Author's Notes: It's been almost a year since the last update, but we got this up in time! Before you begin reading this horrendously long chapter (all for the love of our readers) I want to apologize for the lack of updating. It's not Sareh's fault this time, but my own. Over the course of 2007, my life was an utter mess. As I said in the previous chapter my mother was growing ill—to the point where she was legally blind for three months. There was an operation for her to get her sight back, but at the last minute my mother's company fired her. Because my mother is a single parent, this was a huge blow to us, and I soon found myself with three roles to fulfill: caregiver, provider, and student. I got a second job to help with the bills and tried to squeeze in writing the chapter here and there. Then came the emergency trip to the hospital, where my mother was diagnosed with diabetes. My entire world fell apart that day, but thanks to huge amounts of support by my family and friends—especially Sareh—I found the strength to deal with everything. In short, I would like to thank everyone for being so patient waiting for the update of this story, and most of all, I would like dedicate this chapter to Sareh for being both a wonderful beta-reader and the greatest friend I could ever have.

And, if you're interested, check out the bottom of this chapter for an official The Tortured contest!

Beta-Reader's Notes: OMG. I want you all to stop and actually read these notes. I am a review hog, I know it… but when we get reviews cussing us out for not updating… well, it doesn't encourage me to beta-read any faster! I would like everyone to please take a look up there and see what sort of hand the world dealt Serenity, because she deserves all the sympathy and support she can get. That said… don't start blaming me for the slow updates! My sob story is not quite as terrible as hers, but I also work two jobs, and faithfully take 18 units at my university every semester. I have to maintain a 4.0 in order to keep my scholarship. No scholarship, no education. This year I was also bitten by a squirrel while I was hiking and had to undergo treatment for rabies. I'm struggling to make ends meet and I only get to beta-read on my breaks at work. When I've got to get through a chapter that is FIFTY-SEVEN pages long, it's bound to take a while.

Just some warnings: it may be helpful to watch the Naruto filler episodes 178-179 before reading the chapter. I suppose I should also alert you to the hints of boy-love sprinkled throughout this chapter, as well as the "coarse" language… Aw, just have fun kiddies! And don't forget to review!


The Tortured
Chapter 4:
Catch Me when I Fall from Grace
By: Serenity Komoshiro
Beta-read By: Sarehptar


Beyond all else, ninjutsu is the art of deception.


Pain: raw, jagged—the taut pull of skin across her middle sent cold shivers flash-stepping along her spine.

Where? There were quiet, angry voices whispering distantly. How?

And then, like the fatal strike of a kunai across her throat, awareness pounded in her temples. Leaf green eyes shot open, darting around the foreign room. Even as her eyeballs shifted in their sockets, the images came slowly to her brain, as if she were seeing everything through a sheet of water, slow and rippling.

"Alive." She almost did not recognize her own voice. It was hoarse and wavering, rasping from disuse. The word sounded more like senseless keening, more like a silent scream than her voice at all.

Alive. Somehow that knowledge did nothing to assuage the painful pressure building up inside her, settling like lead in her lungs. There was no joy at feeling her body again, all ten toes stiff but there, hands calloused and cut but still attached to her wrists…

She'd survived the battle, but that did not make it a victory.

In the world of shinobi—where all things were black and white, mission and vendetta—battles ended always in one of two ways. You won… or you lost.

She'd survived the battle, but that made her defeat all the more dishonorable.

The thought seemed to strip away the very last vestiges of her strength, and Sakura could not even bring herself to brush off the rough blanket thrown over her body. Feeling returned slowly to her skin, and the chill of cold metal beneath bare shoulders told her that she was wearing little under the blanket. Somehow, she could not bring herself to care.

The shouting that Sakura had mistaken for distant voices became louder as her mind cleared, and she realized that it was a single voice, just outside the dim room where she had been healed.

"What the fuck were you thinking, un?!" Deidara's voice; Sakura thought about smiling, but couldn't find the will.

"And what would you have had me do?" The second voice was almost a whisper, so familiar and cold that Sakura felt the weight of it sticking in her veins and strangling her heart. Guilt like bile burned in her throat.

"You were ten feet away Uchiha! She could have died, un!"

"A tool that fails to serve its master is worthless," Itachi murmured, and the words dug into Sakura's closed wounds like poisoned needles, corroding her from the inside out.

I deserve them. I am worthless to him…

"She's a human being!" Deidara hissed, caustic and somehow more threatening than his shouting had been.

"No…" Itachi's muffled voice crawled over her bare skin like tendrils of ice. "She's a ninja."

There was a quiet cursing, and then the sound of almost silent footsteps. The muffled 'thok' of sandal heels in the stone hallway was achingly familiar, and Sakura knew it was not Deidara walking away.

For a moment, the pink-haired kunoichi was trapped between feeling terror and relief. Itachi had turned his back on her and walked away—but that also meant that she could prolong the inevitable, put off the scene where he would tell her she was a hindrance, better off dead than alive... Until Itachi himself cast her aside, Sakura could still pretend to be his.

The door just out of her line of sight creaked open, but the kunoichi made no movement to watch Deidara enter the room.

"Sakura-chan?" he called, surprise plucking at the words. "You're already awake, un?"

She knew he was waiting to be acknowledged… but what could she say to him? Somehow thank you seemed wrong. Finally, Sakura lifted a heavy hand and waved slowly.

Deidara crossed the room to look down at her, and feeling suddenly more self-conscious, Sakura pulled the rough blanket up to cover her bare collar bone. The motion was sluggish; her hand seemed to weigh down the limb like a brick.

"You were pretty messed up, un." Deidara seemed somehow more reserved, a little sharper in his motions, wasting no time to gesture. "Most of us thought you wouldn't make it."

I wish I hadn't… Sakura couldn't stop the thought, but the defeated tone to it made her mouth turn sour.

Deidara poked her leg out of the way to make room on the table, and then perched on the cool metal surface, radiating mock nonchalance. "Hidan prayed for two days straight, un!" the blond ninja laughed. "Don't feel too grateful though. He was praying you'd die and meet Jashin—but I guess that's a compliment, coming from him, un..."

The Iwa-nin seemed to have regained some of his cheer, and a small smile lit on his face as he stared at her.

"Two days…" Sakura mused quietly, testing her voice again. It came at little stronger this time. "How long was I unconscious?"

"About a week, un."

"A week!" Disappointment swept through her, pushing hard against her heart. She couldn't even recover in a decent amount of time?

Deidara nodded in answer to her exclamation, his blue eyes darkening for a moment. "You almost died. If Konan-san hadn't been there, un…"

"Konan-san?" A flash of agony and blue hair in the moonlight suddenly flickered through Sakura's mind.

"She did some sort of weird technique with her paper to like... fill the hole in you, un," Deidara mused. "If she hadn't done that, you would have bled to death right there. The rest of us were pretty ragged too—Kakuzu barely had the chakra left to sew you up, un."

His half-smile shifted into an almost maniacal grin. "I could see right through you, and it looked like you'd been fighting on a lake of blood rather than the field, un…" Something almost sadistic glinted in his eyes. "Bones in the blood and black-stained grass blades cutting trails on your face and your eyes kept staring… It was a work of art, un."

Sakura was shivering—from pain or abhorrence, she didn't know.

"Konan-san carried you back here. We were all pretty surprised, un," the blond ninja blinked a few times. "Maybe she pitied you because you're a girl too?"

Pity? Is that why I'm alive? I'm pitiful?

Deidara shifted on the table, poking at her leg through the blanket again. "Do you think you're ready to get up and moving, un?"

"It won't hurt the stitches?" Sakura reached beneath the rough blanket to brush against her middle experimentally. There was a brief shock of pain, on top of the ache that had settled all over her, and she choked back a gasp.

"Those are Kakuzu's stitches, un," the artist laughed. "They're not coming out until he wants them out."

In all reality, Sakura didn't want to get up. She didn't want to leave the quiet room, didn't want to see Itachi's beautiful Sharingan narrowed in displeasure and disgust… She didn't want to admit that she had failed, just after swearing to carve a place in Akatsuki for herself… But she forced a nod and said, "I'll need something for the pain."

"Got it here, un." Deidara carelessly tossed a nondescript plastic bottle to her. Sakura made no move to catch it, and it smacked into her chest and rolled down into the crook of her neck. "You'll need to be up by tomorrow," the Iwa-nin added.

"What for?" Sakura tried not to sound hopeless when she asked.

"The leader is sending Sasori-danna and I on a mission, un." Blue eyes sharpened, searching the pink-haired girl's face for a moment. "And he wants you to go with us."

Shock trapped Sakura in rigor mortis, focusing all her senses to needle fine points and driving away all thoughts of wounds—physical and mental.

The leader… is sending me?


A hand was hovering near her shoulder, and Sakura's skin prickled before the touch ever came. She was instantly awake, keeping her eyes closed and breathing steady, so that she did not lose the element of surprise to the intruder.

"Sakura-chan…" the intruder called groggily.

Deidara. She relaxed quickly, opening sleep-blurred eyes to take in their room. "What time is it?" A delicate hand lifted to brush the sleep out of her eyes.

"Three in the morning, un," droned the Iwa-nin, clearly displeased. "We're leaving now."

Sakura swore, pushing herself out of their bed with only a little difficulty. The pain had been dulled yesterday, and the powerful pills she'd been taking had made the pull of the stitches distant pinpricks. She was capable of going on the mission, but that didn't mean she could win a fight—any fight—in her current state. Why was the leader sending her? What was the mission (Deidara had refused to tell her anything until they were on the way) and what could she offer to it?

Pushing that confusion aside, Sakura dressed as quickly as she could and trailed Deidara up the stairs in the cave's entrance chamber. A dark, hunchbacked form to the far right told Sakura that Sasori was already moving to join them. Distantly, she realized that they were not just leaving now—they were leaving now. Sakura mournfully brushed knots out of her hair with her fingers. The taste of sleep was thick and unpleasant in her mouth.

Sasori only nodded in greeting as they reached him, the tattered cloth over his mouth rustling quietly.

"Good morning," Sakura managed, scuffing her feet quietly in the dirt floor. Sasori, ever gruff, had always unsettled her. What did you say to a man who crawled on the ground like an insect?

"You've got the mission scroll, un?" Deidara was looking toward the cave's closed entrance, even while he spoke to Sasori. Rather than giving any coherent reply, Sasori just growled quietly and began to slither away.

Any hand seals the sand-ninja did must have been under the fold of his dark Akatsuki cloak, because the boulder guarding the entrance seemed to rise completely on its own, flooding the main chamber with silvery moonlight. The light glinted white on the water before the cave entrance, and momentarily Sakura forgot her troubles. A soft breeze, nippy with a taste of a warm winter, brushed against her as she started after Sasori.

The quiet swill of water pushed against her conscious like the beating of a heart or the tide of blood that had—she blinked away the thought, only to be assaulted again by the rustle of leaves in the trees, which sounded so much like the hollow brush of bone over cloth. Sakura clenched her eyes shut, furiously trying to drive the memory away before it took her over completely.

But in the darkness the moon was as pale as his skin, and the grass as green as his eyes.

"Master Orochimaru needs me!" Desperation. Love. Necessity.

Somewhere in Sound, there was a boy feeling as helpless and worthless as she was. Had Orochimaru cast him aside? Was Kimimaro-kun hiding somewhere too, afraid—just like she was—to face his master?

Her hand, of its own accord, brushed over the long line of stitches through her middle. The press of cloth against the wound was a dull and distant pain, a quiet aching. She had wanted more than anything to win, to kill him—hadn't he felt the same?

It hadn't even been a battle between two ninja. It had been a war between two opposing dreams, their entire lives on the line in more than one way. And neither of them had won… Their mirror dreams had cracked and shattered into millions of tiny pieces, mixing together and skittering away and too small and sharp to put back together.

Pity pressed hard in Sakura's throat, and she quietly prayed that Orochimaru would forgive Kimimaro's failure. It was a prayer for the beautiful, fragile white-haired boy—but it was more of a prayer for herself.

Don't let him… Don't let him… Give me one more chance…

Dread like ice threatened to wrap around and crush her windpipe; Sakura swallowed heavily. What would she do if Itachi did tell her to leave him? There was nowhere else to go: she had been forced out of her family, betrayed her village, forsaken everyone but Uchiha Itachi.

If Sakura lost him… she had no one.

A warm hand dropped into her hair and ruffled it, making the pale pink strands even messier than before.

"Don't think so much, un," Deidara smiled. "Your face scrunches up like this—" he made a rather unappealing expression, looking like a cross between a pug dog and an angry cat.

Sakura laughed before she realized what she was doing, and the sound took her completely by surprise. That was a natural gift of Deidara's, she thought: utterly shocking everyone around him.

"Hey!" She pushed him grudgingly. "You haven't even told me where this mission is taking us."

"A relatively unknown ninja village called Hoshigakure." It was Sasori's gravelly voice that answered her question, and Sakura blinked twice at him.

"Hidden Star? I've never even heard of it," she mused.

Deidara snickered. "Yeah, neither has the rest of the world. Although they apparently have an alliance with Konoha, un…" He stared at her from the corner of his eye.

"Why would the leader send us on a mission there?" In the back of her mind, Sakura wondered if this wasn't just a busywork mission to get rid of her… but then why send two excellent Akatsuki members too? It didn't make sense at all and—

"Apparently the village is centered around a meteorite with strange properties that enhance chakra," Sasori droned disinterestedly.

"If the rumor's true…" Deidara's smirk was malevolent, "…we're going to liberate the rock, un."

A chakra-enhancing stone? The story sounded impossible—but something inside Sakura stirred, and she couldn't help but imagine having something like that. She could grow instantly stronger and… Like a burden being laid back on her shoulders, Sakura was suddenly reminded why she wanted—needed—to get stronger.

The silent forests of River Country passed by them slowly. With each step she took, Sakura felt the presence of their home boring into her back, felt as if she were chained to and dragging half the base behind her.

She hadn't said good-bye to him.

Didn't say good-bye, she whispered in her mind. Didn't say good-bye, didn't say good-bye—won't ever say good-bye.

Deidara and the far off light of dawn walked on before her.


The blond ninja sighed to himself, taking some clay from his hip pouch into his hand, and letting the mouth in his palm chew it idly. His blue eyes darted between Hiruko's hunched form and Sakura, who trailed behind them, her green gaze distant and dull. The kunoichi ran a hand over her wound, a touch that had to do more with memory than pain.

Deidara didn't know what to do. It wasn't all that uncommon of a feeling for him, really, but now it frustrated him immensely.

He had known, the moment her green eyes had met his, down in that frigid medical room, that Sakura had changed. The girl who had woken up was colder somehow, as if all the soft air around her had become a raging gale. It was harder to stand near her now. There was a palpable sort of sadness, darkness clinging to her skin—seemed paler now—and shadows in her leaf-green eyes.

At first he thought it came only from her battle. Deidara bit his tongue (the one in his real mouth), choking back words that wouldn't have meant anything to her. She didn't want to hear him say everything was all right. She didn't want him to say that she had worth, that she had fought brilliantly

There was only one person she wanted to hear those words from.

Blood welled in his mouth, a sudden warmth, and Deidara realized belatedly that he'd bitten through the inside of his lip.

It'd didn't matter what he said to Sakura right now—until her beloved Uchiha Itachi said them, the words wouldn't mean anything to her.

The blood turned bitter on his tongue.

But she laughed, he thought, half to console himself. It had not been the sweet, twinkling laugh she would have given him only a week ago. No, it was something more reserved, tinged with a wryness just like his own. Just like his own.

And then it buried in him like the cold steel point of a kunai. Sakura laughed like a murderer.

Even though she'd never told him, Deidara knew—with a sudden, striking intuition—that Sakura had never killed anyone in cold blood before that hellish night nine days ago. She was not Uchiha Itachi, that kin slayer; Deidara could not imagine any crime weighing down on her shoulders.

What would he have felt, in her place? To follow them onto a battlefield of blood and innocents… Deidara couldn't remember what his own first kills had felt like. He wasn't the type to care. He'd become a murderer because he wanted to—Sakura had become a murderer to follow in their footsteps, to wear their cloak, to make that heartless Uchiha proud.

Her soul was red with blood, and her hands were black with it, and she was really and truly an Akatsuki member now.

Deidara sighed quietly to himself, and felt the sudden weight of Hiruko's eyes.

"She's holding us up," the sand-ninja muttered, in that typical gravelly voice.

"Do you remember the first person you ever killed, un?" Deidara asked, keeping his gaze even on the forest ahead of them.

"Of course." Deidara could feel the scorpion's smile, even if he couldn't see it. "I still have him with me."

The stone ninja didn't reply. He'd been expecting Sasori to say something like that, but it didn't make the differences between them and Sakura any less apparent.

"I think Sakura-chan's going to remember hers too, un."

With that, the blond doubled back to walk near the pink-haired girl's side. She made no effort to acknowledge him, or even start up a conversation. The thoughts running through her head obviously held all of her attention.

The silence pressed heavily on Deidara, and he resisted the urge to start chattering just to fill up the quiet. The sudden realization that he had no idea what to say to her tightened his throat. What did she need to hear? Consolation, some words of wisdom? He was not used to dealing with emotions like guilt or sadness—and was even at worse at handling emotions in women. (Sasori was always telling him he lacked tact, but…)

Well, he had to say something; the silence was starting to ring in his ears and make him fidgety.

"It looks like it's going to rain, un," he muttered to no one in particular. The statement was greeted only by silence for a long moment, before Sasori scoffed quietly, and Sakura gave something like a curt nod. So much for that conversation starter… Hiruko stilled on the path in front of them, and the beady-eyed puppet turned back to growl at them.

"It is going to rain. We had best move faster." Without any other words, the hunched puppet leapt up and flickered through the trees lining the path.

Sakura did not hesitate to follow him, and she did not complain about Sasori's grumpy behavior like she normally would have. Crushing the urge to sigh again, Deidara leapt up into the branches and dashed after his comrades. Sakura's back was a taut black and red line in front of him, and the blond ninja couldn't help but hope this change wasn't permanent. He had liked the childish Sakura better…

He would have to say something, and it would have to be good. Good enough to jar Sakura out of her own thoughts, good enough to repair her—Deidara thought of shattered glass and so many glittering shards—he couldn't handle the oppressive silence radiating from their pink-haired companion for much longer.

That bloody Uchiha would probably like Sakura quiet and dimmed, but her vibrant cheer had amused Deidara. Sakura had acted as though she wasn't living with a band of murders. She had treated them almost like… a family? He chuckled dryly to himself. A family? Akatsuki? The organization wasn't a family, even by the most fucked up of definitions. They were hunters of power, wary allies, occasional comrades... They were not even friends.

But Sakura had smiled, and Deidara had thought…

Minutes ticked away as steadily as their feet pounding against tree bark, and hours rolled as quickly as the blue rivers they followed across the countryside. Behind thick clouds, the sun had crawled across the sky, and just as it touched the horizon to the west, the black thunderheads high above crackled with lightning and rain began to fall softly on the forest below. No one spoke, even when the rain began to seep through their cloaks and run down their faces like tears.

Then Hiruko's beady eyes turned to catch Deidara's gaze, and the blond Iwa ninja knew immediately the message his partner was sending. His own blue eyes peered back to survey Sakura. With each leap, the girl was falling farther and farther behind them. Her injuries had been terrifying and though they had been healing well, she was not ready for the strain of the constant running they'd been doing the entire day.

At last, Hiruko called for them to stop. Deidara knew the area they were in immediately. They were near the border of the country, but the ground they had covered today had been pitiful in comparison to what they should have gone… Deidara hadn't realized how much they had slowed to accommodate Sakura. The blond artist swept his stoic Sand partner with an evaluating stare. Sasori hadn't mentioned anything to Sakura about how she was holding them up. In fact, Sasori hadn't even asked her to speed up. And Sasori hated waiting!

Deidara struggled and failed to keep a smirk off his face. Apparently he hadn't been the only one to appreciate Sakura's old cheer.

The soil around a giant oak nearby had eroded away, leaving a deep hollow beneath the giant tree's roots. It was large enough to hold them all comfortably out of the rain, and Deidara decided they would make camp there for the night. There was no sense in continuing when Sakura looked as if she might fall down at any given moment.

Flicking a signal to the pink-haired girl that was clearly understood, Deidara turned back again to survey his partner. As Sakura slipped into the hollow below the tree, blue eyes met Hiruko's beady black irises. It was a testament to how well they knew each other that Deidara did not have to say anything—Sasori knew immediately what he wanted to do, and the Sand ninja scoffed.

"Hrhm," Hiruko growled, weighing the costs of agreeing to his partner's unspoken plea or staying out in the rain. Wordlessly, the puppet master gave in, and leapt back into the trees, intending to search for dry firewood.

The clay artist turned his attention back to Sakura then. The green-eyed kunoichi had made her way into the cave-like hollow, and he could barely make out her form. It looked like she was brushing the wind-born knots out of her shoulder-length hair. Pink glinted dully in the grey air.

Feeling as if he was stalling, Deidara turned his face up to the slowly dripping canopy above. He mentally counted how long it would take to reach Hoshigakure. The border of Bear Country was another day's travel away with good weather. If the storm didn't let up by tonight, it would take double the time to get there. Not to mention that Sakura would not be able to keep up if they tried to set a harsh pace… Deidara sighed himself. No matter how he looked at it, it would at least two days before they reached their destination.

Two days with a stone-quiet Sakura and a grouchy Sasori did not sound appealing at all. Knowing that standing outside was not getting him any nearer to helping the once cheerful kunoichi, Deidara forced himself to slide down into the hollow beneath the roots of the tree, and face his small companion.


Sakura's senses prickled the second Deidara moved into their shelter. She knew without having to think that Deidara was alone. Just as well… the girl didn't want to have to look at Sasori's frustrated face any longer than she had to.

Hugging her knees, Sakura pressed her back against the root wall of the hollow. Deidara said nothing as her approached her, and didn't even try to talk to her as he settled next to her on the dirt floor.

"Hnnn," the Iwa-nin grumbled, and Sakura got the feeling he was searching for words. She braced herself, sure that he was going to tell her to go back to the base, sure he was going to say she was as useless as she felt, a hindrance…

After what seemed like hours the blonde finally inhaled deeply and parted his lips to speak.

"Its raining, un."

Sakura jerked where she sat, unable to believe her ears. Of all the things she had been expecting, something as painfully obvious as that was hardly it. Was he mocking her? Did he think she didn't know? That she needed to be coddled, worked into the serious conversation gently? It was not as if she would shatter if he dropped her. For a moment, Sakura crushed flares of anger inside of herself. How dare—anyone!—treat her like some porcelain doll, too fragile to hear the harsh truths that everyone else knew just by looking?

She was a shinobi. Itachi-sama had said so. She was not a doll, not a girl, not a…

"Yeah, it is raining." Sakura's answer was blunt, as blunt as she'd expected it to sound, but she winced when Deidara pulled away a bit from her in surprise. It seemed like he expected a softer reply.

Sakura was tired of being soft. Still, she couldn't quite shake the tiniest bit of guilt as Deidara blinked, half-shocked, at her. Her own green eyes focused and refused to move off her worn ninja sandals. Under her critical gaze, a single strand of black thread, poking out of the neat stitching, became stunningly clear.

It was trying so hard to hide among the rest of the perfect black stitches, but the longer she stared at it, the less and less it seemed to fit. One tight loop, two loops, three… And then that last piece of string, dangling out, barely attached to anything at all, so useless…

She was as thin and broken as the thread. She was trying so hard to blend into Akatsuki, trying so hard be a part of them, but in when it came down to it, she was just another loose end. She was another slipped stitch and nothing could—

"You'll need to sew that back in, un." Deidara's sudden murmur caught the girl off guard.

The Iwa-ninja leaned half over her, inspecting the protruding thread. Her gaze snapped up to meet his own almond-shaped stare. His blue eyes were open and calm, while a small smile danced across his lips. Recovering from her surprise, Sakura looked back down to the slowly drying sandal, dark against the pale skin of her foot.

"No." She pulled against the thread, feeling it catch and strain. "I'll just cut it off."

Her slender hand buried itself in her hip holster, brushing the edges of kunai and shuriken carefully, not enough to cut the skin. A sudden grip stilled her fingers; she could feel the flutter of lips against the back of her hand. Deidara's skin was cool against her own.

"If you cut out even one stitch, the rest will slip. One by one, they'll come undone. Everything will fall apart, un." Deidara's voice was a low whisper, meant only for her ears and meaning so much more. "Why buy a new sandal when this one fits you so well?"

When this one fits you so well… Oh gods, how she wished that was true. It was all she wanted and she wanted it so badly and why was one her one desire so far out of her reach, and what could she…

Inside Sakura, the wall she had erected between her heart and the world cracked and crumbled.

The kunoichi bit deeply into her own lip to stop the welling of water in her eyes. She hadn't cried since that day, wouldn't ever cry again—this was just something in her eye. Dust. Her desperate effort went in vain as a single droplet slide over the rim of her eye, over dark eyelashes, and pressed a warm trail down her cheek.

Deidara has said that she belonged with them. Even after she had failed so badly, even after Itachi-sama… She choked on the thought. Even after she had held them up on this mission, he still saw some value in her?

Deidara, who was becoming a precious companion to her, had valued Sakura enough to treat her this way…

A sudden warmth on her cheek—not the teardrop—shocked her out of her thoughts. Deidara's calloused hand brushed against her cheek, and the pink tongue in his palm licked the saltwater tear from her skin.

"Ew!" Sakura cried through sudden laughter. She shoved the clay artist away and rubbed earnestly at her cheek. "That's gross!"

"Thanks, un. You're making me feel so good about myself." Deidara's remark was so sarcastic, Sakura couldn't help but grin sheepishly.

And just like that, something inside Sakura fell back into place, stronger than before—as if she had never been broken at all. Even if it was only to Deidara, she meant something. And for right now, until she was strong enough to redeem herself, that would be good enough.

The Iwa-ninja seemed to perk up at her sudden change in mood, and his wary smile became an all-out evil smirk. Instantly, both his hands (and their mouths) where snaking about, trying to get near to Sakura again.

"Eeehhh!" the kunoichi squealed, half in fear and half holding back a relieved gale of laughter. She wiggled away from the icky tongues in his hands and was almost ready to get up and start running when a familiar chakra signature suddenly stilled them both.

Sasori's hunched body clambered into the hollow. The puppet master stopped and quirked a thin black eyebrow at their odd position.

"Heh!" Deidara tucked both hands behind his back like he expected to be scolded for messing around. The scorpion only shook his head and lumbered further into their camp.

Sakura noticed that not only was his thick Akatsuki cloak completely soaked—she winced, feeling suddenly guilty that neither of them had told the Sand ninja to come inside—and that he was carrying something under his cloak, crawling across the ground one-handed.

The scorpion-like man dumped a pile of branches and timber onto the floor of the hollow and moved back, a clear sign that one of them would have to do the work to light the fire. He'd done more than enough for their sorry asses already… Deidara stared at the sticks in contemplation, as if sizing up a project. Sensing a great deal of trouble—and a most unwelcome explosion—Sakura stepped in. It was true that their journey had worn her body out, but that didn't mean she didn't have the chakra do something as simple as this.

Flashing through a short set of hand seals, an effectively aimed fire jutsu lit the timber pile aflame. The light instantly brightened the gloomy, cave-like area, and heat slowly rolled off the growing blaze.

"Can you tell me more about the mission, Sasori-san?" Sakura's voice broke in, and if Sasori was surprised by her sudden renewed interest, he didn't show it. Instead, his hunched bulk simply settled against the root wall, and he began to talk, in that gravelly tone of his, about the mission.

"A meteorite fell several hundred years ago at the site where the village now rests. They focused their training and nation around this meteorite, and took the name Hoshigakure. All of the ninja of the village trained around the meteor and purportedly experienced incredible increases in their chakra," Sasori droned, sounding utterly uninterested in story. Sakura's eyes darted to observe Deidara, whose expression had darkened with excitement.

"And how exactly are we going to get this rock?" She looked between her two companions, wary of any idea Deidara might suggest. There were bound to be explosions involved in this somehow…

It was Sasori who answered her first. "The Sandaime Hoshikage has apparently left his seat." There was no little contempt in the words when the scorpion said them, and Sakura felt the barest flash of confusion. Hoshikage? There were only five kage in the world, and "Hoshi" wasn't one of them… "Now will be an excellent time to infiltrate the village."

"Sasori-danna and I have got it all figured out, un," Deidara chimed in suddenly. Sakura wondered briefly when he had the chance to talk with his partner about the mission. "We'll all enter the village as refugees, un!" The grin on the Iwa-nin's face was almost disconcerting. "We'll say our village was destroyed by shinobi from one of the big nations—Hidden Star is totally against the big nations, so they'll eat our story for dessert, un." The blond's hands clenched as if in anticipation.

"We'll be civilians fleeing the destruction of our homes. In the rush to escape, of course, our identification was all forgotten or lost. We were simple craftsmen prior to the senseless destruction of our homes," Sasori continued, "a fact which the Iwa brat and I will have no problem proving." From the corner of her eye, Sakura watched Deidara toss a clay spider carelessly up and down.

"There will be nothing about an older brother, his young sister, and their family friend seeking refugee that would illicit suspicion from the villagers," the scorpion finished.

"I see. I'm the little sister… Deidara doesn't really look like me though, will we be able to pass him off as my brother without genjutsu?"

Deidara laughed darkly, as if he found something about that statement incredibly funny. "I'm not going to be your brother, un! Sasori-danna is."

Sakura's mind went completely blank for a good minute. There was no way—

"Deidara," she managed, "how old are you?"

"Fifteen, un," the Iwa-nin blinked.

"And how old is Sasori-san?" She couldn't quite bring herself to ask the scorpion himself that question. She rather liked all her limbs attached.

"You're like fifty now, aren't you, un?" the blond questioned his partner shamelessly. Whether the query frustrated him, or whether he just wouldn't give into their antics, Sasori decided not to answer. He simply stared in their direction.

"I understand that he's supposed to be my older brother, but… isn't that age difference a little unbelievable?" Sakura tried her hardest not to sound insulting. Though honestly—who was going to believe she, an almost-twelve-year-old was related to an ugly old man who crawled around on all fours?!

As if reading her thoughts, the puppet master turned his sharp gaze on Sakura. "Don't worry, everything will be ready in the morning." Deidara nodded along, absolutely sure of their plan. Sakura, on the other hand, had obvious doubts, for very obvious reasons.

"All right, if you say so…" Her voice was wavering a little. Deidara chuckled at her concern. Really, there was nothing to worry about. Their plan would unfold perfectly in two days' time.

"I'll take first watch," Sasori's gravelly voice said. "Get some sleep…imouto." Sakura cringed as the Sand-nin called her little sister, but only slightly. And she could have sworn she saw a flicker of amusement in the scorpion's eyes at her unease...

Giving a nod to acknowledge his agreement to guard, Sakura turned to Deidara and told the blond she'd take middle watch. Her back settled against the woody root wall and her eyelids slowly came to a close. She steadied her breathing to allow her body to relax and slid silently into sleep.


The morning of their third day dawned considerably brighter than the last two had been. Rays of sunlight streamed through the opening of the cave where they had settled last night. Sakura stretched slowly, working out the kinks in her neck and the stiffness in her legs that could only have come from long days of strenuous running. The wound in her middle tinged, but it wasn't so terrible that she couldn't ignore it. Idly, Sakura reminded herself to thank Kakuzu and Konan the next time she saw them.

Awake enough now to survey the cavern around her, Sakura noticed immediately that Sasori was missing entirely and Deidara was near the cave's entrance, digging through a bag she did not remember him having before.

"Good morning." Her voice was scratchy with sleep. Deidara waved dismissively, not even turning to get a look at her.

"We're about two hours from the border of Bear, un."

The pink-haired girl joined him at the entrance to the cave, lifting her face to take in the cold light of the winter dawn. The sky was an exquisite shade of peach and orange, banded by pink and fading blue. There was not a single plume of cloud staining the painted sky.

Good fortune, Sakura thought. It had long been her superstition that no clouds meant no troubles.

The second of calm silence was broken when a tan dress was pushed under her nose.

"What… is this?" the kunoichi murmured as she took it cautiously from Deidara's hand.

"It's your disguise, un. Sasori-danna and I made it last night. I think it perfectly fits the part of a poor girl with no money, no future, and no taste!" the blond sing-songed. Sakura grimaced in his general direction. Normally Deidara's interest in art was entertaining… but no taste? Geesh, that was taking the disguise a little too far.

"Thanks Deidara…" she sighed, eying the colorless lump of cloth unenthusiastically. "I'd like to change now, so leave."

Deidara looked like he was holding back a scandalous comment, and his cheeky smirk wasn't helping any. "It's not like I haven't seen it before, un."

"Deidara, I will hit you. I will hit you hard."

To reinforce her point, Sakura brandished a single curled fist. That was more than enough for the Iwa ninja. He knew exactly how heavy her punches were, and in the interest of self-preservation, he scuttled as quickly as possible out of cave.

Forcing herself to just get it over with, Sakura slid off her heavy Akatsuki cloak (not as heavy as it should have been—the fight with Kimimaro had tattered the once proud cloth) and wormed her way free of her shirt. It was best to leave her shorts on, Sakura snickered. Flashing your enemy with your undergarments wasn't always an effective defense.

At last, when she'd pulled the beige dress on, Sakura gave in and inspected the costume. It was less hideous than she'd expected, and that was a welcome relief. It actually sat well on her, falling just above her knees and fitting snugly around her shoulders. Even the clay-like color was less appalling when she looked at it now. It made her skin seem smooth and lighter. It was still very plain, but now she noticed a cloth flower sewed just under her collarbone. The flower was a deep brown, and really looked more dead than anything else…

Either the wilted blossom was meant to be some grand image of innocent lost—or Deidara was stuck in a creative slump.

At least the dress wasn't a sack. As she bent gingerly and folded her Akatsuki cloak, the tan dress's flexible material moved with her. All right, it was a fashion nightmare, but it probably wouldn't hinder her if push came to shove, and she did have to give it that.

The tap of her sandals on the dirt floor of the cave seemed to echo before her, and Deidara had already turned to survey her new look by the time she got outside.

She had to resist the urge to snort, looking at his "disguise". The artist had dressed himself in faded blue pants and an even more faded grey top. The pants had patches at the knees and the shirt bagged off in an utterly unappealing way. The entire thing just screamed "peasant!"

"And you said I had no taste!" she teased, moving to lean against a nearby tree.

"It's for the mission, un." He had a long-suffering look on his face.

In a move she had not expected, the artist reached up and tugged the tie from his hair. A cascade of gold danced and caught the morning light, and for a moment Sakura thought of halos and angels and the girl who reminded her of cosmos.

Two hands—bandaged to hide the mouths in their palms—slid around the back of Deidara's neck and slowly freed the blond strands trapped under his ratty shirt.

It was not as if she'd never seen his hair before. It was just that she had never really seen it this way; Deidara made a habit of keeping his hair tucked inside his Akatsuki robe, or trapped in a neat little bun when he went to sleep. Now it fell unbound to his waist, a wash of liquid saffron that begged her fingers to run through it.

It made him look softer somehow, ephemeral and serene.

"…What are you staring at, un?"

"N-Nothing!" Sakura squeaked—but when he made a move to tie his hair back up, she stopped him. "Leave it down? It looks nice."

For a long moment he stared at her silently, visible blue eye shifting from confusion to some entrancing emotion she could not name. Her throat felt suddenly tight and her hands stilled at the hem of her dress.

"If you two are finished?"

The kunai was in Sakura's hand before she was aware of grabbing it. Instantly, leaf green eyes searched out and settled on an intruder. Sakura slipped into a defensive position.

Standing across the small hollow was a young man with ginger hair and a soft, vacant smile. He was (Sakura couldn't help but think) very beautiful. Skin as pale and smooth as porcelain was framed by the partly-curled strands of his hair, and under a brush of bangs, half-lidded mahogany eyes shown with unveiled cunning. Sakura could see that the stranger was slender and fit, despite the fact that his ragged clothes bagged off him in a most unattractive fashion. Her gaze darted down to his hands in an instinctive check for weapons.

His hands were empty of blades, innocent and delicate-looking at his sides. But that was awfully familiar purple nail polish…

"Sasori-danna!" Deidara crowed happily.

Sakura's jaw dropped. That's Sasori?!

The ungainly scorpion-like body was gone, replaced with… well, it was like comparing wasps and flowers. The boy before them—he really was a boy, definitely no older than Deidara—looked as fragile as a lotus, a thousand degrees different from the hunched monster of before.

"S-Sasori-san?" Sakura couldn't help but stare in obvious confusion. "But… how… what… huh?"

"Hiruko is a hitokugutsu," the boy—Sasori, Sasori! Sakura reminded herself—offered. His voice was quiet and low, almost dream-like. Sakura got so caught up listening that she almost failed to process his words.

Hitokugutsu? A human puppet? Sakura turned the words over in her head, unsure of their meaning. Deidara chose that moment to cut in.

"That's his art, un." There was a quiet sort of scoff in the Iwa ninja's voice. "He kills people and turns them into puppets."

For a long minute, there was silence. The pink-haired kunoichi had no idea what to say. At last, she settled for the very intelligent: "Oh."

"I know! Complete kitsch, un!" Deidara nodded in a sage-like way, oblivious to Sasori's growing scowl. "I can't believe he calls that art…"

In retrospect, Sakura would later think, it was very much like a dam bursting. One moment they had been calmly discussing their partner's sudden change, and the next second both of the boys were consuming in a hail of insults and ranting that Sakura could barely understand.

"You wouldn't know art if it bit you in the ass," the Sand ninja snarled.

"You wish art would bite you in the ass, un!" Deidara snapped back.

"Oh, very clever. Because regurgitating ideas always was your forte—ah," Sasori smiled, "I should say your lack of forte."

"You shouldn't project your failures on to me, un. We all know I've got more forte in one finger than all your ugly wooden bodies put together." Deidara crossed his arms over his chest and nodded sharply.

"Ugly?! How dare you, you impenitent brat! You have no conception of beauty! Those irritating fireworks of yours fade in seconds—five minutes later, I've already forgotten about them."

Sakura heard Deidara mutter something that sounded suspiciously like "That's because you're senile, un!" but Sasori barreled on without pause, as prickly as a scorpion backed into a corner.

"There is nothing enduring about your 'art', nothing that lingers in the mind or lends significance—elegance—to those tacky sculptures of yours. How can you even call it art? It leaves no lasting impression!"

"Oh, I'll show you what kind of impression it can leave…" the blond threatened. Sasori lifted his hands, fingers crooked and splayed in warning.

"Ummm…" Sakura's attempt to intervene went completely unnoticed.

"Art isn't about lasting forever, un! Art is about the moment—that one moment of beauty that you appreciate only because you know it won't last," Deidara growled. "Art is about the revelation! Your whole damn existence crushed into one second where you can't breath, think, where the whole world collapses into this tiny point of explosion and you feel alive."

"You were raised in a school of idiots," Sasori stabbed. "What is the point of feeling alive for a single moment? That just means in the next moment you lose everything you labored for. True art is that which lasts forever, which holds, proves the value of your existence through centuries."

Sakura felt not only ignored, but also completely lost. Involuntarily, she thought back to the time when she'd taken Deidara's "danna" to mean that he was married to his partner. The pink-haired girl was very suddenly reminded of old biddies badgering their equally old husbands in the Konoha marketplace.

"Art is fleeting, un!" Deidara was shouting in his partner's face by now.

"Art is eternal!" Sasori had no problem snapping back.

Sakura could not hold back giggles any longer—and that was the wrong move.



Both boys rounded on her with determined glares and unrelenting scowls. The pressure of their combined gaze made Sakura feel like someone had dropped the Hokage mountain on her shoulders. It didn't help that Deidara was flushed with rage, his hair flying freely about, or that Sasori looked ruffled, passionate, and pretty.

"Ummm, y-yes?" she managed.

"Which art is real art, un?" Deidara's single visible eye was narrowed into a cobalt slit.

"Yes, maybe another opinion would make this idiot see the error of his ways," Sasori almost laughed.

Oh God…I have to choose?! Sakura looked between the two of them desperately. Well Sakura, she sighed to herself, it's been a good ride. You've lived a decent life these past years; time to pick your way to end it. Going out with bang, or becoming a life-sized doll? Neither option seemed appealing.

"Uhh, I…" she hedged, "I think… they're ummm… both nice?"

Distant bird chirping was the only sound to stir the stone cold silence that descended on them. Deidara turned to Sasori, and the two shared a look that could only be described as utterly scandalized.

"Well, you're not an artist—" Deidara started.

"—so of course you wouldn't understand," Sasori finished.

Argument completely forgotten, the two ninja launched into a mutual grievance about the sheer blindness of the non-artistic. They were, Sakura sighed again, off in some little world all of their own.

It was only when the pair started off through the trees that Sakura realized she was about to be left behind. Snatching up the canvas bag that had held their disguises, she trudged after them.

Watching the swill of Deidara's hair and the dancing movements of Sasori's hands, she suddenly felt as if there was wall of glass growing up between them. For the boys, this—the mission, the battle, the disagreement—was an ingrained as breathing. They had a routine, existences each built around living with the other. She knew the feeling: a sense of closeness, of comfort that came with knowing and trusting the person at your back. Deidara and Sasori bickered a lot, but when it came down to it, they were partners, just like she was—used to be—partners with Itachi. The sudden emptiness, the lack of his presence at her side was an ache that settled along the dark stitches across her middle.

Unlike the wound, the hole left by Itachi's departure would never be filled again, would it?

All of the sudden, Sakura felt tacked on, like an intruder in Deidara and Sasori's perfectly stable—all right, maybe stable was stretching it—team. She didn't belong with them anymore than she belonged with any of the other Akatsuki members; she was not an artist, not a born and bred killer…

Sakura just didn't fit in with anyone—not even the Haruno family had wanted her.

"Oy, Sakura-chan, hurry and catch up!"

Deidara smiled at her from over his shoulder.


As they trudged through the frost-bitten evergreen woods (Sasori insisted they walk, in case the area was patrolled by Star ninja) Sakura turned the plan over and over in her head. She would have to be a strong actress if they were going to pull this off. The green-eyed kunoichi couldn't really remember a time where she had needed to act before. She'd always been straightforward and truthful. Even when she and Itachi had traveled together, Sakura always avoided talking to keepers of the inns they stayed at, for fear of giving away she and Itachi's true nature.

The tree-line finally began to thin, and Sakura's stomach turned with nerves. What if she slipped up and gave away the plan or made the Star ninja suspicious? What if her injuries caused her to hold back Deidara or Sasori?

"We're here." The scorpion's soft voice suddenly at her side made Sakura jump, but she quickly turned her attention to the stretch of emptiness in front of them. An almost endless ravine split the land, and for meters on either side of the abyss, all the plant life had died, leaving only bare stone.

"This is the border of Bear, un," Deidara muttered to her. "The gorge is full of toxic fumes that'll kill you if you breathe them in too long."

The cloud of yellow fog floating in the ravine seemed far more ominous than it had a few seconds ago.

"Are we going to fly over?" Sakura whispered back to the Iwa ninja.

"They have guards placed strategically around the border of this tiny country," Sasori murmured. "If we tried to fly over, it would constitute intruding, and we would be attacked."

"Then what are we going to do?" Sakura looked between the boys anxiously.

"Watch." Deidara grinned. "Hey! Helllooo! Anybody there, un?" He waved his arms over his head with almost undue desperation. "Hellllooooo?" His voice echoed through the gorge and into the woods on to the other side. "We need some help, un!"

For a long minute, silence was their only answer. And then—Sakura tensed—an arrow shot from the shrubs on the other side of the gorge, grazed the sleeve of Deidara's outstretched arm, and buried deep in the trunk of a tree behind the Akatsuki party.

Almost immediately, the blond artist started flailing. "Wahhhh!" He leapt away from the arrow as if it actually frightened him. Realizing nearly too late that they were supposed to be acting, Sakura threw a nervous look across her face. The faked look grew quickly more real as Sasori threw himself in front of her, raising a protective arm between his "little sister" and any possible danger.

"Hey!" Deidara was complaining across the ravine, "You mind not shooting us, un?!"

There was movement in the shrubs across the gorge, and Sakura forced herself not to follow the lightning quick pacing of the ninja who had fired at them. Any indication that Sakura could read their movements would give her away as a shinobi—and ruin the invasion plan.

Instead, she gawked from behind Sasori, darting leaf green eyes in every direction in mock terror.

Their wait was not a long one. After a few moments, a second arrow (this time with a rope trailing behind it) shot across the ravine and buried itself deep into the wood of a tree trunk. The rope pulled taut just as dark blur burst from the bushes on the other side and landed—perfectly balanced—on the makeshift bridge. Sakura could sense the Chakra being used to glue the Star ninja's feet to the rope, but she pretended to be astounded.

"Who are you? What are you seeking?" the Star ninja demanded. His face swept over all three of them, most likely taking in their hideous clothing.

Discreetly, Sakura took the time to assess him too. He was large, but not did not sound particularly old. The pink-haired kunoichi estimated him to be two or three years older than Deidara at most. The gas mask he was wearing obscured his face, making Sakura uneasy. Having trained with Itachi for so long, she knew the importance of reading her opponents' eyes.

In the Star ninja's hand was crossbow, a mark of poor weapons training. Sakura scoffed mentally. No skilled shinobi would be caught with a handicap like that. If he couldn't throw a kunai the distance across the ravine, he was barely worthy of being called a ninja to begin with.

Sakura struggled to keep all hints of contempt off of her face, and finally, Sasori moved to answer the Star ninja's questions.

"My name is Uso Hotaru," the Sand ninja said, in a voice tinged with false weariness and hardship. "My young sister—" Sakura peered out nervously from behind him, "—our friend—" Deidara "hmph"ed and glared at the ninja in front of them, clearly still faking offense at his brush with the arrow, "—and I have traveled days searching for signs of life… for any hope of refuge."

Sakura resisted the urge to giggle at their melodramatic cover story. And it only gets worse…

Sasori, with a staggering amount of discipline and patience, continued. "We came from Akinobara Village, west of here. A week ago, shinobi flooded our streets and began to massacre everyone in sight. They set fire to the market and to our homes."

The scorpion ninja paused, training his heavy mahogany gaze on the Star shinobi's masked face. "Our village was a peaceful trading town. We didn't train ninja or require protection from the ninja villages surrounding us… but still—!"

The sudden anger took Sakura by surprise, in that it seemed so real. Sasori, she decided, was a force to be reckoned with. She would never trust his expressions again, after seeing him fake hatred and desolation with such ease.

"I don't know why they did it—"

Deidara stomped his foot down hard. "Those bastards just didn't like it that we didn't need them! Iwagakure thinks it owns the whole world, un!" Sakura bit down hard on the insides of her cheeks to keep from smiling. Deidara's loathing was hardly faked at all—the Stone Nation had stifled his creative spirit for one year too many.

"When we saw what was happening to the village, Taro and I took Azami—" Sakura perked up as Sasori dropped her code name, "—and ran. We were artisans… everything we owned we kept in our place at the market. I watched it burn, though we had done nothing to upset the shinobi village. Our money, our home… we lost it all in a single moment."

"We didn't have anything, damn it!" Deidara chimed in. Sakura nodded nervously along, still keeping her half-cower behind the Sand ninja.

"We've been wandering desperately for three days. Please, do you know where we could find shelter and something to eat?"

It was the false anxiety on Sasori's young face that drove their story home, and the Star ninja's wariness wavered for a moment.

"Outsiders are not permitted in the Hidden Star village…"

"There's a village here?" Deidara perked up like a dog being offered a bone.

"Y-Yes," the Star ninja stumbled as he realized his own error, "but you are not allowed to—"

"Please!" Sakura pushed her way out from behind Sasori and curled her hands tight over her heart. Her knees turned in; she raised her shoulders and bit her bottom lip gingerly, becoming in an instant the picture of innocence: small and sweet. Both the scorpion and Deidara moved quickly to hide their surprise.

"Please!" Sakura's girlish voice wavered with false timidity. "We didn't have anything to eat… My brother gave me everything he could. Please let us come to your village! I don't want my big brother to starve… He's the only one I have left…"

"And what about me, un?" Deidara grumbled under his breath.

The Star ninja heaved a palpable sigh, shifting his masked gaze over them once more as if gauging their verity. At last, he slumped where he balanced on the rope. "I'll discuss it with the village leader. Wait here."

As the Star ninja flickered back through the shrubs on the far side of the ravine, Sakura turned to Sasori, and in her sweetest (and most carrying voice) said, "Yay! Now you and Taro-kun won't have to eat grass just to survive!"

Sakura swore she saw the Star ninja flinch.

"All right!" The kunoichi let her pretend anxiety melt away when she was sure the Star ninja and any of his possible comrades had gone from the area. "They'll probably fall for that, right? But… what do we do if they don't let us in?"

Sasori's eyelids lowered once, heavily, and the serene look on his face somehow took on a deadly air. "Then we will resort to Plan B."

"Plan B?" Sakura blinked.

"We bomb the hell out of them," Deidara grinned, "and pick the rock out of the rubble."

It was a testament to how much Sakura had changed that "Plan B" did not shock her in the slightest. What did surprise her was that the only reason she preferred "Plan A" to "Plan B" was that "Plan A" required less effort and involved far less dirt.

They did have to deliberate long. Sakura felt a sudden bloom of Chakra and looked up from where she'd been analyzing escape options with Deidara. The Star ninja had returned, and this time with three other ninja in tow. The pink-haired kunoichi noticed Sasori stiffen the slightest amount. And then she saw it: the way the other ninja deferred to the man standing in the middle, the stately way he stepped… Sakura stared blatantly. How tiny was this village that they'd send their leader out to inspect three asylum seekers? Apparently Deidara was interested as well, because he stole a meaningful glance in Sasori's direction.

The Star village leader was tall but slender, and unlike the other Star shinobi, he did not wear a gas mask, which allowed Sakura to survey his face. High cheek bones gave the leader's face a hollow, corpse-like look; the flatness of the dark blue eyes above his cheeks furthered the image. His thin lips crooked in a half-smile, but to Sakura, everything about the man screamed two-faced. Even the moon pale strands of his hair concealed his real age.

It took a sizeable number of minutes to explain their story again, and then came an agonizing period of silence while the navy-eyed Star ninja inspected and decided their fates.

At last, just when Sakura was sure they'd be turned away, the Star village leader snapped his fingers. Immediately, the two ninja that had accompanied him sprang into action. The first drew out the large summoning scroll that had been attached to his back. With a flick of thick wrists, the scroll unwound across the ground. Sakura caught flashes of black lettering, but none of the characters were ones she knew. Nevertheless, the green-eyed girl struggled to keep her body from tensing up as tightly as her mind was.

With deft ease, the two Star ninja flashed through a series of hand seals and then simultaneously slammed their palms down on the summoning scroll. In a burst of chakra and smoke, a line of the gorge before them became a suspended wooden bridge. It swayed in the minimal breeze, but the stakes that anchored to either side of the ravine seemed sturdy.

The pale-haired man smiled in a way that reminded Sakura of Orochimaru.

"I am Akahoshi, coordinator of this, the Hidden Star ninja village. It would be our utmost pleasure to offer you refuge." His voice was slick as oil and just as unpleasant. Sakura did not like it in the slightest, and suddenly this mission seemed degrees more difficult than it had only moments before. Akahoshi was no kind-hearted, altruistic citizen—she would have to keep close watch on him. All her senses prickled as she looked at his glass marble eyes, and a niggling feeling that Akahoshi had ulterior motives for letting them enter the village would not leave her.

The reassuring warmth of Deidara standing beside her cut off abruptly as the blond raced—at a civilian's pace—toward the bridge. "A bed! A real bed, un!"

The Star ninja stiffened as Deidara came their way, and disguised the motion poorly. Only Akahoshi remained unflinching while the blond artist clattered over their summoned bridge.

Playing the part of a soft-spoken young sister, Sakura followed Sasori like a puppy on a leash. Almost too late, it occurred to her that an ordinary girl might be scared of crossing a rickety rope bridge over a gapping abyss of toxic fumes.

Sakura froze like a frightened rabbit. Sasori took a few more steps before he noticed she had not followed him onto the bridge.

"Azami…" Sasori's voice was colored with practiced exasperation. "What's wrong?"

"I'm scared!" Sakura clung tight to the bridge post and refused to step any further. Her green eyes clenched shut.

Offering an apologetic look to their Star escorts, Sasori crossed back to where Sakura hunched away from the bridge. "Azami…" he called her false name with equally false patience. "It's perfectly safe. Taro-kun got across fine."

"But…" She half-opened one eye to stare at him. "What if a wind comes and blows it away? I'm scared!"

Sasori's smile looked painted onto his face. "I promised to protect you."

'Azami' nodded slowly. "But…"

"I'll hold your hand, all right?" With his back to the Star ninja, Sasori let his mahogany eyes show dry amusement. Sakura nodded again.

Still holding her façade of nervousness, the pink-haired kunoichi reached out and took her "big brother's" hand. His skin, she noted idly, was smooth as porcelain and just as cold; yet there was something comforting about being so close to another person. When was the last time someone had held her hand? Even if it was only pretend, when was the last time someone had offered to protect her?

Sakura told herself she didn't need to be protected. She didn't need it… so why?

A tool that fails to serve its master is worthless…

Why are you so weak?! You can't even protect yourself, Sakura! It's so basic a fucking dog could do it!

But Father, I…

You are weak because you have no control…worthless…

But Itachi-sama, I…

You're no daughter of mine! You're a leech, bleeding the name of this family dry. A sightless worm—that's what you are Sakura. You're not even strong enough to be a girl.

I'm a human being!

No. She's a ninja.

I swore that I would become stronger, I would never stop, never hesitate—but under that… I'm still just a girl. I'm still just human. Sweet little Azami is fake, but… I could have been her.

I could have been…

I still want someone to…

I promised to protect you.

Sakura let go of Sasori's hand to wrap her arms around his waist. She buried her face in his ragged shirt, feeling the cold of his skin not even fabric could veil. Distantly, she heard his heart beating.

I promised to protect you.

"Thank you," Sakura whispered, "ani-ue." My brother.

If only he could be…If only I had never been born a Haruno…

The brush of Sasori's hand on the top of her head surprised Sakura, and she let go of him immediately, moving back a step to stare up at his face.

Sakura skipped a breath. Sasori's gaze was warm and far-away, young and adoring and staring right through her as if he was seeing someone else entirely.

And then, in less than a second, the look was gone, faded so completely that Sakura wondered if it had really been there at all.

The scorpion's apathetic stare turned away, and dutifully, Sakura followed behind. She did not ask why he had looked through her like that—why he felt so strongly about a simple embrace.

All shinobi kept secrets.


Deidara was bored with the place already. They call this a village, un? There were perhaps twenty wooden buildings in Star, arraigned in a most un-inspired and boxy manner. The only word he could think of to describe it was quaint. Well… quaint was the only non-derogatory word he could think of.

Akahoshi left them shortly after they'd reached the edge of the village, claiming he had important business to attend to. All the better, in Deidara's opinion. There was a greasy tang to the leader of the Star village that made the teeth in the blond's palms clench.

Idly, Deidara wound a strand of his unbound hair around a finger. Tighter, tighter… The blood rushed hard to the makeshift tourniquet, dying his skin bloody red—red like usual.

"There is no inn in the village," the Star ninja escort prattled on, "but Ryuusei-san has agreed to let you rest in her home for a few days. You are expected, of course, to be of assistance to…" Deidara tuned their guide out with remarkable ease. Discretely, the blond ninja surveyed the village for escape routes, ambush possibilities, or traps.

With the exception of a bunch of children about Sakura's age running pell-mell down a parallel street, there didn't seem to be much security at all in the village. Hidden Star was clearly more concerned with keeping out foreign ninja than keeping tabs on their own.

Rather quickly, their Star ninja guide stopped in front of a well-maintained wooden house. It was large in comparison to some of the others, but there was no little garden out front or ruffly curtains, which gave Deidara the impression that the woman who had so generously offered them her home was a sharply-trained shinobi. Damn.

The Star ninja moved to knock on the door, which was promptly opened by a stern looking woman. Despite the fact that she was probably old enough to be his grandmother, Deidara knew not to underestimate her.

"The refugees, Ryuusei-san," their escort said.

Ryuusei trained hawk-eyes on the three intruders, taking them in one by one. Finally, she stepped away from the door, brushing iron gray hair behind her ear and motioning for them to remove their shoes as they entered.

Easily, Deidara peeled off his dusty sandals, tossing them casually in the corner, where Sasori and Sakura were neatly arraigning their own footwear. The old woman turned her hard stare from his cluttered shoes to his face, and Deidara forced a sheepish smile.

"Clearly manners were taught in your village." The old woman gestured to Sakura and Sasori, who had bowed politely before they'd even come in the door. "Apparently your parents had some failings."

"Well, I didn't have any parents, un." Deidara's smile looked suddenly strained. "They were killed by a freak explosion… it was very traumatic, un."

Ryuusei pressed her thin lips into a stern line. Finally, she turned away. "That's hardly an excuse."

The blond artist resisted the urge to stick his tongue (any one of them would do) out at her.

"Forgive my…friend." Deidara thought Sasori might actually be choking on that word. "We're all very tired. My name is Uso Hotaru, and my younger sister is Uso Azami. Our irritating companion is Okamoto Taro."

Sakura chimed in with a cheerful, girlish voice, "Thank you so much for letting us stay in your home!"

Rather than saying they were welcome, the old woman offered a "hpmh" and gestured for them to follow her.

As they made an idle circuit of the house, Deidara once again kept his eyes open for traps or bugs that Ryuusei might use to keep watch on them—because they would most certainly be watched. The Hidden Star people were an almost paranoid set, and Deidara had no doubt that their every move would be carefully analyzed.

The blond's attention was so set on searching for hidden ninja equipment and genjutsu that when Ryuusei finally concluded her tour of the home, he nearly ran right into her back. Ironically, Deidara thought, it probably would have helped his non-ninja image if he had.

"Unfortunately," Ryuusei offered in her clipped, stern voice, "I have only two spare bedrooms."

Deidara nearly offered to bunk with Sakura—he rather enjoyed the room they shared together in the hideout. Only their cover story kept him from blurting out the offer. It would probably look bad if "Azami-chan" chose to share a bed with a family friend rather than her brother—Deidara twitched.

Surely Ryuusei wouldn't tell Sakura to share a room with Sasori!

"I think it would be most... prudent if the young lady were to sleep on her own," Ryuusei pressed.

Deidara resisted a momentary sigh of relief. There would have been no telling how Sakura would have reacted to sharing a room with the scorpion, and any wrong look or word could easily blow their cover.

Momentary relief was swept away by nerves. Wouldn't it be normal for a sister and brother to share a room? Was Ryuusei on to their disguise?

"Though it is not, perhaps, the most appealing of situations," the old woman added, "I will fix a futon so that one of you may sleep in the living room…"

Weeks later, Deidara would think back to this moment and cringe. It would not be a little cringe—it would be a "what the hell was I thinking, un?!" cringe. At the moment, however, a particularly wicked idea had just sunk its claws into Deidara's nefariously strange mind.

It was impossible to resist.

"Don't bother with a futon, Granny." Mischief glinted in the cobalt of his visible eye as Deidara took two steps toward his partner and leaned, effectively crossing whatever little personal space Sasori had had left. The Stone ninja lifted one bandaged hand to ghost along the scorpion's throat and teased one finger down the pale line of his partner's suddenly clenched jaw.

Lips near whispering against the scorpion's alabaster cheek, Deidara's almond eye sought their caretaker's shocked face. "Hotaru-danna and I can…. sleep together."

From somewhere behind Sasori, Deidara heard Sakura let out a muffled "Eep!" The blond held back snickers of his own while he imagined what Sakura's reaction to all this looked like. Her face, Deidara thought, was probably burning cherry red right about now.

No matter how surprised Sakura would look, the old Star kunoichi's face was even more priceless. Ryuusei looked like some sort of washed-out cockatoo, all her feathers ruffled completely the wrong way. For a moment, she simply gapped at them, and then, as if remembering her proper upbringing, schooled her expression into something far calmer.

"If…If you insist," the old woman managed at least. "Your… room is down the hall on the left."

"Thanks a ton Granny!" Deidara's grin was curved as a crescent moon. Looping one arm around Sasori's shoulders, the blond artist hauled his partner down the hall.

He distinctly heard Ryuusei muttering something about "New Age couples" as they went.

Sasori was uncooperative as a marionette whose strings had been cut. As the Stone ninja trounced down the hall, Sasori's footsteps were heavy and mechanical. Oops… Deidara thought, Sasori-danna is pissed off now!

In almost jerking motion, Sasori shut the door behind them. Wary of the window on the far side of the room, the Sand ninja's face held its vacant stare—but the tone of the scorpion's voice altered dramatically in a matter of seconds.

"Do I even need to ask what the hell that was?"

"Is that a rhetorical question or are you really expecting me to answer, un?" Deidara backed into the room, half to put some space between himself and the disgruntled scorpion, and half to maintain appearances for the ninja that were most certainly spying on them right that moment from outside the window.

Sasori pressed a delicate hand hard against his temple, driving away the start of a non-existent headache. "Do you ever think about things before you do them?"

"Nope, not really, un."

The Sand ninja sighed and threw himself down in the room's only seat, a plush maroon armchair. The motion was one of disbelief and defeat, and Deidara was fairly certain he was out of danger.

"And do you have to attract unwanted scrutiny wherever we go?" the red-headed boy hissed. Out of the hearing range of the Star ninja, all of Sasori's false politeness and cheer had vanished as quickly as smoke in a gale storm. He was back to his perpetual state of grouchiness, to Deidara's vast disappointment. And here the blond had been thinking Sasori's role as someone's caring older brother had (metaphorically) peeled some of the wood layers away from his partner's heart!

"Well," Deidara snickered darkly, "at least now Granny won't dare peep in on us."

For a long a moment, Sasori simply stared at his partner. It was not a contemplating stare or even an amused stare. It was very firmly a "you really are insane, aren't you?" stare.

Deidara turned away from his irritable partner to inspect the room they had been given. It was big enough—bigger than he'd thought it would be, and the soft light from the single window against the dark oak boards of the wall gave it a very… homely feel. There was a thick plush rug under his feet, and Deidara was tempted to take off his shoes just to wiggle his toes in it. Instead, he bounced onto the room's bed, sinking into a thick blue comforter.

"I call this side!" the blond crowed.

"As if I—" But Sasori's words were cut off cleanly by a quiet knock on the door.

Into the dark wood of the door, Sakura whispered, "Itsuwari...Garasu Ôu."

Even though he couldn't see it, Deidara almost felt Sakura's genjutsu flood their room, crawling through the wall and filling the window and doorway. Anyone who looked into the room now would see "Hotaru" and "Taro" going about in a perfectly normal (and non-ninja) manner. Any ear against the door would hear ordinary and boring conversation. The genjutsu's only weakness was that it would not work on anyone who opened the door.

As there was no instant reaction from the Star ninja spies outside, Deidara assumed Sakura's illusion had gone unnoticed, in perfect accordance with their plan.

"Aniki, Taro-kun!" Sakura called through the door—and was that laughter or uneasiness in her voice? "Ryuusei-san is making lunch for us!"

Deidara almost yelled back, asking if the food would be poisoned, but Sasori's mahogany eyes were already narrowing in warning, as if he knew exactly what Deidara was planning.

"You have no sense of adventure, un," the blond griped, throwing his hands up in surrender. "You're boring! Borrring!"

"Better boring than poisoned by Granny." Sasori's bone dry chuckle followed Deidara into the hall.


"Ahhh!" Sakura sighed, leaning back in her chair. "I'm so full! Thank you Ryuusei-san."

The older woman offered her something that looked vaguely like a smile, although Sakura thought it could just as easily have been a grimace.

On her left, Deidara muttered something into his rice bowl that sounded distinctly unkind. Sakura elbowed him under the table, pleased when he flinched away and closed his mouth.

"Uh…" Sakura began, lowering her eyes with false anxiousness. "Uh… Ryuusei-san… Would it be okay if I went for a walk? I've never been in a ninja village before… so… I thought…"

"You ought to take an escort," the old woman murmured, thin eyes sharp and staring over the edge of her teacup.

"Oh n-no," Sakura waved her hand in a nervous dismissal. "I wouldn't want to be a burden on anyone!"

"Azami," Sasori faked concern, "you don't know this village. It would be easy to get lost…"

"I promise I won't go into the woods or anything! Please, aniki?" she wheedled in her most saccharine voice.

The act paid off, and the stern old woman grudgingly gave in. Sakura leapt to collect her dishes and dropped them in the kitchen. With Azami's girlish abandon, the pink-haired kunoichi skipped out of the house, calling goodbyes and a promise to be back by dark over her shoulder.

"Don't get lost, ya' little twerp!" Deidara called out as she left.

Sakura decided it wouldn't be worth the scolding she'd get from Ryuusei to turn around and shout something obscene.

Giggling with a childish delight that was surprisingly easy to create, Sakura let her feet lead her. Despite the fact that her walk was actually a planned part of the mission, the girl found herself relaxing at the sound of the chilly winter breeze through the leaves of the nearby forest trees, at the sunlight's warmth contrasting with the cold temperature of the air against her skin.

If she ignored the obvious chakra signal of the Star ninja following her every move, Sakura could almost believe she was on vacation…or something silly like that.

At last, Sakura knew she had to get down to business. As a cute young girl, it would be easier for her to move about the village and pick up information than it would be for the boys. Keeping Deidara's advice in mind ("Be cute Sakura, cute and stupid, un!"), the girl set out to observe the comings and goings of Star ninja in the village.

The chakra-increasing meteorite was supposedly a symbol of the Star village's pride, what each member of Hoshigakure's ninja force trained around. It would be extremely well protected, and if it was being kept in any of the buildings within the village, there would undoubtedly be more activity around that building than any of the others.

By the time Sakura had gone around the village (in different routes, so as not to attract too much notice) three times, she was mentally cursing the entire mission. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the meteorite was not within the confines of the village. The only building that had any noticeable ninja activity was the administration building, where Akahoshi and his minions handled all of Hoshigakure's paperwork. Still, there was no extra guard on the building, and Sakura sincerely doubted the "symbol of the Star village's pride" would be kept tucked away in some ignoble corner.

If they were not keeping it in the village, it most certainly would have to be in the woods somewhere. But she couldn't go hunting around in the forest randomly without looking suspicious. Instead she trained her eyes on the shinobi patrolling the village. Surely they would make rounds to the star, too… It took quite a while, but eventually she noticed the pattern. No matter where the Star ninja entered the village from, each one of their patrol groups left facing southeast.

But that could just be the route, rather than a clear indicator of the star's location, couldn't it?

Huffing, Sakura gave up her attempts at observation and began to search for the nearest place to sit down. Her stitches were itching, and a dull, throbbing pain had started up in her middle.

Sakura backtracked toward the restaurant-type building she had seen early on her walk. She didn't have any money—well, she did, but the Star ninja weren't allowed to know that—still, restaurants were great places to gather information from locals. People with full stomachs and sake cups were much more likely to talk than ninja on patrol.

The moment Sakura entered the restaurant building, she realized something was… off. For the longest minute, the green-eyed kunoichi couldn't quite put her finger on it. But as she surveyed the other patrons, it slowly came to her.

There were only two types of people in the restaurant: those who were quite young, and those who were very old. Of course, there were a few middle-aged men and women (all of whom were wearing Hoshi hitai-ate) scattered about, but on the whole, the age division of the restaurant was extreme.

In fact, it had been the same out on the streets of the village, hadn't it? There had been a good number of children her age, but very few adult men and women. Even the Star ninja who had met them at the border had been a teenager.

Where was the rest of the village?

For a moment Sakura thought that perhaps a large group of Star ninja had been sequestered wherever the meteorite was hidden, and were training there, away from the rest of the village. But in the end, that didn't make any sense… Why would Akahoshi not have called back his best ninja before letting potentially dangerous outsiders into the village? And even more so, none of the houses Sakura had passed seemed empty. Many of them had had people moving just inside their windows, and even those that were vacated showed signs of recent activity.

This discovery unsettled Sakura, and the girl turned around and left the restaurant almost as soon as she had entered it. Sorting a pout onto her face, Sakura rubbed her stomach very lightly. To the Star ninja watching, it probably seemed as if "Azami" had gone inside the restaurant to beg for a free snack and had, summarily, been turned down.

Underneath her façade, determination burned like flame through Sakura's veins.

Though it was risky, some investigation was most certainly in order.


She decided quickly that it wouldn't be safe speaking with any of the adults. Undoubtedly, they would be aware of her status as an outside and the chance that she was an enemy ninja in disguise. Any unordinary question would seem invasive to the older members of the village.

But Azami was a girl—a social girl—and it would make perfect sense for her to seek out children her own age, wouldn't it?

Finding a Star villager her age was almost too easy—she'd turned the corner on to another block of the village and nearly slammed into a tawny-haired girl wearing a Hoshigakure hitai-ate. A genin, most likely. The girl cried out in surprise and leapt back, falling neatly onto her bottom in the dirt road.

"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" Sakura leapt to help the Star girl to her feet, biting back a wince as her stitches tugged with the motion.

"Ah… It's okay." The brown-haired girl mumbled as she brushed herself off. Apparently Sakura had run into a soft-spoken Hoshi ninja. (The only the one in the whole village, Sakura snorted to herself.) For a second, the girl's wide grey eyes locked on Sakura's ugly dress and simply stared.

"I'm Aza—" Sakura started to say, but a hand reached out to fiercely tug at the Star ninja girl's arm.

"We don't care who you are," a boy's voice growled.

Sakura's green gaze clashed with the chocolate brown eyes of a taller Star ninja boy. Anger flashed in his gaze as he pulled roughly on his female comrade again.

"Hokuto, don't talk to her—she's an outsider." He spat the last word like venom.

"But… Sumaru… isn't that a little…" Hokuto, as Sakura now knew her, stumbled and tried to defend herself. "I think it would be rude not to talk to her." The girl straightened where she stood, forcing her voice to hold firm. "I heard your village was destroyed." Hokuto had turned soft grey eyes toward Sakura.

Sumaru jerked his glare between them for a moment and then spun on his heel, forest-colored braid whipping out behind him.

"Fine! Betray our village! I'm not talking to any outsiders!" Sumaru shouted over his shoulder as he bound away from them.

"I'm sorry," Hokuto sighed. "Sumaru doesn't trust outsiders… but he has a good reason."

"It's okay. I'm a little afraid of strangers too." And Sakura wasn't lying—when you were a missing-nin, every stranger was a potential executioner. "By the way, I'm Uso Azami. Thank you for talking to me… I was starting to feel really lonely." All right, now she was lying.

"Oh!" The grey-eyed girl pressed a hand to her freckled face. "I'm sorry! I was talking about your village without thinking, and…"

"That's all right." Sakura tried to sort her voice into something that sounded like bravery overcoming sorrow. "My brother and my friend are both alive, so I know that everything will turn out fine."

Hokuto smiled in answer.

Now, Sakura thought, was the moment to begin her investigation. "Why is it that Sumaru hates outsiders so much?" The pink-haired kunoichi hoped her question came off as light and concerned, rather than prying.

Hokuto's grey eyes lowered to the dirt road. "Ten years ago… Sumaru's parents were killed by ninja from another country who came to steal the star."

Sakura was silent and sad-looking for what seemed like a decent amount of time before she cautiously added, "Did a lot of Star shinobi die then?"

Hokuto stared at her for a moment, looking confused. "No, only Sumaru's parents."

Sakura shook her head. "I just noticed that it didn't seem like there were enough adults in the village."

The Star ninja kicked up dust with the toe of one sandal. For a moment, she looked nervous, and her hands toyed idly with the sash of her robe. Finally, she murmured, "Before Sumaru's parents died, a lot of Hidden Star ninja became ill and died too."

"That must have hurt everyone in the village." Sakura kept her voice laced with just enough sympathy.

"Yes, it—"

"Hokuto!" a bossy voice called distantly. The freckle-faced ninja darted her head around, searching for the source of the sound.

"Ah! Mizura!" Hokuto waved her entire arm in greeting to the short, dark-haired boy a ways up the road from them.

"We're supposed to be in the middle of training!" the boy shouted back again, hands on his hips in an obviously scolding posture.

The tawny-hair Star girl flushed red with embarrassment. "I forgot!"

"Hurry up!" Mizura crowed. "Sumaru will tell on you to Akahoshi-sama!"

"Aiee!" Hokuto flailed about in place. "Azami-chan, I have to go, I'm sorry. I'm sorry!"

Sakura resisted the urge to laugh at the girl's antics. Hokuto was a ninja too, but she was… so different. Sakura didn't remember every being as carefree as the Star girl. When it came to training, there was no such thing as forgetting. When it came to strangers, there was no such thing as commiseration.

Hokuto was naïve and careless and everything Sakura's father had never let her be—everything that Itachi had never wanted her to be.

Ninjutsu was the art of deception. They drilled this lesson into every child: look under the underneath.

Only the weak were deceived. This, beyond all else, Itachi had carved into her body.

"You're so cute, Hokuto-chan." The only place the words sounded condescending was in Sakura's head.

"Hehh?" The girl blinked wide grey eyes.

"Before you go," Sakura smile might as well have been tainted with sugar, "could you tell where the village's graveyard is? I… feel like I should say a prayer for Sumaru-kun's parents."

Trusting as a kitten, the grey-eyed girl happily gave directions. "It'll probably be Suisei, okay? That's Sumaru's last name!" Hokuto called as raced off to join her comrade.

She could feel the difference between them—between a loyal genin and a missing-nin—ringing in her ears, in the echo of her footsteps as she left the village behind and entered the woods, following a thistle-lined path to the Hidden Star burial grounds.

She could taste the difference.

Hokuto swallowed half-truths like they'd been brought to her on a silver platter.

Sakura had lies bred into her bones.


"A lot of Hidden Star ninja became ill and died."

Nothing was adding up to Sakura. How could a large number of ninja just up and die from illness? Hidden Star was supposedly allied with Konoha—it would have been easy for them to get any medicine necessary to cut the disease short. And why did only the ninja get sick? Shinobi had exceptionally well-kept bodies; a normal illness would have struck the weaker forms of Hidden Star's children and elderly before ever affecting any of the village's active ninja...

Sakura realized she had reached the burial grounds only after she had walked almost halfway through it. It was not the traditional stone monument type of graveyard, but something older—more human. Delicately carved and painted grave markers, made of fine, dark wood decorated a forest hollow in neat rows.

Cold winter sunlight streamed down through the broken canopy, a mirage of green and gold spotlights resting over the ashes (a shinobi's secrets are written on her body…a single shard of bone can tell her story…) that used to be people.

In the ankle high grass, Sakura's footsteps made no sound. Beneath her fingers the smooth polished wood of the grave markers slid like water—or blood, she thought—a line of ingrained characters that told only half a story.

13th of May, 14th of May, 17th of May… She followed the even row of graves across the hollow, tracing death dates with increasing confusion. Thirty dead ninja over the course of a month. Even if it were an incredibly fast attacking disease, it would need time to spread, time to grow, and time to kill its victims. What had the Star ninja been exposed to, that they had all died almost simultaneously? What sort of illness targeted only active ninja? How had it gotten to such an isolated village—and why had the outbreak only struck once?

Sakura turned everything she knew over in her head like pieces of a blank jigsaw puzzle with no edge to work from, a set of pieces that just refused to fit together. She didn't know where the meteorite was, she didn't know where the Star ninja were training, she didn't know why they had died.

But somehow, she was sure, it all came down to the star.

Even more pressing than that idea however, was that she could not find a grave marker for Sumaru's parents.

The pink-haired kunoichi wound her way carefully through every row, inspecting and re-inspecting each of the names on the grave markers. There was no Suisei. Unless Hokuto had been lying about Sumaru's last name, there was no grave marker for two loyal shinobi who had died in the service of their village.

The very idea itself was pointless—ninja villages were nothing if not proud and sacrificial.

After a long while, Sakura gave up searching and moved to rest against the trunk of a nearby tree. This mission was supposed to be simple: get in, find rock, grab rock, get out. Instead of finding the information she needed, the green-eyed girl was just raising more and more questions.

Afternoon light, turning slowly orange-red, danced cool on her face as Sakura stared up at the slender hole in the canopy above. A radiant white star floated in the flushed, far-away sky.

Why are you keeping so many secrets, Hidden Star?

As if in answer, something glinted gray and gold through the trees on the other side of the burial hollow. For a moment, Sakura's ninja instincts nearly took a hold. It was only when her hand dipped to her thigh and found no weapons pouch that she remembered exactly where she was—and who she was pretending to be.

Her second thought was that the glint had come from the Star ninja who had been inexpertly following her all day. Undoubtedly they were watching her even at this moment, wondering exactly why she had taken such an interest in their dead. But that thought too was shoved aside, because even though they were mediocre shinobi by Sakura's standards, the Star ninja tailing her weren't so mediocre as to be seen.

Feeling much like a cat about to be done in by curiosity, the pink-haired kunoichi wandered (carelessly, so as not seem as invested as she really was) across the hollow. Parting a few low juniper branches, Sakura gasped.

Alone in a sculptured lull of the forest stood an obsidian monument marred by the words Sandaime Hoshikage. And a death date—a recent death date.

Sakura backed out of the copse, withdrawn from the forest graveyard around her. Green eyes stared sightlessly through the gold-dyed wood. Just what the hell was going on in Hidden Star?

The third Hoshikage had died only two months ago.

Was that a sudden sickness too? The words echoed cold and sarcastic, and suddenly Akahoshi's glass marble eyes flashed through her mind. Who precisely had decided he would be the Hoshikage's successor?

Power, Sakura knew, could be a deadly motivation.

But… Ugh! she growled to herself. This just adds another mystery to this stupid village!

Sakura did not even stop to question why she wanted answers so badly or why she was so sure all these mysteries were tied up with the rock they had been sent to gather. Leaving things half-finished was not something Itachi had ever done. It was not something she had ever willingly done. (And then, there in the dark corners of her mind was that voice whispering: Kimimaro is still alive, worthless girl…) In the end, it didn't matter if these questions had anything to do with their mission in Hoshigakure—she had decided to know, and Sakura never went back on a single decision.

You are weak because you have no control. The only thing that will be useful to you is hate. You will use that hate to become stronger under my guidance… Can you do that?


There was only one place left to search for the answers she now desperately desired--the Hoshikage's seat of power: Hidden Star's administration building. What records was Akahoshi keeping from his village?

There would be death records there, reports on the training with the meteor…

Only the last flares of cold sunlight through the forest kept her from going to stake out the administration building immediately. Little Azami had promised to be back by nightfall after all. Sakura hadn't found the star yet, and so there could certainly be no execution of their mission tonight; she would have plenty of time to try and snoop around tomorrow.

Right now, however, she needed to get back to whatever bland meal Ryuusei was cooking for dinner, and back to her comrades. Deidara was probably bored out of his mind, and a bored Deidara never boded well for anyone.

Sakura hoped the house was still standing.


The house was still standing when she reached it, although Sakura strongly suspected that was because Deidara had gotten so bored he had given up on the world in general and was catnapping (all over his borrowed bed, like some sort of demented boy-blanket… or octopus…) by the time she got back.

Mahogany eyes flicked up from where their owner sat in the room's plush armchair, and just as quickly returned to the book perched in the scorpion's lap.

Deidara twitched a little in his sleep, like a dog dreaming about chasing rabbits.

The opportunity for revenge was irresistible.

Sasori's pale lips almost broke into a smile as Sakura whispered across the floor, leaned over the blond with slow and secretive movements… and then lifted her elbow and slammed it down right into Deidara's stomach.


"And that's for calling me a twerp before I left." Sakura snickered.

Sasori pulled his hands away from his ears only when he was sure the last echoes of Deidara's glass-shattering scream had faded away. "Idiot," the scorpion murmured, acting completely oblivious to Sakura's elbow-attack, "don't just scream randomly."

"What?! But—" Deidara glared venomously between both of them, rubbing his abused stomach . "You two are evil, un. Fucking evi—"

His words were cut off instantly when Ryuusei slammed the bedroom door open, the crows' feet around her hooded eyes wrinkled in suspicion.

"I heard screaming," she snapped.

"Uh… ummm…" Sakura stumbled. A sudden bolt of fear shot from her head to the arches of her feet. Her stupid joke on Deidara hadn't just blown their cover, had it? The ninja outside the window would not have seen or heard anything with her genjutsu in their way, but Ryuusei…

"I had a nightmare," Deidara offered quickly, "about… the day our village was attacked, un. It was very traumatic."

"A lot of things seem to be traumatic for you… Taro-kun," Ryuusei drawled. But she seemed to have accepted his explanation at least a little, because the old Star ninja turned and wandered back into the hall, leaving them with the information that dinner would be ready in an hour.

Deidara stuck out his tongue when he was certain Ryuusei was gone. "Your face is traumatic, Granny."

"Oh, very mature," Sasori muttered over the edge of War and Peace, the book he had undoubtedly borrowed from Ryuusei some time during Sakura's tour of the village.

"You're just sticking up for her 'cause under all that pretty, you're as old as she is, un!" Deidara grinned like a crescent moon. "Maybe I should call you Granp—"

A massive book streaked across the room, gave Deidara a very nasty papercut under his eye, and became lodged in the solid wood wall next to the blond's head. Sakura was impressed—War and Peace was not your average mother's kunai.

"Well it's a good thing there's a genjutsu on the window, because nothing screams ninja like trying to kill your comrades," Sakura sighed.

"Sakura," Sasori's voice was even more quiet and usual, and Sakura knew immediately what he was going to ask. "Did you notice anything… interesting in the village?"

Sakura ran a hand over the dull rise of stitches in her middle. It was fast becoming a nervous habit. "I didn't find the star. They aren't keeping it anywhere in the village."

"Yeah, I didn't think it would be that easy." Deidara griped, poking unhappily at the red line of papercut on his cheek.

"I did notice that the squads of shinobi who appeared to be on guard rounds all left the village in the same direction—southeast." Sakura turned that bit of information over in her head again, wondering if it would really help them locate the meteorite. Shoving one of Deidara's legs out of the way, she plopped down on the end of the squishy bed.

"But I did find out something else really interesting. Up until two months ago, this village was ruled by the third Hoshikage, whose name most definitely wasn't Akahoshi. Sandaime Hoshikage didn't just leave his seat--he left this life."

Deidara let out a low whistle.

"And the Hoshikage's was just one in a long line of mysterious deaths. About ten years ago, thirty of Hidden Star's ninja up and died of illness."

"Thirty?" Sasori's brow furrowed. "That's a huge number for such a tiny village."

"I thought so too."

"You know," Deidara muttered as he jabbed Sakura's leg with his toes, not really expecting her to move, "you two are making way too big a deal out of this, un. Who cares if the Hoshikage and a whole bunch of people kicked the bucket?" His voice lowered another notch. "We're just here to snag the rock, un."

"Well tomorrow I'm going to—"

Sasori cut her off. "Tonight Deidara and I will find the meteorite. If there is an opportunity to remove it, we will. We will send a messenger to you with changes in the plan if it becomes necessary. Be prepared to leave the village at any moment."

Sakura bit down on her tongue to stop from protesting. It felt like an eternity since the last time she had been given a direct order. Without Itachi training her, Sakura had really just tagged along with everyone else's orders… Like the cool press of a kunai, it came back to her suddenly that Sasori was her superior. When he looked like a fragile young man, it was altogether too easy to forget that he wasn't Uso Hotaru, that he was bloodless, cold-hearted, the same monstrous creature that crawled across the ground, haunted the shadows of a nation's nightmares.

"All right, ani-ue," Sakura said firmly, not quite sure herself why the honorific slipped into her agreement.

From somewhere down the hall, Ryuusei's stern voice called out that dinner was ready. Deidara started complaining about poison not a moment after the call was issued, but he was still the first person out the bedroom door. Sasori had the sense to pull War and Peace out of the wall before he too left the room.


"Okay, remember the timing Sakura-chan!" Deidara pressed again.

Night had fallen, cold and misty, over the village. The silver rays of a half-moon spilled over the ground and through the windows of Ryuusei's house. Everywhere, dark shadows sprung up in sharp contrast to the light.

"I got it, I got it." Sakura waved away the blond artist's last insistences about her genjutsu. "Just hurry up and go find the rock."

This stage of the plan was by no means simple, and involved more transformations than Sakura really wanted to think about. While she toyed with the genjutsu on the boys' room, Sasori and Deidara had to get outside without being suspected by either Ryuusei or any of the Star ninja outside the house. Beyond that, they could not, at any moment, let the Hoshi ninja feel their chakra. Inside the genjutsu, using chakra would have been fine. But outside? It would take incredible amounts of concentration to keep from being noticed.

Sakura didn't doubt her Akatsuki companions. Well, maybe she doubted Deidara a little…

"Why do I have to be the trash bag, un?" the blond was whining.

"Because the old woman hates you," Sasori stabbed in reply.

The plan was to have polite Hotaru offer to take Ryuusei's trash out, in a show of gratitude for allowing them to stay with her. A henge'd Deidara, in the form of a trash bag, would get scooped up and dragged outside too. From there, some clever use of Bunshin and Kawarimi would leave a clone of Sasori to re-enter the house. The Star ninja spies outside, looking into Sakura's genjutsu, would see Sasori come into the room and carry on like normal with Deidara, leaving both the real Akatsuki free to comb the woods outside the village. The only possible danger to their plans would be if Ryuusei suspected a Bunshin, or tried to enter Sasori and Deidara's room.

Then it would all be up to Sakura's genjutsu. The pink-haired kunoichi silently prayed that the old woman wasn't a genjutsu-user herself. Nothing spoiled a plan like having your illusions dispelled.

All too soon, the boys had disappeared from the room. Distantly, Sakura heard the front door of the house open and then close. Waiting with only a hint of anxiety, the girl left Deidara and Sasori's room and slid into her own borrowed room.

A low bed, decked with deep purple blankets, was pushed up against the far wall, just under the room's thin window. The oak floorboards under her feet were cold as ice and just as smooth and, ignoring the delicate sumi-e paintings adorning the walls, Sakura slid across the floor and dropped gingerly onto the bed. Her hand found the knotted wood of the wall, tender tips of her fingers slipping into the grain of what was once a proud tree. Through the wood she could feel her genjutsu, warm and beating softly like butterfly's wings through the house.

The front door opened and closed again, and Sakura heard Ryuusei's muffled "thank you" and then the light footsteps of Sasori's clone. Down the hall, the other bedroom door snapped shut with a click. At precisely that moment, Sakura's hand on her wall sent a ripple through the genjutsu. Like oil over water, the genjutsu separated, filling the room from ceiling to floor. Now if Ryuusei were to look into their room, she too would see the images Sakura wished her to see.

Face flushing red, Sakura remembered that morning. It was really unlikely that Ryuusei would want to peek on the boys after Deidara's little… show. Ehh, why did she have to remember that?! The way he had touched… the way he had sounded…

"No, no, no!" Sakura shook her head furiously to drive out the sudden memory of—

his breath, warm against her naked collarbone…

his ankles tangled with hers beneath their cool sheets…

the black that rimmed cobalt-dust eyes…

the press of lips—his hand—against her cheek…

the dark drawl of his voice in her ears…

Come play a game with me, Sakura…

"Eeeeeh!!" Sakura buried her face in her pillow and wailed. What am I thinking?! I barely know Deidara-kun! Except that she felt like she'd known him forever. And… and… He's one of my comrades! Except she wasn't good enough. He's…

Lying alone in bed for the first time she remembered in weeks, the only thing Sakura could think was: He's warm.

In her dream—

Deidara was smiling. It was not his usual killer's grin, but something softer, at once more inviting; the hint of bone white teeth under barely-parted lips drew her gaze though he hardly meant to.

It was dark: dark like their room beneath the earth when Sakura lay awake and thinking about someone above her, Deidara breathing slowly in the black at her side.

They were lying on a lake. On, not in, and pale pink strands of her hair spread dry against the lake's surface. The sound of water lapping distantly at a shore she could not see blended in with the words Deidara murmured along her throat.

She couldn't understand him. Each tiny wave breaking on the far-off beach changed the way she felt. One moment it was enough to feel him there, the next she…

It didn't really matter what she felt, because feeling never changed anything, did it?

Clumsy in the dark, he ran a hand through her hair and brushed her forehead, the touch as soft as bird feathers against the pale line of her temple, the shield of her eyelids, the valley of her lips.

Open your eyes.

She did. And on the far-off shore a scarlet moon was rising, dying the whole world garnet. In place of stars, the sky above flickered with ravens.

Deidara was standing, senbon glinting bloody in the reflection of the water. He was screaming at the sky except that all she could hear was—

Open your eyes.

Deidara threw the needle in his hand, clean and fast and desperate. It sunk into a raven's chest, raining blood and feathers that curled like smoke in the air and grew and grew until…

His undone cloak billowed like black and red wings, a raven king descending on the crimson surface of the lake. Sharingan spun the world on its side.


And there in her ear like the tolling of a midnight bell:

I would rather be with you.

"I—" The lake suddenly pressed hands over her mouth, her chest, her legs, tendrils of dark water dragging her in and down and under…

Who would you rather be with?

And under…

She screamed and tore against the water that beat on her skin like veins on the outside. Couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, couldn't reach—

She slipped beneath the surface of the lake slowly, watching the red moon waver over her head, one hand stretching up to grasp—

Deidara was there; she couldn't hear him, but his lips kept saying come back, come back, come back…

If she could only reach—who?

Deidara was there. Itachi was… Feeling never changed anything, did it?

Distant as the moon, the murder of ravens; distant as he always had been.

Is this how you will empty your heart?

Deidara was there.

By giving it to someone else?

She couldn't breathe, couldn't say what she wanted, couldn't move from this far-away place…

It was no different from every day of her life, when she could reach out and touch Itachi but touch nothing at all. Her feelings couldn't cross the distance between them, because he did not want feelings and she wanted everything he wanted.

And now she could not even stand beside him as his—tool? Comrade?

Tears she refused to shed prickled in the corner of her eyes, as needles and raven's blood followed her to the depths of the lake.

Deidara's hand was still so close… if she moved, she could…

Why did it feel like she was doing something terrible?

Open your eyes.

She did. The smooth wooden walls of Ryuusei's home shone blue in the light from the moon—white, white—through the window. It must have been well past midnight. A dull skritch-ing sound pressed into her ears. It was coming from the door—no, under.

Something was crawling through the crack under the door. For a moment Sakura thought it was a cockroach or something equally offensive. But then it wormed itself free and scuttled madly toward her, and Sakura relaxed. Well, she sort of relaxed. It was not that easy to be comfortable around Deidara's clay spiders, as the little insects had a habit of self-destructing.

Sakura held back a shudder when the arachnid scaled her leg and body and rolled itself into her hand. She could only sense the barest of chakra from it; not enough for a boom at least, so it seemed safe enough.

For a moment the spider was still, and then it convulsed once. Quite suddenly, its back split open down the middle, revealing a dark hollow. A thin bit of paper was folded up and lying inside. Feeling only a little revolted, Sakura reached into the spider and picked it out.

Unfolding it by the pale moonlight, Sakura immediately picked out Deidara's angular handwriting, but not the code he was using. It took a few minutes of puzzled staring before she realized the character system and could decipher the message.

Found rock. By "coincidence," bastard village leader holding meeting here. On to us? Hoping they'll leave.

Don't wait up for me.

He'd drawn a lopsided little figure next to the last word, a dastardly smirk on its inky face.

It was a joke, and she knew it. Any other day she would have laughed. Today—

Who would you rather be with?

She forced the note back into the spider, dropped the wriggling creature on the floor and crushed it under her foot. It popped and sizzled against her heel, stinging the skin.

Sakura ground the ashy remains of the arachnid and his words into the floorboards, and then fell back into her bed.

She wouldn't wait up for him.

Is this how you will empty your heart?


Sakura's arms and legs trembled as she struggled to keep her grip—on the ceiling. If last night had stopped weighing on her mind, her head would have been filled with a cacophony of complaints and whining about how in the world she'd gotten herself into this mess. As it stood, a numb sort of chill had settled along her spine, not quite ice but not comfortable either.

What had she been doing? Itachi's request had been clear. He had told her to stay away from Deidara, and she had just… ignored him.

She had betrayed him.

The ninja on patrol passed below her and rounded a corner. The stitches in Sakura's middle strained and stabbed in protest, but she couldn't risk using even the barest amount of chakra to support herself. Sakura held her place—between two rafters—for another minute and then dropped soundlessly to the wooden floor below. Pressed against the white-washed wall, the pink-haired kunoichi slipped like a shadow down the outer hall of Hidden Star's administration building.

"Good morning Azami-chan!" Deidara's voice from the doorway, oblivious to—how she never jumped, never felt the shinobi instinct to lash out in surprise. No defenses around him. When had she made the mistake of putting her trust in Deidara?

"Good morning Taro-san."

He noticed, froze, stared in blank confusion. "Are you all right, un?"

"I wasn't," she said, after a long moment, and her voice carried through the room like air or cyanide.

Beneath her bare feet, the dark floorboards were cold with early morning and clay ashes.

Sakura pressed her hand to a doorframe beside her head, searching for any sense of chakra within the room beyond the door. There was nothing. Stilling her breath, the green-eyed kunoichi listened. No shuffling of papers within, no scratching of pens… Easing the sliding door open the barest crack, impossibly slow, Sakura took one last look both directions down the hall.

Turning to press an eye to the doorframe, Sakura observed the room as best she could. There was no one inside. Quick as a dart, she slipped in, sliding the door shut behind her.

It wasn't the room she wanted.

"We're going to stake out the rock again, un." Safe within their room and its genjutsu, Deidara laid out their plans for the day. Blue eyes stared sharply at her. "You stay here and—"

"No." It felt wrong to stand against him. "I want to know why so many Star ninja died. I'm going to go look at the village's records. I wouldn't be of use to you in a battle anyway."

Sasori's half-lidded gaze over the edge of War and Peace was heavy and disapproving. It was how an older, wiser brother would look down on an impertinent younger sibling. Sakura rejected the idea as soon as it formed.

"Well fine." Deidara's eyes were cobalt slits, suspicious of her sudden change in behavior and liking it even less. "I'm not coming back to save your sorry ass if we steal the rock and you get left behind."

Sakura only nodded, tried not to think that Itachi wouldn't come back for her either.

The room she had entered was a storage for the village's ninja supplies. Kunai and shuriken in baskets covered the floor, and in a tall glass-case along the wall, polished hitai-ate waited for academy hopefuls. Sakura was almost tempted to snatch one and henge herself into someone non-threatening, like Hokuto. But the ninja around the administration building would be on alert from the slightest bloom of foreign chakra—which left her to do her "sneaking in" in the rather old-fashion way.

A conjoining shouji door across the storage room led to more equipment and things Sakura assumed were Hidden Star valuables. Folded neatly on a pedestal in one of the corners was a purple and white kage robe. The sight of the empty robe only fueled Sakura's curiosity, and she passed into the next room with as much haste as safety permitted.

Bingo, Sakura smiled. The vast room she had entered now contained reams and reams of scrolls, bound and labeled and neatly arranged. Slender hands ran along the curved backs of the scrolls until they reached a delicate, black character—hoshi.

Sakura pried the parchment from its place on the shelf and looked it over carefully. It was incredibly thick, probably dating back decades, if the softly frayed edges of the paper were anything to go by. She did not open it. A scroll containing secrets this vital to the village would not be unprotected.

Sure enough, a tiny square of darkness at the bottom of the paper hummed with malicious chakra. If she had opened the scroll, the entire administration building would have gone out with a bang only Deidara could have appreciated.

Sakura pulled back from the shelf and settled herself gingerly on the tatami floor. With incredible care, she inspected the scroll for ways to disarm it. One wrong touch or prod of chakra could spell the end.

At last, she found the point where the tangled stream of chakra protecting the scroll began. It was strong but not impossible—if she risked a dispelling jutsu, she'd probably be able to break the protection.

But to use a jutsu under the Hidden Star leader's nose? For a long moment Sakura stared at the scroll, trying to make up her mind. There was a chance her jutsu would go completely unnoticed…

Finally, her desire to know won out. In the dusty stillness of the records room, Sakura's soft "Kai" echoed—quietly as a pin dropping. She held her breath, waiting for the sounds of pounding footsteps or shouting voices coming in her direction. There was no noise at all, and after a minute, Sakura managed an almost silent sigh of relief.

Searching the scroll again, she found that her dispelling jutsu had done the trick, clearing the malevolent defenses away. With careful fingers, Sakura peeled the edge of the scroll open and began to read.

She quickly moved on from the beginning, which dated back some two hundred years ago, kept by the first Hoshikage. What interested her was what had happened in the last decade—which, of course, to be completely inconvenient, was much farther on in the scroll. Cautiously, Sakura unrolled the paper further.

Four of the jounin completing the star training collapsed this morning. Their conditions appear to be similar to that of Koguma and Tokei. Fevers, loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing and moving are the first apparent symptoms, becoming far worse over time. At first we suspected poison, but none of the medic ninja can find toxins within the ill. Training continues, but unease has settled over the ninja...

The next paragraph was uneven, the mark an anxious writer.

There is something terribly wrong with the star. It is the symbol of our village—the pride of all our ninja. I fear to bear this ill news… Yet Tenbin and Jyougi, both jounin, have already died. As each day passes, more and more of the training group shows signs of illness. I do not wish to believe that the star that gave us our name could now be taking our lives.

The entire training group has succumbed to illness with the exception of Suisei Hotarubi and his wife, Natsuhi. They alone remain healthy, while their comrades waste and die. Counting the Suisei, only three jounin from the training group remain. I fear it will not belong before that number is cut again. I am hesitant to act—Suisei is pushing for an end to the training, while my apprentice Akahoshi maintains that we are nothing without the special chakra the star gives to us…

Suisei Hotarubi and Natsuhi have been exiled from the Hidden Star village for attempting to steal our nation's most precious treasure. Though they committed an unforgivable crime, I feel as if I can understand their reasoning. If our ninja continue to train around the star, I believe they too will face death. Are Hotarubi and Natsuhi to be remembered as criminals, or saviors?

Everything was falling into place as she read. The consecutive death dates, the reason Sumaru's parents did not have grave markers, even Akahoshi's motivations… Green eyes darted on across the scroll.

As of today, all training with the star has been permanently prohibited. No amount of strength is worth the lives that have been lost. Our village's treasure is now only that—a shard of our pride that must never be forgotten, but must also be treated with the cautious reverence that double-edged swords are shown. Let these records be a warning to those who will follow me, for the sake not only of our noble village, but—

The cold steel of a kunai pressed hard against her throat.

"So," Akahoshi's oily voice slithered into her ears, "the flowering thistle shows herself to be a weed."

Sakura cursed herself for falling so deeply into reading that she failed to notice the Star ninjas' approach.

There were two others with Akahoshi, she concluded, though turning her head was almost impossible. The one holding the knife against her was bald and broad-shouldered. Easily twice her height, Sakura was fairly certain he'd be more brawn than brains. It was the other two she was concerned with. Akahoshi's second lackey was slender as a rat and just as dirty. The smirk on his face was reviling—though a shade less terrible than the grin that cracked Akahoshi's corpse-like face.

She couldn't take them all together. If she had been in perfect health, she might have had a chance to damage them and escape… but as it stood, her wounds would limit her harshly in battle. It didn't matter how many jutsu she could throw at them if her body wouldn't bend enough to dodge a shuriken. She had to find a way to even the scale, and she had to find it now, because Sasori and Deidara weren't about to burst in and rescue her. They were…

"Would you like to know where my comrades are right now?" Sakura smirked, ignoring the searing of the kunai in her skin with each syllable.

She felt the Star ninja on either side of her stiffen. "Yes, that's right. They're probably making off with your precious star as you stand here."

The bulky minion scoffed. "The star is well defended! There's no way a bunch of trash like you could get—"

"Trash?" Sakura used the opening her shocking words had left to move away from the knife at her throat. Languidly, she slid to her feet. "Trash?"

All of the Hoshi-nin jerked into offensive stance as they felt the sudden flare of Sakura's chakra. But she was not forming destructive jutsu—no, she had done something that was, perhaps, even more terrifying.


Azami's tan dress bled black and scarlet, lengthening and billowing in a wind all its own. White-rimmed clouds dashed across the cloth like a midnight sky, and Sakura felt right for the first time since she had failed Itachi.

It felt even more right when Akahoshi's sallow face turned ashen.

"Oh… So this—" Sakura mused as she plucked idly at one sleeve of the Akatsuki cloak, "—means something to you?" She could see his jaw clenching tight as a vice.

Her lips lifted a feral smile. "You've let the black plague into your village, Akahoshi-sama."

"Did you have a plan? Frame the poor outsiders? Say you valiantly defeated us as we tried to make off with the star? Then you'd have an excuse to take full control of this village—and reinstate the training, like you've wanted to since the day you killed the third Hoshikage."

"H-How did you know that?" the rat-like minion stumbled back a step.

"You just told me."

The man jerked, greasy black hair whipping as he looked nervously between Akahoshi's silent form and Sakura's narrow-eyed smile.

"What will you do now that those poor outsiders pose a real threat to your plan?" the pink-haired kunoichi prodded. "You can stay and fight me, or you can scuttle off and maybe save your precious star."

Akahoshi hissed, navy eyes nearly bursting from his face. He spun suddenly on his heel and slammed open the shouji door. The sound of his lightning-fast footsteps did nothing to drown out the words he left behind to his minions:

"Kill her."

Well, Sakura thought as her toes slid along the tatami and she sank into an offensive posture, two grown men against one wounded girl seems fair to me. But the thoughts she chose to acknowledge were far more optimistic than her body was telling her to be. One good blow to her stomach could undue a week's worth of healing, easily. Chakra-enforced running was one thing; punching, dodging, and kicking were different matters entirely.

Deidara had insisted that Kakuzu's stitches would hold—Sakura just hoped that her skin would too.

The Star ninja before her lifted their hands and pressed fingers into identical seals. "Kujaku Myouhou!" they shouted as one, and instantly twin flares of brilliant violet and blue chakra blazed in the room. Sakura shifted back on instinct, shocked by the visibility and bizarreness of their chakra.

The flames pooled at their backs and flared upward, forming the rays of fanned peacocks' tails. Sakura tensed, live as electrical wire. For the barest of seconds, their chakra remained feathery, and then the Star ninja's handseals flashed again.


Violet chakra burst forth from their backs and shot toward her in hundreds of blade-sharp tentacles.

"Shit!" Sakura dove under the first volley and threw herself into a roll as the tentacles of chakra bent at ninety degrees to follow her to the floor. Biting back a gasp of pain as her wound strained, Sakura reached for her thigh pouch and cursed again when she realized she wasn't wearing it. Useless little Azami didn't carry kunai. There had to be something—

The chakra, fast as speeding senbon, tore toward her again. At the last second, Sakura shifted, and violet tentacles slammed into the shelves of scrolls at her back. The parchment clattered to the floor and flooded around her feet.

A ready-made arsenal.

Praying all the scrolls in the records room were valuable enough to be rigged, Sakura snatched a red bound scroll, ripped it open, and hurled it.

Immediately the protective jutsu on the paper cracked. Lightning shot through the room, charring shouji and making all of Sakura's hair stand on end. Both Star ninja jerked back, momentarily losing control of their slicing chakra.

The moment was not long enough. Even as Sakura tore open another scroll—this one screeched like a dying woman and burst into tiny shadows that coated and bit at the ground and walls like thirsty leeches—the two Star ninja were ready. Violet chakra batted the leech-shadows aside and then came after her again, like wolves on the sent of a rabbit.

Dammit! Sakura leapt again and was forced to cut the motion short when all the muscles of her abdomen clenched and screamed under the abuse. She crashed to the floor on one knee and a violet tentacle grazed her arm; blood sprayed from the shallow cut. If this keeps up, I won't have time to form a decent jutsu!

…But there was time to form a simple—

"Bunshin no jutsu!" A clone burst into being instantly, standing firm over Sakura.

The rat-man brayed. "What's that supposed to do? We know which one is the real you!"

The clone leapt for the pair, fist taut and ready to destroy. Instantly the Star ninjas' violet tentacles retracted and shot out again, slamming through the clone and exploding it in a cloud of smoke—exactly what Sakura had wanted. Ignoring the feeling of flesh burning, she tore up from the floor and buried herself in the smoke left behind the Bunshin.

"What the hell!?"

In the dusty cover, Sakura's hands flashed through a series of seals. "Doton! Kurodoro no kuchi!" Chakra blazed through her feet as she slammed onto the floor again, and Sakura felt the momentary rush that came from using her natural chakra element.

The tatami and wood floor split open and dark earth swallowed one of the Star ninja whole. Above his startled face, the mouth of earth closed its fangs and began to sink back into the ground again. The dirt was grainy and porous; there was a good chance the Star ninja would survive.

Shame, Sakura thought.

She rounded on the second Star ninja—the rat—but he was ready, and the blow she had aimed to his face was knocked aside by a whip of the violet-blue chakra. It stung where it touched her skin, and she jerked back, a hand automatically clenching at her middle to try and drive away the fierce pounding of her wound. Her hand was bloody when she looked down.

And then the sharpened violet chakra came slamming down upon her. Sakura spun desperately on her heel—and then shrieked as it raked across her stomach, tearing open the black and red cloak and searing over Kakuzu's stitches.

She collapsed, for only a moment, and then forced herself back to her feet. Her legs trembled beneath her and breathes came ragged and fast. Sheer agony pounded in every vein of her body. The transformation jutsu on her clothing flickered and died, turning her proud cloak back into the drab and tattered tan dress.

Rat-man sneered. "Is that really all you can do?"

His gloating gave her a desperately needed opening. "Katon!" Sakura shouted, "Housenka no jutsu!"

She coughed a rapid burst of fireballs that hit their mark and blazed—into nothing? Violet-blue chakra flared around the Star ninja, shielding him from the fiery onslaught.

He cackled. "Now do you see the incredible power of Hoshigakure? This special chakra is taken from the star! It's strong enough to deflect anything—metal, flesh, or jutsu!"

She was really starting to hate this freaking village.

The rat-man suddenly flashed through another hand seal and cried "Chakra no nawa!" Unsure what to expect, Sakura dodged left, and was instantly constricted by thick bands of the kujaku chakra. Straining against it, she found it impossible to budge her arms.

"Don't bother!" the Star ninja taunted. "That chakra rope is impossible to cut!" His hands clenched together in a crushing motion, and Sakura felt the burning rope tighten, tighten, crush the air from her lungs, crush—the Hoshi scroll.

"Kawarimi!?" the rat hissed… but it was too late. The chakra ropes tightened their final bite and tore the sacred history of Hoshigakure's meteorite in two.

And then Sakura, running on adrenaline alone, pushed under the Star ninja's peacock defense, pulled her entire, screaming body back, and slammed her fist into his nose.

He hit the floor and did not get up. Sakura didn't think he'd be getting up for a long while.

She slumped to her knees, surveying the room-turned-battlefield with eyes that fluttered in and out of focus. The floor was gone, thrown apart by earth jutsu and splicing chakra, and everywhere shadows and scorch marks littered the walls. Scrolls by the hundreds rolled idly across the uneven ground.

There was blood all over her dress. Gingerly Sakura leaned back against a half-destroyed shelf and widened the tear in the fabric across her middle. She forced herself to look and… laughed.

Kakuzu's stitches had held. But nothing else had.

On either side and in the even row of dark thread, her skin had split again: three bloody tally marks from her last rib to her navel. The split was deep and raw; she could see muscle contracting under the blood.

Sakura fought the urge to throw up by standing. There was no way in hell she was going to be left behind in this freakin' village. Not for a poisonous rock. She stumbled at first, and then forced herself to steady.

It was with even steps that she walked over the tatters of Hidden Star's secrets.


Sakura was running by the time she reached the wood line, though where the strength to run had come from, she didn't know. Desperation maybe.

Deidara had not told her where the star was being kept—her only clue was the Southeast pattern of the guards and the distant, far-away hum that might have been the blond ninja's destructive clay.

Trees and stones flashed past at a rate Sakura could not understand, because she could not even feel her legs moving beneath her.

Suddenly the solid earth dropped away into an enormous carter. Carters, she thought a little dizzily, were usually where one could find meteorites. Skidding to a halt, Sakura jerked her blurry gaze from left to right.

There! Sasori's brilliant ginger hair flickered into view on the other side of the carter. He was—along with a large, horned puppet—locked in battle with Akahoshi and Akahoshi's—aw, hell—violet-blue chakra.

The Star leader's chakra had morphed into an enormous flaming beast that towered over both of them, but not over Deidara, who flew over the battlefield on the back of an enormous eagle, tossing down bombs behind Akahoshi as distraction.

The fucking rock was so not worth this.

"Deidara!" she shouted, choking back sudden warmth in her mouth. "Deidara!" She waved one whole arm limply, well-aware that his keen eyes would find her.

Within seconds, the eagle flapped twice and sped across the crater, swooping down. Deidara's hand reached out and snatched her, pulling her up on to the clay bird's cool back. Sakura bit down a whimper of pain that the blond's less than careful retrieval methods had caused.

"What the hell happened to you, un?"

"We should retreat!" she coughed out. "It's not worth it!"

"Uh… the mission is not worth it?" Deidara stared at her as if she'd grown a second pair of arms.

"No, I mean the rock is not worth it!" she gasped for air and nearly heaved as pain shot through her. The adrenaline was fading. "The rock's poisonous! It's killed almost everyone who trained with it!"

"Wonderful," Deidara growled. He stomped on the bird, which instantly dropped from the sky the like the stone it was, leveling out just over Sasori and the Star leader's fight. "Are you telling me, after all the crap we went through, I have to give this ugly rock back?"

"Give it back?!" she hacked. "You have it?"

"Yeah, duh." The Iwa-nin looked mildly upset that she had doubted him.

"Then why are you still fighting with Akahoshi?!" Sakura slammed her fists against the bird's clay body in frustration and agony, desperate to forget the pain on her stomach, even if it meant breaking a few fingers.

"Well, he kinda wants it back, un. He whomped me with that rabid chakra badger of his the first time we tried to fly off. So we thought we'd just kill him and be done with it, un."

Sakura felt dizzy, blood loss catching up with her fast as the chemicals in her veins died down. "Give him the evil rock back and get me out of this village before I die in a place with as tacky a name as Hidden Star!"

"Agreed, un. It is tacky." But Deidara plucked the rock out of his baggy peasant shirt and waved it tauntingly down to the Star leader. "Is this what you're looking for, un?"

Before Akahoshi's beast could leap, Deidara stretched back his arm and hurled the rock as far to the other side of the crater as he could manage. In the lull of attacks, Sasori leapt clear onto the back of Deidara's bird, a rattling wooden puppet dangling behind.

"What the hell did you just do?!" the scorpion hissed, mahogany eyes wide and angry.

"Relax!" Deidara waved his hands pleadingly. "Sakura-chan says the rock's no good. It kills people, un."

The fire faded some Sasori so quickly she could hardly believe it was ever there. He blinked slowly, once and then again. "Those thirty ninja?"

"Yes," Sakura managed—but that was all she managed.


"Oi, Sakura-chan!" Through the ringing in her ears she could hear Deidara's voice. Concern and something she thought might have been care were coloring it, and it sounded softer when she could barely understand it. "Open your eyes!"

She did, and found a canopy of green and gold and cobalt as Deidara's face hovered half-over her own.

She didn't want him there, because it had always been Itachi picking her out of the ashes of her battles, and that was the way it should have always been.

The forest was quiet; she wondered how far they were from Hoshigakure. The creaking of a wooden joint drew her eyes to Sasori, already tucked away inside Hiruko again. There was a sharp and disapproving look in the puppet's beady eyes.

"Sakura-chan, focus, un!" Deidara snapped his fingers in her ear. "You look like somebody tried to eat you for dinner. What the hell happened, un?"

"They…" her stomach heaved again as she took in the air to speak, "…found me in the records room."

Deidara was quiet for a moment before his face split into a malicious grin. "And what condition are they in right now, un?"

"One's six feet under," she groaned out, "and the other…has had… his nose relocated to the back of his skull."

"That's my girl!"

Sakura flinched. Not your girl. Always, always, Ita—

It crashed through her like a wave, hurricane winds, like flash fire. It hummed in every drop of blood left in her veins and stilled her heart for longer than a single beat.

Itachi's chakra.

Sakura struggled to sit up, to keep herself from being seen so weak again… Deidara had stiffened, cold and unmoving as stone.

The air behind the blond shimmered, darkened, bent and filled suddenly with a shadowy projection of her master, blood-red Sharingan the only hint of reality to the hologram.

"I-Itachi-sama?" If this was a jutsu of his, she had never seen it before. But it was most certainly his chakra…

"Kisame and I have been dispatched for a mission to Kirigakure," the cool, low voice she would know anywhere spoke from the shadowy form. "Sakura will accompany us."

Sakura will accompany us… Except when it rang in head all she heard was her name, over and over again. Sakura, Sakura, Sakura from his lips, when she had been so sure he would never look at her again.

She had failed him—and he still wanted her.

"Of course, Itachi-sama," she breathed, at the same moment Deidara leapt to his feet.

Deidara was standing, senbon glinting bloody in the reflection of the water. He was screaming at the sky except that all she could hear was—

"What the hell are you thinking?!" Deidara jerked a hand back toward her. "Are you fucking blind? She's bleeding to death!"

The astral projection of her master blinked once, a cold and evaluating look narrowing his gaze.

"She can't go on another mission, un—it'll kill her! Is that what you want, Uchiha?!" Cobalt met crimson fearlessly. "I won't let you destroy her."

"She is mine to destroy." It was fact and nothing more, neither malicious nor remorseful. Even from where she lay, Sakura could see the Sharingan spinning.

"You bas—"

"Where should I…" she coughed and it was warm again in her mouth, "meet you?"

"Sakura-chan…" Deidara turned to stare at her, horror and something like betrayal flickering in his eye before he could hide it away. "You can't!"

But she could. It was an order and she would be by his side again and then maybe she could reach him and…

"We'll rendezvous fifty-seven miles south of your current location," the hologram intoned. "We will be leaving by tomorrow morning."

If Sakura had been healthy, fifty-seven miles would have taken her half a day at most. Like this… she nervously fingered the tear in her dress.

No. She could make it. She could.

"I'll be there." It hurt to breathe.

"Sakura-chan!" Deidara looked torn between rage and fear. His shocking blue stare bored into her, trying to understand why she would even think about going.

With shaking arms and legs that threatened to give out beneath her, Sakura made it to her feet. "I'll be there."

The illusion of her master nodded once and then shimmered out of existence, leaving no trace of its presence except the desperate pounding of her heart.

If she left now, she could reach him.

Sakura stumbled as she took a step, and for a moment, the whole world spun. But then everything righted itself, the southward trees of the forest jumped into startlingly clear view; her entire body ached to close the distance between them. She coughed and the warmth in her mouth spilled over, a river of blood that gathered in the valley of her lips.

Deidara's hand locked around her arm, over the cut she'd been left with. What stung most was that he was holding her back.

"Why the hell would you go?!" All gentleness gone, his voice was like poison and flame. She wretched her arm out of his grasp, stumbled to keep her balance.

Deidara was all the fury of an explosion in the night, but his lips kept saying come back, come back, come back… "Are you willing to give up your life for him?!"

Sakura turned away.

"Itachi-sama is my life." She bled.



A Note on Names

Brought to you by Sarehptar

In this chapter, our three lovely antagonists infiltrate Hoshigakure under a set of rather interesting aliases. Sasori, which means "Scorpion" in Japanese, finds himself renamed Hotaru, which means "Firefly". Most people associate scorpions with death, violence, or pain—on the contrary, fireflies are gentle, sweet, and even a bit romantic. While Sasori is rough and unapproachable, his assumed-personality Hotaru has all the inviting traits of a calm and lovable firefly.

Sakura also undergoes an interesting change. Her original name refers to cherry blossoms, a time-honored symbol of Japan and, to some, the most beautiful and delicate flower in the world. Her false name is Azami, which means "thistle". In most parts of the world, thistles are regarded as noxious weeds. To drop from the height of "most beautiful flower" to "weed" goes along well with her false personality. While Sakura herself is strong, vivacious and clear-headed, Azami acts like a silly young girl, with completely unassuming looks and strength.

While both Sasori and Sakura lower themselves to blend in, Deidara's false name is actually a reference to the amazing depth Kishimoto puts into his characters. Deidara is a reference to the mythological "Deidarabocchi", a Japanese giant responsible for creating mountains—but most of Deidara's art seems to have been inspired by the famous Japanese mod-sculptor Okamoto Taro. (Do a Google image search.) So, in this chapter, Deidara's original source gets some credit, by becoming an alias!


Official The Tortured Art Contest

Brought to you by Serenity Komoshiro

Sareh has been bugging me to try this for a while, so I'm finally getting down to it. We've decided to open up an official fanart contest to all our readers!

Here's the deal: draw a scene from The Tortured—any scene—or make up a Tortured scene of your own (do try to keep it PG-13). Feel free to be creative and to use any medium! Once you're done with your drawing, e-mail it to me (my e-mail is on display in my profile), or upload it to your DevArt account and just e-mail me a link!

The contest closes at the end of February, so that people will have plenty of time to enter. Sareh and I will get together and pick the first, second, and third place winners, who will receive a special prize—

(Drumroll please…)

Cameos in an upcoming The Tortured chapter! Ever wanted to be a mad shuriken-slinging ninja, going toe-to-toe with the Akatsuki? Ever wanted to kunai Sasuke in the back so bad you could taste it? …Well, we can't promise that, but we can promise you a pretty fun part!

Give it a shot, even if you don't think you're good at art—you never know how well you might do!


Serenity and Sareh say: Thank you all so, so, so very much for all the support! Your reviews are really the only things that keep us going some days. We especially want to thank those of you who said you would be patient with us, and all of you who have stuck with us over the YEARS now. We hope that you will continue to review. Please, if you have this story on your favorites or alert list, leave us a review—tell us WHY you added it to your favorites in the first place! For this chapter, our goal is to break 332 reviews. (Don't ask why, it's completely random number…) Help feed Sareh's feedback obsession by reviewing!