There were three days until the festival but the village of Konoha had already been invaded with the cacophony of merchants selling their goods for weeks. Stands were lined with bottles of shirozake, neatly packaged hishimochi and sweets, but most importantly, displays of a variety of custom hina-ningyo. Mothers scavenged the markets like wolves as they searched for the perfect doll for their daughters. Despite the constant bickering and bargaining, the colourful streets brought great festivity to Konoha.
Sakura sighed at the sight as she made her way to the meeting place at the bridge. She envied the little girls that towed their mothers along as they pointed out which doll was the most attractive to them. Her parents had left town and wouldn't return until later in the month. It wasn't that she really minded. They had previously made sure that Sakura would be okay with them being away during hina matsuri and she in return had convinced them to make the most of their vacation. She was almost sixteen anyway, too old for these little girly traditions, and besides, they promised to be home in time for her birthday. Sakura stopped as her eyes caught sight of a particular ningyo. Dressed in a multi-layered pink flower-patterned kimono, the white-faced doll held a small fan in her hands. The delicate features captured Sakura's admiration as she bent over to take a closer look at the figure.
"Interested?" inquired a voice from behind. Sakura abruptly turned around to greet the shopkeeper, a dark frizzle-haired man whose smile revealed large oversized teeth. She was wrong when she once thought Gai sensei had the thickest eyebrows. The man was wide and almost twice the size of her. Forcing a smile, Sakura shook her head.
"My mother never bought me a set, so I was just curious."
"Oh really? How unfortunate. It's never too late to own a set though. The one you're looking at is the princess, here's the prince." The seller pointed at the solemn faced doll dressed in a gold embroidered black kimono. Its expression was of utmost disinterest. Sakura let out a giggle. Reminds me of Sasuke-kun! She quickly regained her composure.
"They really are beautiful. But I doubt I could afford even one, let alone both."
The merchant watched Sakura intently, studying her. His eyes were yellowish with dark dilated pupils that seemed to widen with each passing second. Her eyes darted about in discomfort and just when she was about to suggest that she better be heading off to meet her teammates, the man flashed his toothy grin at her again.
"How about this. I sell you the obina for a discounted price. "
"Hn? Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, this really is an old set and young girls aren't really interested in antiques. You're the first person to give them the time of day. The prince is missing his hat and the sword that was originally made with it, so true collectors won't be into this piece either."
"But what about the mebina? Aren't they supposed to be a set?" Sakura wondered as she studied the elegant couple sitting together. The old man demonstrated his smile once again.
"You're always welcomed to purchase the princess too." Not knowing how to respond, Sakura managed a weak smile. She felt bad but even at a lower price the probability of her being able to buy even the prince was slim to none. Still, she couldn't resist the urge to own a dairi bina set. Especially since the prince reminded her so much of Sasuke.
"8 000 yen," offered the man. Sakura looked up in shock.
"Sakura." She turned her head to find the life-size model of the prince standing beside her. The same indifferent mask, like that of the doll, on his face.
"Sa-Sasuke-kun! Why are you here?" stammered Sakura in embarrassment. He must have found her interest in these dolls simply pathetic.
"I should be asking you that. I'm heading to the bridge. You're going to be late if you keep drooling over these toys."
Sakura glanced at the merchant who was glaring at Sasuke, his face increasing its shade of red.
"I'm so sorry, mister. I have to go. Will you be here tonight? Maybe I'll drop by again." The man returned his gaze on the kunoichi and sighed deeply.
"Yea, the market will be opened late. I'll be here waiting for your return."
Sakura bowed her head apologetically and hurried to catch up to Sasuke who had already headed off. She caught up to him as they left the market and walked until the sounds of the street disappeared, leaving them in silence.
"I didn't know you were still into dolls."
Sakura jumped, surprised that it was Sasuke who was the first to attempt at conversation. She blushed and giggled reluctantly.
"No, well, I... I was just curious, that's all," she managed to respond before she found herself shrinking in embarrassment. He left it at that, and didn't question her any further.
The sun began to dip past the horizon as Team 7 sprawled themselves on the field out of exhaustion. Helping a lord move all his belongings from one side of town to the other had completely taken out the team's energy. Even Naruto, face down on the grass, was silent.
"Well, I suppose we'll call it a day. Same time tomorrow kids!" with that their masked sensei disappeared before their eyes.
Naruto groaned and lifted his head. His stomach was growling and every bone in his body seemed to ache. The heavy breathing of his teammates and the crickets' night songs reached his ears. He sat straight up as he remembered the time.
"What is it, Naruto? You seemed troubled," Sakura inquired, propping herself up with her arms, her legs stretched out in front of her.
"Huh? Oh, haha! Nothing, I just remembered that I promised Hinata-chan that I would go see her doll collection today. I've forgotten the last three times already! Don't know what the craze is all about—" Naruto quickly shut his mouth as he realized that it was Sakura who he was talking to and she would probably yell at him for dismissing the girls' day festival in such a way. Instead, he found her cheeks glowing a deep red. "Uh, Sakura-chan?"
"Hm? Oh, it's nothing. I just remembered that I have to go to the market and pick up something. I guess I'll head home to shower and then be on my way. I'll see you two tomorrow!" she exclaimed as she stood up and brushed off the grass from the back of her legs.
"Are you going to the night market too, Sakura-chan? I heard there's a fireworks display tonight, and food stalls set up!" Naruto explained as he watched her, trying to read her reaction. It was not common for Sakura to seem so apprehensive.
"Um, yea... just for a short while though. Are you bringing Hinata-chan?" Sakura giggled. Naruto was still clueless about the timid girl's attention towards him but Sakura hoped he would clue in soon.
"Hmm... I hadn't thought about that. Do you think she'd wanna go? All I know is that I'm starving right now. I hope there's food at her house."
"Please be a gentleman. If I were you, I'd change into something nicer, especially if you intend on taking her out to the market tonight."
"Eh? I guess... Well, I better get going then! I'm going to be late for sure!"
Sakura watched in awe as the blond jumped up and ran at full speed towards the town, leaving a cloud of dust along the trail. His stamina was inexhaustible as always. She turned to see Sasuke getting up on his feet. He hadn't spoken a word as usual.
"Ne? Sasuke kun, will you be at the market?" she asked delusively, not like he would say yes anyway.
"What will you be doing then?"
He suppressed the urge to tell her to mind her own business. "I'm going to train." With that, he left her standing in the middle of the field alone.
Sakura stumbled out of the shower as she tried to race the answering machine. With bubbles rising from her hair, she left wet imprints of her feet all the way across her room. The phone slipped out of her hands and she clumsily tried to pick it up while trying to secure the towel across her chest.
"Forehead girl!?" Sakura rolled her eyes and leaned herself against her bed, careful not to soak everything she touched.
"What is it, Ino-pig? I'm in the shower."
"You going to the market? Shikamaru and Chouji wanted to go."
"So? Go then!" She lifted her bangs from her forehead as shampoo started to run down the side of her face.
"Yea, I know, but it's weird."
"What's weird? They're your teammates!"
"Um, you know. I feel embarrassed wearing a kimono in front of them."
Sakura stifled a laugh. "It's only Shikamaru and Chouji... Unless of course, there's something going on that I don't know about!"
"Forehead girl! I need help to get ready and my mom's out at the market. She set up a flower stand there." The pink haired girl glanced over at her sweaty outfit, there was no way she could wear it out again tonight.
"Alright, alright. Come over then."
"Great! I'll be over in about fifteen minutes."
The two exchanged goodbyes and then hung up. Sakura ran over to her closet and pulled out a box. Gingerly, she lifted out her dusty kimono. It was a simple one, red with giant cherry blossom embroidered into the fabric. She bit down on her lower lip as she took out the rest of the accessories, it wasn't the most extravagant, but she hoped Sasuke could see her all dressed up. Maybe he would find her just a little bit attractive?
As soon as Ino arrived, the two girls busied themselves with getting ready. Ino had brought with her an aqua coloured kimono with designs of various flowers. They helped each other set their hairs into buns with long needles. As a final touch, Sakura tied a butterfly obi for Ino.
"Wow, you're really good at this!" the girl expressed as she turned around to examine it from the mirror.
"Nah, it took me a lot of practice and sometimes it never turns out. I guess we're lucky today."
"How do you want me to tie yours?" asked the slender blonde as she held up the mango shaded obi.
"Ah, just keep it simple. I might not stay for the fireworks. I just wanted to pick up something at the market."
"Pick up what?" asked Ino suspiciously as she tightened the sash around Sakura's waist.
"So you're going to ditch me?"
"Aw, come on. You'll be with Shikamaru and Chouji!"
"Chouji has to help out his father later with their sweets store. So it'll just be me and Shikamaru!"
"Even better!" Sakura giggled. "Tell me, what's up with you two anyway?"
"Me and that lazy arrogant know-it-all?!"
The girl ranted through the rest of the process of securing the obi, often scolding Sakura to stop laughing so hard as it kept loosening the belt.
"So where do we meet them?" asked Sakura as her eyes scanned the busy crowds. Most of them were young girls and their mothers, but many youths were scattered about with their friends, enjoying the night festivities. It was a cool night, but the gathering of people and the heat from the food stalls, kept the place at a comfortable temperature.
"At my mom's stand. They're over there." The girls made their way through the congestion. Shikamaru and Chouji stood idly beside the flowers dressed in plain kimono of solid colours. Shikamaru, in gray, was conversing with Ino's mother while Chouji, in forest green, munched on a bag of arare. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow as he caught them approaching.
"Ino, dear, you've kept the two boys waiting!" lectured her mother.
"Hello, Mrs. Yamanaka."
"Sakura, you look lovely. Are you doing okay? When are your parents coming back? You should come over for dinner more often. You've heard the new recently, there's been missing people and abductions all the time! You have to be careful!"
"Oh, I'm fine, thanks for the offer though. They said they'll be back before my birthday so in about two weeks or so. I can take care of myself until then."
As Sakura answered Mrs. Yamanaka's questions, Shikamaru moved over next to Ino. His expression was laziness, annoyance, and boredom all mixed into one. He handed something towards the girl.
"Here." Ino looked down to see a batch of her mother's flowers in his hands. She dropped her jaw at first and then quickly regained her composure.
"What? You want a refund?"
"It's for you, you idiot," he grinded through his teeth, obviously not enjoying the situation.
"Ino! Shikamaru got here early and picked them out for you. You should thank the boy!" scolded her mother as she whacked her daughter's head with flower stem.
"Thank you, Shikamaru kun," stressed the girl, her words dripping with sarcasm.
"You're welcome." He was content. Ino fumed. This must be one of his mind games! Still, she found herself slightly blushing when she noticed one of her favourite flowers in the bouquet. Sakura looked at Chouji and the both shrugged at the antics of the couple.
They bid Ino's mother farewell, before beginning their wander around the street. Sakura and Ino walked in front, while the two boys followed behind. They stopped at every stand, browsing through the hair accessories and trinkets being sold, while Chouji did not fail in trying a free sample from each snack bar. Even Shikamaru found something of interest, when he saw a booth that sold quality Go boards. The four stopped to rest at Ichiraku where they found Naruto, Hinata, Kiba, and Shino.
"Sakura-chan!" greeted Naruto. "Hey, how come you're with Team 10?" The boy had indeed returned home for a change of clothes. In an off-white robe, his presentation appeared more appropriate for someone who just came out of the shower than a night out at a festival with a pretty girl.
"Ino wanted me to accompany her." Sakura leaned in, "She's shy about going out with Shikamaru alone!" Naruto lifted his head in acknowledgment.
"Forehead girl!" Ino shoved her away. "What about you? Why are you with Team 8? On a date with Hinata-chan? Does Neji know about this?"
"Um, um..." Hinata stuttered as she looked down at her hands, her face turning a deep red in contrast to her pastel yellow kimono.
"Like Hinata would date a dumbass like him!" Kiba rolled his eyes and rested his chin on the table. Akamaru barked in unison and then took cover in Kiba's patterned kimono. Naruto rolled up his leaves and tried to get out of his seat, but Sakura promptly put him back in place. Hinata stole a glimpse at Shino who was situated between the two equally loud genin. The young man adjusted his sunglasses and then shrugged. The ramen-loving boy attacked Kiba with his deadly glare before turning back to Ino's direction.
"What do you mean date? We came out here with Neji and the rest of his group. He said he'll come pick up Hinata-chan after. Tenten dragged him and Lee off somewhere or something."
At the cue, Gai's team, dressed for the occasion, showed up. Each held several boxes in their arms.
"Sakura san! You look beautiful tonight!" Lee complimented as he approached Sakura, who blushed and nodded her thanks. She would die in ecstasy if the compliment came from Sasuke, but nonetheless she appreciated Lee's affection to her. Ever since the Chuunin exam he had been like a big brother to her. The original nine genins all began to chat, while Naruto and Chouji remained deeply concentrated in their ramen.
"Eh? What are you guys all holding?" pried Ino as she examined the boxes closely. Tenten smiled, her cheeks bright red. Neji looked away while Lee scratched his head.
"My parents never got me hina-ningyo when I was young. So the two agreed to contribute to my celebration!"
The girls all sighed in reverence as they peered into the separate boxes. It must have cost the two boys a fortune. There were the dolls, the stands, the decoration, just about everything a girl could ask for in a collection.
"Mmph, Hinata has an awesome doll set too! I saw it today!" boasted Naruto between mouthfuls before returning to his bowl.
"I only have the dairi-bina my parents got for me at my first hina matsuri when I was a baby," Ino stated as she neatly closed the box. "What about you, Sakura?"
"Heh, I don't even have that."
"Maybe you should get Sasuke-kun and Naruto to chip in on a set for you!" jested Ino.
"Sasuke could probably afford it, but from the deflated look of his frog-wallet, I doubt Naruto can even pay the bill for tonight's meal," Shikamaru pointed out before leaning his back on the table, gazing impassively at the people on the street. The whole group laughed as Naruto grabbed his wallet defensively and protested the accusation with noodles flying out of his mouth.
"Hey, we're just going to drop these off at my place. We'll meet you guys back here later, okay?" Tenten assured the group as she dragged her teammates away from the rest of the group. Struggling to keep up and not drop everything, the two boys hastened to utter their partings.
"Tenten sure is lucky. One of the two must have a thing for her to be willing to spend so much money," expressed Ino as the crowd swallowed the group from their vision. Naruto turned to Hinata for a commentary but she only smiled shyly and shrugged.
"Oh, that reminds me!" exclaimed Sakura as she hopped off her stool. "I have to get going too. Sorry guys, I'll catch up with all of you later. Have a good time though."
"Already?" asked Ino nervously. Sakura gave her a quick hug.
"You'll be fine," she whispered.
"I guess I'll come with you, Sakura. Since I should help out my dad," said Chouji as he scrambled for exact change in his pocket.
"See you tomorrow morning, Sakura-chan!" Naruto called out as she and Chouji left their seats. Sakura turned around and gave him a wink, which left Naruto completely puzzled.
Sakura and Chouji parted ways shortly after they left Ichiraku. They hadn't discussed much about Ino and Shikamaru but both agreed that there was indeed something going on between the two. He found his father's part-time store soon after and bade her farewell. She tip-toed as she observed her surroundings, trying to remember which booth it was that she went to in the morning.
"Over here, Sakura!" yelled a familiar voice. Sakura turned to see the old man waving from his shop at the end of the busy street. It was located right next to a dark alley. She hesitated a slight moment before brushing away her paranoid stupidity and then made her way towards him through the crowd. Now, at night, under the luminescence of the lanterns, his once red face appeared bluish. Still, she recognized his thick eyebrows, the eerie dilated pupils, and his grotesque teeth.
"You came back, Sakura! I thought you would've changed your mind!"
"Why would you think that? And how do you know my name?"
"Oh! I heard that ill-tempered young man address you by that name this morning and from the words he spoke to you, I assumed you would have been deterred from coming back."
Sakura smiled sheepishly. There was some truth in the words of the merchant, but he did not realize that the ill-tempered young man was also part of the reason why she wanted this ningyo so badly. It reminded her so much of him. She turned her attention to the princess that sat next to the prince. The doll did not look like her at all.
"Are you really sure it's okay that I purchase one but not the other? I mean, they are a matching set, a couple."
"Trust me. There are many ways to complete a set. So don't you go and worry about something as miniscule as that."
Sakura tilted her head up to meet the black, hole-like pupils of the vendor right before her face. She toppled a few steps backwards from the startle and bumped into another customer.
"Oops! I'm so sorry!" she apologized, casting her head down.
"No worries, I didn't mean to surprise you. Here, here. Just take the doll." The merchant quickly placed the obina in a box and handed it to her. From her wallet, Sakura produced the 8 000 yen to the bear-sized man who thanked her in a toothy grin.
"I feel bad for taking money from such a pretty young girl like you. There's a little something for you at the bottom of the bag. I made them myself."
Guilt struck Sakura, as she saw the box of hishimochi underneath the doll. She opened her mouth to decline the gift but the man waved her off as another customer approached him. Backing out of the mob of people she focused her attention on her new investment as she started her way home.
Sasuke grunted as he finally closed the door to his room. The activity on the streets had annoyed him beyond imagination, being able to hear it from his side of town made it even worse. It was all the commotion over a silly girly day. He was glad his family never had to deal with hina matsuri, glad that he did not have a sister, only a brother. A brother that wiped out the family and the rest of the clan. His dark eyes immediately flashed red and swirled in anger as he searched for something in the room to destroy. He picked up the nearest object, a photo frame, and was just about to smash it into oblivion when he realized the photo was of him, Kakashi, Naruto, and Sakura. The stupid expression on Naruto's face almost made him smile. Almost. He sighed as he placed the frame back in its place. Studying the photo again he realized that the particular shot was not exactly flattering for him either. Only Kakashi and Sakura were smiling. Sakura was, as always, a little to happy. He broke away from the picture and looked out the window. The streets were still bustling with activity. Catching the sight of a doll in the hands of a little girl reminded him of the occasion this morning. He had caught Sakura browsing at those creepy looking figurines earlier today. Sasuke frowned and left his room. He found himself standing in the main hallway. The house was in complete darkness, except for the moonlight that washed in from the windows. Without a thought in his head, he approached the room that was once occupied by his parents. He slid the door open. Pain ached through his heart at the bareness of the room. A single chest sat in the far corner. It contained the last things that he kept in reminder of his parents. Placing his hands on the dusted surface, he slowly opened the chest. Various valuables littered the wooden trunk, many that he tried not to focus on, lest they bring him any more memories. And then he saw it, the lonely doll sitting at the very bottom. He had enclosed it in a plastic box when he had packed all his parents items away eight years ago. As he lifted it gently into his lap, the boy wondered why he had kept the doll after all these years.
It was a vague memory, but there were few memories of his past that were not overshadowed by that other night. The evening at the house of Uchiha was quiet compared to the streets of Konoha. His father and brother were out on a mission, leaving only him and his mother. She was busy dusting the place when Sasuke confronted her.
"What's going on outside, Mom?" he asked nonchalantly while scribbling down homework answers at the coffee table. She smiled warmly at her son and then patted his head. Sasuke ducked away and then looked to his mother for an explanation.
"Hina matsuri. It's a day of celebration for little girls," she stated firmly, resuming her chores. Sasuke blinked a few times in perplexity and then continued watching his mother.
"Did you celebrate?"
"How come you don't celebrate now?" the boy wondered. His mother giggled and then took his hand.
"Come, I'll show you something."
She led him to the storage room and then proceeded to open a big cardboard box.
"Don't tell your father or brother about this, okay?"
Sasuke nodded obligingly as his mother reached into the box. His eyes widened in excitement. A secret scroll? A cool ninja weapon? Just when he thought he could not wait any longer, his mother revealed in her hand... a doll. The five year old almost collapsed in disappointment. Patiently, he sat down beside his mother. There was still hope. The overly dressed ningyo could be a deadly decoy of some sort used on enemies. Sasuke's mother raised an eyebrow as she watched the expression on her son's face.
"It's just a doll, Sasuke." The boy tried not to seem too disenchanted so he nodded his head vigorously. His mother laughed. Sasuke smiled. He loved the sound of his mother's laugh. It always reminded him of better things.
"There's a whole box of them. My mother passed them down to me and I'm supposed to pass them down to my daughter," she explained. Sasuke fixed his attention on the doll dressed in a many layered red kimono. There was an abundant of them recently around town. Most of them sat emotionless, staring into the distance, yet, the one his mother held in her hands was different. First, it wasn't just holding any particular fan, it was holding the Uchiha fan. Second, the doll wore a smile on her face, a soft one like that of his mother's. The young Uchiha heir watched as his mother put the doll back into its place.
"Remember, it's a secret between me and you. Your father doesn't enjoy seeing these kinds of things in the house. He thinks they're useless. If you can keep this promise, I'll give them to your future wife when you're older."
She patted his head and proceeded back to the living room to finish up the spring cleaning. Sasuke blushed. Future wife? He had never concerned himself with those kinds of thoughts. The boy could see why his father held such opinions for the dolls but couldn't help feeling a little excited about the prospects of owning the dolls in the future. After all, his mother had promised them to him over his brother.
The very doll that his mother once showed him now sat on the floor in front of him. There was no particular reason he could think of for bringing it to his room now. He remembered he had burned almost everything in the house after the incident, including the rest of the ningyo set. But when the time came to drop this particular figure into the fire, he had hesitated. It reminded him of one of the fondest memory he had of his mother. Sasuke scowled as he felt the discomfort in his chest. He placed the doll on top of his drawer, shoved his hands into his pocket, and then left his room.
She adjusted the position of the stand one final time before standing back and nodding in satisfaction. The obina sat at the far corner of her desk next to the window. Despite adjusting the doll for the last ten minutes since she got home, Sakura still felt there was something amiss with her display. She sighed when she realized that it was probably the lack of the mebina doll beside it.
"I guess you're just as lonely as me," she mumbled. As the girl flopped backwards onto her bed, her right arm knocked over something. Quickly she retrieved the box from the floor and realized it was the hishimochi that the man had given her. She picked out a piece of the diamond-shaped tri-coloured rice cake. The pink, white, and green were evenly layered. Sakura took a bite and was taken back when she realized the culinary skills of the merchant. He didn't seem like the type to cook. The girl consumed the piece and then closed the box. Checking the time on her clock, she decided it was a good idea to call it a night. She stood up to change out of her kimono but suddenly found herself frozen on the spot. Coldness crept through her body, originating from her chest. The sensation spread as it reached her neck and filled up her throat. She could not scream! Without the command of her limbs, she crumpled onto the floor. The hishimochi scattered across the room. Sakura panicked as she heard the sound of her balcony door slide open. She tried to move but found her arms and legs stiff. There was no mistake about it; someone was breaking into her house. The intruder found the way across the room to turn off the lights. Sakura's eyes raced left and right as she tried to catch a glimpse of the stranger. In one swift movement, she was picked up and then slung over a broad shoulder. Her captor slid towards the balcony and then stopped. Sakura waited and listened, wondering what was happening. And then she caught the intruder's source of distress. It was Naruto's voice!
The liveliness at the streets had begun to die down. Only a few remaining shop keepers ran about as they tried to pack up for the night. Sasuke made his way along the streets. He had no exact destination, only the need for a temporary escape from the sadness that drowned him at home. The boy turned a corner only to cringe at the loud holler of a familiar voice.
Naruto was banging and shouting on the door of a particular residence. Sasuke peered up at the balcony and recognized it as Sakura's home. It was dark inside. Either she was not home, or she was asleep. But it was late and no human with normal hearing would be able to withstand the noise pollution that transmitted from Naruto's mouth. Slightly cautious, Sasuke approached his teammate.
"What are you doing, dobe."
"Hey Sasuke! Shut up, baka! I don't have time to deal with you tonight!"
"I asked you what you were doing, you moron."
"...Ino said Sakura-chan's parents have been away for the last while. I just wanted to check up on her."
"So you're banging on her door in the middle of the night."
Naruto lowered his voice. "The light was on just moments ago when I was approaching her place."
Sasuke nodded. The two glanced up at the window. The dark haired boy motioned for the blond to go through the front while he checked out the veranda. Used to taking orders from him, Naruto took out a needle from his pouch and picked at the lock until he heard a click. He eased open the door and then turned back to Sasuke, giving him a thumbs up. With two simple maneuvers, the Uchiha prodigy landed softly on the terrace. Indeed, the lock on the sliding glass door was broken. He could sense the strange chakra emitting from inside what he presumed was Sakura's room, but try as he might he could not detect the familiar presence of his teammate. Were they too late? A shout and then a loud thump from within signaled Sasuke to take action. He threw opened the slide door and scanned the room with his sharingan to locate the enemy.
The boy whirled around to catch sight of the large shadow jump out through the opening. Moonlight washed over the form to reveal a red faced man carrying a certain pink haired girl over his shoulder. Sakura. The man lost no time in jumping down from the edge. The two genins did not spare a single moment as they dashed out of Sakura's room in pursuit.
Streaks of light stretched across the sky, signaling the coming of dawn. Naruto smashed his fist into the trunk of a tree sending splinters and woodchips flying. They had lost track of Sakura and her abductor. The speed at which the man escaped was beyond comprehension. His shoulders heaved up and down as he tried to catch his breath. Sasuke placed a hand against a tree opposite of Naruto, leaning his weight against it.
"You shouldn't have attacked him without making sure his location. You're supposed to be a ninja." The accusations began.
"Me? I wasn't attacking him, I slipped!"
"Hn. You can't get anything right can you, dobe."
"Oh yea? What about you? Just open the door and let him escape? You might as well have invited him out."
The two glared at each other in contempt for a long moment before sinking to the ground. There was no use in arguing.
"What do we do now? Do you think Sakura-chan is okay?"
"Why did he take her? I don't get it. What's he going to do to her?"
"I don't know. Stop asking so many questions. We better head back to her place. We'll continue from there."
Naruto tightened his fists. He strode over to his rival and exploded. "Do you even care about her?! How can you be so calm?!"
"What are you talking about? We don't have time for this okay."
Sasuke pushed the other boy out of the way and jumped into the tree tops in the direction of Konoha. Naruto grunted. He was well aware that a shinobi should not let his emotions get in the way of a mission but the consistent insensitive attitude of Sasuke was driving him nuts. The fact was that Sakura was in possible danger at the moment and Sasuke could not react any differently than if it was just another mission to save some lost pet. With anger fueling his momentum, Naruto sped after his apathetic friend.
Except for a box of hishimochi that was dispersed on the floor, Sakura's room was orderly. It was an immediate indication to Sasuke that his teammate did not have the time to struggle. There was also the question as to why he was unable to perceive her chakra from outside. An obina-ningyo sat on Sakura's desk. Sasuke grunted at the girl's childishness and then resumed his inspection. He took notice of one of the squished mochi at the doorway. Naruto must have slipped on that particular piece; thus, foiling their strategy. The usually loud ninja now sat on the corner of Sakura's bed in silence. Gingerly, he picked up a piece of the wasted food.
"You're not going to eat that are you?" Sasuke taunted as he examined the sliding door for any left behind traces. Naruto dashed the tri-coloured rice cake onto the ground.
"You don't have to check the door, Sasuke. It was obvious you opened it and let the bastard out. The thing isn't automatic." The two faced each other once again, the brewing of another fight. Finally, Naruto gave in and kicked the object nearest to his foot sending the box flying at Sasuke, who promptly caught it in his hands.
"Screw this! I'm going to go save Sakura-chan myself."
"And where will you start? Use your head, you moron, we have no clue where she is."
"It's better than wasting time here."
"Do what you want then." Sasuke was about to launch the box at the wall when, most likely out of habit incase he broke something valuable at home, his eyes caught a small inscription on the bottom of the box. An emblem of some sort. His mind raced as he tried to recall a sign of recognition for the symbol but he realized this was impossible since he hardly ever went anywhere in town.
"Naruto, do you recognize this?" The agitated blond peered over at what Sasuke was pointing to on the box.
"Not sure. Guess I've seen it around before."
"Come on, this is important. Where have you seen this logo?"
"Just some store near the outskirts of Konoha. What, you think some mochi-maker kidnapped Sakura?"
"Read the name of the store."
"Ii-Kusu-Kusu-Ta. So? Good Laugh? The store sells goods and sweets."
"Read the consonant-vowel pairs backwards."
"Tasuku, Sukui. The storekeeper can give us our next lead. Let's go." Content that Sasuke was at least putting an effort into searching for Sakura, Naruto nodded.
She could not move, nor speak. The sounds she heard seemed to echo in her ears and her vision was blurry. Enclosed in a dark windowless room, Sakura lay sprawled out on the tatami floor. The only light emitted from a single lit lantern that hung on the wall. It filled the empty room with an eerie glow. With great effort, she shifted the direction of her eyes to the sound of footsteps. The door slid open.
"Change her into the outfit before the cosmetic procedures," instructed a deep voice. One individual left and then she could hear the door slide shut. An arm slid under her to lift her up and position her back on her feet. She had absolutely no control of her limbs. Like a figurine they were fixed, as she stood perfectly balanced. Sakura could not even express her horror when she recognized the giant bulgy-eyed shopkeeper who sold her the ningyo. Her ears throbbed at the pounding of her heart. The merchant grinned from ear to ear, his pupils dilating as he neared her.
"My dear Sakura, you're such a pretty little blossom. Don't be afraid. Soon, your body will be accustomed to my drug and you will lose all consciousness. Though you will lose your spirit, your body will sustain itself and complete my life-sized ningyo collection as the mebina. Aren't you excited? You will remain beautiful forever."
He leaned in towards her neck and inhaled deeply. His rough hands played with her floral hair before stroking her neck. The size of his hands could easily wring her neck or snap it in half.
"You're so delicate, just like a flower." The monster wrapped his hand around her neck and raised her off her feet. Sakura was helpless. She could not even summon her emotions to awaken Inner Sakura. His grip tightened and closed off her throat, yet no reaction appeared on her face.
"I could kill you now and save you from further suffering, but I like the look of agony. It brings so much more beauty to my dolls." The door slid open again and eight long-haired women entered the room carrying a single oversized trunk. Each one was expressionless as the other and uniformly presented. The women did not speak a single word. The scene of the eight women and her captor was the last image Sakura could retain before she felt a sudden chill down her spine. Her vision faded into blackness and she slipped away from consciousness.
The jounin raised his eyebrows lazily, scanning the bridge. There was no sign of his students and the only sound was the running river underneath. For a brief moment he wondered if this was some kind of plan to get back at him for always being late. But then considering that he was four hours late today, it was not likely. It would be impossible for them to predict the time he would arrive. The chance of all three being absent was rare. Kakashi could confidently deduce that there was trouble. He crouched on the railing of the bridge and flipped open his naughty book. The debate now was whether they needed his help. He would give them until sunset.
"Please, don't hurt me!" stammered the white haired old man as the two boys cornered him. They had tried reasoning but he had refused to cooperate. Pretending to be customers, Naruto and Sasuke had entered the store. Indeed, the shop was stocked from wall to wall with festival goods. With the arrival of hina matsuri in two days, rows of ningyo and sweets lined the shelves. They browsed for a few seconds before approaching the storekeeper. When the frail senior heard their true purpose for visiting, he had tried to make a run for the door. With little effort, the genins trapped him from further movement. He cowered into the corner and shielded his face with his arms. Naruto cracked his knuckles. Each passing second was a threat to Sakura's life.
"Just tell us what you know."
"Tell us or I'm going to kick your ass!"
"I... I can't... He... I just can't."
"Then why did you label the boxes with a call for help."
"I was hoping that some jounins or the anbu squad could figure it out. I didn't expect you boys to show up. There's nothing you can do. You won't be of any help." The man's shivering died down. His stare was fixed on the wooden floor and his body slacked in dejection.
"You're talking to the future hokage here! And this isn't about us or you or whatever. This is about my Sakura-chan. I need to save her and you have no decision in that." Naruto grabbed the old man's collar and raised him to eye-level. "She's important to me."
The shop owner glanced at the other boy for assistance but Sasuke only turned his head away, a scowl on his face. Planting his face in his hands, the old man began to sob. Naruto released him from his grasp.
"I... I'm so useless. I'm so sorry. My name is Goemon. Kano Goemon. I've lived in Konoha all my life, making my living from this store. My wife died when she gave birth to our daughter, Tsuki. About two years ago, Tsuki disappeared. I informed the ninja police, searched everywhere in this village, but still couldn't find a trace of her. I was so heartbroken. That is, until Tsuki suddenly showed up at the shop three months later. She told me that she was in love. This man that she loved was named Oniji. He was a scientist. An alchemist. A psychopath. He promised her eternal beauty and happiness. Tsuki had returned only to demand that I assist her new love's passion. She threatened to never see me again. I'm really sorry. I know it's wrong, but she is my only daughter. She is all I have left in this world to remind me of my wife. She forbade me from telling anyone, that is why I designed the logo on all the boxes. I had hoped that someone would investigate this and save her. That way, I wouldn't have to break my promise to her."
Naruto frowned as he tried to take in the man's story. There were many questions he wanted to ask. Who was this Oniji? What were his true intentions? What had this to do with Sakura's disappearance? The fox-boy glanced at Sasuke who was as stoic as usual. He crossed his arms and tried to remain patient.
"She instructed that I mass-produce the mochi that I sold with Oniji's special ingredient and that I provide him with any festive products at his demand."
The blond opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Sasuke. "What is this ingredient?"
"It's a drug he created. I'm not sure how. All I know is that once consumed, the toxin would spread itself throughout the individual's body through the circulation system. It minimizes all bodily functions until the victim becomes an empty shell. That is, although the heart still pumps, the soul is vanquished. At least, that is the conclusion I have speculated."
"Vanquished? Does that mean Sakura-chan—"
"How long does it take for this drug to take full effect?" interrupted Sasuke, his voice on the verge of exposing his concern.
"I have seen him use it once and it took about four days. But he constantly tries to improve the poison and decrease the time it takes to—"
"Is there any known antidote?" Goemon shook his head at the dark haired boy.
"What?! There must be!"
"I don't know the exact method he used in creating this drug. All I know is that it involves a jutsu. A summon that involves the devil. Oniji studies the powers of evil."
"Is it too late to save Sakura-chan?! Why is that Oniji guy doing this anyway?!"
"I really don't know. His victims are usually young men and women."
Sasuke stepped forward. "Tell us where to find him." Goemon opened his mouth to protest but was met with the glares of two determined shinobi.
"The cave is at the Leaking Gap Waterfall about 10 kilometers from here. The entrance is underneath the mountain—" Naruto ran towards the door with Sasuke following behind.
"Wait!" The two spun around.
"If you find Tsuki. Please, please try to bring her back for me. She always carries a doll with her. It was a present that her mother made for her when she was still in the womb. Please, as a humble request from an old man." Naruto nodded in reply before both of them disappeared before Goemon's eyes.
Before they had reached the cave, the two boys had strategized their rescue mission along the way. There was too much uncertainty of the situation for them to risk getting caught, so they decided to split up. Naruto would enter the cave from underneath while Sasuke tried to find a different entrance. The mountain was more like a rocky hill with a weak waterfall that spilled into the lake. With so many giant cracks along the side, there was bound to be another way to get in.
Crawling along a tunnel of darkness, Sasuke began to wonder if it was a good idea to let Naruto use the main entrance. Judging from the structure and the slant of the path he took now, the hideout of this Oniji was probably underground. The boy tried to concentrate on the space ahead of him as he swiftly maneuvered through, but try as he might, thoughts of Sakura continued to intrude his mind. Would they be too late? He felt a pang of guilt for assuming her safety because she was abducted. The first conclusion he had came to was that she was being used as bait to lead either him or Naruto to the enemy. When there were no notes left behind, he realized Sakura was the target. But still, it was not until Goemon informed them of the situation that Sasuke truly began to panic. What could happen to her being in the hands of a psycho? He tried to admit that all this concern was purely due to the fact that she was a teammate, but he felt his rage boil within when he speculated what that Oniji would do to an innocent girl. If he touched her...Sasuke's thoughts were interrupted by a loud shout. Naruto. He observed his surroundings. The tunnel had led him to an opening. Lighting a match, he saw that the area stretched far and wide. Oniji must have hollowed out the mountain and then built his home within. For a second, Sasuke wondered how long it took for such a vast construction. He knew that the wood underneath his feet were probably the ceiling planks. Finding a knot in one of the boards, the Uchiha survivor peered through the hole. Naruto.
The loud-mouthed ninja was tied up and sitting on the floor. At least ten individuals surrounded him. It would be unwise to dive in at this moment.
"What did you do to my Sakura-chan!?" he demanded before a large wiry-haired man kicked him in the gut. Naruto keeled over, choking. The taste of blood filled his mouth. The blond spat and then sat back. He tried to stand up but was met with another kick. Sasuke clenched his fists.
"Your Sakura? Not anymore. Take him to the cell. I don't have time to deal with this brat. Watch over the place for me, I have to pay Goemon a visit to retrieve the final touches for my collection."
What does he mean by not anymore? Sasuke suppressed the anger that seemed to roar inside. The enemy would definitely detect his position if he let his emotions take over. He watched as uniformed young men dragged Naruto out of sight. Their movements were sluggish. Oniji must have used his poison on them as well. Were they dead already? The sharingan user swiftly swept across the area until he found another crack that would lead him deeper into the depths of the cave. He would free Naruto first before attempting to search for Sakura.
Naruto rubbed his head. Enclosed in darkness, they had dropped him down a two-storey well and closed it off with a large cement slab. He had tried scaling it with chakra but the barricade at the top had sent him falling back down. There was nothing else at the bottom except the ropes that had bound him. Punching the sides had only left his hands sore and bleeding. He did not have time to waste here. Sakura-chan needed his help. The sound of metal clashing came from above. Naruto looked up to see the slab grind open. Without hesitating for another moment, he rushed towards the light.
"Hurry up, you dobe!" Sasuke had locked his kunai with the sword of one of Oniji's men. There were at least fifty of them wobbling like zombies in their direction. The dark haired boy kicked one of them and sent them flying. He raised his kunai to slice the throat of another.
"Stop! Please... They're innocent." The two shinobi observed the figure who stood in the darkness. It was a young woman. Her black hair was down to her waist. Dressed in a white robe, there were multiple scars and stitches that ran across her skin. Stepping into the light of a lantern, the indigo pigment of her skin was revealed. She held a headless white doll in her arms. Goemon's daughter, Tsuki. At the sound of her voice, the wandering young men had stopped in their tracks.
"How do you know my name?"
"Your father was the one who helped us get here. So what do you want? Are you going to tell your lover now?" Naruto spat at the disfigured woman. She shook her head. Tears of blood ran down her cheeks as she began to cry.
"He did this to me. He used me to perform his experiments." Tsuki raised her hands in front of her face. The skin was dried and peeling.
"What does he want from Sakura-chan?"
"Sakura? The pink haired girl? Is that your friend?"
"Where is she now?" demanded Sasuke.
"She's in the 'main room'... It's useless though... It has been over twelve hours since she ingested the toxin."
"What?! I thought it took four days for the drug to completely take effect!"
"That was the case at first, but he has made a lot of improvements since then..."
"Why does he do this?! What does he want?!"
"He 'collects' people. To him, they are like dolls, his play things. Until he gets tired of them, he just displays them for his viewing pleasure—"
"Tired of them?" Sasuke raised an eyebrow at the suggestion.
"When he feels he needs a change of scenery, he discards them. Either mutilating them or... Whatever he feels like... Your friend, that Sakura girl... He is very fond of... They suffer the most, the ones he are fond of... He likes to see the pain..." More tears of blood leaked from her sockets.
"Where's the main room!" Naruto burst out. They must find a way to rescue Sakura-chan from this hell-hole and then return to the village for help. There is no way Sasuke and him could deal with such a monster alone.
"Don't you understand? She's good as dead. There's no cure! You two might as well save yourselves and run before he returns."
"Save the bullshit, lady. Where the hell is she?" Like her father, Tsuki cowered at the young man whose eyes began to swirl red. Shivering, she pointed in the direction of a large hallway. A large door was located at the end. Sasuke took off, leaving Naruto standing next to Tsuki, blood pouring down her face. Naruto took her hand firmly, causing her to gasp and jerk back.
"Don't touch me! I'm so disgusting!"
"I promised your father I'd bring you back."
"I can't even run, I'll just hinder your escape." The blue eyed boy examined Tsuki's legs. Her feet had been amputated at the ankle. What kind of monster was this Oniji? Without pondering further, he lowered himself and pulled Tsuki across his back. Blood dripped down his shoulder, the girl was crying again.
"Who are you? Why are you so nice to me? I am partly to blame for your friend's situation..."
"My name is Uzumaki Naruto. I never break my word." He made his way through the crowd of victims to catch up with Sasuke.
He kicked down the door. And then froze. In the middle of the great hall was a seven-leveled structure. Sasuke counted. Three at the fifth row, two at the fourth, five at the third, and three at the second. They all sat motionless like dolls. At the very top row sat Sakura. Her green eyes vacant, her face powdered white. With her hair tied down, she was dressed in extravagant layers. At her right sat an unidentifiable young man. Sasuke almost laughed out at the tinge of jealousy he felt. Frantically, he scaled the steps and crouched in front of his teammate. She remained immobile. Sasuke glowered at the sight of a red handprint spread around her neck. Leaning in, he gathered her in his arms and then jumped into the air.
A sword sliced through the air where he stood just moments ago. The Uchiha struggled to balance himself in the air carrying Sakura. The weight of the kimono was beyond imagination. How many layers was she wearing? The boy landed with the girl in his arms. He looked up to find the young man that had sat beside Sakura swaying towards them. So he was a guard.
"Sasuke! How is Sakura-chan?!" The fox-boy positioned his back against Sasuke. The zombie-army had begun to pursue them from down the hall. Even the commands of Tsuki had failed to deter them. Sasuke scanned Sakura's countenance. Her eyes stared back at him emptily.
"She's not even breathing, Naruto." Panic swept the other boy. Still carrying Tsuki on his back, he turned around to see the doll-like Sakura lying in Sasuke's arms.
"We should run, Sasuke. There's no way we can fight these people. Half of them are just prisoners of that monster. We can't risk the safety of Sakura-chan!"
Tightening his hold around the girl, Sasuke nodded.
"Wait... there might be hope for your friend." Holding the two boys' attention, Tsuki continued. "He worships Oni."
"Setsubun?" inquired Sasuke.
"No, not necessarily, but salt might do the trick. The jutsu he seals into his drugs involves summoning Oni. Salt might be able to purify the body from the impurity of his poison."
"Where am I supposed to find salt?" Sasuke hissed.
"I don't know if it will work. At the deepest level of this cave is a forbidden cavern that Oniji closed up. A giant salt crystal is embedded in the rock there. It's not just any kind of salt. The moisture that collects on the crystal runs into a lagoon. I have never been able to reach it because the path to reach the cavern is steep. Oniji must have chosen this as the location of his laboratory so that no one else can reach the crystal."
"Can you tell us how to get there then?" Naruto asked, his gaze fixed on Sakura's stiff form.
A loud rumbling sound shook the entire vicinity. Sasuke and Naruto strengthened their hold on the rope as it swayed back and forth. Each had one arm carrying a girl. They could see the crystal now. After they reach the bottom, it would be another small climb upwards that would take them to the elevated lagoon. The sparkling gem of salt reflected its light across the waters. If either of them dropped right now, it would land them in the lake. Sasuke clutched onto Sakura, the silky fabric of her kimono was not making it any easier.
"He's back," Tsuki whispered, indicating that the shake was indeed caused by Oniji.
"Damn, how long would it take before he reaches us?"
"I don't know, about ten minutes maximum?"
"Tsuki-san, wrap your arms around my neck so I can use both hands to get down faster." The blond began to slide down and increase the distance between him and Sasuke. In moments, he had jumped onto the rocky edge that protruded from the lake. There were many of them that led towards the lagoon, like flat topped stalagmite.
"Naruto, catch Sakura."
The blond opened his arms to prepare for the catch.
"TSUKI!!! HOW DARE YOU!"
Sharp fragments shot towards the young woman. Sasuke readjusted his weight to keep a hold on Sakura, as Naruto pushed Tsuki out of the way. The bushy browed villain had finally appeared. With one swift movement, he snapped the rope.
They hit the water. With the kimono layers soaking up the water, Sakura immediately began to sink. Even Sasuke could not pull her up against the weight. It was moments before they reached the bottom. The water seemed to have some effect though, as her eye-lids drifted close. With no other choice, Sasuke began to tear away her clothes. One, two, three, four, five... his movement under the water was immensely decreased. Six, seven, eight, nine... his eyes were focused intently on her sleep-like expression. Ten, eleven... he never realized her soft features. As the last layer was tugged off, and only the white undergarment remained, Sasuke slipped one arm around her waist and dragged the girl to the surface.
Naruto sighed in relief when Sasuke emerged holding Sakura. Though the make-up had been washed off, she remained as pale as the robe she wore. But he had only a moment to spare before Oniji lunged at him. The man closed his hand around Naruto's head and then flung him into the side of the cavern. He broke through the hard surface and then tumbled forward, landing into the lake.
"Naruto-kun!" screamed Tsuki. Oniji cast her a menacing look before heading towards her.
"You've betrayed me, Tsuki. After all that I've done for you."
"Done for me? Look at what you did to me? I'm hideous!" she screamed, only to be answered by the man's thundering laughter.
"It is a small price to pay. Out of all those who I've experimented on, I've only left you with a conscious mind. And look how you repay me now? But that is okay, thanks to you and thousands of others, I have finally perfected my methods." He glanced at the dark haired boy pulling his favourite doll onto the dry surface.
"First, I'll finish you off." He approached Tsuki, a large grin on his face. From behind, he pulled out a giant axe. Easily, he swung it at full speed, aiming for Tsuki's head. Blood sprayed across Oniji's face. The blond haired one had stopped his axe with his bare hands. Naruto moved the weapon away from his sight. Red fox eyes met Oniji's black ones.
"I will never forgive you. For what you did to Tsuki-san, and what you did to Sakura-chan!"
Oniji grunted before attempting to stomp his foot down on Tsuki. Naruto carried her away. The giant ducked at Sasuke's flying shuriken, but instead of turning around to deal with him, he tossed his axe at Naruto. There was no time to react! Sasuke dove towards the two and knocked them to the ground, as the axe made contact with a stalagmite further away and completely knocked it in half. They returned their attention to Oniji. He was dangling Sakura with one hand fastened on the back of her neck. The three froze. Oniji snickered.
"Pretty, isn't she?" He licked his lips. Her limbs swung helplessly in the air as he brought her closer to him. Sasuke stood up.
"Get away from Sakura-chan, you bastard!" Naruto shouted.
"Take another step, and I'll snap her spine," he informed Sasuke. "Although she is probably as good as dead by now. It won't be long now until her soul is completely lost forever." His other hand reached over to slide the sleeve of her robe down. And then, with eyes taunting the two boys, he slowly opened his mouth and bent down towards her shoulder.
"Get the fuck away from her!" Sasuke snarled as he appeared in front of the man, his right hand blazing the chidori, his sharingan activated. Taken back by his speed, Oniji stumbled backwards, releasing his grip on the girl. Naruto was also struck by Sasuke's reaction, but he quickly recovered and ran forward to catch Sakura.
The chidori met Oniji's face, burning into his cheek. His flesh began to part away from the impact. In desperation, he shoved a fist at Sasuke's gut, sending the boy backwards. Oniji screamed in pain as smoke rose from the hole on his face. Naruto laid Sakura down beside Tsuki and went in for an attack. Sasuke scrambled back on his legs to follow Naruto. A hand yanked at his shirt.
"You don't have time. Save your girl. There's only moments left. Leave the fighting to your friend. The lagoon! Quick!" Sasuke took a split second to collect his thoughts before wrapping his arms around Sakura.
"There must be a breath of life!" Sasuke did not have time to figure out the meaning of Tsuki's words as he leapt to the wall and then scaled it with his remaining chakra.
A brilliant white light emitted from the giant salt crystal. The rest of its surroundings were also crusted in whiteness. He gently walked into the shallow body of dark water. His wounds burned at the contact with the salty water but he treaded forward. When he reached the centre, he lowered Sakura's body and submerged her underneath. He waited. Her eyes did not open. Was it too late? Trying to remain patient, Sasuke struggled to refrain from shivering. Was he afraid? Had he lost her too? His left hand traveled to stroke her cheek. Please, wake up, Sakura. But there was no sign of life. A numbness enveloped his heart. He brought her back out of the water. Bending forward, he pressed her tightly against him. His heart was raging in pain and anger.
"Sasuke-kun, do you want to go on a date with me?"
Uchiha Sasuke tried to push thoughts of regret from his mind. Seething in fury, a single tear slid down his cheek. It shattered at the corner of Sakura's mouth. He could not believe that he would be losing her so soon.
He swooped down and kissed her. Tasting the saltiness of his tear, he found himself submerging into the water. I'm sorry Sakura. His mouth lingered at her soft lips, before his eyes opened to look at her one last time. Oniji will pay. But in that moment, his eyes widened as Sakura weakly fluttered open her eyelids. Sasuke quickly lifted her out of the water. She coughed and choked as oxygen entered her lungs.
"Sa-sasuke-kun?" Her entire body shook. The decreased flow of her blood must have chilled the girl. Sasuke gathered Sakura closer to his body as he turned to the sound of Naruto's yell.
Tsuki tumbled into a heap in front of Naruto. Oniji had struck at him but she had blocked the hit that penetrated her abdomen.
"Tsuki!" he yelled. But as he tried to reach out to the girl, Oniji shot his fist towards the boy. Naruto braced for the impact that never came. He looked up to find his silver-haired sensei smiling at him.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto broke into a huge grin. Behind Kakashi were an anbu team and Goemon. Oniji laid still on the ground.
"Where's Sasuke and Sakura?" the jounin casually asked. Naruto turned to the direction of the wall. Sasuke stood at the top, in his arms, a shivering Sakura. The anbu team went quickly to their assistance.
"Tsuki!" Goemon held his deformed daughter's body in his arms.
"Father... I... I'm so sorry." The girl reached up to touch her father's face.
"I... I don't know what to say... There's... no excuse."
"It's okay, Tsuki. Father forgives you..." Blood spilled from her eyes.
"I don't deserve it. I've caused so much loss."
"It wasn't your fault. It was that—"
"I believed him... I loved him... I was so... stupid..." There were so many things she wanted to say. But there was no strength left in the tortured girl. Goemon sobbed as his daughter's eyes became vacant. Naruto's lip quivered on the verge of tears. Oniji had claimed his last victim.
"... Oniji is locked up in the mental institution and Hokage-sama is curing the rest of his captives," Kakashi told his students plainly. He, Naruto, and Sasuke were loitering at the bridge.
"And Goemon?" Naruto asked.
"He's back at his shop carrying on with his life."
"Well, love makes you do stupid things sometimes. Right, Sasuke?" The boy shot a frosty glare at his sensei. "That reminds me, the Fifth wants to know how you managed to bring Sakura back. She said a dip in the water from the salt lagoon wouldn't have been enough. She's treating the rest right now intravenously."
"Oh yea, Sasuke. You still haven't visited Sakura-chan at the hospital. She asked me about you yesterday."
Ignoring all their comments, Sasuke's face reddened a shade before he started to walk off. "There's no training today, right? I'm going to head out."
"What's wrong with him?"
Kakashi shrugged as the two watched the dark haired boy disappear around the corner.
Sakura tossed the remaining items into her bag. The doctor said she could go home today and, being such short notice, no one was informed to pick her up. Her body still felt weak but she could manage. Vaguely, she wondered if Naruto would visit her around this time. She kind of missed the hyperactive ninja's voice. Thinking about her teammate reminded her of the other boy. Sasuke had not visited her. Was he mad at her for causing so much trouble? There was not much she could recollect from the incident, only the coldness that she felt at the time. The girl swung the bag across one shoulder, to find the weight of it dragging her backwards. A hand caught hers and rebalanced her.
"Sasuke-kun!" she exclaimed when her green eyes met his dark ones. The boy nodded. "I didn't think you were going to come."
"Aa... The doctors let you out?"
"Yes, they say I should be able to return home today. I figured it's best I got home to clean up before my parents returned." Sakura studied her teammate carefully. He seemed different, almost embarrassed to be near her.
"I'll walk you home." She bit her lip and nodded. It was not everyday Uchiha Sasuke walked a girl home.
The entire journey from the hospital to her house was in accustomed silence. Sakura enjoyed every moment of it. There were many questions she wished to ask him. Though he did not fail to mention to her that Sasuke had gone beserk when Oniji tried to touch her, Naruto had not been able to answer her about what occurred at the salt lagoon. Deciding that Sasuke probably did not want to talk about the incident, she kept her mouth shut. When they reached her front door, she bravely leaned in and gave him a quick hug before he could react to push her away or give her some form of rejection.
"Thank you, Sasuke-kun." He looked away, nodded, and then handed her the bag he carried for her. She turned to enter her house.
"Uh... Sakura." She spun around to face her first love. "Here. It's for you." He hooked a bag onto her hand.
"What is it, Sasuke-kun?"
"You'll see. I want you to have it..." Then he turned around and ran off.
In her room, the kunoichi opened the box that Sasuke had given her with extreme care. She gasped when an elegant mebina-ningyo was revealed under all the wrapping. The doll wore a smile and held a fan with Sasuke's clan symbol on it. A note fell to the ground. Sakura snatched it up and read it.
Saw the obina sitting in your room. Thought you'd like a complete dairi-bina set. It used to be my mother's, I don't have much use for it.
Sakura's heart warmed and she found herself beaming. With great consideration, she positioned the new doll next to the original one. The two sat together. A grumpy obina and his smiling mebina. They were complete and perfectly matched.