Author's Note: Thanks so much to WingedMercury for beta-ing this TWICE. She is my savior and catches all of the many, many idiotic mistakes I make as well as pointing out plotholes and giving really helpful suggestions. I am so lucky to have her as a beta, and I encourage you all to read her popular story "Ain't Nobody Can Sing Like Me." It's funny and witty and the characters are IC.
Also thanks to blade-redwind for a wonderful critique and rec of this on their livejournal! *blushes* I'm so honored!
And, as usual, thanks to all of my wonderful, incredible reviewers. Y'all make the world go round!
Chapter Twenty Two: The Serpent and The Flower
The thing Hinata had always found most curious about the palace she had called home was that it never quite seemed to go to sleep. At any given hour, maids could be found bustling from one end to the other of the palace, changing sheets and towels and scrubbing unseen spots from corridors. The kitchen was always bubbling and brewing things; lately, her favorite chef, Chouji Akimichi, was always up at strange hours tasting and testing his latest creations. But the thing that truly never slept was her father: Emperor Hiashi.
It had been three in the morning when she'd crept by the enormous room he called his office. He'd been pacing, as usual, his boots clicking along the marble floor. Hinata had always found the decor of the office heartless and uninviting, with its impossibly high ceiling, narrow windows, marble floor and pale mint walls. Beautiful but soulless, just like the Hyuuga themselves. She waited, watching him pace through the crack in the carved door. At first she thought he might be speaking to himself, for he was talking in such a low voice, looking down at his shoes. Then she heard it: a soft voice, high but definitively masculine in a way she couldn't quite pinpoint, speaking to Hiashi.
"Your daughter's activity has been confirmed, Hiashi. If you crown her, you'll lose all power. You can try to play her as your marionette, but I think she is more than equipped to resist any attempts you throw her way."
Hiashi looked up, startled. "Hinata? Never. Hinata's too quiet, she has no backbone. She's as dangerous as a newborn kitten…" he waved his hand at his companion, which earned a laugh from the other man.
"Hinata is as much of a newborn kitten as I am, Hiashi," the other man replied, his voice dripping with disdain. He evidently found Hiashi foolish. Hiashi seemed to pick up on this, for he scrunched his face into a rather ugly scowl.
"Don't act like you know my daughter, Ennir," he threatened cruelly.
"It doesn't matter. The facts add up, and if you crown her, you'll lose everything. Better to play it like you can't find an appropriate suitor," said Ennir curtly. "Or Hanabi can remove Hinata entirely; she certainly seems keen on it." Hinata clapped her hand to her mouth to cover her gasp and watched as Hiashi's back straightened in apparent fear. The other man swayed into view. He was strolling about Hiashi's office, toying with different objects. Hinata had never seen her father afraid of a person before, but he was clearly afraid of Ennir.
Somehow, Ennir wasn't what she had been expecting. His untidy flaming hair was just short of covering his brow and eyes, which were the color of white wine. His skin was pale and entirely unlined, like porcelain. He was shorter than Hiashi and skinny enough to be just short of being 'runty.' Yet still he struck a more imposing figure than Hiashi. Hiashi was tall, broad-shouldered but elegant, with the classic square Hyuuga jaw, opalescent eyes, and thick dark hair which gleamed even in the meager light, falling pin-straight to his waist. He was wearing simple black robes that buttoned up the side with black silk covered buttons, and when he paced, they swished impressively. Ennir, on the other hand, looked like he might have rolled out of bed in his black short-sleeved undershirt, loose black pants, and undone black boots. But there was a certain energy in him, a certain electricity in his eyes that commanded attention.
"I trust Hanabi has been an excellent addition to your team," responded Hiashi levelly. He seemed to have regained some of his classic composure, though a muscle near his jaw twitched. Ennir scoffed.
"She's nearly as pathetic as you, emperor. She so desperately wants your undying devotion, which you soundly refuse her. And yet, though Hinata betrays you, you continue to shower her with love and affection. Why is that?" Ennir's voice was silky as he picked up a silver-encased frame that Hinata knew held a photo of her mother; Hiashi looked like he might be sick. "Could it be because your wife, the only person you ever loved, died in childbirth? You can never accept Hanabi because she represents the death of-"
"That's quite enough, Ennir," Hiashi said sharply. There was the slightest tremor to his voice. "Speak of that again and I will-"
"You'll what, Hiashi, kill me? I invite you to try," Ennir mocked him. "But I daresay you'll find that unlike Minato, Yahiko, Konan, and all the others….I cannot be killed so easily."
"You're human, just like they were," Hiashi retorted, baring his teeth in a cold grin at the other man. Ennir was unshaken.
"Well…not quite, Hiashi," he said with a grin. "And now, I expect you'll choose wisely. Never underestimate the quiet ones…You'll always regret it in the end. Oh, and you should know: Naruto Uzumaki is not half as foolhardy as his father was, and is more cunning than perhaps even the elder Uchiha boy. It will be impossible for you to get rid of him, and for me, it would be a job I should prefer to not take on, lest I lose."
On those foreboding words, Ennir retrieved something that turned out to be a long black cloak, and slung it around his slim form. Hinata ducked back just in time to escape to the darkness of the hall before she could be discovered; Ennir burst out of Hiashi's office, a grim hooded figure, like Death himself, and seemed to melt into the shadows of the palace. Hiashi stood in his office, shoulders slumped. In his misconception that he was alone, he allowed himself to show his true colors: a scared, perhaps defeated man. Something twisted in Hinata's gut and she backed away, away from her father's office. Ennir's words unsettled her; how had he known her plans?
Should Hiashi decide to follow Ennir's advice, she knew she was in grave danger…even worse was that Naruto was in danger as well, much more than he had ever been before. Naruto…pressing her hand to her heart, Hinata hastened back to her room. She'd been waiting, seeking the perfect time to act, and now she couldn't deny that the perfect time had presented itself. Hiashi disliked following others' advice, but now it was unlikely he'd give her free reign…in fact, she would be a puppet, and that would put her original plan to the dogs. You've been waiting, she told herself, now is your time to act. Throwing some things in a bag, the princess put on plainclothes and a mask, and stole off into the night.
"So basically, Sasuke and Sai have completely vanished into thin air, with absolutely no witnesses, and the only clue is that it's unlikely that they left Kalaia…though still quite possible," confirmed Shikamaru. It was quite late now and Sakura and Neji had spent the better part of an hour explaining everything to Shikamaru: the Memoralia sphere, chasing Sai, Sasuke and Sai's mysterious disappearance, and the evidence the two men had left behind. Shikamaru leaned against his desk, his arms crossed, his cigarette perched on his lower lip in a way that Sakura found distractingly intriguing.
"…That's about it," Sakura agreed with a shrug. They'd glossed over why she'd fallen, pinning it down to merely unhealed tissue, but Shikamaru's dark eyes kept flicking back to her, looking suspicious and unsatisfied with her answers. Heaving a deep, long-suffering sigh, Shikamaru pushed himself from his desk and gestured for Neji and Sakura to follow.
"I have a base in Kalaia; we can set up there for the night. I'll send a message to Itachi about where we are, and they can continue to search from the base. It's not the fastest thing, but it's the best we've got. I don't like this, guys," he was saying as he led them to a strange hole in the wall; abysmal darkness just beyond the aperture. He pressed in a combination on a keypad and with a somewhat grotesque sucking sound, a hemispherical cart arrived at the mouth, its underside revolving curiously as it spun to a stop. Shikamaru clambered aboard and they followed suit, and soon they were traveling nauseatingly fast in this cramped tube, making frequent hairpin turns and lurching into abrupt drops or rises. Sakura clenched her eyes shut and felt someone's hand on her back; somehow she instinctively knew it was Shikamaru and while she knew she shouldn't have allowed it, she pretended to not notice it. The contact was a comfort as her stomach tried to catch up with the cart.
Suddenly they were shot out of another opening and landed ungracefully on a cold, hard floor. The room was lit by fluorescent lighting and was low-ceilinged and furnitureless. "Okay, so maybe we need to fine-tune the Dervishcar." Shikamaru gave them a somewhat halfhearted thumbs-up, looking green about the gills. Sakura covered her mouth, afraid she might throw up; Neji suggested an anatomically unlikely place of where Shikamaru could stick his 'damn Dervishcar.' "We're underneath the Kalaia Hotel; we can take rooms upstairs for tonight and resume the search after we've all had a nap and some food."
Sakura began to protest, but Neji shot her a threatening look.
"You're in no condition to be pushing yourself, idiot," he said, scowling, as they followed Shikamaru into an elevator that did not match the decor of the basement at all. It was brass and creaked upward; designs had been welded around each bar, creating warm brassy foliage. The ceiling of the elevator was coffered brass with leaves and flowers punched into each coffer. As they rose, the first floor of the hotel came into view, and then disappeared. Sakura got a glimpse of marble, warm golden light, and crystal before they rose to the second, then third, then fourth, and finally the fifth floor. Plush red carpeting that looked like it had seen better days and glimmering wallpaper that was beginning to fade and peel greeted them. On each wall in between each pair of doors were brass and crystal sconces.
"It…must have been quite the place to stay in its day," Sakura said finally as a pleasant musical trilling was heard and the bars slid aside. Shikamaru chuckled, leading them to the end of the hall.
"It's a nice setup. Room service and huge rooms for my lab, constant influx of Fleurian currency for the hotel. I think they get the better end of the deal, but this is pretty sweet for me. Look, I get the master suite." He unlocked a wooden door with white and gold trim and held it open just long enough for them to take in the decor: a four poster canopy bed, mirrors and more brass and crystal, and a sliver of the view of the bathroom. "Nice, eh? You guys can take the room across from me and alternate naps." He unlocked the door across the hall to show a similar room. Without hesitation, Neji shoved Sakura in.
"No! I'm going to help find Sasuke-" Sakura began wildly, trying to push her way out of the room, but Neji and Shikamaru both barred her from leaving.
"No way. Take an hour nap. I'll call room service, and once you've had a square meal and your vitals have been taken, then you can help search. You were unconscious for it, but I carried your fat ass all the way up to the hospital wing, and believe me, it's not something I plan on doing again. Besides…don't forget what Shizune said," ordered Neji, casting her a meaningful look that she had the bad feeling Shikamaru had also seen and possibly interpreted. She sighed. Neji was right; she wasn't supposed to be pushing herself (or else she'd lose the child). Her eyes were also beginning to ache with the past several sleepless nights. Suddenly she noticed how heavy her body felt, how weighed down and exhausted she truly was.
"Fine. But I'm getting up in an hour," she warned them. Shikamaru gave his usual chuckle and Neji muttered something about 'damn women' before she turned and they locked the door. She heard them muttering in low voices, but she couldn't bring herself to care enough to try to listen. The intense emotions she had felt, the fact that she was likely Sasuke-less forever, and the fact that she was pregnant and still, at least emotionally, a virgin, overwhelmed her. She dropped onto the bed, too tired to even cry.
She woke up later, how much later she wasn't sure, to the feeling of fingertips against her forehead, like they were brushing away her hair. She groaned and scrunched her eyes shut more tightly before opening them to find Shikamaru sitting on the edge of her bed. He was looking out the window whilst absently stroking her forehead, the smoke from his cigarette beginning to make a stain on the papered ceiling. Pale light -perhaps it was dawn-cast his features in high relief. He didn't appear know she was awake, and she took a moment to take in her surroundings. She remembered falling asleep on top of the covers, but now she was underneath them, lying on her side. In the corner on a carved wooden chair, her boots and topjacket sat neatly on the cushion. He must have taken them off of her, she thought, feeling heat rush to her cheeks. A tray with some food and a pot of what was probably coffee or tea sat on a little table beneath the enormous windows, steam pouring out of the spout much like Shikamaru's cigarette.
"You're awake," Shikamaru said, glancing over his shoulder at her. Sakura made no move; it was such a strangely familiar feeling to be like this with Shikamaru, and her heart writhed painfully in her chest. Was it possible for your body to remember things that your mind had never experienced? She had the same brain and body as this world's Sakura, but her mind was different. How was it possible? How was she able to feel like she had woken up next to Shikamaru countless times before in her life?
She cast those philosophical wonderings aside, noting how tired Shikamaru looked. He looked beaten; downtrodden.
"I'm pregnant," she croaked, her voice quite hoarse. Shikamaru resumed staring out the window and nodded slowly.
"Hyuuga told me."
He looked miserable and she felt miserable. Everything was wrong, like the world had shifted one place over from where it ought to be, and she felt tense and uneasy. She had no idea of how to put anything right, because it was all wrong, all of it. The tension between her and Shikamaru felt alien and weird. It would have felt more natural to be friendly, or to indulge in the romantic history between them. This anger and awkwardness was wrong.
"Any word?" she finally asked, sitting up, the covers falling away. Her voice was beginning to clear a bit; Shikamaru dropped his hand away from her forehead and looked over at her again.
"Shikamaru-" she began awkwardly. She looked down, toying with the edge of the blanket. Shikamaru sighed.
"Whatever it is…I don't want to hear it. You always have your apologies, and I'm just not interested, Sakura." He sounded so tired and so disdainful that she wanted to curl up in on herself.
"I wasn't going to apologize. I was going to ask if you'd be the baby's godfather," she whispered in a little voice. Shikamaru's gaze snapped back to her again, his eyes wider.
"…He can be the godmother," she said with a wry grin, and there was some spark of warmth in Shikamaru's dark eyes. Suddenly, he had raised his hand to grasp her shoulder, and because she only had her tanktop on underneath her uniform, the contact was skin-to-skin. Something twingded in the pit of her stomach, perhaps lower.
"We don't have to do this anymore," he said softly, his eyes smoldering. "We can stop pretending. I'll forgive you for what happened with Uchiha; I don't even care that the kid isn't mine. I just want you back." He raised his other hand and placed it on the back of her head, and she found herself unable to look away from him as he drew her nearer. "It'll be a thing of the past," he continued. It was too tempting, to feel this kind of warmth and caring that she never felt from Sasuke. In her childhood crush's absence, she felt like she was falling, flailing. And it was this that felt even more wrong than anything else. She wanted comfort, she wanted someone to hold her, she wanted a kind of love that Sasuke could not provide for her. He was too broken, too selfish, too…cold. But Shikamaru was a normal guy. He was still capable of caring for her. Kissing Sai, and allowing Sebastien to dance with her…these things were all proof. She couldn't commit herself to Sasuke because she needed something he couldn't give…and he didn't want anything from her in the end. He'd accept her affection and the stability, but in the end, didn't he turn away?
She leaned in and closed her eyes, pressing her lips against Shikamaru's…and waited. Nothing. His fingers became tangled in her hair, and he drew her tighter to him, twisting onto the bed.
This will be better. I'm just scared for no reason, she told herself. As his tongue parted her lips, old memories that she hadn't examined for quite some time came to her. Using chakra to climb trees, and the pleasure she had felt when she had learned her chakra control bested both Sasuke's and Naruto's…and the look of jealousy in Sasuke's face. Then, at the chuunin exams, cutting her hair to win her fight and realizing that it didn't matter whether Sasuke liked her hair or not…then, giving every ounce of her life to becoming the best damn medic-nin there was after his betrayal…
Suddenly everything clicked into place. She was wrong. Sasuke did give her what she needed: the drive to propel herself forward, to change herself for the better. Every change in her life, both positive and negative, but especially positive, had been borne of something he had done. He wasn't going to ever really coddle her or baby her, or hold doors open for her or push in her chair…or stay awake watching her sleep and bring her food. But it wasn't what she needed, was it? Now that Shikamaru had brought her food and babied her, she felt weak, girlish, and was rudely reminded of the time she had spent trying to catch up to the boys of team seven. No, sweet nothings wre not what she needed. Sasuke was what she needed, because it was Sasuke that made her act, made her change herself. She didn't need someone who accepted her as she was, because then she'd never feel pressure to change herself, to improve.
Abruptly she pulled back from Shikamaru.
"This is wrong, and giving up on Sasuke so easily is not who I am," she said breathlessly. Shikamaru's expression had darkened. "I still want you to be the baby's godfather, and I appreciate how much you've cared for me…but I need to go find my husband now. I'm sorry for giving you the wrong idea."
Without waiting for him to answer, she stumbled out of the bed and yanked on her boots and ran to find Neji.
Kushina's limp ghost had been hanging there for quite some time before Sasuke or Sai recovered from the shock. She was transparent, so it couldn't possibly be an actual body, and as she'd been dead for at least fifteen years now, her body would have been at least partially decayed by now. But to see a ghost was enough to send Sasuke's mind for a spin, so he concentrated on the live manacles that enchained them.
"Sai, no way are these real snakes," he said finally, squinting and using what little light Kushina's silvery form provided to examine them. They looked more like robotic snakes than anything else, and Sasuke was reminded of the spider robot that he had fought in Kalaia weeks ago. He happened to have a way with snakes (they were his summons creature, after all) but he had no flute to charm them and somehow he doubted that snake charming would apply to metal serpents.
"That makes everything better," Sai said, and Sasuke couldn't tell for the life of him if Sai was being sarcastic or not.
"We need to figure out why Kushina's ghost is here. Any ideas? You did plant the memoralia sphere, after all," Sasuke ordered, sending a glare at the other man. Kushina provided just enough light to reveal that Sai was grimacing at the ghostly form.
"That's not a ghost. I think it's a projection…and I am assuming that it's here for someone who'd be affected by it. My bet is they're luring President Uzumaki here. It might be a projection from a lurelucerna?"
Sasuke considered how he might feel if he were in Naruto's position. To come here and think he was seeing Mikoto's ghost…he felt he might be sick again and he sank down against the wall, feeling cold perspiration slide down his face.
"So…I suppose the question is, how does one go about destroying a lurelucerna?"
He heard Sai laugh before he spoke, "you can't destroy a lurelucerna…at least not easily. I hate to remind you, Uchiha, but we're tied up and weaponless. We don't even know where the actual lurelucerna is."
"Well, it can't be far," said Sasuke grimly. His gaze roved over the chains holding up Kushina's form. "How are those things made?"
"A lurelucerna represents someone's deepest wish. You find out something that the person you're trying to lure still wishes for desperately, and you get a piece of that thing…and then, there's a complicated chemical reaction. They're not easily made. I suppose they must have exhumed Kushina Uzumaki's body. At any rate, the idea is that a lurelucerna represents that last, tiny, flickering hope that the victim might still get that thing they so desire. For President Uzumaki, his deepest desire might be to see his mother again."
It was such a sick and disturbing concept to Sasuke, who had spent so many years wishing to see his family again more than anything. But if I were to see them like this…he looked up at the ghostly projection again and felt his eyes burn with the threat of tears. Angrily he blinked them away and drew in a deep breath.
"Okay, so they're born of hope. We need to destroy that hope somehow."
"A simple thing, really. Let's just go and tell President Uzumaki that there's no way he'll ever see his mother again then," said Sai shortly. Sasuke's eyes widened.
"So you do know how to be sarcastic then!"
Silence filled their cell. Sasuke looked down at the snakes binding his wrists. His skin was beginning to burn where the snakes lay against it, and he tried to shake them, to reposition them in some way. But they only tightened, and the pain was becoming more and more uncomfortable. From across the room, he heard Sai moan in pain and slide down to the floor. Sasuke felt the same way; he wanted to lie down and give up. His body still ached from falling on the flagstone, and the wet grime was turning his stomach. The burning sensation from his wrists and legs was powerfully distracting. But you know about working through pain, don't you? a sly voice whispered in his head. Remember Susanoo? Itachi's eyes?
Suddenly he was glad for the pain to distract him from his own memories. He looked down at the snakes again, scooting closer to the projection to utilize the light better. The snakes seemed to be made of thousands of tiny metal scales that gleamed wetly. When he tried to pick at them, his nail caught on one of the pointed ends of one of the scales and was nearly ripped off. Swearing loudly, he began feeling the ground for where they might begin. They had to come from somewhere, right?
Just then, a metallic clanging sound-the sound of the bars being let up-broke the silence. Wet footsteps were distantly heard, and panic filled both Sai and Sasuke. It had to be Naruto, he thought to himself.
"Don't come any closer!" he called out, but something slithered up his face impossibly fast and gagged him. From the muffled grunting sound behind him he was sure the same thing had happened to Sai. Finally a shadowy figure slowed to a stop a few yards away from the mouth of the cell, standing stock-still.
"M-mom?" came a hoarse voice, and Sasuke fought with all his might against the snakes. If Naruto was captured, he somehow knew that this world was doomed. "What did they do…?" Naruto whispered, his boots slapping against the flagstone as he stepped closer. Sasuke tried to beat his manacles against the wall to catch Naruto's attention, but he knew it was too late. Sai himself had said this was a particularly powerful lurelucerna, and if he had been in Naruto's shoes, he would have been unable to simply turn away, lurelucerna or not.
Naruto walked forward, that same glimmer of rapturous hope that Sasuke had spotted in Sai's eyes. He stepped inside the cell, eyes wide and jaw slack, and just as he entered the cell, the bars hit the flagstone and he jumped, as though woken up from a daydream.
Dammit. We're gagged so we can't even explain what's happened. Sasuke watched helplessly as Naruto drew his sword, trying to fend off the snake-manacles, but of course, it was useless. Soon Naruto was pinned to the floor, chained and gagged, and now hopelessness settled on Sasuke. Kushina's ghost flickered and disappeared, and Naruto began fighting against his restraints wildly. Sasuke tried to spit out the gag and also fought against his manacles, and they tightened again, this time drawing blood with a searing, blinding pain.
Sasuke went limp against them momentarily, breathing in roughly through his nose. Why can't these be real snakes? Then they'd let go of me, he thought madly, and just as he thought it, the snakes loosened and dropped off of him. He waited, holding his breath, but it seemed as though Naruto and Sai remained bound by the snakes. Was this some new horror waiting to reveal itself? Did this mean he was the first to be executed or something? He waited for what seemed like ages, but nothing happened. Might as well try to move, he decided, and raised his hand to take out his gag, which was incredibly uncomfortable. The snake holding onto that wrist fell away, instead slithering around his torso rather comfortably.
It worked. He ordered mentally the other snake to relinquish its hold, and it twined itself around his arm. Let go of them, he though, rising, watching as Naruto and Sai looked at him sharply. The snakes relaxed and Naruto and Sai stood up wordlessly, rubbing at their wrists and staring at Sasuke in confusion.
"…What the hell is going on!" Naruto demanded immediately. Sasuke shrugged.
"When the snakes drew blood they stopped binding me," he explained. Sai quirked an eyebrow and held up his left arm, which had blood streaming from it.
"They got me a while ago and they never let go of me," he argued. Naruto's eyes widened suddenly.
"Of course…you're the youngest Uchiha!" he said, as though this made all the sense in the world. Sasuke blinked obtusely, but Sai seemed to be catching onto what Naruto was implying.
"The snake was Madara Uchiha's signature," said Sai calmly. He held up one of the snakes. "They must be using Madara Uchiha's technology. They got us with a lurelucerna, but I'm guessing they didn't count on taking Sasuke too…or they didn't realize Madara made Uchiha impervious to his gruesome inventions…"
"Go on, try commanding them again," Naruto encouraged. Bemused, Sasuke stared at the snakes that had dropped from Naruto and Sai. Come to me… and they began slithering along the floor. He held out his hands, palms up, and they slithered up to his hands and wrapped themselves around him in a caressing manner. "That is so freaky," Naruto complained, shielding his eyes briefly. "How can you stand them on you?"
Sasuke grinned, feeling powerful for the first time since coming to this world. He hated Madara's guts, but he couldn't resist the pleasure of receiving a gift unique to the Uchiha.
"Let's just say I have a way with snakes."