Notes: I was rifling through my Naruto things, and then got around to rereading this. It's ridiculous how I left it hanging. I apologize if the following isn't up to par, but at the same time, I thought everyone who has read chapters 1-8 deserved better than utter abandonment. Thanks for your patience, guys! I'll be editing some stuff, so if something significant changes in this chapter, I'll make a note of it in the next update.
Disclaimer: Nah…it's not mine. Fooled you, didn't I? (What with the rarity of NEJI. ;_;) Again, this fic has probably become AU, since Sasuke is leading all of "Hawk" to Konoha in canon, Pein demolished almost everything (making a statement in Chapter 5 false), Hinata declared for Naruto, and Tsunade's time as the Hokage got interrupted. You know what? There are too many things to point out individually. I'm just going to incorporate what I can from canon. (EDITED: Pronoun of the Hokage. When Yukina is 12, the Hokage in this story is still Tsunade, one of the AU elements in this story.)
"Let's go back," I said.
Kurei glanced at me, then jerked his head at the exhausted Makoto. What about this one? he seemed to ask. Tellingly enough, Makoto hadn't said anything.
I lowered my voice. "Is he asleep?"
"No," said Makoto.
"We have to check on sensei – "
Now even Kurei stared at him like he had sprouted fur, antennae, and a carapace all at once. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
Silhouetted against the dim sky, Makoto's face was barely visible. He was so tired that he looked practically expressionless. "Sakura-sensei's last order to me was to keep you guys safely away."
We exploded at him. "Safely away?" Kurei shouted. "We can fight! We did fight! We have to go back!"
"'Last order'? Stop making it out as though Sakura-sensei's not coming back!" I threw myself at Makoto, trying to get past him in the most brutish, desperate way possible.
I'd expected some resistance. He toppled back instead, my weight bearing him outside of the cave. Just before we crashed onto the rocky ground, I remembered that one of the demons had dealt Makoto a crippling blow. I Flickered off to the side in time to avoid landing on my teammate.
Barely an inch off the ground, Makoto twisted in mid-air and managed to land on his hands and knees. Looking at him right then, suppressing a shudder of pain, I felt absolutely horrible.
"Makoto – I'm so sorry – I forgot – "
"You didn't forget." He spoke in a low voice between his harsh breathing. "So you've forced your way out. What are you going to do?"
Kurei had leapt down from the mouth of the cave. When he saw us like that – Makoto in his weakened state, and me watching at him from a few feet's distance – he had hesitated, but now he came closer. "We have to find our sensei."
"Then leave me here! Go! Some team this is."
Only when Makoto said that did I realize how angry he was. "It's not that we want to leave you," I started, "it's that we have to see what's happened. Can't you understand? "
"Don't you understand?" he snapped, pushing himself onto his feet. Kurei and I both twitched towards him, but his glare froze us in place. "We're just kids! This wasn't ever really about us. That woman hates our sensei for personal reasons, and those demons under her command fight on a higher level than what we can handle. One-on-one, maybe we'd survive. If we go now, we'll just get in Sakura-sensei's way."
"So you want us to just hang around and let our sensei do everything?"
Makoto had to understand what I left unvoiced: What if she can't do everything?
"Makoto," said Kurei, "we are a team. And Sakura-sensei's one of us! She's Team Four as much as any of us here. We have to go back!"
The next moment, all three of us felt an aura so terrible and violent that our argument halted mid-word. Whatever I had opened my mouth to say shriveled in the damp air. The chill that swept over my bare arms and along my spine raised every hair on my skin. In that instant, I felt a brush of wind. Someone had passed by us very quickly.
After several seconds, the instinctive terror we had all felt began to recede into the persistent haze of rain. Kurei spoke first. "Damn. That was scary." His voice was hushed.
I rubbed my arms. "Who was it?"
Out of all of us, Kurei was the only one who had actually seen what had just sprinted past our small group. When no answer came from the Hyuuga, I turned to Makoto. A kikai bug rested in his palm.
"Uchiha," he said.
I felt the chill return, but hid it. "Now can we go after Sakura-sensei?"
After a moment, Makoto nodded. Kurei and I slid one of his arms each over our shoulders before he could protest and bounded forward. Ahead of us, the clouds continued to gather, darkening the sky to midnight blue. Sheet lightning flashed, temporarily blinding. The thunder that followed shook the valley floor beneath my feet.
He responded from across from Makoto. "Yeah?"
"It should be over by now, right?"
Kurei might act all manly sometimes and pretend he could comfort the one girl on Team Four with confident words, but this was one occasion where he held his tongue. I wouldn't have believed him anyway.
My open-toed sandal splashed into a sizeable puddle as we pulled up ten meters from the gruesome scene of carnage. There were, quite literally, bodies everywhere. I glanced around wildly.
No sign of Sakura-sensei.
"Makoto!" I was this close to full-blown panic. "Can you see her? Where do you think –"
The ground exploded into a thousand jagged fragments of rock. I kept my grip on Makoto by sheer reflex and leaped into the air. Fortunately, Kurei did likewise. For a split second, we could see everything, including the two fighters that had abruptly materialized. A pale-haired blur caught my eye.
"Sakura-sensei!" I shouted.
I might as well have rammed a kunai in her stomach. Her concentration splintered, letting the bizarre, dark-skinned creature she'd been keeping at bay get under her guard. It extended its hand and reached through Sakura-sensei's torso. Five claws protruded from her back, curved and bloody.
A scream ripped out of my lungs. Kurei yanked Makoto - and by extension, me – off to the side as Sakura-sensei's body arced through the air and slammed into the ground not two feet from our previous location. I dropped onto my knees, horrified.
Get up! I implored. Move!
I watched helplessly as the thing that I somehow recognized as Karin approached my sensei's body and slammed an open-palmed hand into the ground. The rock under her burst open and shattered. Large, sharp pieces fell back down onto Sakura-sensei. She didn't even try to twist out of the way. I could only stare in stunned silence. Beside me, my teammates stood as if they were rooted to the spot.
Karin laughed. "How do you like that?" Her eyes, wild and crimson, drifted lazily to Kurei, Makoto, and me. In contrast, she sounded conversational, even detached.
She'd accomplished what she had wanted. Sakura-sensei was dead.
I put my head down and started crying in earnest - crying as I never had since I had turned four. Since I had met Sakura-sensei. I felt one of my teammates' hand on my shoulder, but I couldn't stop. Unlike them, I had called out and distracted Sakura-sensei. I didn't care if I had lost all my dignity or pride as a ninja. I should have stayed away from the Ninja Academy. Maybe then, she would be alive.
"Yukina…get up." Makoto repeated my name as I bent over on the ground, shaking with all the guilt and shock that kept the image of my sensei's limp body before my eyes.
It was Kurei's heartfelt expletive that wrenched my head up.
I saw Karin first. The effects of the technique she'd used to transform herself had faded, leaving her face starkly pale and weary. Her red hair only emphasized the pallid tone of her skin. Her stare guided my own eyes to the taller, black-clad figure in front of her.
"Sasuke-sama," she breathed, reaching for him.
He just looked at her. Whatever she saw in his face made her withdraw her hand. But she didn't move away.
"You know why I'm here," Karin said. "You told me before that you had reasons for going back to your village. Well…you've had your revenge. The man who ordered the death of your clan is gone. I can see that you were chafing under those fools…so why didn't you come back to us?"
A brief flash of lightning lit the sky again. I blinked hard. Those could not be tears in that woman's eyes.
"We were with you the whole time. As Hebi, and then as Taka. We were your team!"
I flinched so violently that Kurei's hand fell from my shoulder. Of all the emotions I thought I could feel for Karin, I hadn't expected to feel understanding.
They were a team?
Makoto stood near enough to hear me mutter in disbelief. He shot me an inscrutable look.
"What a bastard," I whispered, furious. "He left his teammates behind – twice!"
He seemed to sigh. A tiny, ironic smile, mostly a grimace, tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Sometimes people do that."
I spun around. "We didn't – I didn't do that to you, Makoto! That's not fair. And Sakura-sensei was out there and…" And it was my fault. My breath hitched. "I'm so sorry, Makoto. I should have died before I hit you and – and then caused Sakura-sensei to..." I couldn't finish that sentence.
"Stop blubbering, okay?" interjected Kurei. "It's not your fault, it's all our fault, since we all agreed to go back for sensei. Sort of. Anyway…" Despite his brittle stoicism, Kurei didn't sound as sure or steady as his tone suggested.
"I was wrong," said Makoto. He glanced down at me. "Sakura-sensei was mistaken to think she could order us to abandon her. You guys were right."
"Not that it matters now," I finished numbly. We were all very quiet then, a heavy silence settling over us. I had to return my attention to the adults' conversation to distract myself from tearing up.
"We want you back," said Karin.
"Speak for yourself," said another voice.
All my danger-senses flared in warning.
Suigetsu sauntered over to stand a short distance from Karin, oversized sword propped on his shoulder. "Don't you see, Karin? He's not coming back with you."
"Shut up," she said, her eyes still fixed on Sasuke. He gave off such a cold aura, even though I couldn't see his face from here. How could he stand so impassively when Sakura-sensei was dead? I remembered the night that my brother had gone to egg his house. Didn't Sasuke remember that? She was the only woman who would ever have asked him to have lunch. While everyone else, every other sane person in Konoha, gave his street a wide berth, she offered him friendship and trust.
She would have given him more than that, a needling internal voice told me.
"That's what I heard he said," Ayame told me. "'I don't give a flying – a flying fuck.' That's what everyone heard. He definitely said that."
Anger washed over me. I took a step towards Sasuke, barely aware of what I was doing. Before my teammates snapped out of their stupor to interfere, I had bellowed my thoughts at Uchiha Sasuke.
"You're disgusting, you know that? You're trash! Konoha doesn't want you or need you! And now Sakura-sensei's dead! Did you hear me?" I almost couldn't get the words out. My voice wobbled. "She's dead! So just get lost! Go with them! Nobody – gives – a – flying – fuck – about – you!"
An almighty yank on my arm had me staggering backwards. Makoto and Kurei had run up to drag me off. "Yukina, are you insane?" Kurei hissed in my ear.
I kept my eyes on Sasuke. "I mean it," I spat. "Get lost!"
It was the rain. I knew it had to be the rain making my vision blur. I knew I wanted to hurt that man more than I had ever wanted to hurt another human being, and I'd wanted it so badly that I actually imagined him flinch slightly after I had hurled everything I could think of at him.
The flat monotone of his voice proved my common sense right. He ignored me – and Karin's earlier appeal – completely, addressing Suigetsu. "You hated her," he said without preamble. "Why would you stay with Karin?"
Sasuke's face was hard to see from where I stood, but Karin blurted, "Sasuke-sama, you're bleeding…"
Suigetsu cut over her. "Same reason you're crying blood." The unnatural line of his mouth twisted in a wry grimace. "It's easy to explain, but neither of us would like to, eh?"
At that, Karin's gaze flashed to the pale-haired man beside her, something like amazement behind her eyes. "What the hell does that mean?" she demanded.
"If you're as dumb as you look, you don't deserve to know." He went on as she spluttered. "I'm saving your ass." He glanced at the sky with a nonchalance that I had a hunch was totally fake. "Great night for a lightning storm, isn't it?"
Sarcasm and sincerity went over the Uchiha in the same manner. "What happened in Oto?"
The other man shrugged. "I had nothing to do with it. Karin just…you know how she is. She wanted to see you that badly." He tried to say something else, but a brutal punch from Karin shattered his head into a shapeless spray of water. He was cursing as his head reformed.
"Hey!" I screamed. My teammates started tugging on my arms again. "What about Sakura-sensei? You unbelievable assholes! You – "
"Shut up!" All three of them snapped.
There was something to be said about getting yelled at by an insane, demonic woman, a shark-faced water-monster, and a former traitor who was bleeding from his eyes. I shut up.
"We'll get out of the country." Suigetsu had a hugely fake, pleasant air about him. "Call up the local hunter-nin to clean this up, if you like. Karin, time to go."
"What? No!" She wrenched her arm out of his grasp. "I'm not leaving until Sasuke-sama answers me!"
Suigetsu looked ready to seize her by the hair. "You idiotic bitch! Do you really want him to fry us with Kirin? You saw how it was, even from that distance!"
She persisted. "Do you like living in Konoha, Sasuke-sama? Where everyone treats you like dirt? Where stupid little girls go around running their mouth about things they don't know?"
"I don't see that it would be any different if I came with you."
It was the first sentence he had actually said to Karin. Looking at her face, I thought she might cry. "What has that village ever given you? What could it ever give you?" When he didn't reply, she answered for him. "Nothing! That girl you were always thinking about before you left us – she can't even hold a candle to what we had! Look at her!" I saw Sasuke stiffen and Suigetsu's eyes widen. I retreated from them, to the relief of Makoto and Kurei, but Karin steamrollered on. "I know you. I know you value strength, but can't you see how weak and unworthy she is? I killed her. Not Suigetsu, not those pathetic children from Oto – me!"
"Let's go!" shouted Suigetsu. He grabbed Karin by the shoulders and pulled her away. She fought him for a second, then went still. In a strange parody of what was happening, Kurei yanked me further away.
"What – "
"Her chakra's going wild. Run!"
I spun on my heel and pelted for cover. A bright light streaked over my shoulder, striking vertically from above. I heard rocks split; hard-edged chips flew in every direction, stinging the back of my legs. The air smelled metallic and bitter, like a shorted circuit. Kurei stopped without warning, and I smashed into him and Makoto.
"Sorry!" I turned around.
There was a medium-sized crater where Suigetsu, Sasuke, and Karin had been standing. Its circumference ended right before it reached my foot. A shiver overpowered me. I'd run exactly far enough to avoid getting hit.
Common sense pulled me back down from my survivor's high. No. The lightning had been controlled just so that I wouldn't get hit.
Sasuke landed lightly on his feet at the same time that Suigetsu did, Karin's limp body in his arms.
"Get out of here," said Sasuke. It sounded curiously familiar to my ears.
"Sasuke." Suigetsu paused. "I hate to say this, but she's right about one thing. Konoha's holding you back."
He hoisted Karin over his shoulder and sprang off towards the forest.
A stray breeze glided over my skin, and I realized that I was freezing. The valley looked different once the ninja from the Land of the Sound had gone. The mist no longer seemed so oppressive.
"The rain's stopped," said Makoto.
A memory flickered through my mind: the rain – my sensei, fighting in the rain –
"She's dead," I heard myself mumble. "Sakura-sensei…"
I staggered in the direction where she had fallen. I felt like a sleepwalker, cut off from my surroundings. My sensei was gone, and nothing would bring her back. Not rain, not lightning, not tears.
Someone got there before me – Uchiha Sasuke. He cleared away the debris faster than should have been humanly possible. Within minutes, he had unearthed Sakura-sensei. While he worked in complete silence, I noticed how quick his hands were, almost frantic.
A hysterical laugh bubbled out of me. Uchiha Sasuke was totally worried.
He laid Sakura-sensei out on the ground and wiped some of the blood off her face with his bandaged hands. I wondered what he was doing, raising her head like that, but it was so he could take off her forehead protector.
Beside me, Kurei stirred. "Whoa…"
I gave him a sharp glance. "What?"
He jerked his head. "Look."
The dark streaks on Sakura-sensei's face that I had taken to be blood were glowing. They seemed to radiate out from her forehead. I hadn't seen it before Sasuke removed her forehead protector, but now the strange lines on her skin looked like an activated seal.
That was impossible. If her chakra was still active…
My eyes moved to where her shirt had torn at her abdomen. There was too much blood caked over the cloth and skin to be sure, but a painful, brilliant hope lanced through me.
She opened her eyes.
I squealed and threw my arms around the nearest person. Kurei staggered back. "She's alive! She's okay! She's alive!"
Kurei wheezed. "Yeah – yeah, I know – Yukina…I can't breathe."
I was laughing and crying so hard that it was a miracle that I saw Makoto's wide smile, too. "Hey! Stop acting all manly and crap, will you? Sakura-sensei's alive!"
Kurei fought me off, unable to suppress the giant, unmanly beam wreathing his face. "Okay, okay. Can we go home now?"
I quieted down as we looked to our sensei for instructions.
She had eased into a sitting position. Underneath all the relief that swamped me, I still felt plenty of guilt. If I hadn't shouted, she wouldn't have had to exhaust her chakra supply to heal that ugly wound in her midriff.
She looked to either side of her, hunting for something. Her eyes landed on the forehead protector in Sasuke's hand. I jumped when I saw the dark, bloody tracks that had run from his soot-colored eyes. His fingers seemed to tighten around her forehead protector.
"You let Karin get that far, for what?"
If I had hoped for sobbing and a dramatic reconciliation – well, that was the epitaph on its gravestone. His voice was as wintry as ever.
"I wanted to see what I'd done to deserve her hatred." Sakura-sensei lacked the spark she usually had. Her green eyes passed over her surroundings, unseeing and dull. She closed them, a soft sigh escaping from her mouth. "And I wanted to know what you did to gain her loyalty." Her eyes snapped open again. She trained a stare bitterer than any I had ever seen on Sasuke. "I guess we were both just stupid little girls."
Sasuke stood, dropping her forehead protector. It made a muffled scraping sound when it hit the ground. "I won't argue with that," he said flatly.
Sakura-sensei reached for her forehead protector and secured it behind her head. "It's been six years. I thought it would get better, but it hasn't."
"What did you expect?"
I felt the old rage waking in me at his scathing tone. He had no right.
"Did you think I'd make promises of undying love?"
I cried out in alarm as my sensei leaped to her feet and rounded on Sasuke. She was in no state for a confrontation. "Why are you still here, Sasuke? Is there something you want from me?" She took a step forward. He didn't take a step back, so it brought the two of them closer. "Oh, I see…you want me to say it's all right, Konoha is only holding you back, so you might as well leave?"
I heard, rather than saw Sasuke's temper snap. "I didn't ask for anything! I never told you to waste your time waiting for me. Don't you see that's why I had to leave you behind?"
"That's not the issue anymore! I'm not – " She lowered her voice. It was as if she'd just remembered Makoto, Kurei, and I were listening to all of this. "I'm not that girl who'll follow you to the ends of the earth anymore. I've found what's precious to me, and it's in Konoha." She glanced over to where we were waiting, unsure and anxious, and I bit my lip. She was talking about Team Four, too.
"If you want to leave, Sasuke, then go." I heard the words struggle in her throat, like I had forced mine out when I was yelling at Sasuke. "If you do…I won't look for you." She met his eyes. "I'm not going to wait."
I sucked in a breath, but all Sakura-sensei did was bite her thumb to draw blood for a summon. She didn't look at Sasuke now, instead focusing on the bizarre, cat-sized slug on her shoulder. "Please let the Hokage know that the Valley of the End requires her attention."
The slug waggled its eyestalks and disappeared. "Team!" said Sakura-sensei. "We're moving out."
She kept walking even after she passed us. One by one, Kurei, Makoto, and I fell in after her. We took our cue from Sakura-sensei, lengthening our strides until we were bounding forward with chakra-laced steps. Finally, we were leaving.
I wasn't as strong as Sakura-sensei. I glanced over my shoulder.
Sasuke stood alone in the wreckage of the valley, the ground around him littered with the inert bodies of Oto's children. I could glimpse the thin, dark line of blood drying on his cheek. The next time I stole a glance behind me was when a team of masked Anbu intercepted us en route to Konoha. By then, he was out of sight.
Sakura-sensei didn't turn around to face us until we arrived at the gates. Even then, I thought that her green eyes looked over-bright and glassy. I had the feeling that she had kept them on the road home throughout the journey back. I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but she dropped us all off at the hospital with the promise to check in on Makoto after reporting to the Hokage.
A medic-nin kicked me and Kurei out of the room so that she could patch up our teammate without distractions. We were sitting glumly in the hallway outside the room when the last person I expected to see thundered past, swinging an offensively neon-green bucket.
He had hurtled past me before it registered. His shoes skidded over the tiled floor. "Yukina-neesan, you're back!"
My eyes narrowed. Obvious statement: check. Furtive sideways glance: check. Useless hiding of hands (and bucket) behind his back: check. I knew these symptoms. Heck, he'd learnt them all from me. "What are you doing here?"
"I, uh, I was gonna give this to my friend. Wasn't at all the usual places, so I thought I'd try here." Reluctantly, he showed me the bucket's contents.
I blinked. Sometimes my brother's thought processes were so bizarre that they robbed me of speech. "Um…Eiji. First of all, you'd better learn to keep your stray pet out of the hospital. Animals aren't allowed here…Hey! I'm not done!" He had started scampering down the hallway, bucket in hand. I called after him. "And you'll make your pet sick!" I glanced at Kurei. "It's probably a cat," I told him. "If he feeds it tomatoes…"
Just then, the medic emerged. "All done. You guys can go in and talk to your teammate, but remember, he needs to rest after that."
Battered-looking though he was, Kurei smirked. "Come on, Yukina. Let's check up on bug-boy." So I left my worries and suspicions outside the door and walked into Makoto's room, where the rest of Team Four was waiting.