Phantom of the Spring
General disclaimer applies.
Part Four: Broken Soul, Searching Spirit
I scanned the surroundings with my sharingan, the steady increase of inner panic threatening to overwhelm me as I looked over to Kakashi.
He, in turn, turned to Pakkun beside him.
"Are you sure you can't catch anything?" The Copy-nin asked, hunched over his dog.
The nin-dog shook his head, "No. Her scent's been washed away ages ago." Pakkun said sadly.
"I figured as much," Kakashi replied, inclining over to me. "Sasuke, this is the area where Sakura was last reported seen at. However, this isn't going to help us if you can't….see her anymore." He sighed, "ANBU and even I have turned this area upside down – she is nowhere near here, if anything."
Naruto frowned beside me, "I still don't understand, what could have happened to her?"
I said nothing as Shikamaru snorted next to Kakashi, "Do you guys even realize what you're saying? Sakura – see her? What are you even talking about?"
When no one answered the Nara, he walked over to me angrily and glared, "I don't know what your scheming Uchiha, but if team 7 thinks your story is real then you're all insane."
"You haven't been informed of everything, Shikamaru." Kakashi said in a low tone.
"Obviously," The shadow-user stated, "It was my knowledge that Uchiha had information that clued into where Sakura might be – but all I see us looking around for is areas where Sakura was last sighted." He glared again at that, "If this is just some cover for - ,"
"Shut up," I interjected coldly, "I won't waste time on you."
Ignoring how his face instantly darkened, I searched around the wooded surroundings once more. Where could she be? What could have happened to her? I felt more than useless, stuck in this inactive position when something disastrous was happening to Sakura. If only she could appear again…then I could at least have some clue as to where to go, where to look…!
But she didn't. And any trace of Sakura from the moment she disappeared was long gone, as Kakashi had said. Her scent, her footprints – everything.
I fisted my hands and stalked away into a nearby grove of crowded trees, intent on finding Sakura, even if I had to set fire to the entire forest.
"Oi, teme! Where are you going?!" Naruto called out, hopefully anxious.
I pointedly ignored him and heard the scrapes of footsteps follow after me.
I picked up my speed and tore through the acres of forest land, jumping to the trees above as I sped from branch to branch. My body was now moving of its own accord, following no clear path, no set destination as miles and miles of land was cleared in my hurried wake. I had to do something. I have to move…! I have to try, I got to find her, I have to…!
I stepped on another branch and felt a hidden wire snap soundly. Cursing that I hadn't seen it in my panic, I ducked the slew of kunai that sprang from the opposite tree as the trap was released. Evading them swiftly I jumped onto the tree mutely, staring as Kakashi, Shikamaru and Naruto landed on the same one further down.
"Whoa!" Naruto said, shaking his head. "Be more careful, Sasuke!"
"That's…odd," Shikamaru remarked with a slight frown, his brown eyes narrowing on the tree that had been tied to the wire from the trap. "Why would ninja set traps all the way out here?"
Naruto just shrugged, his frustration peaking. "It was probably just from a mission a while ago; most ninja don't usually turn around and clean up their traps."
"Hmm…it still feels suspicious to me." The shadow-user muttered.
Kakashi reached into his back pocket and pulled out a mission report and flipped to the back of the pages, "ANBU did put in as a side note that when they searched the area around where Sakura was light sighted, there was an unusual amount of traps set – a few even set them off. They didn't bothering finding out the range though. A past mission is what they also deducted."
My eyes cut across to the wire hanging from the tree, "A trap that could foil an ANBU member…a high level ninja must have set them up."
"So?" The Uzumaki concluded as he jumped over to the tree and gestured with a thumb at the unrevealed trap. "It's just a standard A rank one, hidden pretty good but really – see? The wire was carved into the bark and sealed inside, making it near invisible and undetectable. They teach every jounin this as soon as they pass the test."
"I've never encountered it before," I said darkly.
"That's because this type of trap is only taught to leaf ninja." Kakashi stated off handedly.
I inwardly frowned and jumped over beside Naruto, grabbing the thin wire as I inspected it between my fingers. My eyes widened a fraction.
"Nara, look at this." I ordered immediately, shooting a glare over to Shikamaru who scowled and, while saying a few colorful words under his breath, jumped over to me and examined the wire I held. After a second he grabbed it and ran his fingers along the length of it, murmuring something to himself as he swore again.
"You recognize it too?" I asked blandly, noting how Shikamaru turned towards Naruto and Kakashi.
Shikamaru held up the wire for them to see, "The Uchiha's right – this is medic's wire. Medic-nins used this type of wire to stitch up wounds when they run out of chakra, nearly all of them carry it in their medic bag. You can tell because not only is it thinner than regular wire, it contains less metallic properties and so it is not as sharp."
Kakashi inspected it at once before he glanced up at me, "What are you thinking, Sasuke?"
Naruto blinked when I didn't answer, the concerned look deepening on his whiskered face. "Do you mean that maybe Sakura-chan set up these traps?" He questioned with a curious edge.
"Why would she have needed to do that?" Kakashi mused, his brows narrowing at the puzzle. "She would have been close enough to make a break run for Konoha if she was being perused."
"What is she was injured?" I countered harshly, "Or even out of chakra?"
"Who says it's even Sakura-chan's!" Naruto exclaimed in a fit of anger, "That could be any medic's in Leaf!"
"He's right," Shikamaru replied, "the trap seems to be a good few months old. To know for sure we'd have to interview medics in Konoha that have been on a mission in the last few months in this area. Unless the medic hasn't been killed or is now on a long term mission, we should be able to find an answer in a week or two."
"Not good enough," I replied coldly, my black mood only worsening, "we need to know now."
Suddenly a loud crack resounded throughout the still air of the forest.
We all stiffened, keenly trying to listen for whatever had made the sound. It was too loud to be an animal, and from what I could tell it sounded like it was close by. Could it be ninja? I frowned deeply, knowing that we had taken measures to have this perimeter blocked off because of the imminent search for Sakura. Could that mean…?
If ninja are here, is this area, they might be the culprits…or at least have information.
I kicked off the branch and broke into a mad run in the direction the sound had come from. "Yo, Sasuke! Not again!" I heard Naruto yell from behind me, but once again I ignored him and charged toward the sound. I didn't have much time left. More importantly, she didn't.
I started, stilling in my high speed chase as I abruptly tried to halt to a sudden stop. It didn't fair well, my foot slamming on the branch of the oncoming tree, slipping a bit and forcing me to grab to trunk to keep from falling to the forest ground.
I looked around me, scanning the area as I strained my ears in wonder if I had just heard what I thought I did. Was that Sakura…? I could hear the others catching up once more.
On a whim, I activated my sharingan and scanned the surrounding area again. My eyes widened at what I saw. Traces of thin green chakra floated by in the wind, just barely present in the air, like it was trying to form and gather yet failing miserably. Torn, my gaze now darted towards the direction where the sound had come from to the path that seemed illuminated with familiar green chakra.
My choice was made for me in the next second because form whence the sound came from, more sounds followed the noise, effectively breaking the silence. Kakashi, Shikamaru, and Naruto arrived just when foreign shinobi dropped onto the branches in front of me.
They were jounin – maybe even ANBU level at that from Stone, judging by the symbol on their hitae-ate.
"Well, look at that…" One of the five stone-nin commented, "If it isn't Uchiha Sasuke, the shadow-user Nara, the Uzumaki, and the famed Copy-nin."
"What a haul!" The other stone-nin snickered beside him, "If we bring in their heads we'll be in the history books."
"Tell me," the one in the back called, pushing his way to the front of the group. "What are ninja like you doing in our territory?"
Kakashi cleared his throat, "Your territory? And here I thought this belonged to Grass country."
The one that had to be the leader of the group scoffed, "Only to those who haven't been around in the last two months."
"Oh? Then tell me, have you seen a leaf ninja that goes by Haruno Sakura around here? It's very important so think hard. She had green eyes and pink hair, probably identified as a medic-nin."
"Sakura's missing?" The left one asked with a smirk on his pointy face.
"How long?" The leader questioned, "I haven't seen any leaf-nin prowling around here recently. I know she's your Hokage's apprentice so she must have been given a big search party."
Kakashi's visage darkened, "Four and a half months."
The one on the right snorted, "She's dead for sure!"
"It's not surprising," The leader spoke again as my patience rapidly waned, "you Leaf ninja are too trusting. If we had a kunoichi like Haruno we'd safeguard her more. You were basically asking for it when you sent her off on a solo mission."
"We never said it was a solo mission." Shikamaru interjected, his sharp eyes narrowing in instant suspicion.
The stone-nin barely shifted, "Yeah, well. We just assumed." The leader answered steadily.
"Quite an assumption." I remarked in a deadly tone.
The stone shinobi eyed me cautiously.
"We have been given evidence that proves Haruno Sakura might just be alive." Kakashi said, his voice hinting at a lurking hostility. "Which leads me back to my former question – have you seen Sakura?"
The instant my crimson eyes saw the leaders move slightly to the left in a nervous, guarded manner, I reacted immediately. Slamming the leader of the pack of stone-nin up against a tree that stood tall in back of him, my unsheathed sword was already in my hand and pressed against the leader stone-nin's neck. A thin slice was already apparent on his pale neck, a small drip of blood pouring from the cut.
"…Matte…!" The leader yelled, apparently scared as he eyed the katana pressed to his neck in a shaking manner.
The shocked yells of his group were quickly silenced by Naruto, Shikamaru, and Kakashi. With a glance behind me I saw that they had detained the other stone ninja as well, Kakashi holding down two by himself. With a brief nod over to them, I turned my attention back to the leader I had in my grasp.
"You better say what you know…unless you want to watch your team die one by one." I said blankly, my onyx gaze staring him down imploringly.
He opened his mouth, hesitating for a second. "I – it wasn't our doing! She - ,"
The leader's speech was broken off by my swift throwing of a kunai. It landed square in the forehead of the ninja Shikamaru was holding down.
"Dammit, Sasuke!" Shikamaru cursed, "Give him a chance to answer!"
"Out with it," I warned lowly.
The leader's eyes were wide with unhidden fear as he quickly rambled, "We – we were passing by and we saw something strange! We sensed sudden bursts of chakra so we investigated it and noticed…"
"Noticed what?" I spat angrily.
He spared his teammates a quick glance, "We – we didn't do it! She was like that when we got there!"
"What do you mean?!" Naruto snapped, stepping forward.
At the leader's frantic eyes, Kakashi spoke. "You better answer them now…or else I'll turn a blind eye to what Sasuke does next…"
This seemed to be enough to get the leader to speak.
"We were heading north! On an A rank mission, you know how it is…" At our dead silence, he gulped and continued, "Like I said we sensed the sudden bursts of chakra. Intrigued, we went and investigated because we noticed the chakra was getting weaker and weaker…then…we saw her."
I pressed the katana harder against his neck. It broke through another layer of his skin, causing more blood to freely run down his shaking neck. "What do you mean, you saw her?" I asked, my emotionless tone from before dropping into one of red rage. "Where is Sakura? Is she alive…? Did you have anything to do with it? Where is she?"
I pressed the sword ever closer.
The leader's eyes closed in pure fear, "I'll tell you! I'll tell you!" he cried.
And so he did.
I leaped from branch to branch in the center of the crowded forest of redwoods.
They didn't know.
How could they not be able to tell if she was alive or dead?
Awake or asleep?
Find her. Find her and you'll know everything.
Who took her? Who did this to her? Why? How?
Too many questions with no answers.
I had left Naruto, Kakashi, and Shikamaru behind as soon as the leader stone-nin had stumbled out the directions of where he sighted Sakura. I was faster than them. Too fast. At my current rate of speed, it'd take even Naruto at least seven minutes to catch up. Let them deal with the stone ninja, they no longer matter…he was telling the truth. The leader stone-nin was telling the truth. My red sharingan eyes flashed into the depths of the woods before me. I can always tell.
I stopped at the end of the captain stone-nin directions, my heart beat increasing in a drumming manner when I brushed away the vines of a tress and stared down, mutely horrified, at the scene that lay before me.
Sakura was here.
The sun was setting, casting pinks and reds into the darkening sky. The last few sunbeams strayed onto the surface of the wide pond of crystal water that I stood in front of. I felt my heartbeat increase another notch, my chest tightening at the same time. I barely noticed the seals carved into the weeping willow trees around the small pond, how the kanji looked like it had been etched in blood.
The markings of a forbidden jutsu.
If I had torn my eyes away from the scene in front of me, I might have also seen how one of the trees' markings had been mussed – the characters worn out, as if someone had messed up the carving accidentally or purposefully. I would later find out that this was the reason Sakura had vanished. The stone-nin had unknowingly broken a part of her weaved spell.
But I was too wrapped up to notice any of this right now.
At the bottom of the pool, as if suspended by the many seals and kanji that littered the surrounding ground as well, was Sakura. Her pink tresses moved with the currents in the small pond that was about ten feet in length and five in width.
I stared at her small, pale body floating in the tiny pool with a mixture of shock, inward horror, and most of all an acute dread sensation that hit me right away from the fact that she could already be dead.
"Sakura!" I said, panicked and stunned as I dived into the pool and immediately came into contact with her protective seals that she had all around the pond and her body to keep her safe. I aimed up a right hand as I filled it with chakra and pounded it against her outer shield. It broke after a moment and then I tore in.
Water was already seeping in from the large hole I made as I collected Sakura, wary of how cold she was and just how long she had been sealed in this place…by herself.
This is a self inflicted jutsu…Sakura did this to herself! Why? What would make her do this? How was she able to do this…? The carvings, the characters…they were all written by Sakura. Her chakra alone, herself alone…
"You…idiot…" I said, half whispering as I shakily placed her on the ground and checked her pulse, pressing two fingers to her throat and moving so my head was on her chest atop her heart.
I let out the breath I was holding when I heard a weak, but steady, beat. I pulled her so she was in my lap, gripping her tightly as my mind got disoriented in all the racing thoughts and information.
Sakura had done this to herself.
Why? What could possibly make her do something like this? Why would she risk her very soul just to…I stilled when I remembered the last thing she said to me while she was still in her body. "I must…and if I can't find you, then my heart will."
I cradled Sakura's body closer as bitter anger rose up within me. I told her not to come after me. I told her…
I placed a hand on her smooth cheek and then slowly moved it into the back of her neck, sinking it into her pink locks. My hand at her waist slid to her back and began rubbing it slightly, "Wake up, Sakura." I said lowly, bowing my head into hers. "…Sakura, gomen. I should have…" I should have what? Done things differently? Made sure she wouldn't do something like this?
I silenced as a few moments drifted by. Then a tiny gasp made itself known to my ears as I stiffened and stared down at Sakura. She was weakly shivering and so I pulled her closer against me, giving her my body heat as she opened her green eyes and stared into my onyx ones.
The small, relieved smile that she wore next made me grip her tighter.
"Why…?" I asked, "Why would you do something like that? Your…so stupid Sakura…you could have died!"
At this, her smile grew. "To lead you back home…I couldn't find you…but my heart could."
"How…?" My voice was not my own. It was cracked sounding, breaking down the cold sound of it to reveal an undertone of utter relief, confusion, righteous anger, and… "Sakura…"
"I sneaked into the forbidden section where we store all the forbidden scrolls that contain jutsu. I got the idea at first from Naruto, really…we were reminiscing about the time he learned his favorite jutsu…how he graduated from Academy… I took a peek inside and read about a jutsu that was a calling of hearts. I only decided to finally use it after I met you…that night…it took me a while to prepare, though…its forbidden because it puts your body into a dead-like comatose state. Then...it allows your spirit to be realsed. I used my chakra that I had been storing for four months to enable me to do it."
"What do you mean?" I questioned, my mind running with her casual expalantion.
She smiled again, "The forbidden jutsu allowed my spirit to roam from my body. That way, I could find you and guide you back home…to team seven…to Konoha. To me."
What she didn't mention was the risk of losing her spirit. Her soul had a high chance of getting lost while searching for me.
I didn't know what to say. I had previously thought that I would lecture her and yell at her for doing such a crazy thing. But now, seeing her smile and watching color come back into her pale cheeks, all thoughts of scolding her left me.
I thought I had thrown it away, killed it. Ended it. But I was wrong, that night with Sakura – she had stolen it for a moment, weakened it for a moment and allowing it soak through – guiding it away from all the walls and all the demons.
That stolen moment was a stolen heartbeat.
But after that moment I threw it uselessly away again. Pushed it away so I could believe it was dead.
I closed my eyes for a moment, I could feel her chest rising and falling as my body sagged in relief. I wrapped my arm tighter around her waist, the other at the back of her neck as I tried to bury her in my chest as I pressed her against me.
"You're a fool…you could have died…" I shook my head as I firmly went on, "you…idiot."
She smiled again, her eyes sparkling. "I know, Sasuke-kun. I was prepared for that." She shivered once more as I pressed her body even more into mine, if that was even possible.
"Sakura…take it." I lay my cheek on top of her pink head, "I…need…accept it." Please understand what I mean…I can't say it. Not yet. But understand what I'm trying to say…
…take my heart…
"…you nearly did that day, but I tore it away before you had a chance…take it now…accept it now…" I whispered, aware of the desperate note in my hoarse voice and not caring.
I pressed my fingers into her back and neck, "Take it…"
She shifted and stared me in the eye. Tears fell from her emerald orbs as she wiped them away distracted, never breaking eye contact with me.
"Sasuke-kun, I'll accept anything you give me…" She wrapped her arms around my neck and embraced me tightly, "Anything, especially that."
I felt her eyelashes flutter against my cheek as I shuddered against her, the clashing temperatures making me aware of how close she was. Winter was coming.
"I love you." Sakura said softly into my ear as I dipped my head into the crook of her neck.
"I'll never give it back," I whispered into her neck. And it was true. I'd never allow her to have her heart back. Even if I did taint it and stain it…I'd never return it. Even if what I felt towards her was a negative love. One that was selfish and possessive and even hurtful and dark at times.
But…I'd never hurt her on purpose again. Never again. I don't want her to smile through pained eyes anymore. I want her to smile and laugh…
"I know you won't, you've had it forever." She replied, running her fingers through my hair. The feeling made me huddle against her, craving the comforting gesture that was still so new. 'She had done this that night, too.'
Sakura giggled when I kissed her neck on impulse, right over her pulse. I looked up at her to see her beaming, "Stealing another moment?" she asked.
"No," I murmured before leaning up and capturing her lips with mine, "I'm stealing forever."
My phantom to guide me in the springtime…
I found you.