a hard, jaded grey and Sakura feels an eerie sensation creep up her spine as the stare she felt since the arrival intensifies.
Karin notices, straightening and giving the stranger a glare. Sakura retreats to the relative safety of the other side of the fire, bracketed by the spirits.
The meal passes in a tense, prolonged silence, broken only by the sound of chewing and the sizzle of the fire. Sakura gleans little knowledge from the stranger's mouth aside from two facts.
One, Oto sorely lacks in dental care.
Two, the stranger is, in fact, female.
Sakura contemplates this as the stranger greedily licks her fingers before wiping them against the rough fabric of her cloak.
"Enough," Karin snaps. "Sakura and I have played along with your little game quite admirably but time is short and I'd prefer not to waste any more of it on your petty mind games."
The stranger laughs, a bitter, coarse sound, and yanks back her hood and mask. Long, dark pink hair falls free of its confines. The stranger smirks. "Hello, Sakura-chan, I am Tayuya."
Sakura inclines her head, impressed with Karin but also all the more on edge.
Karin has brought her one of Oto's generals.
Karin gazes imploringly at Sakura. "Tayuya found me. I was looking for someone else."
"And you didn't immediately drag her to Orochimaru?" Sakura asks of Tayuya, hard glare tempered with curiosity.
"I appreciate strength," Tayuya bites out. "Anyone who can escape the hellhole is alright in my books. Besides, I like Karin. I liked her fire in Oto and I see that becoming a wilting leaf surprisingly hasn't changed that."
"If you hate Oto so much why don't you just leave?"
Tayuya laughs outright. "If you haven't noticed sweetheart, Oto is everywhere. My family is dead and none of the stable Hidden Villages are going to welcome me with open arms as they did this Sensor."
"And why is that?" Sakura asks, hearing the resignation in Tayuya's voice.
"I'm bound to Oto," Tayuya says. From her crossed arms, Sakura knows she will not elaborate. "In any case, I can do far more damage to Oto from the inside."
Sakura trades askance looks with Karin who nods eagerly. She vouches for Tayuya's loyalty to the cause. "I'll have to place a seal on you," Sakura says, cautioning her.
Her sprouts have to know the dangers that they risk should they be discovered. Death is the least of their worries, especially considering how creatively sadistic Kabuto and Orochimaru can be.
Tayuya shrugs. "Kabuto performs thorough medical examinations every six weeks or so. You'll need to find a place he won't notice it."
"Why even risk it?" Sakura asks, incredulous. "You owe no loyalty to Konoha or me or even Karin. It is likely that you will be found out and tortured for your role in this. Why risk your life for a legion of faceless strangers?"
Tayuya's lips twist and Sakura can almost taste her visceral pain. "I cannot escape Otogakure or Orochimaru's influence. I'm fine with setting myself on fire if it means Otogakure burns too. I'll gladly leap upon that pyre."
Sakura takes in Tayuya's resolute stance, her steel eyes, and tensed shoulders. She will not back down from this. Sakura sighs, waving Karin over and begins to explain, "We're going to place a segmented seal between your toes…"
Sakura takes first watch, observing Tayuya's long trek back to one of Oto's hidden bases among the dunes. Her mind is less burdened with finding a spy but Sakura cannot help but feel that she has sentenced Tayuya to death. Her heart is heavy with yet another life placed on her conscience.
Sakura sighs, scrubbing a hand over her face.
She feels more than sees Indra and Ashura as they settle next to her. Fleetingly, Sakura wishes they were warm so that she can steal some of their body heat on this frigidly cold night. Sakura brushes off the passing whimsy as Tayuya finally disappears from sight.
"Have you ever condemned someone to death?" she asks softly. "Not by killing them yourself but…following your orders…"
"Yes," Ashura replies without hesitation. Sakura turns her gaze to him, reading the guilt writ clear upon his face. "Our father shared chakra with the world. He wanted to inspire peace. Unfortunately, it didn't happen the way he imagined.
"The clans fell to war and our father despaired. Our mother was more willing to step up and lead the clan during that turbulent time. The world was in shambles and it was our duty as the harbingers of destruction to offer protection to civilians. Some of my decisions as a leader resulted in death."
Sakura places a hand on his arm, rubbing gently. He looks up, smiling gratefully at her. "And you?" she asks Indra.
He flushes a dull, ruddy color. "I isolated myself. I refused to aid my kin in their time of need. I didn't lead people to their deaths but my inactivity may well have."
Sakura curls her arms under her knees, squeezing tight. "I hate being in charge of someone else's well-being. Life is so fragile."
Sakura feels the phantom weights of two arms twining around her waist.
"Such responsibility is the price of greatness in this particular profession. Proficiency is a heavy burden to bear," Ashura murmurs.
Sakura shivers, turning her gaze up to the sky. "The constellations are different here. It's one thing I noticed during my travels. You see the Western Star? It's always there."
Recognizing the change of subject for what it is, Indra stretches out his free arm, pointing out the unique stars and telling Sakura the old lore surrounding the creatures of the heavens.
Sakura glances over at Karin, more than slightly concerned. She has been quiet all morning and her fingers thoughtlessly trace over the bites that cover the skin of her arms.
Sakura fears the worst.
Still they travel on in silence, making their way back to Suna.
That is, until Sakura cannot take it anymore.
"How are you?" Sakura asks.
Karin visibly starts, stride faltering for a moment. "What?"
"How are you?" Sakura repeats.
"Why do you ask?"
Sakura stops fully, giving her a look.
Karin scowls. "This mission just brought a lot back," she snaps defensively. "I thought I was past it but…"
"There's no date where your pain is suddenly invalidated," Sakura says, repeating the words she has been told over and over by her therapist and by the image in her mirror. "Sometimes it crops up at the oddest of times. Believe me, I know. You were forced to face one of the worst parts of your life once more. Of course you're having a rough time."
Karin nods, releasing a shuddering breath. "It's just…I thought I was stronger…that this stuff didn't bother me anymore. Tracking down Tayuya; being tracked down by Tayuya…I kept thinking I was going to come across Kabuto or even Orochimaru. Even though I know I can Sense them long before they can catch me…even though I have so many new skills…even now, they terrify me."
"They scare me too," Sakura says. "Sometimes I freeze at the very thought of them."
"Yeah. Then I found Tayuya and I remembered all the torture Orochimaru and Kabuto put me through; the experiments, the induced stress, the way we all competed to avoid further pain," Karin looks into Sakura's eyes, desperate to get her point across. "I did things, Sakura. Things I regret, all in the name of personal survival."
"Karin, you said it yourself, you were trying to survive. I've done worse for much less. We're ninja; very little of what we do can be considered ethical, at least by normal standards."
"I was reminded that the only reason I am not shackled like Tayuya is because of my chakra. It rejected treatment, not for the lack of Kabuto's trying."
Sakura's eyes light with understanding. "Is that where the bite marks are from?"
"Most," Karin says. "Orochimaru liked to send me out with certain Oto nin to boost their chakra. Most…were not gentle. Some are from my time in Kusa." Karin smiles slyly. "None from Konoha."
"You'll never have to use your ability against your will in Konohagakure," Sakura vows.
Karin's smile grows, soft and radiating from within. Sakura returns it and the two set off again, as a formerly festering wound, once jagged and sharp begins to mend.
They arrive to a Suna in chaos.
There is a strange numbness that spreads through Sakura as the news breaks. Gaara is gone. Team Seven is in pursuit. Kankuro is dying. And it is all Akatsuki's fault.
Sakura grimly makes her way into the hospital, nodding as Ino meets her there, eyes glittering. There's a mix of anxiety and excitement warring in Ino's gaze, though Sakura understands it. Now is the time for them to put all their skills to the test.
Sakura looks over Kankuro, flipping through his charts absently. He seems very small, laying still, pale, and wan in the hospital bed. Sakura examines the entry wounds, small punctures that blossom purple and green and red.
"Can you help him?" Temari asks hoarsely, eyes rimmed red and hands chafed from constant wringing. "Please." Her voice breaks. "He…Gaara…"
Sakura remembers her Academy days, huddled with Ino in the Yamanaka garden, creating an array of poisons. She smiles.
Sakura places a firm but comforting hand on her shoulder. "We can. Karin, would you take Temari out for lunch? I doubt she's eaten in light of recent events." She holds up a hand to prevent their protests. "Temari, you are Kazekage in Gaara's absence. You need to take care of yourself and head to the Kazekage Tower. You are the voice of reason in this time. I know it is hard, but you must trust Team Seven." Her lips quirk in a slight smile. "We haven't steered you wrong yet."
Karin takes a reluctant Temari from the room, speaking quiet words of comfort to the older woman.
Sakura waits a few moments before snapping to attention. "Bring me water and towels," she says, speaking to the medics who are clearly out of their depth. Thankfully poison has been something Sakura's dabbled in since youth. "Ino, you're already scrubbed in. Have you assessed any of the poison's components?"
Ino nods, hands hovering above Kankuro's chest as they glow with a soft blue light. "It's a fast acting poison aimed at destroying the lining of the organs. We've constructed something similar before, back after the chūnin Exams." Her brow furrows for a moment as she investigates. "There's an odd signature here: there's scorpion venom in here despite a lack of need for it."
As Ino speaks, Sakura scrubs down, accepting the tools from the wide-eyed medics as they rush into the room. She places the towel between Kankuro's teeth. "Restraints?" Sakura asks.
One of the mousier medics runs forward and loops the thick, chakra-dampening restraints around Kankuro's legs, arms, and neck. The restraints do not fully inhibit chakra, only dampen its strength.
"Would you like to do the honors?" Sakura asks.
"Keep his body stable," Ino says. "In removing the poison it is possible that the passage out of the body will damage Kankuro's chakra coils."
Sakura positions herself at Kankuro's head, pressing her chakra-covered hands against his temples. Ino coats her hands with chakra and water, gritting her teeth before pressing them against Kankuro's chest. For a moment, nothing happens.
Then Kankuro screams.
It is a horrible, primal thing forced out around the towel. It barely distorts the sound. He writhes, eyes rolling wildly as Ino pushes into his bloodstream. She ignores his cries and the resounding thump of one of the medics fainting. Ino is immersed in her technique, knowing one wrong move will result in Kankuro's death or, at the very least, becoming fully paralyzed. Sakura monitors his chakra, the way it fluctuates with panic and she presses her chakra along his, riding it out with him.
Even with her attention on the technique, Sakura registers the new presence in the room.
"Your grandson is responsible for this calamity. He's not all that subtle; scorpion venom? It's a bit unoriginal," Sakura says, not even looking at Chiyo.
The woman exhales sharply in surprise. Sakura almost smirks; being apprenticed to the Professor has its perks.
"Yes," Chiyo says blandly, fighting her initial response.
"I'm going to kill him," Sakura says.
There is no room for opinion in her voice, only fact.
Chiyo makes a noise of protest. "Please, there must be another way."
"The moment he targeted Gaara, he chose death," Sakura says.
There is silence for a few moments, but for Kankuro's screams and the sickening sound of water sloshing through his chest.
"…Let me accompany you," Chiyo pleads. "I know my grandson's techniques. I trained him just as I trained Kankuro. I can provide information that will be vital to your fight."
Sakura knows that Chiyo hopes to redeem Sasori. Sakura will stay true to her initial assessment. There will be no mercy, no quarter, no chances provided to him.
Sasori is dead.
And Sakura will be the one to end it.
Sakura glares through her bangs, twisting her body to avoid the poisoned spikes. Sasori's abilities are…vexing at best.
She flexes, breaking free of the confines and flipping back toward Chiyo, glad that the woman is at her back and on her side. They have been darting around, destroying (on Sakura's part) and evading (with the help of Chiyo's chakra strings) all that Sasori has thrown their way. The puppet of the Sandaime Kazekage is demolished.
"It's been a while since I did this myself," Sasori says, slowly shucking his Akatsuki robe. "Still…"
Sakura's eyes go wide and quickly narrow with consideration. It explains a lot though the jutsu involved…
"Now I see," Chiyo says in a rasping voice. "The reason he looks exactly the same as the day he left…age does not affect him. The reason is staring us in the face."
Sakura watches in fascination and slight revulsion as his body contorts in ways unimagined. She eyes the spool of thick wire where his intestines once were. Clever…
"Oh yes, it has been a while since I have had to use myself," Sasori says, extending the rows of blades upon his back.
"He's actually…a human puppet," Sakura murmurs, almost to herself.
This, well, it changes things. She has been trained in the art of killing a human being but how does one destroy a living puppet? She glances at the shattered remains of the Sandaime Kazekage before cracking her knuckles.
Well, that's one way.
"Sakura!" Chiyo exclaims and the two roll away from the flames that Sasori shoots from his hands.
Sakura bites back a curse, ripping away the fabric of her lower pants' leg. Of course it would catch aflame. Still, it's above her prosthetic and she really is not all too worried. She glances over to Chiyo, tucked away behind a rock to combat the heat of the fire. They need to reunite and fast. She feels the licking bellow of the flames but they never touch her as she lands beside Chiyo.
"What's the plan?" Sakura asks.
"He is a puppet now. Our approach must change. The fact that he chose to use himself as a weapon shows that we have him off-balance," Chiyo says.
"There has to be something that keeps his life force tied to the puppet body," Sakura mumbles.
"The container," Chiyo says. "Where his heart should be. That is what keeps him connected to the puppet."
"So we remove the heart container…"
"Sasori will be defeated."
"We have ninety seconds before the antidote…"
"Quit playing around!" Sasori demands, flame suddenly stopping.
Sakura breathes the slightest of sighs in relief.
She flips out of the way as deadly water comes shooting toward her with threatening accuracy.
"What's this?" Sasori asks. He sounds absolutely delighted. "Girl, what's that with your leg?"
Sakura doesn't reply, focusing instead on dodging his constant barrage. She doesn't have a lot of time left…
"You know, it's very rude not to respond," Sasori says.
"Sakura!" Indra shouts.
The quick call gives Sakura the briefest of chances to avoid the deadly sharp wire that hurtles toward her. She turns slightly, allowing it to deflect harmlessly off her prosthetic.
Still, she isn't one to waste an opportunity when it is so neatly given to her.
Wrapping gloved hands around the wire, she pulls, digging in her feet and flooding chakra through her system. Sasori's body windmills to her so she turns, positioning herself perfectly. Her punch lands squarely in his gut and the heart container flies free, the rest of Sasori's pieces quickly falling apart as well.
Sakura turns to Chiyo and her spirits with a smile on her face. It's over.
"Did you truly think this would be so simple?" Sasori asks.
Sakura turns with horror, jumping back closer to Chiyo. He is reassembling.
Chiyo summons ten puppets, staring her grandson down. "I hoped it wouldn't come to this," she says sadly.
"Ten puppets…impressive," Sasori says. "The lore states that you took down a fortress by yourself with those very puppets."
"Yes," Chiyo replies wearily. "And now I will do the same with you."
Sasori begins to chuckle and Sakura is immediately on edge. "It has been quite some time since I last used that technique…" He trails off momentarily, smiling angelically as he pulls a scroll from his back and opens the compartment in his chest. (Sakura finds it enormously unfair that he can look so…beautiful for lack of a better word.) "Well. I suppose it is time. You know, you should feel honored. The last time I used this technique it was to destroy a nation. Red Secret Technique: Performance of a Hundred Puppets."
Sakura watches, stricken as a multitude of puppets rise from the scroll. Chakra strings from Sasori's chest attach to the puppets. She exchanges a quick glance with Chiyo, resigned as she takes in Chiyo's crestfallen look.
Well, she's been in worse scrapes. (Very, very few, but…)
Sakura summon her naginata from a scroll, flaring her chakra and funneling it into the blade. Her eyes narrow as she stares up at the puppets.
"Let's go, Chiyo," Sakura says before adding in a whisper, "Sting, Sashimasu."
Ashura watches in awe as Sakura moves through the mass of puppets, twisting and turning lithely. While fear for her is, as always, prevalent in his mind, he cannot help but compare her movements to a dance. A dance of death and destruction as she razes the puppets into the ground.
She is glorious, covered in ash, soot, and sweat. He is reminded of some long-forgotten goddess, cruel and merciless in her reign. After all, what cares do goddesses have for the wants and morals of mortals.
Ashura cannot assist her now.
(He's already tried.)
Still, he moves with her, slightly behind her and out of her peripherals to keep from distracting her. Indra moves in tandem and Ashura reads the frustration in his brother's expression.
(Ashura is so glad that he can even read his brother now, remembering a time when Indra never expressed himself. He knows that he has Sakura and the softening of time to thank for this.)
Ashura doesn't understand the rules of being a spirit. Sometimes he can interact with the material world, other times…
Well, at least he can watch Sakura in her element.
"Chiyo!" Sakura exclaims, voice nearly cracking with desperation.
She runs, regardless of the dangers of what she is about to do and throws herself in front of the blade that Sasori has raised to attack the older woman. Sakura turns slightly, bringing her prosthetic down hard on the poisoned blade.
It breaks under the strain of her chakra.
Sakura has a moment of satisfaction to stare into Sasori's surprised, fawn eyes. Time halts for a moment…
Only to start again as Sasori is run through by two swords held by the puppets of his parents. Sakura glances out of the corner of her eyes at Chiyo who stares her grandson down grimly.
Sasori chuckles weakly, staring down at her leg, the beginning of his downfall. "What a crude device you wear for a leg, little girl," Sasori says. "It is obvious that you wear a prosthetic. Why didn't you have someone in Sunagakure make a better one for you? Your body is…blemished. Imperfect," he says, cocking his head as he surveys the dark metal of her leg.
"Surprisingly I do not want to look 'unblemished,'" Sakura replies calmly, wondering why this is the conversation he wishes to have in his last moments. "This is my body and this leg is a part of me. I'm glad it looks different. It reminds me of who I am and where I've come from." She smirks. "Besides, this 'crude device' prevented you from poisoning me."
Sasori shakes his head slowly, lips curling into an odd smile. "Perfection in imperfection, huh? How strange."
"Your former partner, Orochimaru," Sakura begins. "Is there anything you can tell me about him?"
Sasori grins. "Well, you did defeat me, little girl. I suppose I can grant you this. Kabuto of the Akatsuki is working with Orochimaru. They will meet in ten days' time at noon on Tenchi Bridge. I planned to investigate it myself but…"
Sakura nods firmly. "Thank you."
"Obaasan," Sasori says, looking at Chiyo. "I'll be going now. Little girl…I'll meet you in my next life."
And Sasori breathes his last.
"He could have avoided my last attack," Chiyo murmurs. "For whatever reason…he did not."
Sakura frowns, staring down at her fallen foe. In the end…she respected him. She steps up beside his fallen body, frowning as she notices the single ring on his left thumb. It is a dark purple, with the word "jewel" written on it in kanji. Sakura, knowing that the ring is a symbol of Akatsuki membership, removes the ring and pockets it.
Shaking her head, Sakura turns away, facing her spirits with a complicated smile. "Immortality…it seems a heavy burden."
Indra stares at her with fathomless eyes even as Ashura nods.
The first thing Sakura sees is Gaara's limp, lifeless body.
The second? Naruto is crying unabashedly as is Sasuke, though he is turned away from the rest.
Sakura doesn't really see anything after that as her own eyes blur with heavy tears. She falls to her knees at Gaara's side knowing already that it is too late.
There is nothing she can do.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto begins pleadingly and Sakura's heart breaks once more for her brother in all but blood. "Sakura-chan, please."
For a moment, she hates him for this burden that he places at her feet, as if she doesn't know that all of her training, all of her knowledge, all of her skills are worthless in the face of this moment.
After all, no one can raise the dead.
The boiling anger and rage dampen quickly and quietly into misery. Slowly, she shakes her head, mourning her friend's loss.
"He's gone, Naruto," she says around the despair that closes her throat. "Gaara's…" she cuts off, unable to continue.
"This is your fault!" Naruto screams, looking to Chiyo. "You sealed the Ichibi within Gaara. You made him believe he was a monster and Akatsuki pursued him. If he didn't have Shukaku within him, none of this would have happened! You…you!"
"Naruto!" Kakashi says firmly, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Now is not the time to be laying blame!"
"Shove over," Chiyo says gruffly, shouldering Sakura slightly.
"I—what?" Sakura asks, stumbling out of the woman's way.
Chiyo looks to her, gaze solemn and Sakura is struck dumb. For but a moment, Chiyo seems ageless and ancient in a way not even Ashura or Indra are.
"There is a technique," Chiyo intones, eyes solely on Sakura. "A forbidden technique. A life for a life. Blood for blood. I am the last to know this technique."
"Chiyo—" Sakura breathes.
Chiyo holds up her hand. "I have lived my life and made my mistakes. My child and my grandchild are dead now. The only one to outlive me is my brother." Her brown eyes pierce Sakura and keep her still. "Do you understand? I have very little left in the world." She turns back to Gaara. "I helped bring this child into the world to be a weapon. It was folly on my part. Still, this child now shines as the future of Sunagakure. I will give him back his life and perhaps receive recompense for my actions."
So saying, Chiyo lays her hands against Gaara's chest.
"Watch closely Sakura," Chiyo says quietly, barely a whisper above the hum of her chakra. "I impart my legacy unto you."
"Sakura—!" Indra says, alarmed.
"Don't even think about it!" Ashura yells, voice wild.
Sakura ignores them, eyes intent on Chiyo and her actions. She memorizes the technique and commits it to heart. She will be strong enough to protect her future, her friends, her halcyon days.
It is, after all, her nindo.
"I…I do not have enough chakra," Chiyo admits, brows furrowed in a grimace.
Sakura lays her hands over Chiyo's, soon joined by Naruto, Ino, Karin, Sai, and Sasuke.
"Is this enough?" Naruto asks. "Kaka-sensei will join us if we need more!"
Chiyo smiles slightly, peace radiating from her after overcoming her initial surprise. "This is more than enough. I leave this next generation in your capable hands."
Gaara wakes to a clear, sunny sky.
He sits up, clutching his head and feeling rather empty inside.
"I…did not expect to live," he says quietly before he is wrapped up in the embrace of pure sunlight and joy. Naruto.
"G-Gaara!" Naruto bawls, tears still pouring down his face.
Gaara tentatively raises a hand and pats Naruto's shaking shoulder, eyes wandering over the crowd that surges all around him. He sees the other members of Team Seven milling about, Naruto's cousin speaking in low tones with his sister, his brother looking wan but pleased, and many of the denizens of Suna.
"Where's Sakura?" he asks, trying to keep the alarm out of his voice.
Naruto pulls away, rubbing his face into his sleeve. "She's over there," he says hoarsely, pointing to three figures who are far off from the crowd. Sakura appears to be carrying someone. "She's with Chiyo-obaasan's brother."
Gaara is interrupted by the enthused greetings of "Gaara-sama!" and "He's alive!"
With one regretful glance toward Sakura, he turns to his people with the slightest of smiles.
Sakura scratches her cheek idly, embarrassment at the forefront of her mind. She is just serving her country and her friends. She can do without all the fanfare.
Still, she wears the formal wear and rubs elbows with the overly thankful dignitaries of Sunagakure. Sakura does enjoy the formal wear that Temari pushed on her, the artful draping of purple fabric and folds in which to hide myriad weapons. She does so with pleasure as Kakashi has strictly forbidden her from any dangerous instruments hidden in her hair. (That doesn't stop Sasuke from passing her a lovely ornament with a sharp needle hidden within. He's so thoughtful when he chooses to be. In fact, he gives the best gifts of anyone in Team Seven)
"Ebizō-sama," Sakura greets, inclining her head and trying to hide her unease. He has been sticking close to her since his sister's passing and it makes her uncomfortable. She has already explained the situation to him and thought the matter settled. Still his eyes follow her with a surprising amount of undue curiosity and it puts Sakura on edge.
(She knows well how central he is to Sunagakure, pulling strings behind the scenes. Sakura has learned the consequences of drawing attention from high places.)
"Haruno-san," he replies, bowing slightly to her before turning to survey the room. "How are you enjoying your time in Sunagakure?"
Sakura cannot contain a snort of disbelief. "Well, my time within Sunagakure has been beyond pleasant. The people here have been incredibly kind. Especially…" Sakura pauses for a moment before clearing her throat. "Especially after."
"That is only to be expected," Ebizo replies. "You managed to save the beloved Kazekage as well as take down one of the fearsome Akatsuki members." His brown eyes, so similar to Chiyo's, bear into Sakura with a weight that she cannot ignore. "You are the first to strike down one of the Akatsuki. Many have thought them invulnerable, untouchable. What you did—what Chiyo did—it will have consequences both good and bad. I am sure that you have painted a target upon your back."
Sakura nods. "I know. I knew it from the moment that Sasori fell. I did not go into that fight expecting such a positive outcome."
He eyes her for a long moment. "Haruno-san, have you considered—"
"Sakura-san!" a voice booms.
The duo turns, startled as one of the legendary Sannin bumbles his way over to them. Sakura hears the slightest of sighs from her companion but she ignores it.
"Jiraiya-sama," she says, cocking her head slightly. "I did not know you had arrived in Sunagakure. Have you informed Naruto of your arrival?"
Jiraiya laughs, swinging an arm around her shoulder as if they are close friends and, with a faux apologetic look toward Ebizō, leads her away.
"Jiraiya-sama," Sakura says warningly, wise to his antics.
Jiraiya laughs and steers her to one of the open balconies that looks out over the desert. The night is rapidly closing in and Jiraiya casts a no-noise jutsu. "Sorry to bother you girlie, but I am actually here on official business. Besides, that old vulture was planning on trying to swipe you for Sunagakure. Valuable asset and all of that."
Sakura straightens, glancing around. She chooses to ignore that last comment of his as it seems an unfair jab at an elderly man mourning the last of his family. "Why didn't you say so? What did Sarutobi-sensei say?"
He scratches the back of his neck, in a way so reminiscent of Naruto and Karin that Sakura cannot help her grin. "Ah, that is to say…"
"You don't remember do you?"
"Not exactly at least," he replies. "Still I got the gist of it. Was your mission with Karin-san successful?"
Sakura nods. "We made contact with someone within Sound's ranks. Karin hopes to make contact with another. She knows their usual haunts so contact is possible. With all of the hubbub of…well, the Kazekage retrieval, our plans have been a bit derailed."
"Don't worry, Tsunade and Hiruzen-sensei aren't angry or anything. The circumstances were regrettable and completely understandable. The Hokage is quite pleased with your victory over the Akatsuki member, Sasori no Akasuna." He grins.
Sakura huffs slightly. "It wasn't just me. Chiyo-sama was there as well. Without her…well, it wouldn't have ended the way it did." Sakura thinks back to Sasori's last moments with a frown.
Jiraiya claps a hearty hand on her shoulder. "As the only surviving member of the battle, the brunt of the glory falls on you, kid." Sakura winces and Jiraiya laughs. "You really don't like the recognition do you?"
Sakura fidgets. "It goes against everything that makes us ninja."
"Perhaps," Jiraiya says musingly. "Unfortunately that's the price that must be paid. Our business as ninja has become commercialized. We do not serve one master. We are, for all intents and purposes, swords for hire. Hell, that's why each nation invented its own Bingo Book!"
Sakura groans. "My rising infamy is not what is important right now."
"You're right," Jiraiya replies solemnly, jovial nature all but hidden away now. "Team Seven is heading back to Konohagakure soon."
"Just a few days. They'll be traveling with me," Jiraiya says. "Tsunade-hime has need of Kakashi's repertoire of skills and the rest of the team is along for the ride."
"And me?" Sakura asks.
"You, Karin, Ino, and Yamato will remain on your initial mission. I believe that the Kazekage may ask you to stay for a few weeks to monitor his and his brother's health. While that is happening, Karin can spend her time honing her Senses on the other possible informant. Ino is to look into the poison techniques of the Puppet Brigade. With the chaos caused by Chiyo's death…well, it offers a perfect opportunity for Ino. Once you've gotten that done, Tsunade-hime would have you return to Konoha."
"This Yamato, he can be trusted to keep from acting rashly?" Sakura asks. "Considering his history with Orochimaru…"
"Have faith," Jiraiya says with a disappointed cluck. "After all, the same could be said of you or of Karin."
Sakura hums, gazing off into the distance. The sun has long since set and the skies are brilliantly clear. It is also bitterly cold. She is reminded of her last encounter with Orochimaru and she feels a primitive need to gouge out those poison yellow eyes.
"Did you seal the informant?" Jiraiya asks, rousing Sakura from her dark musings.
"Yes, we used a seal between the toes so that they will not get caught out in the act. Kabuto apparently enjoys giving check-ups."
Jiraiya shudders. "And where'd you place your corresponding seal?"
"Both Karin and I placed one in the same location," she replies. "Thought it best to keep with the original template."
Jiraiya grins. "You seem to be expanding your spy network quite nicely. Soon enough, there won't be any skin left to seal. You'll need a scroll."
Sakura laughs. "I'm no spymaster, Jiraiya. Certainly not of your caliber. This is just preventive action and Karin and I were best suited for the task. I won't be taking your job any time soon."
So saying, Sakura steps outside of their jutsu, sauntering over to the Sand siblings and her teammates. All the while she is ignorant of the calculating look Jiraiya levels her with.
(Indra and Ashura are not.)
"Please, be cool about this," Sakura begs, turning a glare to Yamato. "I need to go off alone."
He folds his arms, staring her down. Karin is off seeking another potential seed, Ino is wheedling her way into the Puppet Brigade's good graces (quite easily, considering the fact that she saved Kankuro's life), and Sakura has something she needs to do.
"Please," Sakura wheedles. "Jiraiya-sama has given me clearance to do this." Technically not a lie, he did want her to expand her network…
Yamato stares her down, using his "scary face." It is very effective on Naruto but Sakura has been exposed to Indra for years. She is immune.
Finally, Yamato sighs, deflating. "How long will it take?"
Sakura hums, thinking on it. "A day and a half at most. I'll leave tonight."
He stares down at her thoughtfully. "I hope you know what you're doing."
Sakura shrugs, ignoring the nervousness that pools in her stomach. "As much as anyone can know."
Sakura ducks into the tiny, out of the way teashop, inhaling the spicy sweet scent of tea. She exhales heavily, gazing around at the patrons of the small shop.
One sticks out like a sore thumb.
With a curious sense of déjà vu, Sakura makes her way over to Hoshigaki Kisame who grins wildly at her entrance.
"Good to see you, pinkie," he greets. "You've grown a bit taller."
"You haven't changed a bit, my shark friend," she returns, falling into the seat across from him.
They place their orders and Kisame looks her over. "Imagine my surprise when a sloth bear appears out of nowhere during one of my solo missions and requests a meeting between the two of us."
Sakura smiles guiltily. "It was the best way for me to contact you at the time. Sorry if it startled you."
Hoshigaki surveys her with lidded eyes. "No, just a bit surprised that there is a Bear Summoning contract in existence. You didn't create it did you?"
Sakura's eyes drift to Ashura before her lips curl slightly. "No, I did not."
"And to be called by you right after you caught Akatsuki's attention." He places his massive, braced arms on the table, staring down at her threateningly. Sakura is overwhelmed by the chakra he washes over her. It is like facing an ocean at storm in a tiny skimmer. "You aren't here to assassinate me are you?"
Sakura ignores the squawks of outrage from the brother spirits, instead staring up at Hoshigaki calmly. "I fought Sasori no Akasuna because he abducted one of my dear friends. He attempted to kidnap another of my friends in the past. I have no quarrel with you."
Hoshigaki smirks, pressure lessening. "Alright, alright. I understand. Know this though: should we meet on opposing sides upon the battlefield, there will be no quarter for you."
Sakura nods, taking an even sip of her green tea. "I hope we will stand on the same side. Sasori gave me some interesting information before his death. Your partner will be meeting with Orochimaru in two days' time upon the Tenchi Bridge at noon. I believe you will receive all of the necessary answers about your partner's loyalty then."
Kisame's smile fades. "Why are you telling me this? I am not your ally nor am I a friend. What do you hope to gain from passing on such information?"
"There is a selfish motive, I'll admit," Sakura says. "I have heard stories of you in Kirigakure and I know that you are a good ninja and an even better man. You know, probably better than I, that the climate of Kirigakure has changed in the favor of those who rebelled against the regime of the Bloody Mist. I think you would be better suited among your kin than among the freelancing vagabonds you currently accompany. Kabuto's actions…perhaps they will convince you."
"And then I would be your ally," Kisame says, understanding lighting his face.
Sakura laughs. "I told you it was for selfish reasons. I do not want to fight you." Her eyes light up. "I'd love to spar though. Sashimasu—"
"You named it that?" Kisame interrupts, grin wide and flattered.
"Yes. It was a fitting name for the naginata," Sakura replies.
Kisame nods. "I will go to Tenchi Bridge and see what it is that finds me there." He stands, hesitating. "I cannot promise a response you'll like…"
Sakura shakes her head. "That's fine. I only hope you'll find the truth."
She stands as well, putting her right hand out in a fist before drawing it to her chest. Kisame snorts, reaching out with a large hand and shaking hers.
"Good luck, Haruno."
Sakura watches him leave, knowing that this is a long shot. Still, with someone like Hoshigaki on their side…well, even Orochimaru would think twice.
"It's good to see you on your feet once more," Sakura says as Kankuro walks into the private room, taking a seat at the table.
"Well the medic finally allowed me out of bed," Kankuro replies, looking at Ino.
There's an uncharacteristically soft smile at his lips and Sakura hides a smirk, knowing that he's fallen victim beneath Ino's beguiling ways. Her training has definitely paid off.
"You've been up and running about for a few weeks now," Temari says dryly, catching the way her brother regards Ino. "The real reason you haven't seen him, Sakura-san, is because he's been holed up in his studio, trying to reverse engineer Sasori's poison."
Sakura chuckles along with the others as Temari and Kankuro fall to sibling bickering, helping herself to more salted gizzard. It is nice to relax and make merry among friends like this, seated in a secluded section of the Sand siblings favorite restaurant and trying out all of the culinary delicacies that Suna boasts. Sakura fairs much better than Ino or Karin, used now to the heavy use of spice and salt in Suna's fare, as well as the refreshing coolness of the herbal yogurt that pairs with nearly all Suna dishes.
"How are you enjoying the greenhouses, Yamanaka-san?" Gaara asks.
Sakura smiles around her mouthful of gizzard, glad to see him initiating conversation.
"They're quite fantastic," Ino replies. "Chiyo-sama created an impressive collection for herself. Her meticulous and extensive gathering of plants is a commendation to Suna."
Gaara inclines his head at that. "Thank you for your kind words, Yamanaka-san. Sakura has informed me of your interest in poisons; please, gather clippings from any of the plants in Chiyo-baasama's greenhouses." His gaze goes to Kankuro, still arguing with Temari. "You have more than earned them."
"Really?" Ino asks, smoothing the guilt from her expression. Sakura knows she's been gathering clippings on the sly on both Tsunade-sama's and her own behalf. "That is quite generous Kazekage-sama."
"Think nothing of it," Gaara says. "Consider it a gesture of the bond between Sunagakure and Konohagakure." He leans forward slightly, smile conspiratorial. "I will seeing the outcomes of your experiments upon our mutual enemies."
Ino laughs then. "Deal."
Karin draws Ino and Temari into a conversation regarding the potentially lethal combination of ninjutsu and fūinjutsu. Sakura sits quietly, almost contemplative as she eats and watches as they talk. Sarutobi-sensei's dream, her dream, of peace among the nations, is being realized here.
Indra and Ashura are, as always, alongside her, watching her eat with an almost wistful look in their eyes.
Sakura quirks a brow in their direction, unwilling to ask a verbal question in the midst of company.
"Gizzard was a staple of our childhood," Ashura says, eyes trained on the cooked meat. "Mother had uncommon tastes and father was always willing to accommodate her."
"It was a common dish for her to eat when she was pregnant," Indra says. "I suppose that explains our proclivity toward it." His eyebrows furrow. "I haven't felt hungry since…well, I cannot remember. I'm not even sure if I'm hungry now but I certainly remember it."
"Are you alright, Sakura?"
Sakura snaps to attention, schooling her expression as she looks at Gaara. "I'm alright, just daydreaming."
He tilts his head, asking the question without actually asking it. Sakura nods. He nods in turn, looking at the food held in her chopsticks. "You seem to enjoy the gizzard."
"Indeed," Sakura says, taking a bite. She looks to the brothers again, smile fading at the longing in their eyes. "I get the feeling I'll miss it when we leave."
Sakura glances at the boy sitting across from her, curious as to why Karin has picked him as one of her possible seeds. He is tan, lithe, and white haired. His teeth are sharpened into points.
He is of Kirigakure stock, undoubtedly raised with the ambition to become one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.
Currently he balances a toothpick between those deadly teeth, gazing at her with curious purple eyes.
"I am Haruno Sakura," she says, eyes casually examining their surroundings. They are in a crowded confectionery restaurant and the din of the crowd keeps their conversation quiet. They are completely inconspicuous.
"I know," the boy replies, digging a finger into his ear. "Everyone in Oto knows that."
"Suigetsu, must you be so insufferable?" Karin snaps, digging into the cute orange confectionery before her. "I'd have thought you'd matured in your time since our last meeting."
He flashes her an obnoxious grin. "Apparently not."
Karin huffs. Sakura glances at her incredulously, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. As far as spies go, Suigetsu does not seem cut out for this job. In fact, Sakura is a bit surprised that he's survived Oto so long.
"Despite his appearance and appalling lack of manners, Suigetsu is pretty reliable," Karin says, eyes begging Sakura to understand. "His special genetic makeup keeps him from being collared the same way most others are."
"And your handlers trust you to not run away?" Sakura asks, looking at the boy once more.
He bares his teeth in a semblance of a smile. It comes across as more of a pained grimace. "I've earned the right. It's taken years but they trust me outside of the cells now."
"And what did you do before you were trusted?" Sakura probes.
"I was one of Kabuto's pet projects, much like you will be if they ever catch you." He isn't making a threat, Sakura notices. Suigetsu states it as if it is a fact, a foregone conclusion.
"I doubt there'd be enough of me left after Orochimaru finished his revenge upon me," Sakura says, remembering their last skirmish. She glances down at her leg, covered as it by her robe. She's left a mark on Orochimaru, but it is nothing near what he left her.
Suigetsu laughs raucously. "That's true alright. Orochimaru despises you."
Sakura cocks her head, idly chewing on a piece of dango. "And what is it about your genetic constitution that keeps you free of Oto's shackles? Karin has her chakra but I get the feeling you are a bit different."
With a quick glance around their surroundings, Suigetsu's body melts into what appears to be water before reforming. Sakura's eyes go wide and she can hear the brothers chattering about it, but she keeps her gaze steady and sure upon the boy.
He wants to unsettle her.
"Interesting," Sakura says. "Is that a kekkei genkai?"
Suigetsu shrugs lithely. "Probably. My brother could do it too. Anyway, Kabuto has tried to replicate the process without any success."
"Why do you want to work with us? Why don't you just leave Otogakure? You aren't chained down. You could leave freely," Sakura says, wanting to understand his motivation.
The joviality falls away from Suigetsu's face and Sakura sees to the core of him, the potential that Karin so obviously see. "My brother is gone. My clan is dead. I've been branded a traitor to my home village. I don't have the same connections or luck that Karin here has to Konoha. There is nowhere I can go that Otogakure cannot follow. I figure I do this then maybe, one of these days, I'll get out of Oto."
"What is your ambition, Suigetsu?" Sakura asks. "After all of this is done and your part is known to the world. What will you do then?"
"I will collect the Seven Swords," Suigetsu replies. "I will become the greatest of the Swordsmen."
Sakura frowns thoughtfully, thinking of a grave, a naive promise, and childhood long passed by. Finally, she nods with the slightest of smiles. "I don't know about all of the swords, but there is one…"
"Are you sure that Hokage-sama won't mind this detour?" Karin asks hesitantly, following Sakura along the diverging path.
Sakura rolls her eyes affectionately. "Tsunade-sama would be surprised that you've never been out here before and order you to come out here again. Really, I'm just saving you another trip through the rural side of Fire." She bows mockingly. "You're welcome."
Out of the corner of Sakura's eyes, she sees Ashura making faces at her as Indra laughs at her antics. She is happy. They've accomplished their mission, strengthened ties with Sunagakure (honestly, the two nations' friendship is nearly unbreakable now), and it is nice to travel with friends.
Karin laughs, shaking her head. "I still don't get what the big deal is. It's a tree right? Konohagakure is the 'Village Hidden in the Leaves.' Why is this tree such a big deal?"
"This is actually the very first tree that Hashirama-sama, our first Hokage, grew for Konoha," Yamato explains. "While it's technically outside of the village, Hashirama-sama initially believed this would be the site for Konoha."
"Mito-sama actually had a hand in moving the location," Sakura adds. "Hashirama-sama wasn't the most skilled with cartography so he'd missed the mark by over a hundred miles. Still, Mito-sama declared that the site where he planted the tree could be made into a landmark." Sakura pauses, grinning. "Honestly, in her journals she says she did that to make Hashirama-sama stop pouting."
Karin giggles. "Okay, so it's a tree, the first tree of Konoha. Weren't there trees already in Konoha though? Why did Hashirama-sama have to plant one?"
"Actually, he had Wood Release like Yamato-san here," Sakura says, wondering if she's making the older man uncomfortable. It is impossible to read his face. "So he used that ability to grow the tree."
"Most children of Konohagakure make a pilgrimage here when they are…what, eight?" Ino says, glancing to Sakura who nods. "There's a whole lot of fanfare as for a lot of the children it's their first time out of the village."
Yamato smiles, a wicked edge to the curve of his upper lip. "You know, Hashirama-sama actually grew a cherry blossom tree. The children visit when it's in full bloom."
"Yeah, yeah," Sakura says, ears burning. "Trust me, I'm used to the heckling."
"Huh," Karin says, a smile tugging at her lips. "I'll have to come back when it's blooming."
Sakura sees the excitement growing in her friend and she feels a bit proud of herself. She's glad for the small moments like these where they can just be.
Yamato stops suddenly, surveying the trees surrounding them. Sakura is immediately alert, scanning as well. They are the only ones traveling at the time as the tree is far out of season.
"What—?" Sakura begins, before cutting herself off.
They trade alarmed looks before running in the direction of the smoke.
No, no, no, Sakura prays. It can't be. The tree stands alone in a clearing and Mito-sama herself placed seals on it to keep something like this from happening. It can't be true. There must be a mistake.
Sakura's heart contracts violently as they reach the clearing. The beloved tree of Konoha, the symbol of Konoha, is ablaze, casting off billows of acrid smoke. Sakura examines it calculatingly. All children in Konoha are taught how to read the trees and forest fires. It has been burning for over a day now.
There is no hope for the great tree.
It is hard to see into the clearing as everything is in shambles, the seals broken and ash settling heavily.
"Sakura!" Karin exclaims, voice panicked. "There are people."
Sakura starts, turning to her friend. "Where?" she asks hoarsely.
Yamato is completely still, face slack and pale in the face of this nightmarish truth that they stand before. Sakura ignores him for the moment, pulling out three scarves and wrapping first herself, then Karin and Ino with them. She wishes she had goggles.
Still, she follows her companions into the chaos, eyes stinging against the hot ash and smoke that fight to choke her. Eyes narrow, Sakura plows on, heedless.
This isn't a mere forest fire.
No, it is deliberate.
It takes but minutes though it feels like a lifetime to drag four bodies out from the shadow of the dying tree.
Sakura quickly examines them, mourning the lack of breath in two of their chests. "Karin!" she exclaims. "Yamato! Try to revive those two! Ino and I'll get started on the others." Her chakra is no good on a dead body but if they can breathe life back into them…
She clinically peruses both of the living bodies. They are both young, not yet fully grown; genin from the looks of their headbands. She cannot identify them based on their physicality as their bodies are riddled in burns and their lungs are damaged by the smoke inhalation. Not to mention the damages that they sustained while fighting off their assailants.
Ino pulls free a scroll, releasing a couple of seals as quickly as she can. A few poultices, potions, and medicinal herbs appear and she begins mashing them with mortar and pestle. "Stabilize them," Ino says, intent on her mixture. "I can whip something up to assist with the smoke inhalation."
Sakura gives her verbal assent, spreading her chakra through the children's bodies, gently taking hold. She doesn't have much in the way of healing chakra, but she can do this at least.
In precious few seconds, Ino is there, raising her solution within a bubble of water and moving it down their throats. Almost immediately, the children begin to cough and writhe and Sakura helps Ino turn them onto their sides. Black phlegm emerges from their throats, as the children continue to hack.
"They're stable here," Ino says, watching the children still as she begins another solution.
From the chosen ingredients, Sakura can tell that it's a burn salve.
Sakura moves away from Ino, satisfied for the moment with their safety and approaches Yamato and Karin. "Report," she says roughly, trying to keep her voice even.
Yamato looks up at her, still made unguarded and vulnerable by this attack on Konoha. "This appears to be a genin team. Konoha by their headbands. Their sensei is dead, killed in the initial ambush." He looks to the child cradled in Karin's lap. "That one…he cannot be revived."
Sakura nods briskly, moving to Karin's side and slowly lifting the child from her lap and moving him to her own.
"I know him," Karin says in a whisper. Her eyes are unfocused. Shock. "He is…his name is Udon. He is…was…such a polite, smart boy."
Sakura bites back a curse, looking with fresh eyes at the genin team. In her desire to keep them alive, she didn't pay attention to their features. Now, she recognizes them, despite the burns that mar them.
Ebizu, the sensei.
She notices then, the music note carved in ground, away from the tree. Such a simple, innocuous thing yet so incredibly insidious.
Sakura stiffens, biting a finger and slamming it down in the soot. "Kikyo!" Sakura commands as soon as the bear appears. "Message to Hokage-sama. Hashirama's tree is dead. Team Ebizu was ambushed. Two dead, two in critical condition. Attack originated from Oto. Send a squad of Anbu and a medic. Go!" She ignores the pop that follows Kikyo's disappearance. She turns to Yamato. "Yamato," she says gently, knowing his connection to Hashirama. "Yamato I need you to contain the fire. Its origin is in ninjutsu so it will be difficult."
When twin hands descend on her shoulders, Sakura doesn't even flinch, instead sagging back slightly into their comfort. This attack…targeting Konohamaru…Sakura sighs deeply, accepting Karin's shaking hand in her own.
Her eyes are stone and flint as she watches the dying tree, the death of Konohagakure's peace.
They are going to war.