As Sakura raced across the beach with Anko, she mused on how quickly her situation changed on this mission, for better or worse. Anko's revelation that she had been posing as Zaku all this time was a mixture of both.
Sakura felt more and more regretful for leaving the village as Anko shared her tale. The village elders had been desperate to make a move on Orochimaru, weakened after his clash with the Third Hokage. It was a move that would rid the world of him once and for all. The plan was months in the making... Anko training to mimic Zaku's chakra-signature and speech patterns, adopting a disguise that went beyond any transformation jutsu Sakura had ever read about, and even utilizing her own curse mark to give her chakra properties more similar to those of Orochimaru's closest followers. When Sakura mentioned the note she found from Zaku in her bedroom that prompted her pursuit:
"When we were ready, we staged a fake jail-break," Anko explained. "Except I was the one who fled custody. Trust me, the real Zaku is still safely behind bars in a hidden prison. That's how I was able to infiltrate Orochimaru's circle."
She couldn't feel more duped. It didn't explain who had actually left her that note, but she would worry about that later.
"The important thing now is protecting that lighthouse," Anko had told them. "I don't know why but Orochimaru wants it destroyed. Tonight. I want all of you there defending it from ninja, boars and whatever-the-hell-else that bastard throws our way. Except for you, half-pint. I've got my own objective, and you're not leaving my sight until I do it."
And so they had parted ways from the other Leaf ninja, speeding from the beach and through the forest. Sakura hoped they were heading toward the town to lend aid there. More than ever, she wished for her teammates' company – for Sasuke's steady calmness, for Naruto's earnest charges that inspired hope in any dire circumstance. She needed them. But as they bypassed the road that would have lead into town, she knew Anko would not be taking her to them.
"Where are we going?" she finally asked.
"One sec," said Anko, alighting on a tree branch. She indicated for Sakura to join her. She retrieved a pebble-sized ball that exploded into a yellow smoke that washed over them. "Essence of boar hide... this'll mask your scent for days," she said over Sakura's coughing. "Don't ask me how Kabuto developed it, but it's what the Sound's been using to avoid those monsters. I gave one to Shikamaru's group too."
Sakura nodded. "We should take this to Sasuke and the others don't you think? He, Naruto and Choji are still in town fighting the boars sent there."
"Orochimaru's first priority is the lighthouse. He'll be sending enough boars to town only as a distraction. I'm not worried enough to waste time tracking them down. I need to get back into disguise now." Anko made a slew of complex hand signs, dark chakra humming over her skin. Sakura was certain she was using her curse mark.
"I thought that power was sealed," said Sakura, Anko's form now completely morphed into Zaku.
"Well I woke it back up," she quipped. Sakura guessed it took more to awaken this power than Anko would have welcomed. Yet another immeasurable risk she took on this assignment.
"I haven't undone all your work on this mission have I?"
Anko ran a hand through her now spiky hair. "Not if things end well for us tonight," she answered, with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Now, you're gonna have to look like my prisoner as we travel from here on out. Can't risk getting spotted by the enemy and having my cover blown."
Sakura hesitated but didn't resist as 'Zaku' tied her wrists together and confiscated her weapons case. Anko had taken her interference on this mission exceptionally well. Cooperating with whatever she had planned was the least she could do. "What does that snake-bastard want with you anyhow?"
"I couldn't say for certain. The last time he came after me, he thought my blood could heal his arms."
Anko nodded. "Is that all he wants with you? Can you think of anything else?"
Sakura contemplated this for some time then shuddered. "He seemed keen on keeping me after but that's all I could tell. So what's the plan?"
"I'll explain it to the both of you," she answered, pulling out a scroll, which she used to summon a second scroll. "This is how I've been communicating with the Hokage."
Anko opened the second scroll, and in a puff of smoke, Pakkun appeared before them. The brown dog faced each of them in turn before resting on Sakura. "You have no idea how much trouble you're in." She grimaced.
"No time for that, Pakkun," said Anko. "We gotta keep moving. While we do that, I'll have half-pint fill you in on what's happened while you hide inside that bag." She pointed at the maroon pouch that remained at Sakura's waist. "You should be small enough to fit. Your instructions are to stay hidden at all times, until the moment you are discovered or captured after which you will dispel the summoning and return to the village. That way, at least Tsunade-sama will have the most up-to-date information should we fail to return."
With a gulp, Sakura reported what had transpired, getting pulled along by her 'captor' as they went.
Another one bit the dust as Naruto drove his kunai into another target. This town was crawling with those crazy boars and, so help him, he'd fill the space with twice as many shadow clones if it meant keeping the townsfolk safe. Believe it.
Their mission itself started off boring enough, spying on boars and mapping trails where they were spotted. Sasuke's presence made things even worse. He tried taking Shikamaru's advice and talk things through with him, he really did. It wouldn't work but he resolved to try. Then he'd find himself walking up to Sasuke, with that stupid smug look plastered on his face, and he'd bail.
He realized belatedly how unlike him this hesitancy was. Since when was he afraid to speak his mind to anyone, least of all Sasuke? But the topic of this was Sakura. And whenever he primed his thoughts with that, all he could picture was her holding Sasuke. It happened ages ago, when Sasuke had awoken from his coma – why did it bother him now? Why did he feel like he got punched in the gut every time he thought of his best friends?
And now Sakura was here somewhere on the beach. It had taken all he had not to charge across the shore when Choji reported that she, Kiba, Hinata and Lee had followed them here vigilante-style. Sakura had orchestrated it; risking her life and her rank because she was convinced Sasuke was in danger.
There was that punched-gut feeling again...
But their orders were to protect the town, so that's what he did. He'd been separated from Sasuke and Choji a while ago in the chaos. They were supposed to get reinforcements from the village and he couldn't wait for them to get here. Not that he wasn't handling things awesomely – the army of shadow clones littering the streets evidenced that. But if back up arrived, maybe he could slip away and look for Sakura?
A boar charged across the street toward an elderly man, but Naruto made quick work of it before lifting the man onto a rooftop. "You'll be alright here. Those things can't climb for crud."
He'd had it with these animals. He would make more clones if he had to, send them far and wide to get rid of this menace.
Naruto grinned, raising his hands for another helping of Shadow Clone whoop-ass.
Anko and Sakura made their way through the forest, unheeded by the sporadic herds of boars they came across. Anko slowed their pace as they came upon a clearing with several smashed trees, pale-white spurs skewered earth and branches. It was eerily quiet, Anko examining the terrain. A battle had most certainly taken place here. As Sakura inspected the spurs she shivered, realizing they were made of pure bone. What experiment had resulted in this? And what new threat did it represent?
Anko motioned out of the clearing, Sakura trotting after her. She found what had drawn Anko's attention and stiffened, eyes frozen over the bloody figure limp in the dirt. Choji was motionless, impaled by daggers of bone.
"No," Sakura whispered, skidding to his side as Anko felt for a pulse.
"He's alive," stated Anko. "We can't remove any of these shards or he'll just bleed faster."
When Anko rose from her knees, Sakura faced her. "We can't be leaving him here to die? You can't..."
"I understand how you feel, but as shinobi we must choke our emotions in favor of the mission. It's our duty, to the village and to him as your fellow ninja. Or would you rather he gave his life for nothing?"
"He-He isn't dead yet," pleaded Sakura. "I don't get what we're doing out here, but whatever it is I'm just here so you can babysit me. I should leave you and take Choji to the medics in town while you complete your mission."
"That isn't an option, Sakura."
"And why not," she gritted, kneeling to place her tied hands on Choji's bloody one. The shallow rise and fall of his chest reaffirmed her resolve. "Shinobi who break the rules are trash. But those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash."
"Kakashi's one-size-fits-all answer doesn't cut it, kid. If I told you our success could spare hundreds, thousands of lives, could you make that statement so lightly? Think for yourself. You know I'm right."
Her grip on Choji's hand tightened as she absorbed Anko's words, absorbed the idea of leaving him to die. "Sa...Sa-suke..."
"Choji-san? N-No, it's me. It's Sakura. I'm here, I'm right here." She held his face to hers, his glazed eyes blinking back.
"Sasuke... gone." Sakura's heart leapt to her throat. "Gone," he rasped. "White ninja... bones... tried to stop..."
When he slipped back to unconsciousness, Sakura was heaved to her feet. "We're going," said Anko, her tone breeching no argument.
Sakura dragged her feet behind her, too stunned to object or move forward. Her mind was racing, stringing the situation together. Orochimaru was after Sasuke after all. What would he do with him? How long ago did this happen? How far did they get?
And Choji. Choji was dying, bleeding out on the dirt behind them. If that didn't kill him, the boars certainly would. But Anko just kept moving, herding Sakura along like cattle. She was more earnest now than ever to get to where she needed. More desperate...
"You..." she started. "You're... taking me to him. To Orochimaru."
Anko spared her a glance over her shoulder but plodded forward.
"That's why you've been delaying telling me your plans," continued Sakura. "That's why you were so insistent about what he could want with me. You wanted to be sure you weren't handing him something more precious than the Sharingan."
Anko stopped moving and turned on her. Her gaze was incensed. "Yes, and you're going to do exactly what I say. My mission was to kill Orochimaru. I've yet to even see him all these months, which meant resorting to using Sasuke as bait. Now he's been taken. If you care at all about him, about the village, you'll quit draggin' your feet and let me present you to him. It'll guarantee me an audience with him, I just know it. And I can slit his throat then and there!"
Sakura gazed at her wide-eyed, her legs giving way beneath her. She felt Pakkun nuzzle her from the back sympathetically. How could she be expected to do this, to surrender herself this way? She was almost prepared to do it on the beach with her friends in immediate danger. But to hand herself over while safely out here? Sakura shut her eyes, shaking.
Her thoughts circled to Sasuke, of his capture. She had come all this way to save him, hadn't she? Risked her life and even worse, those of her friends. She thought of Lee's broken body in the hospital, Ino swallowed by a swarm of insects, and of Neji who hadn't been seen since the beach battle began. Her friends had made sacrifices too.
"I'll do it," she whispered through gritted teeth, wishing she could have held back those words forever. "But you have to agree to something too." She stood to face Anko. "You can summon big snakes like Orochimaru can right? Summon one and have it carry Choji to town."
"Sakura," she sighed, "summoning large animals takes more chakra than I can afford right now."
"I'll summon it then. Anyone can summon a contracted animal once blood from the person who's made the contract is used. It's not like I'll be of any use in a fight against Orochimaru anyway."
"Is that all?"
"And," she continued, "you have to give your snake the remaining essence of boar you've got and have it explode them throughout town. Naruto's the only one left defending the town. It could save some lives."
Anko placed a hand to her chin. "Not bad. Summon my snake and it's a deal."
With a flick of her wrist, Sakura was untied with Anko's blood smeared on her hands. The seals for summoning were easy enough, and she hoped her chakra control would make up for her inexperience. She recalled what Naruto had told them about summoning after he'd learnt it, rubbing his success in Sasuke's face mostly. He toted how much focus was required, the clearest intent. She thought of what she sensed when Naruto had summoned the Chief Toad in the chunin exams – his chakra flowed in one pulse. That was what she needed now, a giant pulse of chakra.
With a pop and plume of smoke, a black snake appeared, barely human-sized. Sakura huffed as she watched it. There was no way this snake could carry Choji.
Reading her mind, Anko said, "You're not trying that again, half-pint. Listen, we'll use some of Kabuto's stuff on the boy to keep the boars away and send the rest to town with the snake. We gotta move."
And with that, Anko exploded a bomb on Choji, strapped the remaining anti-boar bombs to her snake, tied Sakura's wrists back together, and raced through the forest once again. A tear escaped her as Sakura's gaze lingered on Choji before he disappeared from view. It may be the last time she saw him, or any friend for that matter. She hoped this was the right decision.
Unbeknownst to the pair, however, they were not alone in this clearing. The figure had just spied the flurry of pink in his vision before they disappeared completely. It was impossible, yet he was certain of what he saw. And without further thought, he gave chase.
Sakura lost all concept of time as they traveled, yet felt it was too soon when Anko came to a stop. From the ground, the trees seemed clustered, towering overhead. She felt trapped, her instincts screaming for her to flea.
They heard someone's approach and Sakura spun so fast she cricked her neck. A spectacled man appeared through the brush.
"Jumpy aren't we?" he chuckled. "I must say it's been a long time, Sakura."
"Kabuto," she answered, hoping she sounded braver than she felt. His presence grounded her expectations into reality. She had been dreading running into Orochimaru all night. This was beyond imagining now.
"What of the rest them?" asked Kabuto.
"Who knows," said Anko, disguised as Zaku. The indifference in his tone was uncannily like the real Zaku. She had even mastered the trace of a smirk when he was being smug. "Those Leaf brats from the chunin exams complicated things. Me and this one go way back. I wanted to bring her in to Orochimaru-sama personally." Zaku heaved against Sakura's bindings till her wrists burnt.
"Very good," nodded Kabuto. "It's about time you made up for past failures. We'll proceed immediately. But first we must rid ourselves of the spare."
Sakura gulped, her thoughts on Pakkun who had been tucked away in her bag, eavesdropping. Was Kabuto going to kill him?
In an instant, a kunai fled from the medic's hands and into a tree behind them, a body crashing seconds later. Sakura's heart all but stopped when the boy came into view, Kabuto hauling him by the hair, a kunai in his shoulder. "No, not you..."
Naruto met her hardened expression with his, taking in everything about her – her bruises, the grime of her clothes, her eyes wide with fear. "Sakura-chan, I will save you. I'm coming." Before he could say more, Kabuto twisted his kunai and the form of Naruto exploded in a puff of smoke.
"A shadow clone," whispered Sakura, her gaze transfixed on the point her best friend disappeared.
"I wouldn't hold my breath," said Kabuto tersely. "Even though the real Naruto now knows this location, he doesn't know how to find the entrance." He walked to one of the tree roots, and in response to some hand signs, the ground below one of the roots lifted, revealing a narrow stairwell leading underground. "Shall we?"
Zaku shoved Sakura forward. She resisted fervently when he tried to get her through the entrance, until he apparently lost his patience and threw her down the stairs.
"It won't do to treat our guest this way," sighed Kabuto as they walked down to join her and closed the entrance.
Sakura remained face down in the dirt, biting back a groan. Zaku seized her arm and hauled her to her feet. Her numb legs almost gave way beneath her, and it was all she could not to cry, her desperate gaze on 'Zaku.' She had just marched into her prison. Whatever fleeting hope Naruto's appearance had cajoled would not reach her here.
"Get moving," growled Zaku, forcing her to find her feet.
She was shunted further into the shadowy bowels of the underground, the stale air damp and choking. The walls were stony ice on her shoulders when she stumbled into them, punctuated by moments of sharp heat around the torches that lined the hallways.
"You're terribly quiet, Sakura," piped Kabuto after several minutes. "Our facilities aren't to your taste?"
"You could use a window or two," she managed through chattering teeth. "I don't quite care for the help either." She gave a pointed look to Zaku, and he jerked her restraints and sent her to her knees.
"A means to an end. There are wonders to this place you cannot imagine. Miracles of science the average citizen would never appreciate."
Science in the hands of someone as deranged as Orochimaru left no room for miracles. There were stories among Leaf shinobi, that Orochimaru had engaged in unorthodox experimentation during his time in Konoha, even involving human subjects. His involvement in the engineering of lunatic animals was not a huge leap. "This is where he created the boars isn't it."
"He created? Orochimaru-sama was the architect of its design. The product was forged from the pains of my labor. Years of investigation."
Though his face was a mask, Kabuto's eagerness was palpable. "And all you could manage was breeding oversized pigs with an expiration date?"
Kabuto gave no response, but she knew she had struck a nerve. Pakkun was still hidden in her bag, which meant any information she gathered would reach Tsunade's ears. But she had to admit that even more than that, she was urged on by an upwelling of recklessness.
"They barely make it 20km from here before they die, at most," she continued when she found her voice again. "A lifespan of just a couple days at best. Was that what all those pains amounted to?"
Kabuto halted, his face hidden in shadow. His chuckles echoed the halls. "Oh Sakura, playing on a scientist's pride in his work." He turned to her, his features gleeful. "For your underhandedness, you get a treat."
"Oh come on," said Zaku, almost bored. "I thought we were taking her to Orochimaru-sama. Don't you dare delay this and take all the credit later, Kabuto."
"This will take but a moment," he responded. "Do you know, Sakura, why these creatures were created?"
"War," she said through clenched teeth, her rash courage vanishing under Kabuto's lens.
"Hmph, a lazy response. Yes we had intended to use our enhancements in the attack on Konoha during the chunin exams. They were to be a fighting force, programed to attack any human who did not carry their essence, their presence and numbers undetectable by the ninken so ubiquitous to the Leaf. But their lifespans were an issue, and they are not suited for long distance travel. We would have been unable to make the journey with them so, alas, no enhancers were present during the attack.
"But the shinobi way resides under the blanket of war. I am asking from a scientific perspective. Why were these boars, as you call them, created? What problem were we trying to solve?"
Sakura wordlessly followed Kabuto down another barely-lit hallway, her heart in her throat. They had passed countless doors since entering the underground, she realized belatedly. She had been so focused on which one led to Orochimaru, she didn't consider what lay behind all the others. Dread coated the walls and boxed her further in this prison, robbing her of air and light.
"To answer this question," Kabuto continued, stopping at one of the doors, "one must first understand how these creations are made." The door opened with an eerie cry and the group stepped inside.
The room was lit by endless rows of cylindrical glass tanks, the fluid inside a luminescent green. Each tube carried something inside, and Kabuto pushed Sakura closer. There was a boar suspended in each, attached to a breathing mask and various lines. While some looked exactly like what she had been slaying all night, others carried stranger features. Some were without tusks or lacked the hog-like girth, while others were hairless, or almost smooth skinned. Sakura froze over the next one, a small body curled and un-proportioned, his face coarse, with stubby fingers where she expected hoofs to be.
"The human body is limited," came Kabuto's voice. "Our advantage lies in our evolved intellect, and those who lack this represent waste. I seek to correct this error."
"All those... what we've been fighting, they were all..."
"Once human, now much more." Kabuto rested his palm on the glass of the boy Sakura had been watching. "They were throwaways - war orphans, addicts, homeless, mentally ill, even criminals. They would never amount to anything, only drain the system and take from productive members of society. This serum I've invented puts their bodies to actual use. I've given them a higher purpose."
Sakura doubled over, retching until she could taste bile. Her very bones rattled and shook with the rhythm of her heartbeat as she stared blankly.
"This is the kind of visionary Orochimaru-sama is," said Kabuto as he knelt to her level. "You would do well to remember this when you speak." He took a handkerchief and wiped her face, clearing her tears.
"Now, let's not keep our master waiting."
He was surprised.
Flitting through this fog-blanketed forest to the beach, his two siblings in tow, he thought about her actions. She seemed calculating in the chuunin exams, too smart to resort to such rash decisions. He had noticed a reckless streak when it came to her friends too. In that regard, maybe her activities tonight really weren't unexpected. Haruno Sakura put herself second for those she loved.
He had been thinking a lot about that word, about love, ever since the exams. To put another's needs before oneself – the definition was straightforward. To deny oneself. But, was love a selfless act? The definition would suggest it, the sacrifice involved made it seem obvious.
Still, love is an innate need to the human condition. It offers connection, extends a warmth and light to ward away the loneliness and despair. For family, it is oftentimes a compulsion. From this perspective, is the act of love not a self-serving one as well? His own siblings stood by him despite his mistreatment, despite all the pains he caused. Was this selfless or an obligation, since, how could they stand living with themselves otherwise? Were these acts of love a choice at all?
"Gaara, do you feel that?"
He turned to his sister and nodded. "There is blood in the air. What's more, the webbing on the trees that surround us is unusual. We must not touch them."
A minute more and he spotted the bodies – two males splayed motionless on the dirt, boars encircling them. Gaara's sand shifted between them instantly, squeezing and crushing any creature that charged at the unconscious ninja. Temari and Kankuro leapt to their sides and lifted them safely into the canopy, examining each in kind while Gaara eliminated the boars.
"This one's alive," said Kankuro, "judging by the twisted up look of his chest, I'd say it wasn't a boar that knocked 'em out."
"The two were in combat," finished Temari, laying the bizarre six-armed ninja she'd saved. "I recognize he's the Byakugan-user from the Leaf. Which would make this one his opponent, a Sound ninja no doubt. He is also breathing, though barely."
Gaara joined them in the trees, silent at first. With a cast of his hand, a blade of sand sliced through the Sound ninja's neck and ended him.
"Gaara," said Temari, jumping back in terror. She composed her expression a split-second later, reminding herself that this was no longer the Gaara who spilled blood because he could. Yes, these days she rarely saw enjoyment in his face when he took a life. "He could have made for a valuable prisoner."
"His information would have been useful in the future, it is true," Gaara began. "However, the message we received from the Hokage asking for aid described chaos across this town, to distract from the enemy's target, the lighthouse. I would hate for this man to use the chaos while we are fighting as a distraction to flee. And he would go on to destroy the lives of others. Then the Byakugan-user's sacrifice would also have been in vain."
Temari nodded wistfully. She hardly knew who her brother was anymore. At times it felt like he didn't know either. "We should still carry his body back. I'm sure it holds some information, even dead."
"Agreed. Kankuro, carry the two toward the village. Secure the Leaf ninja at the hospital and lend aid against the attack as you see fit. Temari and I will continue to the lighthouse. I sense our Leaf comrades are there now."
"Sure. Do you think Baki-san's theory on their interest in the lighthouse is true?"
"It seems to hold some merit, considering his knowledge of the area. This coast is a point of much trade, and Orochimaru seemed to have intimate knowledge of it during their dealings. Baki believed his interest meant the coast might play a role in the joint attack on the Leaf those months ago, which lead Baki to independently investigate it himself. We should share his information as soon as possible. Let us go."
Sakura was a specter floating into this final chamber. She blandly registered how similarly the space was to a hospital room. There were bags with fluid propped near silent monitors, and trays of needles and medical equipment she noticed with a squirm. A bed stood in a darker corner, its sheets wrinkling to life.
"At long last, our guest of honor."
Orochimaru remained in the shadows, though she was steered closer by Kabuto, for his inspection she guessed. Anko as Zaku was with them, and she wondered when the jounin would choose to strike. What would her own role be in the attack?
"You appear worse for wear, Sakura-chan. With your cooperation, the remainder of this night will be smoother."
There was a white-haired boy in another corner of the room near a wooden barrel. The only other person besides Kabuto, he was a sentinel. Would he get in Anko's way? Signal for reinforcements?
It was then Sakura came to realize: she and Anko would not make it out of here tonight.
A snap whisked her into the moment, Kabuto's hand squeezing her shoulder. "Remove your eyes from your shoes and look at Orochimaru-sama when he speaks to you."
Sakura reluctantly stared forward, facing the sannin for the first time. "The poor child has suffered much tonight, Kabuto. Cut her some slack."
Orochimaru was cloaked in shadow, but she could make out a strain in his stature, finally noticing the breathless rasp in his speech. And as these things dawned on her, she was re-submerged in a wave of recklessness.
"I'm not the only one suffering," she coaxed through her teeth. "You didn't look well when we met months ago. I can only imagine how things are for you now, sitting in shadow, so afraid to show your condition to your enemies."
Kabuto's grip on her shoulder tightened but she didn't waver, didn't flinch. "Have your followers seen you this way? Or is it only Kabuto who gets the pleasure of being your nursemaid?"
It was Zaku who grabbed her, twisting her arm behind her so quickly she thought it would snap. She moaned and jerked but he only held her harder. His interference was deliberate, Sakura thought. It offered Anko an opportunity to step away from the walls and in closer range of her target. And her further resistance forced Zaku closer and closer to Orochimaru as he got control of her.
"I'd warned you about minding us," growled Kabuto.
Sakura swerved to glare at him, but Zaku spun her to him. She swung her bound fists, which he caught and twisted, sending her to the ground with a snap. A whimpered curse escaped her lips, and she realized Anko had just broken her wrist. A kick to the gut and Sakura was roiling in even more pain. Their charade was more than believable without this cruelty, and she wondered that perhaps Anko was more upset with her interference on this mission than she was letting on after all.
Through wet eyes, Sakura noticed the ropes that now bound her wrists were nicked. Her frustration vanished, and she hoped her body language didn't betray her realization that this was it. Anko was going to strike any minute. And she had to be ready to help however she could, or else keep her head down and not get in the way.
"Was that necessary?" mused Kabuto. When Sakura didn't get up, he bent down to assess the damage. "Let me see it." She kept her hands curled under her body, fidgeting with her bindings and not suppressing how much pain that was giving her. "Stop moaning and let me-"
Zaku was before Orochimaru in a flash, his kunai submerged in the sannin's left chest. He was using his other hand to strike at Orochimaru's neck when a snake snapped out of his mouth and grasped at the kunai, holding the weapon in place.
In the same breath, Sakura head-butted Kabuto in the gut, knocking him to the ground. The white-haired ninja who had been in the corner flitted to Orochimaru like a ghost, a bone-white staff in hand. Zaku leapt to avoid the jab, releasing a seal that triggered the kunai in Orochimaru's chest to explode.
The sannin's cry echoed through the room, an eroded well of blood where his left shoulder used to be, the arm nowhere in sight. He hunched in bed, gasping and coughing.
"Collapsed lung," gritted Kabuto, back on his feet. Sakura was barely free of her restraints before standing in his way. His hands hummed with chakra, and Sakura knew from his fight with Tsunade months ago that this was his Chakra Scalpel.
Sakura danced around his jabs, making strikes of her own to his torso or face wherever there was an opportunity. Without a weapon, there was no way to block his Chakra Scalpel without injuring herself. And Kabuto was pushing them closer and closer to Orochimaru.
Meanwhile, clangs and cracks resounded from the other side of the room, the white-haired ninja keeping Zaku from advancing toward Orochimaru to finish what he started. "You will pay for this betrayal," declared the ninja.
"Don't waste your breath on a reprimand, Kimimaro," called Kabuto, the entire room within his focus. "We were fooled by an impostor."
Zaku's façade melted away into Anko's, her face lit with determination. "Get out of my way you mindless zealot." She bounded backwards and slammed her palms to the ground, releasing a slew of snakes onto Kimimaro. His body erupted in shards of bone, and he spun and struck in what almost resembled a dance, avoiding every bite while puncturing the reptiles in his wake. His body was sprayed with red and black, and Anko took this cue for her follow-up attack.
"Fire Style: Dragon Flame jutsu!"
A stream of fire erupted from Anko and along her line of snakes to Kimimaro, exploding on contact with the oils smeared and lingering in the air. The super-heated ball of flame was blinding in the dark space, the shockwave knocking both Kabuto and Sakura backwards.
The fires cleared as quickly as they came, a charred statue remaining. Sakura watched in shock as this figure began to straighten itself from its braced position, his body made entirely of blackened bone. The air reeked of burnt flesh and hair, and she wondered if that was why this deformed skeleton was all that remained.
"Your fire cannot melt bone," said Kimimaro. "You will not come near my master. I will go beyond all limits of the Kaguya clan to ensure it."
Kimimaro and Kabuto rushed at their enemies. Sakura was taken by surprise, using her broken wrist to block the Chakra Scalpel with a shriek. Anko dodged shards and strikes with increasing difficulty in her fatigue. The strain of holding her disguise these weeks was finally getting to her, and it was a matter of time before Kabuto would get passed Sakura and heal the snake-bastard.
But Orochimaru had to fall. She decided long before this mission – she would give up all she had if it meant her former sensei's demise. This was more than a village mission. As a former follower, unknowing of his cruelty or not, this was her responsibility.
Orochimaru turned in her direction, as if sensing her thoughts. His bloody grin stoked her fury. She loathed all that he was, and all the parts of her that existed because of him. Orochimaru knew her core, in ways not even Kakashi could touch. Her nights with him were nothing but weak attempts to convince herself this was wrong, that should could be close to someone else. But real intimacy? Someone like her could never offer that. Her past and future would always be tethered to her former master. And killing him would set her free.
Anko made her final hand signs, her body surging with chakra. Markings appeared across her body, the power so familiar to what Sakura sensed from Sasuke's curse mark. But these marking were discrete symbols, Anko's own chakra commanding the flow.
"You've made it into your own," laughed Orochimaru, watching her with pure delight.
"Those are explosive symbols," gasped Kabuto. "She's going to blow up the entire building. Break the circuit now!"
Kimimaro forced himself through the hot waves of energy that lashed and degraded his bony armor. He managed a stake to her side, but Anko did not flinch. Hands clasped, she stepped around the ninja so that she would be as close to Orochimaru as possible. "I'm finishing this, you bastard."
It was evident that flesh wounds would not stop this woman. Kimimaro understood her passion, but it did not exceed his own. His Curse of Earth flared over his body, transfiguring him into what resembled a brown, spiny dinosaur. His arm was engulfed in a spear-like shaft of bone.
"Clematis Dance: Flower."
He swept at Anko's back with the precision of one who understood bones. His spear sliced through waves of chakra, burying itself into the center of her spine, splitting it with a crunch and a snap. With a cry, Anko crashed to the ground, her seals and chakra erasing from her body. There was intense, electrifying pain where the spear had entered. And dead nothingness everywhere past it. She could not move her legs. She could not feel the ground.
Kabuto blew past Sakura in his dash to Orochimaru, and all she could do was watch Anko writhing in the dirt, Kimimaro reverting to normal and gasping on his knees, looking near death himself. Her only option left was mouthed by Anko when their eyes met.
"Don't be in such a hurry, Sakura-chan," called Orochimaru. His eyes were on her even while Kabuto was repairing the hole that was his chest. The sannin must truly be a monster. A human body would have expired by now. "Or are you going to leave Sasuke-kun behind?"
Her feet froze. In the immediate chaos, there was no room to think about Sasuke. She never imagined she'd have a chance to escape this night. But Choji had confirmed it – Sasuke really had been abducted just like she feared he would.
"Where is he?" she demanded, not needing to feign courage this time. She was too numb.
"Right behind you." He gestured to the wooden barrel she noticed earlier, a strange choice for a cell. But then, this was Orochimaru.
"I don't sense..." Sakura paused, calming her breathing so that she could feel right. "I don't sense anyone in there."
"That's because he's dead," chuckled Orochimaru, reveling in the fear he evoked even as he coughed more blood. "Temporarily anyway. If you break him out of that vessel, he will remain that way. And seeing as you lack the brawn to carry him inside a load of timber, I believe we have a deal to discuss."
The sannin went into another fit of coughing, looking increasingly worse despite Kabuto's healing efforts. The medic-nin shook his head. "Allow me to speak on your behalf, my lord."
Kabuto faced her blankly. "As you realize, even before this Leaf jounin's explosive interference, Orochimaru-sama is not well. His current body is degenerating beyond any medical interventions, and he now requires another."
"Our master is an immortal, Sakura. He maintains this by taking over another person's body every few years. And this must happen again. Tonight"
A chill struck her, and she fought the urge to throw up again. This went beyond any violation she had imagined the sannin capable of. But she had to swallow and plow on. "And... that body is in this room, isn't it?"
"The body required must possess his curse mark, so you are safe," continued Kabuto. "It must also be in fair general health. As it stands, there are two ways this night can unfold. You get to decide how.
"You can stay, and offer your blood to cure this ninja, Kimimaro, who is wracked by an illness at this time. Without it, he would be dead in days, meaning so would Orochimaru-sama if he took over his body tonight. But with your blood and our lord's regenerative powers, this would be avoided.
"Alternatively, you could choose to run, to leave your comrades and escape. In which case, the body used would be that of your teammate, Sasuke. If you asked me, the choice is easy."
The room waited expectantly for her to speak, and Sakura just stared at them. Anko heaved herself by her torso. "Get out of here, half-pint, and don't look back," she yelled. "Giving them Kimimaro, it's exactly what they want. The Kaguya clan's kekkai genkai in his hands... No one would be able to take him down."
"What argument is that?" asked Kabuto calmly. "Giving us the Sharingan now would be just as bad if not worse."
"Don't think we don't know about that body snatching jutsu," gritted Anko. "Listen to me, Sakura. Orochimaru can only hold onto a body for three years before it rejects him completely. He doesn't want Sasuke now because he's still just a kid with an immature Sharingan. He'd be weaker that way, and waste time holding onto a body that hasn't reached its prime."
"But healing Kimimaro would mean you'd have three years to save Sasuke," countered Kabuto. "Isn't he your friend? Isn't he the one who matters most to you, Sakura?"
Sakura held her face in her hands, Anko and Kabuto arguing back and forth on the merits of each choice. And then, she started to laugh.
The ninja halted their speeches and she continued her hollow laughter. She revealed a face wet with tears that seemed equally empty, and she flicked them aside. "Why do I try?" she asked, and in that moment felt the weight of her helplessness, of this decision that wasn't really a choice.
"You ninja... you twisted people. You know what I'll do but pretend to ask. Just another way to torture us. Of course I'll save Sasuke. I'll always save Sasuke. I risked everything already to save Sasuke. And you know what, it got me pretty damn far. After everything that's happened, for all my fear, I'm still standing here. Because of that wish to save him.
"I look at you," she continued, watching Kimimaro and Kabuto. "You're still standing too, but out of some blind devotion for someone most people would soundly title Number One Scum of the Earth. I might be making a mistake for his sake. But the lengths you go for such a monster... I rather be in my position than yours."
"This is a mistake, Sakura," pleaded Anko. "You aren't a school girl anymore."
"What I am is a shinobi. I choose this because I believe it is right. You might be able to cast Sasuke's life aside, but I see the potential in it. Which is why I won't blindly agree."
Sakura leapt to the sealed barrel, her hands on the lid. "I want your word – if I surrender myself and give you my blood, you will not take Sasuke tonight. If you can't promise that, I'll lift this seal and run. He'll stay dead, and you won't have Kimimaro's body to slither into either. I rather Sasuke die than have you take him away. He'll stay with us, and one day we'll use the Sharingan to take you down."
Kabuto's expression was taut, while Orochimaru's chuckle echoed between them. "The fledgling is finally showing some bite. And I truly believe you would do everything you've said."
The sannin watched her in purest fascination, and she stared him down unflinching. "Very well, Sakura-chan, you have my word. When Sasuke-kun awakens, he will be free to leave tonight. But tonight only."
"And you can't hurt Anko-sensei," said Sakura. The jounin was livid, but remained quiet all the same.
"If she gives us no further problems, we shall reciprocate," said Kabuto, motioning toward a chair in the room. "Now come this way. We must extract your blood immediately."
Sakura inhaled deeply before surrendering herself into position. She was seated before a table of needles, tubes and empty bags. Kabuto's practiced hands were on her, tying off her arm and searching for a vein. "I couldn't help but notice you failed to negotiate your own freedom after this. Are you such a saint that it didn't cross your mind?"
"I didn't think I could. I figured you'd say you might have to take me anyway. Since you could need more blood than I can give in one night. Am I right?"
"Well you aren't wrong. We could have said that, and it would be true."
His cryptic answer hung in the air as he pierced her arm and allowed her blood to drain. The cool tube coiling down her arm became hot, which gave her an eerie sense of her life literally slipping away.
She barely registered the sudden scuffling behind her, turning in time to catch the black snake lunging towards her. Its fangs sunk painfully deep before Kabuto ripped it off and skewered it.
"What did you do?" roared the medic-nin, glaring at Anko before tending to Sakura's injured arm.
"Her blood's no good to you poisoned like that," said Anko, looking triumphant even as Kimimaro retaliated with a kick.
"But why?" whimpered Sakura, painful heat gripping her entire arm now. "Now they're going to..."
"I know you, Orochimaru," she declared, returning the sannin's glare with her own. His displeased demeanor thrilled her. "Yes, I know you very well. No deal is what it seems. You always have an angle, some string you're pulling to get what you want that no one sees until the end. I'm not playing this game. The only way to defeat you is to refuse you, to take away what you want without compromise. You want Kimimaro now and Sasuke later. I've made sure that is no longer possible, bastard."
Sakura cringed, fire clawing through her body now. "Keep draining her," spat Orochimaru as Kabuto motioned to remove the equipment.
"My lord, she-"
"Her blood can be purified afterwards," he tsked. "Snake poison is child's play for you, Kabuto. Administer the antidote to the girl but do not halt the draining. Kimimaro can use her blood once you've purified it."
"S-Sir," he started, preparing collecting vials to mix together an antidote even as he struggled with his words. "The blood won't be ready tonight. Not in time for the body transfer."
"I will not be taking Kimimaro," he croaked. Sakura whipped to face him, and the sannin's face split into a bloody grin. "And I will not be taking Sasuke-kun."
All eyes were on him as he rose from his bed, twisting his neck as if working out a kink in it. The full form of him was disturbing, his torso blood-drenched with a gaping hole on the left and a blackened, cachectic arm on the right. Yet he kept twisting his neck.
"The only humans left in this hideout are in this very room. And as Kabuto said, the body I require must hold two things – a curse mark, and health well enough to sustain my life for years to come."
His gaze rested on the jounin lying on the ground. Anko's face blanched to white and Orochimaru snickered, licking blood from his lips.
"You will finally fulfill my purpose for you, Anko-chan."
A/N: I hope these two chapters were a worthwhile read! As for what you can expect for future updates, I'll re-iterate that I am still writing, and I will finish this story... it really is coming to a close in just a couple more chapters (crazy!).
My unending gratitude to the readers who are still checking in, who still enjoy reading this, who have even been with this from the very beginning. Your encouragement is what motivates me to take what free time I have to put some things to paper and gradually chip away at the telling of this story. I can't say when the next update will come as I hate false promises, but this story is still on my mind, as are all of you. Until next time!