Previously on Chapter 69.

Doggedly, I wrapped a firm grasp around the handle—as firm a grasp as I could manage with my wrangled fingers—and twisted it free. The door budged from the lack of toehold, ready to unclose with the slightest shove of a hand. I laid a palm upon the decaying wood.

Forcing my heartbeat to slow, I strained to hear any noise from the other side, and when only the resonance of quiet reached my ears: I took a deep breath, Four...

Three...

Two...

One.

...And pushed open the door.


Instant Message
By Keelah


...

She's run out of time.

...


Chapter SEVENTY
Dial Tone

To my left, a half-lit corridor stretched into the darkness, growing dimmer with every foot into the swallowing void. It looked to be some kind of abode—a cottage, perhaps, in the middle of the woods. Gulping, I trotted charily down the hallway, maintaining a hand along the wall to guide me in the shadows. I slowed upon reaching a doorway and pressed my back against the wall, edging circumspectly around the corner.

Weak shafts of light percolated inside through awning windows, revealing a tattered bed frame in the far wall and an old, isolate dresser. I scanned the space a moment before proceeding down the corridor.

I tried to listen over my pounding pulse for a presence another than my own, but the odd, eerie silence in the air ascertained my being alone. In fact, it was almost too quiet, the stillness almost... artificial, synthetic, creating an uncanny, ominous ambiance that hung above my head.

Near my feet, a shadow formed and vanished within a blink of an eye.

My body went rigid.

Air rushed in and out of my lungs as I turned my head and peered over my shoulder. The dimly lit vista of an empty passageway came to my greeting. I stared into the darkness for several seconds, waiting, before I continued along the hallway.

Paranoia clamped at my guts, creating a strong, unshakable hunch that the desolate prospect was false. My eyes scanned each room and found no one, my audition made out only the sound of solitude, while smell, touch and taste observed nothing out of the ordinary—yet an unrelenting sixth sense whispered I was mistaken.

It was during this mental battle to convince myself I was alone, deafened by the hastened bass pulse of my battering heart and my own muted treads over the floorboards, that a soft, inaudible din nearly slipped past my attention.

I almost hadn't caught it—the soft screech of wood under the weight of pressure, gently creaking beneath a careful footfall.

I froze for the slightest moment.

And then—I ran.

Without thinking, I shuffled down the hall, dislocated ankle throbbing in white-hot pain, my broken limps thudding loudly, unevenly, against the floorboards. I tumbled into the first room I could find and slammed the door shut. Panting, I slumped against the wall and slid slowly to the ground. Oxygen circulated in my lungs too little, too fast, and I buried my head between my bent knees before I grew faint.

As my breathing slowed and alarm receded (though not entirely) I raised my head and blinked, taking in my new surroundings. If there was a window, I could simply climb out of it without having to go back outside the hallway in search for the front door and meet whatever, whoever, was out there—if there ever was someone. Again, impulse fought with the more logical side of my brain. I could have imagined it, with the sound so small and insignificant it could have just been—

My thoughts halted when I began to take notice of the room I was in.

There were no divans or mattress, dressers or couches; it was not a kitchen, nor did it seem a study. The space was without any furniture, except for one. One large bookcase, right across the room from me, from one end of the wall to the other. Slowly, I pushed myself off the wall and moved across the expanse, carefully silencing each footfall. Night casted shadows into the room and gave little light through the narrow windows, but the sparse moonlight was enough to reveal the shelves upon shelves of books that lined the entire wall.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS

Eitaro Masuyama

HUMAN EMOTIONS CLASSIFICATION VIA FACE RECOGNITION SIGNALS

Angela Peterman & Alex Yamato

EMOTION DETECTION IN HUMAN BEINGS

Alan Petersen

UNDERSTANDING HUMAN EMOTIONS AND INTERACTIVE BEHAVIOUR

Maria Jared

INVARIANTS OF HUMAN EMOTION & INTER-PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Jeffry Schank & Paul Smaldino

It went on and on, books upon books on human psychology and emotion, of interpersonal behaviour and relationships. From disciplines of psychology to sociology, to biology and chemical reactions of the brain. I suddenly understood the extent of what Sai meant about trying to understand what it was like to have emotions, about killing being the only thing that made him feel—he'd tried. He had tried to read it and find out, tried to find the sensation in books and words and even drawing and art. But it wasn't enough. Not for him.

It never made him feel anything.

I backed away from the bookcase. Now wasn't the time to explore this wretched house. I already knew how disturbed Sai was in the head—this only confirmed what I've already witnessed and heard firsthand. The rest of the room was bare empty, safe for its four surrounding walls. Slowly, I turned around.

And froze.

Four surrounding walls. And the walls beside the door were covered with a patchwork of... I squinted. From where I sat on the opposite side of the room, the view appeared colourless and one dimensional, unclear through the dark and distance.

Rising to my feet, I carefully made my way across the floor, and the closer I drew, the colors, however dull, became clearer. The images sharpened.

Horror weighed within me.

Glued on the surface, artfully pieced together in an orderly clutter, was a colourful, life-sized mosaic...

...of the dead.

My breathing quickened as I skimmed over the entire span of the wall.

Every inch, from floor to ceiling, was covered in a mélange of large-print photographs containing mangled, human corpses, hardly recognizable underneath the blood and scabs and gashes, burnt skin and twisted limbs... My hand flew to cover my mouth in shock as I tried to tear my gaze from the ghastly, bloodcurdling collage, only to find that I could not. My eyes stuck on death's self-portrait, unable to look away.

Though my stomach coiled, queasy with fear and nausea merging to create vomit clambering up my throat, and though ever nerve in my body screamed for me to turn and run, my feet remained planted on the floor. Something kept me in place as my gaze landed upon a certain, familiar snapshot.

Amidst the sea of blood and gore, a little girl lay lifeless on the ground, a necklace of handprints around her collar. Moegi. Before my lips could part for a gasp, my eyes were ensnared by another sight: the twisted, broken carcass of Kin—the first victim, the very first name I'd given Sai. Beside her was Dosu, the insides of his brain exposed through an open skull.

I sobbed, the sound muffled into my palm as my gaze shifted to the burnt body of Karin, Suigetu's bloodied remains, to Watkin's limp cadaver suspended from the ceiling and the very latest addition: Kankuro, his slit neck exposed to the camera.

Numbly, I scanned the other photographs, corpses of people I did not know, slaughtered before I came along. With a heavy, terrorizing sensation, I realized just what exactly this mosaic was—a compilation.

Of all the people Sai had ever killed.

A collection of artworks.

In the fringes of my vision, rapidly blurring from globules of stifled tears, I noticed a particular component unlike the rest. This one was not a developed print, but a mere piece of white paper stuck to the wall with a pushpin. Delicate, contrasting shades of gray covered the leaf with masterful strokes, each flawless curve and line penciled in by an artistic hand, coming together to create a portrait of a girl behind a coffee table, her eyes staring out of the page.

A thick, red splatter of paint ran down the middle of her head.

My blood turned cold.

All of a sudden, I was brought back to a time I had sat across from him, with a sketchpad and a pencil poised between his fingers. I remembered his hawk-like eyes taking me in as his hand moved across the page.

"What are you drawing?"

Trembling, I stepped back, unable to lift my gaze from the same, emerald eyes staring back at me, the portrait of my own face a future addition to the gruesome collage of Death.

"You."

I was soon to be one of them.


A whimper tore through my throat.

Swivelling around, I swung the door open and stumbled out into the hallway, with the rapid thudding beat and the struggled wheezing of my lungs blocking my eardrums. Leave. I needed to leave. I staggered without sight or direction along the ghostly passageways, frantically searching for an exit. I trampled onwards as quietly as I possibly could—but my thoughts scattered in fright, my feet clumsy in panic, and my sense of direction disoriented. The walls grew to consume me and trap me in his house, while somewhere behind me, the faint, haunting sounds of footsteps echoed in warning.

Fear rose to my throat. I did not think, only moved, sightlessly feeling my way around a corner when suddenly—A moan.

I stiffened.

Another groan, weak and pained, emanated from somewhere in the room, somewhere close by. Stiff with fear, I remained by the wall and followed the source of the sound, a viridian gaze cutting through the darkness—a kitchen, it seemed—until my eyes settled upon a motionless, formless heap on the floor.

I frowned, stepping closer...

Sprawled and lifeless on the ground was a human body, encircled by a dark, shapeless pool of blood slowly expanding in all directions, its deep crimson blending with the limp, damp tresses.

"Gaara?" I gasped, my limbs frozen in shock and horror. Blood poured from somewhere on his back, matting his tangled hair with a thick, scarlet fluid. His skin was pale, colourless.

Dead.

Gaara was dead.

This was the little business Sai had to take care of, why he'd left me for a short moment rather than finishing our game. I fought the sob from the chest. Gaara must have struggled or pissed him off.

And so Sai got rid of him.

His eyes flew open.

I jumped, a breathless scream tearing through my throat.

"Sakura...?"

My legs, quivering uncontrollably, finally collapsed beneath my weight. I knelt beside him as disbelief and fear and a sudden grief overwhelmed me. "What... happened?"

"Doesn't manner," he managed through an aggrieved grunt, so silent that I lowered my face to his to hear him out. I ignored the deep-red blood soaking through my jeans, dampening my leg. "Sakura—" A violent cough shook his body, splattering blood from his mouth. "Shit," he hissed in the midst of pain.

I stared at the trickle of red oozing from the corner of his lips, lips which had once touched mine. "We—we have to..." I shook my head, gathering my thoughts together, "We have to get you some help. You're... you're bleeding and..."

His head swung from side to side, as fiercely as he could in his condition. "No—fuck. Sakura, listen." Spitting out the mouthful of blood, Gaara bore his dark, sea green orbs into my own. "He took her. I was told... that if I kept an eye on you... he'd give her back..." His respiratory organ gave up on him, and he gasped, taking abrupt, shallow breaths. I knew my biology well: his lungs must have been punctured.

"Stop talking," I commanded, though he disregarded me.

"Obviously that was bullshit."

I remembered Temari. The rumours regarding her disappearance began to circulate only a week or two after the first conversation with the Rogue, and a few days just before Gaara and I had begun hanging out. The timeline fit perfectly.

"I didn't know, about the killings. I swear. I was so stupid, I didn't figure it out until—until Kankuro...hell, I didn't even know... I had no idea it was Sai until toni—" He coughed. On impulse, my hand reached out to cover his. His skin was cold and clammy, limp and lifeless. I doubt he could even feel my touch over the pain that consumed him.

Without warning, hand tightened around mine in the slightest, weakest squeeze.

"Back pocket," he suddenly commanded, "Left."

"What?"

"Keys," Gaara grunted, "to the car. Take them." Though my brain was too slow to comprehend, I allowed instincts to take over. Afraid of hurting him, I patted the back of his jeans until I felt something solid beneath the fabric. The metal instruments clinked against each other as I fished them out of his pocket. "I left...my phone—underneath driver's seat. You have to go," he barked hoarsely, "He's here."

"No. You need a doctor."

Gaara gave a wry smile.

"I'm already dead."

All of a sudden, the slamming of a door boomed along the vacant halls of the house. I recognized the sound. It came from upstairs, the attic. My heart leaped.

"Go."

His demand was smothered under the heavy, hurried footfalls of a sprint that thundered ever closer.

"Now, Sakura!"

Frantically, I rose to my feet, the jagged edge of the car keys biting into my skin as I stepped over Gaara's body and stumbled across the threshold. I didn't look back—could not—in fear of losing my resolve, knowing for certain that another view of Gaara would hold me in place.

Back in the other room, before the kitchen door crashed close against the sill, a voice, weakening and barely audible, whispered after me:

"I'm sorry."


More creaking.

More footfalls.

Faster, heavier, from upstairs. The house was large and rooms aplenty. Sai hadn't discovered the empty attic yet, but time was running dangerously thin. He would soon notice I was gone. I limped as quietly and quickly as could down the shadowed hallways, hands out to feel my way, feel any break along the wall. My breath escaped in heavy pants but I held it in, making as little noise as possible.

He was above me. Right above me.

I felt a break along the wall, into another room. The exit? Heart pounding, I gripped the doorsill and slipped into the room, shutting the door behind me. Gasping, my eyes scanned the dark space in a panic. It was more conventional-like bedroom, with a plain bed and a dilapidated table with an equally dilapidated—

Phone.

My knees practically gave out with relief. I swallowed back the grateful cry from my throat and shuffled unsteadily towards the table. Please be working, please be working. I gripped the phone—please have a dial tone, please, please—and lifted the receiver.

A dial tone.

I gasped, disbelieving, my fingers working before I even thought of my actions.

9.

1.

1.

Please, I begged mentally. Please, please work.

And then, barely audible over the roaring in my ears and the thudding against my ribcage, I heart it—

Ring!


Uchiha Sasuke

"HATAKE!"

Kakashi whirled around, staring at the frantic officer that had stumbled through the doors.

"We've got a 911 call. From a girl named Haruno Sakura."

Sasuke leapt to his feet, heart pounding.

"What?"

"Transfer the call," Kakashi barked, instinctively on business and wasting not even a moment on disbelief. "Anko, are you tracking this?"

"Already on it," she replied, then interjected just as he touched the sleek black receiver, making him pause. "Kakashi? We need her to stay on the phone. If we want to narrow the twelve-kilometer-radius we have now, she has to hold that line for at least three minutes."

"Let me talk to her," Sasuke demanded.

"No, stay out of this." Kakashi lifted the receiver to his ear. "Sakura? Hello? Damn it, I said transfer the call! Who has her right now?"

The officer at the door replied, "The primary dispatcher's still talking to her."

"What the hell is he doing?"

"She just started spurting out all this information," the officer explained hurriedly, "Described the number of captors, what they were wearing, what they look like, whether or not they were armed... The dispatch team's taking down the information—"

"I don't care about that," Kakashi snapped. "Tell him to TRANSFER THE CALL!"

The red light on the phone blinked.

"Sakura? Sakura, are you there?"

Sasuke clenched his fists. "Let me talk to her."

"Yes, yes it's me," Kakashi replied, still ignoring him. "Are you alright? Are you safe?"

"Kakashi, god damn it, at least put it on speaker!"

Irate, Kakashi jammed the speaker button and slammed the phone into its receiver. The first thing Sasuke heard was small, heavy pants of breath, so frail and frantic that it made him hold his own.

"...Sakura?"

A gasp. "Sasuke?"

Kakashi held out an impatient hand and sent him a glare that told him to shut up. "Sakura, where are you?"

"It was Sai," she whimpered. "Sai's the Rogue, he—"

"We know. We already—"

"And Gaara—"

"We know Gaara's involved—"

"He's dead."

Kakashi paused. Silence hung thickly in the room. "What?"

"He's dead. Sai or one of his men killed him. He was on the floor, and bleeding and—"

"It doesn't matter now," Sasuke growled. "Sakura, where are you? Tell us where you are."

"I'm... we're in a house, a big one, three stories, with an attic. A big two-story garage, almost like a small warehouse. I don't know more than that."

"Is there anything iconic about your surroundings?" Kakashi asked. "Any landmark, like a river? A lighthouse, a flagpole?"

"No, no. I looked already, but there's just trees around us. A clearing. I don't know, I don't know where I am. Please—Kakashi—I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I just escaped. He was keeping me in an attic and I just sneaked out, but he's still here. I can hear him, I can—"

Sasuke saw Anko hold up two finger. Her mouth moved silently. Two minutes.

"Sakura?"

She halted.

"Sakura? It's me. It's—"

"Sasuke, he's going to do it."

His heart thrashed against his ribcage. He knew. He knew what she meant. But he asked anyway, even if the shaking in her voice already told the answer. "What are you talking about?"

"He said I was different, that I wasn't as... as entertaining as before. He's done."

"Sakura—"

"Sai's going to kill me. Tonight."

Damn.

They've run out of time.

"That's not going to happen. I promise you, I will never let that—"

Thud.

Sasuke froze.

"What was that?"

But all that came from the speakers were her fragile breaths, shallow and frantic and panting.

"Sakura, damn it, answer me!"

"He's here," she whispered, her voice low and quivering so breathlessly that his chest physically hurt. Her killer was just meters away, but he and the cops were still miles from them. How will they ever get to her in time? "I have to go."

From the corner of his eye, he saw Anko's head shot up and shake sharply from side to side. She raised a finger. One minute.

"Keep her talking," Kakashi hissed in his ear. "Keep her on that line."

"Sakura? Sakura, can you hear me?" He could see the flashing circles on the map of Anko's screen, the triangulation still in process. Seven kilometer radius. They needed it as narrow as possible. They needed her exact location.

"I think he's found the attic."

"Sakura, I need you to stay on the phone with me."

Six kilometers.

"I can't. He's closer. He's coming—"

Five kilometers.

"She has to go," Sasuke hissed, glaring at Anko. "She has to leave right now."

"Give me thirty seconds, Sasuke," Anko muttered. "Thirty fucking seconds. Do it."

He gripped the phone. "Damn it! Sakura? Sakura, listen to me. We're looking for you. We're almost there, Sakura. We've tracked this call. Just... fight a little longer. Just a little longer."

"So you're here?"

Her weary, drained voice was so hopeful, it nearly broke him.

"No."

Not even close.

A thicker, impenetrable silence settled over the room. He heard the accepting sigh from the speakers as she realized she was alone in this, no matter how much reassurances and empty promises he offered. Her breath was shallow, but suddenly steadier...

Breaths.

In and out.

In, out.

...as if she were bracing herself for the coming hour. As if steeling herself for what was to come. He could almost hear the resignation in her voice, the determination.

"Sasuke?"

"Yes?"

More breathing, softer now, calmer.

"Me too."

What?

"Sakura, what are you—"

"I loved you, too."

He recognized the finality in her voice. It broke him more than the surrender in her confession.

Loved.

Past tense.

Past fucking tense.

Like she was already gone.

"Sakura," he groaned, pleaded in desperation. "Sakura, you'll be okay. I promise you. Sakura? Sakura, can you hear—?"

Click.

Silence.

"Sakura?"

He stilled.

Ice cold fear chilled his heart.

...

...

...

"We got it."

The screen blinked red, three circles ebbing bright as their intersection indicated one location on the map.

"We've got a kilometer radius," Anko barked in the background. "There's only one property in an area, an old vacation house bought more than eleven years ago, residency license never renewed, never sold on the real estate market. It matches the direction of Gaara's car and Sakura's coordinates."

"Send an Ops team there now," Kakashi ordered, grabbing his vest. "We're going, too. Bring a K9 squad. If she escapes into the forest, she'll be injured. The canines can sniff out the blood and work through the woods."

But Sasuke was no longer paying attention.

He held his breath, frozen, listening to the soft, harsh pants from the other line. His heart had stopped.

...because that smallest click he'd heard—

It was another phone being lifted off its receiver.

...and that last voice on the phone—

"Sakura?"

It was too deep to be Sakura's.

And it sure wasn't his.

"You little bitch."

Thud.

Crash.

Cold, chilling fear poured over Sasuke.

No.

No.

"Sakura?"

Footsteps. Running.

"—Sakura!"

And then—a long, monotonic dial tone.

It was the lifeless sound of a flat-lined machine.

The note of a pulseless heart.


Note: Well, well. To those of you who have stayed for this long, and all my new readers, thank you. My gratitude is endless for your patience, support, and love for this horrid, twisted story. There is less than 5 chapters left (approximately). We're almost done!

If you enjoyed IM thus far, and have some 5 seconds to spare, kindly leave a review? :D Feedback and comments are my writer's breathing air. They push and encourage me to write, write, and write!

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Keelah

IM FUN FACT #1: I've fully written the ending of IM 4 different times - 4 different endings, throughout all these years. The problem with taking almost a decade to write a story is you grow as a writer, so everytime I completely wrote the ending, a few years later, I absolutely hate it and think it's immature and re-write everything.

IM FUN FACT #2: Back then, in my good-update-years, I used to have 5 chapters written ahead of my update schedule. The best was 11 chapters ahead, at one point. There was one time when I've had the entire story completely written out and I celebrated - I had the official date of ending and everything. Until two years later, I fleshed out Sakura's and Sasuke's relationship and felt that the superficial ending they get (they get together but she leaves out of nowhere like some melodramatic Korean drama) was random and shallow and unfitting. So I changed it.