Naruto ran as fast as his limbs would carry him, frantically pouncing across the forest branches with one name racing through his mind - Sakura. He had to help her; he had to get to her in time before the ANBU could finish her off . . . Although he wasn't sure what how he could stop shinobi from his own village without appearing to be an fugitive himself. Maybe if he told them he was under orders to cancel the mission, they would return? No, that wouldn't work. ANBU were trained not to quit a mission until ordered via messenger bird by the very person who sent them. And as for fighting them . . . he hated the idea of it. These ANBU were his peers, his comrades, his friends. He wasn't worried about getting hurt, but of hurting them. It might prove to be his only option.
He didn't notice when it began to drizzle, and then pour, then thunder all around him. It was a traveler's typical welcome into the Rain. When the trees began to thin too far to be leapt between, Naruto jumped the long distance to the forest floor below, slipping on the muddy turf when his feet hit the ground. He hissed in pain as his chin cracked against the earth.
He pulled himself to his feet and meant to take off again, but froze mid-step. Standing right before him in the downpour was a tall figure dressed in black and red, wearing a beggar's straw hat. It was the man whose face Naruto had seen just once before, but had afterwards seen over again and again in his dreams. The man calmly watched Naruto rise, looking hardly surprised at the boy's sudden appearance. A powerful and malevolent chakra radiated from him, thickening the air as heavily as the rain.
Naruto stepped backwards, awestruck at the god-like presence before him. Pein's narrowed orange eyes seemed to gaze right through him. His fascinating pierced face had Naruto momentarily frozen to the spot.
"What are you doing here, Naruto?" the man asked. His voice revealed no trace of concern, but simply demanded an answer.
It was eerie to hear Pein say his name, and he remembered that this man once had plans to kill him. Pein had probably known who Naruto was long before he himself had known of Pein. There was no telling, even now, whether the Akatsuki leader would attack him for use of the Kyuubi.
"Why are you alone?"
With a start, the boy remembered his purpose there.
"I'm here because Sakura needs your help!" he shouted, "You're both in danger right now!"
Pein raised an eyebrow. "Danger? What are you talking about?"
"Sakura's been marked as a deserter and a team of ANBU was sent to kill her! They're on their way to your hideout."
"How do you know that?"
"I overheard some elders talking about it. There's at least one team on their way, but they don't know I'm here."
"I don't understand," he deadpanned. "Have you left your village, too?"
"No!" Naruto growled, "I would never do something like that!"
"Then, Naruto, what reason on earth would you have for telling me something like this? If you're a loyal citizen of your village, and of your country, what you're doing is treason."
Naruto bared his teeth in anger. The man was incredibly frustrating, trying to provoke as like he was. He felt the savage fervor of the Kyuubi rising within him. The beast had woken up in all the excitement, and stirred and whispered as it felt the boy's rage. Naruto just hoped Pein wasn't trying to wake the monster, but it certainly seemed likely. He tried to calm down and focus.
"I know this could be treason, that doesn't matter now. This is about Sakura."
"Sakura is safe where she is, Naruto. One team of Fire Country shinobi won't be a problem, especially considering the company she's in."
Naruto felt sick thinking of those other killers. How dare that man leave her alone with them? Who knows what they were capable of?
"You don't have any faith in Sakura's abilities as a kunoichi, do you?" Pein said. "I happen to think Sakura could handle herself nicely in battle. I've been training her myself."
"You've been training her?" Naruto couldn't hide his shock. It seemed to be beneath a man as powerful as him to train someone at Sakura's fighting level. This Pein was not only frustrating, but he was inexplicably confusing as a person. Maybe he really had taught her well, but Naruto realized he had yet to tell the man the worst part.
"I don't think you don't understand what's going on here. It's not just Konoha that's got you high up in the bingo books, right? Well, Konoha now knows where your hideout is, and I think they've told the other countries. There's no telling how many ninja could be headed there. There could even be an ambush for her the minute she steps outside!"
He half-expected some emotion to seep through the man's composed expression. But of course, there was nothing. Naruto supposed the man was realizing that, even if Sakura could fight off a team head-on, she wouldn't stand a chance against an attack of that magnitude. Even with the members of Akatsuki at her side, there was no telling how it would end.
Pein examined the boy's panicked face. "So why are you telling me this? You know what my plans have been with you Jinchuuriki from the start. And Sakura's a deserter, like you pointed out. She's with me now. Why would you try to save us?"
"Because, Sakura's my friend no matter what she's done, or what company she keeps. She's so important to me . . . and if you're important to her, well, I have to try and do what I can. Right now we've gotta get to her!"
"You're serious about this, then. You want to help us, against your own village?"
Naruto nodded determinedly.
"Then, let's go."
He took off suddenly at top speed, and Naruto followed close behind. They had a long thirty minutes' run, during which time the boy mused about where fate had led him. Not only was he about to fight a team of loyal Konoha shinobi, but he was running alongside the infamous Pein – the murderer who had hurt Gaara, taken Sasuke's eyes, and who had killed the man that Naruto once thought of like a father . . . He glanced over at the man's stone-like face and focused eyes.
Naruto felt himself fortunate that he could control his emotions, push aside his anger, for Sakura's sake.
"Come on, Sakura! If you don't attack soon, I'll get bored and kill you!"
The blue-haired kunoichi whirled around Sakura in the form of a thousand paper bats, striking at her occasionally with tiny paper cuts that did little more than nick her skin.
Konan's voice laughed all around her as Sakura grumbled amidst the swarm. She knew that Konan was kidding, but she had to admit, the woman's technique was almost flawless. Her skills in taijitsu were useless here, and she had never been so good at ninjitsu. It was only using genjitsu that she had been able to stop Konan last time, but she needed her to be in her true form before she could catch her in it.
"Ow!" A bat collided with her face, and Sakura grabbed at it angrily. She held the little faux beast in her hands and watched it wriggle and flap helplessly. If only she could hit all of them at once . . .
As the swarm circled faster and closed in around her, Sakura was forced to duck and race through it, hands guarding her face. They chased her into the forest. She pulled out a string of kunai and threw it at the bats, pinning several of them to the trees. They simply split in half and came after her again.
Sakura began picking up speed, stopping only when she could no longer hear the flapping of paper wings. She stopped to catch her breath and look around her, but the swarm had disappeared.
She glanced around her for a clue as to where Konan was hiding. She took a deep breath and tried to locate any faint chakra signature nearby. There it was; a slight movement from behind that tree. No, wait, there was something far across the clearing, too. Maybe a clone? Sakura drew out a kunai.
A sudden, sharp pain in her neck. She raised her hand to feel a thin senbon embedded deeply in her throat, just past the jugular. A very vital nerve spot. Her kunai fell to the ground. Sakura froze and stared blankly ahead for a moment. Most of her side had already gone numb, and she could feel her mind slowing down. That had been a very precise shot, meant to immobilize her by destroying her nerve connections.
It wasn't Konan's style to use senbons. Was she really trying to kill her?
She slowed her breathing and tried not to panic, but her knees felt weak beneath her. There was very little she could do at the moment, exposed in the open as she was. She raised her working hand to pull out the senbon, and felt another strike her wrist. Her hand fell down limply at her side.
"Konan?" she whispered weakly to the forest. "What are you doing?"
At that moment, the blue-haired woman herself rose above the treetops not far off, flying on pure white paper wings. She was dodging a surge of shuriken thrown at her from below. Just like her nickname claimed, she really did look like an angel, with wide wings flapping gracefully as she moved. She was frowning down at the source of the shuriken.
She saw Sakura frozen in the clearing. She twisted and disappeared into a thousand tiny butterflies, headed straight for the girl.
"Konan!" Sakura cried, "What's going on?"
Just as the butterflies neared her, a jet of water burst through the trees and hit the swarm. It doused the little things until they fell to the ground, wings too damp to fly. They molded together to form the woman once more. She continued to run over to Sakura, who had slumped to her knees in the dirt.
Konan pulled out the senbon in her neck and examined her, but the damage had already been done. Sakura could hardly move, and it would be a long time until she would regain all her strength back without healing.
"This is the Konoha ANBU," said a male voice behind the woman.
Konan whirled around to see two masked figures in black, both wielding long katanas.
"Give up now, and we may let you live."
Two more leapt down behind them.
Sakura felt like crying. She never thought it would come to this – fighting her own old teammates! But she was thankful she didn't recognize any of the masks. If she did, it might have made this even harder. Feeling some feeling come back into her body, she pulled out the second senbon and stood up shakily.
"Sakura," Konan said, "I have to make sure I know who's side you're on."
Was there still any doubt in her mind? "I'm on Pein's side, Konan, along with you."
"Good." She pulled out two short swords. "Then let's show him what we can do."
The two girls stood in fighting positions, back to back. They were outnumbered, but Sakura felt confident in Konan's abilities as well as her own. She had been trained by Pein, after all.
The ANBU charged; their movements were mere blurs. Sakura dodged and struck as best she could, but she feared she was too slow now to compete with the likes of ANBU. She surprised herself when her fist connected with someone's side. The masked man went flying into the trunk of a tree.
Sakura hardly had time to feel guilty for the blow when Konan called to her from a few meters away. She glanced over to where the woman was pointing. There were a group of people watching from the trees, their masks and hitae-ate labeled with the different symbols of the Grass Country, the Earth Country, the Mist Country!
The Konoha soldier's sword struck within inches of her face, snapping her back to her own fight. Sakura cursed and dodged the attack, just as she saw another team running over. More followed.
Suddenly, she wasn't so sure they could win this. With Pein still gone, and the other Akatsuki members also away, there wasn't much hope of them making it through this battle.
Sakura threw a punch at a Grass Country shinobi who had tossed a shuriken her way. A kunai sliced her thigh. A katana just missed her ear.
Would it all end here? Would she never see his face again?
Sakura knew she was crying as her own kunai struck an anonymous soldier's arm. They were all faceless to her, they were all good people, who didn't deserve to get hurt. Every time she struck back, she avoided the vital spots and aimed to disarm only, but it was getting harder to hold back as the barrage of attacks strengthened.
She didn't see the soldier who remained in the trees, with a bow pulled taught and a poison-tipped arrow aimed at her heart. The bow was released, and not a second later its target was blocked by the body of another.
Sakura gasped as a splatter of blood hit her. She saw the tip of the arrow poking out the back of the black Akatsuki cloak. The figure sank down to the ground before her.
"No!" Sakura cried out. "What did you do?!"
She had been saved by this sudden act of sacrifice. Konan had stepped in front of the arrow to save Sakura. The weapon now stuck starkly out of her chest.
Sakura dove and pulled the limp body of Konan onto her lap. She called upon her healing chakra, intent on saving her. She knew she was leaving herself completely vulnerable to attack, but she didn't care anymore. Not if it meant Konan had given up her life for her.
In a second, Sakura realized why the wound in the woman's chest wasn't healing.
"Poison," she cried, "I can't heal it!"
Konan's eyes opened and she looked up calmly at Sakura. "It's pointless . . . don't try to save me," she said. "Just . . . make sure you live."
"Konan!" she cried out. "Don't die, please! You can't!"
"Please, just take care of him, sweetie."
Her eyes shut again, and her breathing slowed.
Sakura knew the ANBU around her could attack any second. She supposed, bitterly, it was out of some noble guideline they held that they wouldn't jump her while mourning a comrade. But with Konan gone, what chance did she have? Would she be lucky enough that they would finish her off quickly? Or maybe she would be brought back to the village to be executed there. In front of the very people she had left behind.
Sakura's tears spilled over the woman's pale face. After everything she had been through, it would all end here. It had been foolish to leave Konoha. She would die while Pein was away, continuing his reign of terror. She wasn't able to stop him from doing evil, and now Konan was dying because of her choice. Would she never see his face again?
A shout in the distance. Every head turned.
Down from the trees leapt two figures.
"Pein!" Sakura called. Her heart thrilled at the sight of him. In a second he was beside her. His cloak was gone, yet even without it, his very presence made all their opponents jump back several meters.
The other person, the one wearing an Akatsuki cloak and straw hat covering his face, stood silently next to him. Sakura couldn't tell which member it was. He wasn't tall enough to be Kisame, he wore no mask like Tobi, and he definitely wasn't Zetsu. But the small part of face she could see looked familiar. Who was this new member?
"Your ambush has failed," Pein said loudly to the retreated soldiers. "You can't beat me, you know this. Go back where you came from and I'll spare you."
The shinobi looked at each other, and several signs were made, and they scampered off in groups. They must have known they stood no chance against him. Pein turned around and began to smile at Sakura before his eyes fell to the woman in her lap, blood-soaked and still.
He fell to his knees.
"Konan," he said softly. He took her from Sakura's arms.
"She – she saved me," Sakura stumbled through her tears, "It's poison – I don't know what kind. I can't heal her."
He nodded. "Konan, look at me," he said.
The woman's eyes slid open, looking around before focusing on Pein's face. She smiled.
"We can't help you," he said. "Konan, you sacrificed your life to save her. Thank you."
He took her hand.
"Pein . . ." she said slowly, "I've spent my whole life helping you reach your goals . . . I even wanted to die defending you. But, I guess this is just as well . . . you need her, more than you needed me. Pein . . ."
"I've always known I could never repay you for everything you've done for me."
"Please, Pein, just once . . .?" She seemed to be silently asking him a question long overdue.
He lowered his head to her and placed a soft kiss on her lips.
"Goodbye, Konan," he said, but her eyes had glazed over, looking blankly towards the sky.
Pein gently closed her eyelids with one hand, and placed her on the ground. He stood up, and Sakura dove into his arms.
"I'm so sorry!" she cried into his shirt, "This is all my fault!"
"It's not," Pein soothed, "Her actions were of her own choice."
"But I'm the reason they came out here! And they'll come after us again - it'll never end! It's because I left that people are getting hurt and killed. It's my fault she's dead - I don't want anyone else getting hurt because of me! I can't go on like this!"
Pein wrapped his warm arms around her and let her cry into his chest.
"Shh. It's not your fault what happened to Konan," he said again, but she could hear the odd hint of sadness in his voice. He sobs lessened until she had caught her breath again.
"It's just not fair," she claimed, "We finally have each other now, but everyone keeps trying to tear us apart. First my friends, then my country, and now it seems the entire world is demanding we split up, or die. Why can't they leave us be?"
The painful fear now settled into something hollow within her, like a truth she knew all along and finally accepted.
"Pein, I have to go turn myself in," she said determinedly.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "You can't do that."
"I have to! It's the only way to end this! Don't you understand? They'll never stop chasing us. We can only hide for so long. And then, they'll find us, and hurt you! I can't let that happen. I can't . . ."
Pein pulled back to look at her. He wiped away her tear with a touch and kissed her lips.
"Princess. Listen to me. If we could go somewhere where they couldn't chase us, would you do it?"
"But, what about your work? I can't tell you to drop everything you have here . . ."
"You mean like you did? Of course I can. Actually, I already did."
Sakura paused. "What?"
"The past few days, I've been closing my deals with clients, cutting off ties, and settling all the affairs with my country. I planned on leaving it in Konan's hands . . . but they will have to carry on without either of us."
"I don't get it. What are you saying?"
He smiled. "There's a lot more to the world than just the Fire and Rain," he said. "In my work, I've made connections with the countries across the ocean. Most people don't know it, but there's a lot of land beyond the sea. We can go there, Sakura. We can leave behind everything that's been trying to tear us apart."
Sakura watched him speak with tears in her eyes. It sounded unreal. To leave everything she knew, for a place she'd never heard of? That meant never seeing Konoha again. She'd never again see Tsunade, Ino, Sasuke, or Naruto . . . Naruto!
That's whose face she could barely see under the straw hat. She looked over to her second rescuer, who had taken off the hat and tossed aside the cloak. He now stood awkwardly watching them, in a silence very unlike himself.
"Naruto," she whispered. "You came to save me, too?"
The boy scratched his head and smiled wide, the way only he could. "The things we do for you, Sakura."
She ran to him and threw her arms around him. "I never thought I'd see you again. But how did you get here? And why were you wearing that uniform?"
"Well, to make a long story short, I heard that you'd be attacked. I ran into Pein on my way up here to help. Fortunately, that guy had the sense to realize that if ANBU saw me here, I'd get into some real big trouble. So he lent me his stuff."
Sakura laughed in relief. "Naruto, I swear for a minute, I thought you'd left Konoha too."
"Well, that would have been three for three, huh? Kakashi would have had a conniption."
She smiled, knowing that if she left with Pein, she would miss this boy more than anyone in the village.
"Naruto, Pein said we can leave . . ." She searched his eyes for some sort of acknowledgement.
The boy nodded determinedly. "If I had it my way, you'd be back in Konoha right now. But it's not up to me. Do what makes you happy, Sakura-chan."
She gave him another fierce hug. "Thank you, Naruto. I – I don't know what to say. You've been my best friend for so many years. You've saved my life more times than I can count, and – damnit, I'm gonna miss you so much!"
He forced a smile but the tears still slipped through. "Sakura-chan, I'll miss you even more. You're my best friend, too."
"Will you tell everyone I said goodbye? And to look after themselves. And tell Tsunade and Kakashi I said thank you for everything they've don't for me."
"I will. We'll think of you all the time. Hey, you - Pein,"
He walked over to the man who waited patiently behind her. Naruto stuck out his hand.
Pein looked at it, and Sakura held her breath for fear he'd ignore it. Instead, he shook Naruto's hand.
"Pein," the boy said, "I'm trusting you to take care of her over there. You better keep her safe from now on. I can't be there to help you out."
The man gave a small smile. "I owe you for helping me, Naruto. In fact, considering all I've done to hurt you . . . you turned out to be a person I'm happy for meeting. I can see why Sakura is so fond of you."
Sakura smiled watching them. It was eerie to see them talk like this, as if they knew each other well. But after all, they had worked together to get to her, and Pein had even found a way to save Naruto's status in the village.
"She's fonder of you," the boy smirked.
"Could you . . . see that Konan gets a true burial?"
Naruto nodded. "I'll bring her somewhere she'll be found."
He turned to Sakura again.
"Sakura-chan, nothing's changed. You'll still find a home in Konoha. If you want to come back, you have all your friends on your side."
"Thank you, Naruto." She kissed him on the cheek.
Pein took her hand, reminding Sakura that it was time to leave.
"Ready to go, princess?"
She took a deep breath and nodded, feeling braver knowing she had him by her side again, and this time it was for good. With one last look at the boy she had spent all her childhood with, she took off into the trees with the man she was about to spend the rest of her life with.
It seemed unfathomable that a man like Pein had ever needed something, or someone. She wanted to always be with him, and now, after everything they'd been though, it seemed that that wish could finally become a reality. Every waking moment with him would make her happier than any lifetime spent in the shallow confines of Konoha.
She didn't know what would happen once they reached the land across the ocean. She didn't know where they would live, or what they would do. She didn't even know if she would ever see Konoha again. But what she did know, was that she and Pein would have to take this new journey one step at a time.
And now, they had all the time in the world.
A/N: Wow. I can't believe it's over! After all the time I've spent on this story, I'm gonna miss writing about those two. Thank you all for sticking with me this far, and thank you so much for all your wonderful, inspiriting reviews. I hope you all enjoyed it. Please let me know what you thought!!