Such a Charming Veneer

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#41 – Nowhere

"Next week," he told her the week after their little encounter, and Sakura frowned inconsolably, watching him eat his crappy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich from her station; "Next week I start going nowhere fast," he said, never looking up from his plate, "and nowhere just sounds so wonderful this time of year, doesn't it?"

#42 – Neutral

It was inevitable that someone found out; it was inevitable that Pein's bunkmate would realize what was happening when Pein was sent back late, and when confronted by Sakura, who was ready to defend herself to the death, he grinned and closed his one eye good-naturedly, the crude absence of the other not even bothering her in the slightest; "I'm neutral, of course," he told her, voice hoarse, "if you'll supply me with extra pillows, Haruno," and Sakura was so, so relieved at this; "Sure thing," she said, and when she brought him said extra linens, she couldn't help but wonder why they'd chosen her to be a prison guard-slash-medic, anyway; she was horrible at this job.

#43 – Nuance

The nuances that existed between herself and Pein existed, sure, and nobody found this out more thoroughly than Sakura herself did while waiting that dreadful week for the cavalry to arrive; they weren't a huge deal, though, and she found herself far more occupied with her ultimate decision: Should she stay in Konoha, where she had nothing, where the drunken hokage had been killed and replaced with a mangy tyrant of a man, where her friends had all passed away one by one, leaving her invariably alone in her grief and solitude, or should she leave with Pein to someplace that was unsure—someplace that reminded her of her golden days with Team 7 and revenge- and accomplishment-obsessed little boys?

#44 – Near

The day drew nearer and nearer—much too near for Sakura's tastes, and on the day before Pein's friends were to show, she sat him down in the medical office, unplugged the security camera, and put a hand on his knee; "Pein," she said, tears threatening to fall, fingers kneading into the rough fabric of his jumpsuit, and his expression told all: the grandly withheld patience, the hope, the utter, blind brevity of such a request; "I've made up my mind," she continued verily, "about your offer, and…and I have nothing here for me, so yes, Pein, please take me with you," and his eyes with the odd rings and the too-pink edges widened as if he couldn't believe it himself; "Good," he said finally, but all of the emotion he'd been stockpiling in some corner of his heart leaked through in just that word, and he pretended to be getting his "broken finger" healed when guards rushed in to assess the otherwise unseeable situation; Sakura could only smile and point them in the direction of the "broken" security camera.

#45 – Natural

It was natural that he should feel excited, Pein decided, and a little bit anxious, as well, because it was already midnight of the next day and his boys hadn't shown up; Sakura had already paced in front of his cell several times in the course of that night, insisting to the watchmen that she wished to work overtime to start paying for some extra-expensive bills this month, but Pein knew she was getting nervous, too; it was cruel to build up so much hope, so many promises of a better life, only for the dam to break and the plan to fall to hell, and he vowed that he would slaughter each and every survivor of the once-feared Akatsuki—three left, including him, remained, though there were—if they let Sakura down.

#46 – Horizon

The night passed without a single inkling of sound or disturbance, and rather than be angry, Pein was starting to be worried; there were only two left, only Kisame and Zetsu, and he wasn't so sure they were able to traverse Konoha's borders undetected; so he lay awake all night, staring up at the ceiling, hearing Sakura's footsteps occasionally, and when he could see the sun climbing up over the horizon through the ridiculously tiny window in the top right corner of his cell, he saw it and it felt wonderful: the telltale scent of something fresh and green followed by the slow, silent creep of Zetsu's vines through that same tiny window, wherein they inched to Pein's foot, grabbed a hold, and then withdrew; they had found him, they were okay, he was okay, and so he calmly signaled for Sakura.

#47 – Valiant

He felt, for all rights and purposes, as valiant a misunderstood black knight as any as the tip of Zetsu's flytrap broke straight through the concrete of the cell floor, vines tearing apart thick blocks and creating a hole plenty big enough for himself and Sakura to squeeze through; she entered the cell carefully, closed it behind her, made sure Pein's bunkmate was still asleep—not that they had made any noise at all, anyway—and then looked at Pein, who was holding out a hand; she took it and he smiled with all his might, and it felt like everything would be okay as he pointed her toward the tunnel, watched the brief moment of hesitation pass over Zetsu's extra, botanic appendages, and then saw to it that his former spy and still-strong comrade and friend took her by the ankles and wrists, guiding her down the tunnel; he waited patiently for his turn, also being guided, blind down in the darkness, and it was cold underground, so when he emerged well on the other side of the prison, well away from civilization and chakra-sensing range, saw Sakura standing near Kisame, he brushed the dirt calmly from his hair and smiled again.

#48 – Virtuous

He wasn't virtuous by any means, and he didn't try to come across as such, either; but he felt just slightly better about himself—about the world—about everything—as he traveled with Zetsu, Kisame, and Sakura, toward neutral territory far to the east, where they planned on throwing away their shinobi headbands for good and putting all of that muscle and limberness acquired to good use by becoming humble, quiet, happy farmers, planting crops in the soil and never thinking of evil organizations or the death of their friends or the collapse of the only world they'd ever known again; somehow, through the heat of the deserts and the haze of the swamplands and the frigidness of the islands they hopped to and fro over, Pein was able to find that the good things now ever-present in his life far outweighed the bad, and he was able to show this to Sakura and show this to Kisame and Zetsu and proudly call them his new family.

#49 – Victory

It was a victory in its own right when the three of them found exactly what they were looking for in that unknown land to the east, when they were able to combine every bit of monies they had found, earned, and saved to buy a small plot of land somewhere in what was beginning to evolve into a city; Zetsu was wonderful and all too happy with planting and maintaining a garden off of which they all thrived, Kisame didn't mind at all finding a grunt job in the inner "city" carrying boxes to and from large cargo ships, and Pein was perfectly okay with his new lifestyle as Dr. Haruno's secretary and personal assistant; all in all, as the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months to years without even a fleeting mention of Konoha or the Akatsuki, the four of them began to relax more, and they came to call this place home, and the community—contrived mostly of humble, modest citizens—welcomed them with open, warm arms, even to Kisame, the shark-like man, Zetsu, the human flytrap who had to be content with eating just animal meat from then on, and Pein and Sakura, the foreign couple with a less-than-happy past slowly being obscured by a gradually rounded belly and thoughts that were nothing if not constantly striving forward.

#50 – Defeat

However, as much as Pein cherished and adored their victory, it was their ultimate defeat that he constantly was grateful for; he had not a clue nor did he want to think about where he would be if the Akatsuki hadn't fallen, if he hadn't been captured and hauled to prison, if he hadn't undergone a drastic, rather draining change of personality, if Zetsu and Kisame hadn't survived through everything and stayed loyal to him; he treasured his past wins, sure, but his losses were what had the most effect on him today, as he decided with the "family" he'd never before appreciated to name this new child Kouhei after peace and calmness; Sakura thumbed his ear where he had let the piercings close up—every single one of them was gone and never to be replaced, because he was past all that, really—to break him from his thoughts; he could only hope, when he lay down with Sakura, with a bit of his past, most of his present, and all of his future, that further generations would inherit such a charming veneer as they all now could proudly and guiltlessly exhibit.