Novocain for the Ninja Soul
Written by: Mikami
WARNINGS: Graphic violence, profanity and sex. These are adult people doing adult things. Get lost, kiddies. You have been warned.
Chapter 6: The Bloodied Scent
Baby's got a problem
Tries so hard to hide
Got to keep it on the surface
Because everything else is dead on the other side
— No, You Don't, Nine Inch Nails
The sounds of the forest penetrated Sakura's very consciousness as she slid stealthily through the undergrowth. The wind whispered past her cheeks, lifting the large, flat leaves of the bush she was crouching behind. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Hinata at the ready near a fallen tree, concealed by its massive upturned roots. Naruto was stationed above amongst the branches, almost ten feet away and acting as sentinel.
Sakura's hand moved smoothly down her leg to retrieve a kunai from its holster. Dead ahead through the rustling leaves, she was sure the ANBU weren't alone. Her grip tightened fiercely on the hilt, breath coming in slowly but quietly, as her jade eyes searched again for that one peculiar movement. Turning momentarily to Hinata, she motioned once with a silent flick of her hand.
Hinata crept downwards and around the nearest root until she was settled right under the overturned tree base. Three shuriken rested between her fingers as she spotted the target in the distance.
Overhead, Naruto had already summoned four of his clones and sent them forward through the tree branches. Each one formed a four-point radius to surround the movement below.
The signal to attack was undelivered as the target struck the team first.
A puff of smoke exploded in the trees, and then a second one rapidly afterward as Naruto's clones were destroyed like mere obstacles in a dangerous path.
"Shit," the ANBU commander exclaimed, creating agile hand seals for ten more.
The target flew downward, leaving a large trail of smoke in his wake as more of Naruto's clones were diminished.
Hinata met him head on, leaping from her camouflage throwing two handfuls of lightning fast shuriken against their attacker. The first handful was flung effortlessly in scattered directions by a glinting sword. The second handful was dodged cleanly as he swept behind a thick tree trunk.
Sakura wasted no time in launching forward once Hinata had taken aim. Appearing behind the target's tree, Sakura roared and threw a deadly kick in the attacker's direction. He barely swerved his body around her leg and watched the kunoichi's shin guard connect lethally with the tree trunk. An unpleasant groan came from the base as branches above shook deafeningly. It teetered dangerously to one side before crashing to the ground, decimating everything in its path.
"Motherfucker!" the would-be attacker swore loudly. His dark eyes widened in shock, looking back and forth from the fallen tree to the petal-haired kunoichi in front of him.
"Sakura, you almost fucking killed me!" Kiba exclaimed, flinging the tattered blue scarf off his head.
"Kiba!" Sakura's hand flew to her mouth as she ran to him.
Her comrade had hit the ground and rolled quickly to the side to avoid being crushed by the tree. He accepted her hand and was helped to his feet, just as they were both joined by Hinata and Naruto.
"Kiba, are you alright?" Hinata asked worriedly, sheathing her kunai.
"Yeah, I'm fine—other than the fact that I was almost sent to hell," he replied.
"Not yet," Naruto shook his head. "Besides, it's your own damn fault. If you were just holding steady like someone smart, we wouldn't have wasted any time and just found you."
"I had to be sure in case I was being tracked," Kiba said. "I've been stranded out here for over forty-eight hours after I sent the signal."
Hinata peered behind Kiba, noticing his ever-present partner was missing. "Where's Akamaru?"
"He's guarding the place. I told him I'd go ahead and scout, and check the alert seals I've set up in this area if someone came around."
"It's not safe to assume they've fully let you off the hook. It's possible that you're still being followed," Sakura suggested.
Kiba nodded and eyed the path through the brush straight ahead. "Yeah. We should take off."
The four Konoha ANBU worked their way quickly through the bushes, encountering more uprooted trees and treacherous rock pathways. They followed Kiba, who took the head of the team, and led them past a bubbling ravine. The forest appeared to become thicker on their way north; they found themselves seeking solace by flying through the branches rather than being caught by the undergrowth below. The arms of trees beckoned the ANBU deeper into its dense recesses and toward the leaves that almost blotted out the sun. Now and again, they would pass an eerie streak of light, reminding them that without Kiba's guidance, losing their way was a surefire possibility.
Sakura was anxious as she leapt the next branch. Staring past Hinata and Naruto's heads, she forced herself to hold off shooting a barrage of questions in transit. She needed to know everything that happened and prolonging the wait of such knowledge exasperated her. Seeing Kiba reveal himself in such a way planted a seed of fear in her chest and it was rapidly growing when she sensed that he was truly alone. Ino's chakra signature was nonexistent and so was Neji's.
When the team slowed their pace, the atmosphere was darker and very little light made it to the forest floor. As Kiba led them to the ground, straight ahead they all discovered a derelict hut situated beside a small, narrow waterfall. As they approached, they saw now that the structure their comrade used for sanctuary appeared to be falling apart. The wall nearest to the water looked constantly sodden and the beams above the door looked to be carrying its own ecosystem of insects. Inside it smelled of mildew and damp air.
The team shuffled inside one by one. Kiba was the last to enter, shutting the door tightly and placing a seal on the inside to mask their chakra from any oncoming presence. They were swallowed by darkness until Kiba trudged over to the far end to light a small lantern—the last of his previous supplies. It was set on a rickety table, which was the only piece of furniture in the room.
Akamaru trotted over to meet them, whimpering as he arrived at Kiba's side. The canine understood the new situation but was anxious about what was going to unfold. He turned his head toward the three man team and licked Hinata's hand when she offered him a greeting.
"I'd offer you guys seats but…" he said, surveying the squalid interior of the one room hut.
"Kiba, what happened?" Sakura asked him.
"We already know the mission failed," Naruto added. "Where's Ino and Neji?"
The look on his face was enough to make that same sick fear rise in Sakura's stomach. Kiba's eyes were downcast, staring somberly into the dim lantern light as if he was mourning its dying glow. Then, he shifted his gaze to the far corner, nearest to the window, which was bolted shut. Below the rotting shutters lay a motionless figure, encased in a black body bag.
"Ino's over there," Kiba said quietly.
Sakura felt Hinata's presence right behind her. "Sakura…" she said.
It was unreal. Yamanaka Ino, comrade, rival and friend, was supposed to be invincible. The headstrong blonde who was outspoken, defiant and blunt to a fault couldn't have met her demise; it was impossible that a woman so vivacious and strong could have passed in mere moments.
Sakura's fist clenched, her expression becoming hard as she tried to hold back the sorrow seeping into her bones. The harder her nails dug into her palms, Hinata grasped her hand to offer her support. Sakura was silently thankful for her comrade's quiet strength and she turned her head slightly to see Hinata give her a saddened smile.
Naruto's gaze bore into the lifeless figure on the other side of the room as if he didn't believe it was a shell of the smarmy yet spirited ninja. He didn't look at Sakura, hating the way unhappiness marred her face during tragedy. He glanced at Kiba instead, who seemed to carry the burden of guilt.
"And Neji?" Sakura asked faintly. A hole was ready to open in her gut. She managed to fix her attention above Ino's body, deathly afraid of discovering another body beside it.
"Gone," Kiba replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Konoha forehead protector. Tangled within the brown cloth were pieces of bandage, dirty and ripped.
"The plan was going swell," he began, placing Neji's abandoned hitai-ite on the table. "We tailed that bastard Fukao all fucking day and found out he had a random dinner planned that wasn't on his schedule. We were good to get the information about his 'other' business of trafficking people. So it made sense that Ino's job was to steal his body for a bit to pump his associates for the goods."
Naruto watched Kiba shake his head as a cynical smile ghosted his face. He reached down to run a disconsolate hand over Akamaru's back. His canine partner tried to soothe him by licking his wrist.
"I was down there with Ino, making sure that everything went smoothly. She had a camera on her while Neji stayed in the room doing surveillance."
"So you did get the recording," Naruto stated.
The blond ANBU commander caught a small disk tossed to him by Kiba.
"The mission didn't completely fail," he said.
"Do Waterfall authorities have the footage?" Hinata said. "All we heard from Tsunade was that the client was dissatisfied."
"Waterfall has their panties in a twist because Fukao isn't dead, but they do have a copy of the camera footage. After I lost Ino, me and Akamaru headed back to the rendezvous point at the Pearl Inn. I told Akamaru to stay with her while I went after Neji. But before I left, I made sure to make another copy of the disk to keep on file. I took the original with me because the orders were to get it to Waterfall fast."
Kiba walked around the table and leaned against it with his arms crossed. He momentarily glanced at the fading lantern.
"It wasn't that hard to track Neji, even without Akamaru. Fukao must've made a getaway in a vehicle and Neji followed him on his own. By the time I arrived, the place was empty but I was sure something else happened. Aside from the asphalt being disturbed, the only thing left was his forehead protector. No blood, no mask, no other trace."
"Then he probably isn't dead," Naruto declared. "But it doesn't make any sense. Fukao would've wanted his assassin killed on sight."
"And I could've discovered a body," Kiba added. "His disappearance was mind-fuck and the transmission between us was already dead. I scanned the area as much as I could but I had to head back into the city to hand over the footage."
"How did you end up in this place?" Sakura asked, eyeing the ragged bandages still attached to Neji's forehead protector.
"It was still a huge risk dropping off the disk. When I left it with the officers, I got the feeling I was being watched, so I went back to the Pearl. I grabbed the supplies and the disk copy while Akamaru carried Ino. Then I knew for sure we were being followed. We were attacked again and the laptop got damaged in transit. Still, we were lucky to lose them in the forest. By then I was able to send the distress signal out before the laptop died completely."
"And Waterfall must have relayed their dissatisfaction of the mission back to Tsunade sometime afterward," Hinata concluded.
Sakura walked to the table and set down the team equipment she was carrying. Pulling out a working laptop, she looked back at Naruto and said, "So let's see it."
Naruto handed her the disk after she made quick work of booting up the system and inserting it into the side slot. The glow from the screen cast a harsh glow in the darkness as the ANBU gathered around the table to view the collected mission footage.
There was a second or two of white noise before the video skipped to a scene that had a view of the lavish dinner table. The ANBU understood that Ino had previously invaded the businessman's body and was having dinner with two of his associates. There was minimal static as the video jumped in the middle of the conversation.
Sakura remained unblinking as she watched the camera teeter when Ino lifted her glass of wine. A cold sensation prickled down her back as she set her sights on the pallid, skeletal man who sat directly across the table.
"It turns out the delay we experienced at our major warehouse here had nothing to do with the shipment you have in mind," Ino had said.
"That's good news. I suppose you have cargo for me."
The cold chill seemed to spread through Sakura's system as she heard his smooth, velvet tone. His voice was elegant but the pitch carried with it an underlying danger. Even though the camera was prone to moments of static, his turquoise eyes remained vivid and discomforting. The hypnotic quality in them was morbidly entrancing. The rest of his face was pale and gaunt with sharp features. Even if the sides of his severely slicked-back hair looked painted in silver, she couldn't seem to pinpoint an age to him.
"Castor Fraega," uttered Kiba. "The moment I saw the guy, I couldn't help but feel that something would go wrong."
Naruto scrutinized the footage, reading everything he could into the man's passive expression to the way he flashed an eerie mouthful of teeth at Ino.
"In the event that you do, I'll be collecting at Tsuda Harbor at the end of the week…Pier six, nine pm," the pale man said, pulling a card from his inner blazer pocket.
Hinata was surprised when the card was passed to the other man at the table. She had almost forgotten about him due to his silence during the first part of the conversation.
"The other guy is Syvan Vedka," Kiba said, answering Hinata's unspoken question. "He's the surprise guest that Fukao wanted to add to the reservation that night. But it turns out he and Castor already knew each other."
Hinata noted his sandalwood hair and close-set gray eyes—which exchanged glances with Castor as he accepted the card.
"This is all the information you'll need for now," Castor said.
"Chariot?" Syvan's tone sounded perplexed as he stared down at the sliver of paper between his fingers.
Naruto watched carefully when Castor reached for his cellphone and glanced at it quickly before getting up from the table.
"Then I'll see you soon. I won't take no for an answer," was his reply.
"He already knew it wasn't Fukao," Kiba muttered. "That message he got on his cell was just confirmation that they were going to come after us. He probably alerted the rest of Fukao's bodyguards before they even got their food."
The camera jerked from left to right as Ino stood and followed Fukao's two associates out of the restaurant. While the three said their last goodbyes, Castor's eyes seemed to lock with the camera's square vision. His uncanny gaze lingered as if knowing he was being watched.
"If he knew it wasn't the real Fukao, why was he so quick to give up details of the cargo?" Sakura questioned, eyebrows knitting together.
"Beats the shit outta me," replied Kiba. "For all we know the info could have been false."
"You weren't sure and you still gave Waterfall authorities the footage?" Naruto said, on the verge of incredulous.
"Hey, the realization didn't come until after because we were too damn busy trying to stay alive during the ambush," Kiba snapped. "Besides, cargo that pulls into pier six was one of the major areas in the harbor under investigation and this just gives Waterfall more reason to dig it up."
There was one more flickering scene as the camera bounded up and down. Ino's heavy breathing was heard over the video while she ran down the hallway. Up ahead was the door to Fukao's suite. The screen blacked out soon afterward, sending the one room hut into darkness once more.
"They must have gotten to Neji first," Kiba's voice slowed a little. "But more of Fukao's bodyguards came when we got back to the room. Ino switched back into her body but it wasn't fast enough to save herself from that dagger. Fukao escaped while everything was in chaos. Even though we could take them all on, it was more important to complete the mission."
Kiba drifted a few steps toward Ino's motionless body. He gave a short sigh and ran a tired hand through spikes of dark hair.
"Since Ino was out of commission, Neji told me to take her and Akamaru. He said he would finish Fukao off himself. I didn't want to split up."
"And that was the last time you saw him," Hinata stated.
"Yeah," he replied. "Ino was gone soon after that."
Even though there was a possibility that Neji was still alive, it failed to calm the incessant surge in the pit of Sakura's stomach. There were too many unanswered questions and dead conclusions. Every thought was shot down with another perplexing fact as she mulled over all the information that Kiba set out.
"Was there anything else from the evening you remember that's not on the footage?" she asked.
"I was standing at the entrance to the restaurant's private area the entire time. I couldn't hear that much. The only thing I could make out was that Castor might've been giving Syvan a job offer. Couldn't say what, though," said Kiba.
Naruto moved toward the laptop and replayed the footage. He scrolled quickly through the video and once again found the details concerning pier six at Tsuda Harbor.
"It's the end of the week," he said, looking at his teammates urgently. "According to the details Castor gave, he'd be collecting at that time. Since Waterfall already has this information, they're going to be running the investigation today or tomorrow."
"We should be contacting them and paying a visit to the site," Hinata agreed. "Whether or not the details are false, we still should be able to pick something up."
Kiba turned around and strode back to the table quickly, an imploring look on his weary face.
"I need to finish this mission and I want to join the team. If Neji's still alive, you'll need me."
Sakura's hand closed over Neji's forehead protector. Her grip tightened as she struggled to swallow the dry lump lodged in her throat.
"No Kiba," she said, looking over her shoulder at him. "Tsunade's orders were to send you back upon confirming your status. The investigative team was sent to replace the original dispatch, considering the circumstances. Even though I don't see any severe injuries, you're still not in a state to carry on the newest objective."
"That's not fair," Kiba protested, anger seeping into his tone. "I want to kill that fucking guy."
"We gotta have someone bring Ino home," Naruto said firmly. "I'm sure her family would want that."
The uprising in Kiba's chest was cut short and turned cold at the mention of the blonde kunoichi. He craned his head back to the body bag in the corner as a somber wave washed away his prior conviction.
"You've been keeping her safe and I know she's very grateful to you," said Hinata.
After a long pause, Kiba nodded his head in stony silence.
The body of Yamanaka Ino was cremated, as was all ANBU ninja that met their demise on the field. Outside, the darkness that covered the derelict hut swallowed the trail of smoke, as did the thickened forest canopy far above. As Sakura created a genjutsu illusion around their comrade's pyre, the rest of her teammates watched on while the bright flames consumed her body. They all stood tall and unyielding, paying their final respects.
Sakura closed her eyes against the hot moisture that pooled there. She never imagined not fighting beside Ino right before one of them was sent to the grave. It still felt like Ino wasn't really dead; that she was somewhere else and was lively as ever. But her eternal rival was gone now, as was her closest friend.
Inuzuka Kiba departed with Akamaru the following day with Ino's ashes in his possession. The container in his satchel was tightly sealed as he bid farewell to the investigative team. He left with them any unused supplies, hardcopies of the original assignment briefing and the disk footage.
Naruto was in contact with Waterfall authorities before nightfall, confirming the new team's position and the prior mission parameters. As predicted, the raid of pier six in Tsuda Harbor was well underway. There was also a warrant for the arrest of Fukao Gennai; however, the businessman was still flagged as missing.
Upon invitation from the lead investigator, Hatakeda Korin of Waterfall, the ANBU agreed to meet at the site to further discuss the transfer of the mission into their hands and the new objectives that concerned Hyuuga Neji's disappearance.
Tsuda Harbor was north and the ANBU wasted no time in making the journey. The harbor was a large and crowded place; ships of every sort of cargo were pulling in and out. Crates were hoisted, people poured from gangplanks and sailors occupied the many stalls that were scattered around the site. The smell of the salt air mixed with frying fish drew hungry travelers to the nearest bar and restaurant situated on the outskirts of the area.
Pier five and seven were closed, as was the entire distance around it to accommodate Waterfall's investigation of pier six. The crowd was thicker around the barricade as curious onlookers tried desperately to catch any details from the authority on standby.
The ANBU team received little trouble when they approached the barricade. Hatakeda Korin seemed to have the operation running smoothly despite his men scattering left and right, processing their individual duties. Naruto, Hinata and Sakura were let through and led across pier five to wait near the side of pier six.
"I hope he doesn't keep us waiting too long," Hinata said, peering through the commotion.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he did, considering we've technically been keeping them waiting on Fukao's head," Naruto uttered and crossed his arms.
"So the information was right after all," Sakura said. "It's confusing that Castor didn't lie about anything."
Her teammates followed her gaze up ahead and saw multiple cargo containers all lined across the pier. All were already empty. The last of them was being pried open to reveal a little more than a dozen malnourished citizens. They were dirty and appeared sickly, while weakly shielding their eyes from the sun as it hit their pale faces. They shuffled out of the large metal container, being led by aids to the relief tent set up further away.
"This is the biggest one we've come down on," said Hatakeda when he arrived.
"Where do they usually go?" Hinata asked, after giving his hand a shake.
Hatakeda handed some papers over to one of his officers and straightened his leather gloves.
"Crime lords need slaves, but the most lucrative of them all are the young ones. They're sold to the underground brothels and their families never see them again," he said matter-of-factly.
"We've been standing here long enough to see the human cargo and more than a handful of them happen to be missing ninja," Sakura commented.
"Yes, I've noticed the array of hitai-ite flooding into the relief tent," Hatakeda nodded. "But it shouldn't be a surprise. The last of our raids happened in smaller harbors and cargos like these carry all sorts. Some of them come from as far as the Water Country."
The blonde ANBU commander pulled two updated contracts from his orange jacket and handed it to Hatakeda.
"For the records," Naruto said. "Just to verify that part two of the assignment is in new hands. We'll be sending you Fukao's head no later than tomorrow."
Hatakeda barely skimmed the documents before handing them back to Naruto. Slight aggravation took hold of his shoulders. He shook his head minimally and regarded the ninja with seriousness.
"While Konoha was able to deliver in terms of gathering the necessary details for pier six, the more substantial part of the mission was a failure we didn't anticipate. And might I add…exceedingly disappointing," Hatakeda said.
Putting his hands in his trench coat pockets, he continued, "Fukao Gennai is still a powerful man and could bury us for this one attempted incident. This situation has become very fragile and we've decided to run our own hunt. We'll no longer be needing Konoha's services."
"And how much of the footage did you actually pay attention to?" Naruto couldn't help the sudden edge to his voice. "The assignment wasn't a damn walk in the park, considering those two guys at the table. One of them—Castor Fraega—somehow knew about the operation, and because of him we're knee-deep in this shit. You may be dealing with something else that's bigger than Fukao."
Sakura watched Naruto thrust the pages back into Hatakeda's chest.
"We lost two people out of the three that were sent on the mission. One of them, a senior ANBU commander that could still be alive. And because his disappearance is linked to Fukao, that now involves us."
Naruto's firm gaze was unyielding as he stared at the Waterfall's lead investigator.
"Sign the fucking contract," he demanded. "Fukao will die but we need him first to give us a lead."
Hatakeda didn't like the dangerous smirk that spread on the blonde ANBU's face. Looking down at his chest, he grabbed the contract and withdrew a pen from his pocket. Hiding a scowl, he signed the empty line at the bottom of both pages and wordlessly handed one back to Naruto.
"That wasn't so hard was it, Chief," Naruto said, sounding smug.
Hatakeda ignored him and looked back at the crowded relief tent. There was a lengthy pause before he spoke again.
"It won't do you any good to start at the Aihara; we've already been down that avenue with the hotel staff," he mentioned. "The front desk said they saw Fukao return that same night and this was after the suite was already ruined. He was panicking but he wasn't alone."
Sakura and Hinata exchanged glances; the petal-haired kunoichi's hand unconsciously closed around the copy of the footage disk in her pouch.
"The maitre 'd at the Masthead identified the other man as Fukao's associate, Castor Fraega—the pale man on the footage. The front desk claimed the description matches the man that accompanied Fukao back to the hotel."
"Was it only two of them that returned? No others?" Sakura asked.
"One or two bodyguards," Hatakeda replied. "Housekeeping staff say Fukao quickly grabbed what he could of his belongings and dropped a hefty check at the front desk to cover his stay and the damaged suite. They both left, Fukao saying that he was headed to the Earth Country to lay low. We've been watching every road to the western border since then."
"Were you or your people in direct contact with the first team before the mission commenced?" Hinata inquired, retrieving a folded piece of paper from her satchel.
"One short call from the commander of the operation—the one who I assume is MIA. It was just to confirm the drop-off point for the footage."
Hinata handed Hatakeda a black and white copy of Neji's Konoha registration photo. The Waterfall investigator studied it carefully, noticing the absolute stoic expression on the face in front of him. His attention also flickered back up to Hinata, realizing the slight resemblance in appearance.
"I've been here for every opening of those containers on that pier," he said, shaking his head. "And I haven't seen him or anybody that looks like him. His eyes alone would make him stick out."
That same sinking feeling invaded Sakura's chest and she bit the inside of her cheek to try warding it off.
"By sea can't be the only route for this business," she stated.
"Of course not," Hatakeda replied. "There are underground land networks all over the place. However, there are more of them and harder to infiltrate. Most of this town is well-paid to keep their mouths shut."
An incessant ringing sounded off from Hatakeda's coat and he reached inside to pull out his cell phone. Excusing himself with a gesture, he turned away to receive the call.
"This feels like another dead end," Sakura muttered, turning toward Naruto.
"Don't worry about it. The roads are flooded to the west and we should get something soon," he tried to reassure her, brushing her elbow with his hand.
Sakura gave him a forced smile before sweeping her bangs to the side, distractedly. She didn't catch the sliver of suspicion in Naruto's gaze that called questioningly to Hinata beside her. Hinata pretended not to notice the blatant inquiry from the commander at Sakura's odd manner.
"Yes…thank you…" the ANBU heard Hatakeda say urgently into his phone. "Make sure you cover every single exit…"
His head was alert and whatever he was discussing had his full and rapt acknowledgement. He stopped pacing and risked a glance over at the ANBU, noticing with discomfort that he now had their attention. Shoving his cell phone back into his pocket, he called for one of his passing officers and tried to maneuver away.
"Hey!" Naruto called. He motioned for Hinata and Sakura to follow quickly.
The Konoha ninja were right on his heels before there was any sort of protest. Hatakeda whirled around, irritation written clearly on his face.
"Any good reason why you were going to leave us hanging?" Sakura asked sharply.
"I wasn't," he lied.
Naruto snapped, "Just spit it out."
Hatakeda was joined by two officers and he looked at them both, finally relenting.
"Fukao Gennai has just been sighted at a run down Inn just southwest of Earth and Waterfall's border town. My men are apprehending him as we speak."
"Then we'll be leaving—" Naruto started.
"This is OUR investigation," Hatakeda said more forcefully.
An unpleasant surge erupted in his gut the moment he felt a firm grip fall on his shoulder. He looked into the beautiful face twisted with hard demand.
"Tell your men to stand down when we arrive, or there will be many more for you to replace if you don't cooperate with us," Sakura told him sternly. "Give us what we want and you will get yours. Simple."
There was a hefty pause before Hatakeda nodded.
"Alright," he said. "I'm sending in two of my officers in with you to make sure everything goes the way it should."
"Done," Naruto replied. "But if your boys get in the way, don't expect us to cover the damage."
Sakura released Hatakeda's shoulder and stepped toward the ANBU commander and Hinata. Before they departed for the road to the border, Naruto had the audacity to flash the Waterfall investigator a last toothy smile.
"And Chief, we'll be sending you the bill in a couple of hours."
There was a tingle invading Sakura's bloodstream and it ricocheted almost recklessly to every one of her nerve-endings the moment the ANBU approached the dingy Inn in the border town. Just as Hatakeda Korin guaranteed, the place was already housing a small platoon of Waterfall's investigative force.
The ANBU trudged along the beaten path and right up to the two officers that were on standby at the withering double doors. Fortunately, they received minimal acknowledgement before being granted passage into the Inn's foyer.
They could tell a place as rundown as this didn't get that much business and was only reserved for the truly poor or the truly desperate. The latter description made the most sense in Fukao's case.
There was only one floor and the destitute building spanned left and right—the left side had less than seven rooms, and the right side housed the kitchen and dining area. Behind the front desk, two more officers were questioning the owner of the establishment, while the only other boarder was sitting in the dining room facing the same barrage of inquiries.
Past the gaudy carpets and down the hall toward the last room, the ANBU met two of Hatakeda's men that would be joining their much-anticipated session with the businessman.
"We're here for Fukao," Naruto said. "He'll all yours after we're done with him."
"This way, please." One of the officers led them to a door with a missing knob.
The floor creaked dreadfully when they crossed the threshold, filing in one by one into the tiny, faded room. A yellow light bulb flickered on the ceiling and was the only light source for the occupants, as there was no window for natural light to flood through. The room smelled dank and musty, discolored wallpaper was peeling off all four walls to reveal aged plaster and shoddy attempts to fix a gaping hole. The bed sheets reeked of cat urine and the table in the center of the room was clearly lopsided. Fukao Gennai sat behind it, hands tied behind a rotting chair. His eyes widened in fear at the sight of the three ANBU.
"Hatakeda said we were to be present throughout the entire session," the first officer explained, watching Hinata extract a tape recorder from her satchel.
Naruto shrugged, pulling a pot from a dusty shelf and filling it with water from the open bathroom. Sakura moved the table away from Fukao as Naruto brought back the now full pot. On the floor next to the businessman's feet, she placed an old hot plate. After she plugged it into the nearest outlet, Naruto set the pot on.
"We don't really care," the blonde ANBU uttered, straightening up. "But you better have a strong stomach."
The two officers eyed each other, wary of the activities being performed in the room. Hinata had put a fresh tape into the recorder and set it on the table in record mode. A second later, she was bending down to remove the shoes from Fukao's tied feet. A flash of panic shot through his face at the touch of her cold hands and he wriggled uncomfortably in his restraints.
Sakura hung back, watching the frightened businessman entertain images of pain with every dragging second in the chair. Her jade eyes were narrowed as a vengeful feeling coiled around her insides, knowing that this man had something to do with Neji's disappearance. She had read the briefing on him and was thoroughly disgusted with every aspect of his trade. He was a man of status but crudely so, making his dirty money off people's misery. The kunoichi expected to find him distastefully garbed in fine silk and labels, but the man in front of her was only clad in a pair of worn slacks and a sweat-stained dress shirt. He didn't appear powerful, nor was he intimidating. He was scared and wretched out of his mind.
"You have to calm down if we're gonna get through this," Naruto spoke to him.
Fukao opened a trembling mouth but nothing came out as he recognized the spiraled leaf on the ANBU commander's forehead.
"No, we're not from Waterfall, but yes—if you've seen this symbol before—we're from the same organization that was going to annihilate you."
"I don't know anything," the businessman managed to sputter.
"Standard reply," Naruto winced mockingly. He walked slowly in front of the chair, eyeing the pot of water that was now bubbling hot. "Care to go on?"
The steam was rising next to his pant leg and Fukao looked nervously at the intimidating blonde ANBU. Behind him, Hinata had collected what was left of his personal belongings—his cell phone and wallet. She flipped open the cell and was skimming through it.
"Who's Castor Fraega?" Naruto asked. Sakura handed him a footage still and he thrust the black and white copy in front of Fukao. The businessman squared his jaw and wouldn't look at it.
Sighing with irritation, Naruto set the picture on the table and moved behind Fukao's chair. Panic exploded onto his pudgy features when he felt the chair nudge forward and then tip back at an angle. As his bound but naked feet were lowered into the pot of scorching water, Fukao gave a horrific scream of pain.
"We don't have any fucking time to waste," Naruto said behind his reddening ear. A second later, he tilted the chair away from the pot. Nudging the chair back, he dropped it gracelessly, letting Fukao's scalded feet smack against the floor. The man was heaving in broken sobs, crying out in the aftermath of curdling skin and steam.
"Let's do this again. Who the fuck is Castor Fraega?"
"He's a business partner!" Fukao practically screamed. "The fuck did you do to my feet, you bastard! I won't be able to walk!"
"Consequences for withholding information," Naruto shrugged simply, as if being asked for directions on a crowded street.
Fukao wailed loudly, his face turning as red as his ruined feet. "You…crazy motherfuck—"
The ANBU commander grabbed the back of his chair.
"Alright—okay! Please don't—I…I'll tell you!" Fukao whimpered and shook. He gasped as his face twisted in pain, trying to lift his still-bound feet off the floor.
"I'm just a supplier…" Fukao stuttered. "Castor is only one out of the many that has a demand…while other clients prefer women or kids, he doesn't give a shit as long as they have fighting skill."
Hinata looked up from Fukao's cell phone call log, where there was evidence of restricted numbers.
"That might explain the amount of missing ninja pouring from the cargo hold," she acknowledged.
"Why the discrimination?" Naruto asked the businessman.
"I don't know," Fukao replied. His expression turned pleading. "Please, I really don't know. Castor made it bloody clear in the agreement that I had to be kept in the dark about everything else aside from getting him what he wanted. I'm only a supplier, I tell you. Once I make the sale, the cargo is never seen again."
"These people with fighting skill—were they only ninja?" Hinata asked.
Fukao shook his head madly. "The hell should I know? I have people that nab them for me."
"You were supposed to meet with Castor and another associate for a dinner meeting that night, yes?" Sakura said, striding toward his trembling form.
"Yeah…" Fukao heaved painfully. "A friend—Syvan Vedka. I wanted Castor to add to the reservation."
"Why?" She demanded. Sakura pulled a footage still of Syvan out and thrust it under Fukao's nose. "Why's he so special that he gets the privilege to hang around with you two?"
"I…I thought that I could get more business out of Castor if I hooked him up with something he was looking for. He never said it to me personally but I heard he was in the market for a doctor."
"Is he sick?" Naruto asked offhandedly.
Fukao expelled a darkened laugh, swiveling beady eyes toward the ANBU. "Depends what kind of 'sick' you're talking about…"
Hinata grimaced as disturbed chills rode up her spine. The morbid insinuation colored his gritty voice and he had the nerve to quirk a painful smile. She looked at Naruto, who was ready to pummel him if it wasn't for Sakura standing in the way.
"Nah," Fukao said. "He needed a doctor who was a neuro-something. Syvan's field of work was along those lines."
"Neurosurgeon," Sakura corrected. She tossed Syvan's black and white copy on the table with Castor's. "Any idea why?"
"No. I told you, I was never involved in that conversation. I was just passing by."
Sakura had to control the urge to break the entire bottom half of the businessman's face when annoyance seeped into his tone. Her jaw hardened when she asked, "Then were you aware that Syvan and Castor already knew each other?"
A look of utter confusion suddenly passed Fukao's eyes and he looked up at the ANBU in shock.
"So he didn't know," muttered Naruto.
"Ino was in his body at the time," Hinata mentioned back to him.
"Oh yes, I almost forgot that you weren't even at the dinner, just your body, which was rented by a member from the last team sent to kill you," Sakura told Fukao matter-of-factly. "Recorded details from a camera were the tip-off for the pier six raid at Tsuda Harbor."
Realization harpooned Fukao and he tried to look away from the kunoichi. It was the shipment location that he had argued continuously with Castor about and was the reason for the dinner in the first place. He even recalled wanting to give Castor hell about it before he forfeited bodily control to the blonde kunoichi in the sparrow mask.
Hinata added, "Castor knew that it wasn't the real you and could have possibly known about the camera."
It took a while for Fukao's mouth to drop open completely.
"And…and he still leaked the location of the drop…" the businessman trailed off in crippling bewilderment. The thought of Castor betraying him seared into his gut.
"There's a likelihood that it was Castor that alerted your bodyguards, but it still doesn't make sense that he would divulge the correct information," Sakura said.
Fukao's head was bowed low with his double chin almost touching his chest. He shook his head slowly after hearing the new information. His lips quirked bitterly, unable to comprehend the enigmatic actions of Castor Fraega—a man he feared secretly, yet relied on heavily for business.
"The ambush was sent right after dinner was over," Naruto stepped in once more. "You got your body back and escaped like the pussy you are."
Fukao stuttered, "I was followed by the one in the ram's mask. We couldn't shake him. If it wasn't for Castor I would've—"
"Say again?" Sakura cut him off sharply. She closed the distance in two strides, bending over to look him in the eyes.
"He was going to kill me…but Castor intervened," the businessman admitted.
Sakura straightened up a little to acknowledge the realization in both Naruto and Hinata's faces. She briefly remembered Kiba stating that Neji went after Fukao alone and it was last time he saw the ANBU commander. And suddenly Castor had something to do with almost every one of their discoveries.
Fukao's expression twisted angrily as he recalled his brush with death.
"I wanted Castor to take his miserable life. The ram was at his mercy…on his fucking knees even," Fukao spat.
Raising his beady eyes toward Sakura, he tilted his head to the side after catching the concealed flicker of obvious concern in her face. A wicked smile began to split his lips as he took in the sight of the petal-haired kunoichi.
"Are you his wife?" asked Fukao. His tone turned spiteful and mocking. "Or are you just fucking him?"
A lethal rush of anger boiled underneath Sakura's guarded exterior. A surge of disgust quaked in her stomach as she caught his eyes giving her the once-over. The thought of Neji on his knees at the mercy of an unreachable antagonist coiled together sickly within her.
"Where is he?" she asked slowly, her voice possessing a dangerous edge.
Fukao smiled wider as he forgot the aching, peeling condition of his naked feet.
"You'll never see him again, Sweetheart," he whispered tauntingly. "Castor makes them all disappear."
Rage spiked up Sakura's spine and the restraint on her limbs broke rapidly. She saw red as her fist shot out to shatter Fukao's nose into a mess of crimson and blighted cartilage. Skin was torn to the side as his anguished cry sent piercing tremors through the room. His agony didn't register with her when she kicked his chair backwards onto the floor. Fukao gurgled in blood and pain as the back of his head came in contact with the worn carpet beneath.
Stepping over him, Sakura sat down on his bloated stomach and forced a gloved hand around his neck. His breathing was broken as he was trying to gulp in coveted amounts of air in order to stop the drowning sensation of blood.
"Where is he?" she practically roared. She ignored the shocked expressions on both her comrades' faces.
"…Don…kno…w…" Fukao rumbled weakly.
Naruto moved toward her, "Sakura."
"Don't lie to me," Sakura growled, her green eyes flaring.
Hinata's hand landed on Sakura's shoulder, trying to shake her out of her angered trance.
"Sakura, stop," she said firmly.
"…Prome…thei…a…" Fukao uttered helplessly.
"What is that? A name?" asked Sakura with severity.
Hinata's voice rang in her ear. "Sakura, please."
The petal-haired kunoichi felt the squeeze of her hand move down to her arm, tugging her gently to come back. Sakura didn't want to but she wrenched her enraged gaze from Fukao and up toward Hinata. She felt her breathing become heavy as the spark of rage dulled slightly back into reason.
A long pause enveloped the room before Sakura's fingers finally relented their ironclad grip on Fukao's neck. She grudgingly withdrew, reigning in the further urge to demolish his ribcage.
When she got to her feet, Naruto's eyes kept on her as he pulled up Fukao's chair. Once again his scalded feet hit the floor and he whimpered through his broken nose.
"Fucking cunt…" Fukao seethed, glaring at Sakura hatefully.
Sakura gritted her teeth and tried to repel her body from resuming her previous position at his throat.
"I told you before not to fuck with us but you didn't listen," Naruto said, coming around to stop behind Fukao's chair. "Does Castor have anything to do with this name Prometheia?"
"His…employer," came the muddled reply.
"So you were lying earlier when you said that your contract with Castor stated that you'd be kept in the dark."
"No…only that…I…don't know…what the cargo…is for. I…could never ask…him any questions…about what he…did with…them. What I know is…that he works for…someone bigger…"
"And that's Prometheia?" Naruto dug further. "Is it a person, a company?"
"That…I really…don't know this time…He said…he would kill me…if I asked anymore…questions."
"Does Syvan know about Prometheia, considering he knows Castor?" Hinata added.
Fukao shook his head and almost shrugged at the same time. "No…but he might…soon."
His cell phone was still in Hinata's hand and he barely motioned toward it with his fingers. Hinata looked down, seeing that she was still in the middle of skimming the call log.
"Went back…to the hotel…called Syvan before I left," he said wearily from continued blood loss. "I tried to…say that it…wasn't me at dinner. He didn't get it…but he listened. I told him to…leave Waterfall ASAP…to meet Castor…"
Fukao coughed as the scarlet dripping from his nose sank into the sides of his mouth. The copper taste made him gag and it dribbled messily down the front of his shirt.
For a while only the sounds of the businessman's wheezing filtered through the room. Hinata came upon the last five numbers that were recently called on Fukao's cell phone. One of them had to be Syvan's.
"It's been forty-eight hours since he contacted Syvan. He's already gone," Sakura surmised.
"But the lead is ours," replied Naruto, kicking the hot plate's cord out of the old socket. He walked toward the disturbed Waterfall officers still standing rigid near the doorway. Pulling out a single kunai from his holster, he handed it to one of them.
"He's all yours, boys. We'll leave the pleasure of killing him to Waterfall. We'll also send you home with a copy of that tape."
After pocketing Fukao's cell phone and wallet. Hinata fetched the tape recorder from the lopsided table and stopped the recording. She looked up just in time to see Sakura exit the room first, without a word to the Waterfall authorities or Naruto.
The room felt like it had been closing in on Sakura. The air was so thick, it acted like a weighted blanket that smothered her body. It didn't help during the interrogation and the new information she managed to throttle out of Fukao brought a new sense of apprehension to her mind.
Neji was alive—or at least the probability of it was higher. Castor couldn't have gone to so much trouble to weave such an intricate scenario with a purpose just to kill him. Sakura wasn't even sure if any of the events were directly related to why Neji was missing. Her head was splitting and her chest felt tight as her mind pieced together the convoluted details they gathered in the last twenty-four hours. She pictured him over and over again with her vicious imagination running a mile a minute.
She stepped distractedly into the hallway. Her feet led her through the dirty foyer of their own accord. When Sakura found herself outside, she chose to take a seat on a weatherworn picnic bench just a few feet from the Inn's doors.
Another brutal rush of emotion maimed her once-strengthened demeanor, and Sakura clutched her head with both hands. Her fingers sank into her petal hair, sweeping her temples as she shut her eyes against the onslaught of despondent visions.
Fukao's cruel words still rang through her mind. She wasn't Neji's wife but she was something to him, wasn't she? Or had been…before she told him that she didn't want him. A sharp pang resonated in her chest and her breathing hitched.
The petal-haired kunoichi didn't move; every bone in her body seemed incapable of doing so even in the presence of Hinata's perpetually warm voice. She felt a weight sit on the bench beside her.
"I'm sorry," Sakura said quietly. Her words were slightly muffled.
"There's nothing to be sorry for," Hinata said. "We were interrogating the scum of the Earth."
Sakura had to expel short laughter and lifted her head to look at her comrade's calm facade. The faint amusement vanished as her attention was drawn back to the discolored wood bench.
"Naruto's worried about you."
"So what else is new?" Sakura replied, brushing a stray lock of hair away from her face.
"We've never seen you react like that during any interrogation. You always followed the rules—leaving emotions at the door," Hinata spoke. She watched her friend closely, trying to read every motion and twitch.
"I just got ahead of myself," was Sakura's blunt reply.
"Is that what is was really about?"
Sakura craned her head at the ambiguous note in Hinata's voice. Her pallid irises hinted at something and Sakura inwardly shrank away from it.
"Sakura…" Hinata began softly. "He would never want you to worry because…he'll be alright."
Hinata saw her companion's jaw go tight as she peered at something so severely in the distance. But she had a feeling Sakura's rapt attention was on absolutely nothing. The Hyuuga heir treaded lightly; she knew she was coasting dangerous territory.
Discomfort was evidently snaking its way around Sakura's shoulders. She didn't want to look at Hinata—doing so would reveal too much even without words. A sickening suspicion flooded into her stomach at the notion that her secrets weren't as guarded as she thought. Playing ignorant was a last ditch effort.
Hinata grew worried when Sakura didn't answer. "I know it's none of my business but—"
"Sakura!" Naruto shouted, bounding out the door and approaching their spot on the bench.
A wealth of relief washed over the petal-haired kunoichi as she immediately stood up to meet him. Sakura didn't notice Hinata locking eyes with Naruto over her shoulder, giving him a warning stare not to inquire about their teammate's unusual flare of anger.
Sakura uttered callously, "Has Fukao already gone to hell?"
"To the seventh circle," Naruto replied. "Job's done and we can move on."
"I still need to make a copy of the tape. We'll also have to contact Tsunade to update our status," Hinata suggested, fingering the tape recorder.
Naruto nodded in agreement. "The new info leads us north to Lightning but we have no jurisdiction there."
"I'm sure it won't be too much of a problem," said Sakura, slipping her phone out of her pocket. "HQ."
The phone automatically dialed and rang twice before a voice picked up. "Operator."
"Investigative team on assignment four, eight, nine, one, seven, request access to head office for status update," she said.
"Copy," the voice on the other end replied. "We'll be transferring you in a few seconds."
"Thanks," Sakura spoke. "One more thing. I want you to run a diagnostic on the name Prometheia."