"It's primarily an overdose of hallucinogens," Sakura commented as she concerned herself with assuring that Konan would stay stabilized and subdued until she could be taken back to Konoha for questioning. "In about half an hour, she'll surface from catatonic into. . .unsavoury. . visions". Sakura secured Konan to the table, thought for a moment, then added a gag. Now and then, hyper-anxiety fuelled by the visions would led to shouting or wailing. It was rare, but best not to draw attention. Sakura carefully avoided catching Konan's hair in the gag's knot. Her hair was periwinkle rather than the dark plum of Hinata's yet it was similar enough to tug at her conscience.
Sakura sure as hell wasn't going to let her friends down. Snatching a few stray things and tossing on his Akatsuki cloak as a precaution, Sakura made for the door; a glance at Sasuke told him to follow. Freed from her leg weights, Sakura dashed along the hallway with the suppleness of purposeful movement, following her breadcrumb line of petals back toward where they started.
"You've been training with Lee", Sasuke remarked.
Sakura's mouth quirked a little. "I take good ideas when I see them. Like somebody else I know." She cast him a sly glance. "After we got back from seeing you that first time, Kakashi said that we'd have to get stronger at a faster rate than you if we wanted to catch up. Kakashi was working with Naruto full-time and Tsunade couldn't spare more time away from her Hokage duties. It got me thinking about who else's brain I could pick."
As if to prove her point, Sakura pulled up at the first new fork in the labyrinthine hallway and populated it with kage bushin. One hundred of them. Naruto might be a loose cannon sometimes, overwhelming his opponents with disproportionate force and alarming chakra levels but you couldn't argue with results. The guy got things done.
While she admired her handiwork for a moment, grateful her precise chakra control allowed her to create as many as she did without taxing her chakra reserves, Sasuke made a pair out of each without comment. The pairs were quick about their work picking out the right way from the network of hallways. Dismissing the lot, Sasuke and Sakura followed the trail, soon finding themselves facing a wall.
Pulling Sasuke away a safe distance, Sakura dangled a spare blizzard blossom bomb in her hand: "I could use one of your fireballs," she said gently smiling, wondering if he also recalled her recurrent request on missions. She didn't wait for his reaction, pitching the bomb at the metal wall. Sasuke's impeccable timing made the most out of the explosive and blew a sizable puncture.
Sasuke shielded her body with his. He lingered before her for that moment when their proximity invited touch. Sakura looked up at him, silently. The blast faded from their ears and the sounds of clashing metal drew Sakura's eyes away from him. She stepped around him and he watched her move to the opening. Hn. Her focus reminded him of his nindo. Of things he too had left to do. He joined her in surveying the scene.
Despite the ruckus of the explosion, because nothing had emerged from the new hole to trouble the room's occupants below, the metallic clashing hadn't ceased. Pein hovered ominously over the centre of a battlefield in progress, evading TenTen's valiant attempts to tow him to the ground. Hinata knelt beside Naruto, brought to his knees with the pain of repressing Kyuubization. Neji, byugaganed, stared at them from the corner of his eye, frowning slightly as a flicker of recognition passed over his face. Excessiveness was so Team 7.
Skidding down into the room with charged chakra hands dragging against the wall to ease the long way down brought them alongside the Konoha ninjas.
Neji's eyes hardened at Sakura's Akatsuki cloak. "Nice of you to show up, Sakura. Be you friend or foe?"
Sakura's brow twitched a bit, irritation edging out her embarrassment. "Friend. And so is Sasuke."
Naruto's groan as Hinata worked the Kyuubi cloak back curtailed that line of inquiry. Hinata's face was flush from effort and her eyes shone a bit too brightly than they might have if she were composed.
"You okay?" Sakura inquired kindly. "You need any help with him?"
Hinata shook her head. "I'm fine but Naruto can't keep releasing and repressing the Kyuubi." She lowered her voice: "We need to control Pein long enough to remove the black piercings".
Naruto focused his eyes on the speaker, laying a hand on Hinata's knee to let her know that he had recovered enough before sensing they had an audience. He smiled reassuringly at Sakura, which turned into a dropped jaw to see Sasuke standing behind her. Sasuke couldn't help but smirk back at Naruto's warm grin as Naruto scrambled to his feet to clasp Sasuke's hand.
Sasuke took the proffered hand and offered something else: "I can control the Kyuubi." He faced Naruto, ignoring Neji's skeptical expression. "But I'll be focussed on Naruto, I can't guarantee that I can use sharingan to also read Pein's movements".
Sakura interjected eagerly: "I can if you buy me some time".
Naruto looked at his team mates. With a "Yosh!" Naruto clapped his hands together and stabbed his finger toward Pein to put him on notice.
A number of things happened at once.
Pein, registering for the first time the rogue Akatsuki cloak amidst his enemies, let loose a shinra tensei. TenTen's flying claw flung back toward her, skimming Neji's hair as he reached back for it too late. TenTen didn't flinch. Her practised hand redirected it safely behind her.
"Pay attention, people!" Neji chastised. That TenTen was bright enough to only use one weapon, having figured out to some extent how Pein's gravity jutsu worked, and to have occupied Pein's attention during the new arrivals' showy entrance, saved all of their asses just now. He would have them know it.
Hinata knew what she could do. Stepping beside Neji shoulder-to-shoulder, she took up an eight trigrams form. Neji mirrored her silently. Performing this jutsu with half the circle doubled their power and overlapping the halves quadrupled it. They faced down Pein.
Sakura wasn't watching. She cracked open her portable microscope, ruthlessly breaking off the scope and tossing the rest aside. Spinning the top off the scope, she left it in two pieces on the ground while she gingerly extracted one of the spare bottles of sharingan eyes and a tube of lightning bug reduction paste used to make items glow translucently. Spreading it sparingly on the back of one eye, Sakura secured the eye within the scope, closing it up for a test view. She could see through it! Mirror-wheel indeed. She focussed the scope on Pein. She saw with absurd clarity minute physical signals; like seeing movement tracers from the future. Is this what Sasuke sees all the time? Naruto sat on his haunches beside Sakura, chomping at the bit to see if Sakura's plan worked.
The Hyuugas shouted in unison: "Buddha's Dragon Palm Wave!" Four chakra dragons whipped along the floor, snapping upward. Pein's gravity wave held the dragons at bay as they thrust their muzzles against the invisible barrier. To everyone's surprise it collapsed back suddenly, the dragons dealing a glancing blow against Pein, staggering his composure.
Sakura saw the opportunity: "Ok, go!" Naruto's frothing fox cloak burst another couple tails and in three bounds he ricocheted off the roof, dropping on Pein like a ceiling collapsing.
Pein was hammered downward with the blow yet managed to scamper clumsily across thick chakra fur to use Naruto's back as a springboard back into the air. Naruto landed hard, Kyuubi chakra buckling the floor. Pissed at the evasion, the fox cloak fell in shreds as five-tail newly emerged, gnashed its teeth in frustration.
"Tch," muttered Sasuke. He didn't need to rein in the Kyuubi. Yet. The genjutsu puppetry leashes remained at his hand.
A string of ninjitsu hand signs evoked unease in the Konoha team as Pein just kept adding signs; invoking earth then metal then lighting -- A growth cycle of elements! Pein's next jutsu would decide the battle.
Sakura's scope solved the Gordian knot of Pein's chakra. "The post at the back of his neck! Get it out"
Sasuke: "TenTen!" She didn't respond; letting her actions speak for her. She would be better than she was the day before; better than even minutes before. Summoning another flying claw rope dart, TenTen pressed the soft end into Sakura's hand: "Hold this." Sakura complied, her vigilant eye remaining on Pein, wrapping the rope round the back of her hand as reinforced security in her iron grip. TenTen dashed into a wall run until the rope between her and Sakura could spread no more.
Sakura hauled the rope in; hurtling TenTen toward Pein. TenTen purposefully knocked against his shoulder so the back of his neck was exposed for the flying claw to grip and rip out the black rod.
Sakura caught TenTen and they watched on tenterhooks for the result of the critical piercing extracted. System disruption achieved! Yet Pein was continuing the sequence of hand signs: Dog. Snake. Tiger. Pause. Neji seized the moment, hijacking one of TenTen's shuriken, flinging it to fill the space between Pein's hands before they would close the final hand sign of Dragon. Pein defiantly persisted in pushing his hands together in spite of the metal star between them. "Your paltry efforts fail because none of you know the true pain of sacrifice."
Sasuke turned the Kyuubi off leash, focussing the full force of his mangekyo sharingan on Pein while his chidori-infused katana cut the offending hands off just in time for the Kyuubi to crush the body. The two parts of Pein tumbled to the ground. The hands had been less than a quarter-inch apart.
Slugs motored their way around, replenishing each of ninjas' chakra reserves. Sakura had worked with furious swiftness on the group's wounds, her unspoken self-imposed reparations for lateness.
"There's still Konan," Sasuke reminded Sakura as she folded the Akatsuki cloak she had been wearing. The pair retraced their steps in silence. Sakura's mind wandered. There was a lot of work to do. Rinnengan eyes to analyze; Pein bodies to dissect under autopsy; Tsunade would likely even give her auxiliary duties assisting Ino with Konan's interrogation because it might help with the Pein research.
Passing through the main fork in the hallway path, Sasuke hesitated. Not in the manner of someone unsure which direction they had come. The gravity of his pause turned her around to face him; her voice was perilously even: "You're not staying, are you?" It wasn't really a question. So he didn't respond.
Sakura's heart sighed. She laid her hands against his shoulders as if to change his mind by touch. The sigh grew to an ache when his body wasn't responsive. She bowed her head, touching her forehead on his chest, taking such liberties with him that still remained.
She had expected this. How her hands remained desolately gripping his shirt betrayed competing feelings which she had long ago forced to succumb to practicality. Too much had happened in too short a time; Sasuke hadn't had a chance to reconcile his ronin ways with re-engaging Konoha. His voice, the way he kissed her, his very presence had distorted reality and had ill-founded hope. Irony stained her thoughts: Despite her training, despite his desire for her, the last card in her hand left her bargaining. Again. "I'll come to you," Sakura said with restrained conviction.
Sasuke hesitated. Her boldness corroded his defences. He tentatively lowered his chin on her hair, non-committally; his hands on her hips a natural next step for how close they stood. A transient mood permeated the embrace. It was more difficult for him this time.
"Listen. Four people were responsible for the Uchiha massacre. Danzo was one. Two others still live. I'm not satisfied until they're dead."
"That's not an answer."
"You wouldn't like what I have to do."
Frustration welled up in Sakura. If he could be tenacious about what he wants, so could she. Every heartbeat of hers pointed in his direction. Even if he should go alone now, she would find her way to him.
A/N: This chapter was based on Nami86's drawing "my north south east and west".
As always, I thank you for reading. If you'd like to drop me a note or a comment about the story, I encourage you to! =D