Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
A/N: A little note on the timeline. Pein's invasion of Konoha is delayed by five years, giving our ninja time to mature into adults. The actual invasion will occur during the course of the story. Everything before that is nearly the same, except the time limits on the sealing jutsu, of course. The events that happen during the invasion and everything after is a complete departure from canon.
Warning: The first half of this story is going to be very dark in nature. We are talking about Hidan here. So, if you are sensitive, please don't read it. I don't want flamed for something you were adequately warned about!
Shades of Crimson
The woods were still and quiet. Birds were silenced by the oppressive mid-afternoon sun. Few animals scurried across the dry earth, baked hard in the summer heat. No breeze stirred to relieve the pensive hush that echoed through the trees. It was as if the world were holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. Only the slightest spike of chakra signaled the arrival of a visitor to this rarely disturbed section of forest.
The ground rumbled slightly as a figure began emerging from the ground. Hard greenery could be seen first, followed by softer material in black and red. Mandible-like appendages parted, and hard golden eyes quickly scanned their surroundings. Satisfied that everything was as it should be, Zetsu dispelled his jutsu and stepped forward. Spying his objective, a sunken pit in the middle of the clearing, he walked to the edge and peered downward.
The chakra seals and hidden traps had long ago weakened and dissipated. It had been five years, after all. It seemed that no one had bothered to come out and replace them in that time. Brave tufts of grass poked out between the barren rocks in the middle of the pit, taking nourishment from the decaying leaves and deadfall of the previous autumn. With a heavy sigh, Zetsu bent down and began the task that would deem his mission a success.
As he manually began removing the stones from the pit, his thoughts began to swirl and wander, and soon his two halves were deep in a muttered conversation. "Silly fools, they shouldn't have left this place so unguarded. Maybe, but who's the bigger fool? We're the ones that are desperate."
"Don't sulk. I'm sure Leader-sama has a good reason for this mission."
"I hope so. You remember how annoying he can be."
"That is true. Just be glad we're keeping busy. It's been a long time since we got to do anything interesting."
"Yes, but we're not the best one for this. He should have sent Kisame."
"He is strong, but his chakra would have been more easily detected."
Zetsu fell silent as he continued his task. He had removed enough earth to be able to jump down into the pit and continue from there. A fine sheen of sweat appeared on his divided face as the heat started to affect him. An hour passed and he continued on. The faster he completed his mission, the better. He was just about to stop and rest when he picked up a large stone and discovered something lying underneath that was definitely not a rock. A triumphant smirk crossed his lips as he examined it. It was a foot.
Badly damaged, but very recognizable. The sandal and cloth surrounding the appendage had nearly rotted away, but the flesh underneath was surprisingly intact. Pulling a large sack from beneath his cloak, Zetsu gently picked up the foot and placed it inside. Setting it in one corner of the pit, he turned back around to search some more. A few tossed rocks later, and he spied bits of dusty silver poking out. Clearing away more rubble, he picked up Hidan's head.
It was exactly the way he remembered it. Smooth face, thin eyebrows and angled features. There were dark lines running down the corners of his mouth, where he had evidently bled and it dried. His hair was a good deal longer, reaching to where his shoulder blades would have been, had they been attached. His eyes were open, the amethyst color clouded and frozen. There was no detectable life to be seen.
With a shrug, Zetsu dropped the head into the bag with the foot and moved on. Another hour and he reached the floor of the pit. After meticulously going over every inch of it, he was satisfied that he found everything. Tying a knot in his now bulging sack, he tossed it over his shoulder and jumped out of the pit. He started walking off through the woods, unable to use his traveling jutsu with such a large load. It irritated him, having to go so slowly, but it couldn't be helped. With a sigh, he kept a lookout for enemy ninja while he thought about the mission he was assigned to immediately following his return.
"Stop, Ino! Not like that, like this." Sakura said, bringing the blonde to a quick halt. Stepping forward, the pink haired kunoichi placed her hand over the melon they were practicing with. Her fingertips glowed a soft green as she expertly knitted the gash in the rind closed. While she worked, she explained the technique...again. They had just started Ino's daily training session at the hospital, and already things weren't going well. For some reason, her friend seemed more distracted than usual.
Sakura had barely stepped back when Ino, in a fit of anger, drew her kunai and plunged it into the melon, ripping a deep, ragged gash in the fruit. Glaring, she stuck her tongue out at it. It was childish, she knew, but she couldn't help it. It was her fourth try already, and she seemed to be getting nowhere. Releasing a frustrated sigh, she placed her weapon back into its pouch and let her hand hover as she tried to mold her chakra again. This time, when she sent her chakra into the rind, the seeping cut responded, slowly but surely closing the gap as it knitted together from the ends. Ino smiled triumphantly.
"Like this?" she asked in an excited voice.
"You got it!" Sakura cheered her.
Sakura's happy smile soon faded when she heard a cough sound from the doorway. Turning her head, she nodded to the masked ANBU standing there, waiting for their attention. Ino looked up as well, the hard earned green glow receding from her fingers. The ANBU studied the girls from behind his mask for a moment, before straightening to address them. "Haruno Sakura, Yamanaka Ino, the Hokage has called an emergency meeting. All the former members of Team Asuma and Team Kakashi are ordered to report to the Hokage's office immediately."
Without waiting for a response, he disappeared as silently as he had come. Sakura turned to look at her friend. Ino had her arms crossed over her chest and she was trying hard to control the emotions flashing over her face. Opening her mouth to ask what was wrong, Sakura was cut off as the blonde shook her head and walked out of the room. Puzzled by the normally bouncy girl's behavior, she ran to catch up. Reaching her just as she passed through the double doors leading outside, she grabbed, Ino's shoulder, pulling her to a stop.
"Ino, what on earth is wrong with you? Ever since you arrived at the hospital, you've been acting strange." she asked a little forcefully.
Ino looked at her longtime rival and best friend. Then she studied the ground. "I'm sorry, Sakura." she said, fighting back the tears that threatened to well up in her blue eyes. "It's just that today is exactly five years since Asuma-sensei...since he..." she trailed off, unable to finish.
Just when her tears were going to win their battle, a strong hand landed on her shoulder and she was enveloped in the comforting chakra of a familiar presence. "Ino-chan, here you are! Did you get the summons to the Hokage's office?" Choji asked, smiling warmly down at her.
Returning his smile gratefully, Ino nodded. She was saved. There was no way she could cry around Choji. It would be too selfish a thing to do. After all, it was Shikamaru who would be the most affected by today. They had to be strong and support him. Taking a deep breath, she ran a hand through her hair and turned to Sakura. "We'd better get going. Tsunade-sama will have our heads if we're late!" she said cheerily.
Smiling, Sakura wrapped an arm around Ino's shoulders when Choji released her. They started down the street, the larger shinobi trailing behind them. She couldn't help but feel sorry for Ino. She knew exactly how the other girl felt. She had her fair share of anniversaries to mourn as well. Sasuke's defection, Chiyo-sama's death, even the deaths of Haku and Zabuza entered her mind on their respective dates each year.
She held back a sigh, and kept her smile in place. The life of a shinobi was bittersweet, even on the best of days. It wouldn't do any good to let her dark feelings keep her from living. Tomorrow was never guaranteed, so it was best to enjoy the good things you have and die with honor and no regrets. Her thoughts were soon interrupted by the sight of the Hokage Tower. They had finally reached the base and began climbing the massive amount of stairs.
Knocking politely on the door, Sakura was given the command to enter. Stepping inside the spacious office, she was surprised to see Shikamaru already there. She figured he would be the last one there, next to Kakashi, of course. But there he was, standing next to Tsunade. The lazy look he usually wore was gone, a hard frown on his face and bags under his eyes, as if he hadn't slept for days. Bowing to Tsunade, she stood off to the side, waiting on the others to arrive.
Sai walked in a few minutes later. He bowed to the Hokage, fox-like grin in place. He had gotten better with expressing his emotions to other people, but tense situations always seemed to send him into a sort of regression, and he often used his practiced smile to cover his nervousness. Straightening, he turned and walked over to Sakura. She greeted him with a friendly wave as he stood quietly next to her.
Since Naruto was gone, training at a temple, he wouldn't be present. That just left Kakashi. The minutes stretched by and Sakura watched her shishou's face go from thoughtful, to stern, to downright angry. Finally he arrived, perching on the open windowsill behind her, book in hand. Sakura sighed at her former sensei. Some things just never change. Tsunade swiveled around in her chair to glare at him.
"If I didn't think it would take another year for you to get back up here, Kakashi, I'd punch your ass back out that window. Where were you?" she demanded.
Kakashi looked sheepish and rubbed the back of his head. "Well, you see, there was this young girl down the street. She dropped her groceries and I couldn't just walk by without helping her."
"Yeah, right. Just get in here so we can start." Tsunade said, waving him inside. Kakashi slipped in the window and stood behind Sakura and Sai. With everyone present, she laced her fingers together and cleared her throat. "We have a problem and I believe it may be linked to all of you. Shikamaru, would you please tell everyone what you found last night?"
Said jounin slipped his hands in his pockets and slouched a little. Looking over at his teammates, he passed them a look that Sakura couldn't quite decipher. It seemed to be a mix of worry, pain and fear. They evidently knew exactly what it meant, because Ino frowned and began fiddling with her earrings, and Choji once again lay his hand on her shoulder, stilling her fidgeting. Giving the others a precursory glance, he began to speak.
"I was out on a walk on the Nara clan lands when I discovered that we had had an intruder. The pit where the Akatsuki, Hidan, was buried is empty. The rocks covering him had been removed and his remains are gone. I came back to the village and had Kiba bring Akamaru to the site, to get any information on who had been there. He informed me that the scent is an unfamiliar one, and is at least a week old. We followed it until dawn, then came back to report it to Tsunade-sama." he said in a monotone.
Sakura frowned as an uneasiness settled in her stomach. Who would be depraved enough to dig up someone that had been buried in the ground for five years? And more importantly, what were they planning to do with the remains? Bring him back to life? It was a laughable thought. After such a long time, his body would be so deteriorated, that it would take a miracle and then some to even recognize it as human. Let alone find some way to infuse him with life.
She had been so lost in thought, that Sakura failed to notice the uncomfortable silence that had fallen over the room. Glancing around, she took note of everyone's faces. Tsunade and Kakashi looked troubled. Ino and Choji looked angry. Shikamaru looked tired, but his face still held its expression of steel. And poor Sai looked completely oblivious. His apparent awkwardness suddenly reminded her of Naruto. She wished he were here. He would know what needed to be done next. Probably, he would jump up and exclaim that he was going after whoever it was right away and Tsunade better believe he would be successful.
No one had spoken up yet, so Sakura decided to break the tension. Clearing her throat in a way that was much like Tsunade, she looked at the Hokage. "So, are we forming a reconnaissance and retrieval team?" she asked.
"No. I sent Neji, Shino and Kiba out this morning, along with Yamato. Once they return with a report, I will decide what's to be done next. I just thought you all deserved to know. It could be dangerous for each of you, since you were the ones who defeated Hidan and his partner, Kakuzu. Whoever took the remains might also be looking for revenge. I want you all to keep your eyes peeled and let me know if you see anything suspicious." Tsunade replied.
"We could be dealing with Akatsuki, so never let your guard down." added Kakashi, his visible eye serious for once.
Turning her head to look at her teammate, Sakura nodded. Tsunade dismissed them then, and everyone except Shikamaru filed out of the office. Evidently, he still had things to discuss with the Hokage. Sakura had made it to the top of the stairs when she was pulled to a stop by Ino. She had a worried look on her face, which she was trying valiantly to hide behind a grin.
"Hey, Forehead. Is it alright if I crash at your place tonight? I feel like I need to keep an eye on you, and make sure you don't do anything crazy."
"Sure, Ino-pig. I have some things to do at the hospital, but I'll be home by six. You can come by then if you want." Sakura replied with a smile. She knew the real reason Ino wanted to come over. She didn't want to be alone. Not that she was scared, but when you're by yourself, depressing and disturbing thoughts had a way of manifesting, no matter how much you try to stay distracted. Sakura had plenty of experience with that.
"Sound's great! Shika and Choji are taking me to dinner tonight, so I'll be there right after we're finished." With a wave, Ino bid her goodbye and headed down the stairs after Choji, who had already made it to the bottom and was starting off down the sidewalk. Sakura waited until she had disappeared from sight before descending the steps. Maybe after work she would stop by the dango shop and video store. Then they could have a relaxing night in. The thought of it made Sakura smile as she made her way back to the hospital.
Zetsu waited patiently outside the walls of Konoha until the beginning of the pre-dawn hours. He camouflaged himself to an oak tree, and had dozed off and on all night, until at last, even the nocturnal creatures settled down and all was still. Sinking into the ground, he tunneled his way under the wall. Several hundred feet and he emerged in the sewers. His nose wrinkled up at the smell, but he started down the narrow walkway without hesitation. He had done much worse than this.
He followed his mental map until he reached the area of the village where he knew the medic-nin's apartment was located. His couple of days spent gathering information at the local park had been well worth his time. Now he knew where she lived, where she worked, even what time she got up in the morning. Now he was ready to put his plan in action. Sliding into the sewer wall, he tunneled upward until he emerged in the alley beside her building.
She was on the first floor. Camouflaging himself with the building, he kept his chakra carefully masked as he looked for a decent point of entry. He didn't have to search long. As he rounded the corner, he noticed that her kitchen window was open, the marigolds she kept in a pot there swaying lightly in the night breeze. He edged closer. That was when he noticed the slight pulse of the chakra seals around the window.
A smirk found his lips. That might be enough to deter most ninja, but not him. Activating his Mayfly jutsu, he merged with the wall, sliding beneath the barrier and emerging on the other side. It was a tricky maneuver, with no room for error, but one he had done many times. Once his jutsu dispelled, Zetsu stood frozen, getting a feel for his surroundings and locating any nearby chakra signatures.
He was dismayed to discover two people in the apartment. From what he understood, Haruno Sakura lived alone. Maybe she had a boyfriend?
"We should wait until tomorrow. Two people could be a problem." Zetsu's light side whispered to himself.
"It won't be a problem. Let's just be more cautious." his dark side answered.
"If we get caught, it's your fault."
"Shut up and go already."
Falling silent, Zetsu walked to the kitchen door. Following the nearest chakra signature, he headed down the short hall until he came to the correct room. He was surprised to find that it was a living room, and not a bedroom as he expected. There, lying passed out on the couch, was his target and a blonde kunoichi. They were both in pajamas, hair down, with a bottle of sake and a box of dango between them. The bright blue glow from the television told him that they had been watching a movie.
Debating on what should be done with the blonde, Zetsu stood in the doorway for several long minutes. He could try to take the medic-nin without waking her. No, too risky. If she woke before he was gone, his chances of escape were slim. He could always eat her, the dark side suggested. No, that would take too long, and he was already short on time. Then an idea struck him. It would take him longer to get away, but if he took the blonde as well as Haruno, Leader-sama could use her as a bargaining chip to force the pink haired kunoichi into compliance. If he ran into trouble before he returned to the base, he could always either dump her or kill her.
Finally decided, Zetsu reached into his cloak and pulled out a syringe. Luckily, he thought to bring extra doses of tranquilizer. He should have just enough to get them both back to Hidden Rain before he ran out. He stepped over to the arm of the couch. If he stood directly in front of them, they might sense him and wake up. The blonde was closest. Leaning down, he deftly slid the needle into her bare arm and pressed gently on the plunger. She never even stirred. One down, one to go.
Something wasn't right. She needed to wake up and see what it was. Sakura tried to fight her way through layers of sleep and open her eyes. Her body wouldn't cooperate. The exhaustion of a late night mixed with the sake kept pulling her back down. Resting for just a moment, she tried again. Suddenly, something was pulling her upward. It was pain. Something had stung her arm. Her eyelids finally fluttered.
Raising her lids halfway, Sakura tried desperately to bring the world into focus. She could feel it clearly now. Something was definitely wrong. She had to wake up. She had to warn Ino of the danger. But the world wouldn't cooperate. It was a blurry mass of blue, black, white and green. She could almost make out the shape of a face, but it was weird. Half the time it looked black, and the rest of the time, it looked white.
Sakura tried to sit up and clear her head, but her body was sluggish. Another wave of tiredness swept over her. Finally her brain caught on to what was happening. The sleepiness, the sting, the blurry vision. Someone had drugged her. Panic set in and she tried to fight it, using the added adrenaline to her advantage. She attempted to gather her chakra to eradicate the drug, but it was already too late. The most she could manage was to speed up her metabolism before she slipped back into the darkness.