"Did you hear? They've finally caught one!"
"I know! He's being brought back in for questioning immediately."
Haruno Sakura paused in the hallway to hear the nurses' conversation. Leave it to the hospital staff to gossip about things no one other than a shinobi should hear. Doctors and nurses in the Konoha hospital sometimes heard things they shouldn't, since they had to know the specifics of how a shinobi patient got hurt. But they did tend to get careless, and that could mean the leaking out of important secret information. Today, however, Sakura had heard of no new news, so her curiosity got the best of her. Pretending she wasn't a hypocrite, she leaned against the door to hear more clearly.
"It's about time they were discovered. After giving us so many patients, one of them was bound to get hurt eventually."
"It was Jiraiya, wasn't it? The one who captured him?"
"That's what I heard. He was up in the north looking for Akatsuki after all."
That was enough. As a head medic at the hospital, Sakura couldn't let the nurses speak freely about that S-class group. She stepped into the doorway to shout at them, reaching for the doorknob.
"I heard that whoever it was, was a really high criminal. He apparently knows the whereabouts of every missing-nin alive."
Sakura froze, hand still touching the doorknob. Her mind whispered one name to her. Sasuke. Someone was being brought to Konoha who knew where Sasuke was? Her hand slowly released the knob and she took a step back from the door, hitting her back on the opposite wall. She could still hear the faint voices.
"That's amazing. How do you know?"
"I overheard Shizune speaking with that, uh, Hatake Kakashi about it. By the way, don't tell anyone besides Takya or Misurame about this. This is top secret stuff, after all."
"Of course." The woman laughed.
The door opened and the nurses stood face to face with a paled Sakura, her eyes looking past them. She focused on them suddenly and stood up straight, green eyes flashing like her usual self.
"You two know you're not allowed to talk about shinobi business you hear! If I catch you one more time, I'm going straight to Tsunade about this!"
That sent the nurses scuttling down the hallway in haste. Sakura fell back against the wall and rubbed her forehead. This was incredible. After five years missing, Sasuke had still never been caught. He was presumed dead by some. Others figured he might have joined Akatsuki after killing his brother. Naruto had gone to find him, as he promised, and he did, on his first search with the others of their 8 man team. But Sasuke had beaten him to an inch of his life and left him to die with the parting words, "Don't try to follow me again. If you do, I'll kill you as well as everyone you know and love."
Sakura had been the one to revive Naruto when the team found him. The emptiness in Naruto's eyes when he told her to give up searching for him. . . those eyes still haunted her dreams, ending each one with those horrible words. She didn't give up at first, she didn't stop hoping he'd come back, imagining she would see him walk through those village gates again. The first year, after Naruto left, was a blur of tears and loneliness without a word from either Naruto or Sasuke. The second was easier as she found the ease of pushing herself into her work to pass the time, even passing the Chuunin exams her second try. But the third year, when halfway through, Naruto's return meant a revival of bad memories and a broken promise, her feeble faith in Sasuke ever returning began to wane. That year, she succeeded in pushing him out of her mind, finally forgetting all the pain.
Pain. It was all Sasuke gave to her, from the moment she met him until years after he left. What good could ever come from that pain? And now, all that grief came rushing back to her in one fell swoop, bringing her to tears from the simple gossip of someone who might know him. Sakura knew she was not over him completely, but to be this frail about him . . . She knew it was a stupid weakness, one that she could never confide in with Tsuande.
Tsunade! Could she tell her what was going on? Sakura wiped her eyes and took a few breaths to collect herself. She wouldn't let Tsuande know she had cried.
Footsteps down the hallway. Sakura swiped her hair behind her ear to see clearly. Shizune was running toward her, clipboard in hand and the other one waving her down.
"Sakura!" she called as she came to a stop before her. "Sakura, I need you to help get every Jounin on the look out."
She shoved the clipboard into Sakura's hand. It was a hastily written list of all the Jounin in Konoha, complete with an exploding note attached to the bottom for quick detonation. Shizune had crossed out several names and circled others.
"You need to get everyone here on border patrol STAT. They can find Izumo and Kotetsu for details. The circled are those that are to go to Tsunade immediately to group up and locate Jiraiya and subject. Do those first. And no written messages, the situation is too delicate for them."
"So it's true then?" Sakura asked. "There's an Akatsuki member being brought here?"
Shizune paused from her harried rant and seemed to look at Sakura for the first time. "Have you been crying?"
"Nevermind that and no! Is it true?"
"Yes, it's true, but I don't know how you knew. Tell every Jounin only that information and get started now! Jiraiya should be within a few hours journey to the village."
"Yes, ma'am." Sakura headed for the door while she skimmed over the list of circled Jounin. There was Kakashi, of course, then Tenzo, Gai, and Shikaku. It was a good team, one that was used frequently for high – risk missions. Shikaku had wit, Gai had strength, Tenzou had technique, and Kakashi had all these plus experience.
Sakura couldn't help but feel proud of her old sensei, who, it was said, could surpass Tsuande as the strongest shinobi in the village. Kakashi, of course, always denied this, sometimes mumbling that Tsuande didn't have to do much to make him surrender. (Sakura only recently got the joke.)
She decided to find Kakashi first, then Gai, since their houses were both in the heart of the village. Tenzo's home was pretty isolated in a section of woods, and Shikaku lived out on the Nara property, of course.
"Sakura!" Shizune called out from behind her. Sakura turned.
"I forgot to tell you – go and see Ibiki in the Tower when you're done. He wants to speak with you."
Sakura groaned inwardly. Ibiki. She should have guessed. That man still made her shiver, even after working together on numerous occasions. However, on those 'occasions', she was usually hired to "clean up the mess," as he referred to it. To Sakura, it was called healing the near-fatal and sometimes revolting injuries prisoners received from Ibiki's interrogations. To go and see him meant that he wanted her to help keep the Akatsuki criminal from death. So that he could feel the pain of dying again and again, until he gave up whatever information Ibiki wanted. It was horrible work, and it was certainly enough to make Sakura avoid the man whenever possible. Luckily for her, he was a bit of a recluse anyway.
Reaching the door, Sakura tucked the clipboard under her arm and formed a few seals. In a puff of smoke, three other Sakuras stood next to her, awaiting orders. She assigned each one a Jounin and a short message. In a flash, all four Sakuras leapt away to different parts of the village to deliver the summons.
Ten minutes later, four Konoha Jounin were on their way to intercept the Sannin Jiraiya on his way back from the Rain Country. Kakashi led the team with his dog-nin Pakkun, who was currently sniffing out Jiraiya's scent.
The group traveled in silence until Gai picked up his speed to meet the silver-haired shinobi. He spoke in a surprisingly quiet voice that he reserved only for missions.
"Kakashi," his face was grim, "Tsunade never let on which one of the Akatsuki members the old man caught."
"That's right," Kakashi replied lazily.
"You were closest with him. Did he tell you anything about who he was looking for when he left?"
Kakashi scratched his head. "That was what, ten, eleven months ago? I can't remember that far back."
Gai's face reddened and he looked ready to explode. Instead, he burst out laughing. "You must be joking, my rival!" he shouted.
So much for being quiet, Kakashi mused. "Jiraiya never told me where he was going. It was top secret information. Only Tsunade knew, and she had no reason to tell any of us. We'll just have to take what information is required."
"That doesn't seem to be helping our preparations," Shikaku replied from several yards behind. Kakashi had forgotten his excellent hearing. "The subject has been restrained, but we don't know how dangerous he is, nor could we have made any arrangements for his own abilities."
Tenzo glanced over at Shikaku. "We do know who it isn't, simply from Jiraiya's information on the group. Uchiha Itachi is dead, So is Deidara and Sasori, Hidan and Kakuzu. That leaves Hoshigaki Kisame as the only known member, and Jiraiya said there were at least four others."
"Most likely," Shikaku responded, "these others are stronger than those members we have dealt with, considering they have not been sent to do the dirty work of the group. Their abilities are probably specialized and we can assume they have much battle experience."
"Shikaku, everyone, calm down," came the lazy voice from the front. "You're acting like we're off to kill a member. You forget he's already been caught. We're simply escorting Jiraiya and a subject back to the village. Simple as that."
Gai nodded and the group grew comfortably silent, each man thinking about who had been captured and what it meant for the shinobi of Konoha. An enemy hostage could mean anything from a similar retaliation from the group, or even an open attack.
They had traveled less than an hour when Pakkun interrupted the silence. "We're close," he said gruffly, his nose in the air. "He's got a man with him, late twenties, severely injured. Rain country, I think, from his smell."
Kakashi nodded and thanked Pakkun. In a few minutes, they slowed and leapt to the ground. This part was the most dangerous one, where one ninja had to prove his identity to the other before a presumptuous attack was made.
"He's a quarter mile away," said the dog.
Kakashi cupped his hands and made a distinct whistling noise that raised and dropped pitch like a message. A moment's silence, then a similar sound responded. They went back and forth for a few minutes until Kakashi gave the signal to keep moving.
The team walked forward until the old man was in view, waiting for their arrival. He sat on a felled trunk in a small clearing of trees. He was battle worn, but seemed to be resting but for his eyes, which constantly flickered to each teammate. His clothes were a bit tattered and stained with blood, but overall, he looked to be healthy.
"Kakashi, quick identity check." Jiraiya stood up and thought for a second. "What chapter of what book did I dedicate directly to your wonderful encounter in the Waterfall country?"
"That would be Icha Icha Tactics, Chapter 17, of course."
"Correct." Both men looked to be on the verge of a smile, but that would have been exceedingly inappropriate for on a mission.
"Now," Jiraiya started, "You probably are wondering exactly why you're here."
"We know why we're here!" Gai shouted. "You have caught a high member of Akatsuki alive!"
"You knew?" Jiraiya was amazed.
"The whole village knows," Kakashi said. "The question is, who?"
"Ah," the old man seemed happy to still have a card up his sleeve. He limped around the fallen trunk and picked up a body in black, tossing it to the ground at their feet.
The team quickly assessed the damage. The man did fit Pakkun's description. He was not wearing an Akatsuki robe, but a black mesh shirt and black pants. His entire body was cut up, and he had a gaping wound on his stomach revealing red organs that threatened to pour out at any time. There was a chunk of flesh missing from his leg, and his right forearm was mangled and broken, its bone sticking out at an odd angle. The man's face was pierced all over, even the bridge of his nose. On his forehead there rested an Amegakure forehead protector, with a slash through the Rain symbol.
"Who is he?" Shikaku asked.
"His name is Pein, and he was the leader of Akatsuki."