Enemy of my Enemy
Originally posted at Lj's lethal empathy community on March 24th, 2006, in response to challenge #8 (keyword "clover") and as an interdependent prequel for a longer fic of mine, In Stone. Possible manga spoilers up to about 256.
I know someone's gonna miss this, so I'll say it again: This is not a standalone piece and will make much more sense if you've read In Stone.
The moment she touched him, she knew it was bad. The redhead's eyes and cheeks were sunken, his skin was terribly, hideously dry, his organs were failing and his heart was working entirely too hard—and then one of the Akatsuki dove at her, and she only had time to grab Gaara and leap before her attacker crashed into the spot where they'd just been.
"Get him out of here!" someone yelled amidst the cavern's chaos; and she bolted for the entryway, Sand's Kazekage sagging limply in her grasp.
Hands grabbed her arm, hurled both her and Gaara to the side to avoid some form of exploding projectile. As the debris settled, she looked up from her half-kneel to see Naruto shielding her—no, shielding them. She'd been too close to the explosion and couldn't immediately hear what he shouted around the ringing in her ears . . . but when she struggled to her feet to focus on him, she realized that there was something terribly wrong with his appearance.
"Don't let him sleep! Get him out of here and get him back and don't let him sleep!"
Rather than dwell on her teammate's suddenly, startlingly red eyes and overdeveloped canines, she forced her shock away and complied. Something else exploded behind her, she heard Naruto howl in challenge—then she was outside, half-ringed by shadow clones, her feet digging into the stony soil as she tried to propel herself and her charge away from the melee as quickly as possible.
But she wasn't free yet.
Her only warning was the glimpse of new movement in her peripheral vision. The humanoid thing that'd attacked her before had managed to single her out of the mass of clones, battering them out of the way before lunging forward with an extended puppet's arm. There was no time for replacements. Instead she let go of Gaara's arm where she'd draped it around her neck and slung him in front of her and out of the way, using his momentum as a counterweight to pull herself out of danger. Landing hard on her side as she tried desperately to cushion Gaara's fall, she was certain that she'd made it without injury. But panic had dulled her sense of pain. The slice across her shoulder burned first, then went cold . . . and as her opponent confidently, unhurriedly rose from where they'd landed, she realized she'd been poisoned.
"If you give up now, I'll kill you quickly," they offered silkily. Sakura clenched a fist and didn't waste time with a denial. All they had to do was give her an opening, let her get close enough, and—
And Chiyo was suddenly in front of her, her wrinkles deepening as she scowled. "Did he cut you?"
"Fix it and go." The older woman's turning away from her spoke of a terrible finality. "Leave my grandson to me."
The poison's extraction seared the edges of her wound, hurting more than the injury itself—but allowed her to keep her eyes closed and teeth gritted together so she didn't have to see the first clash of Sand's puppeteers. Sakura used her chakra to stop the bleeding and, recognizing the poison as the same used on Kankurou, downed one of the antidotes. She'd gotten unbelievably lucky, she decided—it could have just as easily been any other combination.
Directing a last glance and a wish for luck at Chiyo, who'd gained the aid of a trio of Naruto's clones, Sakura hooked Gaara's arm around her shoulders and ran.
It wasn't until the sounds of battle and pursuit had faded that she slowed, intending to see to Naruto's wish—no, demand—and wake Gaara up.
Under the dirt and dried blood and flecks of scabbing on his face, he was still easily recognizable. But then again, she decided with a sigh, it was hard to not recognize him. She'd recognized him well enough that time, when she'd been resting before her second chuunin exam and he'd all but stepped on her in his search for Naruto. His concern had sparked something like conversation, letting her ask something she'd been curious about since she'd talked to his sister earlier that day.
"Temari said that if you make chuunin at this test, you're testing for jounin as soon as you get back to Sand." That move in and of itself was unprecedented: no ninja she'd ever heard of had tried to jump through the ranks that quickly. "Why didn't you want to wait for them to be ready, too?
He glanced over to where she sat on the training field's grass, considering her before he spoke. "Because the council at Sand told me they won't let a genin or chuunin become Kazekage."
The Kazekage was a little guy, she decided; probably not much taller than she was if that, and entirely too thin. His weight could be attributed to the conditions of his captivity, though. If her estimates about his deterioration were correct, he'd been carried across that much of the desert with no food or water. And when less than a day without water in that sort of climate could prove deadly . . . It was really a miracle that he was alive at all.
No, the Akatsuki hadn't cared what state he was in. And if they caught Naruto . . .
They wouldn't catch Naruto. They couldn't catch Naruto. Sakura's jaw clenched and her eyes squeezed shut with determination—she refused to think of what would happen if they caught Naruto. To distract herself, she forced a deep breath and settled at Gaara's side with the intention of bringing him up out of his sleep, one hand hovering over his forehead, the other over his chest. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. All she really had to do was draw his mind back to semi-consciousness with her chakra, to a state that resembled deep meditation more than sleep—and maybe while she was at it, she'd get a measure of the kind of person that could be made Kazekage at such a young age.
She closed her eyes and reached—and the ground fell out from under her.
Somewhere in the emptiness around her that was the absence of his chakra, it sunk in. This wasn't the range of a normal person's ability. And the strange sort of . . . duality she picked up when she recovered herself enough to continue, the sense that his mind somehow both mirrored and shadowed itself . . . That was anything but ordinary.
Is this what it's like for Naruto? she wondered. Is this what he meant by them being the same?
She wouldn't wonder about that, at least not yet. All she had to do here was reach out to her patient, boost him enough to get him out of true unconsciousness . . .
. . . And something utterly horrible, clothed in a predatory smile and her memories of the body under her hands transforming into something inhumanly hideous, reached back.
It took everything she had not to panic, not to bolt, but to retreat slowly, as if she had all the time in the world and as if that awful something buried in him wasn't following along just as slowly, attentive in the way of a cat watching a mouse edge back towards its hole.
Sakura's stomach twisted. What would happen if he woke up now? What if that thing in him kept coming? Worse—what if that thing really was him?
Sweating, shaking, she waited. Nothing happened. The only thing to greet her return to herself was silence, save for the unsteady wheeze of his breathing.
He turned back to her before he left, meeting her eyes. "What's your name?"
She hesitated, working her toes into the clover and silently questioning his reasons before deciding to reply. "Sakura."
"Sakura." He nodded, as if to himself. "If I see you during the trials, I won't kill you."
Relieved, she smiled. "You say it like you think it'd be so easy."
The way his lips curved was a little too soft to be a smirk, and she knew she probably hadn't seen the last of him.
She'd thought he was just an arrogant asshole then, but that he'd promised to not hurt her because of her relation to Naruto. Now, when faced with what had been done to him because . . . because he was somehow like Naruto, and because he'd tried to protect people . . . The very least she could do was return in kind. So she held him up, a chakra-charged hand over his stomach to stop him from throwing up as she trickled little sips of water into his mouth. After the first half a bottle, she took a moment to use her own energy to encourage his body to accept the aid, to speed up the healing process and stop any hyponatremia. It wasn't until after a few more repetitions that she started to feel any difference, that his breathing started to even out and his heart rate began to slow.
She breathed a sigh of relief at her success and tried to force herself to relax, to see him as a patient instead of seeing that thing in him reaching for her with clutching claws. Looking at him brought something else to her attention: the mark on his forehead that wasn't dirt, that had been there before. Upon closer inspection she could see that it had faint edges, ridged like an old scar. But the big deal with him was that he couldn't be hurt, she thought. So how . . . ?
If no one else could've done it to him, then he had to have done it to himself. And try as she might, Sakura couldn't come up with any satisfactory explanation for what could possibly possess someone like him to tattoo "love" on his own forehead.
She'd have to think about that some other time. This close to the Akatsuki's lair, any shadow could be a potential attacker. But there, with her once-enemy helpless in her arms . . . "The enemy of my enemy . . . What's that make you again?"
"You're not gonna die on me here," she murmured. "Got that?"
His fingers might have twitched, but she might have just imagined it. Either way, she took it as an agreement. "Good. Let's get you home."
Because that shifting branch over could be someone watching, the faint sounds she might be imagining could be distant shouts, and the way the forest to her immediate right had gone silent could mean . . .
She'd bind her wound later. As for now, getting the Kazekage to safety was her priority. But though she knew his thoughts of her as a person meant nothing in regards to her mission, she still caught herself hoping that once he woke, he'd also decide to accept the enemy of his enemy as his friend.