A bracing chill greets Sakura as she opens the cooler. She draws out a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, enjoying the jolt of cold that sweeps through her as her fingers encircle its body. As she meanders toward the counter, Sakura grabs a few different types of sour candy, a sickeningly sweet bar of white chocolate, and a bag of Hershey kisses.

She places her spoils upon the counter in front of the cashier, whose bored gaze looks over her items, unimpressed. "Will that be all?" he asks, scratching along the raggedy mustache he wears to appear older than he is.

Sakura hums, looking at the display behind him. "A dozen packs of Camels, three of Marlboro, and one Lucky Strike." She rocks on her heels, ignoring the cashier's suddenly incredulous look. "And two lotto cards; any type."

"Are you even old enough?" he asks.

Sakura frowns at him severely, tossing him her ID. She bites back her automatic retort of: "Are you?" and settles to looking out the window.

The shadows are growing long and Sakura hums in distaste. He is far too impatient for his own good, despite his proclamations of disinterest.

"Your total is $86.78," the boy says, tossing the candy and cigarettes into a bag.

Sakura nods, swiping her card and plucking her beverage from the counter. "Have a nice day," she says sweetly, flouncing out the front.

Sakura removes the pump from her car fondly, patting the hood with genuine affection. "You're doing wonderfully, Edelweiss. Not too much longer now…" She glances down at the stretching shadows, far too long for the time of day. "Patience. I'll deal with you in a moment."

Sakura climbs into her car, grinning into her rearview mirror. "You are far too hasty," she says, dumping the contents of the plastic bag into the empty seat next to her.

The candy falls, but all of the cartons of cigarettes are caught, suspended by a strange translucent but dark matter. Sakura has long since gotten used to these strange shadows, though they still mess with her peripheral vision. The heavy scent of smoke fills the vehicle as a grunt of dismay is made.

"Lucky Strike, really? You know how much I hate the taste."

"Just trying to keep you on your toes, Shikamaru," Sakura replies, resisting the urge to glance to the backseat where his voice emanates. He will not be there; she hasn't expended enough energy to bring him fully to this plane. "You know how I like to tease."

"Torture more like," comes the muttered reply, breath warm against her ear.

Sakura refuses to jump and Shikamaru exhales against her ear before leaning back.

"You bought lottery tickets too!" Shikamaru says, shadows picking up the tickets. "You know your chances of winning anything…"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Sakura replies. "Relying on luck here."

"Better to not expend your luck on a waste like this. We don't have the luxury to spare."

Sakura shakes her head, cranking up the car. In truth, she bought the tickets just to heckle Shikamaru. She doesn't particularly care what he chooses to do with the tickets.

Sakura shifts gears, moving the car out around to the back of the gas station where a dirt trail begins. The shadows thicken as the car moves beneath the trees, blocking out the sun. Sakura turns, catching the flickering form of Shikamaru's body.

"You're growing stronger," Sakura comments, turning her eyes back to the road as it begins to get bumpier.

"Flattery will get you nowhere," the still ill-defined shadow figure says.

Sakura rolls her eyes affectionately. "We're here," she says, parking the car on the side of the road and grabbing her satchel, candy, and Coke.

"What are you planning?" Shikamaru asks, suspicion clear in his voice.

"The same thing I've been planning since this all started," Sakura replies, heading into the copse of trees.

It is even darker here and Shikamaru's form is almost fully visible. Sloe eyes, claw tipped hands, and long, strong arms become visible against the shadow backdrop of his body.

Sakura looks around, nodding decisively and sitting down beneath a tree that towers high above them. She unwraps her sour straws, popping a few in her mouth as she opens her satchel. Her fluorescent pink candle is set up quickly and she tests the ground with her metal stylus. It gives way easily and Sakura sends a quick prayer of gratitude to the heavens for the recent rains.

She draws out a strange combination of hieroglyphs and runes in a circle around the candle.

"You're summoning him?" Shikamaru asks with distaste, the scent of cigarettes overpowering the sour sweet taste in her mouth.

Ash coats her tongue, bitter and acrid, as she replies, "He has the best information. I have to find her."

Shikamaru sighs, smoke wafting around Sakura's head in a haze. "Try not to overexert yourself," he says, hand clasping her shoulder.

Sakura notes that he is fully present now, pale claw tipped hand firmly resting on her shoulder. She feels a jolt of energy and glances up at him severely. "No helping," she says. "You did enough last time."

"Troublesome," he mutters, but he pulls his hand away and sinks into the shadows of the trees. "Tell me when you want me to send the bastard away."

Sakura shakes her head, eyes slipping shut as she breathes deeply. She feels a flicker within her chest, a timid flame burning at the wick. Sakura blinks drowsily, looking down at the candle.

It is lit.

There is a low rumbling in the air, a soft hum that lulls and soothes. Sakura refuses to close her eyes.

"Madara," she calls quietly. "Madara, I know you are here."

She is hit with the scent of cloves and myrrh, an interesting combination to be sure, but a welcome relief to the cigarette smoke that clings to her like cobwebs.

"Never can trick you, can I?" is breathed so close to the shell of her ear that she cannot keep from flinching.

Madara appears in a fit of laughter, red eyes amused as he stares her down. His are eyes of death, the harbinger of ill tidings. His are eyes that truly see.

It is the reason she has summoned him after all.

"And how may I assist you today?"

"I need intel," Sakura says, ripping into a pack of sour chews. She feels the zipping shock of energy that keeps her focused. It is rather difficult to tether two others at once. "I need to speak with the information broker but he has been quite elusive."

"I am an information broker," Madara says, looking strangely upset. "I possess the Sharingan, the seeing eyes."

"And can you give me information on her?" Sakura presses. "You are good, Madara, but your leads on her have run cold and dry. I need something new."

Madara frowns, averting his gaze as he taps his fingers along his knee in what Sakura has come to recognize as a thoughtful gesture. "And my reward?"

"A kiss, as usual," Sakura replies evenly. "Unless you want to change the price?"

"No, a kiss is just fine," Madara says, smirk sinuous. "Very well. As you well know, we brokers function on different planes and separate domains from each other. Keeps down the bloodshed. While no other broker comes close to my level of skill, the second best option is probably Kakuzu."

"Kakuzu," Sakura murmurs, unfamiliar with the name.

Madara nods. "He's a stingy bastard, but his information is always good. He's not like the rest of us; he's tetherless."

"Tetherless?" Sakura asks. "How am I supposed to speak to him if I can't summon him?"

"He doesn't need to be summoned," Madara says. "He lives within the mortal coil."

"Is he…" Sakura trails off.

Is he like me? remains unspoken.

"No," Madara replies. "No, he is of a similar type to me. Kakuzu has discovered a way to linger in your realm without human assistance. He refuses to reveal the secret, but he will not long be the only one."

"Anything else I need to know about him?" Sakura asks, biting into another piece of candy. It is so damn hard to stay focused in these moments, to tether two beings at once.

"He's a bounty hunter," Madara says. "That's why he stays so connected with all that happens within this realm. You need to be careful; you already have a bounty on your head."

Sakura glances at Shikamaru, smirking slightly. "We'll manage."

"Well you need to head here." Sakura sways as a map appears in Madara's hand and he passes it over to her. "Kakuzu lingers at the Blind Donkey." Sakura wrinkles her nose. Madara chuckles. "I never said he had taste."

"Thank you for your time Madara," Sakura says, bowing her head and reciting the words to break their contract.

"And my kiss?" Madara asks, eyes lidded.

Sakura tosses him the bag of Hershey kisses. "Here."

Madara examines the bag, a wide, triumphant grin curling his lips. "This isn't a new type of kiss," he says. "You've given me this kind before." He stands and moves toward her, tilting her head up with gentle fingertips. "Pucker up."

Sakura raises a hand to block him, taking the bag from him. "These are 'air delight' Hershey kisses," she says. "They're aerated milk chocolate. I haven't given you this type before. My debt is paid."

Madara scrutinizes the bag, shoulders slumping. "Well, it was worth a try."

His wry smile is the last thing Sakura sees before he is engulfed in golden, shimmery light and disappears.

Sakura rocks back on her heels, limbs heavy. Something cool touches her shoulder. She looks up, meeting Shikamaru's gaze.

"Here," he says gruffly, thrusting the chocolate bar into her face.

Sakura pulls away the paper, biting into the overtly sweet chocolate. "Thanks."

"I don't like relying on Madara so much. We know what he wants," Shikamaru says, hands tightening on her shoulders. "What do you plan to do when you run out of different Hershey kiss types?"

"Then I'll give him a different type of kiss, just as our contract says," Sakura says, rolling her eyes. "I'll kiss his hand or something."

Shikamaru hums, distaste clear but Sakura is thankful that he doesn't comment further. She leans up against his chest, her flushed cheek pressed to the cold skin at his throat. They sit in silence as Sakura eats the candy bar and regains her strength.

Finally, Sakura stands firmly, gathering her materials.

She turns to Shikamaru, smiling. "Let's go."

Sakura drums her fingers along the steering wheel, staring at the bar across the street. It's one of those holes in the walls without the eccentricity to make it quaint. The neon sign with some burnt out letters informs her that this is where she needs to be.

"I'll be there as your shadow," Shikamaru says. "I'll be ready if things go south."

"It's fine," Sakura says, patting her Apache revolver. "I'll have Borage at my side as well." She glances into the backseat, biting her lip as she weighs whether to bring her rifle or not. "I don't think we'll be needing Gladiolus today."

"As you say," Shikamaru says. "Try not to get into a troublesome situation."

Sakura laughs, shaking her head as she climbs out of the car. "No promises."

She tucks her revolver into the holster at her waist, slips on her coat, and briskly makes her way across the street. She smiles up at the bouncer, flashing him her ID and stepping into the bar.

The room is clouded with smoke and the thrum of jazz music seeps into Sakura's bones, livening her. The patrons huddle into small groups, shying away from public view. It is rather obvious that Sakura does not belong here in her spring green dress, calf-high boots, and white pea coat. However, she feels at home here, waltzing over to the dingy bar and sending a dazzling smile the bartender's way.

The bartender snaps to attention, making her way over to Sakura. "What can I do you for sugar?"

Sakura leans against the bar, smile still coy. "I need a person, Kakuzu."

The bartender blinks, crossing her arms and frowning. "Never heard of him."

"I need some information from him," Sakura says, ignoring the bartender's body language.

"Can't help you—"

"He's upstairs," someone else interrupts.

Sakura turns, taking in sweeping silver hair and a single tired eye. "Thanks," she says, feeling the strange sensation of Shikamaru pulling at her shadow. He doesn't want her here.

"Staircase is over there," the man says, pointing.

Sakura nods, weaving her way through the crowd to the rickety staircase in the corner. She glances around as she steps onto the stairs before kicking out at her shadow.

"What was that for?" Shikamaru hisses.

"Why did you pull on my shadow?" Sakura asks, turning away from the bar. "You know how uncomfortable it is!"

"That guy at the bar was…odd," Shikamaru replies. "There was something off about him."

"Well…he isn't what I'm here for," Sakura says. "What I'm here for is upstairs."

"Just…be careful," Shikamaru says, shadow form flickering as he brushes against her. "Something about this whole thing is making me uneasy."

Sakura presses her fingers against the shadow on the wall. "I'll try."

She hears his muttered, "Troublesome," as she heads up the stairs. The blare of the saxophone thrums through the walls as Sakura approaches the door at the top of the stairs. She pushes open the door, glancing around inside.

She immediately feels his presence. Kakuzu lounges behind a desk, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose as he leafs through the papers piled high on his desk. Sakura notices that despite his casual position, he favors his left side, where she assumes he keeps a weapon.

"State your business," he says, not even looking up at her.

"I need information," she says, striding forward and sitting primly in the chair across him.

"And what will you give me in return?" he asks, looking up. His eyes are a striking red and green and they narrow in behind her. "Well, well, looks like you have a managed to tether a familiar. Congratulations, you have my attention."

"What is it you want in return?" Sakura asks.

Kakuzu leans forward, folding his hands on the desk. "I'd like your name."


"Your clan name."

Sakura swallows.

"Sakura, don't!" Shikamaru says.

"Do you have information on Ino Yamanaka?" Sakura asks, ignoring Shikamaru's protestations. "She…fell into the between eight years ago. She's human but she's the most stubborn person in the world. If anyone could survive the between, it's her." Sakura jumps as Kakuzu begins to laugh uncontrollably. "What is it? What the hell is so funny?"

"You," he says. "You are unbelievably naïve. It's adorable frankly."

Sakura leaps onto the desk, fisting her hand in his shirt and pulling her revolver from its holster. She presses the blade against his throat. "Do you know where she is?" Sakura demands. "Do you know?"

"Sakura!" Shikamaru says, manifesting in full form.

Kakuzu looks up at her, face serious. "It is interesting to see how undone this makes you. I could easily raise the price and you wouldn't even fight it, would you? Nevertheless, my price remains the same. Your clan name for information on Yamanaka."

"Sakura, you can't give him that power—"

"Haruno," Sakura says, staring him down unflinchingly. The blade of her gun is still pressed to his throat. "Now give me what I want."

"Haruno," he says, almost tasting the name, and his voice makes something within Sakura tremble with fear and anticipation. She presses the blade closer to his throat and watches the rivet of ichor that rises beneath the weapon. The revolver is cocked and the barrel is loaded. She is ready to break him if he backs out of the deal. "Calm yourself. I never break a contract."

Sakura glances back to Shikamaru who is back in shadow form and sullenly silent. She will receive no help from him. She hops off the desk, pulling out a vial and allowing the golden ichor to drip into it. She knows better than to waste ingredients, especially one as valuable as this.

Kakuzu watches with an air of detached amusement. "Ino Yamanaka is a well-known name among those from between. I am surprised you have not heard yet."

"She's alive?" Sakura asks, needing the verbal confirmation. After so many years…is her journey finally at an end?

"She's more than alive; she's thriving."

"She's alright? She's well? Then why hasn't she returned?" Sakura presses her hands against the desk, staring Kakuzu down.

"You misunderstand me. She's thriving by our standards. Ino Yamanaka is one of the rising rulers of the between. She's been able to travel between your realm and ours for years without a tether." Kakuzu leans forward, eyes dancing wickedly as he says, "Ino Yamanaka has made a name for herself as the bloodiest of the rulers of the between. She's killed hundreds of your kind and thousands of mine."

"No," Sakura mutters, stumbling backwards.

"She's been able to visit you for years. The only reason she hasn't is because she doesn't want to see you. Face it; you've been forgotten."

"No!" Sakura screams, turning and fleeing from the room. She is unaware of the way all the lights and bottles at the bar have shattered. Everything is a blur as Sakura runs to the haven of her car.

She comes back to full awareness with her head down, staring at her scraped knees as she sits in the trunk of her car.

"How are you feeling?" Shikamaru asks, pressing a bag of sour gummy worms into her shaking hands.

"Terrible," Sakura manages to say, rubbing at her eyes before digging into the candy gratefully.

"We shouldn't have gone to Kakuzu. He's going to take advantage of your clan name, I just know it," Shikamaru says, clucking over her with worry like a mother hen.

"That's not it," Sakura says. "I can handle Kakuzu."

"Then what is it?" he asks, ashy breath hot against her face.

"It's Ino," Sakura says, face crumpling. "Don't you see? It's my fault!"

"No it's not!" Shikamaru replies vehemently.

"Ino didn't fall," Sakura says quietly. "She was pushed. By me. She didn't come back because she hates me."

Shikamaru falls silent, lost. He doesn't know how to fix this.

Sakura stares down at her hands with a scowl, tormented by her memories.

"Ha!" Shikamaru crows, uncharacteristically loud.

Sakura startles, turning around and looking into the backseat of the car.

Shikamaru waves something in her face, smirking.

It's the lottery ticket.

"Guess who just won you $500?" Shikamaru says. "Looks like our luck is looking up!"

Sakura glances up at the stars, suddenly aware of the fact that, somewhere, Ino is looking at the same sky. She stands, palming the offered ticket. She smiles at Shikamaru and closes the trunk.

"Yeah, I guess it is."

yes, sakura names all of her possessions after flowers because ino taught her the language of the flowers. (she's sentimental like that.)

borage means courage

edelweiss means nobility, purity

gladiolus means strength of character, honor, conviction