A/N: Dang, you guys were hatin'. Hey, we didn't say it was over, you know! We just...heavily implied it. Oops, sorry. This is the last chapter, though, for the record. This is the real end, folks. No sequels or pseudo-sequels. The happily ever after is up to you now.
From Aelibia, thanks to everyone who actually did message me! It made me feel warm inside. Feel free to message me for this one, too. DO IT.
-Fallacy and Aelibia
Take It or Leave It
O O O
Zetsu could smell the fire before he noticed the ashes filtering through the leaves. The forest had been completely cleared of ANBU and any stray shinobi, leaving him an open path back. He could feel very dim traces of Kakuzu's chakra, lingering in a few bodies here and there. He wondered, somewhat absently, if Sakura had finally gone crazy and lit the house on fire.
He had wanted very badly to leave Sakura to Kakuzu's mercy, give up on her and them altogether, and at first both sides of him had agreed heartily. That was why he had left, after all; he knew that if he had stayed, he would have confronted Kakuzu. It would have complicated things. Complications were unnecessary in this situation.
The further he got from Sakura, though, the more he had begun to doubt himself. His darker half decided that he was absolutely not okay with this plan just as he was nearing Fire's borders, and when he came to the borders and realized that every shinobi guarding them—all one thousand of them—were armed to the teeth, his lighter half had begrudgingly agreed.
Go back and talk to Sakura. It wasn't fair to have her helpless to Kakuzu's devices. You owe her this much. She took care of you when she thought you were in trouble, and she showed you so many other things.
He broke into the clearing with a reckless abandon he had not known since he was very young, the smell of burning wood overpowering him. He quickly backtracked, though, upon realizing that a small team of citizens and a few shinobi were working to douse the tremendous fire.
She really had lit the house on fire.
Night had set, and the bright flames set against a backdrop of stars and sky made a dichotomy that he took only a moment to study. A beam fell in the house suddenly, and everything around him erupted in bright highlights of orange and red. He withdrew further into the forest amidst a chorus of gasps and hurried shouts.
He slunk into the ground, further away from the crowd of people, and felt for vibrations. Sakura was not still in the house; of this he was certain. He sat very still, feeling the soft pads of squirrels walking along the forest floor, the burrowing of beetles into the earth, trying to separate and discern a heavier footstep from those of the frenzied villagers.
To the south, perhaps five minutes away, he felt it. It was faint, nearly not-there, but it was there. Someone was running very fast, occasionally leaving the ground to presumably run across the forest's canopy. If anyone was Sakura, it was this person. He assumed things had gone decidedly sour between Sakura and Kakuzu in his absence. Why else would she burn the house down and then run away?
One more time, he felt a tug toward the north, the opposite direction of Sakura's path. This time he could leave for good, sever all ties and never look back. He would get over it, after a while, a couple years, maybe. In time he could forget about her—that much was certain.
"Don't lie to yourself. You're in too deep to stop now," his darker half supplied, helpfully moving his associated foot in the southward direction.
"But not too deep that you can't yet climb out. Lie low in Fire for a while; the border guards will thin and you'll be able to slip past."
"You'll only end up coming back. Don't be a jackass."
Zetsu decided that he was not, had never been, and did not plan to be a jackass ever in his life.
He took off at a sprint to the south, his lighter side curiously quieted.
When he finally caught up to her, she seemed to be so exhausted that she couldn't even register his approach. Matching his stride with hers, he wasted no time in getting her attention. In another situation, he might have enjoyed simply running alongside her until she noticed him and began to scold him for being creepy and sneaking up on people, but he could sense an urgency that suggested friendly banter wasn't appropriate at the moment.
"So Kakuzu told you everything and gave you the slip, I see," he shouted at her over the rush of wind flying past them. Sakura whipped her head around and stared wide-eyed at his face, disbelief etched over every line of her features. Just as fast, she tore her gaze from his and continued in her reckless run south.
"No, really? What gave you that idea, genius?" she yelled back. "I don't suppose you want a hug and a kiss for coming back to check on me. Get cold feet? You're too late now. I can't stop this thing. He said it wouldn't stop making me want to find him until I did and he took it off. And I'm shit at seals, isn't that great."
"I admire your ability to find humor in even the most unfortunate situations. But you're wrong." Both sides of him fought for dominance over the conversation, struggling to speak to Sakura in their own ways. "He obviously didn't tell you everything if you think there's nothing to be done."
"Sakura, no seal is unbreakable. Stop running for a second so I can explain this properly." He wasn't having problems keeping up with her, but engaging someone in intelligent conversation could be difficult at high speeds even for him.
"I can't stop running, you idiot."
"Is it particularly painful?"
She stumbled and gasped. "Not really, but...it's hard to explain. It's like I feel this obsession with running, and I have to run or else I'll go mad. It is pain, but not...crude pain, if that makes any sense."
"So it's psychological. That makes things a little different, then."
"No, it's not like that. It's difficult to explain. It's like if I stop running I'll die. But hurry up and tell me what you need to tell me!" The urgency in her voice was punctuated with her shifting feet, ready to carry her further south at a moment's notice.
"I can't believe you're being so amicable about all this," he said. "I'd fully expected you to attack me on-site. I had kind of looked forward to it, to be honest."
"Oh, I'll kill you later," she snarled. "But right now I can't afford to rip your face off."
Zetsu—both of him—decided it was best not to comment on that little remark.
"All right, I'll tell you this. You may have guessed already, but I'm a spy for the Akatsuki and Madara."
"Not now. But the important thing is that there are many things that I've seen. I know things about all the members. It's my job to know. I'd been keeping a special lookout for Madara—Leader, to you—concerning Kakuzu and Hidan because we had a feeling they'd show up again. There wasn't much concern over Kakuzu's little obsession, but Leader wanted to make sure he didn't do anything rash that would spoil his plans. Like alert Konoha that a member was nearby and cause them to go on the lookout for more organizational affairs."
"Which he clearly did."
"Right. Anyway, being an insider on his personal affairs, I happen to know quite a lot about this seal he's made, although if you know anything about his habits you can piece the rest together. I'm guessing you've heard something like a voice in your head giving you orders."
"Yeah, something like that."
"The seal is connected to a lower life form of sorts that can give its own orders. The connection is to a heart that he has on his body and controls, puppet-like, with pieces of his chakra embedded inside it. So in order to destroy the seal we—"
"—Destroy the heart, got it."
Zetsu grinned. "I'm telling you now that you won't be able to destroy it. Since it's connected to you, there's no way you'll even be able to go near him. I'll have to do it for you."
"That's too bad; I owe the bastard a kick in the balls," Sakura replied with an air of frustration. "He pretty much raped and collared me. I'm so mad that I can't even be mad, you know? This goes way past the normal boundaries for anger."
"I'll let you have the final hit, then," he said, hiding his own anger away for the moment. It wouldn't do to let her know too much now. There would be time later to talk. "Now," he continued, "you have to keep your senses attuned to him. Remember that he knows where you are at all times. I'm not a sensor so I don't know exactly where he is now, since I don't have primary access to the ring system, although that wouldn't matter anyway, anymore."
She slowed her run to a jog as she closed her eyes, looking deep in concentration. As they finally emerged from the forest into another stretch or moorland, she dug in her heels and came to a screeching halt, snatching up Zetsu's arm in a vice-like grip, and Zetsu knew who stood in the center of the moorland before she even had time to speak.
To Zetsu's delight, rather than cower and flinch away, Sakura balled up her fists and sneered at the man, knowing that she couldn't attack but sending a silent message that if she could, he'd be dead. Never mind that Kakuzu was probably far beyond her skill level, the simple gesture gave Zetsu a boost of morale and a renewed determination to finish him off.
Kakuzu appeared legitimately upset at Zetsu's presence. His stance, once slack and arrogant, tensed, his shoulders drawing back. "This isn't your business, Zetsu."
"It wasn't, no. But the circumstances have changed."
He gave no warning. He was too infuriated to speak and too determined to listen. In an instant, those terrible tendrils shot toward Zetsu, who fell into the earth, disappearing from view. There he stayed, even as Kakuzu withdrew his thread. He could feel the vibrations of Kakuzu pacing around the area, and the voices of he and Sakura were muffled and fuzzy. He couldn't make anything out, but he didn't like that they were
conversing at all.
He emerged from behind Kakuzu, who, not surprisingly, had expected it. He whirled around to kick Zetsu, but again, Zetsu dodged it, snapping threads with his flytrap appendages when Kakuzu tried to apprehend him.
"You can still leave, Zetsu. You recognize your importance to Madara, just as he recognizes it. It would be a shame for his best agent to be killed."
"The only shame here would be if I allowed you to continue to exist," Zetsu countered, keeping his distance from Kakuzu. "You've far overstayed your welcome with the living."
"I am not dead," Kakuzu snapped, lunging again at Zetsu. It was easily dodged. Kakuzu seemed more sluggish than usual, his movements slowed to a level that was wholly nonthreatening. The heart that bound Sakura must have been sapping most of his chakra, leaving him weak and vulnerable. Kakuzu did not seem unaware of this.
A spot to the left on Kakuzu's chest expanded and then contracted quickly, and something loud that sounded wet and sickening throbbed. Kakuzu clutched the spot, clenching his teeth and glancing to Sakura, who was struggling to not step toward him.
"You can't fight it," he shouted to her, though she was mere steps from him. "You can't fight it any more than I can." The throbbing sounded again, louder this time and gurgling slightly, and Kakuzu coughed, blood spilling from his nose and mouth.
Sakura glanced to Zetsu. Zetsu had no knowing looks to give to Sakura. He was not aware of what was going on, past where Kakuzu had hidden the heart.
"It's my heart," he croaked, trying to wipe the blood from his face, but only succeeding in smearing it pathetically. "My only heart," he continued, regaining his posture and sparing Sakura only a fleeting look. "Call it what you will—contrived; cliché; ridiculous. But it was the only way to attach you to me, Sakura."
Sakura looked sick. Still she fought against the force pulling her to Kakuzu, though, steeling her body. "You are a very ill man."
"I am a very old man. You have not been the first." He coughed again, bringing more blood with it. The seal was rejecting him. Kakuzu had been too brash and too hasty in its creation. "But you were special."
Sakura tried very hard to reach for her kunai, her fingers twitching and clenching above where they were holstered at her thighs, but she just could not grasp them.
"I had not created a seal such as this at a high-chakra level before," Kakuzu explained, in a move that Zetsu assumed was a direct result of his acceptance of his failed plan. "I had little time to execute it." He did not remove the hand from his chest, clenching against the tight fabric of his grey tank—the same tank that Sakura had bought him so long ago.
Neither Zetsu nor Sakura moved an inch toward Kakuzu. He coughed and choked on blood, the heart buried shallowly under his skin beating visibly slow. It seemed anticlimactic to Zetsu, but to Sakura, it probably seemed a bitter, fitting end.
Kakuzu could not support his weight any longer. He knelt on the ground, breathing hard.
"We can still be together," he rasped. "Sakura, if you heal me—"
"Forget it," she snapped, her voice shaking from the implications of what he was asking. "Never."
He did not speak after this. He lay slowly on the ground, still breathing, but barely. The metaphysical grip he had on Sakura seemed to fade almost entirely, and she approached him of her own free will.
"In the beginning, you weren't bad. The man you pretended to be was a good one." Her voice was soft, motherly.
His head raised slightly; he grinned tiredly. "It was not…all pretend."
This statement seemed to affect Sakura much more than Zetsu had anticipated. She knelt in front of Kakuzu, not touching him, but looking at his crippled form. Blood had leaked from the shoddily formed heart, a black-purple bruise blossoming under his skin.
"Your greed put you here, Kakuzu," she said quietly. "If you had kept it under control, things might have been different."
At this he gripped the neckline of her shirt with a last burst of strength, looking up at her, body shaking violently from the effort. He tore the zipper down to her navel, and though Zetsu tensed and was ready to rip Kakuzu's hand away from her, Sakura's composed form reassured him.
The black stain on her had receded almost completely. It pulsed, and as it did, Kakuzu ran his fingers weakly over it, trembling fingers tracing the lines of his seal. He looked into Sakura's eyes, his half-lidded, and Sakura took his hand in hers, setting it carefully on the grass.
On a sigh of breath, Kakuzu lay his head down. His chest moved no more.
Zetsu could do little more than stare. Sakura did likewise. She checked his vitals, though, being careful to stay away from the place where his still heart was, unsurprised at the abundant evidence of cardiomyopathy. His heart muscle functions had simply deteriorated with all the strain put on the single organ and it had given out on him. She wouldn't be surprised if he had known and only depended on her ignorance of the fact to retreat to a safer location before dealing with the issue. She didn't have to give him the final diagnosis to know that Kakuzu was gone for good.
"His age played a large part in it," Sakura said, allowing herself to stroke the back of Kakuzu's head only once before she stopped touching him completely. "His body was unable to accept a change as great as this. At least, that's what I can guess."
"Kakuzu has lived for a long time," Zetsu agreed, keeping a respectful distance from her. "It was only a matter of time before all of those years caught up with him."
Silence pervaded the space between Zetsu and Sakura—silence from the two of them and stillness from Kakuzu.
After a while, she spoke. "I thought I would kill him." She touched the place where the seal had been on her body, now completely dissipated. "I thought either that or he would kill me."
"Have more faith in your abilities," Zetsu said, moving beside her as she stood.
"I thought for sure I'd spend my life chasing after him or running from him." Kakuzu's supine form seemed the focal point of both of their gazes.
Something hit his left jaw with enough force to knock him to the ground, and he realized with a start that it had been Sakura. She cradled her fist now, glaring at him intently.
"That's for taking off and leaving me to him," she spat, angrily healing the broken bones in her fist. "You bastard. You knew what he was doing."
Zetsu was at a loss. He knew that this conversation would come up, knew he would have to face the reality of his abandoning her, but he hadn't thought it would've been this soon. "I—"
"I don't want to hear your excuses." Even as she said this, though, she knelt near where he dazedly sat, pressing her hand gently to his injured jaw. She healed it silently, not looking at him.
As her healing took effect and his pain subsided, his demeanor calmed. "Nothing will make it better."
"No. It won't." She sat next to him, finally getting a moment to catch her breath. "Never."
He didn't know what to say to this. He looked at her, though, and even while he did, he felt overwhelmingly guilty at what pain he had indirectly brought her. It was clear that the Kakuzu incident was something that she wouldn't forget for a long time to come. He wished that he had the power to take away memories. If he did, he would remove all traces of Kakuzu's acts, and make up a story for her in the memory's stead. Things would be okay then, he reassured himself.
Sakura drew her knees to her chest. Her shirt was still unzipped down the front, showing bare skin where that ugly black splattering scar had once marred her. "I can't believe they weren't real," she said softly, sadly.
"Kakuzu is—was—a master of his trade. It isn't your fault for falling for it."
She burrowed her face into the dip between her drawn knees. "What were they like?" she asked, somewhat muffled. "Deidara, Kisame, Itachi, and...Tobi."
Zetsu smiled gently. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, pull her against him and hold her, prompt her to release all her tears and frustration and grief, but he found it more appropriate to allow her to rehabilitate herself. "Deidara was an idiot."
She laughed out loud. "I assumed as much. Were they very much like their real personalities? It was all so funny sometimes, the way they fit together."
At this Zetsu snorted. "They were perfect clones. Up until the end, at least." He thought she would grow sad again at this, but she only smiled, closing her eyes.
"Zetsu said that Tobi would occasionally...be himself? What did he mean?"
"I don't think I should tell you that, Sakura."
He chewed on the inside of his cheek, drawing blood and then running his tongue over the wound. He would be murdered if Madara found out.
If Madara found out.
"This is going to take a while," he muttered, sighing and lying back in the grass. Kakuzu's corpse, not ten feet away, went completely unnoticed. Zetsu made a small note in the back of his mind to take care of it so that Sakura didn't have to.
Sakura lay back beside him, and he started to explain everything—everything about Madara, everything about Tobi, everything about the Akatsuki and its dissolution and reformation, and absolutely everything that fell in between.
Sakura did not interrupt to ask questions or exclaim any remarks. She listened perfectly quietly, and more than once, he thought her to be sleeping. They moved on to different topics eventually, though, him telling her about his first love and her telling him about the little girl with the bad lungs.
By the time the conversation had left them feeling fat with fulfillment and contentment, the morning had begun to creep upon them. Zetsu found one more thing to be worried about, and it pricked painfully at his stomach.
He hesitated, unsure how to bring it up.
"Sakura..." She looked at him, expectant from her place in the grass beside him. A bird chirped somewhere. "You know you can't...go home."
She looked away from him, her expression heavy. "I know, Zetsu."
"Even if Kakuzu lied about the fake clone, at this point the whole village may know what's happened here, even if they didn't before. Things really add up in your direction."
"I know." She took a deep breath and faced him again, lying on her side. "But I have to know for sure. I can't leave never knowing the real truth. After everything...I can't just walk away like this."
"You're not just going to stroll into Tsunade's office and ask her if she thinks you harbored several fugitives, though. I don't see how you're going to accomplish this." But he did. He knew her request. So many others had entrusted him to a similar task for him not to pick up on it.
"You have to do it, Zetsu. If anyone can get past the chakra barrier and do a little espionage, it's you." She seemed emotionally resigned, as though not walking into a potential deathtrap just ruined her whole day. "I hate sending other people to do my dirty work, but I don't have any choice. I'd just like to make it perfectly clear that if I could, I would be doing it myself."
He couldn't help a responding grin at her assertiveness. "Of course. You're smart enough to know when recklessness isn't the answer. But there is one thing: Do you trust me?"
She blinked at him, then scowled.
"That's right. You know. I could very well leave for a while, never go to Konoha, then come back and tell you that there are posters for your arrest everywhere and that your old house is being searched. Surely you're not naive enough to fully believe in me."
For a moment she only continued to stare up at him, then sat up and put one of her hands on his chest. With a feather-light tug, she rubbed her fingers across every inch of his torso, as if sizing up his honesty by touch alone. Finally, she stopped, leaning forward and resting her forehead against the bottom of his ribcage.
"I have to trust you. Don't you get it? Right now you're my only option. I can go to the border and be arrested, or go back home into complete uncertainty, and I was trained better than that." She slipped her arms behind his neck to envelop him into a tight hug. "And for the record I would much rather compromise with you than him, any day. You were always my favorite. I do hope you know that."
"You are shamelessly manipulating me into obedience." And for the strangest reason, he didn't mind at all.
"And don't you forget it. Now go before we lose any more time."
Seeing no more reason to remain (or, rather, seeing several very intriguing reasons to remain but having better reasons to ignore the former until a more appropriate time), he concentrated his chakra and disappeared into the ground, out of sight, heading industriously toward the inner village. Sakura lay stomach-down in the grass where Zetsu's form had been just moments before.
O O O
Of course, he had a feeling what he might find even before he began his subtle eavesdropping from within various plants and from within the stones of the street. In spite of the perceived odds, Sakura had managed to avoid all detection owing to the very obvious threats outside the country from Madara and of course the recent threat of a single dangerous shinobi roaming the woods.
People wondered where she was, but since she had just bought a new house no one really questioned that she might stay away for a while to settle in, and of course most people simply assumed she was on a mission if they didn't have any other information. Shinobi disappeared from time to time, this was simply a way of life. Of course she was needed for work in the hospital, but if a real emergency had come up she would have been fetched with little bother, and most of the time a regular nurse or doctor did the trick before things got too bad. After all, it wasn't every day that someone got poisoned half to death.
It would have been a shot in the dark to tie Sakura in with everything. Kunoichi were certainly allowed odd habits; surely someone wouldn't immediately assume she had decided to harbor dangerous criminals just because she bought a bunch of clothes in strange sizes. Kakuzu had done his work well tearing her self-confidence down. Even now Zetsu doubted if she was in any condition to think rationally, and hoped that she'd at least stay put and avoid detection until he returned.
The thing was, he didn't really want to go back. Going back meant telling her the truth, because he didn't think he could bear lying to her and tearing her away from her life after what Kakuzu had done-after what he had done by letting Kakuzu do what he had. Hadn't she had enough lies and deciet for a lifetime already just from the events of the past day? He readily admitted to himself that he almost preferred simply tricking her into going with him, but that would make him no better than Kakuzu. And being better than Kakuzu for Sakura's sake looked like an occupation he could stick with for the rest of his life.
O O O
The leaves rustled gently near her feet, signaling Zetsu's imminent approach, and she stood quickly to get out of his way, though she was sure he announced his presence only for her benefit. He appeared silently and stood before her when she began peppering him with questions immediately, nervousness compelling her to speak.
"Well, what's going on?" Having fifteen minutes past only to her thoughts, she of course imagined the worst and had already begun preparing for a life on the run and away from everything she'd ever grown up into. She'd always been a bit attached to drama, and life-endangering situations were no different. With no one to assuage her fears, they simply ran wild. "How long do you think we have to get away?"
He appeared honestly surprised, then sighed.
"No one knows. Everything is quiet. They simply think you're moving into your new house. Kakuzu was completely fabricating Konoha's knowledge about any of this. I don't think he really wanted trouble. There's some panic about some nameless shinobi prowling the woods that people are being mobilized to hunt down, but no one connected that to you; how could they?"
Sakura gasped. "But I thought—why would you?" She definitely hadn't been expecting that. Where was that famous Akatsuki cunning and ambition?
"You expected me to lie to make you come with me."
Another sigh. "It's to be expected." He began to examine the grasses over her shoulder as though they were the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. Sakura took this as her cue to diffuse the situation. Of course the emotional bits would all fall on her plate.
"I can go home...maybe I should now. Thank you for your help. I mean that."
At this, Zetsu's head snapped up and he looked intently at her face. "But I don't want you to."
Sakura took a calming breath. This just couldn't end easily, could it?
"What do you want, Zetsu?" Walk away, just walk away while you're still in one piece.
"Stay with me. We could make it work. I'm sure Madara wouldn't mind you as long as you didn't try and sabotage anything. You know better than to go after him, anyway. He's much too strong for you to ever think of defeating." He spoke quickly but softly, as though trying to settle an excited child. Sakura scowled and folded her arms. Just because certain things were true didn't mean she liked hearing them out loud.
"And live like your dirty little secret until who knows what happens? If Madara—when Madara falls, I'd just be killed."
"I wouldn't let that happen. We would leave. I am incredibly adept at getting out of sticky situations;- surely you know this."
"You left me."
He had the decency to grimace. "I know."
"You left me alone with him. I should knock your head off for that."
"And I would deserve it."
"Zetsu, I really like you. But I can't turn my back on everything I believe and all I've worked for in order to have an affair with a man who believes and works for none of those things, with no hope or certainty at all for the future."
"No one has any hope or certainty in the future anyway. Why not live a little?"
"No one should do things like that just because." She tightened her folded arms. "I'm not going with you. And you can't come with me either. You have too much at stake to switch sides."
"I have no desire to switch sides, anyway. I don't particularly enjoy being irrevocably tied to a government. That's why I left my village in the first place."
She shuddered and closed her eyes against the numbness beginning to slip back into her thoughts. "Then there's nothing to it. I wish things could be different, but they can't."
He regarded her silently, sadly. "It's your decision, Sakura. It was always your decision. I won't make you do anything. I won't be him."
But there was no decision, not really. Realistically, there was only one way to go. She could choose the little details, but she knew that she could never turn her back on her friends. It wasn't her way anymore. Faced again with the choice to leave everything behind to be with a man, she found that once again it was one of the hardest decisions of her life to make.
"I can't do this, Zetsu."
He remained silent.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think I'll ever see you this way ever again. The next time we meet, it will have to be on a battlefield. Goodbye. I'll miss this...and you."
Sakura raced back to the burning house, away from Zetsu, away from a life that just wouldn't work no matter how much she wished it could. But she could never turn her back on her country, Zetsu couldn't just abandon Madara when he'd invested so much time in working for the man, and there was no way they could both run off together, not when both sides would come down like forces of nature to apprehend them. She felt tears prickling in the corners of her eyes and fought them down, feeling them dry in sticky patches on her cheeks.
It wasn't until she had reached the edge of her clearing and had been seen before she realized her mistake. The messenger. Oh, no. Even if she could play off the fire as some electric accident (unlikely, given a thorough examination for cause of the blaze), there was no way everyone would ignore a shinobi who just decided to die practically on her front door.
The growing crowd of shinobi either putting out the fire with water jutsu or containing it to the house turned as a single entity when she emerged and screeched to a halt, facing them down and mentally preparing herself for a long stint in prison at the very best. I can't believe it's going to end this way. Not after everything that's happened.
She didn't expect Ino to materialize from the crowd and fling herself on Sakura in the most bone-crushing hug she had ever experienced.
"Sakura, thank goodness you're alive!"
She managed a very intelligent "Huh?"
"You must have just missed them. Some unknown shinobi came through the woods killing nearly everyone out on patrol. They evidently went through this area and got poor Akemi when he was supposed to deliver a message for you." She paused and looked Sakura up and down, who still couldn't manage to formulate a response. "You're lucky you weren't in there when he set the house on fire! Some of the ANBU are saying that he must've known you lived there now and was trying to do you in as fast as he could. They still don't know exactly what he was looking for. He might be an Akatsuki, isn't that wild? Here, right next to the village! I know they've been here before, but you'd think, after all this time...hey, you don't look so good."
Sakura couldn't believe it. Was she really this lucky? Her? After being tricked by one of the oldest masterminds of the shinobi world, torn away from the notion of an impossible but achingly sweet happily ever after, and generally psychologically beat with a two-by-four, someone was finally cutting her a break.
"So, they...they think all that, do they?"
"Hey, maybe you should sit down. You look awful. And don't worry about Ibiki, I took care of it already."
"Yeah, I'll sit down. Thanks, by the way."
"Don't mention it. Hey, we need to hang out, I heard that..."
But Ino's voice gradually faded away as Sakura basked in the moment, feeling relief so overwhelming that it drove out her friend's social commentary and replaced it with a pleasant haze of muffled voices. She sat back on her hands in the grass and watched the house burn with a slight smile on her face, thinking that she deserved a nice cup of tea and a nap right about now, picking up the pieces of her heart and storing them away for later reconstruction.
Zetsu's disappearance wasn't something she could just get over quite yet. True, she had hoped as a child that she would never have to nurse a broken heart, that her entire life would be scripted and planned and wonderful, but somehow she wouldn't have traded that life for never knowing Zetsu, even the way it happened. He, at least, was one good thing to come out of Kakuzu's insanity. In a way, so was Hidan, but she didn't allow herself to dwell on his loss quite yet. There was plenty of time for tears and hysteric rantings alone in bed at night in the weeks to come.
"Did a massive talking cat just fall out of the sky and announce to everyone that I am to be their queen? Because that wouldn't shock me at all right now." Ah, there was the sarcasm, back where it belonged.
Ino huffed. "Clearly you should be treated for shock. You've just been sitting there staring into space for minutes. Come on, I'm taking you back to the hospital. You've been through a lot today."
"Oh, you have no idea."
A week later Sakura found herself sitting on her new couch in her old apartment-house, a familiar location dotted with unfamiliar landscape, like a wilderness recovering from a natural disaster. It might as well have been a natural disaster, she thought wryly, and took another bite of her sandwich. Reclaiming her old house had pleased her immensely, as few things could anymore.
Although her house had been occupied by someone else in her absence, Tsunade had decided that the old, familiar place would be easier on her mental state, which had clearly suffered a blow after such a bizarre turn of events. Imagine that Kakuzu, thought dead, had been found twice-dead in a clearing not far from Sakura's new home! Surely he had wanted revenge for his assassination and had decided that killing Sakura and a few dozen jounin and chuunin would be the easier solution to invading the village solo and finding the real culprit. Sakura's responding laughter at this statement had only reinforced her master's decision, so now here she found herself back home.
It felt strangely empty. Devoid of people she was politically bound to despise, people she came to care for anyway in spite of half of them not even being real, the void pressed on her spirit in an uncomfortable way, two sides of her making war inside her mind, one telling her to be grateful that she got away with so much, and the other missing Zetsu and everything that could have been that wouldn't have been. Where was her perfect world where everything went her way and no one put enslaving devices on anyone and people could fall in love and have all kinds of babies and good times with whoever they wanted?
She tossed the sandwich edges into the trash (in her book, even being an adult didn't mean you had to eat the entire thing) and wandered into her bedroom in pursuit of what would be her third nap of the day. Evidently shutting her up in her house for two weeks would calm her down enough so that she could do her job properly, since no one wanted an edgy medic-nin anywhere near their sick bed. Still, Sakura appreciated the gesture, knowing that the time would give her ample opportunity to reconstruct her mask of indifference for whenever someone decided to question her about the ordeal.
I will not break down, I will not fall apart, and I will fight him if I have to. Because I have made my choice and I have to stand by it, or everyone will see.
Trust everything to come down to appearances. Make believe you're okay and everyone would believe it. She wondered how many other shinobi out there harbored their own forbidden loves and fatal secrets. After this, she would never look at anyone the same, for if this could happen to her, who was to say it hadn't happened to anyone else? She supposed that was the way of things. Once someone realized they were capable of something, they were primed to see it in others.
Disturbed and depressed by her dark thoughts, she sank into the sanctuary of her mattress and lay on top of the sheets, simultaneously pulled between her two favorite pursuits as of late: clearing her mind and thinking of nothing at all, and pulling everything in and dealing with it all at once.
Tonight, she wouldn't ever get the chance to decide. A slight tremor broke her out of her reverie and she stiffened. For a second, it felt as though the disturbance had come from the bed itself.
She sat up with a yelp and felt her forehead collide with an oddly-placed obstruction sticking low out of the adjacent wall.
"I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. It was difficult getting here in the first place."
She froze with her hand pressed against her face, thinking that if she concentrated hard enough she could hold onto this moment forever.
"I thought you were going to stay away forever. Or as long as you could."
"Do you want me to leave?"
She slowly lowered her hand until it joined the other in her lap and looked up to see Zetsu's head sticking out through the wall.
"I didn't say that. How can you do that? I thought it was just natural material."
"The house is made out of natural material. It's just dead."
"Aren't you going to say anything else?"
She barked out a laugh. "I don't know what else to say. You're not making this easy, you know. My answer is still the same. I can't leave. And you most certainly can't stay. I'm torn up enough inside without you making these little attempts on what's left of my sanity. And you might get me caught."
He seemed to shrug; the surrounding walls trembled a little where she thought his shoulders might be.
"No one will know I'm here unless they can see me. I'm near-undetectable, even for a sensor."
"How convenient. Now please leave. I can't stand you being here and not being able to do anything about it."
"That's the thing." He tilted his head a little to regard her, and she began to squirm in spite of herself. "I don't want to stay away. No, let me speak," he said when she attempted to break in. "I know you probably don't favor this kind of relationship, but can't I just visit you every once in a while here, when you're alone?"
Sakura scoffed, ignoring the beginnings of hope welling inside her chest. "Funny, I didn't peg you as the sex-and-go type of individual. Or individuals, rather."
"Don't be defensive. I didn't say anything about that in the first place. We can just talk if you want, be around one another."
"It won't stay that way for long."
"Then we'll get to that when it comes up. Clearly you're looking forward to it, or you wouldn't be so fixated on it." He shook his head irritably, and Sakura couldn't help but smile a little, even if it meant giving herself away. "So you'll agree to it, then?"
"It'll be emotionally stressful."
"I can manage."
"I meant for me, you dolt. You're probably used to sneaking around doing naughty things."
"This is true."
"And there's still a slim possibility of this ending well, no matter which side wins."
"Unhappy endings are an occupational hazard. Why not?"
"I can think of about a million reasons why not, Zetsu." Because in spite of the joy now blossoming from everywhere within herself, she couldn't shake that little voice that scolded her for even considering being with him. But then again, didn't she once try to leave the village and tag along with Sasuke? So everyone screwed up a little in love, all right. "Zetsu, if this all goes to hell, what on earth will we do?"
"So you agree. Good. I can stay a little now, if you want."
She laughed affectionately at him, appreciating his lighthearted tone, though part of her knew better. Could she live the rest of her life never knowing how this would turn out, this final compromise that would make her happy again, even if only temporarily? She smiled up at him and he smiled back, still making no move to extract himself from the wall while she began to fall in love his little eccentricities.
"You know, I do think I have a little extra tea in the kitchen."
"Good, I could go for some right about now. How about some sake, too?"
"You are not getting buzzed in this house. I could only imagine the possibilities of disaster."
"Ah, right, right. Some other time."
We sound like an old married couple, she thought as she set up her old mismatched cups and filled them to the brim. And I don't think I mind it at all, strange as it sounds. I could get used to this. He sat down at the table opposite her and away from the windows, took the cup from her proffered hand, and began to take sips and make small talk with her like he belonged there, like he'd always known he'd be back again. Yes, she could get used to this.
After all, she didn't think she could ever enjoy being in love if there wasn't a little madness and mystery in there somewhere.