Prologue: Defining the thin line
Was she dead?
It might have been easy for the casual onlooker to assume that. Sitting unmoving, even in the cold night air, the pink haired girl seemed to possess all the vitality of a corpse, only the slow rise and fall of her chest would let a keen eyed observe know that physically at least, she was fine.
At that moment a strong gust of wind probably could have toppled her.
Sakura Haruno's head lolled back listlessly, coming to a painful halt against the rock that provided her support. The unexpected blow brought her out of her own mind and back to the world around her. Sakura blinked mint green eyes in surprise seeing the stars overhead, hands instinctively forming the seals required to activate the medical jutsu that would alleviate the minor throbbing she now felt.
Nearly three years of training under one of the legendary Sannin, Tsunade, had brought out her talents. Her near perfect chakra control at an early age had meant she learned the medical jutsus almost as fast as the learning technique developed by her sensei would have allowed in someone less talented.
She could heal almost anything…almost.
Sakura's fist clenched involuntarily at her side and she reluctantly thought back on all that had brought her to this point…
Sakura was alone, but that was good. Being alone allowed you to let your mind drift, free and uncaring. It also meant you didn't have to focus on the things, or more accurately, the people around you.
A brief image of an over enthusiastic, loud mouthed blond flashed through her mind but she stomped it down viciously.
Jerk, the inner Sakura growled at the fading image, fist shaking furiously as the outer Sakura tried her best to ignore her own commentary. That would just lead her back into the cycle of depression she had been lucky enough to escape from twice. She had no desire to tempt fate with a third trip.
She let herself drift free of her body, almost as if she were delving a patient to find out what ailed them, but in this case she was escaping her own body rather than entering another.
Tsunade had warned her against doing this, sternly warned, but the young medical chunin couldn't see what possible harm there was as long as she remembered not to let herself loose track of the path back to her body. She was a careful, sensible person by nature. It was what suited her to her current profession after all.
As she left her physical self further and further behind, the feel of the sun on her skin, the gentle sensation of the breeze tousled grass tickling the back of her neck where she lay, all of it began to fade.
Had she possessed a face in this form she would have frowned. The pink haired girl delicately altered the flow of Chakra, feeling the impulses of her body stabilise. They weren't as strong as when she was actually in her body, but they were constant again.
Tsunade's dire warning about using the delving technique in this fashion, over a range it was never meant to be employed came back to her young student.
The inner Sakura ranted about bossy old women while the outer began to wonder if she should stop trying to push her range today. This was only an experiment after all ultimately, a study that would allow medical nin to locate patients on a battlefield from a secure location rather that running around risking death before they could find those in need of their talents. If it worked it would probably be something she became famous for, as even with the fifth's renovations past and present, there simply weren't enough combat proficient medical nin for one to accompany every team.
Sakura allowed her mind to continue probing the specifics of her new technique, analysing her success so far, the amount of Chakra required and so on. It would be no good if this technique used up all of her Chakra in locating the patient, leaving her unable to help them in the end.
The idea had come to her after sitting in on a number of Tsunade's briefings and meetings, following a training session with Ino. The blonde's ability to project her mind into others had given her the initial idea, her own training enabling her to create the mental anchor that overcame the weakness in Ino's jutsu, and with each trial she had been able to project herself a little further.
It was a great success.Liar
Sakura jerked, feeling herself being tugged back into her own mind by her scratch-lined alter-ego. Perhaps she should delve herself one day, no normal person should have two distinctive personalities that could communicate.
Perhaps it was some sort of anomaly in the Chakra circulatory system in her mind that had isolated part of her mental energy, leading to a mutation of sorts if Chakra could do that alone.
Quit stalling, her inner self scolded, folding it's arms in front of it and glaring down at her.
What do you want?, Sakura asked, her thoughts feeling sluggish after her recent expenditure of mental energy.
I just can't stand it when you lie, coward, the inner Sakura all but spat, You didn't develop this to help anyone but yourself, it's an escape.
Sakura was silent.
Eventually she heard the sigh of her inner self and sensed its dismissive wave.
Fine, if you've already given up even I can't change your mind.
Sakura waited until she was sure that there would be no more shouts or tirades before beginning the set up for the projection jutsu again.
Her mind began to leak outward as she worked the seals without opening her eyes, ranging further and further from her corporeal form until the final seal was finished, cutting her off from her motor functions and leaving gravity to assist her hands to their rest.
She once again marvelled at the world she now saw, a plane entirely made of energy, invisible to the physical senses except in extreme circumstances when it gathered in sufficient quantities to interfere with the refraction of light in a localised area.
Words could not describe the flowing and ebbing mists that took place of their material counterparts in her new 'eyes'.
She allowed a weak current to pull her along like a leaf in the wind, carefully testing the strength of her mental anchor. She was not a member of Ino's clan, if she lost contact with her mind, her mental Chakra would not return naturally.
It was strange thinking in this form, her thoughts could become manifest in this plane she had learned, sometimes seeming almost independent of herself.
As soon as she had thought of Ino, the image of the blond had appeared along side her, frowning at her in concern, the lightly tanned arm she knew belonged to the Nara's heir, Shikamaru, also visible in the image as it mouthed words of concern that could not reach her here, as she had now ears to hear them, nor was there air to transmit the vocal vibrations.
The image continued to play out, showing the independence that both annoyed and intrigued the pink haired girl.
It changed, evolving into the scene from a few hours ago, the one that had prompted her latest round of solitary experimentation.
Her mind filled in the words she couldn't hear as the scene unfolded.
--- Sakura stretched weary limbs as she walked out the Konoha's hospital. Another long night shift meant that at twelve in the afternoon she was only just going home for a well deserved nap before her lessons later that day with Tsunade.
She yawned and rubbed at her eyes as shuffling feet took her on the shortest path her mind could think of short of leaping rooftops, back to her home.
"Hey forehead girl!", a familiar shout somehow had her cursing, glaring and smiling all at once. It was a response that only two people could provoke, and she hadn't really heard much from the other walking blond annoyance for reasons she didn't particularly want to think about at that moment.
"Ino-pig", she responded, these days it was tradition rather than malice which brought forth such insults between girls who had long since mended their friendship after…
Sakura sighed, that was another thing she didn't want to be reminded about.
Ino frowned at the pained expression the other girl wasn't aware she had just shown her, absently playing with Shikamaru's hand as she was prone to do when worried.
The shadow user in question rubbed his temple, knowing how bothersome it was going to be when someone, and there would be someone, reported this habit to Temari, the beauty of the sand and Ino's rival for his grudging affections.
He wondered why he had let her talk him into coming out with her that day.
Once again the genius was annoyed to find that when it came to Ino and Temari, he still held no ready answer.
"You ok?", Ino asked quietly
"Just tired", Sakura answered more of less truthfully. She had also been having the dreams again.
The night a certain hate blinded genin had left his town and friends behind.
"Sasuke", Ino guessed, smiling sympathetically as Sakura looked away, "…He could still come back, Naruto might succeed next time".
That had been the wrong name to mention. Ino knew it as soon as she saw the way her friend trembled before bringing herself back under control.
Ino was one of the few people who knew what had happened between Naruto and Sakura about a week ago, the results had shocked her even as those who didn't know what had happened in the background had congratulated the former prankster before he left to resume his training with his master; Jiraiya and the old Sannin's new student.
Shikamaru didn't comment when Ino drew his arm around her. He had long since figured out what was causing the current tension, so he knew what had Ino suddenly feeling clingy.
Still, this was going to be troublesome, he just knew it. He was pretty sure he had seen Akamaru in the distance, and anything he saw Kiba did. The other young man was a worse gossip than Ino at times.
As Ino reached out to squeeze Sakura's hand, the shadow user was already running through a number of ways to handle Temari.
The outcome was rather bleak, but there was time yet.
"I'm sorry Sakura-chan", the blond whispered, "I didn't mean to-"
"It's ok", Sakura said with a smile so fake it prevented comment, "I have to go, I have more lessons in a little while and things to do before then".
Ino watched silently as the pink haired girl shuffled off up the street, she felt the urge to hug Shikamaru tightly when she heard what Sakura murmured to herself, perhaps not aware what she was doing.
Sakura glared as best she was able at the shimmering image of the dark haired Uciha heir as it stared back at her with dark, cold eyes.
Sasuke had left her and the village to pursue vengeance.
Perhaps she could have dealt with it if she had been able to think of him solely as a traitor, but he had said his goodbye to her personally, even if he had never intended to do so.
He had said that before knocking her out, thanking her for her concern and affection in a way that implied hope of his return and perhaps reciprocation.
And because of that she had continued to ignore Naruto's attentions until…
She managed to dispel that memory before it could form, and turned back to the image of Sasuke, a scathing curse ready on her lips, but what she saw brought her short.
The image she had in her mind had been changed. Sasuke had not worn his hair so long when she had last seen him. Nor had it been collected in a hasty ponytail at the nap of his neck. He had preferred arm warmers in place of the bandages that now covered his arms and the high collared top had been replaced with black muscle vest and tan chunnin jacket.
The images face was contorted in pain, drenched in sweat and blood and his eyes looked close to feverish.
But most distinctive, were the black tattoo like marks that even now were receding from his body back into the three part mark now hidden by his hair.
The cursed seal.
That simple thought brought her out of her sense of wonder, seeing how the boy she had had a crush on had changed and matured.
It had been that thing which had started him on the path to becoming declared a traitor and an S-class criminal, turning the hatred and bitterness in his lonely soul into the power he had so craved as a child.
Slowly it dawned on her what she was seeing.
Her technique was a success, she had located an injured man. A wanted man. The big question was, what did she do now?
Sasuke's image turned glassy onyx eyes on her, his face changing from one of pain, to confusion as his eyes looked around as if searching for an unseen watcher.
Sakura retreated instantly, having no idea if she could be detected like this, and not having any desire to find out first hand what Sasuke's powers could do to her in this plane, or what he was inclined to do to her after all these years under Orachimaru's supervision.
The pink haired girl gasped as she returned to her body, panting as if she had been running for miles, hands clasping her throbbing head tightly as she rolled to her knees, the memory of her discovery kicking in the release of adrenaline now that she was fully integrated with her body again.
She fumbled at her hip pouch for some powerful aspirin, downing the pill dry with a grimace as she massaged her aching temples.
Perhaps she had been pushing to hard to fast, but if she hadn't…
Sakura looked up, somehow aware of Sasuke's location in this world even though she had found him in another plan of existence. It was a good thing that this seemed to happen of a by product of her technique, if she had required anything else she may have well not have found him.
As it was she was torn.
He was injured, so she was honour bound as a Medical nin to find him and offer aid.
He was also a wanted criminal, and it was her duty as a shinobi of Konoha village to bring him back if possible.
On the other hand he held easily enough power to destroy her, maybe even in his injured state.
Should she go get back up first?Do you want to?
That question almost put her back on the ground as she shakily stood. It was true that part of her was more eager to find him than she would have expected after all this time, but that didn't mean she was willing to betray the village to see him again, helping him escape punishment…right?
Then again if she wasted time and his injuries killed him…
Sakura glanced back in the direction of the village, just a speck in the distance, why had she come out this far?
Because I wanted to be away from everyone, I didn't know at the time that would backfire.
Sakura dithered a moment longer before she made her choice.
I'm coming Sasuke.
Sasuke was drained.
Even with the cursed seal at his beck and call, now that he had learned to overcome the thing's detrimental effects on his sanity even if its output still sometimes overwhelmed him. Even with that, he had nothing left, he was emotionally spent as well as lacking enough Chakra to twitch, and the seal relied on his emotions, converting hatred into power, thus in his current apathetic state it was just an interesting pattern on his neck.
Why was he drained?
He managed a weak grin to himself.
It had all been worth it, now he could die without regrets…well, with one less.
The world came in and out of focus. It seemed like seconds, but the drastic change in the position of the sun suggested otherwise.
He was loosing track of time, he had begun hallucinating at times.
He wondered why he had seen her instead of the death god, or those souls who awaited him in the afterlife.
There was a rustling. He held his breath. He had hoped to simply pass in his sleep, his body to weak to support him, but it seemed life was not done with him yet.
Torn to pieces by wild animals was not the way he would have like to go, but with his three years almost up, at least it assured no one else would be using his body when he was gone.
The rustling came again, this time closer.
He tried to flex his fingers, urging his body to pick up the kurai that lay only inches from his hand, but muscles that seemed to be a liquid mix of pain and lead refused to obey.
There would be no going down fighting for him, no death with dignity.
He sneered as the thing came closer to the clearing in which he lay. He would not let this thing intimidate him after all he had faced and endured.
His sneer gave way to surprise as his stalker cleared the last of the foliage, leaves tangled in her almost waist length pink hair.
She was still garbed in the red dress and shorts he remembered but that was the only way she was the same.
Sakura Haruno had grown a lot since his days on team seven.
Team seven, that brought the reality of his predicament crashing down around his ears, he was prostrate and unable to defend himself before a shinobi of Konoha.
This was Sakura though, he was reasonably sure she wouldn't kill him on the spot unless she had changed a lot since he had last seen her. She was too gentle, too kind.
He looked up at her mint green eyes, vague memories of those same orbs looking at him shyly from above a light blush stirred, only to be quelled when he finally met them.
There was no anger, no hate, no betrayal, unease, but there was also none of the shy affection he remembered, or the concern she had shown when he had been healed by Tsunade after his brother's attack.
There was nothing.
He didn't know it, but that concerned both of them more than his wounds.
This is my first foray into Naruto fanfiction, and admittedly has a slightly angsty edge that will continue throughout. R and R
Coming up: Chapter 1: Superficial; Sakura begins her work, but why doesn't she speak? And why is Sasuke so bothered when she says his name?
Till next time, Betweenheavenandhell